The USS Yorktown (CV-5) was a distinguished aircraft carrier of the United States Navy, launched in 1936 and playing a pivotal role in the early years of World War II, particularly in the Pacific Theater.

She was critically involved in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, where her aircraft contributed to the sinking of four Japanese aircraft carriers, marking a turning point in the war despite her own sinking during the battle.

Rediscovered in 1998 by Dr. Robert Ballard, the Yorktown’s wreck lies over three miles beneath the surface near Midway Atoll.

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Construction of the USS Yorktown

Conceived under the restrictive covenants of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of 1930, the Yorktown’s design was a balancing act between offensive capability, defensive durability, and treaty-imposed limitations on tonnage and armament. These constraints sparked innovative design solutions that would influence carrier design for decades to come.

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In response to the treaty limitations, naval architects aimed to maximize the Yorktown’s operational efficiency and strike capability without exceeding the tonnage restrictions. This led to a design that emphasized speed, aircraft capacity, and range, ensuring that the carrier could project air power across the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean.

The Yorktown was designed to be fast enough to outrun potential adversaries, boasting a top speed of 34 knots, which was remarkable for a ship of her size at the time.

Her design featured a flight deck that extended the full length of the ship, maximizing the available space for launching and recovering aircraft. This was a significant evolution from earlier carrier designs, which had smaller flight decks and less efficient aircraft handling capabilities.

Below the flight deck, the hangar deck provided storage and maintenance space for the carrier’s complement of aircraft. The Yorktown could carry over 80 aircraft, including fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes, enabling her to deliver a versatile and potent strike force.

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Constructed at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginia, the USS Yorktown’s keel was laid down in 1934, and she was launched on April 4, 1936. Her construction incorporated several innovative features that were advanced for the time. Notably, the Yorktown utilized high-strength steel in critical areas to enhance her survivability while minimizing weight, a consideration driven by treaty weight limits.

USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise under construction in Newport News.

The carrier was also among the first to be equipped with a more sophisticated anti-aircraft armament, reflecting an understanding of the growing importance of air power in naval warfare.

Her defensive armament included eight 5-inch (127 mm) dual-purpose guns and an array of smaller caliber anti-aircraft guns. This armament was designed to provide a layered defense against air attacks, recognizing that aircraft would play a dominant role in future naval engagements.

The Yorktown’s design also considered the welfare of her crew, incorporating more comfortable living quarters and improved medical facilities compared to earlier carriers. This focus on crew welfare was part of a broader recognition of the importance of maintaining morale and efficiency during long deployments.

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The USS Yorktown’s design represented a significant step forward in carrier technology, influencing subsequent carrier designs, including her own sister ships and the later Essex-class carriers that played a crucial role in World War II.

Operational History

After her commissioning, the Yorktown was initially engaged in training exercises and fleet maneuvers in the Atlantic, preparing her crew for the complexities of naval aviation and operations. These early missions were crucial for testing the ship’s capabilities and refining tactics that would later prove essential in the Pacific. As tensions escalated in Europe and Asia, the Yorktown’s focus shifted towards potential engagement in these theaters.

With the outbreak of World War II, and especially after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Yorktown was rapidly redeployed to the Pacific. Her presence there was part of the U.S. Navy’s urgent effort to bolster its Pacific Fleet, which had suffered devastating losses.

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At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the USS Yorktown (CV-5) was not at Pearl Harbor. Instead, the Yorktown was at sea in the Atlantic Ocean, conducting neutrality patrols. These patrols were part of the United States’ efforts to safeguard its interests and monitor activities in the Atlantic during the early stages of World War II, before the U.S. had officially entered the conflict.

USS Yorktown pictured in 1937 after sea trials.

The Yorktown and her air groups were soon thrust into the forefront of America’s counteroffensive, marking the beginning of her significant operational history in this vast oceanic theater.

One of the Yorktown’s first major engagements in the Pacific was the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. This battle was a landmark event as it was the first time in history that a naval engagement was fought entirely by aircraft, with the opposing ships never coming into visual contact. The Yorktown played a vital role in this battle, launching air strikes against Japanese carrier forces and contributing significantly to the strategic outcome of the engagement.

