The aircraft carrier United States Ship (USS) Lexington (CV-2), nicknamed “Lady Lex,” was the fourth United States (US) Navy ship to be named after the American Revolutionary War 1775 Battle of Lexington. The ship was commissioned in 1928 and would serve until its sinking in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4 – 8, 1942).
On December 7, 1941, fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), in a surprise attack, bombed Pearl Harbor and other US military installations on Oahu, then the US Territory of Hawaii. There were three US aircraft carriers in the Pacific Fleet at that time. The USS Lexington and the USS Enterprise were at sea ferrying aircraft to Midway Island and Wake Island, respectively. The third aircraft carrier, USS Saratoga, was preparing to leave San Diego, California, following an overhaul at the Bremerton, Washington, Puget Sound Naval Yard.
The Lexington arrived back in Pearl Harbor on December 13. The ship would return to sea to patrol the Pacific and take part in US naval operations as part of Task Force (TF) 11.
In April 1942 the Allied codebreakers at Pearl Harbor deciphered the Japanese naval operation code JN (Japanese Navy) – 25. They had information that the Japanese were planning a major attack, Operation Mo, on Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. Gaining control of New Guinea would have isolated both Australia and New Zealand from their allies in the South Pacific.
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet, ordered TF 17 to the Coral Sea to counter Japanese operations. The aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown were the two carriers in TF 17. [The USS Yorktown (CV-5) was later sunk during the Battle of Midway June 4 – 7, 1942. The USS Yorktown (CV-10) was commissioned April 15, 1943, and served in the Pacific through WWII.)
The Battle of the Coral Sea. It would be the first battle in history fought between aircraft carriers.
On May 3, 1942, the Japanese landed on the island of Tulagi (a first step of Operation Mo) in the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate.
On May 4 Vice Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher, upon getting an intelligence report of the landing, ordered aircraft from the Yorktown to attack the Japanese landing group. Japanese intelligence had not reported American ships in the area, and they were taken by surprise.
IJN Fourth Fleet Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue and Carrier Striking Force Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi began the search to find the Americans.
With limited visibility in the area of operations, neither the Americans nor the Japanese were successful in immediately finding the opposing enemy carrier force.
On May 7 the Japanese found and sunk the destroyer USS Sims and badly damaged the fleet oiler USS Neosho.
Also on May 7 aircraft from the Lexington and Yorktown sunk the Japanese light aircraft carrier Shōhō.
American and Japanese naval forces became aware of the enemy fleet positions on May 8.
Captain Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman, commanding officer of the Lexington, ordered “General Quarters” at 0552 hours (military time) that morning. Carriers on both sides started launching aircraft shortly after 0900 hours. Two torpedoes hit the port side of the Lexington at 1120 hours to be followed by another two bombs.
Torpedo and bomb damage resulted in a jammed hydraulic ship elevator, flooding in boiler rooms, and ruptured gasoline fuel storage tanks on the port side causing fires and explosions. The fires could not be extinguished, and Captain Sherman ordered “abandon ship” at 1707 hours. TF 17 destroyers and cruisers rescued sailors and marines abandoning the Lexington.
By 1830 hours 2,735 surviving sailors and marines had been evacuated from the Lexington. Two hundred and sixteen men had been killed in action.
Captain Sherman was the last man to leave the Lexington.
The destroyer USS Phelps was ordered to sink the Lexington for several reasons: (1) the ship could not be saved, (2) the US Navy did not want the Lexington to become a trophy for the Japanese, and (3) the US Navy did not want it discovered that the ship had been lost — at least not at that time.
The Phelps fired torpedoes into the Lexington at 1841 hours. It was reported that the hull was glowing “cherry red” from the fires. The ship took about an hour to sink.
There were losses of men and ships on both sides. But the Allies had blocked the Operation Mo Japanese drive into the Coral Sea to Port Moresby. Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue ordered the Japanese invasion force to return to port.
[The public would learn of the loss of the USS Lexington (CV-2) in June 1942. The Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company in Quincy, Massachusetts, where the ship was originally built, was in the process of building a new ship to be named the USS Cabot. The shipyard petitioned US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to change the name of the ship from Cabot to Lexington, and he agreed. The (fifth) USS Lexington (CV-16) was commissioned on February 17, 1943, and would be assigned to the Pacific. The Japanese several times would sight CV-16 and were confused thinking the ship had been sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea. CV-16 got the nickname “The Blue Ghost.”]
