YORKTOWN'S SERVICE PRIOR TO PEARL HARBOR
Launch and Commissioning
The third ship to bear the name Yorktown was laid down at the yard of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, Newport News, Virginia, on 21 May 1934. She was the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5), and the ship was launched on 4 April 1936. Her sponsor was Mrs Franklin D. Roosevelt, wife of the President of the United States. Yorktown was commissioned at the Naval Operating Base (NOB) Norfolk, Virginia, on 30 September 1937.
USS Yorktown is shown under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, Newport News, Virginia in August 1937.
Training and Shakedown
After fitting out, Yorktown carried out training in Hampton Roads. On 18 November 1937, Yorktown entered the Norfolk Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia for installation of her secondary anti-aircraft battery - four 1.1- inch quadruple-mount automatic guns. She returned to NOB Norfolk on 9 December, and on the following day, brought aboard her assigned fighting and scouting squadrons VF-5 and VS-5. On 12 December, Yorktown got under way for the Southern Drill Grounds off the Virginia capes to qualify and train pilots.
Yorktown sailed for the Caribbean on 8 January 1938 and arrived at Culebra, Puerto Rico, on 13 January. Over the following month, the carrier undertook her "shakedown" training.
Yorktown operated off the eastern seaboard until April 1939, ranging from Chesapeake Bay to Guantanamo Bay.
Yorktown is transferred to the Pacific Fleet
Yorktown sailed for the West Coast of the United States on 20 April 1939, and operated with the Pacific Fleet out of San Diego for the rest of 1939 and into 1940. Yorktown sailed for Hawaii on 2 April 1940 to take part in Navy exercises designated Fleet Problem XXI.
Yorktown is detached from the Pacific Fleet for service in the Atlantic
Recognising that diplomacy and economic sanctions had failed to curb Japan's brutal aggression against China, President Roosevelt decided to retain the Pacific Fleet in Hawaiian waters after the conclusion of Fleet Problem XXI.
Before she could begin regular operations with the Pacific Fleet out of Pearl Harbor, Yorktown required a yard overhaul. Ship repair facilities at Pearl Harbor were very limited at this time, and Yorktown sailed for Puget Sound and the Bremerton dry dock on 18 May 1940. Before returning to Hawaiian waters, she called at San Diego to pick up a massive load of assorted aircraft and cargo for delivery to Pearl Harbor. In September 1940, Yorktown became the first American carrier to be fitted with the new CXAM radar.
On 25 January 1941, Captain Elliott Buckmaster assumed command of Yorktown. This very competent officer was destined to remain commander of Yorktown throughout her comparatively short but very distinguished service life.
Yorktown operated in Hawaiian waters and off the West Coast of the United States until April 1941 when the success of German U-boat attacks on British convoys in the Atlantic required a reinforcement of the Atlantic Fleet. For this purpose, the Navy transferred Yorktown and four destroyer escorts to the Atlantic.
Under conditions of great secrecy, Yorktown departed Pearl Harbor for the Atlantic on 22 April 1941 and arrived at Bermuda on 12 May. From that time until the entry of the United States into the war on 8 December, Yorktown carried out Neutrality Patrols and convoy escorts in the Atlantic, ranging from Bermuda to Newfoundland, and logging over 17,000 miles steamed. During service in the Atlantic, Yorktown swapped fighter squadrons with the smaller carrier USS Ranger (CV-4). In this "cross-decking" operation, fighter squadron VF-42 from Ranger replaced Yorktown's VF-5. Otis Kight served in Yorktown from the Atlantic to Midway and he describes how he joined VF-42 aboard Yorktown:
"I was assigned to Yorktown's fighter squadron VF-42 in mid-November, 1941, out of "boot camp" in Naval Training Station, Norfolk. I chased her (Yorktown) from Norfolk to Bermuda and back to Norfolk on a flush deck "four piper", catching up with CV-5 on December 7, 1941. There was a billet for a radio striker, and one slot for a plane pusher. I had a full seabag, including tennis shoes, and the other guy didn't. So after deployment, I was third guy in the number 10 plane-pusher crew."
Otis Kight talks about his service in Yorktown in "Coral Sea Reflections"
Convoy Duty in the Atlantic
From 11 September 1941, the role of warships of the Atlantic Fleet, including Yorktown, was extended to the far more dangerous duty of actively protecting convoys against attacks by German submarines and surface raiders.
The Japanese strike an assassin's blow at Pearl Harbor
During November 1941, tensions between the United States and Japan increased. On 20 November Ambassador Nomura presented Secretary Cordell Hull with Japan's "final proposals" for peace in the Pacific. Unaware that Japan had determined to go to war with the United States if Japan's demands had not been met by 25 November, and that a powerful Japanese carrier striking force was even then secretly approaching Pearl Harbor, Secretary Hull presented Nomura with an American counter proposal on 26 November.
On 27 November 1941, with relations between the two countries deteriorating, Admiral Stark sent a "war warning" to the commanders of the Pacific and Asiatic Fleets. Such a warning was not necessary for the Atlantic Fleet which had been effectively on a war footing since September.
Yorktown put into Norfolk on 2 December, and was there five days later when Japan launched its treacherous surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor while Japanese diplomats were still engaged in peace talks in Washington. The Japanese did not formally declare war on the United States until after the attack on Pearl Harbor was over and when their carriers were steaming back to Japan.
On board Yorktown, news of the Pearl Harbor attack spread quickly, and crew members gathered around radios to listen intently to the news from Hawaii. Early reports from Hawaii were grim. The Pacific Fleet had taken a severe battering. Four battleships had been sunk, and four had been severely damaged. With the Pacific Fleet battle line crippled, Yorktown and her sister carriers would now have to carry the burden of keeping Japan's powerful navy at bay.