Thursday, January 7, 2021

USS Langley (CV 1): The Beginning (Part One)

USS Langley (CV 1) with battleships of the fleet in the 1920s. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer

A collier was perhaps the most unprepossessing vessel afloat. Mostly empty space, it plodded from one port to another laden with coal, metallic ores or other bulky cargoes, fuel for the economy. But one collier, laid down as USS Jupiter (AC 3) on October 18, 1911 at Mare Island Naval Yard in Vallejo, California, would go on to become a nautical trailblazer.

The collier USS Jupiter (AC 3) seen in 1913. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The second of four sister ships, Jupiter was the first vessel in the fleet to be powered by a turbo electric drive. After being commissioned on April 7, 1913, it spent time with the Pacific Fleet before passing through the Panama Canal on Columbus Day 1914, becoming the first ship to transit the Canal from west to east in the process. It would spend the prewar and the First World War years engaged in the hum drum life of a naval collier, enlivened only by a pair of voyages to France in June 1917 and November 1918 carrying a detachment of 129 naval aviators. After supplying coaling services to ships transporting the American Expeditionary Force home, it returned to Norfolk for decommissioning on August 17, 1918. But its story was not to end there.

After the end of the First World War, the five great naval powers gathered in Washington D.C. in early 1921 to attempt to prevent another ruinous naval arms race like that that had led to the recently ended conflict. Most of the resulting arms treaty, colloquially known as the Washington Treaty, dealt with the battleship: entirely appropriate given that vessel’s then central role in the Fleet. However, recent wartime experience had revealed that ship-based aircraft could prove decisive in any future conflict. Therefore, each of the signatories were allowed to convert for experimental purposes several already existing vessels into aircraft carriers under Article VII of the Treaty.

Langley (ex-Jupiter) being converted at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1921 (National Naval Aviation Museum via wikipedia)

Because of its relative newness and ease of conversion, Jupiter was chosen to become America’s first aircraft carrier. Renamed Langley after an aviation pioneer on April 11, 1920, the collier would spend the next two years undergoing an extensive conversion at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. It would eventually be recommissioned as USS Langley (CV 1) on March 20, 1922 as an aviation trials ship. Data on everything from flight deck procedures to arrestor gear collected over its career would be the basis for the great carrier fleet that would lead America to victory a generation later. Under the command of Commander Kenneth Whiting, who had originally proposed the conversion of a collier to a carrier, the little Langley set out to face the future.

USS Langley with aircraft aboard in the 1920s (Wikimedia commons)

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