Carrier Evolution VIII: Early CVAs

USN Carrier Evolution VIII: Early Attack Carriers

Eighth article in a series by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission: Naval Aviation News, November 1962, pp 44-48.

“We have hit the Japanese very hard in the Solomon Islands. We have probably broken the backbone of the power of their Fleet. They have still too many aircraft carriers to suit me, but soon we may well sink some more of them … We are going to press our advantages in the Southwest Pacific and I am sure that we are destroying far more Japanese airplanes and sinking far more of their ships than they can build.”— Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, 1942.

At the outbreak of World War II, the United States had in commission seven aircraft carriers and one escort carrier. USS Langley, the experimental ship officially classed as CV-1, had been converted and assigned to duty as a seaplane tender 15 September 1936.



USS Langley (CV-1), converted from the collier Jupiter (AC-3), was the USN’s first aircraft carrier (above). She was converted to a seaplane carrier (AV-3, below) in 1936 but was lost ferrying 32 US Army Air Force P-40 fighters from Fremantle to Tjilatjap, Java. Nine Japanese twin-engine Mitsubishi G4M (Betty) land-based naval aircraft scored five bomb hits, which led to her being abandoned and scuttled on 27 February 1942.



After the abrogation by Japan from disarmament treaties, the U.S. took a realistic look at its naval strength. By Act of Congress on 17 May 1938, an increase of 40,000 tons in aircraft carriers was authorised. This permitted the building of USS Hornet (CV-8) and USS Essex (CV-9). On 14 June 1940, another increase in tonnage was authorised. Among the ships built under this program were the Intrepid and the new Yorktown. On 19 July, an additional 200,000 tons for carriers was authorised.

Dollars cannot buy yesterday

ADML H. R. Stark, then Chief of Naval Operations, reported to the Secretary of the Navy:

In June 1940, the Congress granted the Navy an 11 per cent increase in combat strength and, in July, a further increase of approximately 70 per cent. When these ships and aircraft are completed, the U.S. Navy in under-age and over-age ships will include 32 battleships, 18 aircraft carriers, 91 cruisers, 325 destroyers, 185 submarines, and 15,000 airplanes…From 1921 to 1933, the United States tried the experiment of disarmament in fact and by example. This experiment failed. It cost us dearly in relative naval strength—but the greatest loss is TIME. Dollars cannot buy yesterday. Our present Fleet is strong, but it is not strong enough.

Additional tonnage was authorised 23 December 1941 and 9 July 1942.

Essex class

USS Essex (CV-9) was first of a series of early attack aircraft carriers of World War II. CV-9 was to be the prototype of an especially designed 27,000-ton (standard displacement) aircraft carrier, considerably larger than the Enterprise and smaller than the Saratoga. These were to become known as the Essex class carriers, although this classification was dropped in the ’50s.



The early Essex class displaced 36,380 tons (fully laden) on an 862 x 108 x 34 feet (263 x33 x 10.4 metres) hull. They had eight boilers, four steam turbines and four shafts that developed 150,000 shp and could drive the ship at 33 knots. Initially, they carried 2600 crew and 90-100 operational aircraft. Armament included four twin five-inch (127 mm) turrets fore and aft of the island and four single five-inch or eight 40 mm guns at the bows and stern on the hangar deck level.

On 9 September 1940, eight more of these carriers were ordered and were to become the Hornet, Franklin Ticonderoga, Randolph, Lexington, Bunker Hill, Wasp and Hancock, CV-12 through -19, respectively. Re-use of the Lexington, Wasp and Hornet names was in line with the Navy’s intent to carry on the traditions of the fighting predecessors: Lexington (CV-2) was lost in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942; Wasp (CV-7) was sunk September that year in the South Pacific while escorting a troop convoy to Guadalcanal; Hornet (CV-8) was lost the following month in the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands.

The name game

It is appropriate to comment here that the ships’ names at commissioning date did not all bear the same name at the date of their programming. Names were changed during construction. Hornet (CV-12) was originally Kearsarge, Ticonderoga (CV-14) was Hancock, Lexington (CV-16) was Cabot, Wasp (CV-18) was Oriskany, and Hancock (CV-19) was originally Ticonderoga. The last two of the 13 originally programmed CV-9 class aircraft carriers, Bennington (CV-20) and Boxer (CV-21), were ordered on 15 December 1941.

In drawing up the preliminary design for USS Essex, particular attention was directed at the size of both her flight and hangar decks. Aircraft design had come a long way from the comparatively light planes used in carriers during the thirties. Flight decks now required more takeoff space for the heavier fighters and bombers being developed. Most of the first-line carriers of the pre-war years were equipped with flush deck catapults, but owing to the speed and size of these ships very little catapulting was done—except for experimental purposes. With the advent of war, airplane weights began to go up as armour and armament got heavier; crew size aboard the planes also increased. It was inevitable, noted the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) toward the war’s end in 1945, that catapult launchings would become more common under these circumstances. Some carrier commanding officers reported that as much as 40 per cent of launchings were effected by the ships’ catapults.


