1922 was a year that saw both progress and limitations for the US Military and especially the Navy. Both would play a key role in the war that could come less than two decades after.
The implementation of the terms of the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty were already being felt. The new class at the Naval Academy was going to be limited to less than a hundred men and Congress was cutting funds and manpower in all of the services.
But technology and progress were moving forward even in the face of the draconian cuts. The emergence of radio in a number of forms was transforming the ability to communicate well beyond the horizon. As the technology grew, the world was becoming smaller and the uses for future war fare were not lost on the services.
Air power had shown its worth in the World War and the Army and Navy were anxious to explore all of its uses. The sea plane was being widely used and had the potential to help neutralize the power of submarines in the years ahead. Large airplanes with extended range were welcome additions to the arsenal of defense.
But at the bottom of the Sunday News about Army and Navy, a short paragraph announced the beginning of a revolution for the US Navy. That revolution began on the landing deck of the first official US Navy Carrier – The USS Langley.
ARMY AND NAVY NEWS
BY CAPT. ARTHUR G. DUNCAN, U. S. A.
Sunday Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 26 March 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1922-03-26/ed-1/seq-19/>
One of the greatest dangers to sea planes flying over the ocean has been greatly lessened by recent radio developments by the Navy, namely, the emergency transmitting equipment now carried on multi-motored machines, which permits the sending of radio messages when a plane has been forced to land on the water.
The recent forced landing of a plane off the Florida coast will serve to illustrate the value of this development. Had one of our naval F-5-L seaplanes had such an accident, he could have sent a radio message immediately and assistance rushed to the plane. The plane could have been found more easily by the rescue vessel not only because her position was known, but also because the kite which is part of the equipment would be visible at greater distances than the plane in the water.
Of simple design and weighing only a few pounds, the equipment comprises two kites, one for stronger and one for light breezes, and a reel of especially light antenna wire. When necessary to send a message from the water the radio generator is put in the wind stream of the good motor, if it is not there already, and the antenna wire flown from the appropriate kite. A canvas screen rigged up in the wind stream concentrates its force on the wind-driven generator fan, so that with the motor running slowly the radio generator will develop full power for sending messages.
While the outfit was developed for multi-motored seaplanes, its field of usefulness is much wider. To mention two other uses: A disabled plane, either sea or land plane can increase its chances of being found by rescue planes by flying the kite, and with a small expeditionary force a plane so equipped might well be used for all communication. The work of perfecting the equipment has been done through the bureau of engineering by the Anacostia air radio laboratory.
Probably no more important safety device for great lakes vessels has been perfected in a generation say naval officers, than their wireless installations and the use of radio compasses. The United States Navy has sold from its surplus stock considerable amounts of complete installations to various ship owners at such attractive figures that other operators are rapidly falling into line and equipping their vessels with Navy apparatus.
The Navy Department maintains a chair of fifteen shore stations extending from Duluth to Buffalo, and three of them are radio compass stations located in the to-called “grave yards” of the lakes, at Whitefish point. Detour point and Grand Marais. With the aid of these compass stations cross bearings can be obtained at any time and vessels approaching each other in fog or snow may easily determine their relative positions. Ship owners having radio installations keep in constant touch with their vessels and are enabled to divert their points of call at will. There is little doubt that once lake skippers give radio apparatus and service practical tests they will become as wedded to its use as are captains making Atlantic and Pacific ports.
The aircraft-carrier Langley, which will he placed in commission at the Norfolk navy yard early in April, will be in command of Capt. Stafford H.R. Doyle of the naval air station at Hampton roads. For the purpose of carrying on experimental work, the Langley will remain on the Atlantic coast for from six months to a year. During that period much is expected of the carrier in perfecting the practice of the flying-off and the landing of airplanes on her deck, for trying out landing retarding apparatus and other equipment with which she will be provided. It is the ultimate intension to assign the Langley as flagship of the air squadron of the Pacific fleet.
USS Langley (CV-1/AV-3) was the United States Navy’s first aircraft carrier, converted in 1920 from the collier USS Jupiter (Navy Fleet Collier No. 3), and also the US Navy’s first turbo-electric-powered ship. Conversion of another collier was planned but canceled when the Washington Naval Treaty required the cancellation of the partially-built Lexington-class battlecruisers Lexington and Saratoga, freeing up their hulls for conversion to the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga.
