MartiniPundit

Random thoughts and insights – always shaken, never stirred

First American Carriers at War

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The United States was somewhat slower to develop aircraft carriers than other navies, both the Japanese and the British gaining a head start. But in the interwar period, the US built some remarkable ships, several of which would become instrumental in turning the tide of battle in the Pacific in 1942.

Here is a photo of the first three US carriers in Bremerton, WA in 1929:

At the bottom, we find the USS Langley CV-1, the first American carrier. She saw action in WWII as a converted seaplane tender, being sunk in February, 1942. In the middle is the USS Saratoga CV-3, a ship which survived the war only to be sunk during the nuclear tests at Bikini Atholl.

It is the top ship we’re most interested in. This is the USS Lexington CV-2, the “Lady Lex.” She and her sister Saratoga began life as battlecruisers, but they and the four other ships of the class were cancelled in 1922 in compliance with the Washington Naval Treaty. The Lexington and Saratoga had already been launched, and the decision was made to convert them to aircraft carriers. In this guise, they were undoubtedly more successful and more valuable to the nation. Before Pearl Harbor, a total of eight carriers were built by the US, all of which eventually saw action of some sort in WWII, and only three of which survived. The other five were all lost to Japanese action in 1942.

The first six months of 1942 were difficult ones for the American military forces in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor had devastated the American battleships, forcing the Navy to rely on the carriers for major operations. That Pearl Harbor had changed naval warfare in favor of the carrier only made a virtue of the necessity. Three key objectives drove American strategy in those months: Protect American forward bases in the Pacific, prevent the Japanese from seizing New Guinea and the Solomons (which would threaten Australia), and conserve the carriers. Basically, two of these three objectives would be met.

As a prelude to the invasion of New Guinea, the Japanese sent a task force to seize Port Moresby which included three carriers: the Shokaku and Zuikaku – two heavy carriers that had been at Pearl Harbor, and the light carrier Shoho. In total the Japanese carriers had 140 aircraft. In response, Admiral Nimitz dispatched two carriers, the Lexington and the much newer USS Yorktown CV-5 with 138 planes. This is the Yorktown in 1940 in San Diego:

The resulting battle, called Coral Sea and fought over May 7-8, 1942, was the first battle ever to be fought entirely with carrier-based aircraft. The American commander, Rear Admiral Fletcher, attacked the Japanese invasion force on May 7, and sank the Shoho. The next day, the main carrier duel began, and the Japanese withdrew after losing 73 aircraft, cancelling the invasion. The first time out, the American carriers had inflicted a strategic defeat on the Japanese.

It came at a very high cost, however. In addition to the loss of 66 planes, the Yorktown was damaged and the Lexington hit by two torpedoes. Here she is just before the war (the dual 8″ turrets were removed early in 1942):

The damage was severe, and fires raged throughout the ship. Many men were trapped below decks, and herculean efforts were made to save them. The crew managed to put out the fires, only to have them flare up again when the ventilation system was turned back on. The order was given to abandon ship, all hope lost for the trapped crewmen. The Lexington was scuttled, and the US had lost her first heavy carrier. The Yorktown had also been damaged in the battle, and she steamed to Pearl Harbor for repairs.

This loss was not without gain, however. One month later, a decisive carrier action took place near Midway Island, key to a Japanese invasion of Hawaii. A huge Japanese fleet, including the other four heavy carriers from Pearl Harbor: the Akagi, the Kaga, the Hiryu, and the Soryu were met by the newly repaired Yorktown and her sister ship the USS Enterprise CV-6. When the battle was over, all four Japanese carriers had been sunk, and along with their irreplacable loss was the irreplacable loss of the cream of the Japanese aviators. But this battle was won at the cost of the Yorktown, damaged by the Japanese planes and finished by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine.

Yet Midway was a staggering victory. From that point forward, the American took the offensive in the Pacific, and the invasion of Guadacanal followed soon after. The Japanese had shown the world the power of the aircraft carrier, but it was the US Navy which took them to school. A salute to all our veterans, past and present, on Memorial Day.

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Written by martinipundit

May 30, 2005 at 11:45 am

Posted in History, Ships

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