Monday, February 27, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: A Lesser Known Wreck on the Java Coast--USS Langley

By Elijah Palmer
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator
A torpedo from the destroyer USS Whipple (DD-217) strikes home as the seaplane tender USS Langley (AV-3) is scuttled after being disabled by Japanese bombers on February 27, 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 92476)
While much attention has been rightfully given to USS Houston (CA-30), the "Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast," after the discovery of her wreck in 2014, there are several other World War II wrecks along the Java Coast. One of these is the USS Langley (ASV-3), once famed for being the first American aircraft carrier.
The former fuel ship USS Jupiter (AC-3) undergoes conversion into the US Navy's first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV-1) at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1921.  While attempting to ferry fighter aircraft and their pilots from Australia to the island of Java, Langley, by then a seaplane tender, was lost after a Japanese aerial attack on February 27, 1942.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Japanese GM4 "Betty" bomber.
Just before noon on February 27, 1942, Commander Robert McConnell watched as Japanese GM4 "Betty" bombers began their attack on his ship, USS Langley. Anticipating the bombers' aim, McConnell ordered the seaplane tender back and forth, successfully dodging the first two attacks. Yet the ship's luck would not hold for long.

USS Langley transits the Panama Canal in 1924 on her way to the Pacific Ocean.  As USS Jupiter a decade before, she had made history, transiting in the other direction, as the first US Navy ship to use the canal.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
USS Langley's insignia (Wikimedia Commons)
Langley started life as the collier USS Jupiter (AC-3), serving the fleet through World War I. With the Navy shifting to using oil for fuel, and the value of military aviation shown during the war, Jupiter was slated for a new role. In 1920 the ship was ordered to the Norfolk Navy Yard and was converted into the first American aircraft carrier, being renamed USS Langley (CV-1) in 1922. The ship was the only carrier in the fleet until USS Lexington (CV-2) was commissioned in 1927.

USS Langley in 1928.
By 1937, with new and improved carriers in the fleet, Langley was converted into a seaplane tender and reclassified as ASV-3. The conversion changed the ship's appearance dramatically as half of the flight deck was removed. Cranes were used to transfer seaplanes from the water to the deck. Seaplanes were used for both long range reconnaissance and for search and rescue missions, and thus were especially useful in the Pacific.

Langley after conversion to seaplane tender.

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the United States joined the war in the Pacific. The early months of 1942 were a tumultuous time, with the Allies struggling to check any advances of the Imperial Japanese forces. By early February, Singapore fell in a disastrous defeat for the British, and American forces were fighting desperately on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines. USS Langley was ordered to transport over thirty critically needed P-40 "Warhawk" fighter planes from Australia to the Dutch East Indies (what is now Indonesia). On February 27, the ship met its destroyer escorts, USS Whipple (DD-217) and USS Edsall (DD-219), south of the island of Java. A few hours later, the ships were under attack by Japanese air units.

While the destroyers, with their higher speed, could largely evade the mid-altitude bombers, Langley was never meant for high speed maneuvers. Besides this, the extra weight topside from the stowed fighters bogged down the ship. Once the bombers missed the seaplane tender during the first two passes, they changed tactics and bracketed the ship with bombs, so that there was nowhere to turn. Langley was hit with five bombs, severely damaging the ship, while killing 16 and wounding countless others. About two hours after the attack commenced, Commander McConnell gave the order to abandon ship. The destroyers picked up the survivors, and scuttled the marred ship with torpedoes and shellfire.

Sailors watch from Whipple as Langley is scuttled. (Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 92475)

A Memphis, Tennessee newspaper's headline about the Langley, Pecos, and other ships. Note that this reporting was over a month after these ships had been sunk. 
Many survivors were soon after transferred to the USS Pecos (AO-6), which unfortunately was sunk a few days later with two thirds of those on board perishing. Edsall also went down soon after in a lopsided battle against heavy Japanese forces. During this stage of the war, many ships of the Asiatic fleet were turned into "ghosts" as the Japanese held a heavy advantage. USS Langley was an unfortunate victim of this situation, but her sister ships would exact their revenge later in 1942.


northierthanthou said...

Interesting story and pics. Thank you for writing it.

notoriousactivist said...

Thanks for publishing this. One of my grandfather's nephews was killed on the Langley. Didn't realize only 16 were killed.

Unknown said...

My uncle Paul E. Phillips was on the Langley and was rescued by another ship that would also sink his body was never recovered leaving his mother to always wonder.

Unknown said...

This is a new story entirely for me. Thank you for posting this! Godspeed to all of these great men! The Langley was the first US Navy ship to pass through the Panama Canal as the 'Jupiter', the ship she was converted from in the twenties!