Yorktown facts

Key dates

April 15, 1943 — First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commissions the USS Yorktown

1970 — Decommissioned to Bayonne, N.J.

1975 — Towed to Charleston Harbor and dedicated as a memorial Oct. 13

1986 — Declared a National Historic Landmark

Hollywood stardom

1945 — “The Fighting Lady,” filmed aboard the Yorktown, wins an Academy Award for best documentary

1954 — Stars in the movie “Jet Carrier”

1966 — Actress Ann-Margret visits the Yorktown for a USO show, and sailors spell out “Hi, Annie” on the flight deck

1968 — Stars in the film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” which recreated the attack on Pearl Harbor

1968 — Recovers the crew from the Apollo 8 capsule, the first manned flight to orbit the moon

Fighting Lady

1943-45 — During World War II, Yorktown inflicts heavy damage on Japanese bases in the Pacific and provides support for American troops in the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa

1953-54 — Patrols off Korea

1955 — Helps nationalist Chinese evacuate Tachen Islands to Taiwan

1957 — Helps counter Soviet Union’s growing submarine fleet

1959 — Responds to communist Chinese shelling of islands held by nationalist Chinese

1964-65 — Provides anti-submarine services for fast carriers conducting air strikes in Vietnam

Source: Patriots Point

The Fighting Lady turns 70 today.

The aircraft carrier Yorktown survived almost 30 years of shells and bombs, playing a key role in several major wars.

Her heroics have been celebrated in at least three Hollywood films. She was chosen to pick up the crew of the first manned orbit around the moon.

Hundreds gathered aboard the aircraft carrier Sunday to celebrate her birthday. Several former crew members told their stories and why it’s important to keep the ship afloat.

Future challenges

The Yorktown has been mired in some 27 feet of mud on the edge of Charleston Harbor since 1975. She has become one of Charleston’s top tourist attractions, drawing some 230,000 visitors a year to the Patriots Point complex.

Unfortunately, she’s beginning to show her age, and she will probably need some surgery to live to be 100.

The saltwater from the harbor has been gradually eating away at her hull beneath the water. Exactly what needs to be done to fix it and how much it will cost remains to be seen.

An environmental assessment of opening the hull has just been finished, Patriots Point Executive Director Mac Burdette said. The study will show what it will take to make sure no toxins leak out into the harbor. The board will learn the details next month.

Next will come a structural assessment, which will reveal what needs to be done immediately and what can wait several years.

The work has been estimated at $81 million. Where would that money come from? Burdette outlined the plan Sunday.

The first step would be upgrading the museum with high-tech exhibits to appeal to young people and draw another 30,000 visitors a year. The board will consider the master plan next month.

The extra visitors would raise enough extra money to float a bond to start repairing the ship.

Meanwhile, plans are also moving forward for a Medal of Honor Museum. Burdette envisions the addition will make the Yorktown a tourist destination. That would make property around the Yorktown that Patriots Point owns attractive to investors. Money from those leases also would be used to repair the ship.

“For better or for worse, and I’ve believed for the better, we’ve married the Yorktown for life,” Burdette said.

The stories

About 1,500 former crew members are poised to start a fundraising campaign to keep the ship afloat through the Yorktown CV-10 Association. Eight of them were scattered around the ship Sunday telling their stories.

Bill Watkinson, 91, of New Jersey was the oldest former crew member on the ship Sunday, but he was also the most animated.

Watkinson flew night missions during the battle for Okinawa. He relied on a pair of hooks on a cable to catch him as he came down onto an almost dark ship.

“They didn’t like to light up the ship at night,” he said. “I was nervous every time. I was very fortunate. I always had my tail hooks come down.”

He was a commercial pilot after the Navy and then ran a farm after he retired.

Buzz Purcell of Columbia, 87, a Citadel graduate and retired attorney, was also a night pilot.

“I didn’t volunteer,” he said of the duty. “Then I left the Navy to do something more dangerous — practicing law.”

Bill Anderson, 85, of Briceland, Minn., a former anti-aircraft gunner, recalled the day the ship was hit by a bomb.

“I’ll remember that day as long as I live,” Anderson said.

A lone Japanese aircraft flew low to the water to avoid the ship’s radar, came up over the front of the bow and dropped an explosive. Five men were killed and several injured.

The ship continued on its mission, with the crew making repairs en route to Okinawa.

“We never lost a beat,” said Anderson, who became a truck driver.

Raven Silverthorn, 9, climbed up into the cockpit of the F9F Cougar until his parents had to call him down. He already has his eyes set on following in these men’s footsteps, according to his father, Jeff Silverthorn, who lives near Selfridge Air Force Base in Michigan.

“He’s been watching the news about North Korea and waiting to see what’s going to happen,” he said.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or twitter.com/dmunday.