By Capt. Greg Burton, Commander, Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard & IMF
They rushed to put out hundreds of fires around Pearl Harbor, organized an ammunition-passing party, worked on disabled engines and cut men out of the hulls of sunken ships. These workers saved dozens of lives and were charged with resurrecting the fleet that brought peace to a world that was burning. Just six months after the initial bombing of Pearl Harbor, the battered and bloodied USS Yorktown aircraft carrier limped back to Pearl Harbor following the Battle of Coral Sea. Once again, these heroes answered the call. I’m not talking about sailors or soldiers. I’m talking about tradesmen who loved and served their country.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard workers helped turn the tide of the war at Midway and also repaired and maintained the ships that would sail triumphantly into Tokyo Bay. This support continued through the Korea conflict, Vietnam War, Cold War, Gulf War and in combat operations in support of ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Along the way, they prioritized environmental stewardship and safety programs and supported the Navy in its transition to nuclear propulsion.
As in years past, today’s shipyard workers possess the grit, determination and capacity unique to and necessary for sustaining the most powerful Navy in the world.
The USS Yorktown saw its first major battle after the Japanese Imperial Navy sent an invasion force through the Coral Sea and the U.S. Navy moved to intercept. The enemy hit Yorktown with a bomb that exploded on the fourth deck. Later, a near miss landed close enough to open up her hull. Following orders, the crippled Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor trailing an oil slick 10 miles long.
Yorktown’s skipper prepared an action report detailing the carrier’s damage for Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief. U.S. Pacific Fleet. It would be a preliminary estimate of the necessary repairs for returning the carrier to the high seas. An effort that put the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard workforce in the history books.
The sobering report detailed a 551-pound armor-piercing bomb plunging through the flight deck and penetrating 50 feet into the ship before exploding above the forward-engine room. It destroyed six compartments, the lighting systems on three decks and took out her radar and refrigeration systems. The bomb also damaged the gears controlling an elevator while the near misses opened seams in her hull and ruptured the fuel-oil compartments.
Rear Adm. Aubrey Fitch speculated that repairs would take 90 days. Adm. Nimitz didn’t have 90 days.
Thanks to the intelligence work by Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort and his team at Station HYPO (also located at the shipyard in Building 1) the Navy broke the Japanese Imperial code and intercepted plans detailing a pending Japanese attack at Midway. Adm. Nimitz had already started sending battle groups and air wings to Midway. The question in his mind was whether shipyard workers could repair the Yorktown in time for that battle.
After Yorktown eased into Dry Dock 1 with the caisson closing behind the ship and the pumps draining out the water, Adm. Nimitz in waders trudged through about a foot of water to inspect the ship. After staring at the burst seams and hull damage, Adm. Nimitz turned to the technicians and said, “We must have this ship back in three days.” After a long silence, a repair expert replied, “Yes, sir.”
Within minutes, repairmen swarmed the dry dock. Eventually, 1,400 of them would work around the clock for almost 72 straight hours to get the job done. To meet the vast electricity needs for the repairs, the Navy contacted the Hawaiian Electric Company who supported the massive effort with a series of rolling blackouts throughout the island.
Workers made only the most urgent repairs. Instead of fixing all of the hull’s ruptured seams, they welded a massive steel plate over the damaged section. Yorktown arrived at 11 a.m. on May 28 and on the morning of May 30, with shipyard workers still onboard mending the ship, Yorktown steamed out of Pearl Harbor and sped to one of the most decisive battles in history.
Through this monumental repair effort, which deserves to be honored and glorified on the silver screen, those workers who completed this nearly-impossible task cemented Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard as a national strategic asset; and today’s shipyard workers are still writing history today. People are our Navy’s and our nation’s greatest asset and we have amazing people. They develop innovative solutions to challenging problems and maintain the most powerful Navy in the world. They are the force behind the fleet!
As we recount and honor the shipyard’s past, we must look to its future. Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard’s strategic importance cannot be overstated due to its proximity to Indo-Pacific area of operation. A frank assessment of the shipyard reveals a need to invest in its dry docks, infrastructure, and capital equipment – much of which predates Yorktown’s 1942 docking.
Dry Dock 1 is the location of the “Yorktown miracle.” In 1913, it imploded under faulty piling and a bad foundation, but after painstaking redesign and reconstruction, it rose again. On December 7, 1941, it was the overhaul site for the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), as well as USS Cassin (DD-372) and USS Downes (DD-375) with both destroyers sustaining severe damage from Japanese bombs. In August 2019, Dry Dock 1 turned 100 years old. It is still capable of docking all ships and submarines homeported at Pearl Harbor, however, the Navy is taking a proactive approach with the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP) to ensure the Navy can use facilities like Dry Dock 1 well into the future. This is necessary to support new ships and submarines such as Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines and new variants of Virginia-class fast-attack submarines.
Just as the shipyard was so important to national defense then, it remains so today and investment in infrastructure is critical to allow us to keep our ships in the fight. According to Adm. Nimitz, the enemy’s failure to destroy the shipyard’s dry dock facilities and other critical infrastructure during the Pearl Harbor attack shortened the War in the Pacific by two years. That drives home the point that investing in the modernization of the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard is of supreme importance to our nation’s security as we look to a new Great Power Competition.
The Navy’s four shipyards are more than a century old. Designed and laid out to build ships of wood, sail, and coal, their mission has changed over time; now, used to repair our nation’s most complex ships – nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines. SIOP is a once-in-a-century undertaking that will deliver modern facilities to maintain today’s and tomorrow’s fleet and will help ensure the on-time and on-cost delivery of submarines and carriers.
SIOP focuses on repairing and upgrading our dry docks, optimizing the layout of the shipyards to improve productivity and throughput, and replacing aged capital equipment. The Navy estimates this work will take about 20 years and cost $21 billion across the four public shipyards, phasing the work so we can continue to support the ongoing maintenance needs of the fleet.
Executing SIOP allows us to continue to keep our ships in the fight, strengthens naval power and increases our capabilities while recovering 300,000 workdays per year through improved productivity.
What an opportunity we have to shape the future while honoring our legacy and supporting current mission success. We are the force behind the Navy the nation needs!
Editor’s Note: The four-part “Then and Now” NavyLive blog series honors the Navy victory at the Battle of Midway and highlights current Navy capabilities against modern and future U.S. adversaries. All areas of Navy capabilities, including fleet maintenance, were necessary to win the battle that turned the tide of the War in the Pacific.