Java Sea:
The Covered Wagon

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2021

During the First World War, the Royal Navy constructed the world's first true aircraft carrier, HMS Argus. Converted from an incomplete liner, she had flush deck with no "island" structure like later aircraft carriers. Two others followed: Eagle, converted from an incomplete Chilean battleship, and Hermes, built from the keel up as an aircraft carrier. Several other ships were converted into partial carriers, like the light battle cruiser Furious and the cruiser Vindictive.

American naval aviators saw these ships and lusted for one of their own. They even believed the German High Seas Fleet had converted an armored cruiser into an aircraft carrier, but this had actually only been a limited conversion to create a hybrid seaplane carrier. After the war ended, they began to agitate for an American carrier.

With the world's most expensive war to date just ended, Congress had little desire to fund additional warship construction. Even the huge 1916 program stood in danger of cancellation, and the desire to avoid these expenses would lead directly to the Washington Naval Conference of 1922. Conservative admirals opposed any aircraft carrier, while a handful of forward-thinking staff officers pressed both openly and in private for a carrier. Chief among the agitators were Capt. Ernest J. King, the future Chief of Naval Operations, and Capt. W.S. Pye, who commanded the battle line at Pearl Harbor.

Made obsolete by oil. The giant collier Jupiter, soon after completion, 1913.
Capt. Thomas T. Craven, the new head of Naval Aviation, saw his chance when a colleague mentioned that the fleet's huge colliers would soon be retired. Starting with the Nevada class, new battleships would be powered solely by oil, which also freed space for the radical "all or nothing" armor scheme for which these ships would become famous. The U.S. Navy had launched a class of huge ships designed to provide battleships with coal at maximum speed, carrying a huge volume of coal and the derricks and transport belts to load the ships quickly.

"We proceeded to angle for the colliers Jupiter and Jason," Craven recalled later. "Although some conservative seniors frowned on the plan, in time and with the Secretary of the Navy's approval, we persuaded Congressional committees of the wisdom of converting one ship."

Jupiter was very slow, capable of 14 knots at best, but was a relatively new ship, having been commissioned only in 1913 and used to test electric drive. She was large enough to support an adequate flight deck, and her huge, high-ceilinged holds promised an easy conversion to aircraft hangars. Plus she required a comparatively small crew.

Craven made his play in May 1919, Congress appropriated funding in July, and she was taken in hand at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in March 1920. A month later she was renamed Langley, for aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley, and designated CV-1. Designs were drawn up rapidly and were very simple.

"We thought she could be converted cheaply," wrote Cdr. Kenneth Whiting, the ship's first commander. "That was a mistake. . . . We thought she could be converted quickly. That was another mistake."

Known as the "Covered Wagon" for her boxy appearance and slow speed, and as the "Floating Abortion" to battleship officers, the new carrier was finally commissioned in March 1922. She could carry up to 30 aircraft, with both a hangar deck and a hold that could be used to stow disassembled planes. Her collier origins meant that she had been designed to be proof against coal dust explosions, and her designers kept many of the features, leaving large openings in her hangar deck to vent fumes from aviation fuel. She had adjustable smoke stacks, which could be turned down during flight operations to minimize interference.

Langley in Hawaii, 1928.
Commissioned during the Washington Naval Limitation talks, she was immediately put to use testing concepts for the next generation of American aircraft carriers. She tested both arresting gear and catapult launches — Whiting himself piloted the first plane launched from her catapult. But the large number of engineering experiments took time away from pilot training and fleet exercises, and the Bureau of Aeronautics (successor to the Director of Naval Aviation's office) now agitated for Jupiter's sister ship Jason to be converted into a carrier as well to provide full-time training capability. This time they lost, though they did eventually get their hands on the ship — converted instead into a seaplane tender, with her big derricks used to handle aircraft instead of coal.

Langley did not participate in a fleet exercise until March 1925, when her aircraft scouted for the Battle Force during maneuvers off the coast of southern California. She spent most of the next dozen years in the Pacific, conducting pilot training and continuing to work with the fleet. The Navy continued to list her as an "experimental ship," and therefore not subject to treaty limitations on aircraft carriers, despite clearly deploying her as a front-line unit.

By 1936, that fiction was wearing thin and new carriers had been built or ordered. Never really suitable for work with the fleet, Langley went to Mare Island Naval Yard for conversion to a seaplane tender. She lost the forward third of her flight deck, and much of her hangar space became workshops and storage. The remaining flight deck became a work area, and she proved very popular with her crew in this new role — the comparatively huge open area was very useful for working on aircraft. It was not long enough to launch aircraft, and the catapult had been removed with the forward part of the deck.

Langley soon after conversion, 1937.
Recommissioned in February 1937, she operated from several West Coast ports and made a brief Atlantic deployment before heading to the Philippines in September 1939. She was at Cavite Navy Yard when the Japanese attacked on 8 December 1941, and immediately headed south through the Dutch East Indies to Darwin, Australia. After several weeks tending seaplanes there, she was selected to transport Army Air Force fighters to Ceylon.

The big, open deck had already made Langley a favorite for aircraft transport duties before the war, but she could not be loaded at Darwin and had to go to Freemantle in Western Australia instead, where the deck was jammed with 32 P-40 aircraft, the most that could be fitted. She then joined a convoy escorted by the cruiser Phoenix, but the Dutch Admiral Conrad Helfrich, commander of Allied forces in Java, ordered Langley and the transport Seawitch, carrying 21 disassembled P-40 fighters, to leave the convoy and head to Java.

With the island's major ports under attack, Helfrich ordered the planes taken to Tjilatjap on the southern coast. The planes were essential to the defense of Java, the admiral instructed, and the ship would have to be sacrificed if necessary to deliver them — if Tjilatjap had fallen to the Japanese, or if she could not enter the port, Langley's captain was to beach his ship and offload the fighters onto the beach with his cranes. The seaplane tender could fuel them there, and the pilots would take off and fly to their airfields.

Tjilatjap had no facilities to offload aircraft; while Langley steamed northward workers rushed to widen city streets and build ramps. Langley, steaming separately from Seawitch, made most of the voyage unescorted; she picked up an anti-submarine escort of two American destroyers in the early morning of 27 February.

This is the end.

The planes came at 0900. Fifteen Japanese land-based bombers made two passes before their attack. Langley desperately radioed for fighter cover, but none was to be had — the bulk of Java's fighter defense sat on her deck, unable to launch. On the third pass, the planes let loose their bombs and scored five direct hits and three misses. Aircraft exploded, fires broke out and the ship began to sink. Eventually rising water stopped her engines, and at 1332 the destroyers began to take off her crew. The destroyer Whipple finished off the wreck with two torpedoes and several four-inch shells.

Langley appears in Second World War at Sea: Java Sea in her seaplane guise, with a beautiful new drawing on her “long” ship piece.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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