The USS Yorktown (CV5) rests beneath 16,650 feet of water in the Pacific Ocean, its name still, but barely, visible on the stern when famed oceanographer Robert Ballard located the wreckage in 1998.
The carrier remains undisturbed as it has — and as it should — since sinking to the ocean floor three days after the Battle of Midway began 79 years ago today, June 4, 1942. The Yorktown played a vital role in America’s victory at Midway that dealt a blow to Japan’s advantage in sea power just six months into the war.
Indeed, after inflicting severe damage to the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese Admiral Isaroku Yamamoto — who orchestrated both attacks on orders from Japanese General and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo — wrote in his diary after Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Yamamoto feared correctly. That fear compelled him to strike again and again in rapid succession, which they did in the battles of Coral Sea (May 7-8) and Midway (June 4-7). The Allies won both battles and stopped the Japanese from expanding their control in the Pacific.
The USS Yorktown figured prominently in both battles. It barely survived attacks by Japanese bombers at Coral Sea, returning to Pearl Harbor for repairs estimated to take 90 days. But the Allies had broken the Japanese codes, knew they were headed for Midway next, and needed the Yorktown back in action right away. Admiral Chester Nimitz gave crews three days to get the ship back in fighting shape. They did, and sent it on its way to Midway, about 1,000 miles west of Hawaii.
The attack began as a raid on the base on June 4, 1942, with Japan expecting to finish off the depleted American fleet and bomber squadrons. After all, it brought a superior force in numbers — more than 120 ships, 6 of them carriers, compared to 40 American ships. The Yorktown, USS Hornet, and USS Enterprise were the only operable American carriers following the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Yorktown wasn’t at full strength after the quick patch job.
The first wave of Japanese planes did, indeed, damage the base extensively and attacked the Yorktown. But then Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo made a huge tactical error. He sent a second wave of bombers to complete the job before the returned first wave of planes could refuel and re-arm aboard their respective carriers. They guessed the Americans possessed a smaller fleet. They guessed wrong.
More than 55 American dive bombers – including some from the Yorktown – sank three Japanese carriers. They also badly damaged a fourth, the Hiryu, but not until its planes doomed the Yorktown with a final bombing attack, followed by torpedo hits from Japanese subs.
By the time the battle ended on June 7, 1942, Japanese losses included nearly 3,100 men, 4 carriers, more than 300 planes, and a cruiser. They never landed on the island they intended to take.
Meanwhile, 362 Americans died. Allied forces lost 144 planes and a destroyer in addition to the Yorktown, which now rests in peace more than three miles below the surface.
A casualty of war. A job well done.