Absent by Fate: USS Lexington and Pearl Harbor

April 02, 2018

The USS Lexington (CV-2), an iconic warship of the US Navy, wasn't originally intended to be an aircraft carrier. When her construction was first authorized, in 1916, she was meant to be a battlecruiser. Her keel wasn’t laid down until 1921, as anti-submarine vessels and merchant ships took priority. This delay ultimately saved the Fore River Shipbuilding Company of Quincy, MA a headache, allowing her to be redesigned as an aircraft carrier to comply with the terms of the Washington Naval Conference of 1922. At the time of the switch, construction on the USS Lexington was only 24% complete, giving builders the chance to reduce her displacement by removing her main armament and reducing the height of the armor belt.

Her hangar became the largest enclosed space on any seagoing vessel and covered 33,528 square feet. Launched in October of 1925 with aircraft repair shops and enough space to carry over 100 aircraft, the USS Lexington was formally commissioned into the US Navy under the command of Captain Albert Marshall on December 14, 1927.

After entering service, the "Lady Lex" housed an air group that consisted of 18 Grumman F2F-1 and 18 Boeing F4B-4 fighters. Twenty Vought SBU Corsair dive bombers and 18 Great Lakes BG torpedo bombers served as offensive aircraft. Two Grumman JF Duck amphibians and a Vought O2U Corsair were the ship’s observation and rescue planes.

The USS Lexington Attacks Pearl Harbor

Curtiss F6C fighters on the flight deck of USS Lexington CV-2)

Curtiss F6C fighters on the flight deck of USS Lexington (CV-2), 1929

It should have come as no surprise that Japan was capable of attacking Pearl Harbor using aircraft carriers. During the early years of her career at sea, the USS Lexington, along with her sister ship the USS Saratoga (CV-3), spent much of her time taking part in naval exercises. Among these exercises were mock attacks on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. On February 7, 1932, during Grand Joint Exercise No. 4, Lexington and Saratoga proved that it was completely possible for aircraft carriers to launch an airstrike against Pearl Harbor. Even worse, the carriers were able to do it undetected.

The 1932 exercise wasn’t the only time Pearl Harbor was shown to be susceptible to an outside attack. A year later, just before Fleet Problem XIV began in February, Lexington and Saratoga were once again employed to strike Pearl Harbor. Just as they had done before, the two carriers approached the waters off Oahu on January 31 without alerting the defending forces.

Five years later, during Fleet Problem XIX, Saratoga and Lexington were called upon for another strike against Pearl Harbor. The intent was to prove Hawaii’s defense capabilities, but the attack again proved successful on March 29, 1938. Pearl Harbor was clearly not safe from an enemy attack and, as military officials would find later in the exercise, neither was San Francisco. After taking on Pearl Harbor, Lexington and her sister ship sailed for the west coast of the United States. Much like they had done at Pearl Harbor, they were able to launch an attack without being spotted by the fleet in place to defend the coast.

Lexington at War

Just under four years after Lexington’s final successful strike on Pearl Harbor, the naval base was again attacked by carrier-based forces, but this time it was the real thing, and the carriers were part of the Imperial Japanese Navy. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the USS Lexington was far out at sea. On December 5, 1941, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, ordered Lexington and the cruisers and destroyers of Task Force 12 to transport Marine Corps Vought SB2U Vindicators to the US base on Midway Island. Two days later, just under 600 miles from their destination, Task Force 12 received word of the Pearl Harbor attack. Rather than continue with the mission to transport the SB2U’s, Lexington and the task force were charged with trying to cut off Japan’s striking force and rendezvous with the ships of Vice Admiral Wilson Brown just off of Niihau Island, Hawaii.

USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Saratoga (CV-3). Diamond Head, Oahu is in the background.

USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Saratoga (CV-3). Diamond Head, Oahu is in the background.

The USS Lexington wasn't present for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but she did return on December 13, six days after the attack, for refueling. On her return, Lexington’s task force—which was redesignated Task Force 11—was provided an additional escort of four destroyers before setting off to the Marshall islands to raid Jaluit, a Japanese base. The intention was to distract Japan long enough so Saratoga could provide relief and aid to Wake Island. By December 23, before Saratoga could even arrive, Wake Island was under Japanese control and Lexington’s diversionary plan was never enacted.

