CV-2 Lexington Class
The most powerful carriers in the U.S. fleet, as well as their first fleet carriers, the two ships were, according to historian Norman Friedman, as remarkable in their way as the first British Dreadnought battleship launched only 25 years before, outclassing every other carrier in existence. Saratoga and Lexington were faster than their Japanese rivals, they could operate more aircraft, and their design was so sound that they went to war without major reconstruction since their completion. The Navy considered Saratoga and Lexington as major successes.
They were built 1920-27 at Fore River Shipbuilding and New York Shipbuilding. They joined the fleet in 1927 and helped to evaluate various naval aviation tactics leading up to World War II. Just prior to its launching, Saratoga was hailed by the Philadelphia Evening Star because "there is no counterpart for this first American first-line carrier in any other navy...." Saratoga's prewar career was spent engaged in fleet training exercises that defined a strong role for aircraft carriers in naval warfare. This included "attacks" on the Panama Canal and Pearl Harbor, usually operating in tandem with Lexington, then in later years with the carriers that followed these pioneers. Based out of San Pedro or San Diego, Saratoga operated in annual fleet "problem" exercises. According to the ship's official Navy history, "in the fleet problems, Saratoga continued to assist in the development of fast carrier tactics, and her importance was recognized by the fact that she was always a high priority target for the opposing forces." According to Friedman, "it was with Lexington and Saratoga--the matched giants, the biggest carriers in the world -- that the U.S. Navy learned the rudiments of carrier task force operations between 1927 and 1941."
Naval officers appreciated the vessels. Capt. Marc Mitscher, naval aviation pioneer, captain of USS Hornet (CV-8), the carrier that launched Col. "Jimmy" Doolittle's strike at Japan, later commander of the fast carrier task force, and, incidently, the first man to land a plane aboard Saratoga, testified in 1940 that "we have always felt, a good many of us, that the Lexington and Saratoga were the best ships we have ever built for all purpose ships, carrying the protection and armor of a cruiser. We will have twelve carriers that need cruiser protection and that cannot be sent out on independent missions unless they have cruiser protection. I feel that we have two carriers, the Lexington and Saratoga that can be sent out on independent missions and if they lose their cruiser protection they can still protect themselves with their aircraft and armament. Therefore we feel we should look into that field for future carriers...."
Despite Captain Mitscher's sentiments, Lexington and Saratoga were never envisaged as prototypes for a heavyweight carrier fleet. They remained one-offs, a unique double product of the Washington Treaty.
The cost of building the Saratoga, according to an August 1952 article in BUSHIPS ]ournal, was $43,856,492.59, while the Lexington was slightly more expensive, $45,952,644.83. Upon the occasion of the first take-off from the Langley, RAdm. Moffett declared: "The air fleet of an enemy will never get within striking distance of our coast as long as our aircraft carriers are able to carry the preponderance of air power to sea." In Lexington and Saratoga, the U.S. Navy had two of the strongest aircraft carriers in all the world.
Lexington had not survived the war - she was sunk in May 1942 at the Battle of Coral Sea. Saratoga survived the war and was disposed in the July 1946 Bikini atomic tests, by then in poor condition. Saratoga was modified for Operation Crossroads. Nearly two-thirds of the ship's armament was stripped, including two of the houses with the twin 5-inch guns. Other fixtures, including compasses and the ship's bell (now at the Washington Navy Yard), were taken off, and aircraft, vehicles, and radar were mounted on the ship. Blast gauge towers and other instruments were mounted on Saratoga. Loaded with 700 gallons of fuel oil, 15 tons of diesel, and two-thirds of its ammunition, Saratoga was sent to the bottom in a near-combat-ready state.
Saratoga was selected as a test ship for Operation Crossroads because, as a sole representative of a now obsolete class, she had been replaced by the large number of wartime-built Essex-class carriers now available for future fleet use. Additionally, the carrier's compartmentation was "unusually complete" with more than 1,000 watertight compartments and its "underwater protection was very similar in arrangement to that of modern battleships and large carriers."
Saratoga was moored 2,260 yards off the actual zeropoint for the Able test blast of July 1, 1946; intentionally located at some distance to save the carrier for the Baker test. Saratoga was lightly damaged, with a fire on deck that was extinguished. Initial array plans for Baker placed Saratoga within a 300-yard radius of the detonation point. Because this position was deemed likely to sink the carrier so quickly that "no photographs could be made of the behavior of her flight deck under the severe hull pressure and wave action expected," Saratoga was changed to a 500-yard distant mooring, within the 500- to 700-yard "lethal radius" of the blast. Because of slack moorings and a wind change, the carrier drifted closer in, perhaps to within 300 yards of the bomb location before the detonation. The ship was blown out to a position 800 yards distant before drifting back in and sinking 600 yards from the detonation point.
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