A lasting footprint: The Lexington and Saratoga were the first US aircraft carriers and left a lasting imprint on the history of the Navy. From 1928 to 1941, these ships formed generations of pilots and flight officers who initiated the long tradition of American naval aviation. Affectionately these “old ladies” had been nicknamed “Lady lex” and “Lady sara” in the fleet. Their unmistakable slender figure and huge chimney, cruiser artillery, slender bow and greyhound performance, surpassing all that the US Navy could offer at the time, became legendary.
USS Saratoga underway circa in 1942
The first and last American Battlecruisers
Battle cruisers: Their genesis is not very simple: Originally, these ships were commanded on plans in 1916 as battle cruisers, in the wake of the arms race initiated before the great war. During this construction was postponed and suspended to give priority to the means ASM, then resumed before being stopped net by the Treaty of Washington in 1921. The latter clamped down tonnage and calibres, prohibited the construction of any ship of line for ten years.
As a result, the Lexington class, ambitious with its six 42,000-tonne, 270-meter long, 8-piece, 457-mm vessels, already well underway in 1922, was suspended pending a decision by the Admiralty. Since the treaty considered aircraft carriers to be essentially auxiliaries for lighting, defense and not attack, no limitation was imposed on them.
As a result the decision became obvious. The plans of the final aircraft carriers based on these monsters, of which only the two most advanced units were the object, the others canceled, were long to draw because of the new field in which the engineers ventured then. Meanwhile, a coalman was converted into an aircraft carrier (renamed the Langley) to train pilots and future airmen.
USS Saratoga CC-3 in construction, before reconversion
The new design was based on their hull, by then quite advanced (more than 35%). Compartimentation, upper framing, and even the armored belt were simply reduced in height. All the work was done on the design of a huge one-storey hangar and then the flight deck. The military at that time, who did not see the potential of the nascent air force, insisted that the vessel be able to defend itself, demanding the installation of a heavy cruiser armament and all the defensive armament and facility of shooting needed.
When the gigantic boiler galleries that propelled these ships to more than 33 knots, they were gathered in a single – but huge – duct, which was reported, like the entire superstructure, to port, which was considered more practical for right-handed tendencies. and the specific maneuvers of the airmen at the time, that the smoke of the ducts could further hinder. Much of the original design is also to the credit of the delegation of engineer officers who went to study the British Furious in operations.
After three years of work, the ships were ready for launch in 1925. This was done in October with the sponsorship of Mrs. Theodore Douglas Robinson, secretary of the navy’s wife at the White House. It was one of the largest navy days, inaugurating a new generation of officers and theorists, viewed with suspicion, however, by the admirals of the old school (Mahan). The first air complement, of 63 aircraft, was judged at the time acceptable but appears reduced depending on the size of the ship, and the respective size of the aircraft.
But the latter, biplanes that hardly exceeded 250 kmh, could not fold their wings, and in general, the design of the hangar had been contingent by many compromises due to the origin of these ships. Both “Lex” were prototypes in many ways…
USS Saratoga CV-3 6 june 1935
USS Lexington carrer
Interwar: From 1928, when they were accepted into service, until December 1941, these large ships traveled a lot. After a perishable adaptation of their fleet and their pilots, freshly emanated from the USS Langley, the “Lex” and the “Sara” participated in maneuvers campaigns in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Caribbean, but were based mainly on the theater of operations of the Pacific.
The Lexington was home base at San Pedro, California. These ships participated in strike exercises on Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal, among others. The Lexington also performed assistance operations, using its powerful electric generators to “troubleshoot” the dam supplying the city of Tacoma. Searching (unsuccessfully) the aviator Amelia Earhart and evacuating the victims of an earthquake in Guantanamo.
WW2 In 1941, the Lexington was at Pearl Harbor, in the TF12 under the command of Vice Admiral Husband Kimmel. With his escort, he set out on December 5th charged with aircraft (mostly Vindicator bombers) for the Midway base, which in retrospect saved him.
