Sinking of USS Lexington

Lexington on the slipway, 1925
“Taken by a photographer from Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey.” – Naval Historical Center

Sinking of USS Lexington Nicknamed “Lady Lex” was the lead ship of the Lexington class; her only sister ship, Saratoga, was commissioned a month earlier.

Lexington beginning the transit from her builder at Quincy to Boston Navy Yard in January 1928
U.S. Navy – U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 2013.
At dawn on 8 May 1942, TF17, the Lexington and Yorktown, with 117 operational aircraft (31 fighters, 65 dive bombers, and 21 torpedo bombers) faced off against Carrier Division 5, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, with 96 operational aircraft (38 fighters, 33 dive bombers, and 25 torpedo bombers). 

Although the U.S. had numerical superiority, the weather favored the Japanese, as a front moved over the Japanese carriers hiding them under clouds, while the U.S. carriers were under mostly clear skies.

Japanese search aircraft launched at 0615.  U.S. search aircraft launched at 0635. 

Yorktown’s radar gained first contact on a Japanese scout but the Wildcats missed the intercept, and the scout issued a contact report on two U.S. carriers at 0822, confirmed by radio intelligence on both Yorktown and Lexington. 

At 0820, a U.S. SBD scout located and reported the Japanese carriers. 


The U.S. launched first at 0900, with 39 Yorktown aircraft (six fighters, 24 dive bombers and nine torpedo bombers).  At 0907, Lexington began launching 36 aircraft (nine fighters, 15 dive bombers, and 12 torpedo bombers).  The two air-groups proceeded independently to the target. 

View of the flight deck of Lexington, at about 15:00 on 8 May. The ship’s air group is spotted aft, with Wildcat fighters nearest the camera. Dauntless dive bombers and Devastator torpedo bombers are parked further aft. Smoke is rising around the aft aircraft elevator from fires burning in the hangar.

Shortly after, Shokaku and Zuikaku launched a 69-plane strike (18 fighters, 33 dive bombers, and 18 torpedo bombers) in a single integrated strike package which pushed at 0930. 

At 1100, Yorktown dive bombers commenced their attack on the Shokaku. 

Zuikaku ducked under clouds and was not seen by any attacking aircraft.   Lexington’s aircraft would arrive at the target about 30 minutes later.  At about 1115, the combined Japanese strike commenced its attack on both Yorktown and Lexington simultaneously.

At 1100, seven VS-5 (Yorktown) SBD Dauntless dive bombers attacked the Shokaku; harassed by Japanese fighters, all seven missed due to fogged windscreens and bombsights.  At 1103, 17 VB-5 SBD’s attacked the Shokaku with multiple misses due to the fogging problem. 

One bomb hit almost at the bow and started a fire.  A second bomb, dropped by Lieutenant John Powers, at the cost of his own and his gunner’s lives, hit near the island and started severe fires on the flight deck and in the hanger deck. 

Shokaku was unable to operate aircraft for the remainder of the battle due to this hit (Powers would be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor).  As VB-5 concluded its attack, the nine TBD torpedo bombers of VT-5 commenced their attack.  Fighter escort kept the Zeros off the TBD’s, but Shokaku, despite burning furiously, was able to avoid or outrun all the torpedoes. 

USS Lexington (CV-2) during the action, seen from USS Yorktown (CV-5), 8 May 1942. Large number of planes on deck and low sun indicate that the photo was taken early in the morning, prior to launching the strike against the Japanese carrier force. Yorktown has several SBDs and F4Fs on deck with engines running, apparently preparing to take off. Lexington, whose silhouette has been altered by the earlier removal of her 8-inch gun turrets, has planes parked fore and aft, and may be respotting her deck in preparation for launching aircraft. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

At 1130 part of Lexington’s air group arrived over the Shokaku, but the remainder could not find the target due to the deteriorating weather. 

Four of Lexington’s command group dive bombers scored one hit on Shokaku. 

Eleven Lexington (VT-2) torpedo planes attacked Shokaku but no torpedoes hit.  Two Lexington Wildcats were shot down while successfully protecting the torpedo bombers from Japanese fighters. 

The final tally: Shokaku was hit by three bombs, and unable to operate aircraft but still able to make 30Kts on her own. 

The cost to the U.S. was two SBD Dauntless and three Wildcats. An additional Wildcat and two SBD’s (including the Lexington air group commander, Commander William Ault) disappeared returning to the carrier.

