The USS Langley (CV-1) was the United States Navy's first aircraft carrier. The hull of the Langley had seen prior years of service under the name of USS Jupiter (Collier # 3), a collier or coal vessel that also served as the USN's test bed for its first turbo electrically-propelled ship. This experiment was designed to increase safety on board USN vessels by not using the standard coal burning furnaces, thus reducing the chance of an explosion caused by coal dust. President William H. Taft attended the keel laying ceremony and the ship was officially commissioned on April 7th, 1913.
Jupiter had a notable career ferrying Marines of the Pacific Fleet at Mazatlan, Mexico during the Vera Cruz crisis. On her way back she steamed through the Panama Canal on Columbus Day, the first vessel to make the crossing from the west to into the east. Her primary duty then was as a coaling ship of the fleet and was sent to France in both 1917 and 1918. Interestingly enough, on her first voyage she transported a naval aviation detachment of 7 officers and 122 men to England. It was the first United States aviation detachment to arrive in Europe, commanded by Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting, who later became Langley's first executive officer. Her conversion to an aircraft carrier was authorized on July 11th, 1919, to which she later sailed into Hampton Roads, Virginia, to be decommissioned as the USS Jupiter in March of 1920. The US Navy chose their first carrier to be named as the USS Langley (CV-1) after Samuel Pierpoint Langley (1834-1906), an American pioneer involved in the designing of heavier-than-air craft. This did not bode well with another famous aviation pioneer, Orville Wright, who had his own ideas of who the ship should have been named after.
The USS Langley became an aircraft carrier for the useful purpose of conducting trials into the relatively new idea of seaborne aviation and many changes were required in making taking her from her collier ship origins. The superstructure, cranes, kingposts, masts, and funnels were removed while a rectangular flight deck was installed. The full-length wood flight deck was fitted to a steel framework. Below the deck was spacing to allow for ventilation and natural lighting to help below-deck work and general safety conditions. One elevator was added amidships and 2 launch catapults were installed on the flight deck.
The six large cargo holds (original used for coal storage on the Jupiter) proved ideal as aircraft hanger decks for aircraft and associated machinery spaces positioned aft. The electric drive motors remained from her Jupiter days and powered 3 boilers, producing 190psi and 6,500 shaft horsepower to 2 propeller shafts. This powerplant arrangement allowed the new displacement of 15,150 tons full to make an impressive 15.5 knots. For self-defense, the USS Langley was fitted with 4 x 5" /51 caliber single gun mounts. CV-1 had room for approximately 34 aircraft (biplanes) as folding wings were not en vogue during this time. The operational crew component comprised of 468 sailors and applicable air wing personnel. Her dimensions showcased a length of 542 feet, 3 inches and a width of 65ft, 3 inches. Two gantry cranes were fitted while Number 1 Hole was dedicated to aviation fuel storage. The starboard side uptakes were cross connected to the port side and hinged down for unobstructed flight deck operations.
An interesting historical footnote of Langley lore was a carrier pigeon house installed on the stern section of the ship between the 5" 51 caliber anti-aircraft guns. Pigeons were still utilized on navy ships of the time and carried aboard seaplanes for message transport, this beginning about the time of World War I. The US Navy pigeons were "trained" at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard at the same time that USS Langley was being converted to CV-1. Though the use of trained animals might sound applicable here, it presented the operator with some natural dilemmas. It seemed that when a handful of pigeons were released at any one time, they returned to the ship. On another occasion however, a large number of pigeons were released near Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay and did not return, instead deciding to fly southwards and eventually ending up at the Norfolk shipyard. For such "dereliction" of pigeon training, these particular messenger pigeons were "discharged" from sea duty and not returned to Langley. The pigeon house was therefore rebuilt as the executive officer's quarters.
October 1922 was an important month in naval aviation history, marking the first take-off and landing of an aircraft from an aircraft carrier at sea. One such Vought VE-7 Bluebird biplane made history by being the first airplane to take-off from the USS Langley on October 17th, 1922 with Lieutenant Commander Virgil C. (Squash) Griffin at the controls of the fighter aircraft. Nine days later, on the 26th, Lieutenant Commander G. de Chevalier landed an Aeromarine 39B biplane aircraft on the deck of the USS Langley while she was under steam.
After some additional repairs, the USS Langley proceeded to the Caribbean Sea for carrier flight operation consisting of launching and landing tests. By June she was training along the Atlantic coast until 1924. Langley then participated in training maneuvers and spent the summer at Norfolk for repairs. In November, Langley departed for the West Coast and arrived in San Diego, California to join the Pacific Battle Fleet. For the next twelve years she would operate off the West Coast and in Hawaiian waters, undergoing basic fleet training, pilot training, and tactical game exercises.
In October 1936, Langley returned to Mare Island Navy Yard in California for an overhaul and conversion as a seaplane tender. With her career as an aircraft carrier officially ended, her trained pilots were transferred to the USS Lexington and USS Saratoga. Langley was now re-classified as AV-3 with the conversion completing in February of 1937. She was then assigned to the Aircraft Scouting Force and commenced her tending duties out of Seattle-Washington, Sitka-Alaska, Pearl Harbor-Hawaii, and San Diego-California. In July of 1939, she departed to assume her duties with the Pacific Fleet at Manila in the Philippines arriving in September that year.
Upon the US entry into World War II, Langley was anchored off Cavite, Philippines and remained undetected by Japanese forces. On December 8th, following the invasion of the Philippines by Japan, she steamed from Cavite to Balikpapan in the Dutch East Indies. Japanese advances continued and Langley was ordered to depart for Australia, arriving in Darwin on January 1st, 1942. The US Navy at this time was stretched perilously thin so Langley became part of a combined naval force with the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM). In this capacity, USS Langley assisted the Royal Australian Air Force in running anti-submarine patrols out of Darwin, Australia.
With the Allies needing aircraft in Southeast Asia, Langley ferried 32 Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter aircraft assigned to the United States Army Air Force 49th Pursuit Group to Tjilatjap, Java in February. Langley then left Tjilatjap on February 27th to rejoin her destroyer group made up of the Whipple and Edsall. When she was about 75 miles (120 km) south of Tjilatjap, nine Japanese twin-engine Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bombers attacked her. During the attack, USS Langley was hit by no less than 5 bombs, killing 16 of her crew members. Her planes resting along her flight deck were also set afire in the attack and ensuing explosions below her flight deck impaired her ability to steer, forcing her to list to port. After a valiant attempt by her crew to return to Java, the USS Langley went dead in the water. With her engine room now flooding beyond hope of recovery, the order was given to abandon ship for all hands aboard. Once all crew were safely transferred off the ship, the accompanying destroyer Whipple fired nine 4" inch shells into USS Langley while Edsall fired two torpedoes into her side for good measure. The decision to sink Langley was to ensure she would not become a Japanese war prize. The surviving Langley crew went on to serve on many other carriers in the conflict, aiding greatly to the Allied war effort. Despite her unceremonious fate at sea, the USS Langley had already achieved a memorable and lasting legacy for those that served under her banner.
The USS Jupiter/USS Langley received several awards during her tenure at sea. As the Jupiter, these included the Mexican Service Medal and the World War 1 victory medal. As the Langley, this included the American Defense Service Medal ("Fleet" clasp), the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War 2 Victory Medal.
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