USS Saratoga (CV-3) was identical to her sister (and lead ship of the class) the USS Lexington (CV-2). "Sara" was actually commissioned before (one month) than "Lady Lex" due to her keel being laid down some six months earlier, making her the second aircraft carrier to be built by the US Navy. However, the Navy had other plans for the Lexington-class as she was originally originated in a 1916 building program to comprise six battle cruisers - these to be named after the Navy's first six frigates.
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.
The Navy and her first carrier pilots - "the Langley pilots" as they were called - were developing carrier tactics with the three carriers they had. Their training was being done within a battleship-minded Navy at the time. By now, however, the world was a changing place. What types of ships would a carrier task force comprise of? What positions would they take within the task force and who be placed in command of such a task force? Career officers in the US Navy that went to Annapolis were schooled in battleship naval tactics; the dominance of aircraft and carriers seemed a distant second at the time.
Saratoga spent most of her time with fleet training exercises designed to outline a defining role for carriers in future warfare. Both CV-2 and CV-3 joined the fleet with mock attacks on the Panama Canal and Pearl Harbor. Saratoga helped to develop fast-attack carrier tactics that used destroyers and cruisers as a screen though made no use of current battleships for they proved too slow for a mobile force. Officers who understood the carrier knew they were high value enemy targets and fleet exercises continually developed tactics to shield the carriers.
Between 1931 and 1941 Saratoga was stationed at the San Diego Naval Base in California. Her home ocean-side port allowed for families to be housed nearby and normal fueling and replenishment of stores would take place dock side. For normal overhauls, Sara would steam up the coast to Bremerton Navy Yard in Washington State. Saratoga remained in Hawaiian waters until 1933 as Japan had begun to attack ships in Chinese waters. Sara returned to the Caribbean for exercises in 1934 and returned to the Pacific by way of the Panama Canal for fleet problems in that area during 1935. She returned to San Diego and trained back in Hawaiian waters through 1938 and during Fleet Problem XIX; she launched a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor from 100 miles off Oahu and caught the fleet unaware, ironically a lesson soon forgotten.
On January 6, 1941 she entered the Bremerton Navy Yard for an overdue modernization. Her flight deck was widened and remolded forward. A torpedo blister was added on the starboard side. She was fitted with an improved first generation RCA CXAM-1 radar system. This radar could be used to detect not only the range of incoming enemy aircraft but the altitude and number of planes in the flight group. To this point, most surface ships were able to detect a single plane at 50 miles and some at 100 miles. Large surface ships could be detected up to 15 miles away. Her refit was completed in April 1941 and she remained in Hawaiian waters until her scheduled dry dock refit in November 1941 at Puget Sound, Bremerton Navy Yard. She returned to San Diego on December 7th, 1941.
Saratoga received word of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl and she was quickly loaded with stores, extra ammunition and bombs along with additional crew members. Key to the Japanese attack was to catch the American carriers at the docks, but this was not so. Additionally, oil stores were left untouched by Japanese airmen. While dealing a major blow to the Pacific fleet, Japan left America's most vital assets - her aircraft carriers - unharmed. She could claim a tactical victory of numbers but not a strategic one of force.
Saratoga got under way on the 8th with a Marine air squadron but these boys would be diverted to reinforce Wake Island which came under attack by Japanese Naval forces. Back at Pearl, the cargo ship Tangier was loaded with supplies and troops and the fleet oilier Neches was made ready. They were joined by a screen of destroyers and headed for Wake. Sara docked at Pearl on December 15th and, after refueling, she left same day. Faster than the cargo ship and the oilier, Sara caught up to the convoy on the 17th and all made way to Wake Island. However, the convoy being slow and the destroyers needing to be refueled delayed the force even more. On the 21st word reached Pearl that Japanese aircraft were attacking the island en masse and troops were coming ashore so Saratoga and the convoy were recalled back to Hawaii and Wake Island fell the next day.
Naval Operations kept Saratoga in Hawaiian waters in anticipation of another Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which was not to be. She was ordered to join USS Enterprise and headed back out to sea. While en route on January 11th, 1942, Saratoga was spotted by Japanese submarine I-6. In command of I-6 was Lt.Cdr. Inaba who fired 3 of his Type 89 torpedoes from 4,700 yards out, striking Sara with one torpedo amidships on her port side. Three boiler rooms took on more than 1,000 gallons of water killing six firemen. The ship listed to starboard with the extra weight and lost headway. Using her pumps to stabilize the ship, the crew was able to make 16 knots heading back to Pearl under her own power. In port, her 8-inch guns were removed to bolster the shore installations across Hawaii - they proved essentially useless against aircraft when onboard the Saratoga.