The Lost Boarding Party, 10 March 1943

Meanwhile, fully expecting to be attacked, TF-17 launched a heavy CAP of 8 Wildcats and 18 SBDs (in an anti-torpedo plane role).  Upon radar detection of the inbound Japanese strike, nine more Wildcats and five more SBDs were launched.  It did little good, despite radar fighter direction.  The Japanese torpedo bombers escaped in the clouds, and the dive bombers were not intercepted until they began commencing dives.  Lieutentant (j.g.) William E. Hall, flying a Lexington SBD Dauntless dive bomber in an anti-torpedo bomber role, was credited with downing three Japanese aircraft, despite being severely wounded, for which he was awarded a Medal of Honor.

USS Lexington (CV-2) leaving San Diego, California, 14 October 1941. Planes parked on her flight deck include F2A-1 fighters (parked forward), SBD scout-bombers (amidships) and TBD-1 torpedo planes (aft). Note the false bow wave painted on her hull, forward, and badly chalked condition of the hull’s camouflage paint. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Sinking of USS Lexington

However, with only three of 18 Kate torpedo bombers shot down, nine attacked the Lexington and four went after the Yorktown (this is where the loss of torpedo bombers the previous night would prove crucial). 

The four that attacked the Yorktown all missed and two were shot down. 

The nine other torpedo bombers executed a doctrinal anvil attack on Lexington, which avoided the first five torpedoes but could not avoid the four coming from a different direction; two went under without exploding and two hit.  The first torpedo hit was fatal, although it would take several hours before that would become apparent.  Among other damage, the port aviation fuel tank was cracked, and volatile gasoline vapors began to seep throughout the ship.

Nineteen Val dive bombers then attacked Lexington and 14 attacked Yorktown.  Zeros successfully defended the dive bombers, so all 33 dropped on target. 

Perhaps unfairly justifying CARDIV 5’s “B-team” status, just three direct hits were scored, along with numerous near misses (although that matched the U.S. total on Shokaku—at Midway, Hiryu’s A-team scored three serious hits and two damaging near misses on Yorktown with only seven dive bombers.)  Two bombs hit Lexington, which caused minimal damage. 

One bomb hit Yorktown, which penetrated deep in the ship, causing significant damage

But Yorktown was quickly able to resume flight operations (this damage was repaired in time for Yorktown to participate in the battle at Midway; had she been hit by a torpedo, that would not have been the case).   Lieutenant Milton Ernest Rickets was officer-in-charge of the Engineer Repair Party, which was decimated by the bomb.  Despite being mortally wounded, Rickets immediately manhandled a hose and prevented the spread of the fire before “dropping dead beside the hose,” for which he was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor, and directly contributed to Yorktown’s presence at the subsequent Battle of Midway.

The Japanese lost five dive bombers and eight torpedo planes in the attack on the Lexington and Yorktown; however, damage was extensive and seven more were forced to ditch on the way back to the Zuikaku, and another 12 had to be pushed over the side due to damage and as Zuikaku struggled to take aboard the remains of both Zuikaku and Shokaku’s air groups. 

Lexington photographed from a Japanese aircraft on 8 May after she had already been struck by bombs

Yorktown fighters, returning from the strike on Shokaku, shot down two more Japanese aircraft returning from the strike on the U.S. carriers; one was the Shokaku’s air group commander, and the other was the pilot who had first located the U.S. carriers and dodged U.S. fighters for over two hours, providing a steady stream of accurate positional reporting in probably the best scouting mission by either side in the war.  The U.S. lost three Wildcats and five SBD’s defending the carriers.

At first it appeared that the U.S. carriers had gotten off surprisingly light from the Japanese air attack. 

Confirmed Hits on Lexington CC BY-SA 4.0

However, at 1247, the gasoline vapors seeping through Lexington were ignited when they reached motor generators, resulting in a massive explosion. 

The fires quickly got out of control as numerous lesser and two more major explosions devastated the ship throughout the afternoon. 

Lexington, abandoned and burning, several hours after being damaged by Japanese airstrikes
 Unknown author – U.S. Navy photo NH 51382

At 1707 Captain Frederick “Ted” Sherman gave the order to abandon ship.

Lastly, and in what was arguably the most orderly and successful abandon ship in the history of the U.S. Navy, all personnel who were not killed in the air attack or the subsequent explosions were safely rescued.

Sinking of USS Lexington

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

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Sinking of USS Lexington