Even When All Seems Lost, Sailor Toughness and Resilience Make All the Difference

By Ryan Peeks, Ph.D. Naval History and Heritage Command

The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) was the first carrier vs. carrier battle in history—the opposing Australian-American and Japanese fleets never sighted each other. Though tactically inconclusive, the battle blunted a Japanese offensive aimed at capturing Port Moresby on the island of New Guinea, a position that would have threated northern Australia. Instead of focusing on the fighting (if you’re interested in learning more about the Battle of Coral Sea, you can find NHHC’s webpage on the battle here), this post looks at the important role played by damage control and repair efforts aboard the carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5). The fate of both ships highlights the importance of toughness, as laid out in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority: “We can take a hit and keep going.  . . .  We don’t give up the ship, we never give up on our shipmates, and we never give up on ourselves. We are never out of the fight.”

USS Lexington (CV 2) off Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, with Diamond Head in the background, February 2, 1933. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

 

On the morning of May 8, Lexington, under attack by Japanese aircraft, was hit in quick succession by two torpedoes and two bombs. Collectively, these hits ruptured aviation fuel tanks, flooded three boiler rooms, damaged the aircraft elevators, and started fires. Initially, damage control efforts appeared successful, and Lexington continued flight operations. However, at 1247, about an hour after the initial attack, the ship suffered a secondary explosion, probably caused by electrical sparks igniting vapor from the ruptured fuel tanks. As fires spread, and set off more secondary explosions of fuel vapor, the ship eventually lost most of its power and water pressure for fire hoses, crippling the crew’s efforts to save their ship.

Burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. Note planes parked aft, where fires have not yet reached. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

 

After more than five hours, Lexington’s captain ordered the crew to abandon ship at 5:07 p.m. and, after the crew evacuated, the ship was sunk by its escorts. While Lexington was lost, the crew’s damage control and firefighting efforts allowed for an orderly evacuation, meaning 2,770 Sailors—more than 92% of the crew—were rescued and lived to fight another day.

A destroyer alongside USS Lexington (CV-2) as the carrier is abandoned during the afternoon of May 8, 1942. Note crewmen sliding down lines on Lexington’s starboard quarter. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

 

Yorktown, steaming near Lexington on May 8 also came under air attack, and was struck by a single bomb, which caused structural damage and temporarily knocked out the ship’s radar. Although the bomb exploded amongst a repair party belowdecks, the crew swiftly extinguished the fire (the leader of the repair party, Lt. Milton Ricketts, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his initial efforts at firefighting). Yorktown was soon ordered to steam for Pearl Harbor, where Admiral Nimitz hoped the ship could be repaired in time to contest a Japanese offensive aimed at Midway Atoll. By way of contrast, the two Japanese carriers damaged at Coral Sea (a third light carrier was sunk), did not return to action until August.

USS Yorktown (CV 5) in Hampton Roads, Virginia, October 30, 1937. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

 

After Coral Sea, it was estimated that Yorktown would take 90 days to fully repair. The ship arrived at Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of May 27 and entered dry dock on the morning of the 28th. That morning, Nimitz visited Yorktown, telling the inspection party “we must have this ship back in three days.” More than a thousand shipyard workers and the ship’s company toiled to repair Yorktown, replacing and refitting bulkheads and watertight doors to make the ship more seaworthy in lieu of a full repair. Nimitz’s deadline was met, and on the morning of May 30, Yorktown and its escorts sortied for Midway.

USS Yorktown (CV 5) operating in the vicinity of the Coral Sea, April 1942. Photographed from a TBD-1 torpedo plane that has just taken off from her deck. Other TBD and SBD aircraft are also ready to be launched. A F4F-3 Wildcat fighter is parked on the outrigger just forward of the island. Other ships in company include a fleet oiler, a destroyer and a heavy cruiser. This view has been retouched to censor the radar antenna mounted atop Yorktown’s foremast. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

 

Yorktown was joined that afternoon by a nearly-new air group, reconstituted after serious losses suffered at Coral Sea. Three of Yorktown’s four squadrons had lost too many aircraft to function, and were quickly replaced by three Hawaii-based squadrons, formerly attached to the carrier Saratoga. The hastily-repaired Yorktown was mortally wounded at Midway, but not before aircraft from its air group sank Soryu and contributed to sinking another, Hiryu, two of the four Japanese carriers sunk at Midway, a contribution that far outweighed Yorktown’s loss.

When we think of war at sea, we tend to think in terms of putting ordnance on target, but the stories of Lexington and Yorktown highlight the importance of Sailor resilience after their ships were struck by bombs and torpedoes. Lexington’s crew could not save their ship, but saved most of their shipmates for future fights after hours spent battling conflagrations. On the other hand, the efforts of Sailors and civilian shipyard workers after the damaged Yorktown arrived in Hawaii allowed the carrier and its new air group to return to combat in time to contribute to the decisive victory at Midway.