The True Life Legend of the USS Yorktown

Samuel Chase
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USS Yorktown
USS Yorktown under repair in dry-dock, Pearl Harbor, after the “Battle of the Coral Sea,” 1942

To celebrate Memorial Day or the 4th of July, cable stations now play “Independence Day” which features Will Smith fighting aliens. Lord, how times have changed. In years past, the movie playing would have been “Midway” which starred Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn and a host of other Hollywood legends.

The actual Battle of Midway is considered by many military historians as the most important naval battle of the Pacific Campaign of World War II. 

This story is about William “Bill” Lancaster, the most faithful sailor I have ever known, who served aboard the USS Yorktown (CV10).

Bill, along with his wife Lucy, were my neighbors in Spring Hill, Florida. Bill was born in Centralia, Illinois in 1924 and then moved as a young boy to Mayfield, Kentucky where he grew up amongst a huge clan of Lancaster’s. He met his wife Lucy while on leave in Charleston, Massachusetts during World War II.

Bill died in Spring Hill, Florida, October 18th, 2016.

USS Yorktown History

But to really know Bill, you must also know the story of the USS Yorktown and the Battle of Midway. We’ll tell you more about Bill in a minute.

The actual Battle of Midway is considered by many military historians as the most important naval battle of the Pacific Campaign of World War II. 

One month before “The Battle of Midway”, two American aircraft carriers, the USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown, had been involved in another battle, “The Battle of the Coral Sea”. During the “Battle of the Coral Sea”, the USS Lexington was sunk by the Japanese and the USS Yorktown was heavily damaged. The Yorktown was so damaged that the Japanese thought she had sunk too and this led them to believe they could lure America’s remaining two aircraft carriers in the Pacific, the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet, into a battle at Midway that would allow the Japanese, through superior numbers, to destroy the remaining U.S. Fleet. 

What the Japanese didn’t count on was the determination of U.S. Sailors like William “Bill” Lancaster, who would later serve on the USS Yorktown (CV10).

These sailors worked doggedly to keep the USS Yorktown afloat after the “Battle of the Coral Sea” — and amazingly — got her back to Pearl Harbor and into dry dock for repairs on May 27th, 1942.

At the time, estimates were that she needed three months of repairs.

Her hull was badly damaged, her fuel-oil compartments were leaking, her radar system was non-functional, her superheater boilers were non-functioning – which limited her speed, and her refrigeration system had been lost.

Naval historian, Craig Symonds, in his book “The Battle of Midway” writes that Admiral Chester Nimitz climbed aboard the heavily damaged vessel and told members of an inspection team, “We must have this back in three days.”

Admiral Nimitz knew something they did not.

Nimitz had been told by military code breakers that the Japanese were going to attack the Midway Atoll, a strategically important military base. Nimitz desperately needed the USS Yorktown in the battle. Even with the Yorktown, the U.S. Navy would still be outgunned — 3 carriers vs 4 Japanese carriers.

Amazingly, in less than 72 hours, these determined sailors and civilian dry dock workers restored the USS Yorktown to a battle-ready state. A feat that still astounds military historians to this day.

And good to his word, 3 days later, Admiral Nimitz ordered her back to sea. Her flight deck looked like a patchwork quilt and whole sections of her internal frames had been replaced. But she was operational.

As the Yorktown left Pearl Harbor, repairs continued with work crews from the repair ship, USS Vestal, still on board and the Vestal following in the Yorktown’s wake. The Yorktown would soon join the aircraft carriers USS Hornet and USS Enterprise near the Midway Atoll to engage the Japanese in an epic naval battle.

The Battle of Midway

In the ensuing “Battle of Midway,” planes from the USS Yorktown provided the deciding one two punch that damaged three Japanese aircraft carriers to the point that the Japanese had to scuttle them. During the battle, the USS Yorktown was hit with three bombs. Once again, the Japanese thought the Yorktown had been sunk. But damage control teams quickly snuffed out the fires and patched her up so well that the next wave of attacking Japanese dive bombers mistook her as the undamaged USS Enterprise.

Crews fight fires on the deck of the USS Yorktown during the “Battle of Midway,” 1942

 After this second attack and two more torpedo hits, the USS Yorktown was finally put out of commission and the Japanese now believed, erroneously, that they had sank two American aircraft carriers.  Yet the Yorktown and her crew still refused to go down, at least not this day.