Stories about the survivors of the sinking of the USS Lexington (CV-2) .
James A. Phinney III. Oral History Interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on July 15, 2010. He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.
Jim was born in Childress, Texas, on November 12, 1923, and was raised in Hugo, Oklahoma. He graduated from high school in May 1941 and then joined the US Navy. He was on his way to church on December 7, 1941, when he heard about the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.
After training stateside Jim was assigned to the USS Lexington. While training in Pearl Harbor awaiting the arrival of the aircraft carrier that was out to sea, he recalled that he and his friends would run over to a nearby Dole Pineapple Company building to drink pineapple juice coming out of the drinking fountains.
Jim would board the Lexington in April 1942. He was assigned as an electrician Seaman First Class.
On May 8, 1942, Jim was on the flight deck checking electrical systems in the aircraft. He caught sight of a plane flying off the port side of the ship that dropped something. His first thought was that something fell off a plane and that “somebody has sure messed up.” It was actually a Japanese torpedo plane dropping the first torpedo to hit the Lexington.
After hours of fighting off attacking Japanese airplanes and fighting fires, the crew was ordered to “abandon ship.”
Jim related in his interview that there was a plan to evacuate the crew in groups. He said his group had a period of time to wait until their turn to evacuate, so they went to the “ship’s service store soda fountain,” also known as the “Gedunk,” and ate ice cream. [Ice cream in WWII was a great treat for the sailors and marines. You will be reading about ice cream again later in this story.]
It was about 65 feet down from the flight deck to the water. Before starting down the rope lines, Jim said they took the emergency life rafts out of the remaining aircraft (36 aircraft would be lost in the sinking), inflated the rafts, and threw them overboard. After getting in the water, they swam to the rafts. A cruiser was the first to try to rescue them off the raft without success. The destroyer USS Hammann would later pick them up. He said the crew of the destroyer had to “scrub them down” because they were soaked in salt water and fuel oil. [The Hammann would later be sunk at the Battle of Midway.]
On the way to Tonga [an archipelago of 169 islands in the South Pacific at that time a British Protectorate], the rescued crew on the Hammann were transferred to the cruiser USS Portland. From Tonga a troop ship took them to San Diego.
Jim’s next assignment would be on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.
Having several shore assignments after the Enterprise, then First Class Petty Officer Electricians Mate James Phinney would be in Houston, Texas, when he heard WWII ended.
Jim, after being discharged from the US Navy, would use the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the GI Bill) to further his education. After that he rejoined the US Navy and would retire as a Warrant Officer with over 20 years of service.
Jim passed away on September 9, 2015.
Julius Harry Frey. Oral History Interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War, in Fredericksburg, Texas, on August 6, 2013. He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.
Harry was born in Laredo, Texas, on March 6, 1923. When he was six weeks old the family moved to San Antonio, Texas. He was 17 years old when he joined the US Navy in 1940 and had not graduated from high school. [In 1946 after serving in WWII he would graduate from Breckenridge High School in San Antonio and continue his education.]
Trained in the military as an Aviation Metalsmith, Harry’s first assignment was on the USS Lexington. He was assigned to the pilot “ready room” keeping statistics on the aircraft.
The Lexington was two days at sea out from Pearl Harbor delivering aircraft to Midway Island when the ship’s captain announced that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. The ship returned to Pearl Harbor on December 13. Harry remarked in his interview that the oil on the water was about two inches thick and difficult for smaller boats to even pass through it.
On May 8, 1942, Harry was standing on the landing at the Lexington emergency battery locker of the ship’s superstructure when the first torpedo hit the ship. Aircraft were trying to land, others trying to take off, some planes landed and were shoved over the side, and others were sent to land on the USS Yorktown.
When Captain Sherman gave the order to “abandon ship” Harry reported to his muster station on the port side of the ship near the aft (stern) elevator. The area was just above the Gedunk. While his group was waiting to evacuate, Harry remembered the ice cream.
From Harry’s interview, “So, I rolled off the flight deck onto the next level. There was a big lock on the hatch going into the Gedunk. Now there was a fire axe there, so I took the axe, and it took only one blow to knock off the lock. I went in and took my helmet off, … , and I went behind the counter and loaded my helmet with pineapple ice cream. … Then I went out and I tossed it up to my buddy on the flight deck.” His buddy and others rolled off the flight deck, went into the Gedunk, and got more ice cream. He and his buddies got back up to the deck, and Harry continued, “So, when they came around to muster, everybody was up there eating ice cream.”
