The design of Ranger (CV-4) began in 1922; she would be the first American carrier designed as such -- all previous carriers were converted from other ship types. Four designs were submitted in 1927 with tradeoffs between speed and aircraft complement. The winning design was authorized in FY1929 - it was flush deck with no island superstructure and three stacks on each side of the flight deck angled outward. Laid down in Septemer 1931 at Newport News, the island was placed into the design in 1932 and she commissioned in June 1934.
In the 1930s, there was a debate in the Navy as to whether carriers should be large or small, and Ranger was an experiment with the "small" side of the argument. Through testing in prewar "Fleet Problems," the Navy determined it needed to build bigger carriers, designs that ultimately culminated in the famed Essex-class that served through World War II, Korea and into Vietnam.
Plenipotentiaries of the United States, the British Empire, France, Italy and Japan met in Washington in the early Twenties to reach an agreement on the limitation of naval armament. The treaty they signed on February 6, 1922 had a profound effect on the evolution of aircraft carriers. From the time the U.S. Navy first embarked upon a carrier-building program, it was faced with tonnage limitations established by this treaty. The total tonnage for aircraft carriers of each of the contracting powers permitted the U.S. and Great Britain 131,000 tons each, France and Italy 60,000 tons each, and Japan 81,000 tons. Of its allotted tonnage, the United States had already consumed 66,000 in the Lexington and Saratoga. Only 69,000 tons remained for future construction. The Navy gave much thought and study to the means of best utilizing this remainder, and, in 1927, when drawing up a five-year shipbuilding program, the General Board recommended construction of a 13,800-ton carrier each year.
The program involving this plan was promptly submitted to the President who approved it on December 31, 1927. It was subsequently submitted to Congress which, by act of February 13, 1929, authorized construction of one 13,800-ton carrier. The Navy attempted in the following years to obtain authorization for construction of the visualized sister ships, but without success. Indeed, before another carrier was to be authorized, the Navy had become more interested in larger ships of about 20,000 tons. In addition to the legal reasons which led the Navy to seek a 13,800-ton carrier, there was a body of thinking on the part of some Naval Aviators which recognized the utility of small carriers. This was evident as early as 1925 when the General Board briefly considered but rejected the conversion of 10,000-ton cruisers to light carriers.
Two years later, LCdr. Bruce G. Leighton, then aide to the Secretary of the Navy, prepared a study on possible uses of small carriers. In addition to protection of the battle line, he suggested their suitability for anti-submarine warfare, reconnaissance, and reduction of enemy shore bases.
At about the same time, RAdm. William A. Moffett argued that British and Japanese experience with small carriers had made it clear that such ships could keep more aircraft in operation than could an equal tonnage devoted to larger ships.
Fleet commanders, who might be expected to have had a more conservative view of the military utility of aircraft than did Moffett and Leighton, expounded concepts that provided further justification for smaller carriers. For example, the Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, noted in his 1927 annual report that the Fleet was seriously handicapped by the absence of a carrier with the battle line upon which spotting planes could land. Thus, both the aviation protagonists and the surface commanders recognized the need for carriers which would perform important roles, even if they were not of a size approaching that of the giants, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga.
Such considerations were in the genesis of CV-4. When it came to reducing them to detailed plans for construction of a new ship, very little had been done. Studies made in 1923 and 1924 had been concerned with island-type vessels, such as the Lexington and Saratoga, and were not directly applicable to a new design - which was to be of the flush-deck variety. In addition, the basic concept for CV-4 was embodied in the General Board recommendations of 1927 and predated the commissioning of Lex and Sara. Hence, the concept could not incorporate any lessons learned during their early fleet operations.
This concept, as outlined by the General Board, included a speed of 29.4 knots, a clear flying deck, 12 five-inch anti-aircraft guns and as many machine guns as possible. On July 26, 1928, BUAER elaborated on this proposed design in a letter to Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet. The flight deck was to be about 86 feet by 750 feet and fitted with arresting gear. The navigating and signal bridge were to be under the flight deck, well forward, with extensions beyond the ships side, port and starboard.
As for the anti-aircraft battery, it had been reduced to eight 5-inch 25-caliber guns located two on each quarter. Anti-aircraft battery directors were to be provided, but BUAER thought that range finders should be omitted. Secondary conning stations were to be located on the starboard side of the upper deck and combined with the aviation control station. A plotting station consisting of flag plot and aviation intelligence office was also to be provided.
