The U.S.S Yorktown And the Japanese Carrier Fleet
RENDEZVOUS AT MIDWAY
by Pat Frank and Joseph D. Harrington
Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (retired)
The war was only a few weeks old when I took my flag and
my staff aboard U.S.S. Yorktown at San Diego, and our situation in the Pacific was indeed unhappy. Hong Kong and
Wake had fallen. The two British battleships on which we
had counted so much for stopping a Japanese southward advance had been sunk off Malaya. Allied strength in the
western Pacific was but a handful of cruisers, some
destroyers, and a few submarines, no match at all for the
onrushing Japanese fleet.
The Philippines had been invaded at many points.
General Douglas MacArthur had declared Manila an open
city and was moving his forces into the Bataan Peninsula.
There, as the war plans ordered, he was to fight as long as
he could, then retreat into Fortress Corregidor and wait for
us in California and Hawaii to come to his aid.
We could give no help, of course. The battleships that
were to crash through the central Pacific and combine with
the British and Dutch forces against the Japanese lay in the
mud of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese warlords, on the last
day of 1941, were free to strike wherever it pleased them to
Few persons recognized then, or remember now, how
grand the Japanese strategy was and how close it came to
being realized. Japan struck east in early December, immobilizing the main strength of the U.S. fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. She was now striking south,
to control or isolate Australia, the only logical place from which a great counterattack could be launched against her.
She was also getting ready to strike west, across India,
and into the Near East, joining up with German forces under General Rommel in Africa.
A look at the globe will awe anyone who considers just
how much of the world the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis
would have controlled had its master plan been successful.
Hitler’s troops at that time, remember, were enjoying success everywhere. They seemed well on their way to complete victory in Europe and in North Africa.
With Japanese victories, the Axis Powers would have
held the great Eurasian landmass, with all its wealth and
resources, the world island. America would have been
isolated and dealt with at leisure.
In the Pacific Ocean, at the beginning of 1942, the
United States had no means whatever of thwarting Japanese plans except for small task forces built around four
aircraft carriers -- Enterprise, Saratoga, Lexington, and
Yorktown. A fifth carrier, Hornet, would soon be on its
way from the Atlantic. So it was that the carrier task force
was thrust into war.
Our aircraft carriers had to perform two tasks : protect
what holdings we still had, and keep the Japanese fleet off
balance and dispersed by widely scattered, sudden attacks
on enemy holdings. We had to keep this up until replacement and supplementary warships could be constructed,
until America’s industrial might could make itself felt. And
Lord help us if the Japanese fleet ever assembled against us,
outnumbered as we were.
I had the privilege of commanding American sailors in
two great carrier battles of the Pacific -- Coral Sea and
Midway. The first battle saved Australia and marked a new
experience for the Japanese fleet, retreat. The second battle
broke the back of Japan’s naval air arm, with four of her
best aircraft carriers going down and hundreds of her best
In both battles, I fought from the bridge of U.S.S. Yorktown, a fine ship, with whose officers and men it was an
honor to serve. The full contribution of Yorktown men to
America’s success in the Pacific has never been revealed
until now. Security precautions kept it secret at the time it
happened, and later happenings in the war, when we were
obviously on the road to victory, overshadowed it. After
the war, when all the facts became available and were
cleared for release, they were not reported fully. Certain
myths were repeated so often that they became accepted truths.
The authors of this book decided to tell Yorktown’s
story. They gathered and documented all the facts obtainable concerning her, then assembled the personal experiences of men who sailed in Yorktown, so that her story
could be told in their words. When I was first approached
for an interview, I was impressed with the wealth of information, some of it new even to me, that these gentlemen
possessed. I was also impressed with their meticulous
method of cross-checking every bit of information. I remain impressed with the final result of their work.
U.S.S. Yorktown was in the thin line of aircraft carriers
which were all we had to deter the Japanese with until our
forces were built up. She helped keep the enemy spread
out. When he finally did concentrate his forces for attack,
she and her men helped meet and defeat them.
Once the Japanese Navy lost four aircraft carriers at
Midway, it lost its momentum and never recovered it. Australia was never threatened again. Nor was Hawaii.
America was able to divert men and resources to Africa,
England, and Europe, to stop Hitler, and to send others to
Burma and India to assist in stopping the Japanese there.
Victory became a matter of time.
Aircraft carriers like Yorktown added a new dimension
to naval warfare. They guarded supply lines, hunted down
enemy submarines, protected convoys and even their own
escorting capital ships, beat off enemy air counterattacks, I
softened up beaches for invasion, and rained destruction
on enemy cities. They became an integral part, indeed the
core, of our naval power. They remain so today. As I
write this, they are off Vietnam, demonstrating their unique
ability to apply as much or as little force as is necessary in
backing up the foreign policy of the United States.
What carriers can do we first learned in ships like U.S.S.
Yorktown, during the tough, trying days of early 1942.
The battle lessons of Coral Sea and Midway were applied
with ever-increasing effectiveness later -- with such effectiveness, in fact, that we were able to reduce our pilot
training program radically in 1944. Our pilots were so well
trained and superior to the enemy by that time that their
losses were far below combat expectations.
Most Yorktown men lived through Coral Sea and Midway. Badly outnumbered in the war’s early days, they
fought bravely and survived. They then trained and led
others in the ways of victory. I am pleased to know that, at
last, their story is being told in detail, just as it happened.
FRANK JACK FLETCHER
U.S. Navy Admiral (Retired)
Araby, La Plata, Maryland, 1966
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Last updated on September 23, 2008.