Friday, April 13, 2018

Seventy-Five Years Ago: A Legendary Name is Reborn

On April 15, 1943, a ceremony held at Norfolk Naval Shipyard marked the commissioning of the newest Essex-class carrier.  What it really represented, however, was the rebirth of a legendary name in American military history.


A new crew stands at attention as the National Ensign is raised for the first time during commissioning ceremonies for USS Yorktown (CV 10) at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Virginia, April 15, 1943, Capt. Joseph J. Clark commanding. The fourth vessel to bear the name of the decisive Virginia victory during the Revolutionary War, she was the second built at Newport News Shipbuilding. (Lt. Charles Kerlee, USNR/ Naval History and Heritage Command Image)
Her keel was originally laid on December 1, 1941 as Bon Homme Richard, after the famous Continental Navy vessel commanded by John Paul Jones, but word came the following summer that the carrier Yorktown (CV 5), which had been launched from the same shipyard on April 4, 1937, had been sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Pacific after the Battle of Midway.  She was officially renamed that September.

The new Yorktown was the same as her predecessor only in name and vessel classification. In all other respects, she was a tremendous leap forward in capability. The shipyards of Hampton Roads were also at the top of their game. On January 21, 1943, sponsor Eleanor Roosevelt was shocked when Yorktown slid down the ways seven minutes ahead of schedule during her launching ceremony in Newport News. 
Sailors on wooden scaffolds apply paint below the waterline of USS Yorktown (CV 10) during dry docking at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in June 1943.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

Yorktown's finishing touches were applied that spring by throngs of workers at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, adding guns and radar systems that would receive a lot of use after she arrived in Hawaii by way of the Panama Canal in July.

Lieutenant Charles Kerlee captured Yorktown's ensign flying over the per at Naval Station Norfolk on June 22, 1943, just before the carrier set off for the Pacific.  The destroyers and auxiliary ships anchored in Hampton Roads in the background are indicative of the crowded conditions that have existed sporadically at Sewells Point from the 1940s until the late-1960s. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
After work-ups by the crew and embarked air wing, Yorktown conducted her first combat operations off Marcus Island on August 31. After a brief mission to San Francisco to pick up additional aircraft and supplies, the fall and winter saw strikes on Wake Island, the Gilberts, Kwajalein, and Wtoje Atoll. A documentary film crew working under Commander Edward Steichen, who was to the Navy during World War II what Ansel Adams was to the Yosemite Valley around that same time, embarked during her first wartime deployment.  Their film entitled "The Fighting Lady," shot completely in Technicolor, gave the carrier her nickname. It would be the first in a long line of big and small screen appearances.  

Yorktown's combat record during the Second World War was exceptionally well-illustrated due to advances in photographic technology and the rapid expansion of the Photographer's Mate rating during the war, with carriers such as Yorktown receiving the lion's share of them.  Chief Photographer’s Mate A.N. Cooperman captured a Japanese "Jill" torpedo bomber immediately after a direct hit by antiaircraft fire (the original caption claimed it was a 5-inch shell) about 150 yards from the carrier off Kwajalein Atoll on December 4, 1943. (Naval History and Heritage Command image) 
Beginning in January 1944, Yorktown fought her way back and forth across the Central Pacific for nearly seven months with Task Force 50, starting with the invasion of the Marshall Islands, to the Marianas, to New Guinea, then all the way to Guam. Most of the time she used Majuro Atoll, the Marshall Islands’ capital which fell into American hands at the end of January, as a base of operations. After a two-month yard period at Puget Sound. She joined TF 38 in support of the Philippines invasion that fall and winter, surviving Typhoon Cobra off Luzon in December 1944. 

By January 1945, her planes were ranging as far as Saigon to the south and Okinawa to the north. The following month, they were flying over the main Japanese island of Honshu. All this time, not a single enemy aircraft made it through Yorktown’s lethal barrage of 5-inch, 40mm and 20mm guns. On March 18, however, this amazing run of luck ended when two Yokosuka P1Y “Frances” and three Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers attempted to sink the carrier. Only one Judy was able to release its bomb before being cut to pieces, but it went right through the starboard signal bridge, penetrating all the way down through battery number seven to the second deck, where it exploded, killing five and wounding 26. Despite this, she remained fully operational, and despite numerous attempts at ramming the carrier off the southern main Japanese island of Kyushu and throughout her support of the Okinawa invasion, no other enemy aircraft go through her defensive screen.

Just a week later, Yorktown’s planes scored direct bomb and torpedo hits on the battleship Yamato and cruiser Yahagi when they made their suicidal sortie towards Okinawa. Operations off the Japanese home islands continued, with a short respite off Leyte in June.

