The USS Yorktown (CV-5) Located Three Miles Deep

After 56 years on the bottom of the ocean, the wreck of the USS Yorktown (CV-5) was finally located.

Oceanographer Dr. Robert D. Ballard, discoverer of the wrecks of the the wrecks of the Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck, located the historic Yorktown on May 19, 1998.  Yorktown located

“CV-5” indicates that the ship was only the fifth aircraft carrier in the US Navy. After the First World War, the Navy began experimenting with designs for an aircraft carrier. The first one was a converted ship, followed by USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Saratoga (CV-3) which were built using hulls intended for battlecruisers.

The first carrier built from scratch was the USS Ranger (CV-4), smaller but with a more efficient use of space. Then, on May 21, 1934, the USS Yorktown (CV-5) was laid down at the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company–the first of a new class of carriers, which included the USS Enterprise (CV-6). 

The February before construction of the Yorktown began, the Iowa brothers Delbert and Donald Wilson had joined the US Navy. They were assigned to the USS Chicago (CA-29), which had been launched in 1930.

By the time the USS Yorktown was launched (and christened by Eleanor Roosevelt), April 4, 1936, the Wilson brothers on the Chicago had just been put through the initiation the Navy dishes out whenever a crew member goes over the Equator for the first time. 

EleanorYorktown (2)
Eleanor Roosevelt christens Yorktown April 4, 1936. Photo: National Archives.

That September Donald Wilson got a promotion and began a Naval Electrical Interior Communications School (E.I.C.) at the Naval Research Laboratory, Anacostia Station, Bellevue, DC. Delbert stayed aboard the Chi, as they called the ship.


After graduating, Donald put in for the crew of the new aircraft carrier Yorktown, and got orders to join in March of 1937. Work was still going on at Norfolk, Virginia. Donald had more schooling for rectifiers, amplifiers, vacuum, thyration, and Grid Glow tubes. Also infantry drills and watches.

“Talk about a modern ship,” he wrote home. “Well, the Yorktown is it! Everything up to date, though the crew’s quarters are nut much different from any of the other ships. It about twice as long as the ‘Chi’ and the flight deck, well you could have a couple of football fields on it.”

The Yorktown commissioning ceremonies were held at the Norfolk Operating Base on September 30, and began training exercises just off the coast of Virginia. Donald Wilson was a CV-5 plank owner, meaning that he was a member of the crew when it was commissioned.


In his spare time when they were docked, Donald played baseball and football. He played semi-pro football with the Portsmouth Cubs of the Dixie League, getting paid $15 for each game.

All new or overhauled ships have a shakedown cruise to run tests to make sure  everything is in order. The Yorktown’s cruise was held in January 1938–heading to Puerto Rico, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama, then back to Norfolk to modify and repair issues that they’d found.


In February, it also took part in Fleet Problem XX a huge war game that simulated an attack on the East Coast. Orders sent the carrier to join the Pacific Fleet, heading through the Panama Canal in April, 1938, based now at San Diego. There were routine exercises the rest of the year, then in April 1940, the carrier took part in Fleet Problems XXI, simulating defense of the islands of the Territory of Hawaii.

During those years, Donald did get back to Iowa a couple of times.

A year later, the carrier was secretly ordered back into the Atlantic, passed through the Canal, darkened and at night, obliterating anything that would identify the ship, to take part in neutrality patrols. After returning from one in November 1941, Donald jumped ship to come back to see his family in Iowa–certain that war would break out any day. It did.

Donald was on the Yorktown’s crew when it was damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea and sunk at the Battle of Midway. After serving on a volunteer crew that tried to salvage the ship–and having to abandon ship a second time–he watched his carrier roll over and sink on June 7, 1942. 

His belongings lie at the bottom with the ship she served on “her whole life.”

Three miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean–deeper than any other shipwreck found before, sitting upright on the bottom, the Yorktown was in surprisingly good condition when Ballard located the famous ship. The fifth US aircraft carrier ever built has been left undisturbed, as it holds the remains of men lost decades before.

Uncle Donald Wilson died November 21, 1998, six months after his old Yorktown was located.

See: Return to Midway by Robert D. Ballard and Rick Archbold.

Donald Wilson’s story is part of the Wilson family story during WWII. Five brothers served. Only two came home. Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II is the story of the brothers on the Dallas County Freedom Rock.


    • I think Uncle Don said that there are some items from the CV-5 at the CV/CVA/CVS-10 Yorktown at Patriot Point. He even made the trip (from Naselle, Washington) to see it when he was still alive. I guess they even allow Scout troops to camp aboard!

    • My husband was stationed on the John F. Kennedy during the 1970s and 1980s. The number of men on board was five times larger than the population of our home town.

      • Hard to imagine, isn’t it? When Delbert and Don first joined the navy back in 1934, they wrote home all the details about how they lived on a ship. One of them even sketched how they had to lay out all their belongings for inspection.

  1. I enjoyed getting to know Donald a bit more and the ship, too. I never thought about it before, but it is astonishing that an aircraft carrier can pass through the locks of the Panama Canal – I mean those ships are enormous!

    I wonder what Donald had to say after he heard the wreck had been located.

    • I’m pretty sure he is how I learned about it, but he was dealing with cancer then and died that same November. He did say that Mom’s graduation photo was one he lost with his keepsakes.

  2. Great post! We are still searching for the submarine SS Snook that went down during the war with my cousin onboard. So far not much help from the Japanese who sunk it.

  3. My father died last year a month short of 98. He and Norman Pichette were the men left on board when they abandoned ship at Midway. A boat came back for them when the Yorktown was listing at 45degrees. They were rescued although Norman died in the hospital I believe. It is all printed for the ages in Walter Lord’s book.

    • I’m so glad you added your note, Carolyn. He is also listed in Gordon W. Prange’s book, “Miracle at Midway.” Your father was Seaman First Class George K. Weise. I’m so glad to “meet” you! I have another story about the Yorktown scheduled for June 5.

  4. Yes, Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant (across the river from Charleston) is definitely worth the visit, even if it is the more modern version of the original Yorktown. Whoever saved all those letters and other ephemera did you and all historians a great service!

    • It’s the CV-10, which even saw service during WWII. Uncle Don drove all the way across the country to see it! He lived in SW Washington State. Some of his letters and photos (including my mother’s graduation photo) were lost with the CV-5.

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