The United States Navy’s legendary Yorktown class aircraft carrier was born on the 21st of May, 1934. The lead ship of the class, Yorktown, began construction at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Newport News, Virginia, quickly followed by Enterprise, also known as “the Big E,” which began construction in July of the same year. The final ship of the class, Hornet, began construction in 1939, also at Newport News. The Yorktown’s were among the US Navy’s interwar carriers, following the USS Langley, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, and the Lexington and Saratoga of the Lexington-class.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there were only three American aircraft carriers in the Pacific: Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga. The Big E, then commanded by Captain George D. Murray, began patrols of the Hawaiian islands to deter further attacks. Her first action in the war was sinking of Japanese submarine I-70 on December 10th.
As the United States was struggling to get to its feet in the Pacific, on April 18th 1942, the Hornet participated in the distinguished “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo, carrying the US Army’s Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle and his 16 B-25 bombers within 700 miles of the Japanese mainland. While the mission had little strategic impact, the morale boost given to Americans was desperately needed. Enterprise was present as an escort to Hornet during the raid. Both ships rushed back from the operation in an attempt to assist in the Battle of the Coral Sea, but arrived shortly after hostilities had concluded.
That left Yorktown as the only ship of her class present for the historic battle that occurred from May 4-8, 1942. The Battle of the Coral Sea was significant, being the first naval battle in history that pitted aircraft carriers against one another. During the battle, aircraft from Yorktown landed two bomb hits on the Japanese carrier Shōkaku, causing extensive damage to the flight deck. Shōkaku was left unable to launch aircraft, dealing a severe blow to the Imperial Japanese Navy. While bombers from Yorktown and Lexington were engaging the Japanese carriers, the IJN conducted a strike of their own.
During the attack, Yorktown dodged eight torpedoes, but a single bomb managed to score a hit, crashing through the flight deck and exploding in the lower decks, causing 66 casualties. The nearby Lexington suffered two torpedo and three bomb hits, causing extensive damage. Lexington was stabilized, but an explosion caused by igniting gasoline vapors permanently crippled the ship, leaving it to be abandoned and scuttled. Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs, just in time for Midway.
In what would become one of the greatest naval battles in history, the three Yorktown’s were the US Navy’s only carriers on the scene. In the early hours of the battle, two squadrons from Enterprise attacked the Japanese carriers Kaga and Akagi. While the Big E’s air wings were fighting their own engagement, aircraft from Yorktown were attacking the Sōryū. Over the course of six minutes, Kaga, Akagi, and Sōryū had suffered lethal damage at the hands of two of the Yorktown’s. The lone surviving Japanese carrier was now Hiryū, which counterattacked immediately. Yorktown was struck by three bombs in the first attack, but after repairs was able to maintain full air operations. By the time the second Japanese counter attack arrived, Yorktown was attacked again, and due to the success of repair efforts, the Japanese aviators thought they were attacking a completely different carrier. Once again, Yorktown was severely damaged, and reports reached the Hiryū that two American carriers had been sunk, but both Enterprise and Hornet remained afloat while Yorktown limped along. Aircraft from Enterprise and Yorktown launched a counterattack which resulted in the sinking of the Hiryū.
The bulk of the battle was now over, leaving Yorktown and Enterprise to conduct air attacks on the remaining Japanese fleet, while extensive efforts went into salvaging Yorktown. There was hope for the near abandoned ship, until it was torpedoed by I-168. Efforts to tow and salvage the ship were abandoned, though it continued to float for hours until it finally capsized and sank on June 7th. Despite the loss of Yorktown, Midway was an incredibly lopsided ourcome, and was a brutal turning point in the Pacific war, made possible by the Yorktown’s.
After repairs and refits, Enterprise and Hornet continued their trek across the Pacific. In October of 1942, the sister ships fought in the Battle of the Santa Cruz islands. Planes from Enterprise damaged the Zuihō, which escaped, and Hornet dealt heavy damage to Shōkaku, which also survived the battle. During this attack, Hornet was struck by three bombs and two torpedoes, as well as being struck by two dying Japanese aircraft. Hornet was completely crippled, and Japanese forces were advancing rapidly. Admiral Halsey ordered the ship abandoned then scuttled. Hornet would be the last American fleet carrier to sink due to enemy combat action. During the battle, Enterprise was hit by two bombs, killing 44 men and wounding 75 others. Despite the extensive damage, the Big E continued to launch strikes against the Japanese Fleet, and took in aircraft and survivors from the perished Hornet. After the losses taken during the battle, Enterprise was now an orphan in the Yorktown class, and the last remaining American fleet carrier in the Pacific. The crew erected a sign on the flight deck of their damaged but fighting ship which read: “Enterprise vs Japan.”
In May of 1943, Admiral Nimitz awarded Enterprise the Presidential Unit Citation, the first aircraft carrier to achieve the award. The citation states:
“For consistently outstanding performance and distinguished achievement during repeated action against enemy Japanese forces in the Pacific war area, 7 December 1941, to 15 November 1942. Participating in nearly every major carrier engagement in the first year of the war, the Enterprise and her air group, exclusive of far-flung destruction of hostile shore installations throughout the battle area, did sink or damage on her own a total of 35 Japanese vessels and shot down a total of 185 Japanese aircraft. Her aggressive spirit and superb combat efficiency are fitting tribute to the officers and men who so gallantly established her as an ahead bulwark in the defense of the American nation.”
In the summer of 1943, Enterprise was no longer alone, joined by the Essex-class fleet carriers, and Independence-class light carriers. With the arrival of reinforcements, Enterprise was ordered to take a much needed break from duty, getting extensive repairs and refits over the coming months.
Enterprise returned to action in late November of 1943, partaking in the Battle of Makin. The Big E was also present for the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. By the end of 1944, Enterprise was the only American carrier capable of conducting night operations, allowing its aircraft to conduct numerous raids on shore targets in Luzon and the South China Sea. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Enterprise managed to have aircraft flying over the island for a continuous 174 hours.
Supporting the attack on Okinawa on April 11th, 1945, Enterprise was struck by a Kamikaze, forcing the ship back to the Caroline Islands for repairs. Returning back to Okinawa in May, she was struck by another Kamikaze on the 14th, destroying the forward elevator. Still out of action, Enterprise was nearly finished with repairs when Japan surrendered. The Big E’s final actions in WWII would be the victorious task of ferrying thousands of troops home from Europe.
To this day, Enterprise is still the most decorated ship in the history of the United States Navy. Over the course of WWII she was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with twenty battle stars, World War II Victory Medal, Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, and Philippine Liberation Medal. Enterprise was also given the British Admiralty Pennant by officers of the British Navy.
Outdated by the end of the war, Enterprise was decommissioned in 1947, and scrapped by 1960. Her legacy continued on, and in 1958 the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier was commissioned as the USS Enterprise, leading in the Enterprise-class nuclear powered aircraft carriers. The eighth Enterprise would go on to serve the United States Navy for over 50 years, only being decommissioned in December 2012. The third Gerald R Ford-class carrier, scheduled for completion by 2027 will bear the name Enterprise, guaranteeing that the legacy of the original Enterprise and her Yorktown sisters will live on for generations to come.