From Newport News to Midway: USS Yorktown a shot in the arm for the shipyard
The USS Yorktown, which was sunk at Midway 70 years ago Tuesday, was more than a notable casualty in a decisive World War II battle.

The Yorktown, along with its sister ship the Enterprise, were part of a new naval warfare strategy based not on battleships but on aircraft carriers and their plane squadrons.

Built in the mid-1930s, the two Yorktown-class carriers were also a lifeline for Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., which struggled through the peacetime period after World War I when the U.S., Britain and Japan all limited the sizes of their navies.

The decade of the 1920s is sometimes referred to as a shipbuilding "holiday." The major powers signed the Washington Naval Treaty, which established tonnage caps constraining the size of the U.S. fleet. While business boomed and the engines of industry through much of the country were roaring, times were tough at the yard.

With anti-war sentiment strong, the U.S. kept considerably below its allowable fleet weight under the treaty, further straining business at the shipyard.

"They tried to diversify in the '20s," said Bill Fox, a Williamsburg naval architect and historian. "They were making locomotives and railcars and traffic lights, because there wasn't any shipbuilding."

That changed in the early 1930s as tensions escalated in Europe.

Fear of conflict came as the Great Depression set in. And with politicians in Washington looking for ways to jump-start the country's limping industrial base and a former assistant Navy secretary in the White House, shipbuilding was the answer.

Franklin D. Roosevelt "arranged for the Navy to get the needed Yorktown (class ships) a government spending program … the National Industrial Relief Act of 1933," according to the second edition of "Naval Engineering and American Sea Power."

"That was Roosevelt's idea," said retired Navy Capt. Jim McVoy, who lives in Birmingham, Ala, and co-authored the article.

"He loved the Navy and he saw that shipbuilding was a way to put a lot of guys to work and get industry going," McVoy said. "And he was conscious of what was going on in Europe. They were worried a lot more about Hitler than Japan at the time."

The winning bid

Newport News wasn't predestined to win the contract to build the new carriers.

A shipyard newsletter, published in the fall of 1933, described the tension after Newport News placed its bid: "A corresponding period filled with mingled hope and expectancy was passed through by the entire population of the Peninsula whose welfare is linked so closely with the prosperity of the Yard."

When the shipyard ws declared the low bidder on Aug. 5, 1933, Neil Woodall, then a 21-year-old boilermaker, said the reaction to winning the $40 million contract was felt throughout the community, in no small part because the Peninsula — like much of the country — was beset by unemployment and homelessness.

"We'd gone through some pretty lean times before that," said Woodall, now 100 and retired in Hot Springs, Ark. "Everyone was elated when we got the contract for those two carriers."

Newport News experienced the '20s and '30s in a reverse of the rest of the country, said Fox, whose family moved from West Virginia to the Peninsula during the Great Depression because jobs here were more plentiful.

"We had a boom in the '30s and a depression in the '20s, as far as the shipyard is concerned," he said.

With the Yorktown contracts, the yard had to grow so it could build the new type of ships and do so according to a short timetable assigned by the Navy.