Aircraft carrier shortly after completion at Hampton Roads, Virginia, October 27, 1941
Source: Naval History & Heritage Command
Text: Miro Baric
Searching for the lost ships with Paul Allen
We spoke about the naval battles around Guadalcanal in the previous article. The aircraft carriers also participated in them, however they fought from the distance. Some of them were lost during the fighting. One such loss was the USS Hornet, the last American aircraft carrier completed before the attack on Pearl Harbor. She sank exactly one year and one week after entering the service.
The first American carrier was USS Langley (CV-1) that entered service in 1920. She came to life by rebuilding the coal transporting ship USS Jupiter which had been in service since 1913. During the rebuild, eight double cranes were removed as well as both smokestacks, which up until then had stood next to each other, were relocated to the port side where they stood in-line. In that manner the space for the flight deck, mounted on the tall supports, was created.
While Jupiter coal transport had 19 670 tons displacement, Langley aircraft carrier featured 14 100 tons displacement only. The vessel length was 165 meters and the crew accounted for 468 sailors. Langley carried 36 aircraft which could use one lift and one catapult. The armament consisted of 127 mm caliber cannons – two on the bow and two on the stern. They however could not be used for the AA defense. Another obsolete feature was a pigeon cage located between two rear cannons. The idea was that the aircraft taking off of Langley will take a postal pigeon on board which will deliver the message back to the ship. The pigeons were trained while Langley was being rebuilt at Norfolk shipyards and all seemed to work. After that, however, when the ship set sail and the pigeons were released near Tangier Island they returned to Norfolk. After this blunder the pigeon cage was eliminated. It was also deleted from the plans of the future carriers, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga.
Langley holds several “firsts” for the US Navy. On October 17, 1922, the first take off from the aircraft carrier in the USA took place from her deck as well as, on November 18, 1922, the first catapult launched take off. Even though she was extremely slow (15.5 knots only) to perform efficient operations while Naval aviation was technically advancing rapidly, she helped trained the first generations of naval aviators. After she was completely outdated during 1936-37, she was re-built as a seaplanes’ carrier. She was seriously damaged by the Japanese G4M1 Betty bombers on February 27, 1942, while she was transporting Curtiss P-40 fighters to Java. After the crew abandoned her, she was sunk by the escorting destroyers.
US aircraft carriers Langley, Saratoga and Lexington (from bottom to top) Source: Naval History & Heritage Command
USS Ranger in the 1930s. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command
Langley sank as the last of her sister ships. She was the only aircraft carrier (the second planned vessel was cancelled after the decision was made to rebuild Lexington and Saratoga) but as a former coal ship she had three sister ships. And all of them disappeared without trace in Bermuda Triangle. Sometime after Mach 4, 1918, it was USS Cyclops with 306 sailors and passengers on board. She was sailing from South America to Baltimore, Maryland. She made a stopover in Barbados, and it was the last time she was seen. In the end of 1941, in the same area and on the same route, within two and half weeks two remaining sister ships disappeared. First, some time after November 23, 1941, USS Proteus was lost and after December 10, 1941, the sea swallowed USS Nereus. There are several theories about the ships’ demise. The design fault which weakened the hull, and it broke under the combination of a storm and cargo overload was considered. Or they could have become victims of the German submarines which themselves were sunk and could not report their success. In neither case the Germans recorded an attack on the ship that would resemble any of those three vessels. Their disappearance may remain without clarification forever.
The aircraft carrier USS Wasp as she enters Hampton Roads, Virginia, May 26, 1942. In the background is the destroyer USS Edison. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command
Learning on the run
Another two vessels were full-fledged aircraft carriers even though completed through a re-build. The Washington Treaty from 1922, about limitations of the Naval armament, practically excluded building of new battleships and battle cruisers. However, redesigning of some of the half-built ships to the aircraft carriers was permitted. In the USA this was true about Lexington and Saratoga which entered the service in 1937 as CV-2 and CV-3. Initially the Navy was not clear about their purpose either. Besides the airplanes they carried heavy anti-shipping weaponry in the form of 203 mm caliber cannons. However, the variety of exercises performed on the regular basis taught the Navy a lesson and they gradually worked out the correct tactics for the aircraft carriers’ deployment. It was learnt, for example, that these ships needed to avoid encounter with the enemy surface vessels therefore the 203 mm caliber cannons were deleted. On May 8, 1942, Lexington was sunk in the Battle of Corral Sea. We spoke about her fate in the previous articles. Despite various damages, Saratoga survived the war and on July 25, 1946, was sunken at Bikini atoll during the nuclear bomb tests. The explosion took place barely 370 meters from the aircraft carrier and despite her size (length 270.7 meters, displacement 37 000 tons) the whole ship was lifted off the water surface. The wreck lies in shallow waters and is accessible to scuba divers.