The Saratoga on his side was in San Diego for a short time. The two ships, each on their own, were ordered to hunt down the Japanese fleet (unsuccessful). Subsequently, the Lexington was sent to create a force-helping diversion to rescue the beleaguered Wake Island garrison and to attack the Japanese installations of the Marshall Islands. The island capitulated, however, despite the relief force close enough and the mission was canceled.
USS Langley, Saratoga and Lexington anchores at Puget Sound NyD, 1929
A planned attack on Wake Island in January 1942 was then canceled when a submarine sank the tanker supplying fuel for the return. The Lexington then operated in the Coral Sea the following month to block any Japanese advance in the region. The ship was spotted by Japanese seaplanes on approach to Rabaul, New Britain, but her aircraft repelled the following attacks. Reinforced by Yorktown, both units successfully attacked the Japanese expedition off the east coast of New Guinea in early March.
The Lexington was briefly restored at Pearl Harbor at the end of the month and made an appointment with Yorktown in the Coral Sea in early May. A few days later, the Japanese began Operation MO, the invasion of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and the two US carriers attempted to stop the invading forces. They sank the light-air carrier Shoho on May 7 at the start of the Battle of the Coral Sea, but their aircraft did not find the main Japanese force of Shokaku and Zuikaku, at least until the next day when the Lexington aircraft and Yorktown severely damaged the Shokaku, with in return lucky strikes by the Japanese on the Lexington.
The leaking aviation gas tanks gave off considerable fumes that triggered a series of explosions and fires, quickly out of control. The Lexington had to be scuttled by an American destroyer during the evening of May 8 to avoid its capture…
USS Saratoga CV-3 off Guadalcanal 1942
USS Saratoga carrer
The Saratoga on her side received on her truncated funnels structure a broad black band which allowed airmen to differentiate it during the exercises. In January 1941, the “sara” entered the Bremerton Navy yard for its first major modernization. In addition to the enlargement of its runway, a reinforced AA artillery and a CXAM-1 radar (one of the 14 ships of the Navy to benefit).
After Pearl Harbor and the attempt to save Wake, the “sara” patrolled in January 1942, receiving an I-6 torpedo that sent her for a while in dry dock to Hawaii, then to Bermerton. It was used to drop its heavy artillery, replaced by additional DCA, including 16 carriages 127 mm long range (38 calibers).
USS Saratoga CV-3 1943-44
When the ship, whose anti-aircraft defense had been greatly strengthened, returned on mission in June, loaded with new equipment and supplies, food and ammunition. Until September, the Saratoga supported the forces present during the Solomon campaign. After torpedoing I-26, the large ship re-docked at Pearl Harbor, then returned to business with the Eastern Solomon Islands campaign from Noumea.
In November, it was the Bougainville, then the assault on Rabaul, where his cameras recorded a superb hunting table. Then it was the support of the operation against Makin and Tarawa (Gilbert). A new dry dock in San Francisco resulted in the addition of a new radar and superior DCA, including new quadruple 40 mm hulls.
USS Saratoga at Pearl Harbor – color photograph
In January 1944, the “Sara” opera against the Marshalls. In March, the aircraft carrier joined an international force (British, Commonwealth, with Dutch ships and the French Richelieu), to operate in Burma and Indonesia. After extensive night training, the Saratoga joined Enterprise for the assault on iwo Jima.
After a visit to Puget Sund in May, exercises until September, the carrier was later used to transport the veterans of the Pacific campaign (operation “magic carpet”). Made available to the Navy and disarmed, the Saratoga was put to the test in Bikini Atoll during a double atomic test. Shaken on the first, he sank after the second.
Displacement & Dimensions: 37,000 t surface, 48,500 t diving, 270 x 32,8 x 10 m
Propulsion: 4 propellers, 4 turbo electric units, 16 TE boilers, 180,000 hp. 33.25 knots.
Weaponry: 4×2 203 mm, 12×127 mm, 78 aircraft (1930), 65 (1942).
Protection: 19 – 178 mm
Crew: 2791 officers and sailors