Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Feb 11, 2015: Of Cyclops and Covered Wagons
Here we see the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier in 1924 with a dozen early biplanes on her deck, the one that started the whole shebang of sea going Naval Aviation in the Western Hemisphere: the converted Proteus-class collier USS Langley (CV-1) nee USS Jupiter (AC-3).
One cold harsh realization that the original Global Force for Good,–Teddy Roosevelt’s 1908 Great White Fleet– came to know during its round-the-world sortie, was that a large force of battleships and cruisers needed huge, dedicated coal-carriers to keep the fleet moving. You see those water tube boilers of the day had to have a steady stream of the black stuff to make steam or the whole thing was dead in the water.
That’s when the Navy decided to ask for a quartet of new, purpose-built, colliers. Operated by the Naval Auxiliary Service, the forerunner of the MSC of today, these would be unarmed, civilian-crewed ships, owned by the government and under Navy orders.
Like class leader USS Proteus, laid down in 1911 at Newport News, the four colliers would have names drawn from Greek mythology. Sisterships, Cyclops, Nereus, and Jupiter were likewise named and ordered at the same time. Nereus would be constructed at Newport News alongside Proteus while Cyclops was built at Cramp in Pennsylvania. Jupiter, our subject was laid down 18 October 1911 at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California.
These 522-foot long ships, built at a bargain price of $1 million a pop, could 11,800 tons of coal and 1,125 ton of oil in six holds. They were made distinctive by their seven tall A-frame towers, standing five stories above deck (remember this later) that allowed coal or oil to be moved via a complicated series of 24 winches and 12 cable-ways to vessels along either side. In tests with the battleship Wyoming, it was found that one of these colliers could transfer 217 tons per hour if needed, which was pretty efficient.
They could also carry 8,000 tons of dry cargo in lieu of coal and small amounts of men from place to place. As such, they proved handy as sort of a low-budget federal shipping service for the government.
Jupiter was commissioned on 7 April 1913 and, like her three sisters, proved yeoman service to the fleet both in the days leading up to WWI and in the war itself. By 1916, the Navy had directed that these ships be crewed by actual naval personnel, and they picked up a quartet of 4-inch popguns for self-defense. Jupiter did her duty when the Great War came and coaled the U.S. Atlantic Fleet on both sides of the pond, seeing service in dangerous U-boat infested waters without a hitch.
Speaking of dangerous, her sistership, USS Cyclops, carrying the United States Consul-General to Rio, Alfred Louis Moreau Gottschalk among her passengers, as well as 231 crew and an overloaded cargo of manganese, went missing somewhere between Barbados and Virginia in March 1918. This disappearance was blamed at the time on U-boats, or possibly a fierce storm that swept through the Virginia Capes. Other theories included the possibility that her German-born Captain may have done something with her, and, later Bermuda Triangle advocates have advanced all sorts of crap claims ranging from UFOs to magnetic shifts. Other more plausible reasons include the ship’s very high messianic height (have you seen those derrick towers!?), the numerous huge hatches on deck, and low freeboard (just 8-feet when fully loaded) leading to unsafe conditions in rough seas.
Cyclops has never been found although at least one Navy diver, Dean Hawes in 1968, descended on a large hulk lying in 180 feet of water about 40 nautical miles northeast of Cape Charles, that is thought to have been the Cyclops. The ship has been an ongoing topic for Clive Cussler and his NUMA crew, even making it into a rather entertaining Dirk Pitt novel that I read back in 7th grade…and again in 10th…
With the war over and the Navy moving to oilers rather than colliers, Jupiter was surplus. In fact, her surviving sisters Nereus and Proteus were laid up on red lead row for good. That fate was almost shared by Jupiter, who was decommissioned on 24 March 1920, except that she was converted to use as the U.S. Navy’s first, albeit experimental, aircraft carrier.
In 1922, she reemerged from the Norfolk Navy Yard dubbed USS Langley after aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley. Gone were her huge towers, her topside now covered with a wooden flight deck for aircraft. As such, she took on the nickname of “The Covered Wagon.”
