WASHINGTON -- Three miles under water, the USS Yorktown's four-barrel antiaircraft gun still aims skyward 56 years after the aircraft carrier went to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, a victim of the Battle of Midway.
Photos and video of the giant ship, sitting upright on the ocean floor, were unveiled Thursday by Robert Ballard, the undersea explorer who also found the wrecks of the Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck.
The Yorktown search was even tougher, said Ballard, whose National Geographic-sponsored effort found the ship May 19 some 16,650 feet beneath the ocean -- a full mile deeper than Titanic.
"That (ship) was my home, so I was home again. I was glad to see it," Bill Surgi, a survivor of the Yorktown who accompanied the expedition, said of his first view of the wreck.
Surgi recalled being on a catwalk amidships when a Japanese torpedo exploded beneath him. He had to climb back on deck through wreckage before he could cross to the other side of the vessel and abandon ship.
Most of the crew survived with Surgi, and almost 2,300 were recovered. Losses were estimated between 40 and 50 in the battle, with total fatalities of about 70 including Naval aviators.
"The Yorktown struck one of the crucial blows in a critical battle that changed history 56 years ago," said Tim Kelly, president of National Geographic Television.
Though it was lost in the action, airplanes from the Yorktown and other U.S. carriers sank three Japanese aircraft carriers and fatally damaged a fourth. The Japanese losses put the Imperial Navy on the defensive for the rest of World War II.
"It was perhaps the finest hour in the history of the U.S. Navy," Kelly said. "The pictures we brought back provide the basis to retell that story."
A University of Hawaii sonar was used to find the wreckage, and photos were provided by a remotely controlled Navy deep-diving machine.
"The first thing I saw was a mud clot, ... and a smile crossed my face," Ballard recalled. He was sure he finally had located the Yorktown because the view was identical to the first images he saw when he found the wreck of the Titanic.
A giant sinking ship slams into the sea floor and blasts mud in all directions, he said. Piles appear hundreds of yards from the wreckage.
"Finally, there was the great steel wall of the Yorktown, ... sitting upright," Ballard said. "There was absolutely no biological growth on it. It was the most sterile water environment I've ever seen. You could see all the way across the flight deck."
The video footage shows stainless steel work on the vessel still shiny and allows viewers to peer into a bomb hole and view cables, the airplane elevator and other equipment.
Yorktown sank June 7, 1942. As the ship limped back toward Hawaii after suffering serious damage in the Battle of Midway, a Japanese submarine torpedoed the listing vessel, sending it to the bottom.
The undersea search for Yorktown was more difficult than finding the Titanic and Bismarck, said Ballard, because the search area in the Pacific was much larger than the North Atlantic where the other ships went down.
Ballard likened the search to tying a penny to a thread and trying to lower it from the top New York's World Trade Center onto something the size of a pencil on the sidewalk below.
Ballard's briefing on the find came 56 years to the day after the start of the crucial Battle of Midway.
"In 20 minutes the Japanese strike force on Midway takes off, 56 years ago," Ballard said, opening his remarks.
Damaged in the earlier battle of the Coral Sea, the Yorktown was sent into combat at Midway to block the Japanese fleet from capturing that tiny island and moving on to conquer Hawaii.
Navy Rear Adm. Malcolm I. Fages said participating in the search allowed the Navy to train crews in using its deep-sea equipment, which is designed for submarine rescue and finding aircraft lost at sea. Also co-sponsoring the search was Newport News Shipbuilding, which built the Yorktown.