The converted collier Jupiter (AC-3) was commissioned as the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier—the USS Langley—on 20 March 1922. The ship’s new name honored astronomer and physicist Samuel Pierpoint Langley, who had experimented with flying machines as early as 1898. The Langley was designated CV-1: aircraft carrier No. 1.
While the Langley was being converted at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Lieutenant Commander Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier led a team of Navy pilots in flight training to operate from the Langley. They practiced touch-and-go landings on a 100-foot wooden platform built over a coal barge. At the same time, on the West Coast, Navy pilots began training on an 836-foot wooden flight deck—somewhat longer than the Langley’s deck—at North Island, San Diego.
The Langley’s conversion was completed on 22 September 1922. On 17 October, while she was anchored in the York River, Lieutenant Commander Virgil C. Griffin made the first takeoff from her deck, flying a Vought VE-7SF biplane. Langley aviator Jackson Tate recalled:
This was not so simple as it sounds today. . . . planes in those days had no brakes. In order to allow a plane to turn up to full power and start its deck run, it was necessary to develop a device consisting of a bomb release attached to a wire about 5 feet long. The bomb release was hooked to a ring on the landing gear and the end of the wire to a hold-down fitting on the deck. A cord led from the bomb-release trigger to an operator on the deck, who could release the plane on signal.1
First Landings with Fore-and-Aft Wires
Nine days later, on 26 October, while the Langley was steaming at 12.5 knots, Lieutenant Commander Chevalier made the first landing on her deck with an Aeromarine 39-B biplane. As the plane settled down on the deck its wooden propeller broke, but there was no crash.2
At the time, the Langley’s arresting gear consisted of wires running fore and aft, suspended about ten inches above the deck and covering the after 200 feet of the flight deck. Comb-like devices on the planes’ landing gear slowed them as they glided along the wires, which converged as they ran forward. While not entirely successful, this system of fore-and-aft wires was used on U.S. aircraft carriers until 1929. The Langley also was fitted with a flush-deck catapult forward, for launching heavy aircraft or when there was no wind over her deck.
The Langley operated for two years in an experimental role, testing aircraft and carrier equipment, training pilots, and developing operating techniques. There were accidents of varying severity during this period, but no fatalities on board the ship. In November 1924, the Langley joined the Battle Fleet at San Diego, ending her role as a purely experimental ship. Navy Fighting Squadron (VF) 2 began flying from the Langley in January 1925 for carrier qualifications—the first squadron to be assigned to a U.S. carrier. The squadron flew VE-7S fighters. In addition, the Langley had her own liaison and training aircraft assigned.
That March, she took part in Fleet Problem V off the West Coast.3 Albeit the nine VE-7S fighters of VF-2 on board the Langley had little influence on the outcome of the exercise, her participation demonstrated the feasibility of operating a slow carrier with the fleet. As a result, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, Admiral Robert E. Coontz recommended accelerating the completion of the U.S. Navy’s next two carriers, the Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3).
The Bull Ambitiously Ups the Aircraft Count
Up to that time, the Langley normally carried only one 12-plane squadron, which could be accommodated in her hangar, plus a few planes assigned to the ship. In 1928, newly promoted Rear Admiral Joseph M. “Bull” Reeves, the Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, increased the number of planes embarked in the ship. He ordered 36 aircraft to be placed on the flight deck, personally supervising their placement. Six more planes were stowed below. (Reeves was the first U.S. Navy aviation officer to be promoted to flag rank.)
During operations off Hawaii in April 1928—Fleet Problem VIII—the Langley was able to operate the 36 aircraft. The ship’s Boeing F2B-1 fighters were highly maneuverable and easily outfought the defending Army’s fighters, which had in-line, water-cooled engines. While in Hawaiian waters, the Langley was able to launch 35 aircraft in just seven minutes—one plane every 12 seconds! Those operations included an early morning “attack” on 17 May with simulated bombing and strafing runs, taking the Army defenders by complete surprise. That was the first of a series of such exercises by U.S. carriers that invariably were successful in making surprise attacks on Oahu.
Not all naval aviators supported Reeves’ efforts. Commander Eugene E. Wilson, his chief of staff, recalled Reeves’ goal to embark 36 aircraft, i.e., two full fighter squadrons: “Langley officers had crystallized the opinion that not more than a third as many, say twelve airplanes, could be flown off the Langley and received on board without hazard to the lives of the pilots. That key factor of safety had been argued out in conferences but ‘Bull’ Reeves had stood pat.”4
The Langley was a key component in fleet exercises for the next few years. But during that period new, far larger carriers were joining the fleet. Thus, the venerable Langley was converted to a seaplane tender (AV-3) at Mare Island from October 1936 to February 1937. In the conversion she lost the forward 40 percent of her flight deck and gained a small superstructure in its place; in her new configuration she could provide services to two squadrons of flying boats. She then operated in both the Pacific and Atlantic areas until she sailed westward, arriving at Manila in September 1939, to support the Asiatic Fleet’s seaplanes.
Facing the Japanese Juggernaut
When the war began (8 December 1941 in the Philippines), the Langley was anchored in Manila Bay. She departed the Philippines under cover of darkness on the night of 8–9 December and, with two fleet oilers of the Asiatic Fleet, fled southward. During their trip, the Langley provided support to PBY Catalina flying boats.
