USS Saratpga CV-3
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Cropped from a painting by Walter L. Green in 1927 of USS Saratoga (CV-3). Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC

The Aircraft Carriers of World War II

After World War One, it was becoming more and more clear that aircraft were changing the nature of warfare… at sea as well as on land. If the U.S. Navy didn’t fully get it before the war, they certainly did after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, which was carried out principally by planes taking off from the decks of Japanese carriers. It was a Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber from the British carrier HMS Ark Royal, a plane considered obsolete at the beginning of the war, that disabled the steering of Germany’s mighty Bismarck, making that famous ship easy prey for British warships. It is no surprise then that the U.S. built many more aircraft carriers for World War Two than mighty battleships. All of the ships featured in this section served in World War Two, starting with CV-1, a ship originally commissioned as a collier in 1913.
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USS Langley (CV-1)
America’s first aircraft carrier started life in 1913 as USS Jupiter (AC-3) a 540 ft. collier supplying coal to coal-fired naval ships. Then, understanding the need to move forward in the new arena of naval aviation, in 1920 the Navy had the collier converted to an aircraft carrier at Navy Yard in Norfolk. Langley’s purpose was as a test platform for planes taking off from and landing on a seagoing airfield. On October 17, 1922 Lt. Virgil C. Griffin made history by being the first pilot to take off from a U.S. carrier flying a Vought VE-7. On October 26, Lt. Commander Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier became the first to perform a successful landing flying a Aeromarine 39B. For the next several years, Langley would operate as a training and test ship.
Displacement: 19,360 long tons.
Length: 542 ft. Beam: 65 ft.
Propulsion: General Electric turbo-electric transmission, 2 props.
Speed: 15 knots.
Langley would go through a second transformation before serving in WW2 (see below.)
USS Langley CV-1
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USS Lexington (CV-2)
USS Saratoga (CV-3)

The U.S. had laid keels for two new battlecruisers, when the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 dictated that we could not build two battlecruisers. The U.S. could, however, build two aircraft carriers of the same size, so the two unfinished ships became CV-2 and CV-3. While some comprises were made by converting two existing hulls rather than designing them as carriers from the keel up, Lexington and Saratoga proved to be very successful and went on to serve admirably and extensively in World War 2.
Commissioned 1927
Displacement: 36,000 long tons
Length: 888 ft., Beam: 106 ft.
Propulsion: 16 water-tube boilers powering 4 turbo-electric transmission, driving 4 props.
Speed: 33.25 knots.
Crew: 2791 including pilots and aircraft support
Armament: Eight 8” guns in four double turrets
Twelve 5” anti-aircraft guns
Aircraft: 78
USS Lexington CV-2
Click on image to enlarge.
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USS Ranger (CV-4)
Unlike her three predecessors, Ranger was designed from the beginning as a carrier. She was smaller than the Lexington class and considered too slow to be effective in the Pacific Theatre during World War Two, but she served effectively in the Atlantic supporting the Allied invasion of North Africa and proved very effective in an October, 1943 raid on German shipping off the coast of Norway.
Commissioned: June, 1934
Displacement: 14,576 Long Tons
Length: 769 ft. , Beam: 109 ft.
Propulsion: Six boilers powering two steam turbines driving two props
Speed: 29 knots
Crew: 2,461 including air crew
Armament: Eight 5” / 25 caliber anti-aircraft guns
Forty .50 cal. machine guns
Aircraft: Max: 86
USS Ranger CV-4
Click on image to enlarge.
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Yorktown Class
USS Yorktown (CV-5)
USS Enterprise (CV-6)
USS Hornet (CV-8)
Experience showed that larger carriers were better for a number of reasons including, protection, speed, and seaworthiness, but when this class was designed, the U.S. was still restrained by the 1930 Naval Treaty. So while the Navy would have preferred a 27,000 ton carrier, the Yorktown class designed and commissioned before the war came in at 20,000 tons. There were no carriers at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, so the full US carrier fleet was intact after the Japanese attack that started the war. The three Yorktown carriers took the war to the Japanese in the early part of the war before the Essex class were ready. Yorktown was lost in the Battle of Midway, and Hornet was lost in the Battle of Santa Cruz. Enterprise became the most decorated ship in the U.S. Navy during WW2. For more on the Enterprise, there is a web site dedicated to the history of this ship: http://www.cv6.org

