Now a ubiquitous part of naval warfare, the aircraft carrier evolved, as with many innovations, by converting an older existing object to fit a new need. The first of what would become the standard aircraft carrier design was the British HMS Argus, commissioned September 16, 1918. Bearing a full length wooden flight deck, two deck elevators linked to an internal hangar, and aircraft arresting gear for landing operations, the Argus began her life in a Scottish dockyard as Italian ocean liner Conte Rosso. Lessons learned from her conversion, along with other Royal Navy projects would lead to the laying down of the purpose built carrier HMS Hermes on January 15, 1918. America, having undertaken its own experiments and observing the work being carried out by the British, decided to follow suit. On July 11, 1919, the United States Navy authorized the conversion of the seven year old collier USS Jupiter into what would become the nation’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley.
USS Jupiter off Mare Island, California on October 16, 1913 showing her original collier configuration. United States Navy Photograph
HMS Argus and a Renown Class battleship, as seen from a United States Navy plane in 1918. United States Navy Photograph
The Jupiter was already a special ship in its own right. The first turbo-electric vessel commissioned into the Navy, she was also the first to transit the Panama Canal eastward from the Pacific to the Atlantic and was chosen to transport the first Naval Aviation detachment to Europe during the First World War. Her selection as the basis for America’s first aircraft carrier was the subject of much debate. Factions within the Navy and Congress argued over if the conversion should be made to a battleship, cruiser, or merchant vessel. Captain Noble E. Irwin of the Chief of Naval Operation’s Aviation Desk had served overseas and observed British experiments up close. He argued strongly in favor of Commander Kenneth Whiting’s proposal regarding the conversion of a long, relatively open collier, with its larger stowage spaces, convertible areas for increased personnel, and reduced smoke risks when compared to other nominated vessels. The infighting even reached the point where the Chief of Naval Operations, Rear Admiral William S. Benson, shelved the entire project despite authorization and funding from Congress. After an angry Congressional hearing and a quick reversal of Benson’s actions by the embarrassed Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, $500,000 was finally allocated to the project in January of 1920. USS Jupiter, having been in Hampton Roads since December 12, 1919, was finally cleared for conversion at the Norfolk Navy Yard.
Reuse is a key element in any ship conversion, and the Jupiter’s seven central, evenly spaced fifty foot tall coaling crane towers would prove incredibly useful. The upper sections of these distinctive features were removed by yard workers, leaving their strong elevated base frames in place. These were combined with steel framework to create a full length elevated flight deck, with an elevator and traveling crane capable of raising and lowering stored aircraft resting in the relatively open ‘hangar deck.’ The spindly metal girders and wooden ‘roof’ reminded observers of old ‘prairie schooner’ covered wagons, an image which was adopted into the ship’s official insignia. The Jupiter’s four Four Inch, Fifty Caliber defensive guns were upgraded to Five Inch, Fifty-One Caliber models, and a carrier pigeon house installed in the stern for use with non-radio equipped airplanes. A total of thirty-six planes could fit aboard the new design, with a launching catapult and arresting wires installed on the flight deck to increase the safety and effectiveness of both takeoffs and landings.
Portside view of USS Langley, formerly the USS Jupiter, at the Norfolk Navy Yard on May 9, 1921. Her movable exhaust funnel is clearly visible, as is the main supports for her flight deck. National Archives Photograph
USS Langley as seen from dockside at the Norfolk Navy Yard during the assembly of her flight deck support structure in May of 1921. United States Navy Photograph
USS Langley’s ‘Covered Wagon’ insignia. United States Navy Image
The crew requirements for the vessel quickly ballooned, with the need for pilots and specialists increasing the necessary compliment from 163 to 468. However, the ship was also significantly lighter. The removal of coaling equipment and other modifications reduced overall draft from twenty-seven feet, eight inches to twenty four feet, and even when fully loaded to 14,000 tons the vessel was still 5, 670 tons lighter than its original configuration.
