The USS Lexington (CV-2) and the USS Saratoga (CV-3) both served the United States Navy well in the inter-war years, supplying the nation with the priceless experience that would pay off by the time of World War 2. The USS Lexington was the lead ship of the Lexington-class with the Saratoga acting as her sister. The Lexington received her name after the Battle of Lexington in 1775 as part of the American Revolutionary War, the war representing among the earliest action between the rebelling colonists and the British Monarchy. CV-2 became the fourth USN vessel to be named Lexington.
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.
The Battle of Coral Sea was next on the Lexington's radar. She and TF 17 spotted an enemy task force sent to escort a New Guinea invasion force tasked with the capture of Port Moresby. Port Moresby would serve the Japanese Army and Navy well as a stepping stone to the ultimate invasion of the Australian mainland. The carrier force was counting on an Allied response to the invasion force and was to attack such a response from the vulnerable rear, crushing the attempt in the process. The Japanese Task Force included the light carrier IJN Shoho and the large carriers IJN Shokaku and IJN Zuikaku. USS Lexington and USS Yorktown formed the backbone of the American force ready to match metal for metal.
Bad weather persisted from May 5th to May 6th, to which neither force spotted one another. All that changed on the 7th however as the Japanese invasion force was located. The Americans responded by launching two-thirds of their planes thinking that the Japanese carriers were also among the group of transports. This forced a change of course for the Japanese invasion force but left the IJN Shoho as the primary target to the incoming Allied attack. All she could make do with were her close-range anti-aircraft guns and a small contingent of just 21 aircraft. While the Lexington's aircraft were repelled in the subsequent action by the force of ships, Yorktown's wave hit the Shoho with no less than thirteen 1,000lb bombs, several torpedoes and one crashing SBD Dauntless (her two-man crew was killed in the process). Amazingly, the Americans lost just three aircraft in the fray.
May 8th saw each carrier group only 200 miles apart and both spotted the other in turn, launching their warplanes. Shokaku was hit twice by USS Yorktown dive-bombers, one bomb disabling the launch deck and essentially taking her out of the fight. USS Lexington's aircraft arrived late but an aviator managed a hit to Shokaku to worsen the damage. While she survived the battle, she lost most of her air group at Coral Sea.
On the other side of the battlefield, a 69-strong Japanese aircraft group appeared and laid a direct hit on Yorktown but the resulting destruction was not overly critical to operations. At the same time, Japanese aircraft engaged Lexington and hit her squarely with two torpedoes along her forward portside bow. Simultaneously, Japanese dive-bombers swooped in and managed two direct hits on her from above - one on the funnel structure and one on the forward portside flight deck. The attack jammed the Lexington's elevator in the raised position but her flightdeck was left intact.
The direct blasts and near misses of the Japanese bombs and torpedoes did more internal damage than initially noted. The ripple effect of the explosions had jarred aviation fuel tanks under her flightdeck that, though the internal fires had been put out by crews, the explosive gasses still permeated about the confines of the ship. Approximately an hour after the initial explosions were felt, a seemingly random spark occurred somewhere in the ship, in turn igniting the potent gasses, causing a series of explosions to ripple about the vessel and fires broke out. The ship listed to port and billowed smoke.
Realizing the Lexington was most likely a loss, the remaining aircraft were ordered to fly to their new home aboard the USS Yorktown. Lexington herself was subsequently abandoned per captain's order at 17:00 hours and ultimately done in by two torpedoes from the destroyer USS Phelps to prevent her capture by the enemy. In true honorable fashion, the last persons to leave the ship were Captain Frederick Carl Sherman and his Executive Officer, Commander Morton T. Seligman. The USS Lexington was officially given to the sea at 19:56 and her part in the war was over. She was struck from the US Naval Register on June 24th, 1942. During her World War 2 tenure, the ship earned herself and her crews the American Defense Service Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with 2 Stars) and the World War 2 Victory Medal. Of the 2,951 crew aboard Lexington at the time of the Battle of Coral Sea, 216 were killed in action.
While technically a victory for Japan, the Battle of Coral Sea proved their first major setback in their conquest of the Pacific and did away with any though of invading the Australian mainland. The Americans lost a major carrier in the process and hard lessons were learned for future combat actions that would play well into total victory for the Allies in the Theater. USS Lexington proved a fighter till the end, a boxer on the ropes not ready to accept defeat. The price for victory proved high on that fateful day.
During her tenure at sea, USS Lexington (CV-2) became affectionately known by the nicknames of the "Gray Lady" and "Lady Lex". As an aside, five days after the report of her sinking was made public, workers at the Fore River Shipbuilding Company in Quincy, Massachusetts petitioned the US Navy Secretary, Frank Knox, to rename the current carrier (USS Cabot) then under construction at the shipyard. The petition was accepted and the Cabot now became USS Lexington (CV-16) in honor of the CV-2.
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