Six of the early Essex class had an athwartships catapult mounted in the hangar. Here, Yorktown (CV-10) launches a Grumman TBM Avenger in May 1943. All the hangar catapults were later removed.

The hangar area design came in for many conferences between Bureaus and much more official correspondence. Not only were the supporting structures to the flight deck to carry the increased weight of the landing and parked aircraft, but they were to have sufficient strength to support the tricing up of spare fuselages and parts (50 per cent of each plane type aboard) under the flight deck and still provide adequate working space for the men using the area below.

Deckhead spares stowage

“At present,” noted the Bureau of Construction and Repair in April 1940, “it appears that a few of the smaller fuselages can be triced up overhead in locations where encroachment on head-room is acceptable, and that the larger fuselages will have to be stowed on deck in the after end of the hangar. The number to be stowed will depend upon the amount of reduction in operating space in the hangar which can be accepted.”

[Ed. note. On 20 June 1940, the Bureau of Construction and Repair consolidated with the Bureau of Engineering to become the Bureau of Ships (BuShips). ]

CAPT Marc A. Mitscher, then Assistant Chief, BuAer, answered: “The question of spare airplanes is now under reconsideration in correspondence with the Fleet and the results decided upon will have a bearing in the case of CV-9.”

Deck-edge lift

A startling innovation in CV-9 was a port side deck-edge elevator in addition to two inboard elevators. Earlier, BuAer experimented with a ramp arrangement between the hangar and flight decks, up which aircraft were hauled by crane. This proved too slow. Bureau of Ships (BuShips) and the Chief Engineer of A.B.C. Elevator Co. designed the engine for the side elevator. Essentially, it was a standard elevator, 60 by 34 feet (18.3 x 10.4 metres) in platform surface, which travelled vertically on the port side of the ship. CAPT Donald B. Duncan, Essex’s first commanding officer was enthusiastic. After the first four months of operation after commissioning, he wrote to BuAer:

The elevator has functioned most satisfactorily in all respects and it is desired to point out some of the operational advantages realised with this type of elevator.

Since there is no large hole in the flight deck when the elevator is in the ‘down’ position, it is easier to continue normal operations on deck, irrespective of the position of the elevator. The elevator increases the effective deck space when it is in the ‘up’ position by providing additional parking room outside the normal contours of the flight deck, and increases the effective area on the hangar deck by the absence of elevator pits.

The elevator performed well, its machinery less complex than the two inboard elevators and required about 20 per cent fewer man-hours of maintenance. CAPT Duncan recommended that consideration be given using two deck-edge elevators, one on each side. BuAer, in forwarding the recommendation to BuShips, offered another advantage for consideration: a conventional elevator suffering a casualty while in the “down” position “would leave a large hole in the flight deck while the deck-edge type would cause only minor and non-critical loss of flight deck area.”

BuShips, obviously pleased with the operational performance of the new elevator—the first of its kind—reluctantly turned down the recommendation, however. The Bureau noted that the addition of a starboard deck-edge elevator would not permit an Essex class aircraft carrier to transit the Panama Canal. Any other location for a second such elevator would involve structural and arrangement changes too extensive to be considered.


Another redundant feature of some early Essex class ships was the bow arrestor gear, to emergency land on aircraft in the event of flight deck damage aft. Here, Yorktown (CV-10) makes 20 knots astern to recover an aircraft across her bow.

Keel laid 28 April 1941

On 28 April 1941, keel for the USS Essex was laid at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. On 2 October, the following year, her prospective commanding officer filed his first weekly progress-and-readiness report to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). He noted that there was marked speed-up of work on the ship during the preceding month and estimated that the ship would probably be delivered on 1 February 1942: “There are certain items that have been authorised for installation on the CV-9-19 class carrier, but will not be accomplished on this vessel prior to delivery.”

Late authorisation

RADM Walter S. Anderson, president of the dock trials and inspection team of CV-9 on 23 December 1942, noted a few of these discrepancies in his report:

Due to late authorisation of a number of changes arising out of recent war experiences, the volume of uncompleted hull work was greater than normal … The Board regrets that the catapults for this vessel were not delivered in time for installation, as military value of the vessel would be much improved thereby … Only the starboard flight deck track was installed … This class of carriers is designed to include cruising turbines as part of the main drive turbine installation. However, due to production difficulties and as a result of efforts to expedite delivery, cruising turbines were omitted. Space and connections for their future installation are provided and this can be accomplished with very little alteration …

Commissioned 31 December 1942

Nevertheless, the Board was pleased and impressed with progress on construction of the Essex. RADM Anderson recommended acceptance of the ship:

“On 31 December 1942, only slightly over 20 months will have elapsed since keel-laying, which is, in the opinion of the Board, a record worthy of commendation.

