The aircraft carrier Yorktown helped swing the momentum of the Pacific War to the United States.
By Martha Goodman
Pulitzer Prize winner Jeff Nesmith, a Washington correspondent for Cox Newspapers, has produced a remarkable book, No Higher Honor (Longstreet, Inc., Marietta, Ga., 1999, $24), that chronicles the role of the famed aircraft carrier Yorktown and its gallant crew during the first six months of 1942. In a work that reads almost like a novel, Nesmith presents the crew as individuals to whom readers can easily relate. Most of the crewmen grew up during the Depression, and they came from varied backgrounds.
For example, there was “Chick” Liner, from Buffalo, S.C., who, during a lull in the fighting, confessed he had “passed scared and gone to shaking.” Then there was John Underwood, a 15-year-old from Tennessee who had had a brush with the law for transporting illegal whiskey into Georgia and joined the Navy after his mother signed an affidavit stating that he was 17. And there was the author’s uncle, Joe Wetherington, who enlisted in Tampa, Fla. As a child, Nesmith thought Yorktown was family property because it was always spoken of as “Uncle Joe’s ship.” Also aboard was Matthew Blount, an African American from Norfolk, Va., who had to attend a segregated boot camp before joining the carrier’s crew. Serving as either a mess attendant or “cabin boy” in the officers’ quarters were about the only options Blount had aboard ship. Blount recalled that when he first reported to Yorktown, he was forced to use a water fountain marked “colored.” But after the combat horrors the crew experienced during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the “white” and “colored” signs quietly disappeared.
Yorktown had done patrol duty in the Atlantic in the spring of 1941 and had escorted merchant ships on their way to Britain. An overhaul scheduled for August at Pearl Harbor had to be canceled after the Japanese attack there. By the time of the Battle of Midway, the ship had become a patched-up veteran.
Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher came aboard on January 1, 1942, to command a new carrier task force, TF-17. The admiral had decided that Yorktown would be his flagship. Although Fletcher was a Medal of Honor recipient, one historian has concluded that he “was a hell of a guy and a so-so admiral.” An anonymous contemporary noted, “He was a big, nice, wonderful guy who didn’t know his butt from third base.”
Yorktown took part in strikes on the Marshall and Gilbert islands in February 1942, but the operation was not the success that newspapers later reported. The Jaluit mission was especially costly in equipment and lives. Nesmith recounts the experiences of some of the fliers who were downed at Jaluit and taken prisoner.
Captain Elliot Buckmaster was “the old man” who brought Yorktown’s crew through their many battles. His report from the Coral Sea concluded, “I can have no higher honor than to have commanded them in battle.” Perhaps Nesmith devotes so much space to Yorktown’s part in the Coral Sea action because the crewmen generally believed they were never accorded the recognition they deserved for that battle.
When Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor in late May 1942, she was badly damaged. Many of those who witnessed the devastation inflicted on the carrier were appalled. For some, it was a sight that magnified the hatred they already felt for the Japanese. Nesmith remarks: “There are not enough Sony television sets, Mitsubishi cassette recorders, or Honda Accords in the world to change many of those who served on the Yorktown or other ships like her or to eradicate the word Jap from their vocabulary.”
Everything that happened to Yorktown before June 4, 1942, however, was merely a prelude to the Battle of Midway. It was there that the carrier helped swing the momentum of the war in the Pacific from Japan to the United States. Nesmith deals dynamically with the details of Midway, beginning with the cracking of the Japanese JN-25 code at Pearl Harbor. While Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, overall commander of Japanese naval forces, and his officers were celebrating victory in advance, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was preparing to meet them at Midway, 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. Yorktown was hastily repaired at Pearl Harbor and headed back to sea on May 30, two days after TF-16 sailed, assembled around the carriers Hornet and Enterprise.
Yorktown was severely damaged during the Midway fight, and Fletcher yielded command to Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance, commander of TF-16, at just the right moment to allow Spruance’s planes to sink a fourth Japanese carrier, Hiryu. One bomb had crashed through Yorktown’s flight deck, the explosion blowing out the fires in five of the carrier’s six boilers. Yorktown was dead in the water. Thanks to the heroic actions of water tender Seaman 1st Class Charles Kleinsmith of Long Beach, Calif., three of the boilers were repaired and the ship was again in motion. In a subsequent attack, two Japanese torpedoes hit Yorktown’s port side, injuring many men and killing several others, including Kleinsmith, who was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
Buckmaster reluctantly gave the order to abandon ship when Yorktown began to list, but he and others later returned to jettison loose equipment and prepare for towing the carrier back to Pearl Harbor. However, the Japanese sub I-168 thwarted the captain’s rescue efforts. The towline was cut so that other ships could escape enemy torpedoes. Men still on board the carrier scrambled down ropes into the sea. Later on, survivors watched tearfully from rescue ships and saluted as Yorktown capsized and sank. The ship was not seen again until 1998, when undersea explorer Robert Ballard found her resting upright on the ocean floor.
Using crew members’ diaries and conducting countless interviews with survivors, the author has blended their stories and memories with the technical, tactical and strategic details of Yorktown’s battles. The harsh realities of war are sometimes alleviated by humorous anecdotes. Even while scrambling to get off the sinking ship, some of the crew were singing “The Beer Barrel Polka” or yelling “Taxi!”
Nesmith not only has captured the aura of the 1940s, but also has brought carrier warfare down to an approachable, personal level. Even the best-read World War II scholars will likely succumb to his books appeal. Nesmith has something to say, and he deserves to be read.