The first American vessel, designed and built from the beginning as an aircraft carrier was USS Ranger (CV-4). The construction begun in 1931 and the ship entered service in 1934. The design, however, had been under way since 1925, it is before Lexington and Saratoga were completed. Also based on the prior experience Ranger’s design changed several times. Initially the flight deck was to be clean, same as on Langley. To eliminate chimneys’ smoke interfering with the aircraft operations six smokestacks (three on each side) were designed as collapsible. During the construction, however, the bridge was added. The smokestacks were already completed at that time and their re-design would have been too expensive, so they were left in the original configuration. Ranger was relatively small, 222.5 meters long, her standard displacement was less than 15 000 tons and full displacement less than 18 000 tons. It was also slower, 29.5 knots. Lexington and Saratoga could reach the speed of 33 knot. Therefore, Ranger was considered unsuitable for the Pacific battlefield and for the most part of the war operated in the Atlantic. The German navy was considered a weaker opponent than the Japanese navy. Ranger took part in the operation Torch (landing in the North Africa) and attacks on the German targets in the Norwegian waters. She was the only pre-war American aircraft carrier which did not participated in the fight against Japan. In 1946 she was struck of charge and in January 1947 sold to the scrap yards.
The USS Wasp was the first aircraft carrier with an elevator at the edge of the flight deck. The aircraft, in this case an SB2U-2 Vindicator from VS-72 in June 1940, was lifted in a semicircle by two arms on the sides of the elevator platform. Source: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation
USS Wasp burning shortly before sinking on Sept. 15, 1942 Zdroj: United States Library of Congress
The Navy applied the experience from building and deploying the previous vessels into building the next Yorktown class. The war games analysis clearly showed the necessity of fast aircraft carriers equipped with the large aircraft group on board. In addition, good anti-torpedo protection of the hull was required. Therefore, USS Yorktown (CV-5), USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-7) were all built based on these principles. The construction of the first two was launched in 1934, right after completion of Ranger. In addition, the USA managed to put USS Wasp (CV-7) on the building schedule between Enterprise and Hornet. After Langley was rebuilt to the seaplanes’ carrier, the tonnage limit opened and based on the treaties in place at that time the USA could use it for building the aircraft carriers. It was not enough for the full-fledged Yorktown class and the result was kind of her down-scaled version. The weight was saved at the cost of the anti-torpedo protection which later proved costly for USS Wasp. Hornet’s construction begun in September 25, 1939, after WWII broke out in Europe. She was launched on December 14, 1940, and entered service on October 20, 1941. The ship was 251 meters long, her standard displacement was 20 000 tons and full displacement reached 26 000 tons. The powerplant, consisting of nine boilers and four steam turbines possessed 120 000 HP (89 000 kW). Thus, Hornet could reach the speed of 32.5 knots. The flight deck measured 248x26 meters. The hangar below measured 166x19 meters and was connected to the flight deck by three lifts. Hornet could carry 72 aircraft and the flight personnel accounted for 851 people. The ship’s crew was comprised of 86 officers and 1280 sailors. Initially her armament was comprised of eight single barrel, 127 mm caliber cannons, four twin barrel 28 mm caliber cannons and 24 12.7 mm caliber machine guns. In January 1942, the machine guns were removed and gradually replaced by 32 single barrel 20 mm caliber cannons. Later a single four-barrel, 28 mm caliber cannon was added increasing the total number of weapons of this caliber to twenty.
Into the action in the Pacific
All the ships of these class, together with Lexington and Saratoga, bore the brunt of the fighting in the Pacific during the opening stages of the war. Wasp operated in the Atlantic where she, in the summer of 1941, transported the American P-40 fighters to Iceland and in April and May 1942 the British Spitfire fighters to Malta. Only in June 1942 she transferred to the Pacific. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Hornet was going through training at Norfolk. In February 1942, during one of her training voyages, two twin-engine US Army AF B-25 Mitchell bombers were embarked. To the great surprise of the crew these two bombers took off while the ship was on the open sea. The sailors understood the actual reason of this experiment on April 2, 1942, when Hornet set sail from Alameda, California, with 16 B-25 bombers on the flight deck. Skipper Marc A. Mitscher informed the crew that they were going to bomb Japan. Hornet had her own aircraft stored under the deck and on this raid deep into the enemy waters was escorted by Enterprise. The plan was to take off 400 nautical miles (740 km) from Japan. On April 18, 1942, however, the American fleet was spotted by a Japanese patrol ship and 16 bombers led by Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle took off 600 nautical miles (1110 km) from Japan. It was the first Hornet’s combat mission. On April 30, 1942, Hornet set sail from Pearl Harbor to participate in the Battle of Corral Sea, which was brewing and during which, on May 8, 1942, Lexington sank. Hornet could not make it on time, however, together with Enterprise and Yorktown was part of the task force that set up the trap for Japanese at Midway. On June 7, 1942, Yorktown was sunk but Japanese Navy, but the enemy lost four large aircraft carriers and their advance in the Pacific was stopped.
