The Tragic Tale of a Sunken U.S. Aircraft Carrier (That Ended up Being a Strategic Success)
Responding to a November 27, 1941, war warning message from Admiral Harold R. “Betty” Stark, chief of naval operations, America’s prized handful of aircraft carriers were fortuitously absent from Pearl Harbor when Japanese planes savaged the Pacific Fleet on Sunday, December 7.
The USS Saratoga (CV-3) was refitting in San Diego, the USS Enterprise (CV-6) was returning after ferrying fighters to the Marine Corps defense force on Wake Island, the USS Wasp (CV-7) was serving with the Royal Navy Home Fleet in the Mediterranean, the USS Yorktown (CV-5) was at Norfolk, Virginia, and the USS Lexington (CV-2) was carrying a squadron of Vought SB2U Vindicator dive bombers to the tiny Marine garrison on Midway Island.
But the sorely needed planes were not delivered. When word came of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Lexington, still 400 miles southeast of Midway, turned and headed southward. She spent several days with other U.S. ships searching unsuccessfully south of Oahu for the Japanese flattops and returned to Pearl Harbor for refueling and reprovisioning.
Like her sister, the Saratoga, the graceful, 33,000-ton Lexington was originally a battlecruiser converted under a special provision of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. She was the fourth U.S. Navy vessel to bear the name of the Revolutionary War battle. At her christening, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, chief of the Navy’s new Bureau of Aeronautics, prophesied, “This great carrier represents a powerful instrument on the offensive. I am convinced that a bombing attack launched from such carriers, from an unknown point, at an unknown instant, with an unknown objective, cannot be warded off by defensive aircraft based on shore.”
The USS Lexington
Commissioned on December 14, 1927, the Lady Lex, as she became affectionately known, participated with the Saratoga in her first fleet problem on January 23-27, 1929, when Rear Admiral Joseph M. “Bull” Reeves, the U.S. Battle Fleet’s air commander, demonstrated carrier tactics with a simulated attack against the Panama Canal.
The Lexington was 888 feet long with a massive funnel and a flat starboard-side island towering over her teak flight deck. With turbo-electric drive propulsion, she had a top speed of 35 knots. She once steamed the 2,200 miles from San Pedro, California, to Honolulu in just over 72 hours.
Besides tubs of rapid-fire guns, the carrier mounted a main battery of 8-inch rifles that were later removed as “excess fat” and could accommodate 23 Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters, 36 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and a dozen Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers. A taut but “happy” vessel, the Lexington was one of the biggest and fastest warships of her day. She had a basic complement of 2,200 men, whose comfort was ensured with steaks, fresh milk, ice cream, and nightly film shows on the hangar deck. The flattop was commanded in 1930-1932 by naval aviator Ernest J. King, who rose to become the five-star chief of naval operations in World War II.
Her skipper from June 1940 onward was short, stocky Captain Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman of Port Huron, Michigan, a 1910 Annapolis graduate, World War I submarine veteran, and Navy Cross holder. He was a chain smoking disciplinarian whose ability to dock the big vessel without tugboats awed junior officers. Sherman’s pet cocker spaniel, Wags, was a popular “member” of the crew.
By the time World War II broke out in September 1939, the Lexington had established herself as a highly visible vessel in the Navy. Based at San Pedro, she acted as a mother hen to the Battle Fleet in exercises ranging from the Panama Canal Zone to the Aleutian Islands, and she supplied electricity to Tacoma, Washington, for three weeks in the winter of 1930 when the city’s power failed. In July 1937, her aircraft played a key role in the massive two-week search for missing aviatrix Amelia Earhart around tiny Howland Island in the Central Pacific.
“The Pacific Situation is Very Grave”
The carrier’s stopover at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was brief. On the 14th, she joined Vice Admiral Wilson Brown Jr.’s Task Force 11, also compris-
ing three heavy cruisers, nine destroyers, and the fleet oiler Neosho (AO-23), and sailed southwest for the Marshall Islands to create a diversion covering Task Force 14’s ill-fated attempt to relieve Wake Island. The Lexington was under orders to bomb Jaluit and Wotje, but she returned to Pearl Harbor without having drawn blood.
Besides the Lexington, Admiral Brown’s group was beefed up with the Yorktown, a dozen cruisers, seven of them American, four British, and one Australian, and 16 U.S. destroyers for the next major operation—a February 20, 1942, attack against the big Japanese naval base at Rabaul in New Britain. On the way, the Allied ships were spotted by three enemy flying boats. Brown called off the raid, but the biggest air battle yet seen in the Pacific raged as land-based Japanese Nakajima B5N Kate and Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers zeroed in on Task Force 11. The Americans retaliated, and the ships’ antiaircraft fire, Wildcats, and Dauntlesses annihilated many of the raiders.