March 20th: America’s First Aircraft Carrier
At the time of her recommissioning, the USS Langley was by no means a new ship. She’d served for nearly seven years in her previous iteration as the USS Jupiter before spending two more in a shipyard. But when she rejoined the ranks of United States Navy’s vessels she was a brand new kind of ship. One of the first such ships ever launched. One designed not for the launching of massive explosive shells or powerful torpedoes, but of airplanes. On March 20th, 1922 the USS Langley became America’s first aircraft carrier.
She began her service as a coal storage and supply ship called a collier, commissioned the USS Jupiter on April 7th, 1913. Colliers were highly important and necessary parts of naval fleets in the days of coal powered ships. And the Jupiter was a groundbreaking vessel in her own right: she was the US Navy’s very first ship to run on a turbo-electric engine. She deployed with the Pacific Fleet in 1914 and took part in the Veracruz crisis, a sort of semi-war between the US and Mexico. After that, she transferred to the East Coast and operated in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
With America’s entry into World War I in 1917, the Navy took Jupiter off collier duties and assigned her to carry troops and supplies to Europe. The very first group of men she took over was, coincidentally, a naval aviation detachment. These 129 men, commanded by submariner-turned aviator Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting, made up the first American aviation unit deployed to the war. After the allied victory, Jupiter ferried American troops back home. In the summer of 1919, the Navy decided to decommission her. But decommission with a specific purpose: modification and relaunch as an aircraft carrier. She sailed into Norfolk to begin the process in the winter of 1920.
Early Naval Aviation
On November 14th, 1910, a Curtiss biplane piloted by Eugene Burton Ely took off from a makeshift platform over the bow of the cruiser USS Birmingham. By the end of WWI, the British Royal Navy had three aircraft carriers for the launching and landing of planes at sea: HMS Ark Royal, a converted merchant ship, and HMS Furious, the first ship ever built as an aircraft carrier, and HMS Argus, the first carrier with a full-length flat deck. After the end of WWI, having seen what carriers could do, the US Navy decided to follow suit and add some to their fleet. Starting with the converted Jupiter.
Jupiter was officially decommissioned on March 24th, 1920. On April 11th, while still under construction, the Navy renamed her after early aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley. Her new hull number was CV-1. She was built not so much as a deployable combat vessel, but with experimentation and development in mind. After all, naval aviation, not to mention the very concept of successful heavier than air flight, was still a new field. So a functional carrier to the US Navy’s air capabilities would be key to the future of the fleet.
On March 20th, 1922 she was officially recommissioned as the USS Langley. Her first executive officer, who served as her acting commander for much of the next two years, was Commander Kenneth Whiting. Yes, the same Kenneth Whiting who sailed to France on the Jupiter. He became the first American to command an aircraft carrier.
Langley was the site of numerous firsts and feats in the early years of US Navy aviation. In October of 1922 the first plane took off from her deck, piloted by Lieutenant Virgil Griffin. Nine days later Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Chevalier made the first landing on her deck. And on November 18th, Commander Whiting personally made the first ever catapult-launched takeoff. In 1924 she moved to the West Coast and spent the following years training new aviators and giving demonstrations of carrier capabilities. She was even featured in the 1929 silent film The Flying Fleet.
By the mid 1930’s, America had several newer, more modern carriers specifically designed as such from the start. While many of the pilots who now served aboard ships like the USS Lexington and USS Saratoga learned their skills on the Langley, the old carrier had become obsolete. So in 1936 she underwent conversion yet again, recommissioning for the second time on April 11th, 1937 as a seaplane tender. She retained the name Langley, though her hull number became AV-3 to reflect her new role. For the next few years she operated primarily in the Pacific.
Langley in WWII
When Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Langley was stationed in the Philippines. The next day, when Japanese forces invaded the Philippines, she sailed briefly to Indonesia (then called the Dutch East Indies) before heading to Australia. Langley became part of the combined allied naval forces in the region. She spent a brief period conducting anti-submarine patrols before she was assigned as a transport ship. Her first delivery: a contingent of US Army fighter planes and pilots from Australia to Java in late February, 1942.
On the morning of 27th, bombers of the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Langley and her escort ships (destroyers USS Whipple and Edsall) 75 miles south of Java. The ship managed to evade two bombing runs by the Japanese planes through skillful maneuvering. But on the third run, five bombs struck her and exploded, killing 16 crewmen outright. With her topside now in flames, her steering impaired, and the vessel listing to port things looked grim. Her engine room soon flooded and the order went out just after 1:30pm to abandon ship. The remaining crew and passengers evacuated Langley. Her escorts scuttled her with torpedoes and 4-inch shells to keep her out of enemy hands. In a sad, final note, many of the survivors perished a few days after their initial rescue. The Edsall and the cargo ship USS Pecos, which picked up many of the survivors, were both sunk by the Japanese on March 1st.
Legacy of the USS Langley
The circumstances of her tragic loss make Langley‘s story a sad one in the end. But those final misfortunes in no way undercut the immeasurable role she played in shaping the modern Navy. All the aircraft carriers in service today, not to mention all our brave naval aviators and their planes, owe much to that erstwhile coal ship.