By Monique Sawyer-Lang,
Lyons Redstone Museum
On March 4, 2018 the wreckage from the USS Lexington, was discovered by the expedition crew of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel, whose mission is research, exploration and survey of historic warships, and other important artifacts.
The Lexington was found 3,000 meters (about two miles) below the surface, resting on the floor of the Coral Sea more than 500 miles off the eastern coast of Australia. The USS Lexington was originally commissioned as a battle cruiser but was launched as an aircraft carrier in 1925. She took part in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) along with the USS Yorktown against three Japanese carriers. This was the first carrier versus carrier battle in history and was the first time Japanese forces
suffered a permanent setback in its advances on New Guinea and Australia. The U.S. lost the Lexington and 216 of her distinguished crew; however 2,770 crewmen and officers were rescued. (www.paulallen.com)
Connecting Lyons to this event in history is Charles P. Swift. Charles was born and raised in Lyons, graduated from Lyons High School in 1932, and joined the U.S. Navy
in 1937. He served as the radioman on the destroyer USS Phelps during the battle of the Coral Sea. The following is an excerpt from his diary detailing the battle and the intentional scuttling of the USS Lexington by the USS Phelps rather than have it fall into enemy hands. The transcription is as written by Charles P. Swift including spelling, grammar, and naval slang (fish=torpedo, cans=destroyer). The original diary and the transcription is a part of the permanent collection of the Lyons Redstone Museum.
Friday May 8th ‘42
The usual general quarters at one hour before dawn. Back to general quarters at 0900, as another enemy force had been sighted, consisting of two more carriers, five heavy cruisers and supporting Destroyers. Lex & Yorktown launched planes for air attack. It was considered that the enemy knew our approximate disposition and speed so we were open for an attack. Our fighter planes intercepted enemy fighters, bombers & torpedo planes about 15 miles out heading for us. Our force received the attack by the enemy at approx 1100. The attack as we figured, was centered around our carriers (Lex & Yorktown). Torpedo planes were diving across our bow and stern so close that I could see the goggles on the pilots faces. They were diving with a virtual wall of lead and steel, but still they came on. About this time I happened to glance up and saw dive bombers dropping out of the sun. The Lex took 3 bomb hits that I saw and was burning pretty badly around the stack. The Lex was maneuvering beautifully all the while – in a circle, dodging all the fish that she possibly could. The enemy was dropping his fish at an altitude we didn’t think possible.
My station being aft in the Emergency radio, where I had a ring-side seat (only I wasn’t sitting) for the whole show. The Yorktown left formation and I thought that she was badly hit, but which later proved to be torpedo hit. After the show was over the Lex was steaming right along with us at 25 knots. We later found that she had been hit with three & possibly four fish, also three direct bomb hits. We were certainly lucky, as one torpedo passed under us, amidships. I guess it was set to deep for us, anyway we’re still here. We shot down ten enemy planes in the vicinity of the carrier, but don’t know how many more were accounted for on the outside. The attack ended at 11:27 Yorktown joined up again & everything was under control. Lex had bad fires below decks & the fire main was broken – they are trying to prevent them from spreading to the magazines. At about 4 P.M., the Captain of the Lex announced over the TBS “fire out of control, losing pressure, am abandoning ship.” We came alongside to assist in picking up survivors. Other cans and cruisers had already picked up most of the men we thought, until two big explosions shook the Lex then men began to stream out of her like flies. Fires began to break out on the flight deck. About 6 P.M. Lex burning badly & listing to port. Ships began backing away. Phelps stayed on picking up last survivors. Another big explosion sent deck plates flying over our bow & some of the planes remaining on the flight deck were blown 100 ft into the air. We picked up last men & backed away to about 1000 yards. Lex is burning badly now and the ammunition and powder is beginning to go. We (Phelps) were ordered by the Taskforce Comdr to sink the Lex, as its starting to get pretty dark now. We stood off & fired one torpedo forward, one midships & one aft, & still she stayed afloat. We then went around on her starboard side & hit her with one amidships – she seemed to give up one final big jet of flame, then over on her port side – and under she went. (LAT 15° S – LONG 155 E). We started moving away immediately & about 60 seconds later we were rocked by two tremendous explosions, we thought for awhile we we[re] torpedoed. The explosions were the Lex exploding under the water. The explosions were felt 15 miles away by the rest of the force so you can imagine how it felt to us being nearly on top of her. In this battle we also lost the tanker Neosho and the Destroyer Simms. The plane losses on both sides were enormous. We got two of the Enemy’s carriers, but nothing can ever make up for the loss of the Lex.