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Despite being damaged in the battle, Yorktown’s aircraft were able to sink the Japanese light carrier Shoho and damage another carrier, the Shokaku. This engagement stopped the Japanese advance on Port Moresby, a strategic point in New Guinea, and set the stage for the subsequent Battle of Midway.

Sinking of the USS Yorktown

After the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Yorktown, damaged but still operational, limped back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. The shipyard workers at Pearl Harbor, understanding the urgency of the situation, performed what was considered a miracle of rapid repair, patching up the Yorktown in just 48 hours—a job initially estimated to take weeks. This quick turnaround allowed her to join the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet for the upcoming battle, forming a carrier strike force that would face a superior Japanese fleet.

The United States, having broken Japanese naval codes, knew of the planned attack on Midway Atoll. This intelligence allowed Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, to prepare a counter-ambush, positioning his limited forces, including the Yorktown, to best exploit this advantage.

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On the morning of June 4, the Japanese launched their initial attack on Midway Island, unaware of the presence of American carrier forces nearby. The Yorktown, along with Enterprise and Hornet, launched aircraft in a coordinated attack against the Japanese carrier force. Yorktown’s aircraft played a crucial role in sinking the Japanese carrier Soryu and contributed to the damage inflicted on Akagi and Kaga, effectively neutralizing Japan’s ability to launch further air assaults.

However, the battle was far from one-sided. Japanese counter-attacks were fierce and focused. The Yorktown became a prime target and suffered severe damage from multiple bomb and torpedo hits. Despite this, the ship’s damage control parties fought valiantly to keep her afloat and operational.

Damage to the USS Yorktown after hits from Japanese aircraft, 4 June.

The initial damage from the Japanese attacks left the Yorktown dead in the water, but her crew managed to restore partial power, raising hopes that she might be saved. However, on June 6, the Japanese submarine I-168 slipped through the defensive screen around the crippled carrier and fired a salvo of torpedoes, sealing the Yorktown’s fate. She was abandoned and finally sank on the morning of June 7, 1942.

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The loss of the Yorktown was a significant blow to the U.S. Navy, but the victory at Midway had far-reaching effects on the course of the Pacific War. By sinking four of Japan’s front-line aircraft carriers, the United States halted the Japanese advance and shifted the strategic initiative to the Allies. This battle demonstrated the critical importance of aircraft carriers in naval warfare and the value of intelligence and innovation in military strategy.

Finding the Wreck of the Yorktown

The discovery of the wreck of the USS Yorktown (CV-5) is a fascinating story of technological achievement and historical rediscovery. Located more than three miles beneath the surface of the Central Pacific, the Yorktown’s final resting place remained a mystery for over half a century following her sinking during the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

It wasn’t until May 1998 that the wreck was finally located and documented, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Robert Ballard and his team from the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Navy.

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Dr. Robert Ballard, best known for his discovery of the RMS Titanic wreck in 1985, led the expedition to find the Yorktown. Utilizing advanced underwater technology, including side-scan sonar and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), Ballard and his team set out to search the vast expanse of the Pacific near the site of the Battle of Midway. The search was challenging due to the depth of the ocean in the search area and the lack of precise historical data on the ship’s sinking location.

USS Yorktown sinking on 7 June.

The breakthrough came when the team identified a debris field on the ocean floor, which suggested the presence of a large sunken vessel. Following this lead, the ROVs were deployed to explore the debris field, and soon, the unmistakable silhouette of an aircraft carrier emerged from the darkness.

The discovery of the Yorktown was confirmed through the identification of specific features visible on the underwater vehicle’s cameras, such as the ship’s number (5) on the hull and distinctive structural elements that matched archival photos and plans of the carrier.

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The exploration of the Yorktown’s wreck revealed that despite the immense pressure and the passage of time, the carrier was remarkably well-preserved. The hull was largely intact, and many details of the ship’s construction and battle damage were visible. Aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, and other equipment were still recognizable on the decks, offering a poignant glimpse into the final moments of the ship and her crew.

The discovery also provided valuable insights into the events leading to the Yorktown’s sinking, confirming the extent of the damage inflicted by Japanese aircraft and torpedoes. The exploration was conducted with great respect for the Yorktown and her crew, acknowledging the site as a war grave. No artifacts were removed from the wreck, and the expedition focused on documenting and preserving the history of the ship and the Battle of Midway.