This indicates a high degree of cooperation between the Supervisor of Shipbuilding, the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., and representatives of the officers and men of the ship’s company.”

On the last day of 1942, USS Essex was commissioned.



The Essex class were tough. Here USS Essex absorbs a heavily-laden kamikaze strike 25 November 1944. The ship resumed restricted flight operations within 30 minutes and repairs were completed in time for the carrier to resume unrestricted operations three weeks later.

Essex sea trials

CAPT Duncan was proud of his new command, but not so impressed as to ignore certain discrepancies that still existed. The ventilation system, for instance, was less than satisfactory. BuShips sent representatives to the ship to assist in correcting discrepancies, during sea trials March 1 in the North Atlantic and, a month and a half later, when the ship was again at Norfolk and still had complaints.

As other CV-9 carriers were launched, the complaints continued to be registered. BuShips investigated the ventilation system as installed in USS Intrepid (CV-11) and outlined corrective measures in future carriers of the class.

Requested to comment on the adequacy and operation of the trash burner installed in the Essex, CAPT Duncan started off quietly enough. “It is most unsatisfactory,” he said. Then he warmed to his subject:

It is doubtful if it could be worse. It is in the very centre of the office spaces. There is no satisfactory place for collection of trash waiting its turn to be burned. All of it has to be carried through the passageways in the vicinity of the departmental offices. The heat from the trash burner when it is operating (which is not often because it is usually broken down) is such as to make the surrounding spaces almost untenable.

The design of the trash burner is poor. Its construction is worse. The ship had not been in commission a month before it practically fell apart. The brick work fell down, the door fell off and it suffered other casualties too numerous to mention. It has taken constant attention from the Engineer’s force to keep it operating at all and the heat generated in the compartment in which it is located is such that it is physically impossible for men to stay in it for continuous operation.

The trash burner problem was taken in hand and redesigned.

Production line

Lexington was commissioned on 17 February 1943, followed by Yorktown on 15 April, Bunker Hill on 25 May, Intrepid on 16 August, Wasp on 24 November, and Hornet on 29 November that year. In 1944, Franklin was commissioned on 31 January, Hancock on 15 April, Ticonderoga on 8 May, Bennington on 6 August, and Randolph on 9 October. The last of the programmed 13 CV-9s, Boxer, was commissioned on 16 April 1945.

The lighting system installed in the Lexington came under the scrutiny of BuShips. Generally, it was considered inadequate “in intensity and quality” in many passageways and compartments, in addition to the running, signal, and anchor lights. A survey of the system produced the following action on the outside lights: the ahead masthead light was relocated to the forward edge of the foretruck (frame 92), the ahead range light was moved forward and shielded from illuminating the deck below, the astern masthead light was moved higher, so as not to interfere with gunnery, and the astern range light was removed.

Nineteen more

Nineteen more Essex class ships were ordered or scheduled, starting with ten of them on 7 August 1942. They were Bon Homme Richard (CV 31) Kearsarge (CV-33), Oriskanay (CV-34), Reprisal (CV-35), Antietam (CV-36), Princeton (CV-37), Shangri La (CV-38), Lake Champlain (CV-39), Tarawa (CV-40), and Crown Point (CV-32)—later renamed Leyte. The last three ordered were Valley Forge (CV-45), Iwo Jima (CV-46), and Philippine Sea (CV-47). The keels were laid for Reprisal and Iwo Jima 1 July 1944 and 29 January 1945, but both were cancelled on 11 August 1945. Six additional 27,000-tonners, CVs 50 through 55, were cancelled on 27 March 1945.



The Essex class were versatile. USS Essex was the first carrier in the world to operate jet aircraft in combat. Shorn of her five-inch turrets, the straight-deck Essex recovers McDonnell F2H Banshees off Korea in 1951.

In recap, after WW II erupted and until its successful conclusion by Allied forces, the U.S. Navy ordered 32 aircraft carriers of the CV-9 class, of which the keels of 25 were laid down. A total of 17 were actually commissioned during the war years. The total number of CV-9s commissioned—including those commissioned after the war—was 24.

Class characteristics

Several characteristics marked the Essex class carriers upon their introduction to the Fleet. The pyramidal island structure, for instance, rose cleanly from the starboard side, topped by a short stack and a light tripod mast. The port elevator was also a distinguishing feature, along with the two inboard elevators. Ticonderoga, Randolph, Hancock, Bennington and Boxer, as well as hull numbers from CV-31 on, had rounded bows extending beyond the flight deck. Overall lengths varied within this class; they were either 872 or 888 feet long (266 or 271 metres). It is interesting to note that they had a uniform water line length of 820 feet (250 metres). All were armed with 12 five-inch .38 calibre (127 mm) dual purpose guns, but some had 17 quadruple 40 mm anti-aircraft mounts while others had 18. A few also had 20 mm AA armament. Generally, there were accommodations aboard each for 360 officers and 3088 enlisted men.