With her huge derricks removed and topside weight reduced, she shed some 5,000 tons and could float in water some five feet more shallow. She also picked up a couple knots in speed without all that bulk. In addition to her flightdeck, she was fitted with an elevator and catapult as well as a carrier pigeon house on the stern. Her old 4″/50s were replaced by newer 5″/51s and her holds were converted to berthing for up to 500 bluejackets and air wing members as well as bunkerage for avgas and lubricants.
For the next 15 years, Langley served as the cradle of U.S. Naval aviation, with most of the service’s pre-WWII aviators learning their trade on her humble decks. In fact, she was the only carrier in the fleet, not to mention the hemisphere, until late 1927. She conducted a number of important firsts including launching and recovering the first Navy’s first rotary wing aircraft, a Pitcairn XOP-1 autogyro, on Sept. 23, 1931.
Had there been no Langley, there likely would have been no Lexington, Yorktown or Enterprise airwings in 1942. Further, five of her skippers went on to become admirals.
Still, at the end of the day, Langley was just a collier by any other name and slow one at that. In 1936, she was stripped of her fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes, reclassified as a seaplane tender (AV-3) and her deck cut back to less than half its former length.
When WWII started, she was forward deployed to the Philippines and dodged incoming Japanese planes on the very first day of the War in the Pacific. Escaping the PI by the skin of her teeth, she worked her way south to the Dutch East Indies where she was used by the Army to deliver a load of 32 Curtiss P-40 Warhawks of the 13th USAAF Pursuit Squadron to Java.
However, the Japanese caught up to the old girl and on 27 February, 1942, left her dead in the water her off Java with five bomb hits turning her into an inferno and taking 16 of her crew to the deep. Nine 4-inch shells and two torpedoes from the destroyer USS Whipple (DD-217) finished her off after her crew was offloaded to prevent her from falling into enemy hands.
Most of her crew was rescued by the fleet oiler USS Pecos (AO–6), but tragically were lost when that ship was sunk by Japanese air attack from the carriers Kaga and Soryu, 1 March.
Her sisters Nereus and Proteus? As it turned out, Langley/Jupiter outlived them both.
They were struck from the Naval List in 1940 after spending nearly two decades in mothballs. The Navy just didn’t need any colliers or, for that matter, cargo ships with corrosion and engine issues. The two were sold to Saguenay Terminals Ltd. of Montreal, Quebec on March 8 and 10th, 1941 respectively and operated in the Canadian Merchant Navy during World War II. In the ultimate in Theremin music sound tracked creepiness on the high seas, both of these ships, like the Cyclops before them, disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle area within three weeks of each other. M/V Proteus left St. Thomas, USVI with a load of bauxite to be turned into aluminum bound for Maine on Nov. 23, 1941. M/V Nereus left the same port, with the same cargo, for the same destination, on Dec. 10th.
Neither was seen again.
While the three colliers are somewhere in Poseidon’s Bermuda flotilla, Langley‘s wreck is some 75 miles south off Tjilatjap, Indonesia while a very well done model is on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida. Her name was later carried by the USS Langley (CVL-27), an 11,000-ton Independence-class aircraft carrier that served the United States Navy from 1943 to 1947. Since that ship was stricken in March 1963, there has not been a Langley on the Naval List.
Displacement: 19,000 long tons (19,000 t) full
Length: 522 ft. (159 m)
Beam: 63 ft. (19 m)
Draft: 27 ft. 8 in (8.43 m)
Speed: 15 kn (17 mph; 28 km/h)
Complement: 13 officers, 91 men, all civilians, bunks for 158
Armament: 4-4″/50 (Fitted 1916/17)
Specs: As Aircraft Carrier
13,900 long tons (14,100 t)
Length: 542 ft. (165.2 m)
Beam: 65 ft. 5 in (19.9 m)
Draft: 24 ft. (7.3 m)
Installed power: 7,200 shp (5,400 kW)
Propulsion: General Electric turbo-electric transmission
3 × boilers
2 × shafts
Speed: 15.5 kn (17.8 mph; 28.7 km/h)
Range: 3,500 nmi (4,000 mi; 6,500 km) at 10 kn (12 mph; 19 km/h)
Complement: 468 officers and men
Armament: 4 × 5 in (127 mm)/51 cal guns
Aircraft carried: up to 55 in tests. Typically, 36 embarked. As seaplane tender after 1936, would be responsible for 10-20 flying boats
Aviation facilities: 1 × elevator
1 × catapult
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