After minor repairs at Pearl Harbor the Saratoga proceeded to the Bremerton Navy Yard for permanent repairs. It was becoming obvious Sara needed additional anti-aircraft protection so the 12 x 5-inch Mk10 130mm 25 caliber guns and the 2 x quad mounts of 1.1 inch machine guns we replaced by 5 x single-mounted 5-inch, 38 caliber guns along with 9 x quad mounts of 40mm AA Bofors guns. Additionally 5 x quad mounts of 20mm AA guns and single 20mm AA guns were added. She left Washington State and arrived in San Diego in late May 1942 to start training a new group of pilots on take offs and landings from carrier flight decks. Saratoga received information concerning the upcoming Midway action; she began to load supplies and armament and wait for her escort screen to assemble. On June 1st the flotilla steamed for Pearl Harbor and arrived on June 7th to fuel, missing the Battle of Midway that had taken place on June 6-7, 1942. USS Hornet and USS Enterprise needed Sara's replacement planes so she transferred 34 of her aircraft and some of her airmen on June 11th and returned to Pearl. Sara took on additional Navy and Army aircraft and ferried them to Midway Island to bolster the defenses.
Saratoga was chosen as the flagship of Rear Admiral F.J. Fletcher and would be the only carrier assigned to the upcoming Guadalcanal campaign. The Fiji islands were chosen to be the staging area and provided a rehearsal beach for the assault troops and the carrier aircraft. Sara's aircraft opened the assault on the Canal at 5am on August 7th, 1942. Her aircraft bombed and strafed the beach along with the airstrip still under construction. Sara's aircraft shot down a number of Japanese planes and, more importantly, kept them from finding the carrier. Admiral Fletcher withdrew the carrier force for refueling east of the Solomon's. That night, a strong Japanese naval force attacked the fleet at Guadalcanal and sunk four US Navy cruisers while the balance of the US ships withdrew, leaving the Marines on Guadalcanal stranded without all the supplies scheduled to be delivered. Sara was stationed in the Solomon's doing what she could and was further supported by USS Enterprise.
The battle developed along a 12-hour line - the Japanese Navy ruled the night, sending ships down the slot while shelling Guadalcanal at will. During the day, the US Navy, with Sara and the Big E in tow and supported by their screen, would patrol the skies and seas, looking for Japanese aircraft and ships to engage, bomb and strafe. On August 23rd, 1942 Sara's dive bombers and torpedo planes sunk the Japanese carrier Ryuio and damaged the seaplane tender Chitose. The Japanese aircraft were desperately looking for Sara but found USS Enterprise instead, slightly damaging her in subsequent attacks. Aircraft from the American force were again launched and found a Japanese troop transport force heading for the Canal. With the Ryuio sunk, enemy air strength in the region was reduced so the Allied presence forced the transports to withdraw.
Two days later while on patrol, Sara was struck by a torpedo along her starboard blister, the torpedo launched by submarine I-26 . This resulted in minimal damage to the hull and flooding was localized in one fire room with no loss of life. However, the turbo electric system was damaged by short circuitry and this left Sara dead in the water. Admiral Fletcher decided to fly most of his aircraft to Guadalcanal while she was towed by the cruiser CA-36 to Tongatabu for minor repairs and then on to Pearl Harbor on September 21, 1942. While she was away, her aircraft landing on Guadalcanal and continued the fight.
Sara completed her repairs and proceeded to the Fiji area, arriving on December 5th, 1942, and operated in the Eastern Solomons for the next 12 months. In July 1943, Sara was joined by the British carrier HMS Victorious arrived and, in October, so too did the light cruiser USS Princeton to help cover the troop landings on Bougainville November 1st . Along with the landing, a secondary mission was to destroy the Japanese Army air field on Buka Island. On November 2th Rear Admiral Sherman received word of a Japanese naval build up at Rabaul that would threaten the beachhead. A plan was devised to strike the stronghold at Rabaul - considered to be Japan's second most heavily defended base in the Pacific next to Truk. The Rabaul attack would be an "Army and Navy" show along with ships from the nations of New Zealand and Australia. Task force 38, with Saratoga screened by Princeton, moved to within striking distance off of Rabaul on November 5th. Using bad weather as cover, Sara launched 90 aircraft some 100 miles out from the target zone. These aircraft eluded Japanese radar and openly begun attacking the enemy ships in the harbor.
Six cruisers and three destroyers were bombed and damaged to different degrees. Dauntless dive bombers dropped 500-lb bombs at the IJN Atago with no direct hits. However, the near-misses caused heavy damage resulting in the death of the ship's Captain and 22 Japanese crewmen The IJN Mogami was also hit by a 500lb bomb and was seen burning, recording 19 crew deaths. IJN Maya was struck by one bomb that caused serious damage near the engine room with 70 total casualties aboard. The IJN Agano was impaired by the attack with one 500lb bomb exploding by the ship, damaging one gun and resulting in the death of one crewman. IJN Takao had taken two direct hits by 500lb bombs resulting in heavy damage and killing 23 sailors. IJN Chikuma was attacked by multiple aircraft that caused some engine damage. The surprise attack was a success and many of the Japanese warships left Rabaul for Truk for much needed repairs. However, the 5th Army Air Force stationed on Green Island, northwest of Bougainville, also struck Rabaul soon after the raid by Saratoga's aircraft. General Kenney sent 27 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers along with 58 P-38 as fighter escort.
