On this day in 1942, the USS Yorktown limped back into Pearl Harbor after the Battle of the Coral Sea. The aircraft carrier had been heavily damaged in the encounter, still a better result than that of her fellow carrier, the USS Lexington, which had been sent to the bottom. Coral Sea had been a tactical defeat for the United States–the sunken Japanese light carrier Shoho hardly an even trade for the massive Lexington–but a strategic defeat for the Japanese. The planned Japanese invasion of Port Moresby, on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea, had been called off, and the two fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku had been damaged enough that they would not be available for the next month’s planned attack on Midway.
The question was whether the Yorktown would be. Things did not look good on the day she slowly eased into Pearl Harbor, an oil slick trailing behind her. She moved through a navy base still shattered by the Japanese attack of 7 December 1941 and sailors gathered on her stern to salute the USS Arizona as they passed the sunken battleship’s infrastructure, still rising above the water.
|Pearl Harbor, May 1942
Capsized hull of USS Oklahoma ahead
The Yorktown was put into dry dock and workers immediately set to repairing the damage. A pessimistic estimate received by the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, was that it would take 90 days to get the ship ready for sea. Frank Jack Fletcher, the man commanding Yorktown thought that too much, but still believed it would take several weeks to repair the ship. Fletcher, upon reaching shore, found a subordinate waiting to take him to Nimitz. Fletcher had been at sea for 102 days which, by his count, was “102 days without a drink.” He went and had a highball first, keeping Nimitz waiting. When he found Nimitz somewhat later, the Admiral told him that the Japanese were preparing to attack Midway, way out at the end of the Hawaiian chain, and that the Yorktown had to be ready to go in two days.
Also present at Pearl Harbor on that day was the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. On board her was Doris Miller, an African-American mess attendant. Miller had been on the West Virginia during the Pearl Harbor attack and had performed heroically, both in helping the wounded and in manning an antiaircraft machine gun to fire on the Japanese planes. Miller, like all African-Americans in the Navy at the time, had not been trained on weapons, but he said afterwards that he had no problem with the gun: “It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.” He had been awarded the Navy Cross, the first African-American to be so honored, and Nimitz presented it to him on the deck of the Enterprise that afternoon.