127 mm gun on the sunken USS Wasp. Source: R/V Petrel / Vulcan
28 mm four-barrel gun aboard the USS Wasp. Source: R/V Petrel / Vulcan
Sunken Grumman Avenger aircraft near the wreck of the USS Wasp. Source: R/V Petrel / Vulcan
In the previous article we spoke about the Allied counterattack in the Solomon Islands and naval battles around Guadalcanal. The aircraft carriers took part in this campaign on both sides. The American carriers were Enterprise, Saratoga, Wasp and Hornet. The first three covered the Guadalcanal landing on August 7, 1942. At that time Hornet stayed in Pearl Harbor in reserve in case she was needed elsewhere. While supporting the landings Wasp lost one Dauntless and three Wildcats. One aviator was killed and another wounded. In exchange the aircraft from Wasp destroyed 15 flying boats and seven Rufe floatplane fighters on anchor and a Rufe and a Zero in the air. The Avengers and Dauntlesses attacked the ground targets with bombs.
In the evening of August 8, 1942, the American aircraft carriers withdrew to refuel. Between August 15 and 20, 1942, Enterprise and Saratoga returned to cover the aircraft delivery to Henderson airfield on Guadalcanal. Simultaneously the Japanese navy tried to transport the reinforcements to the island. Several task forces set sail with the mission not to only cover the transportation ships but also counterattack and destroy the American ships around the island. The large aircraft carriers Shōkaku, Zuikaku and light carrier Ryūjō were assigned to this mission. On August 24 and 25, 1942 the encounter at the eastern Solomon Island took place which came down in the history as the third aircraft carriers’ battle ever.
Similar to the Battle of Corral Sea the Americans first discovered the light aircraft carrier. Ryūjō was sailing ahead of the main force with the task of attacking the Henderson airfield. Saratoga launched 38 aircraft against her and scored several bomb hits and possibly a torpedo one. The seriously damaged ship sank during the night. The main Japanese force in the meantime attacked the American carriers. They focused on Enterprise which was hit by three bombs dropped by Val dive bombers. However, thanks to the rescue teams in an hour the fires were put out and the flight operations resumed. The American aviators managed to locate Shōkaku and Zuikaku and ultimately the enemy fleet retreated from the area.
Wasp rushed to help Enterprise and Saratoga. Her airplanes shot down two Jake floatplanes and one flying boat, but they failed to locate the Japanese aircraft carriers. The disaster struck in the coming days. First, on August 31, 1942, Saratoga was hit by a torpedo and had to withdraw for repairs. She was hit by I-26 submarine which later sank the cruiser USS Juneau about which we spoke in the previous article. On September 15, 1942, ever bigger loss occurred. I-19 submarine launched six torpedoes against the American group of ships. One hit the battleship USS North Carolina, and another hit the destroyer USS O’Brien, which sank later. Three torpedoes struck Wasp and caused large fires and a series of explosions below the deck. When it became clear that the fires could not be put out the ship evacuation commenced. In the end 193 crew members and 45 aircraft went down to the bottom of the ocean.
Japanese heavy cruiser Chikuma during an attack by U.S. aircraft on October 26, 1942. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command
The last battle before 1944
During October 25 through 27, 1942, the Japanese and American aircraft carriers clashed again in the Battle of Santa Cruz. Shōkaku and Zuikaku, as well as two light carriers Zuihō and Junyō faced Enterprise and Hornet. In the morning of October 26, 1942, while searching for the enemy fleet two reconnaissance Dauntlesses from Enterprise found Zuihō and hit her with two bombs which seriously damaged the Japanese ship and eliminated her from the further fighting. The aircraft from both task forces clashed on the way to attack each other’s ships and a series of dogfights took place. The American aircraft attacked in smaller groups. Ten Dauntlesses from Hornet carpeted Shōkaku with bombs and hit her at least three times (rather optimistic estimate was six times). At Midway such a punishment would have meant ship’s demise, however, she escaped this time. The bombs destroyed her flight deck and hangar below it, but there were no fully fueled and armed aircraft as at Midway. Thus, the ship avoided the large fires.
