The first U.S. aircraft carrier, Langley, CV-1, seen off of San Diego, California, 1922
The First U.S. Carrier, Langley,
Is Lost on 27 February 1942
On 27 February 1942 the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Langley, was sunk by Japanese warplanes (with a little help from U.S. destroyers). All of its 32 aircraft were lost.
Above and below – U.S.S. Jupiter, prior to World War I. The first photo was taken at the former U.S. Navy base at Mare Island, Vallejo, CA which is located at the beginning of San Francisco Bay.
Langley was launched in 1912 as the naval collier (coal transport ship) Jupiter. After World War I, Jupiter was converted into the Navy’s first aircraft carrier and rechristened Langley, after aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpoint Langley. It was also the Navy’s first electrically propelled ship, capable of speeds of 15 knots. On 17 October 1922, Lt. Virgil C. Griffin piloted the first plane, a VE-7-SF, launched from Langley‘s decks. Although planes had taken off from ships before, it was nevertheless a historic moment. After 1937, Langley the forward 40 percent of her flight deck was removed as part of a conversion to seaplane tender, a mobile base for squadrons of patrol bombers.
Above: a bi-plane takes off from the flight deck of U.S.S. Langley. Below: Bi-planes lined up at the stern of Langley‘s flight deck. Note the “spoon” stern, a shape common on ships built early in the 20th century.
In Langley‘s first incarnation as the collier Jupiter (Collier # 3), she served as the Navy’s test bed for its first turbo electrically-propelled ship. This experiment was designed to increase safety on board USN vessels by not using the standard coal burning furnaces, thus reducing the chance of an explosion caused by coal dust. President William H. Taft attended the keel laying ceremony and the ship was officially commissioned on 7 April 1913.
Jupiter had a notable career ferrying Marines of the Pacific Fleet at Mazatlan, Mexico during the Vera Cruz crisis. On her way back she steamed through the Panama Canal on Columbus Day, the first vessel to make the crossing from the west to into the east. Her primary duty then was as a coaling ship of the fleet and was sent to France in both 1917 and 1918. Interestingly, on her first voyage to Europe, she transported a naval aviation detachment of 7 officers and 122 men to England. It was the first United States aviation detachment to arrive in Europe, commanded by Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting, who later became Langley‘s first Executive Officer.
Her conversion to an aircraft carrier was authorized on 11 July 1919. For this conversion she sailed into Hampton Roads, Virginia, to be decommissioned as the U.S.S. Jupiter in March of 1920. The Navy chose to name its first carrier Langley (CV-1) after Samuel Pierpoint Langley (1834-1906), an American pioneer involved in the designing of heavier-than-air craft. This did not sit well with another famous aviation pioneer, Orville Wright, who had his own ideas of who the ship should have been named after.
Langley, as an aircraft carrier, was useful for conducting trials into the relatively new idea of seaborne aviation. Many changes were required in making taking her from her collier ship origins. The superstructure, cranes, kingposts, masts, and funnels were removed while a rectangular flight deck was installed. The full-length wood flight deck was fitted to a steel framework. Below the deck was spacing to allow for ventilation and natural lighting to help below-deck work and general safety conditions. One elevator was added amidships and 2 launch catapults were installed on the flight deck.
The six large cargo holds,originally used for coal storage on Jupiter, proved ideal as aircraft hanger decks for aircraft and associated machinery spaces positioned aft. The propulsion from her Jupiter days remained unchanged. Three boilers, producing 190psi produced steam drove turbine electric motors which developed 6,500 shaft horsepower driving 2 propeller shafts. This powerplant arrangement allowed the new displacement of 15,150 tons full to make an impressive (for the time) 15.5 knots.
For self-defense, Langley was fitted with four 5″/51 caliber single gun mounts. CV-1 had room for approximately 34 aircraft (biplanes) as folding wing planes for aircraft carriers had yet to be developed. The operational crew component comprised of 468 sailors and applicable air wing personnel. Langley was 542 feet long and her beam was 65′ 3 “. Two gantry cranes were fitted. Number 1 Hole was dedicated to aviation fuel storage. The starboard side uptakes were cross connected to the port side and hinged down for unobstructed flight deck operations.
A Vought VE-7 Bluebird biplane made history by being the first airplane to take-off from Langley on 17 October 1922 with Lieutenant Commander Virgil Griffin at the controls of the fighter aircraft. Nine days later, on 26 October, Lieutenant Commander G. de Chevalier landed an Aeromarine 39B biplane aircraft on the deck of Langley while she was under steam.
After some modifications, Langley proceeded to the Caribbean Sea for carrier flight operation consisting of launching and landing tests. By June she was training along the Atlantic coast until 1924. Langley then participated in training maneuvers and spent the summer at Norfolk for repairs. In November, Langley departed for the West Coast and arrived in San Diego, California to join the Pacific Battle Fleet. For the next twelve years she would operate off the West Coast and in Hawaiian waters, undergoing basic fleet training, pilot training, and tactical game exercises.
In October 1936, Langley sailed to Mare Island Navy Yard in California for an overhaul and conversion as a seaplane tender. With her career as an aircraft carrier officially ended, her trained pilots were transferred to the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-2) and U.S.S. Saratoga (CV-3). Langley was now re-classified as AV-3 with the conversion completed in February of 1937. She was then assigned to the Aircraft Scouting Force and commenced her tending duties out of Seattle-Washington, Sitka-Alaska, Pearl Harbor, and San Diego-California. In July of 1939, she departed to assume her duties with the Pacific Fleet at Manila in the Philippines arriving in September that year.
On 8 December 1941, Langley was part of the Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked. She immediately set sail for Australia, arriving on New Year’s Day, 1942. On 22 February, commanded by Robert P. McConnell, Langley, carrying 32 Warhawk fighters, left as part of a convoy to aid the Allies in their ill-fated battle against the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies.
On 27 February, Langley parted company from the convoy and headed straight for the port at Tjilatjap, Java. About 74 miles south of Java, the carrier met up with two U.S. escort destroyers when nine Japanese twin-engine bombers attacked. Although Langley had requested a fighter escort from Java for cover, none could be spared. The first two Japanese bomber runs missed their target, as they were flying too high, but Langley‘s luck ran out the third time around and was hit three times, setting the planes on her flight deck aflame. The carrier began to list. Commander McConnell lost his ability to navigate the ship. McConnell ordered Langley abandoned, and the escort destroyers were able to take his crew to safety. Of the 300 crewmen, only 16 were lost. The U.S. destroyers then sank Langley to keep the ship out of Japanese hands.
Aflame, listing and soon to sink, the U.S. Navy loses its first carrier,
U.S.S. Langley, CV-1
UPDATE – A reader in Russia sends this comparison of Langley
with ships of other Navies:
Last Sunday, we posted the story of the burning and sinking of Normandie in New York Harbor. “Gordon K.” found this interesting video of the event on YouTube. A tip of the hat to Gordon for finding this! (3.19 minutes)