Yorktown-class aircraft carriers held the line in the Pacific and earned everlasting fame.
The capture of Guadalcanal was a costly affair for the U.S. armed forces. Not the least of America’s losses was the aircraft carrier Hornet, sunk on October 27, 1942, after the Battle of Santa Cruz.
Hornet was the third and last of the 19,800-ton Yorktown-class aircraft carriers. The second of the three sisters was perhaps the most famous U.S. fighting ship of World War II, USS Enterprise. Rarely, if ever, in history have three ships and their crews contributed so greatly or sacrificed so much for their country. The combined combat record of Yorktown (CV-5), Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8) is nothing short of amazing. If it were not documented, it would seem so unbelievable that it would read like a cheap, dime-store novel.
Yorktown was operating with the Atlantic Fleet when Pearl Harbor was attacked, but U.S. commanders quickly recognized that her presence in the Pacific was critical to redress Japanese naval superiority. She was damaged by a bomb at the Battle of the Coral Sea, which resulted in the first major military setback for Japan. Miraculously, in three days her damage was repaired at Pearl Harbor, and she was battle-worthy for the crucial defense of Midway during the first week of June 1942.
At Midway, Yorktown was hit by three bombs and two torpedoes and then was sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168. Although she was lost at Midway, the mere presence of Yorktown and her aircraft was invaluable to the Americans. The Japanese had believed her to be too severely damaged at Coral Sea to participate in the Midway fight and thought they would be facing only two American carriers.
Hornet was brand-new and still on her shakedown cruise when the war began. However, she gained immortality just five months after Pearl Harbor, when 16 North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers were launched from her platform on April 18, 1942. Their lead pilot was Major James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, and their target was Tokyo. Hornet, with Enterprise as escort, had crept to within 550 miles of Japan, then launched the bombers, which had not been designed for carrier operations, into a 40-knot gale. Little material damage was done, but the raid gave a tremendous boost to American morale in the dark early days of the war.
At Santa Cruz, Hornet took four Japa-nese bombs and three torpedoes. She was ordered scuttled but refused to die. American efforts to sink the hulk with torpedoes proved fruitless, not only because of the toughness of the ship but also because of the inferior quality of U.S. torpedoes early in the war. Hornet’s remains were eventually left to the Japanese, who finally finished her off with Long Lance torpedoes. Although her length of service was brief, lasting only 372 days, Hornet truly earned a place among the great ships in naval history.
The only member of the Yorktown class to survive the war was Enterprise. The “Big E” escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor because she was at sea, a twist of fate that dogged the Japanese all the way to Tokyo Bay. Although she had been damaged at Santa Cruz, Enterprise was, for a time, the only serviceable American aircraft carrier in the whole of the Pacific. With her forward elevator out of action and the entire front section of the ship damaged by bomb blasts and fire, Enterprise was called upon on November 11, 1942, to fight off yet another Japanese strike against Guadalcanal. Her aircraft sank the damaged Japanese battleship Hiei the day after the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. On November 14, Enterprise aircraft pounded a convoy carrying supplies and reinforcements for the Japanese ground troops on the island (see story, P. 48).
Enterprise participated in virtually every major naval battle in the Pacific theater. She accompanied the second carrier Lexington on raids against Japa-nese bases at Rabaul, Wake and Marcus islands, and participated in the island-hopping operations against the Gilbert Islands, Kwajalein, Truk, Hollandia, Palau, Saipan, Leyte, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The three aircraft carriers of the Yorktown class spelled the difference between victory and defeat for the United States in the opening months of the Pacific War. It was the planes of Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet that ravaged four Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway. It was Hornet that carried the Doolittle raiders. It was Yorktown whose miraculous participation at Midway brought more U.S. aircraft to bear against the Japanese than they expected. It was Enterprise that stood alone at Guadalcanal.
The exploits of their heroic sailors and airmen will be long remembered. The names of these gallant ships have been carried on in future generations of U.S. Navy fighting vessels, and most deservedly so.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II