Another nice Dauntlesses from Hornet hit the heavy cruiser Chikuma with two bombs. Three Dauntlesses from Enterprise added another hit, and nine Avengers scored a torpedo hit. The seriously damaged cruiser had to withdraw from the battle. The Japanese, for a change, attacked in large formations. The Enterprise task force was covered by rain showers so the whole strength of the first wave of attack concentrated on Hornet. She was hit by three bombs, two torpedoes and in addition two damaged Japanese bombers dived into her on purpose. Hornet stopped without power, but the fires were put out with the help of escorting destroyers and the cruiser Northampton attempted to tow the ship.
Convinced that Hornet was already sinking the Japanese concentrated their second attack wave on Enterprise. She was hit by two bombs and retreated with her escorts. Finally, Hornet started to be towed and the crew feverishly worked to reinstate her own power. And then the third wave of attacks arrived. The ship was hit by another torpedo and two bombs. The Japanese surface vessels were approaching so the decision was made to sink the ship. It was not that easy, however. While the rest of the American ships retreated, the destroyers USS Mustin and USS Anderson fired several torpedoes and more than 400 127 mm caliber shells into her hull. Not even that was enough. Both destroyers had to retreat as well while Hornet was still afloat and, in an hour and half, the main Japanese force arrived at the burning wreck. The possibility to capture an American aircraft carrier was tempting but then the Japanese realized it was too late. On October 27, 1942, at 01:35 the ship went to the bottom. It happened exactly a year and seven days since she entered service. 140 dead sailors and 21 aircraft went down with the ship.
Enterprise remained the only American combat capable aircraft carrier in the whole Pacific Ocean. Her crew even painted Enterprise vs. Japan on her deck. After the temporary repairs she fought in the area around Solomon Islands until the spring 1943. During the fighting for Guadalcanal her aircraft were involved in sinking of 16 Japanese ships. The Japanese navy had more carriers at their disposal, however, many of them were also damaged. Worse yet, there was a shortage of well-trained pilots. Most of them were lost in the fighting in eastern Solomon Islands and Santa Cruz Islands. Therefore, the Japanese did not rush into action neither and the next aircraft carriers clash in the Pacific took place as late as in the summer of 1944.
A damaged Val dive bomber rushes at the USS Hornet on October 26, 1942. The torpedo bomber Kate takes off after launching a torpedo. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command
A Japanese Val bomber shot down directly over the bridge of the USS Enterprise on August 24, 1942. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command
The wrecks were found at almost the same time
Paul Allen was searching for USS Wasp wreck since 2017. The search continued after his sudden death on October 15, 2018. In 2019 R/V Petrel research ship sailed several times and her crew first announced that in January 2019 they discovered the USS Hornet wreck. It was preceded by extensive research in the archives where the reports from nine ships, which witnessed Hornet demise, were found. This information was plotted on the map and a grid created which made it possible to deduce the aircraft carrier position. R/V Petrel launched an autonomous underwater robot and a remotely controlled device equipped with a camera. Both devices can submerge up to 6000 meters. The Hornet’s wreck was discovered at the first attempt. It lies upright at a depth of 5330 meters. Only a part of the stern had broken off and lies nearby. The pictures were taken of the International Harvester tractor which was used to tow the aircraft. It survived not only the ship’s fire and the trip to the sea bottom but after 80 years under the water looked in a good condition.
Only after a month later the R/V Petrel crew announced that during the voyage in January 2019 they also discovered the USS Wasp wreck. She lies in the depth of 4345 meters. The search for her was more complicated since the precise location was not known. The underwater robot moved along the programmed six-mile route and was emitting a low frequency sonar signal from both sides. In one run the robot was able to cover an area of 40 nautical miles. After the robot was retrieved, the obtained data were analyzed, and the crew returned to the promising locations with another device equipped with the camera. Wasp too lies upright on the sea bottom but in the very muddy area. The hull was buried up to the water line therefore the torpedo hit could not be determined. There are several Avenger bombers to be found around the ship. They slipped from the deck while the ship was sinking.
Wildcat of the Hornet on the seabed. Source: R/V Petrel / Vulcan
127 mm gun aboard the USS Hornet. Source: R/V Petrel / Vulcan
The International Harvester tractor for towing aircraft remained aboard the USS Hornet after her sinking. Zdroj: R/V Petrel / Vulcan
28 mm four-barrel cannon on the wreck of the Hornet. Source: R/V Petrel / Vulcan
Hubáček, M.: Vítězství v Pacifiku. Praha 2003
Hrbek, I./Hrbek, J.: Námořní válka vrcholí; Praha 1995