America’s biggest naval engineering success to emerge from World War II, were the Essex Class aircraft carriers. They outclassed any contemporary sized carriers in the world, with the exception of the Royal Navy’s Implacable Class.
The Essex Class design was derived from the preceding Yorktown Class. Yorktown’s design had been limited in every aspect by the Washington/London Naval Treaties. In 1936, Imperial Japan & Fascist Italy, both abrogated the treaties. The following year, US Navy designers began crafting what would become the Essex Class.
USS Essex CV 9, was commissioned on New Year’s Eve 1942. The first of 24 ships; the most numerous class of capital ships in the Twentieth Century.
Though a few were severely damaged, none were ever lost to enemy action during the war. Those that were severely damaged, still managed to return home under their own power.
One flaw discovered however, was not even battle related. But, revealed in a typhoon. The forward portion of the flight deck overhung an open forecastle. This was common in carrier designs of World War II. A holdover from early conversions of other designs to aircraft carriers.
However, this left the flight deck directly above, with weak structural support. Taking heavy waves over the bow in a typhoon tended to destroy the forward flight deck, hampering flight operations.
With the dawn of the jet age, aircraft began to grow larger. Room had to be made on the flight deck and the first modernization of Essex Class ships, the 1947-1955 SCB-27 program was undertaken.
They included removal of the four flight deck mounted dual 5 inch anti-aircraft turrets, more powerful catapults for launching jets; and reconstruction of the ship’s ‘island’ to accommodate advancements in radar, communications & emerging tactical data systems.
One problem plaguing all aircraft carriers prior to the 1950’s, were aircraft missing the tail-hook on landing, then with no way to stop, crashing into parked aircraft. Prior to jets, this was more annoyance, than catastrophe. With larger jets, and their explosive fuel, annoyance became horror.
The inventors of the aircraft carrier, Britain’s Royal Navy, invented the solution to this deadly problem. The incorporation of an angled flight deck for incoming aircraft, keeping them clear of parked aircraft, and allowing them to fly right back off the deck, if they missed the tail-hook, and try again.
Angled flight decks, along with the solution to the collapsing forward flight deck issue, were incorporated into the 1955-1959 SCB 125 Modernization Program.
14 Essex Class carrier received modernization, the rest were modified separate from SCB-27/SCB-125, except for CV 13 Franklin & CV 17 Bunker Hill. Though fully repaired after severe damage in 1945 neither carrier was ever recommissioned or modernized after World War II. Both were kept in reserve until being scrapped; Franklin: 1967 & Bunker Hill: 1973. They were the only two of the class, to entirely retain the original Essex design and armament.
The 14 modernized Essex’s formed the back bone of the US Navy attack carrier fleet, (CVA), until super-carriers were built in numbers enough to replace them. As these new carriers were commissioned, most of the 14 Essex CVAs, were reassigned to anti-submarine warfare as CVSs.
The remaining eight Essex Class performed three other roles which didn’t require heavy structural modifications. One role was anti-submarine warfare. Re-designated (CVS) Carrier aViation anti-Submarine, these ship’s air-wings consisted entirely of submarine hunting planes and helicopters. They formed the center of submarine-killer battle groups, which included destroyers & frigates purpose-built for anti-submarine warfare, and one or more attack submarines.
Another role performed, was a pioneering one. The concept of an amphibious assault ship with a large flight deck and an air group entirely of helicopters to execute vertical assault in conjunction with troops in landing craft assaulting an enemy beach.
Known as Landing Platform Helicopter, or LPH, these ships together with an unused World War II escort carrier design eventually completed as LPHs, formed the catalyst for the LHAs and LHDs which followed in the 1970’s and 80’s.
The third role, which proved to be the longest active career for the Essex Class, was that of AVT, or Auxiliary aViation Training. The last to serve in this role, and the longest to do so, was CV 16 Lexington. From 1962 to 1991, every US Navy pilot learned to launch from, and trap on carriers, from her flight deck.
Lexington today serves as a museum ship open to the public in Corpus Christi, Texas. CV 10 Yorktown, is a museum ship at Patriots Point, South Carolina. CV 11 Intrepid, in New York City. And, CV 12 Hornet is in Alameda, California.
Though no longer projecting naval power, these four last of a kind keep the Essex Class existing in service to American citizens, for now 74 years.