All three ships in this class were built at Newport News Shipbuilding (Virginia) with the first keel laid in May, 1934, and the third ship (Hornet) launched in December, 1940.
Hellcat on Enterprise flight deck
B-25 bomber in Doolittle raid
USS Yorktown CV-5
Above: USS Yorktown (CV-5) in June, 1953
Displacement: 19,800 long tons
Length: 824 ft., Beam: 109 ft.
Propulsion: 9 boilers, 4 geared steam turbines, 4 props
Speed: 32.5 knots, Range: 12,000 nautical miles
Crew: 2,217 officers and enlisted
Armament:
Eight 5”/38 cal. guns in single mounts
Four 1.1”/75 cal. guns
Thirty 20mm Oerlikon guns
(Armament configuration changed during the war)

Left 1.)
F6F "Hellcat" fighters taxiing forward on Enterprise flight deck, during training exercises, 2 July 1943.
Left 2.)A B-25 bomber takes off from Hornet;s flight deck in the famous Doolittle raid on Japan.


Click on any image to enlarge.
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USS Wasp (CV-7)
Still restrained by Naval Treaties, the USS could build one more carrier of no more than 15,000 tons. The result was a carrier that was less than ideal for warfare in the Pacific. She was built at the Fore River Shipyard in Massachusetts and launched in April, 1939 then commissioned in April of 1940. The compromise in weight meant that the Wasp had a smaller power plant, very limited armor and no torpedo protection, leaving her aviation fuel stores vulnerable. After service in the Atlantic, Wasp was deployed in the Pacific. While on a support mission for the battle of Guadalcanal on September 15, 1942, she was struck by three torpedoes. 193 of her crew were killed, and 366 were wounded. 1946 were rescued by other ships. Wasp was scuttled buy USS Lansdowne.
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USS Wasp CV-7
USS Wasp (CV-7)
Displacement: 14,700 long tons
Length: 741 ft., Beam: 109 ft.
Propulsion: 6 boilers, 2 steam turbines, 2 props
Speed: 29.5 knots, Range: 12,000 nautical miles
Crew: 2,167 officers and enlisted
Armament:
Eight 5”/38 cal. guns
Sixteen 1.1”/75 cal. guns
Twenty-four .50 cal. machine guns

Left 1.)Grumman F4F Wildcat figures taking off from Wasp deck in August, 1942.
Left 2.) Wasp on fire after being struck by 3 torpedoes, Sept 15, 1942

Click on any image to enlarge.
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Essex Class Carrier (24 ships)
USS Essex (CV-9)
After Japan and Italy repudiated the provisions of naval treaties, the U.S. was no long obligated to treat limitations. It was clear that Axis powers were aggressively building their navies, so the U.S. embarked on a serious carrier building plan that would result in 24 new carriers in service for the later years of World War 2. The design for the Essex class now benefitted from the experience gained in previous classes. With heavier planes coming on board, the carrier needed a larger and stronger flight deck and hangar. The Essex class were also better armored for protection against torpedoes and bombs. Another innovation was the port side elevator that did not interrupt the flight deck . The ships also had two inboard elevators. Plans called for a ship that would accommodate a strike force of 36 fighters, 36 dive bombers, and 18 torpedo bombers. The selected planes were the Grumman F6F Hellcat (fighter), the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver (dive bomber and scout), and the Grumman TBF Avenger (torpedo bomber). Later in the War, the Vought F4U Corsairs came on board. The last three of the class were not commissioned in time to serve before VJ Day. All other served, and all survived the War, though some were heavily damaged. On May 11, 1945, while supporting the invasion of Okinawa, the Bunker Hill (CV-17) was struck by two Kamikaze planes 30 seconds apart. Each Kamikaze not only crashed into the flight deck but also dropped a damaging bomb first. 390 crew and airmen were lost that day, and 264 were wounded. Despite the damage, Bunker Hill was able to steam (slowly) to Ulithi and back to the Bremerton Naval Shipyard in Washington for repairs.
Curtiss Helldiver
40 mm quad machine gun aboard USS Hornet
Click on any photo to enlarge.
USS  Essex CV-9
USS Essex (CV-9)
Displacement: 27,100 long tons
Length: 872 ft., Beam: 147 ft.
Propulsion: 8 boilers, 4 geared steam turbines, 4 props
Speed: 33 knots, Range: 20,000 nautical miles
Crew: 2,600 officers and enlisted
Armament:
Eight 5”/38 cal. guns in four twin mounts
Four 5”/38 cal. guns in single mounts
Sixteen 1.1”/75 cal. guns
Twenty-four .50 cal. machine guns
Thirty-two 40mm Bofors guns in eight quadruple mounts
Forty-six 20mm Oerlikon guns
Aircraft capacity: 90-100

Later ships in the class laid down after 1942 were built with a slightly longer hull above the water line to accommodate two quadruple 40 mm gun mounts.

