The concept of "part-cruiser, part-battleship" was a new idea for the American navy. The six-ship class would have had a main battery of 10x14-inch guns and displace 34,300 tons while able to make 35 knots. The concept was to out-class foreign cruisers and utilize "hit-and-run" tactics against the "super dreadnoughts" of World War 1. On paper, a Lexington-class cruiser could hold its own against super dreadnoughts like the German Bayern-class with her own 8x15-inch-guns, the class itself displacing 32,000 tons and able to make 22 knots. The Lexington C-1 class would be able to run rings around the Bayern-class and could, if built, cross the "T" at will. The negatives for the proposed Lexington C-1 class were reduced armor to make for more inherent speed using no less than five smoke stacks (with their applicable boiler systems) above the armored deck.
By the end of World War 1, and still a vision only realized on paper, the C-1 class gun battery was revised to 8x16-inch guns and more armor meant less speed. Also, the design was trimmed to two smoke stacks and not the original five and the next logical step was to move the boilers below the armored decking. The six C-class ships were laid down starting in August of 1920 into 1921. The Washington Naval Treaty - a treaty agreed upon by major world powers after World War I (ironically to include the Empire of Japan and Germany) - restricted shipbuilding of major warships and, thusly, all construction on the six American cruisers was halted in early 1922.
The Washington Naval Treaty only allowed for the conversion of two aircraft carriers from the Lexington-class cruisers already under construction. The keel that was already laid down in Camden, New Jersey became the USS Saratoga while the USS Lexington was built at Quincy, Massachusetts. The keels for the proposed USS Constellation, USS Ranger, USS Constitution and USS United States were ultimately scrapped. While converting the two carriers and trying to subvert some of the restrictions of the Treaty, the US Navy Department finagled that you could add up to 3,000 tons of anti-aircraft defenses to a capital ship - which carriers were so classified. It was only fitting that the Japanese Empire so too used this clause when constructing their grand navy of World War 2. Being that the Treaty restricted maximum displacement at 33,000 tons, Sara officially displaced no more than that when empty but actually displaced closer to 43,500 tons when under a full combat load. At the time of her construction, the Saratoga cost American taxpayers $43,856,492.59.
In comparison, the only U.S. Navy carrier in service then was launched in 1913 - the 542-foot, 19,360-ton USS Langley (CV-1). Langley was a converted collier (coal) ship that carried 34 aircraft. On the other hand, USS Saratoga (CV-3) had a steel hull and her extended flight deck became 888-feet long. The hull was not changed from the original cruiser's design of 830-feet and benefited both Sara's speed and her maneuverability. The flight deck, as designed, measured 874 feet in length and was welded to the steel hull, covered over with wood planks to reduce overall weight. The deck was 111 feet, 9 inches wide while her draft was 31 feet. The wood planking was sealed with caulk and then painted over.
With the hull partially built under the cruiser guise and to save money on construction costs, the characteristics of the carrier had to conform to the original hull shape (and not the other way around). The dimensions inside the hull had to allow for a large aircraft hanger connected to munitions spaces that all had to fit neatly around the larger turbines and applicable boilers. The original funnel design was scrapped to allow for a starboard side funnel to sit behind a large island superstructure. However, this collection of massive weight all along one side resulted in the ship having a slight list to her starboard. The flight deck was long enough for the aircraft of the day but only wide enough to launch and retrieve one aircraft at a time. By design, Sara could accommodate 90 aircraft but normally carried 83. To move the aircraft to the hanger below and back up to the flight deck, two deck elevators were installed. As the flight deck was shorter than a typical runway, launching aircraft were assisted by a flywheel catapult.
Saratoga was fitted with eight General Electric turbo electric drive engines, two for each propeller shaft. Combined they produced upwards of 180,000 shaft horsepower able to generate 32.25 knots (at least on paper) but, during her trials, she was able to make an impressive 34.99 knots - though it remained unknown if this stat was taken with a full load aboard. To produce that power the ship had 16 x White & Foster oil-burning boilers to produce the required steam. To vent the gas and smoke, the uptakes were routed to one larger flat vent that was 105 feet long making an 80-foot high funnel. She could cruise for 10,000 nautical miles at 10 knots. Her crew consisted of 2,212 officers and enlisted personnel plus aircrew during peace time but, in 1942, she had around 3,300 crew members not including the air wing. As such, crew quarters were improvised and crowded.
The thought at the time was to arm Sara for self-protection as a capital ship. At launching, her main armament was four double mounts of 8-inch, 200 mm / 55 caliber guns and twelve single-mounted 5-inch Mk 10 130 mm / 25 caliber guns. Secondary weaponry was relatively insignificant with eight single mounted .050 caliber guns. This arrangement was thought to sufficient protection against enemy surface ships, the thought being that Saratoga would not require an escort screen at all. However, at their core, aircraft carriers were not designed to engage surface ships head-on so the 8-inch guns were not entirely a practical solution. It was only after some wartime experience that her entire armament platform was reviewed and revised. Additional defense included her belt armor. Along the water line, this was 5-inches-to-7-inches thick. To protect the island, 3-inch flat armor was used and over the steering gear, 4.5-inches of slope armor was mounted.
When Sara was launched the Philadelphia Evening Star wrote: "There is no counterpart for this American first-line carrier in any other navy...". Sara received her new crew and aircraft squadrons and steamed from Philadelphia on January 6th, 1928 to begin her "shake down" cruise in the Caribbean. The USS Saratoga joined the fleet with USS Lexington and, compared to the USS Langley, they were colossal vessels. According to noted military historian, Norman Friedman, the USS Saratoga and her sister ship were examples of carriers as noteworthy as the British HMS Dreadnought was to battleship classification some 25 years before. The class was the standard that aircraft carrier development in all navies across the world should emulate; Sara and her sister ship were faster and carried more aircraft than any aircraft carrier in the world at that time - the Imperial Japanese Navy, of course, took note.
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