Thursday, May 30, 2024

Book Review: America’s First Aircraft Carrier: USS Langley and the Dawn of U.S. Naval Aviation

By David F. Winkler
Reviewed by David J. Scherer, HRNM Volunteer

America's First Aircraft Carrier is an account of the Navy's leap into air combat. It is an incisive report that pinpoints the obstructions faced entering into a new faction of sea warfare, chronicling its costs, both financial and personal. This book was written by David F. Winkler, a retired surface warfare officer, naval historian, and adjunct professor at the Naval War College.

Major changes in military aviation took place in the early 1920s, after the First World War. It was then that costs became a giant concern, and seemingly everyone in a uniform and in an office chair had suggestions but without offering sensible answers. Opposition to sending colliers to sea was loud and long until someone stunned the naysayers with this idea: convert the old collier Jupiter into a prototype aircraft carrier and make aviation an adjunct to the fleet. Two colliers, Jupiter and Jason, were given the honor.

Jupiter at Mare Island in 1913 (Wikipedia)

The hearings about the Navy’s foray into aviation were legendary. Even Army Air Service Maj. Gen. William (Billy) Mitchell asserted sternly that the Navy needed to stay on the water and allow the newly-formed U.S. Army Air Service handle airborne threats. On the arguments went, with Mitchell finally going overboard. He talked himself into a court martial as he hammered home the point that surface vessels were highly susceptible to air attacks (as if airborne vessels were not). His claim was that the Army Air Corps was designed and manned specially to meet that particular threat. An illustrious military aviation career ended for Mitchell all because the Navy promoted an independent naval air arm, and he could not accept that proposal.

The first aircraft carrier certainly was a sight to see, but not in terms of beauty. It began life as a collier, destined to become the first United States aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV 1), named for a Naval Academy assistant professor. This former coal collier underwent a major restoration to become the first aircraft carrier. Workmen peeled back several levels of the collier's superstructure and laid down a wooden deck in its place, bow to stern. A few steel cables were stretched crosswise and anchored in place with heavy bags near the stern—arresting gear, they called it.

USS Langley underway in 1927 (NHHC)

One can imagine what went through the mind of the first “visiting” aviator, flying an Aeromarine 39B bi-wing aircraft, and looking down on what he thought was an American aircraft carrier. He was right. It was USS Langley (CV 1), collier-turned-carrier with a bit of genius woven throughout. What that aviator would have seen from a few thousand feet above was a long, flat deck and trailing wake. The ship had no superstructure. Most of what made the wake was under the deck, where the business of flying over water begins. Lined atop the deck and near the rear were several thick adjustable cables lined perpendicular to the flying deck edges. Their job was to snag a hook dangling from the aircraft's tail section, thus bringing the plane and pilot to a jolting stop. Ultimately, Langley was in service into the Second World War.

America’s First Aircraft Carrier is a detailed and deeply researched demonstration of the myriad snags and drags at the beginning of naval aviation. The cost was more about the loss of life of those early carrier pilots than about monetary concerns. USS Langley faces up to and fends off an enemy striving to sap its fuel and blood.

Winkler interprets the evolution of naval aviation as only an acclaimed writer and historian can. He is studied and thorough. His descriptions are extensive, as Langley confronts numerous Japanese vessels in the sea battle for Java. It does not end well for an old coal hauler turned fighting ship. Langley met its end in 1942 off the coast of Java when it was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The crew was rescued, and Langley was scuttled.

As a World War Two history junkie and one who lived two years aboard an aircraft carrier in the late 1950s, I found America's First Aircraft Carrier to be incisive and replete with people and places that recounted America's war in the Pacific Ocean.

1 comment: said...

My uncle Grafton Green Ryder was a machinists mate on Langley when she was attacked off Java. He was either killed in the attack or when the rescue ship was attacked, we don’t know which. He was listed as “missing in action” and my dad, his big brother never gave up hope he would be found alive up until the early 1960s. He wasn’t.