Monday, March 20, 2023

The USS Langley Where Naval Aviation Took Off


The USS Langley (CV-1), the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier with her compliment of  Vought VE-7 Bluebird fighters. 

When the USS Langley (CV-1) was officially commissioned on March 20, 1922, the United States Navy took a semi-timid step into its future.  The Langley was the first American aircraft carrier and the second in the world, after Britain’s primitive HMS Argus in 1918.  But the Navy was already behind the aggressive Japanese who had already finished and would commission in just months the Hōshō, the first ship built from the keel up to launch and retrieve combat aircraft. 

By contrast the Langley, which was built on the hull of a decommissioned collier, was a slow, lumbering tub.  But then it’s eventual compliment of fighter planes—Vought VE-7 Bluebirds—were already obsolete World War I canvas covered biplanes which were not much faster.  Still, its 540 foot long flight deck gave a generation of naval aviators their sea legs including many who would go on to become senior flight officers in World War II.

Her origins were somewhat humbler.  She was built at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California as the USS Jupiter, a 19,670 ton collier.  President William Howard Taft was on hand for ceremonies when her keel was laid in 1911.  It was highly unusual for a President to attend such a ceremony for all but the most important capital ships.  Maybe it was just that he was on a rare visit to the West Coast and need some events to round out his schedule and get his picture in the newspapers.  After all, he was up for re-election the next year.  But it might also have been an indication of the importance of this new class of ships which would dramatically extend the range and time at sea for America’s aging Great White Fleet during an age of an intense international naval arms race.  The sister ships would follow—USS Cyclops, USS Proteus, and USS Nereus.   Cyclops would be lost without a trace in the North Atlantic during World War I and Nereus would vanish in the same waters in the next war, both presumed to have been sunk by German U-boats.

The Langley was built on the hull of the USS Jupiter, collier which had seen service in World War I.

Jupiter was launched on August 14, 1912.  Besides a large capacity for coal and modern heavy equipment to transfer the fuel to warships, she was the first Navy electrically propelled ship powered by General Electric Turbo Electric Motors turning twin propellers. 

After completing sea trials and assigned to the Pacific Fleet one of her first missions was not as a collier but as a troop transport.  During the 1914 Vera Cruise Crisis she carried a contingent of Marines to stand-by off shore at Mazatlán, Mexico threatening the country’s West Coast.  After the crisis passed Jupiter became the first Navy ship to transit the Panama Canal west to east as she sailed to join the Atlantic Fleet.

During World War I she supported Navy operations in the Caribbean and North Atlantic.  Also in the build-up of American forces in Europe, she made two runs as a freighter/troop carrier including one that delivered the first American aviators into the war zone—a naval aviation detachment of 7 officers and 122 men to England.  At war’s end she supplied coal to the ships bringing members of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) home through much of 1919.

After a short tour with the Pacific Fleet again, Congress authorized her conversion into an entirely new classification of warship—the aircraft carrier.  Previously naval aircraft had been launched and retrieved from short flight decks built onto cruisers like the USS Birmingham.  While those tests showed that it was practical, the jerry-rigged conversions could not carry enough aircraft to be useful in combat beyond reconnaissance duty.  The Jupiter class colliers were just the right size and had very little superstructure to remove to add a flight deck.

Jupiter sailed once again to through the Panama Canal to report to the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia where she was decommissioned and work begun on her conversion.  On April 11, 1920 she was renamed in honor of aviation pioneer Samuel P. Langley. 

Upon being commissioned at Hampton Roads in 1922 Commander Kenneth Whiting, who had advocated the construction of a carrier and had helped oversee its construction, assumed temporary command.  He would later server as the ships Executive Officer and be directly involved in the launch and command of the Navy’s first five carriers.  Often called the Father of the Carrier Whiting had been the young Lieutenant in command of that naval aviation detachment that the Jupiter had delivered.

Whiting recognized that the Langley was more of test laboratory than an effective member of the battle fleet.  She was far too slow to keep up with the fleet.  But he felt sure it would suffice to train pilots, refine the techniques for using the catapult launch and breaking cable tail hook recovery necessary for operations.  In additions crews would learn how to use the elevator to bring up aircraft from the below deck hanger.  All of this was essential to modern aircraft carrier development. The fledgling carrier began to rack up firsts. 

The First tail hook landing on board.

On October 22, 1922 Lt. Virgil C. Griffin became the first pilot to take off from the deck in his Vought bi-plane.  Nine days later Lieutenant Commander Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier made the first landing in an Aeromarine 39B.  Tragically this promising young officer died of injuries sustained in the crash of a Vought on a routine flight from Norfolk to Yorktown.   On November 19 Cmdr. Whiting himself became the first flyer to be launched from the ship’s catapult.

In January 1923 the Langley began regular sea duty in the Caribbean.  She would conduct training off of the East Coast and impress dignitaries in Washington with demonstrations of her capacities.  As expected, the demonstration whetted the appetite for additional ships.  Congress had already authorized the conversion of another collier, although Whiting had begged for new construction capable of operating with the fleet.

Fate stepped in before the second conversion could get underway.  The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 pledged all of the Great Powers to a level of naval disarmament.  Not only were some in-service capital ships to be scrapped, but projects under construction had to be halted.  For the U.S. that meant stopping work on two fast, modern cruisers—USS Lexington and USS Saratoga both of which had completed, or nearly completed hulls laid down.  But the treaty failed to include aircraft carriers as capital ships.  Congress quickly scrapped plans to convert another collier and ordered that the two ships be converted to carriers.  These new ships were a significant upgrade from the Langley.  Their pilots and crews were largely trained on the original ship.

From 1927 Langley sailed the waters off of California and Hawaii in training fleet units, experimentation, pilot training, and tactical-fleet problems.  But by 1936 she was clearly obsolete as a carrier.  She put into Mare Island where she was reconfigured as a seaplane tender with the new hull designation AV-13.

She joined the Aircraft Scouting Force of the Pacific Fleet and was on regular sea and patrol duty until the American entry into World War II.  Stationed off of the Philippines when the Japanese attack on those islands began on December 8, 1941, Langley was ordered to sail for the Dutch East Indies and from there was forced to retreat to Darwin, Australia where she joined the make-shift American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) naval forces.  She first assisted the Australians in anti-submarine patrol.

Seaplane Tender USS Langley under attack off of Java.

Then in February she was assigned a critical mission, delivering 32 P-40 fighters belonging to the Far East Air Forces 13th Pursuit Squadron and their pilots and ground crews to Java.  After departing Melbourne in a strong convoy, the Langley and the Sea Witch split off to make their run to Java.  After rendezvousing with a two destroyer screen escorts on February 27, the two transports came under attack by waves of Japanese Aichi D3A1 Val dive bombers.  In the third attack the Langley was hit 5 times and 16 of her crew were killed.  The ship was soon dead in the water and listing badly.  An order to abandon ship was given and her escort destroyers sunk her with gunfire to prevent her from falling into the hands of the enemy.

The bad luck of the survivors, however, was just beginning.  After being transferred to USS Pecos, many of her crew were lost when Pecos was sunk en route to Australia. Then thirty-one of the thirty three pilots assigned to the 13th Pursuit Squadron were lost with the USS Edsall was sunk on the same day while responding to the distress calls of the Pecos.  The whole operation was a devastating loss.

The new USS Langley (CVL-27) in action near Singapore.

The name USS Langley lived on when light Independence class carrier of the same name was commissioned in 1943 with the hull designation CVL-27.  The new ship saw action in several Pacific battles.  After the war she was transferred to France where she was re-named the La Fayette.  She was decommissioned and scrapped in 1963.

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