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Midway remembered
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She was tired. She was so very, very tired. And she was hurting. God, was she ever hurting. And the irony of it was that she shouldn't have been there at all. For just 29 days earlier, in a faraway Pacific Ocean spot known as the Coral Sea, she'd been hurt so badly that the Japanese had written her off as sunk.

But USS Yorktown, "The Fighting Lady," hit by multiple aerial bombs, simply refused to sink on May 8, 1942. Captain Elliott Buckmaster and her dedicated crew nursed their flattop, one of only three remaining serviceable aircraft carriers in the Pacific, all the way back to Pearl Harbor. She arrived at Pearl on May 27, with a minimum estimate of six months needed in dry dock to get her back in fighting trim.

Yorktown knew differently, though. Somehow, the old girl knew there was work, imminent work, yet to be done.

Commander Joe Rochefort and his U.S. Naval Intelligence staff had broken the Imperial Japanese Navy JN-25 code, you see. Rochefort convinced Admiral Chester Nimitz of Japanese Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto's intention to obliterate tiny Midway Atoll, thus opening a pathway for Japan straight to Pearl Harbor and on to America's almost defenseless west coast.

Nimitz had two monumental problems, which swamped his already full plate. However, he knew that the only hope of stopping the Japanese was to get battered Yorktown shipshape in time to join carriers Enterprise and Hornet at Midway. But Nimitz also had to find a task force commander to replace Admiral William Halsey, so gravely ill he'd been hospitalized.

Halsey suggested his subordinate, Ray Spruance, a man who had kept his cruisers alongside Halsey's carriers and who knew carrier tactics, for the job. Nimitz trusted Halsey's judgment. While every repairman available in Pearl Harbor welded, patched, repaired and mended crippled Yorktown in dry dock, Nimitz sorted Enterprise and Hornet under the command of Admiral Frank Fletcher.

A scant 72 hours after arriving in dry dock, Captain Buckmaster improbably put USS Yorktown to sea to catch up to them, improbably answering to a cruiser skipper, Ray Spruance, to fight a battle foreseen by an improbable and mostly unknown hero, intelligence officer Joe Rochefort.

Those who study history know it to be replete with improbabilities upon which victories, defeats, and even the rise and fall of nations have teetered.

USS Yorktown was named for that place in Virginia where, in 1781, the British under Lord Cornwallis improbably surrendered to the Americans, ending the American Revolution. There, at Yorktown, an upstart group of ragtag freedom lovers improbably defeated the most powerful empire on the planet and birthed The United States of America.

Not 100 years later, among the gently rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania, a college professor from Maine by the name of Joshua Chamberlain, anchoring the extreme left of the Union line near the small hamlet of Gettysburg, led an improbable bayonet charge down Little Round Top. Chamberlain's men were exhausted and nearly out of ammunition, and were facing yet another surge from Confederate General Robert E. Lee's seasoned troops.

If Lee's men turned the corner of the Union line, Chamberlain knew, the battle would be lost. And with it would go the Civil War, as the pike from Gettysburg led straight into Washington, D. C.

Tired - oh, so tired - and hurting, the Bowdoin College man did what he had to do, improbably holding the line that day in 1864, thus preserving us a nation.

"The Fighting Lady" may have known none of that. She was, after all, an inanimate object, made of steel and wood. Displacing nearly 20,000 tons, to the naive she was just a ship.

But there's a relationship between men and their ships that transcends rational thought, you see. The ship is always feminine to the men who serve in her. Perhaps that tradition speaks to an understanding that the Earth is mother to us all, and that she consists of 70 percent water. All of us, after all, are born of water in our mother's womb. And so men serve in a ship, not on her, and they speak of the vessel that bears them always as a "she," or a "her."

USS Yorktown joined Enterprise and Hornet 66 years ago this very week. When scout planes sighted the Japanese task force comprised of four carriers carrying nearly 300 aircraft, Ray Spruance ordered the old girl into the wind and launched everything he had.

History tells the rest of the story. The Americans sank all four Japanese fleet carriers and a heavy cruiser, and more than 3,000 sons of Nippon died for the Emperor in that first week of June 1942, near a little coral atoll known as Midway.

But fliers from the Japanese task force managed to find elements of the American navy before the battle ended, and swarmed to attack USS Yorktown. Their commanders were astonished when the ship's identity was confirmed, so convinced were they that she'd been sunk at Coral Sea.

The initial Japanese attack left Yorktown burning and dead in the water. Three bombs hit home, and the old girl started to list to starboard even as the Japanese aircraft departed the scene.

But a hangar deck officer, Lieutenant A. C. Emerson, had planned for such an eventuality, and along with his men managed to extinguish the fires. Just 40 minutes after being hit, "The Fighting Lady" was back up to 20 knots and was launching aircraft to pursue those who had hurt her.

The Yorktown planes found the last Japanese carrier and put an end to the battle. But even as they did, two torpedoes were striking Yorktown, leaving her with a severe list and no power. Reluctantly, in order to save the lives of his men, Captain Buckmaster gave the order to abandon ship.

She was tired. Oh, so tired. And hurting. Yet still she would not go quietly into that good night. As day dawned on June 7, "The Fighting Lady" was still afloat, water lapping at her flight deck.

A volunteer group of crewmen boarded her, and destroyer Hammann pulled alongside to provide power and pumps. An ocean-going tugboat hooked up a line and started the long, slow trip back to Pearl for an improbable salvage attempt.

But it was not to be.

A Japanese submarine, the I-168, put a torpedo into Hammann, which broke that destroyer's back and sunk her in three minutes. The I-boat put two more fish into Yorktown.

Reluctantly, tearfully, the men aboard "The Fighting Lady" made their way to safety. And just as the sun made its way above the horizon, USS Yorktown finally slipped into the peace of an eternal slumber.

She was tired, you see. And she was hurting. But she'd provided her nation with a much-needed moral victory at Coral Sea, where she'd shown that the Japanese could be beaten. And the old girl literally saved her country and quite possibly the entire free world by getting herself to Midway.

USS Yorktown rests, today, in about 17,000 feet of water. "The Fighting Lady" sits nearly upright on the bottom, and even her original paint scheme is still intact. She's no longer tired, no longer hurting. Permanently, now, she testifies to the improbable notion that there is such a thing worth dying to preserve.

It's called freedom.

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.