World War II: USS Yorktown (CV-5)

USS Yorktown (CV-5) during World War.

US Naval History & Heritage Command

USS Yorktown - Overview:

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Aircraft Carrier
  • Shipyard: Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company
  • Laid Down: May 21, 1934
  • Launched: April 4, 1936
  • Commissioned: September 30, 1937
  • Fate: Sunk June 7, 1942

USS Yorktown - Specifications:

  • Displacement: 25,500 tons
  • Length: 824 ft., 9 in.
  • Beam: 109 ft.
  • Draft: 25 ft., 11.5 in.
  • Propulsion: 9 × Babcock & Wilcox boilers, 4 × Parsons geared turbines, 4 × screws
  • Speed: 32.5 knots
  • Range: 14,400 nautical miles at 15 knots
  • Complement: 2,217 men

USS Yorktown - Armament:

  • 8 × 5 in./38 cal., 4 × Quad 1.1 in./75 cal., 24 × 20mm Oerlikon guns, 24 × .50 caliber machine guns


  • 90 aircraft

USS Yorktown - Construction:

In the years after World War I, the US Navy began experimenting with various designs for aircraft carriers. A new type of warship, its first carrier, USS Langley (CV-1), was a converted collier that possessed a flush deck design (no island). This effort was followed by USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Saratoga (CV-3) which were built using hulls intended for battlecruisers. Large vessels, these ships had sizable air groups and large islands. Late in the 1920s, design work commenced on the US Navy's first purpose-built carrier, USS Ranger (CV-4). Though smaller than Lexington and Saratoga, Ranger's more efficient use of space permitted it to carry a similar number of aircraft. As these early carriers entered service, the US Navy and the Naval War College conducted several assessments and war games through which they hoped to determine the ideal carrier design.

These studies determined that speed and torpedo protection were of major importance and that a large air group was desirable as it offered greater operational flexibility. They also concluded that carriers employing islands had superior control over their air groups, were better able to clear exhaust smoke, and could better direct their defensive armament. Trials at sea also found that larger carriers were more capable of operating in difficult weather conditions than smaller vessels such as Ranger. Though the US Navy initially preferred a design displacing around 27,000 tons, due to the limitations imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty, it instead opted for one that provided the desired attributes but only weighed around 20,000 tons. Embarking an air group of approximately 90 aircraft, this design offered a top speed 32.5 knots.

Laid down at the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company on May 21, 1934, USS Yorktown was the lead ship of the new class and the first large purpose-built aircraft carrier constructed for the US Navy. Sponsored by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the carrier entered the water nearly two years later on April 4, 1936. Work on Yorktown was completed the following year and the vessel was commissioned at the nearby Norfolk Operating Base on September 20, 1937. Commanded by Captain Ernest D. McWhorter, Yorktown finished fitting out and began training exercises off Norfolk.

USS Yorktown - Joining the Fleet:

Departing the Chesapeake in January 1938, Yorktown steamed south to conduct its shakedown cruise in the Caribbean. Over the next several weeks it touched at Puerto Rico, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama. Returning to Norfolk, Yorktown underwent repairs and modifications to address issues that had arisen during the voyage. Made flagship of Carrier Division 2, it took part in Fleet Problem XX in February 1939. A massive war game, the exercise simulated an attack on the East Coast of the United States. In the course of the action, both Yorktown and its sister ship, USS Enterprise, performed well.

After a brief refit at Norfolk, Yorktown received orders to join the Pacific Fleet. Departing in April 1939, the carrier passed through the Panama Canal before arriving at its new base in San Diego, CA. Conducting routine exercises through the remainder of the year, it took part in Fleet Problem XXI in April 1940. Conducted around Hawaii, the war game simulated a defense of the islands as well as practiced a variety of strategies and tactics which later would be used during World War II. That same month, Yorktown received new RCA CXAM radar equipment.