Harry would evacuate the Lexington using rope lines. He was wearing a life jacket but took if off because it was difficult to swim. After about 30 minutes swimming he was picked up by the destroyer USS Morris. Again from Harry’s interview, “Someone grabbed me and hauled me up on the deck. I must have laid there for fifteen or twenty minutes … I looked, and I saw these ox-blood shiny shoes and the trouser had a sharp crease in them and this guy says, ‘I know this guy. He is from our neighborhood back in San Antonio.’ He was a marine on the Morris.”
Harry and others rescued by the Morris were transferred to the cruiser USS Chester and transported to Tonga and then to San Diego.
After visiting his family in San Antonio Harry was assigned to the escort carrier USS Card. The Card provided protection for convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, searched for German submarines, and would see action in the North African Campaign (June 10, 1940 – May 13, 1943). Harry’s next assignment was the aircraft carrier USS Bennington.
Being on the shakedown cruise of both the Card and Bennington earned Harry what the US Navy calls a “Plank Owner” card for the two ships.
After WWII Harry used the GI Bill to get a degree from Trinity University in San Antonio and a master’s degree from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma.
Harry did earn some credits from Sul Ross State College in Alpine, Texas. He said he was into roping at that time and could take his horse with him.
Harry Frey passed away on August 22, 2016. On July 15, 2017, his and his wife’s ashes were “buried at sea” from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan with a 21 gun salute at the location in the Coral Sea where the USS Lexington (CV-2) sank in WWII.
[After my oral history colleague, Floyd Cox, and I interviewed Jim Phinney and Harry Frey, we realized they didn’t know each other while assigned to the Lexington nor that they both lived in San Antonio. I asked their permission and passed on contact information to them.
Jim and Harry got together for hamburgers over lunch in San Antonio and talked about their experiences on the Lexington.
I forgot to ask if they had ice cream for dessert.]
The Patten brothers from Iowa.
December 7, 1941, the battleship USS Nevada was berthed next to the battleship USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Because of battleship arrival times at Pearl Harbor, the Arizona was berthed in the usual place of the Nevada.
The Nevada was badly damaged during the surprise Japanese attack. All the brothers survived and were then assigned to the Lexington. The Patten brothers were all survivors of the sinking of the Lexington.
After the death of the five Sullivan brothers in the sinking of the light cruiser USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Patten brothers served on different ships.
Floyd Patten, the boys’ father, received an age waiver during WWII to join the Navy. Sadly he died of cancer in March 1945.
The youngest Patten brother, Wayne, had the nickname “Patten pending” until he was old enough to join the Navy.
The eight Patten brothers would all return home when WWII ended.
Admiral Wags. Commanding officer of the USS Lexington, Captain Sherman, had his dog Admiral Wags with him on the ship. He was a cocker spaniel that according to the tale (not the tail) had his own muster station under the captain’s bed.
Captain Sherman was the last man off the Lexington and was able to rescue Admiral Wags. Evacuated on different ships, they were reunited at Tonga.
Fanny Jessop Sherman, wife of Captain Sherman, wrote a children’s book about Admiral Wags published in 1943.
Admiral Wags passed away and was buried in the Shermans’ backyard with “full military honors” in 1949 at the age of 17.
Writer and WWII US Navy veteran Herman Wouk wrote two books about WWII The Winds of War and War and Remembrance that were made into two miniseries in the 1980s. During the filming of War and Remembrance the USS Lexington (CV-16) [which at that time was designated AVT-16, training aircraft carrier] was used as a stand-in for both US Navy and IJN ships recreating battles in the Pacific.
The USS Lexington is now the USS Lexington Museum in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The book Stay the Rising Sun by Phil Keith has an extremely detailed narrative of the sinking of the USS Lexington and the Battle of the Coral Sea.
An article with more information on Admiral Wags can be found on the Defense Media Network website.
On March 4, 2018, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s expedition crew of the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel discovered the wreckage of the USS Lexington (CV-2) 76 years after being sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story. The oral history interviews of James Phinney and Julius Harry Frey are in the museum archive. Jim Phinney’s oral history interview can be listened to online.
Thank you to Floyd Cox, my oral historian colleague, at the National Museum of the Pacific War.
Thank you to US Navy veteran and US Naval Academy graduate Clifford L. Deets (Lcdr, USN ret.) for providing information on Navy terminology and Navy life.
Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.