How the US Navy's First Aircraft Carrier Met a Tragic Death

Source: Image: Wrecksite

Although World War II had many famous ships, few remember the USS Langley, which was America's first aircraft carrier and met a terrible end.

When we think of World War II in the Pacific, we naturally often focus on some of the most famous ships and the biggest battles of the war. The story of the USS Lexington and the Enterprise capture our imaginations, but there are many stories which have gone unremembered.

World War II mobilized the complete resources of the United States generally and the US Navy specifically. Every carrier the Navy possessed was eventually pressed into duty. This included the USS Langley, CV-1, the first and original US aircraft carrier. Twenty years out of date, the Langley was nevertheless pressed into service by a desperate Navy. Her fate represents both the heroism and the tragedy of American sailors during their greatest endeavor.

The Birth of Carrier Aviation

The USS Langley started her life in 1911 as the USS Jupiter, a US Navy commissioned Collier. In this life her mission was simple: she carried coal, still a critical fuel source for the Navy in those days. But even at this early point, the Jupiter was a ship of firsts. It was the first ship laid down of her ill-fated cohort of colliers, the first Navy ship to fit a high-performance turbo-electric engine, and the first Navy ship to make the reverse journey through the Panama Canal from the Pacific side to the Atlantic.

The Langley (USS Jupiter) before her conversion. Source: Wikipedia
The Langley (USS Jupiter) before her conversion. Source: Wikipedia

In 1920, the Jupiter, now renamed the Langley was tasked with a new mission. Over the next two years, she was cut from the inside out. Her coal bunkers were converted to hangers, machine spaces, and crew quarters. On top, her tall coal cranes were cut off and replaced with a long wooden flight deck.

In October 1922, the USS Langley was recommissioned and given a new designation, CV-1. Days later, a plane was launched from her deck, becoming the first fighter launch in Navy history. For the next fourteen years, the Langley was instrumental in helping the US Navy experiment with carrier operations. More importantly, the pilots she trained would go on to serve aboard the Navy's next two carriers, the Saratoga and the Lexington, where they would in turn train a new group of Navy pilots.

But the Langley's place in the Navy, as with all things, would eventually to come to an end. By 1936, several new carrier designs had entered service. The USS Ranger (CV-4) was the first purpose-built carrier in the Navy, and follow-on carriers Enterprise and Yorktown were still larger and better than the ships that had come before.

By comparison, the Langley was small and crude, possessing many limitations which came from her past as a collier as well as from decisions born out of a lack of carrier experience during her conversion. For example, the XOs quarters on the Langley were located in a special deckhouse on the ships aft. This facility was converted to quarters in the mid-1920s after the ships flock of carrier pigeons, which had previously resided there, escaped. In the last peaceful years of the 1930s, the Langley was converted into a support ship and a seaplane tender designed to assist operations with a squadron of smaller floatplanes.

Revived for World War II

USS Langley at sea. Source: Wikipedia
USS Langley at sea. Source: Wikipedia

For five years the Langley operated across the Pacific Ocean. When war came in December 1941, she found herself anchored off an island in the southern Philippines. Rather than confront the Japanese invasion force alone — a task the aging ship was ill prepared for — the Langley sailed south and by January had reached Darwin, Australia.

Here, she assisted local Australian forces by supporting convoy operations and anti-submarine patrols. Meanwhile, the Japanese had invaded many of the islands in the western Pacific. In Indonesia, British, Dutch, and American forces found themselves especially hard-pressed by the Japanese. As a result, the Langley was ordered to join a convoy of two destroyers, the Edsall and the Whipple, and to deliver a shipment of 32 P-40 Warhawk fighters. These heavy land-based fighters replaced the Langley's normal complement of seaplanes.

By late February, the Langley and her small convoy had reached the waters around Indonesia, where the Japanese continued to make large gains on the ground. The Langley then radioed a request for fighter cover as she entered the range of the land-based fighters. The local commander refused the request citing their thinly stretched resources, which was ironic given Langley's cargo.

Destruction of the USS Langley

The Japanese commander did not rate the convoy as low a priority, perhaps seeing the value in attacking a possible American light carrier entering the area. On February 27th, he struck with a flight of nine G4M Betty twin-engine bombers escorted by Zeros. The Bettys were initially ineffective against the Langley. The planes were designed to fly in level bombing runs at medium altitude, which gave the Americans plenty of time and warning to maneuver out of the way. But on the third pass, the Bettys changed their tactics and attacked lower and faster than before from multiple angles. With nowhere to go, the Langley was hit by approximately five bombs of various sizes. Sixteen crewmen were killed, the steering gear was destroyed, the flight deck was set aflame, and the ship took on a severe list.

USS Langley scuttled by torpedoes. Source: Traces of War
USS Langley scuttled by torpedoes. Source: Traces of War

It was at this point that the captain of the Langley ordered his crew evacuated and the ship scuttled rather than fall into Japanese hands. Once the evacuation was finished, the destroyers sank what remained of the Navy's first aircraft carrier.

The ordeal for the Langley sailors was far from over. With the mission to resupply the troops in Indonesia a failure, the destroyers and the rest of the convoy decided to change course back to Australia and exit the combat zone. However, this operation was beset by trouble from the start.

A grainy still taken from a Japanese warship of the Edsall's sinking. Source: Wikipedia
A grainy still taken from a Japanese warship of the Edsall's sinking. Source: Wikipedia

Japanese bombers continued to harass the ships throughout the following day. That night, Langley survivors were transferred to the USS Pecos, a cargo ship that could accommodate the survivors better than the smaller destroyer Whipple. The convoy then split up in hopes of making detection more difficult.

But during this same night a new threat moved into range, the planes of the infamous Japanese carrier group the Kido Butai. At noon that day, the Pecos was attacked by waves of Japanese carrier planes. Since the convoy dispersed so rapidly during the night, no help would come. While the Pecos struggled valiantly against the Japanese onslaught, the cargo ship was sunk with heavy loss of life by midafternoon.

Both the USS Whipple and the Edsall moved into the area to rescue survivors. Of the 700 sailors aboard the Pecos (including approximately 300 Langley survivors), Whipple managed to rescue just under 300 before having to flee. But the Edsall was ambushed by a Japanese battleship group. She was sunk after a short, but impressive, engagement. Approximately three dozen of her crew were rescued by the Japanese, including three pilots from the Langley who had remained aboard. These men were eventually sent to a Japanese base over 1,000 miles away from the site of the sinking. There, the survivors of the Edsall and the Langley were eventually beheaded by their captors.

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Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.