The USS Lexington returned to Pearl Harbor in late December, 1941, but stayed only two days before setting back out to sea. In January 1942, after undergoing generator repairs, Lexington and Task Force 11 set off to patrol the waters around Johnston Atoll but, on January 9, they were spotted by Japanese submarines. Using depth charges launched by Devastator torpedo bombers, Lexington was able to navigate the Pacific without serious incident and even claimed to have damaged a Japanese submarine thought to be I-19.

Still in the early weeks of the war in the Pacific, Lexington set off to patrol northeast of Christmas Island. Admiral Chester Nimitz, who had replaced Admiral Kimmel in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, ordered Task Force 11 to be diverted to raid Wake Island. The plan was halted when Japanese submarine I-71 sank the USS Neches (AO-5), the only tanker available for refueling. By January 25, Task Force 11 was back at Pearl Harbor before being ordered to support the oiler Neosho (AO-23) and patrol Canton Island.

The USS Lexington in the Pacific Theater

Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless on USS Lexington, 1941

Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless on the USS Lexington, 1941

In February 1942, Lexington and her accompanying task force were charged with orchestrating a raid on Rabaul, a province of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Like Japan had done at Pearl Harbor, the task force was to approach the harbor at Rabaul without being detected. The strike was scheduled for February 21 and Task Force 11 was able to move into position at the launching point northeast of Rabaul.

Despite being ready for the raid, the element of surprise was lost when unknown aircraft were spotted just 35 miles from Lexington. Six patrol planes were launched from the carrier, along with two fighters, hoping to cut off the unknown aircraft before the task force’s presence was revealed. Though two Japanese planes were shot down, a third eluded the combat patrol. The presence of the Allied task force was revealed and the Japanese moved to intercept it.

The Imperial Japanese Navy suffered more losses in the attack on Task Force 11, but the Americans were ultimately forced to abandon the raid. Afterward, the task force was joined by Task Force 17 and the USS Yorktown (CV-5). This time, the target was Lae-Salamaua. The raid was a prelude to the Battle of the Coral Sea and wound up providing Allied forces continuous victories in the latter half of 1942.

In April 1942, as the task forces were undergoing training, American codebreakers revealed that Japan intended to invade Port Moresby and Tulagi in the southeastern Solomon Islands. Immediately, the training was cancelled and stopping the Japanese offensive became the main focus.

The Sinking of Lexington

Explosion on the USS Lexington (CV-2), 8 May 1942

Explosion on the USS Lexington, 8 May 1942

On May 4, 1942,the Allied forces engaged Japan in the Battle of the Coral Sea between New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The battle proved costly for both sides, though Japan ended up  losing more of its assets.

On the morning of May 8, Lexington came under Japanese attack. At 1120 that morning, two Type 91 torpedoes slammed into her side. Her crew scrambled to put out fires, but as the day wore on, the flames proved uncontrollable. At 1538, after a series of explosions threatened her stability, crews started to report that the fires couldn’t be put out. At 1915, the destroyer USS Phelps (DD-360) scuttled the stricken carrier. The Lexington lost 216 crewmen, while just over 2,700 were evacuated safely.

On June 24, 1942, the USS Lexington was officially struck from the Naval Register.

Honors of the USS Lexington

USS Lexington (CV-16), September 1955

USS Lexington (CV-16), September 1955

For her service in World War II—even though it lasted only five months—the USS Lexington was awarded two battle stars. She was also decorated with the American Defense Service Medal (w/ “Fleet” clasp), the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

After her sinking, workers at the shipyard where she had been originally built proposed that a new Essex-class carrier that was under construction continue her legacy. On June 16, 1942, Navy Secretary Frank Knox approved the renaming of the carrier, making her the fifth Lexington to sail in the US Navy. The new USS Lexington (CV-16) was commissioned on February 17, 1943 and remained in service until 1991.

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