Despite the fact that the general concept could not benefit from experiences of the Lexington and Saratoga, the two ships did comment on plans for the Ranger on the basis of such experience as they had obtained during the first year's operation. For example, they felt that both elevators and shop provisions should receive special consideration above and beyond that which had already been given.
"Experience during the present concentration on both carriers has emphasized the importance of the after elevator in addition to the two now contemplated (for CV-4)," wrote Saratoga's comanding officer. "There is required a great deal of re-spotting of planes in flight operations, and an after elevator will considerably expedite this process. After planes have landed on deck, it is sometimes necessary to send below a plane from the after part of the flight deck, which is now difficult with the flight deck filled with planes and the elevators forward."
Officers Aboard both Lex and Sara held informal conferences, the results of which were passed to BUAER. Speed was most desirable in aircraft carriers, but speed also had its drawbacks, as these officers were quick to point out to their superiors. "The location of the A&R and general work shops aft is decidedly undesirable," BUAER informed the Bureau of Construction and Repair, "and it is strongly recommended that they be relocated further forward, if there is any possible way of doing so. Experience on CV-2 and CV-3 has shown that it is impossible to do any work requiring precision or accuracy, such as cutting a thread, when the ship is steaming at about 22 knots or more."
Early in the planning stage, BUAER encountered head-on the problem of lighting and night landings. A memorandum written for BU A ER files pointed out: "The primary difficulty involved in night operations for airplane carriers is the provision of adequate illumination to enable the pilots to make safe landings and at the same time to enable the ship to maintain darkened ship conditions that will prevent disclosure of the carrier's provision to surface craft and enemy aircraft. . . . The technical difficulties in this project are so great that complete success can scarcely be hoped for for several years and then not without the expenditure of much more time and effort than appears desirable at present.
"Night flying experiments were conducted on the Langley to determine the type of illuminating equipment for the Saratoga and Lexington. Although the number of landings made were not very great, enough information was obtained to determine upon equipment that would at least provide for a point of departure for future experiments in an effort to further solve the basic problem. No carrier night flying has been conducted since 1925." The memorandum was dated June 14, 1929.
This sparked an intensive series of experiments which caused the introduction of several lighting systems aboard various carriers. At best, most of these provided safe illumination for night landing but were less successful in maintaining darkened ship. Incandescent lights of low wattage were tested in various arrangements and intensities. Neon tubes were tried, some colored green, red, blue or amber. Of these, plain white was considered the best - but was not a solution. Even luminous paint was investigated. The problem of night deck illumination was to plague Navy for years to come.
How the problem was handled in USS Ranger is indicated by a November 1934 report her commanding officer made to BUAER: "In anything but bright moonlight when the ship's outline can be made out at a reasonable approach distance, it is very difficult, definitely too difficult, to get in the groove when only landing deck lights are used. Although Ranger's landing deck lights extend the length of the ship and are well lined up on each side, which it was hoped would improve the difficulty described by Saratoga and Lexington pilots, the pilot is frequently too near the ship before he can find out which way to swerve. If he happens to hit the groove early, he is well fixed. If he doesn't, he sees a jumble of landing deck lights and can only guess whether to change course to right or to left. "With ramp lights turned on in addition to the landing deck lights, there is unanimous agreement that getting in the groove is very easy. Exactly why this is true is not clear, but the string of lights across the ramp appears not only definitely to locate the end of the deck, but also to give the pilot sufficient basis for setting his course normal to the lights and up to the centerline of the deck. "Athwartship landing deck lights at bow and stern are no use and would be hazardous if opened when planes are landing. (Confusion in getting in the groove existed whether or not these lights were opened, worse when opened.)"
Other problems were of concern to BUAER during the design stage of CV-4. Relatively minor, but illustrative of the care devoted to carrier design, was the question of paint color for interior surfaces. A flurry of correspondence between BUAER and BUC&R concerned the color of paint to use on the deck, overhead, and bulkheads of the hangar. This was not so much a problem of habitability as it was one of weight limitation and maximum reflective power. White paint, light gray and aluminum were considered. Misinformation supplied the Bureau of Engineering caused it to advocate light gray, but BUAER objected. Tests were conducted and aluminum proved lighter and more reflective of the three paints considered.
