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“YOU’VE GOT THREE DAYS.” The Crash Repair Program of the Yorktown

The USS Yorktown (CV-5) entering Pearl Harbor after having been damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

“We must have this ship back in three days.”—Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet

The Battle of the Coral Sea had barely concluded when Task Force 17 under the command of Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher was ordered to return to Pearl Harbor as fast as the crippled Yorktown’s condition would allow. Despite hull damage that caused her to trail an oil slick ten miles long, the carrier was able to reach a sustained speed of twenty knots. The voyage to the naval base would take eighteen days. During that time, the Yorktown’s damage control teams succeeded in patching so cleanly the bomb hole in her flight deck that it would appear never to have been damaged. Meanwhile, her skipper, Captain Elliott Buckmaster, prepared an action report for Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet, that included a detailed list of the carrier’s damage.

A photograph showing where the Japanese bomb penetrated the flight deck of the USS Yorktown during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

Dated May 25 and delivered by plane while the Yorktownwas about a hundred miles from Oahu, the report that Nimitz read was sobering. An 800-pound armor-piercing bomb had plunged through the flight deck and for 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. Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch on the Yorktownestimated that repairs would take ninety days.

Nimitz didn’t have the luxury of waiting ninety days. Thanks to excellent codebreaking work by Commander Joseph Rochefort and his intelligence team, Nimitz knew that the Imperial Japanese Navy planned an amphibious assault on the strategic island of Midway on June 4. Leading the attack would be its Kidō Butai, the Carrier Strike Force that had attacked Pearl Harbor. Despite being outnumbered in carriers, planes, and other ships, Nimitz was determined not to let Midway go the way of Wake Island—at least not without a fight. But, when he sent his task force into harm’s way, he wanted it to be as powerful as possible. That meant reinforcing his available carriers Enterprise and Hornet with the Yorktown. To determine if that was possible, Nimitz ordered Pearl Harbor’s yard superintendent Captain Claude Gillette and a team of specialists to fly to the Yorktown and make a preliminary study.

They radioed back that they thought it was possible to get the carrier ready in time but doing so would take a supreme effort.

One day ahead of schedule, on May 27, the Yorktown arrived off the coast of Oahu. At dawn on the 28th, after Nimitz had cut orders voiding the safety rule of spending a day purging her tanks of stored aviation fuel, the Yorktown eased into Drydock Number One. The caissons closed behind her, and pumps began draining out the water. With at least a foot of water still remaining in the drydock, men in waders gathered to inspect the hull. One of them was Admiral Nimitz. After staring at the burst seams and other damage on the hull, Nimitz turned to the technicians and said, “We must have this ship back in three days.” After a long silence, hull repair expert Lieutenant Commander H. J. Pfingstag gulped and said, “Yes, sir.”

Sailors inspect the damage caused by the Japanese bomb that exploded deep inside the USS Yorktown during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

Within minutes the first of 1,400 repairmen, working around the clock, descended on the Yorktown. To satisfy the enormous power needs of the repair crews the Navy contacted Leslie Hicks, president of the Hawaiian Electric Company, who arranged a series of rolling blackouts in Honolulu. Only the most urgent repairs were made. Instead of individually fixing the hull’s ruptured seams, an enormous steel plate was welded over the damaged section.

The USS Yorktown in drydock at Pearl Harbor undergoing crash program repairs to get her ready for the Battle of Midway. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command

At 11:00 a.m. on May 29, Drydock Number One was flooded and the Yorktown was towed into the harbor. The next day, more patched than repaired but fit enough to fight, the Yorktown steamed out of Pearl Harbor to rendezvous with the Enterprise and Hornet at “Point Luck” to participate in one of the most decisive battles in naval history.

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