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This Day In History: The U.S. Navy’s First Aircraft Carrier Was Sunk By Japanese Warplanes

February 27, 2017

This day in history, February 27, 1942, the United States Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, was sunk by Japanese warplanes. All 32 aircraft on the aircraft carrier were lost.

The USS Langley was launched in 1912 as the naval collier (coal transport ship) USS Jupiter. After World War I, the USS Jupiter was converted into the Navy’s first aircraft carrier and rechristened the USS Langley, after aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpoint Langley. It was also the Navy’s first electrically propelled ship, capable of speeds up to 15 knots. On October 17, 1922; Lt. Virgil C. Griffin piloted the first plane, a VE-7-SF, launched from the Langley‘s decks. After 1937, the Langley lost the forward 40 percent of her flight deck as part of a conversion to seaplane tender, a mobile base for squadrons of patrol bombers.

On December 8, 1941, the Langley was part of the Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked. It immediately set sail for Australia and arrived on January 1, 1942. On February 22, commanded by Robert P. McConnell, the Langley, carrying 32 P-40 fighters, left as part of a convoy to aid the Allies in their battle against the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies as part of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) naval forces.

On February 27, the Langley left the convoy and headed straight for the port at Tjilatjap, Java. About 74 miles south of Java, the carrier met up with two U.S. escort destroyers when nine Japanese twin-engine bombers attacked. Although the Langley had requested a fighter escort from Java for cover, none could be spared. The first two Japanese bomber runs missed their target, but Langley was hit three times on the third run, setting the planes on the flight deck aflame. The carrier began to list and Commander McConnell lost his ability to navigate the ship. McConnell ordered the Langley abandoned, and the escort destroyers were able to take his crew to safety. Of the 300 crewmen, only 16 were lost. The destroyers then to sank the Langley before the Japanese were able to capture it.