More SHP

Except for CV-2 and CV-3, Lexington and Saratoga, the power plants were increased over other aircraft carriers in the Fleet. The machinery was “entirely modern in design and arranged so as to gain the maximum resistance to derangement and battle damage. There are eight control superheat boilers arranged in four fire rooms. Steam lines are such that the boilers in each fire room can be connected to one main machinery unit so that the plant can be operated as four separate units.” They had four screws.

These carriers had better protecting armour than their predecessors (again excepting Lex and Sara), better facilities for handling ammunition, safer and greater fuelling capacity, and more effective damage control equipment.

The tactical employment of U.S. carriers changed as the war progressed. In early operations, through 1942, the doctrine was to operate singly or in pairs, joining together for the offence and separating when on the defence—the theory being that a separation of carriers under attack not only provided a protective screen for each, but also dispersed the targets and divided the enemy’s attack. Combat experience in those early operations did not bear out the theory and new proposals for tactical deployment were the subject of much discussion. As the new Essex and Independence class carriers became available, these new ideas were put to the test.

Independence class

The Independence class carriers—light carriers, designated CVLs— were products of an effort to increase this country’s seagoing air strength in the early days of the war. Nine keels to light cruisers of the Cleveland class were laid down at the New York Shipbuilding Corp. yard at Camden, N.J. They were to have been the Amsterdam (CL-59), Tallahasee (CL-61), New Haven (CL-76), Huntington (CL-77), Dayton (CL-78), Fargo (CL-85), Wilmington (CL-79), Buffalo (CL-99), and the Newark (CL-100). They eventually became the Independence, Princeton, Belleau Wood, Cowpens, Monterey, Langley, Cabot, Bataan, and San Jacinto, CVLs 22 through 30, respectively.

Naming and designating these last four sometimes went through a rigorous and confusing metamorphosis. Neither Cabot nor Bataan encountered any difficulty. The names and designations were reached in June and July 1943 without attending problems, but Fargo was named Crown Point (CV-27) when the decision was reached to convert her to an aircraft carrier.Then, on 15 July 1943, her name was changed to USS Langley and she was given the designation CVL. (Actually, all these cruiser-to-carrier conversions were originally designated CVs when the decision to convert was made; all were redesignated CVLs on the same day.)

The Newark (CL-100) had a rougher time of it. On 2 June 1942, she was changed to CV-30; on 23 June, her name was changed to Reprisal, which she kept for a little over six months. On 6 January 1943, her name was again changed, to San Jacinto.

Light carrier design

The light carriers displaced 11,000 tons standard. In design, the bridge was box-like in appearance, with a small crane forward. They had four stacks, paired off in twos, on the starboard side, aft of the island. These stacks angled out from the hangar deck and rose vertically above the flight deck level.

As the Essex and Independence class carriers joined the Fleet in increasing numbers, it was possible to operate several carriers together, on a continuing basis, forming a carrier task group. Tactics changed. Experience taught the wisdom of combined strength. Under attack, the combined anti-aircraft fire of the task group carriers and their screen provided a more effective umbrella of protection against marauding enemy aircraft than was possible when the carriers separated. When two or more of these task groups supported each other, they constituted a fast carrier task force.

Multi-carrier group

The first attempt to operate a multi-carrier group occurred on 31 August 1943, during a raid on the Japanese-held island of Marcus. Task Force 15, which conducted the raid, consisted of Yorktown (CV-10), Essex (CV-9) and Independence (CVL-22), the cruisers Nashville and Mobile, the battleship Indiana, and ten destroyers. Aircraft were launched from the carriers at a point approximately 130 miles north of the island.



The Essex class was durable. By 1967 USS Essex had an angled deck, mirror, twin catapults and enclosed bow.

On 5-6 October 1943, RADM Alfred E. Montgomery led Task Force 14 on a second raid on Wake Island. The task force comprised two task groups, operating a total of six aircraft carriers—Essex, Yorktown (CV-10), Lexington (CV-16), Independence, Belleau Wood, and Cowpens—seven cruisers and 24 DDs, the largest carrier task force yet assembled.

In the course of the two-day strikes, ship handling techniques for a multi-carrier force, devised by RADM Frederick C. Sherman’s staff, were tested under combat conditions. ADML Chester W. Nimitz, then Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, dispatched his congratulations to the task force. His words were prophetic. Lessons learned from operating the carriers as a single group of six, as two groups of three, and three groups of two provided the basis for many tactics that later characterised carrier task force operations. With the evolution of the fast carrier task force and its successful employment in future operations, the rising sun of the east began slowly to sink in the west.