Thursday, April 22, 2021

USS Langley (CV 1): The Finale (Part 3)

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


By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer

 Editor's Note: This is part 3 of the USS Langley series. Click the links to read Part 1 and part 2.

On February 26, 1937, USS Langley, now designated as AG 3, reentered active duty as a member of the Aircraft Scouting Force. It operated out of various West Coast ports and Pearl Harbor before making a brief detour to the Atlantic between February and July 1939. It was then deployed to the Asiatic Fleet some ten weeks later. War would find Langley at Cavite, Philippines.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Langley fled south, first to Balikpapan in what is now Indonesia and eventually to Darwin, Northern Australia, by early January 1942 where it joined ADBACOM (Australian Dutch British American Command). It would spend the next month assisting the Royal Australian Air Force in anti-submarine patrols off Darwin. On February 22, 1942, Langley would leave on its date with destiny.

Curtiss P-40Es in flight (Wikipedia)

The seaplane tender embarked 32 P-40 Warhawk fighters of the 13th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) in Fremantle, Australia, as part of Convoy MS5 bound for Columbo in what is now Sri Lanka. Alongside three further transports and the cargo ship Sea Witch and escorted by the light cruiser USS Phoenix, the convoy was to deliver its war materiel to British forces in India. However, ABDACOM ordered both Langley and Sea Witch to deliver their combined cargo of 59 P-40s to Tjilatjap on the island of Java in a desperate attempt to stem the Japanese tide. Langley would not succeed.

On the morning of February 27, 1942, the tiny convoy, now escorted by destroyers Edsall and Whipple, was spotted by a Japanese reconnaissance plane. In response, 16 G4M Betty bombers attacked from Denpasar airfield, Bali. With the convoy lacking air cover, the Japanese commander, LT Jiro Adachi, ordered a rather leisurely attack on the American ships with Langley drawing the lion’s share of the attention. Apparently enraged at this lack of respect, the tender fought back with a fury worthy of a far larger warship. Coupled with exceptional ship handling, Langley was able to evade the first two attack runs. But the third pass would prove fatal, with five hits and three near misses from 550-lb and 130-lb bombs killing 16 sailors, starting fires, crippling the ship, and inducing a 10-degree list to port. The crippled vessel was abandoned at 1:32 P.M. and scuttled by the escorting destroyers to prevent its capture. 

A torpedo from the destroyer USS Whipple (DD 217) strikes home as the seaplane tender USS Langley is scuttled after being disabled by Japanese bombers on February 27, 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Of the 485 men rescued, most would be lost when the ship carrying them, oiler USS Pecos, was sunk by the Japanese on March 1 south of Java. Thirty-one more would be lost when the destroyer Edsall was sunk in an epic showdown with two Japanese battleships Kirishima and Hiei that same day, while they were responding the oiler’s distress calls. Thus ended the story of the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier. The valiant sacrifices of ABDACOM bought the time necessary for the United States to prepare a counterpunch against the Japanese, but that is a story for another time.

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