USS Yorktown dead in the water June 4th, 1942

Japanese commanders, now believing that only one U.S. carrier remained, decided to press the attack with their last remaining carrier, the Hiryu.  

Late in the afternoon, a USS Yorktown scout plane located the Hiryu and the USS Enterprise launched a final strike of dive bombers that left the Hiryu aflame. Several hours later, the Hiryu sank with Rear Admiral Yamaguchi choosing to go down with his ship. 

Initial salvage efforts on the USS Yorktown appeared to be promising as she was taken under tow by the USS Vireo. But, two days after the battle began; the Yorktown was hit by two more torpedoes from a Japanese submarine and sank early the next morning, June 7th, 1942. 

Thus, ended the “Battle of Midway”. The Japanese lost 4 Aircraft Carriers. We lost the USS Yorktown.

But it is the Yorktown’s crew and the sailors that kept her fighting through the worst of these two Pacific battles, the “Coral Sea” and “Midway,” that we will always remember. The USS Yorktown may have succumbed to the sea, but the men and sailors who served her, kept her afloat, and kept her fighting embodies the indomitable spirit that is America. 

And this brings me back to William “Bill” Lancaster.

Roughly 10 months later, in April of 1943, the Navy commissioned a new USS Yorktown, the CV10, and she set sail on her maiden voyage with Bill Lancaster aboard. Bill would spend 4 ½ years at sea.

The men serving aboard this new ship were well aware of the legacy established by the sailors who preceded them. How best to honor that fighting spirit? By bold courageous action. This group of men saw their fair share of combat and kamikaze Japanese pilots en-route to earning 11 Battle Stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. They did the USS Yorktown name proud.

Interestingly, on that maiden voyage was a film crew who made a documentary named the “The Fighting Lady.” At the very end of the film, some servicemen who appeared in the film are reintroduced to us, and the narrator sadly informs us that they have died in battle. They gave their all.

Back to William “Bill” Lancaster

Bill Lancaster cried, when he saw the film years later.

Fast-forward to July 4th, 2012 — Bill Lancaster is 87 years old and almost blind. He can’t see my wife Ashley and I as we are approaching during our morning walk. But as we approached while walking our dogs, we saw Bill out in his front yard faithfully raising the “Flag” and lining the yard with other miniature flags.

On special days, like the 4th of July and Memorial Day, he lines the whole yard with flags. It’s that little something extra Bill does —— because you see —– every single morning Bill steps out to his front yard to raise his “Flag” —— and then quickly and solemnly, back straight and heels together, standing at attention —  crisply salutes his “Flag.”

I am awe-struck and nearly brought to tears every time I see this daily ritual.

I’ve never asked why he does this every day. I like to think —- that perhaps — he’s remembering the great sacrifices his friends and the men he served with have made for our country —- and he is remembering and honoring them by saluting the flag they gave everything for.

In conversations with Bill, he doesn’t talk about his service much — other than to say he served on the USS Yorktown. What he likes to talk about is his church, Calvary Church of the Nazarene. Bill and his wife Lucy faithfully served their church for years as greeters and they always made it a point to hug everyone as they came into church.

One time, he handed me his business card.

It is an interesting card. It has your normal stuff like address, phone number, and email. The business end has a picture of the old “stars ’n stripes”, with a yellow cross on top, and the words “God Bless America”. But — on the back it has a list of benefits from “Hugging” —- The Perfect Cure for What Ails You. The benefits include relieving tension, combats depression, reduces stress, elevates self-esteem, generates good will, has no unpleasant side effects, and is nothing less than a miracle drug. Plus, hugging has no movable parts, no batteries to wear out, non-taxable, theft proof, non-polluting, and of course it is fully refundable. 

So, as you celebrate the holiday, remember Bill, not just for the service he and others gave their country, but for the love and the hugs he wants to share with you. Remember Bill by giving someone you love a hug today.

It’s the perfect cure for what ails you……………..

God Bless America!

USS Yorktown burning during the “Battle of Midway”
USS Yorktown under attack by Dive Bombers 1942
USS Yorktown under heavy attack from the Japanese

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