USS Yorktown - Back to the Atlantic:

With World War II already raging in Europe and the Battle of the Atlantic underway, the United States began active efforts to enforce its neutrality in the Atlantic. As a result, Yorktown was ordered back to the Atlantic Fleet in April 1941. Taking part in neutrality patrols, the carrier operated between Newfoundland and Bermuda to prevent attacks by German u-boats. After completing one of these patrols, Yorktown put into Norfolk on December 2. Remaining in port, the carrier's crew learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor five days later.

USS Yorktown - World War II Begins:

Having received new Oerlikon 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, Yorktown sailed for the Pacific on December 16. Reaching San Diego at the end of the month, the carrier became the flagship of Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher's Task Force 17 (TF17). Departing on January 6, 1942, TF17 escorted a convoy of Marines to reinforce American Samoa. Completing this task, it united with Vice Admiral William Halsey's TF8 (USS Enterprise) for strikes against the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. Nearing the target area, Yorktown launched mix of F4F Wildcat fighters, SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and TBD Devastator torpedo bombers on February 1.

Striking targets on Jaluit, Makin, and Mili, Yorktown's aircraft inflicted some damage but were hampered by poor weather. Completing this mission, the carrier returned to Pearl Harbor for replenishment. Putting back to sea later in February, Fletcher had orders to take TF17 to the Coral Sea to operate in conjunction with Vice Admiral Wilson Brown's TF11 (Lexington). Though initially tasked with striking Japanese shipping at Rabaul, Brown redirected the carriers' efforts to Salamaua-Lae, New Guinea after enemy landings in that area. US aircraft hit targets in the region on March 10.

USS Yorktown - Battle of the Coral Sea:

In the wake of this raid, Yorktown remained in the Coral Sea until April when it withdrew to Tonga to resupply. Departing late in month, it rejoined Lexington after the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz obtained intelligence regarding a Japanese advance against Port Moresby. Entering the area, Yorktown and Lexington took part in the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 4-8. In the course of the fighting, American aircraft sank the light carrier Shoho and badly damaged the carrier Shokaku. In exchange, Lexington was lost after being hit by a mix of bombs and torpedoes.

As Lexington was under attack, Yorktown's skipper, Captain Elliot Buckmaster, was able to evade eight Japanese torpedoes but saw his ship take a severe bomb hit. Returning to Pearl Harbor, it was estimated that it would take three months to fully repair the damage. Due to new intelligence which indicated that Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto intended to attack Midway in early June, Nimitz directed that only emergency repairs be made in order the return Yorktown to sea as quickly as possible. As a result, Fletcher departed Pearl Harbor on May 30, only three days after arriving.

USS Yorktown - Battle of Midway:

Coordinating with Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance's TF16 (USS Enterprise & USS Hornet), TF17 took part in the pivotal Battle of Midway on June 4-7. On June 4, Yorktown's aircraft sank the Japanese carrier Soryu while other American aircraft destroyed the carriers Kaga and Akagi. Later in the day, the sole remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, launched its aircraft. Locating Yorktown, they scored three bomb hits, one of which caused damage to the ship's boilers slowing it to six knots. Quickly moving to contain fires and repair damage, the crew restored Yorktown's power and got the ship underway. Around two hours after the first attack, torpedo planes from Hiryu hit Yorktown with torpedoes. Wounded, Yorktown lost power and began listing to port.

Though damage control parties were able to put out the fires, they could not halt the flooding. With Yorktown in danger of capsizing, Buckmaster ordered his men to abandon ship. A resilient vessel, Yorktown remained afloat through the night and the next day efforts began to salvage the carrier. Taken under tow by USS Vireo, Yorktown was further aided by the destroyer USS Hammann which came alongside to provide power and pumps. The salvage efforts began to show progress through the day as the carrier's list was decreased. Unfortunately, as work continued, the Japanese submarine I-168 slipped through Yorktown's escorts and fired four torpedoes around 3:36 PM. Two struck Yorktown while another hit and sank Hammann. After chasing off the submarine and collecting survivors, American forces determined that Yorktown could not be saved. At 7:01 AM on June 7, the carrier capsized and sank.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Yorktown (CV-5)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: USS Yorktown (CV-5). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Yorktown (CV-5)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).