A Uniquely American Miracle: the USS Yorktown

On 27 May 1942, the battered USS Yorktown limped into Pearl Harbor from the Coral Sea, and Admiral Frank Fletcher did quite the same from the harbor into his boss’s office, the Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet, Admiral Nimitz. Fletcher wanted to ask Nimitz for permission to continue on to the West Coast for much needed repairs.

The Yorktown suffered tremendous damage at the Battle of the Coral Sea. From the executive summary of report sent to Nimitz the day before, “A 551-pound armor-piercing bomb had plunged through the flight deck 15 feet inboard of her island and penetrated fifty feet into the ship before exploding above the forward engine room. Six compartments were destroyed, as were the lighting systems on three decks and across 24 frames. The gears controlling the No. 2 elevator were damaged. She had lost her radar and refrigeration system. Near misses by eight bombs had opened seams in her hull from frames 100 to 130 and ruptured the fuel-oil compartments…”

Fletcher told Nimitz that with the San Diego facilities the Yorktown could be operational in a month but would need three months to do the job right. Admiral Nimitz looked him in the eye and said,

“Frank, you have three days.”

Admiral Spruance, “Bull” Halsey’s replacement (Halsey was in the hospital with a bad skin rash), was due to leave for Midway in two days with the carriers USS Hornet and USS Enterprise to intercept the Japanese. If Fletcher left any later than two days after that, he would miss the upcoming battle.

Nimitz himself was one of the first to wade into the dry dock to inspect the damage, and he personally waived hundreds of safety regulations preventing the timely, albeit slightly more dangerous, repairs. In order to accommodate the massive power needs of the repair parties to work around the clock, the mayor of Honolulu diverted power to Pearl Harbor causing rolling blackouts across the city. Less than a dozen people within a hundred miles of Pearl Harbor knew of the Japanese plan to attack Midway, but Fletcher’s call for help in immediately repairing the Yorktown could only mean one thing: the Japanese were close. In countless feats of ingenuity, initiative, professionalism, competence, and old fashioned hard work, the workmen and maintenance personnel of the island of Oahu surged on the USS Yorktown. Navy, Army, Marine, and civilian mechanics, engineers, electricians, yard workers, pipefitters, welders, sailors, maintenance techs, cabin boys, and deck swabbers from all walks of life worked day and night to get the Yorktown prepared for the coming battle.

72 hours after Nimitz’ challenge, Admiral Fletcher and the Yorktown steamed out of Pearl Harbor to join the Hornet and Enterprise north of Midway Island with a full complement of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes. The people of Oahu came together at a moment’s notice for the Yorktown, not in survival and recovery as they had after Pearl Harbor, but with the can-do attitude that only comes when you’re finally given a chance to strike back. They did three months’ work in as many days.

With the addition of the Yorktown and a report that two Japanese fleet carriers were spotted in Japanese home waters (the Shokaku and Zuiakaku), America now had three carriers to the Japanese four instead of the two to six they were expecting to fight the battle with less than a week before. Furthermore, because the American carriers were larger, they had near parity in planes. The Americans had a fighting chance in what Admiral Nimitz knew, one way or another, would be the most decisive naval battle in American history: The upcoming Battle of Midway.

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