Midway Deluxe Edition:
USS Lawn Guyland

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2021

While the Imperial Japanese Navy operated purpose-built light carriers and seaplane carriers, the equivalent ships in the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet were a decidedly makeshift lot. The Navy’s War Plan Orange had included a large number of conversions, but only a handful of auxiliary aircraft-carrying ships had been re-configured before the war.

The U.S. Navy had plans to convert large passenger liners into fleet carriers in the event of war, but didn’t activate those plans until after the Pearl Harbor attack. The liners were requisitioned, but ultimately used as troop transports instead. Those plans also included conversions of merchant ships into auxiliary carriers for use as aircraft transports, and the first of those, Long Island, was commissioned in June 1941 as an “auxiliary aircraft escort vessel.”

The concept came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, who suggested a small merchant ship conversion that could carry helicopters rather than conventional aircraft and serve as an anti-submarine escort for convoys. The only helicopters available in 1940, Pitcairn autogyros, could not carry depth charges and this made them useless for the ASW role. Testing showed that the autogyro pilots needed a full flight deck rather than a small helicopter pad, as they could not see directly below them.

The carrier Long Island takes shape at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock.

Instead of a small helicopter carrier, the design was enlarged along the lines proposed by Vice Admiral William Halsey for a carrier that could serve for training new air crew and as an aircraft transport, an important part of War Plan Orange. Roosevelt still insisted that the plans not be “gold-plated,” as he phrased it, rightly suspecting that the admirals would seek a ship with similar capabilities to a real aircraft carrier. This new type of ship had to be turned out quickly, and not take away construction capacity from actual warship programs. Accordingly, the Navy bought the new cargo liner Mormacmail, a standard C-3 design of the U.S. Maritime Commission built under government contract as part of the effort to increase the American merchant fleet.

The project had top priority, equal to that of the new carrier Hornet then fitting out at Newport News. As originally re-built, she had a flight deck 362 feet long that extended from the stern to the merchant pilot house; the Curtiss SOC scout planes she was intended to operate required a minimum space of 350 feet to land. The former merchant pilot house was retained as the carrier’s navigating bridge. Long Island, as she was re-named, never had an island. The ship entered Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock in late March 1941 and left in early June as an aircraft carrier, though a rather primitive one.

The new carrier displaced 13,500 tons on a length of 492 feet; while smaller than the purpose-built fleet carriers she was not a tiny ship. She retained the power plant carried during her very brief career as part of the SunShip Line, a diesel engine powering a single shaft for a speed of 16.5 knots. Her crew numbered 970.

Long Island as originally configured.

Long Island underwent shakedown and then training missions through the summer of 1941, and in August Roosevelt himself boarded the heavy cruiser Augusta to observe the little carrier’s operations at first hand. The tests proved disappointing; the flight deck was too short and in September Long Island went back to the yard to have it extended 77 feet to almost reach the bow. That allowed her to safely operate more types of aircraft. Her hangar deck, mounted atop the existing merchant ship structure, was not extended to match the flight deck. That gave Long Island a very high profile, and she required a great deal of ballast to keep her screw in the water. But she was a very dry ship, even in heavy weather, and rolled less than the full-sized American carriers.

Long Island had one catapult, originally intended for the carrier Lexington’s modernization, considered necessary to launch aircraft off such a short flight deck though testing showed that planes could launch without it, if only barely. She had one five-inch gun mounted aft and a pair of 3-inch anti-aircraft guns forward, and four .50-caliber machine guns (later replaced by 20mm automatic cannon). She could nominally operate 30 aircraft, but typically carried fewer than that on the handful of times she was used as an escort, and somewhat more when operating as an aircraft transport.

Long Island at Ulithi Atoll, June 1944.

After her modifications, Long Island conducted more tests and carried out carrier pilot qualifications, usually operating out of Norfolk, Virginia. In early December 1941 she escorted a convoy to Newfoundland and then conducted more pilot training before departing for the West Coast in May 1942. She played no part in the Battle of Midway, arriving at San Francisco on 5 June, the day after the fateful exchange of carrier strikes. She immediately joined the seven battleships of Vice Admiral William Pye’s Task Force One, providing air cover with her integral mixed squadron of F4F fighters and SOC observation planes used in the anti-submarine role.

Long Island and the battleships were not summoned to the battle area; not enough fuel oil had been stockpiled at Pearl Harbor to allow the thirsty ships to operate from there. She moved to Pearl Harbor in July, continuing to train pilots all the while, and in August ferried two Marine air squadrons to Guadalcanal, the first to operate from Henderson Field. Afterwards she returned to the West Coast and spent the rest of the war alternatively conducting carrier qualifications and transporting fresh aircraft to various places in the Pacific theater.

After the war she returned to commercial service as Nelly and later Seven Seas, her flight deck removed and replaced with a rather stylish liner-style superstructure. She served for another two decades in that role, usually carrying immigrants from Europe to Canada or Australia, and then another decade as a dockside hostel in Rotterdam before she went to a Belgian scrapyard in 1977.

Long Island appears in three Second World War at Sea games: Bismarck second edition, Midway Deluxe Edition and South Pacific. She’s slow and easy to sink, but she does have airplanes aboard, and that makes her a valuable piece on the board.

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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 countless books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold likes catching lightning bugs.

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