For the next two months, Yorktown supported missions against Tokyo itself and Kure Naval Base on the Inland Sea, not far from Hiroshima. When that city was destroyed by an atomic bomb delivered by the Army Air Corps’ 509th Composite Group on August 6, she was off Northern Honshu, sending strikes against Tokyo and points north to Hokkaido over the next couple of days.

A visitor guide printed aboard the ship described an infamous event which followed:

On August 10th at 7:45 p.m. word was received from the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, to cease offensive operations. Orders were sent out to all planes to jettison bombs and return to ship. 
Tragically enough, Yorktown pilots on their way back to the ship were jumped from above by a strong force of Japanese fighthers. Four planes were lost before our pilots could recover from their surprise at this final act of Japanese treachery.*

Decommissioned and attached to the Pacific Fleet Reserve during the rapid demobilization following WWII, Yorktown was brought back to life in 1953 after her 5-inch batteries were removed and other major modifications were competed to the flight deck to allow for the operation of jet aircraft. Documentary film crews were on hand the following year to record the results, making the film “Jet Carrier,” which nearly netted an Academy Award.

This painting shows the antisubmarine warfare carrier Yorktown (CVS 10) operating off Hawaii between 1961 and 1963.  Two Sikorsky HSS-1N Seabat helicopters are staged forward with one just aft of the port-side elevator and another near the fantail. On the catapults are two Douglas AD-5 Skyraiders of Airborne Early Warning Squadron 11, while several Grumman S2F Trackers belonging to Anti-Submarine Squadron 23 (VS-23) and VS-25 round out the mix of aircraft belonging to Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Group 55. (The National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida  
Although Yorktown operated as a fleet carrier during the war against Japan and an attack carrier (CVA) during the Korean War, the growing progression of jet fighters and ever-heavier strike aircraft necessitated the construction of the Forrestal-class “super carriers.” After they started coming on line during the mid-1950s, Yorktown was converted into an antisubmarine warfare carrier (CVS) in 1958, becoming the nucleus of a resurrected “hunter-killer” group, a concept that had proved itself very effective when escort carriers served in the same role during the Battle of the Atlantic 15 years before.

Fifty years ago this week, Yorktown was in the midst of her seventh and last WESPAC cruise as a CVS, over half of which was spent off the coast of Korea after the signals intelligence gathering ship Pueblo (AGER-2) was captured in January 1968.

After undergoing maintenance at Long Beach Naval Shipyard from July through November, Yorktown’s first foray into dramatic feature films took place when she portrayed the lead aircraft carrier attacking Pearl Harbor for "Tora! Tora! Tora!," carrying 30 modified North American T-6 Texan and Vultee BT-13 Valiant trainers sporting “meatball” markings

The Apollo 8 command module rests on the deck of USS Yorktown (CVS 10) after its successful flight around the moon in December 1968. (National Aeronautices and Space Administration via Wikimedia Commons)
After the filming, her last duties in the Pacific included being the prime recovery ship for Apollo 8, the first manned circumlunar flight. On December 26, astronauts William Anders, Frank Borman, and James Lovell landed in the Pacific about 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, within 3,000 yards of the carrier. On January 2, 1969, she departed Hawaii for Hampton Roads via Cape Horn, with stopovers in Long Beach and several South American ports.

After 26 years away from Hampton Roads, Naval Station Norfolk finally became Yorktown's home port when she joined Hunter Killer Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, replacing the carrier Randolph (CV-15) on February 28, 1969. After refresher training off Cuba, she participated in the NATO exercise Operation Sparkplug, followed by a Northern European deployment.

Her service life came to an end at her decommissioning on June 27, 1970, at Philadelphia, whereupon she became part of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. She lives on today as a museum ship at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in South Carolina, where she took up residence in 1975.

Thirty-five years ago, Yorktown once again became a shooting location for a drama, this time set in the present. Simulating a breaking news broadcast, 1983’s “Special Bulletin,” which some at the time compared with Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, was perhaps the first American film to depict nuclear terrorism in an age of wall-to-wall news coverage.

The following year, Hollywood again came calling, this time in the science fiction genre, when Yorktown served as a setting for "The Philadelphia Experiment," about an apocryphal 1943 Navy stealth technology test that inadvertently transports two Sailors 41 years into the future.

Museum ship Yorktown was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and receives thousands of visitors each year at her home near Charleston, South Carolina. Her name was carried back into active service by the Ticonderoga-class cruiser Yorktown (CG 48), which was commissioned, fittingly, in Yorktown, Virginia, on the fourth of July, 1984.  She was based for another two decades at Naval Station Norfolk until her decommissioning in December 2004.  

*Yorktown's official history maintained by the Naval History and Heritage Command does not mention the incident described in the visitor’s guide, nor do several other sources consulted by the author, thus it is not clear whether the incident actually took place.

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