The Essex-Class Aircraft Carrier May Be Retired, But It Was The Best Of Its Generation

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: The decades of operational service provided by the venerable carriers testified both to the robustness of their design, and their effectiveness as platforms of the U.S. naval power.

Perhaps no vessel embodies the U.S. Navy’s embrace of the aircraft carrier as the centerpiece of its strategy as the Essex-class carrier. Between 1943 and 1950, twenty-four of the thirty-thousand-ton carriers were built at shipyards in Newport News, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Norfolk and Braintree—some completed in as few as fourteen months. This makes the Essex the most extensively produced capital ship class in the twentieth century.

The Navy’s earlier carriers were limited in size due to the Washington Naval Treaty signed in 1922, with an exception granted for two battlecruisers converted into carriers with displacements of thirty thousand tons (in U.S. service, the Lexington-class).

Though lacking combat experience, the Navy tested its carriers extensively in wargames and gained a decent idea of their revolutionary. So did Japan, which withdrew from the Naval Treaty in 1934 to build up its forces up for planned future conquests.

Reciprocally freed from the treaty’s restriction, in 1940 the Navy set out to build a larger carriers than its latest Yorktown-class. Though the U.S. was over a year away from involvement in World War II, naval engineers grasped the qualities a fully-capable carrier needed: when it came to ‘flattops’, bigger was actually better.

The 30,000 ton Essex was finally commissioned on December 31, 1942, measuring 265 meters in length and displacing 31,300 tons with the hull reinforced by as much as four inches of Special Treatment Steel armor. Four twin and four-single five-inch gun turrets used two fire-control radars to blast aerial threats up to seven miles away using proximity-fused air-bursting shells. Additionally, sixty rapid-firing twenty-millimeter cannons and seventeen quad-barrel forty-millimeter Bofors guns provided close protection.

Additional air- and surface-search radars gave the carriers advance warning of approaching threats while helping manage friendly forces in the battlespace. A new side-mounted elevator gave the carriers better flexibility, particular in the event that the elevator was jammed by battle damage.

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