US Aircraft Carriers in World War II
This section provides an overview of the U.S. Navy Fleet carriers that served in World War II.
During the war twenty-two U.S. Navy fleet carriers (CVs) and nine small aircaft carriers (CVLs) served in World War II. Eight ships were built before the war started and the rest were built during the war. (Most of the carriers were named after American battles and famous former Navy ships.)
The eight carriers built before the war are organized into the following classes:
- Langley (single ship) – converted from a collier
- Ranger (single ship) – built to be a carrier
- Yorktown Class (Yorktown, Enterprise, Hornet) – based on an expanded Ranger design
- Lexington Class (Lexington & Saratoga) – converted from battlecruisers
- Wasp (single ship) – design restricted due to limited tonnage remaining in the Washington treaty
During the war two classes of ships were built:
The Essex Class – largest class of carriers ever built (26 were completed)
The Independence Class – most were converted from light cruisers during construction (9 were completed)
For the first 18 months of the conflict, the U.S. had barely enough carriers to hold the line let alone project power in the Pacific. At one point in November 1942, only two carriers were operational in the Pacific (four carriers had been sunk.)
USS Enterprise (CV-6) entering Pearl Harbor on 26 May 1942. (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration) At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), three operational carriers were stationed in the Pacific: Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga. (Langley was also in the Pacific but in October 1936 it had been converted from an operational carrier to a seaplane tender.) The other four carriers were located in the Atlantic. Yorktown and Hornet were transferred to the Pacific in December 1941 and March 1942. Wasp entered the Pacific in June 1942. Ranger was dispatched to the Pacific after a overhaul in July 1944.
Starting in December 1942, the Essex class carriers started to enter service and by late 1943 the U.S. had enough carrier forces to perform operations throughout the Pacific.
In general, the carriers performed three types of operations: carrier raids; carrier versus carrier battles; and amphibious landing support.
A few carrier highlights:
- First US carrier: USS Langley (CV-1)
- First US carrier built from start as a carrier: USS Ranger (CV-4)
- First US carrier lost in World War II: USS Lexington (CV-2), lost 8 May 1942
- Most decorated US ship in World War II: USS Enterprise (CV-6), earned 20 out a possible 22 battle stars
- Shortest career: Hornet (CV-8), 12 months, commissioned October 1941 and lost 27 October 1942
The USS Langley was the first “Carrier” (a converted cruiser).