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.
Starting with the 31 August 1943 strike by the Essex and Yorktown (CV-10) against Marcus Island, 14 of the class participated in the war against Japan. Ten were damaged, eight by kamikaze attacks. Only one, the Franklin (CV-13), was nearly lost. She made it back to the United States on her own power but never saw active duty again.
As a result of design refinements and war experience, all of the class after the first ten were built with both H-4 catapults on the flight deck, eliminating the hangar deck installation which was replaced by 40-mm. quad mounts on the port side. Both catapults were in constant use by 1944. The basic design was further modified by shortening the flight deck and lengthening the bow so that four 40-mm. mounts could be installed, two forward and two aft. This “long hull” modification started with the Ticonderoga (CV-14) and was repeated in 14 later sisters.
By March 1944, aircraft such as the TBF, weighing up to 14,800 pounds, called for strengthened flight decks and elevators, in addition to the elimination of the ability to land over the bow. A formalized combat information center (CIC) was installed, and defensive antiaircraft armament increased to 14 40-mm. quad mounts by the end of the war.
After the war, most of the Essex class was decommissioned. While continuing class improvement studies were consolidated under project 27A. The changes were designed to permit the class to operate turbojet aircraft up to a nominal 45,000 pounds gross weight. The flight deck and elevators were significantly strengthened and jet blast deflectors installed, along with the more powerful H-8 catapults and new arresting gear. Aviation fuel capacity was increased to 300,000 gallons. To accommodate the accompanying increase in displacement, the side armor belt was removed and the beam increased 8 feet up to the level of the hangar deck. To clear the flight deck, the island was reduced in length, and the 5-inch twin mounts were removed and replaced by four singles on the starboard gallery deck. The resulting full-load displacement of the 27A ships increased to 39,700 tons. However, they were now able to operate the F9F, AD-3, and AJ, all in development. The latter was particularly critical since it was to be the Navy’s first carrier-based long-range bomber with a gross weight over 50,000 pounds.
The first ship to receive the 27A modifications was the Oriskany (CVA-34), whose completion had been delayed while the changes were being formulated. She was commissioned in September 1950, shortly after the beginning of the Korean War. In that conflict the Essex class provided most of the carrier-based air support required by U.N. forces. The Valley Forge (CV-45) first struck the North Koreans on 3 July, little more than a week after they crossed the 38th parallel. The Korean War marked the first time carrier-based jet aircraft (F9Fs) saw active combat.
While the newer Essex-class ships fought the war, older ones were brought out of mothballs and modernized. The project 27A design was replaced by a new 27C improvement which provided more powerful arresting gear, higher performance catapults, and replacement of the #3 centerline elevator with a second deck-edge type to starboard. Hull beam was further increased to 103 feet, two more than the 27As, and full-load displacement rose to 41,900 tons.
Meanwhile, the British Navy was developing the steam catapult, angled deck, and mirror landing aid. This was of interest since U. S. experience in Korea confirmed that the hydraulic catapult was reaching its limit, while the larger aircraft and higher landing speeds were proving disastrous when arresting wires were missed and barriers breached on axial deck carriers. The Hancock (CVA-19) was the first 27C, recommissioned in February 1954 with axial deck and steam catapults. In response to favorable British tests, the Antietam (CVA-36) was modified in 1952 with a jury-rigged 10.5° angled deck. During 1953, the Antietam confirmed the angled deck’s superiority. Thus, all three 27C conversions authorized for fiscal year 1953 incorporated this improvement, along with enclosed hurricane bows, and a 70 foot-long #1 elevator. These were the most elaborate single Essex-class conversions, the Shangri-La (CVA-38) becoming the first operational angled deck carrier in 1955. During 1956, the first three axial 27Cs were modified to the angled deck configuration, followed by eight of the nine 27As. Flight control (Pri-fly) was greatly improved on all the angled deck conversions, being moved up two decks and aft. The six 27CS were eventually able to operate A-3 aircraft at gross weights approaching 80,000 pounds. Of the 27As, only the Oriskany ultimately received all the 27C features.
In August 1953, the dedicated antisubmarine carrier (CVS) was officially created. By 1955, seven unconverted Essexes were employed in the ASW role. As the postwar Forrestal (CVA-59) class began to join the fleet, the Essex 27As were redesignated CVSs, replacing their unconverted sisters by 1961. During the early Sixties, six CVS 27As underwent major modification, including installation of a bow-mounted SQS-23 sonar. Two 27Cs were reclassified CVSs in 1962 and two more in 1969. All dedicated ASW carriers are now inactive.
In another very different application, initiated in the late 1950s, three unconverted Essexes became the LPH-4 class amphibious assault ships. They supported embarked Marine elements, sending them ashore by helicopter in the vertical envelopment concept. All three saw duty off Vietnam, and the Boxer (LPH-4) participated in the Cuban quarantine of 1962 and the Dominican landing of 1965. These ships, stricken in 1969 and 1970, were the only basically unconverted Essex-class carriers to remain in commission through the Sixties.
Vietnam was the third and final major war for the Essex class. Those still serving in the attack role were no longer able to operate first-line carrier aircraft, bur they were needed for the A-l, A-4, F-8, and finally the A-7. Four other Essexes served off Vietnam as ASW carriers. In all, 12 of the class participated actively in the Vietnam War, two fewer than in World War II and one more than the Korean War. Unlike the 1944-45 period, no Essex-class carrier was damaged by enemy action during the Vietnam conflict.
Finally, the class performed a number of other vital tasks which are not so well known. The Oriskany (CVA-34), for example, had the first carrier Navy Tactical Data System (NTDS) installed in 1961. Numerous ships of the class participated in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo recoveries. Since late 1962, the Lexington has been the Navy’s training carrier, operating with pilots from Corpus Christi and Pensacola. She was reclassified CVT-16 in 1969. The Bunker Hill (AVT-9, ex-CV-17) became a ghostly test ship in 1965, serving the Naval Electronics Laboratory in San Diego. She’s now gone. The Boxer, as CVS-21, was the key test ship in underwater nuclear experiments conducted in 1958 in the Pacific. The Shangri-La (CV-38) had previously served as flagship for the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. A wide variety of new aircraft made their first carrier takeoffs and landings from ships of the Essex class.
Now only two ships remain active besides the Lexington, and their days are numbered. The Oriskany and the Hancock (CVA-19) participated in the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Cambodia in April of this year and then in the much larger rescue at Saigon a few weeks later. The Hancock’s aviation complement was converted entirely to helicopters for that operation.
Thousands of Americans have served in these ships whose complements nearly doubled those of the original design. The gap between the Essex class and its ever-larger postwar successors grew greater as machinery and equipment aged while space disappeared or simply wasn’t sufficient. For those who served in these magnificent ships, and for all of those–then and now–who mark, nostalgically, their inevitable passing from the naval scene, there is the assurance that one superb example, the Yorktown, will continue to be a source of historical interest and national pride.