American Aircraft Carriers
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Planning for the weapon that won the Pacific War began in
1937, when naval engineers began to design an “improved Yorktown” aircraft carrier as the vessel to
follow the three big aircraft carriers of that class laid
down in 1934 and 1938. With the expiration of the naval limitations
treaties, the U.S. Navy was thinking big: Eight of the new Essex-class carriers were authorized under the 1940
program, raised to 11 by the end of the year. Five had been
laid down by the time of Pearl Harbor: three at Newport News
Shipbuilding and Drydock, two at Bethlehem’s Quincy
Lexington recovers a Hellcat during the Battle of the Philippine
Sea, June 1944.
Of the six potential designs, the Navy chose the last and
largest version. The new carrier would displace 27,000 tons,
compared to 20,000 for Yorktown. At 875 feet for
the original design, she was 66 feet longer than Yorktown.
The additional space was considered necessary as aircraft
were expected to grow continually larger and especially heavier,
requiring more hangar space and more fuel and munitions.
Essex as designed had three catapults, with two
on the deck like Yorktown plus a third in the hangar
deck for launching scout aircraft. As completed, Essex had only the hangar deck catapult while her sister Lexington had only one and the other six of the original order
had one on the flight deck and two belowdecks. All eight were
rebuilt to the standard of two deck catapults and none on
the hangar deck.
Striking Power. Front front to rear: Wasp, Yorktown, Hornet,
Hancock and Ticonderoga at Ulithi anchorage,
Another innovation worked much better, the deck-edge catapult
first tried in the small carrier Wasp laid down in
1936. American practice constructed the flight deck with wooden
planks, to allow rapid repair during battle, and kept the
hangar deck open to prevent build-up of dangerous fumes. American
carriers kept their aircraft parked on deck and used the hangar
deck as a service area, unlike the practice in most other
navies of storing planes in the hangar deck. This allowed
the Essex class to carry an enormous air group: 90
airplanes as designed, raised to 108 late in the war through
use of outrigger stowage despite the greater size and weight
of late-war aircraft.
By comparison, the contemporary Japanese Unryu class
(the “Japanese Essex”) carried 63 planes,
the British Implacable 60, and the German Graf
Zeppelin a paltry 43.
A kamikaze has just hit Bunker Hill, off Okinawa,
The later Essex-class ships had enormous range,
the greatest of any warship before the advent of nuclear power.
The long hull, designed for Pacific conditions, kept pitch
to a minimum. Of the 32 ships authorized, 10 of them matched
Essex’s dimensions, while the other 22 were 888 feet
Anti-aircraft armament was massive: eight dual-purpose 5-inch
guns in flight deck turrets, four single mounts along the
edges of the flight deck, and over 140 20mm and 40mm automatic
In all, 24 Essex-class carriers were completed: Essex herself on the last day of 1942, six ships
in 1943, seven in 1944, five in 1945, four in 1946 and one
highly-modified sister in 1950.
Franklin returns home, April, 1945.
None were lost during the war, although two of them came
close: Franklin after several bomb hits in March,
1945 and Bunker Hill to a kamikaze strike in May.
Extensive compartmentalization and highly-trained damage control
crews allowed both ships to return home under their own power,
despite damage far more extensive than that which sank other
large carriers like Hornet early in the war or the
Japanese Taiho or British Ark Royal.
The carriers remained the backbone of the fleet throughout
most of the Cold War. In the 1950s the older ships were re-built
with angled flight decks and closed in “hurricane”
bows. This allowed them to operate the jet aircraft of the
1950s and early 1960s, but they could not handle the big F-4
Phantom II jet fighter-bomber and most surviving carriers
were re-assigned to anti-submarine duty. Others became helicopter
assault ships or aircraft transports. Many of them operated
off the coast of Vietnam and Korea, while their air groups
flew strikes against land targets.
The newest Essex-class ships, those which formed
the core of the fleet in the early 1950s while their older
sisters were re-built, did not survive as long. By the early
1960s the new super-carriers had entered the fleet, reducing
the need for modernized older ships. Thus the newest of the
class were the first to be retired.
Shangri-La shows off her angled flight deck, 1960.
Four of the carriers (Yorktown, Intrepid, Hornet and Lexington) still exist as museum ships. The rest
went to the breakers, the last them in the late 1980s and
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.