This article was originally published as “Essex: More than a Ship, More than a Class” by Richard F. Cross III in the September 1975 issue of Proceedings magazine.
The Essex-class aircraft carriers are subject to superlatives, and justly so. For some 35 years, they have made a greater contribution to the present state of carrier art, both operational and technological, than any other design, U. S. or foreign.
Much of this record stems from the staying power of the design. It has permitted modifications in equipment and practice to be proven operationally, often in combat. Another reason is sheer numbers. Of 32 ships authorized, 26 were started and 24 ultimately completed. At this writing, three are still in commission even as one of the first, the Yorktown, prepares to become a centerpiece memorial at next month’s dedication of the Naval and Maritime Museum complex in Charleston, S.C. The 24 represent 31% of all fleet carriers (not counting light carriers [CVLs]) which ever reached operational status in the world’s navies. Moreover, of the four nations–Japan, Britain, France, and the United States–which have produced operational carriers during their 60-year existence, only this nation was in a position to support worldwide commitments with them during the post-World War II period. To accomplish this task, the ships of the Essex class had to change, and change they did. There is little resemblance between the Essex (CV-9) of 1942 and the Oriskany (CV-34) of 1975.
Design studies of the CV-9 characteristics began in the late 1930s with the end of treaty restrictions on aircraft carrier tonnage. This led in 1939 to considerable discussion within the Navy, involving the bureaus, the General Board, and various senior operational commands. Of particular interest were the comments of the captains of the Yorktown (CV-5) and Enterprise (CV-6) and their division commander, Rear Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr. These two sister ships had been commissioned in 1937 and 1938 and were the Navy’s first truly fleet-capable flattops built from the keel up as carriers. While the Yorktowns had been optimized in 1931 at 20,000 tons standard displacement, this figure grew to an initial 25,000 tons for CV-9, expanding to 26,500 as a result of the discussions. One reason for this increase was the desire to operate four squadrons of aircraft (scout, bomber, torpedo, and fighter), plus spares. Aircraft were growing in size and were expected to reach a maximum gross takeoff weight of 12,000 pounds.
The final CV-9 design, approved in early 1940, had 12 5-inch guns, alternate fire and engine rooms for the four screws, room for 220,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and three inboard elevators. The flight deck measured 870 by 109 feet; 83 aircraft would be carried: 27 fighters, 38 scout-bombers, 18 torpedo planes, and 25% spares. Two catapults were installed, one on the flight deck and one in the hangar deck. Design personnel complement was 2,171, including 632 for aviation. Standard displacement rose during 1940 to 27,100 tons, estimated trial displacement to 33,900. Eleven Essex-class carriers were ordered prior to 7 December 1941. One late design change occurred that year after the initial contracts were let. The midship inboard elevator was replaced by the world’s first full deck-edge design, thus clearing the hangar deck and easing aircraft respotting on the flight deck. The first ships of the class, incidentally, were capable of launch and recovery over either end of the flight deck.
With the coming of World War II, design studies of probable Essex successors were curtailed and the construction of additional ships of the class greatly expanded. Ultimately, two civilian shipyards and three Navy yards built the 24 ships actually completed. Following an accelerated construction period, the Essex herself was commissioned 31 December 1942, and 16 more were commissioned by the end of the war. Arriving in the Pacific, starting in August 1943, these new ships created and perfected-in conjunction with the CVLs and new mobile logistic support forces-one of the most impressive weapon systems of all time, the fast carrier task force.