She officially became the first aircraft carrier for the US Navy in March of 1922.
Langley was named after Samuel Pierpont Langley, an American aviation pioneer. Following another conversion to a seaplane tender, Langley fought in World War II.
Less than twenty years after her inauguration as the first carrier, Langley would meet her fate in a war that many had predicted.
On 27 February 1942, while ferrying a cargo of USAAF P-40s to Java, she was attacked by nine twin-engine Japanese bombers of the Japanese 21st and 23rd naval air flotillas and so badly damaged that she had to be scuttled by her escorts.
In the early hours of 27 February, Langley rendezvoused with the destroyers USS Whipple and USS Edsall, which had been sent from Tjilatjap to escort her. Later that morning, a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft located the formation. At 11:40, about 75 mi (121 km) south of Tjilatjap, the seaplane tender, along with Edsall and Whipple were attacked by sixteen Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service’s Takao Kōkūtai, led by Lieutenant Jiro Adachi, flying out of Denpasar airfield on Bali, and escorted by fifteen A6M Reisen fighters.
Rather than dropping all their bombs at once, the Japanese bombers attacked releasing partial salvos.
Since they were level bombing from medium altitude, Langley was able to alter helm when the bombs were released and evade the first and second bombing passes, but the bombers changed their tactics on the third pass and bracketed all the directions Langley could turn. As a result, Langley took five hits from a mix of 250 and 60 kilograms (550 and 130 pounds) bombs as well as three near misses, with 16 crewmen killed. The topside burst into flames, steering was impaired, and the ship developed a 10° list to port. Langley went dead in the water as her engine room flooded. At 13:32, the order to abandon ship was passed.
After taking off the surviving crew and passengers (Whipple rescued 308 men and Edsall 177) at 13:58, the escorting destroyers stood off and began firing nine 4-inch (100 mm) shells and two torpedoes into Langley’s hull at 14:29 to prevent her from falling into enemy hands, scuttling her at approximately 8°51’04.2″S 109°02’02.6″E.
Whipple began transferring Langley crew members to Pecos, completing the task by 0800 on 1 March. While one destroyer transferred personnel, the other circled and maintained an antisubmarine screen. When the transfer was completed, the two destroyers parted company with the oiler. Changing course in anticipation of orders to retire from Java, Whipple prepared to send a message relative to these orders when the destroyer’s chief radioman heard a cell for help over the radio from Pecos, then under attack by Japanese bombers near Christmas Island.
Whipple sped to the scene to render assistance if possible. Throughout the afternoon, as the destroyer closed the oiler, all hands on board prepared knotted lines and cargo nets for use in picking up survivors. Whipple went to general quarters at 1922 when she sighted several small lights off both bows.
After being transferred to the oiler USS Pecos, many of Langley’s crew were lost when Pecos was sunk en route to Australia by Japanese carrier aircraft. Out of over 630 total crewmen and Langley survivors on Pecos, 232 were rescued while more than 400 were left behind and died due to Japanese submarines in the area hindering rescue efforts.
Whipple slowly closed and began picking up survivors of Pecos. After interrupting the proceedings to conduct an unsuccessful attack on a submarine thought to be nearby, she returned to the task and continued the search until she had received 231 men from the oiler. Whipple soon cleared the area, believing that a Japanese aircraft carrier was close.
Within a few days, Java fell to the Japanese who were gradually consolidating their expanding “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Whipple joined what remained of the Asiatic Fleet in Australian waters. She would sail on throughout the rest of the war and be scrapped in November 1945.
Thirty-one of the thirty-three pilots assigned to the USAAF 13th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) being transported by Langley remained on Edsall to be brought to Tjilatjap, but were lost when she was sunk on the same day by Japanese warships while responding to the distress calls of Pecos.The war would take many turns over the next three years. The lessons learned in those first few months were painful and expensive. But the sacrifices of the men and ships slowed the Japanese advance long enough for the mighty power of the American industrial machine to create more aircraft carriers and far superior technology than the Japanese could resist.