To try and eliminate Rabaul as a viable base, on November 11th, the US navy sent additional ships including the carriers USS Independence, USS Essex and USS Bunker Hill. Task Force 38 with Saratoga launched hundreds of aircraft to strike at Rabaul's shipping and port facilities. The cruiser IJN Agano was struck by torpedoes and was left listing. The Japanese Army aircraft stationed at Rabaul launched many sorties with 120 aircraft defending the Atoll against the American planes and searched for the carrier forces in vane, losing 35 aircraft in the process. The outcome of the battles netted the Allies six IJN cruisers heavily damaged and 52 aircraft destroyed. The American navy lost 10 carrier aircraft and 17 land-based bombers. Saratoga had been the primary warship in the battle.
After Rabaul, Sara and the cruiser Princeton were released from Task Force 35 and designated as the "Relief Carrier Group" assigned to the offensive in the Gilberts. The first target for her air wings was the island of Nauru on November 19th 1943. She then provided cover for liberty ships carrying troops to Makin and Tarawa. Saratoga had been on station in the Pacific for a year now and needed an overdue overhaul. Thusly, she arrived in San Francisco in December of 1943. The funnel was reduced by 15 feet to help reduce her profile silhouette and allow for less aircraft traffic obstruction. The bridge was opened up for outside views and an additional 16 x 4 quad Bofors gun mounts were added, giving her a total of 25 x quad anti-aircraft Bofors 40mm gun mounts. The original tripod mast was replaced by a single pole mast with the new RK-1 radar. Six months later, she received additional radar screens for aircraft detection attached to the funnel and two hydraulic catapults replacing the original flywheel catapult. Also a portside torpedo blister was installed.
Leaving San Francisco, Sara arrived back at Pearl on January 7th, 1944 and began a training schedule which included many new crew assignments. It was not long before the Navy called on Sara to assemble with two light carriers, the USS Langley (CVL-27) and USS Princeton (CVL-23), to provide a strong airpower force towards the Marshall Islands. This carrier force had 180 aircraft combined and struck the islands of Wotie and Taroa for 72 hours and then attacked the main island of Eniwetok for five more days ultimately covering the beach landings on January 17th . The Marines had some rough going of it so the carrier force flew CAP (Combat Air Patrol) until February 28th.
Saratoga was classified as the third carrier built but she launched as second in her group. The Navy Department, by 1944, maintained thirty active aircraft carriers and chose the oldest serving carrier for duty with the British Navy in the Far East - the USS Saratoga. With a destroyer screen, Sara rendezvoused with the British Fleet consisting of the carrier HMS Illustrious, four battleships and a force of escorts. On March 31st, 1944, a French battleship joined the fleet and the Saratoga commenced training the force to work as a carrier task force. Sara's pilots passed their war-fighting experiences on to British pilots as much as possible. The force steamed to Sumatra and started the campaign by attacking the port of Sabing. The Japanese were unaware of the fleet and the carriers launched their aircraft, attacking the port and shore installations while the battleships destroyed the ships in port. A second mission was decided upon as the Fleet steamed to Soerabaja in Java and, once again, the Japanese were not prepared - the port was ultimately decimated. Sara's "training" was over and the British fleet continued to operate in Far East waters confronting the enemy - now with newfound knowledge and experience thanks to Sara.
Saratoga returned to the United States on June 10th, 1944, and was in dock for repair and afterwards reported to Pearl in September of 1944 to train carrier night-fighters alongside the carrier USS Ranger (CV-22). In January, Saratoga steamed with USS Enterprise to conduct night flying missions against Iwo Jima. Upon arrival, Saratoga was assigned CAP fleet duties as the other carriers attacked Iwo. Sara continued sorties and was attacked herself on February 21st, 1945, hit by 5 bombs in three minutes and another attack scoring an additional bomb hit. Sara's forward deck and hanger deck were damaged and 123 of her crew were killed. Under her own power, she arrived at Puget Sound on March 16th, 1945. After repairs, she returned to Pearl to train and officially stood down on September 6th, 1945, when Japan officially surrendered to the Allies. USS Saratoga received a total of 7 Battle Stars for service in World War 2 and held the record of total aircraft landings on an aircraft carrier at 98,549 for over 17 years.
After the war, Sara - like most every other USN vessel - was assigned to transport American veterans back to the United States under the "Magic Carpet Service" name. She brought home 29,204 service men and women, more than any other ship in the program. Sara was the oldest carrier in USN service at the time and, thusly, was deemed surplus and assigned as a test ship at the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test on July 1st, 1946. Sara survived the air burst with only minor damage, showing her sturdy Yankee construction through and through. On July 25th a second underwater blast occurred with Sara battle loaded and just 300 yards away from the lethal blast range. After the blast, Sara's hull was broken and, within 7.5 hours, she sunk by the head and was struck from the active Naval Register list on August 15th, 1946.
Quite the unfitting end for this fine lady.