RIP: The Story of the Legendary Aircraft Carrier USS Lexington

Warfare History Network

Key point: The "Lady Lex" served well until being lost in battle to Imperial Japan.

Responding to a November 27, 1941, war warning message from Admiral Harold R. “Betty” Stark, chief of naval operations, America’s prized handful of aircraft carriers were fortuitously absent from Pearl Harbor when Japanese planes savaged the Pacific Fleet on Sunday, December 7.

The USS Saratoga (CV-3) was refitting in San Diego, the USS Enterprise (CV-6) was returning after ferrying fighters to the Marine Corps defense force on Wake Island, the USS Wasp (CV-7) was serving with the Royal Navy Home Fleet in the Mediterranean, the USS Yorktown (CV-5) was at Norfolk, Virginia, and the USS Lexington (CV-2) was carrying a squadron of Vought SB2U Vindicator dive bombers to the tiny Marine garrison on Midway Island.

But the sorely needed planes were not delivered. When word came of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Lexington, still 400 miles southeast of Midway, turned and headed southward. She spent several days with other U.S. ships searching unsuccessfully south of Oahu for the Japanese flattops and returned to Pearl Harbor for refueling and reprovisioning.

Like her sister, the Saratoga, the graceful, 33,000-ton Lexington was originally a battlecruiser converted under a special provision of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. She was the fourth U.S. Navy vessel to bear the name of the Revolutionary War battle. At her christening, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, chief of the Navy’s new Bureau of Aeronautics, prophesied, “This great carrier represents a powerful instrument on the offensive. I am convinced that a bombing attack launched from such carriers, from an unknown point, at an unknown instant, with an unknown objective, cannot be warded off by defensive aircraft based on shore.”

The USS Lexington

Commissioned on December 14, 1927, the Lady Lex, as she became affectionately known, participated with the Saratoga in her first fleet problem on January 23-27, 1929, when Rear Admiral Joseph M. “Bull” Reeves, the U.S. Battle Fleet’s air commander, demonstrated carrier tactics with a simulated attack against the Panama Canal.

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