Finally, in early December 1929, plans for CV-4 received approval. Copies were sent to the Fleet, noting that major changes could not be made in them, but that the Bureau would "be glad to have comment or suggestion with regard to minor points, should such comment appear desirable." By February 1930, active work on the design of the 13,800-ton carrier had stopped. Shortly after British Prime Minister Mr. MacDonald visited the United States, the President gave instructions to suspend all work on this ship, pending the outcome of the then projected London conference on naval armament. Months went by, the President was consulted again, and again the Navy was told to do nothing about the ship until the treaty had been ratified.
The treaty was signed in London on April 22, 1930. Ratification of the treaty was advised by the Senate on July 21, 1930, and by the President on the following day. In the meantime, the Navy Department, Office of the Judge Advocate General, drafted an advertisement which was published when the ratification restriction was lifted. The advertisement invited bids for the construction of CV-4. The bids were opened September 3 - and proved to be "bombs."
All bids submitted far exceeded the appropriation given the Navy for construction of the ship, the lowest bid (by Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co.) exceeding the limit by an estimated $2,160,000. The four Navy Department bureaus involved in the construction plans - BUC&R, BUAER, BUORD, BUENG - forwarded a joint memorandum to the Secretary of the Navy requesting a 60-day extension of the period before execution of the contract in order to consider necessary changes in characteristics which would permit construction of the carrier within the cost of the lowest bid. Permission was obtained and the various departments reviewed their requirements.
Panels of officer-experts in each were formed to submit recommendations. Out went consideration of an extra elevator. Out went the possibility - at this time - of moving the shops forward, as Sara and Lex had suggested. Submitting its list of recommended savings, BUAER listed the elimination of catapults, smokestacks on one side, sliding doors for the hangars, securing tracks, and airplane booms and nets, and requested that necessary eliminations be made in that order. "This bureau feels," wrote Cdr. R. K. Turner for BUAER , "that elimination or reduction in the balance of items considered, namely, arresting gear, elevators, or gasoline capacity would seriously affect the characteristics of the ship as an aircraft carrier, and, therefore, urgently recommends against any sacrifice in these items."
By October 2, the Bureaus had signed another joint letter, addressed to the General Board, listing their recommendations on how to cope with the problem of the elimination of design features. Among other things, Ranger's fire control was to be simplified, ammunition storage space was to be reduced, bombing planes were to be substituted for torpedo planes (this eliminated the purchase of torpedoes), deck catapults were to go by the boards, as were plane booms and nets. Twenty percent of the flight deck securing tracks were to be eliminated, as well as housing palisades, and the voice tube system. Finally, the arresting gear system was to be reduced. On November 1, 1930, the contract was signed by Newport News.
Throughout official correspondence, the 13,800-ton carrier was referred to simply as CV-4. On December 10, 1930, the Bureau of Navigation informed a long list of addressees that "The Secretary of the Navy has assigned the name Ranger to Aircraft Carrier No. 4, authorized by Act of Congress dated February 13, 1929. The assignment of the name Ranger is in accordance with the Department's policy of giving names formerly assigned to those battle cruisers scrapped by terms of the Washington Treaty."
On September 26, 1931, Ranger's keel was laid. Seventeen months later, the ship was launched, and on June 4, 1934, she was commissioned. Though planned originally as a 13,800-ton aircraft carrier, she exceeded this tonnage by 700 tons. Displacement was 17500 tons at full load. Original plans also called for a severe flush deck, but, upon commissioning, she had a small island.The hull was 730 feet in length; flight deck extended her length to 769 feet overall. She was quickly found to be lacking in seakeeping ability; could not operate aircraft in heavy weather conditions.
USS Ranger had eight 5-inch 25-caliber AA guns, and .50-cal machine guns arranged around the flight deck in gallery. 1.1-inch AA was omitted. CV-4 also was equipped with a box arresting gear - a feature included in other fast carriers until early 1943. She could operate 75 aircraft and had a complement of 1788, of whom 162 were commissioned officers. Her aircraft consisted of four squadrons of bombers and fighters and a few amphibians. By 1942, her air wing consisted of 54 F4F fighters and 18 SBD dive bombers. Torpedo aircraft were omitted from her complement because as a weight saving feature her magazines were not given capacity for this type of weapon.
During World War II she served mostly in escort carrier roles of convoy escort, aircraft transport, and amphibious support. She served with the Royal Navy for a time and trained night fighters in the Pacific late in the war. She did not have sufficient speed nor capacity to operate as a fleet carrier. Decommissioned in 1946 she was scrapped.
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