On the afternoon of 10 December, as the Langley passed through the Sulu Sea, the accompanying destroyers had a submarine contact and two torpedoes passed close to the ship. Just after dark on 10 December, Langley crewmen sighted Japanese cruisers and destroyers, but she escaped undetected. She reached Darwin, Australia, on 1 January 1942.
In February 1942, the Japanese steamroller smashed into Java. The only hope the Allies had of holding that prized island was to send in aircraft to fight off the pressing Japanese. U.S. Army P-40 Warhawk fighters, the mainstay of Allied air forces in the area, did not have the range to fly the thousand miles from bases in Australia to Java and had to refuel en route at intermediate Timor Island.5 Realizing this, on 20 February, Japanese landed troops on Timor.
Thus, the decision was made to send P-40 fighters to Java on board the Langley. At Freemantle, Australia, the Langley was loaded with 32 P-40E fighters on her chopped-off flight deck and in the open space aft of the bridge on her main deck. Thirty-three officer pilots and 12 enlisted mechanics came aboard. The pilots, with one exception, had little or no previous experience in P-40s. Still, they had flown their P-40s the 2,400 miles across Australia to reach Freemantle. The planes were put aboard the Langley with their machine guns loaded but were not fueled.
Twenty-seven more P-40 fighters, these in crates, were loaded in the U.S.-flagged freighter Sea Witch. In convoy MS-5 with several other ships, the two departed Freemantle on Australia’s west coast on 22 February.6 The need for fighter aircraft in Java was so pressing that the Langley and Sea Witch broke away from the convoy and separately steamed—unescorted—for the Javanese port of Tjilatjap. Steaming at her full speed of about 14 knots, the Langley was to arrive in port on the morning of 27 February.
However, she was delayed on the 26th because of a mix-up concerning the ships that would escort her on the final leg of the voyage. Finally, two U.S. destroyers met the Langley, but there was another delay while a suspected submarine contact was run down. Early on the 27th, the Langley and her escorts began the final 100-mile run to Tjilatjap.
Fate Met in the Java Sea
About 0900 an unidentified plane was sighted high above the three ships. Fighter cover was requested by the Langley, but no fighters could be spared by the hard-pressed Army squadrons on Java. At 1140, more aircraft were sighted and battle stations sounded. The Langley’s antiaircraft guns pointed skyward as did those of her two destroyer escorts—the “tin cans” each having one 3-inch/23-caliber gun and machine guns for air defense.
At the time the Langley was armed with four 3-inch antiaircraft guns mounted on her flight deck. The guns were directed from an exposed fire control center on her flight deck, somewhat protected by sandbags. The ship also had four .50-caliber, water-cooled machine guns and a few automatic rifles for air defense.7 The Langley’s main battery of two 5-inch/51-caliber guns mounted forward and two more aft could not be used against aircraft.
Attacking first were nine Japanese twin-engine bombers. Their first two passes were foiled by the expert maneuvering of the Langley’s skipper, Commander Robert P. McConnell.8 The third time, the Japanese pilots anticipated the ship’s maneuvering, and the Langley was struck by five direct hits, with two near misses.
The 29-year-old ship reeled under the blows. The planes on her abbreviated flight deck burst into flames, which were being fanned by a stiff wind; the bridge steering mechanism and gyro compass were destroyed; there was soon a 10-degree list to starboard. As the Langley staggered along, six A6M Zero fighters strafed the flaming ship.
Commander McConnell made a gallant attempt to save his stricken ship. Burning planes were pushed over the side, counterflooding was ordered to reduce the list, and the Langley was steered toward the Java coast in the hope that she could be run aground to save what planes remained. But the ship’s electric propulsion flooded, and she came to a halt. At 1332 McConnell ordered his ship abandoned while the two destroyers were available to take off his crew. All but 11 of the crew and the embarked Army aviation personnel were rescued. When only the dead were left in the Langley, one of the destroyers sank her with two torpedoes and nine rounds of 4-inch gunfire. She went down some 75 miles from Java.
Thus ended the trailblazing career of the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier—the progenitor of the massive, 100,000-ton, nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers that would follow in her wake.
1. RADM Jackson Tate, USN (Ret.), “We Rode the Covered Wagon,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 104, no. 10 (October 1978): 66.
2. CDR Chevalier died less than a month later in an airplane crash near Norfolk.
3.Fleet exercises—known as fleet problems—were held on a regular basis, at times several in a given year, from 1923 (Fleet Problem I) to 1940 (Fleet Problem XXI).
4. CDR Eugene E. Wilson, USNR (Ret.), Slipstream: The Autobiography of an Air Craftsman (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950), 116.
5. Available records indicate that 32 U.S. Army P-40s were flown successfully from Australia to Java; 44 additional planes were lost en route.
6. The three other cargo ships in the convoy, en route to Ceylon, were carrying the ground echelon of B-17 heavy bomber and P-40 fighter units being sent to India. Ten crated P-40s also were on board those ships.
7. These were M1918 Browning automatic rifles, a .30-caliber infantry weapon with an effective range of some 900 yards; they were not intended for use against aircraft. Some official reports cite the ship’s antiaircraft armament of only two 3-inch guns plus two .50-cal. and two .30-cal. machine guns; the heavier armament appears more likely.
8. CDR McConnell, formerly the Langley’s executive officer, had taken command on 10 February 1942, relieving CAPT (later ADM) Felix B. Stump.