The USS Yorktown (CV-5) was the U.S. Navy's fifth aircraft carrier and the lead ship of her class, serving from the late 1930s until her sinking during the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
Yorktown was commissioned at the end of September 1937 at NOB Norfolk under the command of Captain Edward McWhorter.
Yorktown was a product of Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company (now owned by Grumman-Northrop). Her keel was laid in May of 1934 and primary construction lasted just under two years.
At the time of her launch in April 1936, Yorktown measured just under 825 feet in length and 109 feet, six inches in beam at the flight deck. She was powered by four Parsons geared steam turbines supplied by nine Babcock & Wilcox boilers. With a crew compliment of over 2200 during the war, she was capable of carrying and launching 90 aircraft.
Repairs and Upgrades
Yorktown underwent a service and repair period during the fall of 1938 following shakedown trials in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
In 1940, Yorktown was one of six naval vessels to be installed with the new RCA CXAM Radar system, enabling the detection of enemy vessels and planes at a reliable distance of 70 miles.
During her first few years of service, Yorktown operated between Chesapeake and Guantanamo, carrying out training and drills and participating in a battle exercise known as "Fleet Problem XX" in 1939. It was through these exercises and drills that carrier tactics began showing their true potential.
Following Fleet Problem XX, Yorktown was transferred to the Pacific for the next exercise, Fleet Problem XXI, held in Hawaiian waters during 1940. During this exercise, carrier-based aircraft proved their worth in tracking enemy vessels. After the conclusion of the exercise, Yorktown operated off the West Coast until recalled to the Atlantic for Neutrality Patrol the following spring.
Despite the fact that Hitler had ordered his U-boat commanders to avoid US ships, circumstances led to several armed encounters between the US Navy and the Deutsche Kriegsmarine in the months leading up to America's entry into the war. During these tens months, Yorktown made four Neutrality Patrols, screening convoys across the North Atlantic.
When news came of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yorktown was laid up at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Maintenance was expedited and the carrier got underway for San Diego in mid-December, arriving at the end of the month. Her initial mission as the centerpiece of Task Force 17 was to ferry marine garrisons to various island outposts in the South Pacific as US forces began taking the initiative in that region. Over the next few months, her airmen engaged the enemy on numerous occasions.
Yorktown's real baptism by fire came in May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Although a Japanese victory was declared from a tactical standpoint, the battle was a strategic victory for the Allies as Japanese forces were prevented from carrying out an invasion of Australia as a result.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Yorktown (CV-5)
Until the Battle of the Coral Sea, Yorktown escaped any unusual damage that would have increased the already-significant asbestos risk aboard the vessel. During that battle, a Japanese Aichi D-3 ("Val") dive bomber scored a hit on the carrier's flight deck, penetrating it and exploding in the lower decks, resulting in 66 casualties. Although it was estimated that repairs would take three months, there was no time to put into port before Yorktown was ordered to Midway.
During the Battle of Midway, in the early afternoon of 6 June 1942, Yorktown suffered three bomb strikes. One exploded behind the No. 2 elevator and a second hit her starboard side, exploding in the funnels and damaging three boiler intakes. The third bomb struck her starboard side, taking out another elevator and igniting a rag storage room.
Later that afternoon, Yorktown took two torpedoes in the port side near the bilge, which shut down her engines and jammed her rudder. Recognizing that the ship was doomed, the captain gave the order to abandon ship and the vessel went under the next morning, June 7, 1942 – exactly six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Installing asbestos insulation in the design of oceangoing ships was ordered by law in the United States in the early 1930s, after a deadly fire aboard a cruise ship killed 137 people. Yorktown, like most Navy ships of the time, utilized asbestos frequently around engines and engineering compartments, as well as to insulate steam pipes in all sections of the ship. If asbestos-containing material is worn or damaged it becomes "friable", which means that fibers can break off and escape into the atmosphere, and then are inhaled or ingested by ship's crew or dockworkers, possibly causing mesothelioma.
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Friedman, Norman. U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983)
Mooney, James. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. (Washington DC; Department of the Navy, 1991).