The Langley on June 1, 1921, showing her completed flight deck framework awaiting its wood covering. United States Army Photograph
USS Langley at the Norfolk Navy Yard in late 1921 as her flight deck is being constructed. United States Army Photograph
On April 11, 1920, early in the conversion process, the former Jupiter was given her new name, USS Langley, in honor of the aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley. Public enthusiasm for the project had dimmed throughout the Langley’s tenure at the Norfolk Navy Yard, but the ship would not be lost to the scrapper’s torch of the interwar naval treaties. On March 20, 1922, the Langley was officially commissioned as America’s first aircraft carrier.
USS Langley docked at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. on July 3, 1923. United States Navy Photograph.
USS Langley in July of 1923. Library of Congress Photograph
Quickly, the unusual looking ship made a name for herself. Her first successful takeoff took place on October 17, 1922, when Lieutenant Virgil C. Griffin made an unassisted flight in a Vought VE-7-SF ‘Bluebird.’ On October 26, Lieutenant Commander Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier made the first successful landing on a moving carrier in his two-seater Aeromarine 93B. The ship’s commanding officer, Commander Kenneth Whiting, was the first to successfully use the Langley’s deck mounted catapult on November 18 when he was launched in a Naval Aircraft Factory PT seaplane. In June of 1923 the Langley even sailed up the Potomac River to Washington, D.C., with her pilots putting on an airshow for officials and the public.
An Aeromarine 39B biplane landing on the stationary USS Langley, October 19, 1922. The flight deck crew had to stand in deployed nets off the side of the deck during takeoff and landings. United States Navy Photograph
An Aeromarine 39B landing on the Langley in 1922 as seen from another vessel. United States Navy Photograph
A Vought VE-7 being moved off of the USS Langley’s elevator and into the hangar on July 10, 1923. National Archives Photograph
After two years of active service the Langley was reassigned to the Pacific Battle Fleet, arriving at San Diego on November 29, 1924. There she once again became a novel sight for the American public, carrying out tests with her newly assigned Douglas DT-2 torpedo bomber planes. Participating in fleet problems, the pilots of the Langley demonstrated the versatile power of the carrier as both a reconnaissance and attack platform. While her hanger was more exposed to the sea than later designs, crews were able to fit up to thirty-six aircraft of various makes aboard, giving the vessel an impressive arsenal. Without a doubt, her early days were a marked success. But time and technology would quickly leave the Langley behind.
A Douglas DT-2 torpedo bomber launching from the USS Langley’s catapult on April 2, 1925. United States Navy Photograph
USS Langley off Pearl Harbor in May of 1928 with thirty-four planes arranged on her flight deck. National Archives Photograph
Torpedo bombers and attack aircraft in the Langley’s hangar during the 1920s. United States Navy Photograph
By the 1930s, the Langley was rendered obsolete by her purpose built successors Lexington, Saratoga, and Ranger. To extend her usefulness, the Navy converted the Langley into a seaplane tender over the course of October 1936 to February 1937, removing the forward half of her distinctive flight deck.
USS Langley at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in 1929, dwarfed by her successors USS Lexington and Saratoga. United States Navy Photograph
USS Langley in Pearl Harbor on July 29, 1938, fully loaded with the aircraft of squadrons VP-1 and VP-18. Her shortened deck is clearly visible. United States Navy Photograph
Assigned to the Pacific, the aging trailblazer was caught up in the initial Japanese assaults against American positions on December 8, 1941. Retreating to Australia, the vessel once again took on fighter planes, albeit this time in crates. Bearing thirty-two desperately needed P-40 ‘Warhawk’ fighters for the 13th Pursuit Squadron, the Langley sailed out under escort for the last time on February 22, 1942 for the island of Java. Caught in open waters by sixteen Japanese G4M ‘Betty’ bombers and fifteen A6M ‘Zero’ fighters, the Langley was bracketed by explosions and set on fire. Unable to save the ship, her two escorting destroyers scuttled the Langley seventy five miles south of her intended destination at the Java port of Tjilatjap. Her legacy lives on however, from the preserved Second World War carriers who avenged her loss to the cutting edge nuclear carriers that now ply the seas under the flag of the United States Navy.
USS Langley, abandoned and listing after the attack by Japanese bombers on February 27, 1942. United States Navy Photograph
Sailors aboard USS Whipple watch as a scuttling torpedo detonates against USS Langley’s hull, her deck still laden with desperately needed fighter planes. United States Navy Photograph