One Ship, Two Legends
An Ancient Roman God
The U. S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier would first be born as the USS Jupiter (AC-3), a collier ship. A collier ship, is a bulk cargo ship designed to carry coal, especially for naval use by coal-fired warships. Coaling at sea was critical to navies and the speed of coal transfer was an important metric of naval efficiency.
Ironically, the Jupiter would not be powered by coal but it would be the first ever turbo-electric ship built for the U.S. Navy. This would later turn out to be one of the most compelling reasons for her next evolution. She would be assigned to the Auxiliary Division. AC designated the ship as Auxiliary, Collier and 3 designating the third of her kind (AC-3). She was named after the ancient Roman god of the sky, thunder and lightning. This would be a fitting name later.
World War I
USS Jupiter (AC-3) would serve in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Jupiter was launched in April 1913 and commissioned in 1914. After her sea trials, Jupiter was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and carried U.S. Marines to the Mexico Pacific coast. In October of that year, Jupiter would cross the Panama Canal and join the Atlantic Fleet. In the Atlantic Fleet, Jupiter was assigned to the Naval Overseas Transport Service and her first voyage transported a naval aviation detachment of 7 officers and 122 men to England. It was the first US aviation detachment to arrive in Europe. It appears that her future was foretold.
The USS Jupiter (AC-3) was decommissioned on 24 March 1920. During her service, she was awarded the Mexican Service Medal and the World War I Victory Medal with Transport clasp.
An American Pioneer, Engineer,
Astronomer and Aviator
In April 1920, 7 years, 11 months and 28 days from her original launch date, the now decommissioned USS Jupiter (AC-3) she was was converted into the first U.S. Navy aircraft carrier at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and renamed USS Langley in honor of Samuel Pierpont Langley, an American astronomer, physicist, aeronautics pioneer and aircraft engineer.
Her hull designation was (CV-1). Contrary to popular belief, the “CV” hull classification does not stand for “carrier vessel”. The “C” is taken from the “Cruiser” designation and the “V” is from the French word meaning “to fly”, voler. The designation “CV” roughly means “flight cruiser” and has been used for what we now call aircraft carriers from the Langley (CV-1) to the latest commissions. “AC” is not used for aircraft carriers because it was used for collier ships. Learn more about ship designations here.
A Show Off and a Movie Star
At the end of World War I, the USS Langley was recommissioned in March 1922 for the purpose of conducting experiments in seaborne aviation. As the first American aircraft carrier she served as the center of events in U.S. naval aviation. The Langley would travel the Pacific and Atlantic shores to show off her wares and provided aviation exhibitions to the public and dignitaries. In 1927, the USS Langley homeport was Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Then for 12 years, she operated off the California coast and Hawaii engaging in training fleet units, aviation tactical experiments, pilot training, and tactical-fleet problems. She was featured in the 1929 silent film about naval aviation The Flying Fleet.
Tender to the Flock
In the fall of 1936, the USS Langley would see yet another change to her mission. Converted to seaplane tender and redesignated as (AV-3) or “Auxiliary Voler” but retained the name Langley. She completed her mission as an aircraft carrier and helped train hundreds of naval aviators. This would prove to be fortunate later as these exceptionally well trained pilots would go on to serve on the USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Saratoga (CV-3) during WWII.
World War II
The Langley wasted no time getting in to the fight and headed to Australia on 08 December 1941, just one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Once there she became part of the joint naval forces American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) and assisted the Royal Australian Air Force in running anti-submarine patrols.
On 27 February 1942, Langley rendezvoused with two U.S. destroyers, the USS Whipple (DD-217) and USS Edsall (DD-219) after delivering a cargo of Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters. The Langley and the two destroyers were spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes as they steamed back to port. 16 Japanese bombers and 15 fighters were sent to intercept Langley and her escorts.
A Valiant End
The Langley and her crew were experience from her previous missions and were able to evade the first two bombing runs from the Japanese. The bombers changed tactics and attacked from all sides and Langley could not avoid the third run. She took five hits and three near misses which caused a loss of 16 crew members.
She fought all morning. Flames burned topside, her steering was now impaired and she began to list to port 10 degrees. When her engine room flooded and the Langley went dead in the water, the Captain gave the order to abandon ship at 1332 HRS. BUT SHE DID NOT GO DOWN!
Both destroyer escorts survived the raid and picked up the survivors of the Langley. The USS Whipple rescued 308 men and the USS Edsall 177. To prevent the Langley from falling in to enemy hands, the destroyers fired multiple 4 inch shells in to her hull. BUT SHE DID NOT GO DOWN! It would take another two torpedoes for Langley to finally succumb to her wounds and the ship was scuttled at 1429 HRS.
The destroyers transferred many of the Langley’s to the USS Pecos (AO-6), an oiler in route to Australia. Much of the Langley crew would be lost when Pecos was sunk by the Japanese aircraft carrier Soryu on 01 March 1942. The Soryu had taken part in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Wake Island. 31 of the 33 pilots assigned to the USAAF 13th Pursuit Squadron that were being transported by Langley remained on the Edsall to be brought to Tjilatjap, but were lost when she was sunk on the same day by Japanese warships while responding to the distress calls of Pecos. The USS Whipple was able to rescue 232 survivors from both ships.
For her service to her country and her crew, the USS Langley was awarded the American Defense Service Medal with “Fleet” clasp, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with 2 stars and the World War II Victory Medal.