Authored By Dan Alex (Updated: 7/24/2015):
By 1916, World War 1 was in full swing throughout Europe. American involvement in the conflict would not hit a fever pitch until 1918 but plans were being drawn up to bring the military up to fighting speed, particularly the United States Navy. This included the drafting of a collection of powerful battlecruisers, each coming in at 35,300 tons and to be comprised of a six-ship, boiler-powered class. The first two ships would be designated as the USS Lexington (CC-1) and the USS Saratoga (CC-3). The war formally came to a close in November of 1918 and, with it, much of the military buildup for all countries involved. Progress on the battlecruisers continued, albeit in limited fashion, and the CC-1 was laid down on January 8th, 1921 with construction of the ship handled by the Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company of Quincy, Massachusetts (New York Shipbuilding of Camden handled the Saratoga). Also on the horizon was the intended production of the battlecruisers USS Constellation, USS Ranger, USS Constitution and the USS United States.
The Washington Naval Conference - a meeting held by major naval world players taking place in Washington, D.C., to agree to terms of a broad disarmament occurred from November 12th, 1921 into February 6th, 1922. The goal of the conference was more-or-less to preserve peace in the known world without the escalation of arms races as a guiding beacon to further war. As such, certain limitations were agreed upon and enacted to keep naval powers in check. One of the major treaties to come out of the conference became the Washington Naval Treaty. This treaty looked to end "all-new" battleship construction and limit the size and armament of existing surface vessels. This resulted in a number of large, powerful ships being dismantled and scrapped altogether while others were instead converted to less belligerent roles such as that of aircraft carrier. These rules would be skirted by the powers of Germany and Japan, producing two of the most powerful battleships ever made - the KMS Bismarck and the IJN Yamato respectively.
Nevertheless, the CC-1 and CC-3 both fell into this conversion program with the decision formally made on July 1st, 1922. Plans for the construction of the USS Constellation, USS Ranger, USS Constitution and USS United States were therefore scrapped in full. Each remaining ship was displaced down approximately 8,600 tons by the deletion of their 16-inch main guns as well as their applicable turret emplacements and ammunition stores. In their place was installed a large-spanning 880-foot long, 90-foot wide flightdeck suspended some 60 feet above the waterline. A forward-mounted transverse catapult was fitted as were service cranes to handle cargo and seaplanes as needed. Internal storage space would allow for the housing of some 120 aircraft of the day throughout her 450-foot two-story hangar deck. There was also a 120-foot hold for aircraft not in use and additional systems could be suspended from the hangar roof if need be. Two elevators were installed to facilitate the movement of aircraft from deck to deck. Her battlecruiser hull remained largely intact as did her original armor arrangement though additional armor was secured along the decks and plate armoring ran right up to the flight deck. There was an island fitted just forward of the large identifiable funnel and both were set off to the starboard side in a revolutionary new arrangement for aircraft carriers. The funnel would alternatively serve the design well, becoming the structure piece for which the US Navy could adapt new radar installations as they became available. Another key feature was an opening for the release or recovery of boats.
Self-defense was still the order of the day and the new carriers were outfitted with a collection of 8x 8-inch /55 caliber guns, 12 x 5-inch /25 caliber anti-aircraft guns and 4 x 6-pounder saluting cannons. The 8-inch / 55 caliber gun turrets were set in tandem pairs both mounted forward and aft of the island and funnel. Crew complement was reported at 1,899 men made up of 1,730 sailors and 169 officers. Power was derived from 16 x Yarrow boilers powering 4 x General Electric steam turbines and, in turn, powered 4 x main drive motors with an output of 180,000 shaft horsepower. Four turbo-generators fed eight electric motors with two motors to a shaft. The engine arrangement was one key piece retained from the original battlecruiser design. The arrangement allowed for a speed of just over 33 knots to be reached with a range equivalent to 10,000 nautical miles.
Upon delivery and acceptance into service, the USS Lexington (CV-2) became the United States Navy's first fleet aircraft carrier. She was launched to sea on October 3rd, 1925, under sponsorship of Mrs. Theodore Douglas Robinson - then wife to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy - and officially commissioned on December 14th, 1927 with Captain Albert W. Marshall behind the helm. Following the traditional "shake down" period for naval vessels, the USS Lexington joined her allies in the Battle Fleet out of San Pedro, California on April 7th, 1928. She ran through a period of valuable training for her crew, officers and naval aviators and participated in all-important Pacific war games. She would be one of the earliest US Navy ships to received the first maritime production radar system available in the form of the RCA CXAM-1.
At the time of the surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the USS Lexington was away on a delivery call to Midway Island to support the garrison of US Marines holding down the fort. Luckily for the American Pacific Fleet, the three major carriers in the region were all out of the harbor at the time of the attack - including the USS Saratoga undergoing a refit in San Diego and the USS Enterprise also out on delivery. Post-attack, the USS Lexington launched her search planes in vain to search for the Japanese fleet but came up empty. Regardless, the US was now officially committed to was with the Empire of Japan and there would be much more in store for the USS Lexington than aircraft deliveries from this point on.
Lexington served as the flagship for Task Force 11 out of Pearl under the command of Vice Admiral Wilson Brown on January 11th, 1942. While en route with TF 11, she was attacked by a contingent of 18 Japanese aircraft but repelled them with her own fighters, resulting in the destruction of 17 of the enemy. She was put on a series of patrols for the time being, actively seeking out the enemy fleet and provided air cover for a Marshall Islands raid. On March 6th, 1942, she met up with Task Force 17 and the much newer USS Yorktown before returning to Pearl for an armament refitting. Her original 8-inch guns and four of her 5-inch guns were replaced with six 28mm quadruple- and thirty 20mm Oerlikon single-mount anti-aircraft cannons. She was back with TF 17 by May 1st.