The USS Lexington (CV 2) was the U.S. Navy’s second aircraft carrier, although commissioned almost a month later than her sister USS Saratoga (CV 3). Both were converted from battlecruisers then under construction under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. Together, the two sister ships pioneered carrier operations and strategy in the years leading up to World War II, and they were the largest, fastest, and, many thought, the most beautiful aircraft carriers in the world. In the early weeks of World War II Lexington ferried aircraft to Midway and conducted raids on the Marshall Islands, Rabaul, and Lae-Salamaua.
On May 8, 1942, five hundred miles off the coast of Australia in the Coral Sea, the Lady Lex, as she was affectionately known, was dying.
The Battle of the Coral Sea, which had begun on May 7, was the first naval engagement where opposing fleets fought without their ships coming within sight of each other. The Lexington had been damaged during the battle, having been hit by two bombs and two torpedoes. Repairs had been made to the point where the Lexington was able to recover returning aircraft, and it was thought that the worst was over.
“Well, Ted. Let’s get the men off.” —Rear Adm. Aubrey “Jake” Fitch to Capt. Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman
But at 12:47 p.m. a huge explosion deep belowdecks whipsawed the aircraft carrier. The Lexington had linear gas lines that ran laterally along several of her decks. They had been ruptured during the battle and gasoline vapor had spread throughout the ship. A spark from an electric generator ignited an explosion so powerful that the large forward elevator platform flew into the air and crashed down onto the flight deck, crushing an airplane. Worse, the explosion wiped out the damage control command post, killing damage control officer Cmdr. H.R. Healy and most of his men, and wrecking communications below decks. An hour later a second explosion destroyed the carrier’s ventilation system. At 4:00 p.m., more explosions tore through the guts of the Lexington when fires began cooking off the stored ammunition. The carrier’s captain, Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman, ordered the crew to abandon ship and signaled his intentions to the nearby destroyers.
Discipline among the crew was remarkable. Sherman recalled that as the sailors prepared to go over the side “some of them lined up their shoes in orderly fashion on the deck before they left, as if they expected to return.” Out of a complement of 2,791 men, more than 2,700 of them were saved. Included in that group were two admirals – one the two-legged Rear Adm. Aubrey Fitch, the other the four-legged Rear Adm. Wags.
Admiral Wags was a dog. Specifically, he was a black cocker spaniel who belonged to Sherman. Originally Admiral Wags belonged to Sherman’s son, but when the son went off to boarding school, Wags adopted Sherman as his new master. With two stars on his collar indicating his rank, “Admiral” Wags became Sherman’s constant companion, accompanying the naval officer on his shipboard tours of duty, including that on the Lexington. When the fighting started on May 8, Admiral Wags had gone to his station under the bunk in the admiral’s emergency cabin on the bridge.
With the battle over and the fight to save the ship lost, as the Lexington’s sailors were diving into the water or sliding down ropes to nearby ships, Sherman remembered Admiral Wags and rushed back to the bridge. The emergency cabin was filled with smoke and acid fumes and Sherman at first “feared that the dog had suffocated.” A quick search revealed that Admiral Wags had left his post. The captain found his admiral in another section of the bridge and their reunion was a happy one, though necessarily brief.
Tucking the cocker spaniel under his arm, Sherman returned to the flight deck. There he handed Admiral Wags to an orderly who strapped a life jacket on the dog and lowered him by lifeline to a destroyer. Some time later, after making sure that he was the last man on board, Captain Sherman hooked onto a lifeline and transferred to a waiting cruiser. The captain and his faithful admiral were reunited a few days later.
At about 8 p.m. on May 8, after being torpedoed by the destroyer Phelps, the Lexington sank beneath the waves. The U.S. Navy had lost the Lexington, the destroyer Sims (DD 409) and the precious fleet oiler Neosho (AO 23), and suffered damage to the carrier Yorktown (CV 5), while the Japanese had lost outright the light carrier Shoho, a destroyer and some smaller ships. It didn’t seem a fair trade. But the carrier Shokaku was seriously damaged, and her sister ship Zuikaku had lost 40 percent of her air group. Historians would later assess that the Battle of the Coral Sea was a Japanese tactical victory, but a strategic defeat because its objective, the assault on Port Moresby, had been thwarted. Worse for the Japanese, Shokaku and Zuikaku could not be present at Midway, when they might have changed the course of the battle.
Meanwhile, at Pearl Harbor, Pacific Fleet Commander in Chief Adm. Chester W. Nimitz had in his hand a report on the Yorktown’s damage. He had a decision to make, one that would affect the outcome of the war in the Pacific.