When we last saw USS Lexington, she was part of a powerful peacetime navy poised to enter World War Two. After being transferred to the Pacific Fleet in May 1941, Lexington conducted the usual exercises and patrols as tensions with Japan slowly yet inexorably increased. Fortunately for the United States, she (along with all other carriers of the Pacific Fleet) was out of Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7 of that year. That part of the story is well-known: with all eight fleet battleships either sunk or crippled, the Navy would immediately need to shift its offensive focus to naval airpower. Lexington‘s survival that morning was a tremendous break for the fleet, and she immediately began operations against the Japanese.
After searching for the Japanese strike force unsuccessfully for several days, Lexington returned to the ruins of Pearl Harbor to begin official wartime operations. These operations were an inconsistent time in Lexington‘s life, as US naval air power had, until this point, been assigned a purely supportive role in favor of that played by surface forces. With those surface forces out of commission, American naval air doctrine would need to be constantly refined and reformed to meet the challenges ahead. Thus, Lexington and her sister Saratoga, as well as the three Yorktown-class carriers, would begin a series of small hit-and-run raids against isolated Japanese targets throughout the first months of 1942; the most well-known of these raids, the Doolittle mission against Tokyo, was participated in by the carriers Enterprise and Hornet.
In May 1942, it became apparent that Japan was preparing to make a major thrust against Port Moresby, New Guinea in a preliminary move toward an anticipated invasion of Australia. This major threat to the Allied cause would have to be checked, so Lexington and Yorktown were dispatched to the region. The ensuing engagement would have lasting repercussions, for both the ships involved as well as the course of the war to follow.
On the morning of May 8, scouts from the US task force spotted the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. Lexington and Yorktown quickly scrambled flights of SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers, TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers, and F4F Wildcat fighters. These aircraft were unable to locate Zuikaku due to poor visibility, but Shokaku was struck by three 1000 lb. bombs. Their part in the battle done, the airwings of CV-2 and CV-5 winged back toward their home carriers. While they had been away, however, havoc had been wreaked.
The Japanese carriers had spotted the American fleet at nearly the same time they themselves had been spotted and had launched a strike in return. The Americans would not benefit from the same inclement weather that hid the Japanese force, however, and the results of this engagement would be telling. Attacked by dive bombers and torpedo bombers, Lexington would suffer hits by two of each, buckling the hull and rupturing an aviation fuel line deep within the ship. Yorktown would be hit by a bomb as well, with several other near misses causing significant strain to the vessel’s structural integrity.
With aircraft from both sides returning to find their respective carrier forces crippled, it was time for reassessment. With the safety of both carriers (the few American capital ships remaining in the Pacific) paramount in his mind, US Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher decided to withdraw. The Japanese, their plans checked by an unexpectedly staunch American resistance, pulled back as well. This mutual wound-licking may have been the end of things, were it not for the damage Lexington had suffered during the preceding engagement. Vapors from the fuel main leak had spread throughout the ship by this point, and beginning at nearly 1300, a series of otherwise minor ignition sources ignited these vapors. The resulting spreading fires led to the order to Abandon Ship as firefighters assessed the situation and attempted to stem the fiery tide. At about 1730, the fires reached Lexington‘s torpedo storage room. The result of this can easily be guessed:
This explosion, the largest aboard the ship this day, spelled the end of Lexington. The exact damage from this detonation is unknown, but immediately following the fireball the ship’s list became severe as fires broke out across the flight deck. Her midships likely gutted, the ship became nearly unrecognizable beneath towering clouds of smoke that began to spread and grow. A few moments later, the gallant ship’s agony was mercilessly ended by American torpedoes, finally causing her to slip beneath the waters of the Coral Sea.
From her commissioning in 1927 to her loss in 1942, Lexington was one of the two largest aircraft carriers afloat (the other being her sister Saratoga) and proudly represented the United States wherever she sailed. She was the first American carrier lost in World War II, but her death was certainly not in vain. Not only were the Japanese checked in their planned invasion of New Guinea, but the damage to Shokaku and Zuikaku rendered them unfit for combat in the upcoming Midway campaign. The removal of these two carriers from the equation reduced the odds faced by the American carriers Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet from 6-3 to 4-3. The results of this engagement are well-known, with the entire Japanese carrier force destroyed in exchange for the carrier Yorktown, but the results may well have been different with an additional two flight decks from which the Japanese could base their aircraft. Thus, Coral Sea – and with it the loss of Lexington – was a battle very much worth fighting by the Allies.
Today, Lexington sits unlocated in water that ranges to depths of 15000 feet, though efforts have occasionally been initiated to locate the wreck. Her namesake was carried on by an Essex-class carrier launched in 1943; this carrier was eventually converted into a museum and can today be visited at Corpus Christi, Texas. Today, Lexington can today be only viewed through static photographs or through the medium of scale modeling: a medium by which, as stated in an earlier post, the past can be frozen and recreated – turned into whatever the observer wants – and by this action the modeled subject can become immortal. On any list on which are named the ships and crews which should be made immortal, USS Lexington surely places high.
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