Left 1.) Curtiss SB2C-3 "Helldiver" aircraft bank over the carrier before landing, following strikes on Japanese shipping in the China Sea, circa mid-January 1945.
Photographed by Lieutenant Commander Charles Kerlee, USNR.
Left 2.) 40mm Quad Machine Gun Mount
Firing on board USS Hornet (CV-12), circa February 1945, probably during gunnery practice.View looks aft on the port side, with the carrier's port quarter 5"/38 guns just beyond the 40mm mount. Note ready-service ammunition and spent shell casings at right; men passing 4-round clips to loaders at left.
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USS Langley (AV-3)
In 1936, USS Langley (see top of page), originally a collier was converted again, this time to a seaplane tender. She served valiantly in the Pacific Theatre, performing such duties as transporting P-40 planes. She was attacked by Japanese bombers in February, 1942 and had to be scuttled.
USS Langley AV-3
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Independence Class Light Aircraft Carriers (9 ships)
As the war seemed imminent, President Roosevelt, recognizing the need for more aircraft carriers, wanted to convert some of the Cleveland class light cruisers already under construction. The General Board of the U.S. Navy deemed this idea to be too compromised to be effective, but after Pearl Harbor, and realizing that the Essex class carriers would not be ready soon enough, the Navy decided to go ahead with the conversion. The “Light Aircraft Carrier” was thus invented. Nine ships in this class were built and entered the war before the Essex class. Their size limited plane capacity to about 30 planes, and they were not good in heavy seas, but their cruiser hulls and power plants made them fast. Eight survived the war and one was lost.
Click on any photo to enlarge.
USS Belleau Wood CVL-24
USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24)
Displacement: 11,000 long tons
Length: 622 ft., Beam: 109 ft.
Propulsion: steam turbines, 4 props
Speed: 31.5 knots
Armament: 26 Bofors 40mm guns

Click on image to enlarge.
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Casablanca Class Escort Carriers (50 ships)
Kaiser Shipbuilding in Vancouver, Washington had figured out how to build Liberty ships in 90 days. The proposed a plan for building 50 escort carriers in less than two years, and, desperate to build carriers for World War 2, the Navy accepted their proposal. Ultimately, Kaiser built fifty Casablanca class escort carriers in about a year and 8 months starting in November, 1942. The class was designed to serve as convoy escort carriers, but often found themselves in the thick of battle, using their own guns, against Japanese ships. 45 of the class survived the war, and five were lost.

Other classes of Escort carriers had preceded the Casablanca class but had not been designed as carriers from the ground up. The first was the Long Island class with two ships. Then the Bogue class with 45 ships, many of which were transferred to the Royal Navy under the Lend Lease program. That was followed by the Sangamon class with four ships.
USS Bogue CVE-9
Click on any photo to enlarge.
USS Kassan Bay CVE-69
USS Kassan Bay (CVE-69) Casablanca Class in 1944
Displacement: 7.800 tons
Length: 512 ft., Beam: 65 ft.
Propulsion: 4 boilers, two 5-cylinder steam engines, 2 props
Speed: 20 knots , Range: 10,240 miles
Crew: 910 officers and enlisted
Armament: One 5”/38 caliber gun
Sixteen 40mm Bofors guns
Twenty 20mm Oerlikon cannons
Aircraft capacity: 28 planes

Left: USS Bogue (CVE-9) (first of 45 Bogue class)
Displacement: 7,800 tons
Length: 496 ft., Beam: 69 ft.
Propulsion: 2 boilers, two geared steam turbines, 1 prop
Speed: 18 knots
Crew: 646 excluding air group
Armament: Two 5”/38 caliber gun or 4”/50 cal
Eight 40mm Bofors guns
Ten to thirty-five 20mm Oerlikon cannons
Aircraft capacity: 19-24 planes

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