On this Memorial Day weekend, I thought we’d remember an amazing event in the history of American enterprise.
It was seventy years ago today that the most important repair job in American history began.
The aircraft carrier USS Yorktown had begun its life six years earlier, as one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “economic stimuli” as the administration prepared for what they saw – correctly, this time – as an inevitable war with Japan.
The carrier was an important ship; America’s previous carriers were had been two converted battlecruisers (the Lexington and Saratoga) and an unsuccessful, too-small USS Ranger (*). The Yorktown served as the lead ship of a class of two other carriers, the Hornet and Enterprise, that themselves served as the prototypes for the 24 wartime Essex class – by far the biggest class of aircraft carriers in history, and one of the most successful classes of warships ever, which served in front-line service into the seventies, and as training and reserve ships until the nineties.
But that was all in the future.
Yorktown had spent the first months of the war escorting convoys and raiding isolated Japanese garrisons when intelligence discovered a Japanese invasion fleet heading for Port Moresby, an isolated and malarial outpost on the eastern end of New Guinea of little economic or demographic influence…
…except that it had enough flat ground to build a big enough airport to put northern Australia, and all maritime traffic in the area, under threat of Japanese air attack.
The two American carriers, Lexington and Yorktown, sank one small Japanese carrier, and drove off the invasion fleet. In return, the Japanese sank the Lexington, and after the Yorkdown’s captain dodged eight near misses from Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes, the Yorktown was hit by a single Japanese bomb that killed or injured 66 men.
The battle – almost unknown to Americans today – was crucial; it was a tactical defeat for the Americans, who lost a carrier, a tanker and a destroyer, with Yorktown badly damaged. But it marked the high-water line for Japanese expansion. The six month wave of success had ended. That was a strategic win for the US – the first of the war.
But Naval Intelligence indicated the Japanese didn’t know that yet; signs pointed to an attempt to invade Midway Island, by way of staging for a potential invasion or neutralization of Hawaii. And if Midway fell, and Hawaii was jeopardized, that “strategic victory” would mean little.
And the US had almost nothing to respond with; six months after Pearl Harbor, there were no seaworthy battleships in the Pacific; worse, we were down to two functional aircraft carriers, Enterprise and Hornet had just returned from the Doolittle Raid, and Saratoga was in a long refit in San Francisco.
That was it.
So the commander of the US Pacific Fleet took a desperate gamble; he sent Yorktown back to Pearl Harbor, and mobilized the entire base’s civilian and military workforce to do the unthinkable; get Yorktown ready for battle in three days, rather than three months.
And so for the next 72 hours, a horde of sailors and dockyard workers swarmed over the ship; they repaired the massive structural damage from the bomb, and the leaking from the fuel tanks whose walls had been shredded by shrapnel from the near-misses, causing Yorktown to trail an oil slick all the way home from the battle of the Coral Sea.
And it worked. Right on schedule, after three days of frenzied, 24-hour-a-day work, Yorktown departed Pearl Harbor, escorted by a small gaggle of cruisers and destroyers, to join Hornet and Enterprise on a fast voyage to the central Pacific…
…whose destination we’ll talk about in a couple of days here.
(*) And before all you naval geeks jump my shizzle, I know – USS Langley was the first American carrier. But you know as well as I do that it was a converted collier, and had long since been converted to a seaplane tender. So just back off.