The USS Lexington (CV-2), often referred to as “Lady Lex,” was an early aircraft carrier of the United States Navy, originally designed as a battlecruiser.

Serving prominently in the Pacific during World War II, she played a crucial role in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 before being sunk by Japanese forces.

Her legacy is celebrated for her contributions to naval aviation and the pivotal role she played in the early stages of the Pacific theater.

Contents

Development Of USS Lexington

The genesis of the USS Lexington is rooted in a turbulent era of naval innovation and global geopolitics. During the early 20th century, the rapid pace of technological advancements was radically reshaping naval warfare.

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Larger ships with more powerful guns became the focus of major naval powers, leading to an arms race on the seas. Amidst this backdrop, the original design for the Lexington-class emerged as battlecruisers—large, heavily armed warships meant to outrun any ship they couldn’t outgun, and outgun any ship they couldn’t outrun.

However, the post-World War I landscape brought about significant changes in naval strategy and doctrine. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, aimed at preventing a naval arms race among the major powers, imposed limits on warship construction.

USS Lexington before her launch, October 1925.

This treaty, coupled with emerging theories about the potential dominance of naval aviation, created the circumstances for the transformation of the Lexington and her sister ship, the USS Saratoga, from battlecruisers into aircraft carriers.

This wasn’t a mere retrofitting but a complete overhaul. The vast, expansive decks, initially intended to house large-caliber guns and thick armor, were re-envisioned into flight decks for aircraft launch and recovery. Below, hangars were constructed to store, maintain, and repair aircraft. Elevators were incorporated to shuttle planes between the flight deck and the hangar.

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The ship’s propulsion systems were also revolutionary for their time. The Lexington-class carriers utilized turbo-electric propulsion, which offered more precise control of power and was a significant leap from the conventional direct-drive steam turbines.

Design


Design and Dimensions

The USS Lexington (CV-2) was a marvel of early 20th-century naval engineering. With an overall length of 888 feet and a beam, or width, of around 105 feet at the waterline (and expanding to approximately 131 feet at the flight deck), she was an imposing presence on the sea. Her standard displacement was about 36,000 tons, but this could surge to over 43,000 tons when fully loaded.

An aerial view of ‘Lady Lex’.

Propulsion System

One of the most innovative features of the USS Lexington was its propulsion system. Unlike many ships of her time which utilized direct-drive steam turbines, the Lexington boasted a turbo-electric drive. This system harnessed steam turbines to generate electricity, which in turn powered electric motors that drove the ship’s four propellers. This not only provided more precise power control but also offered greater flexibility in the ship’s internal layout. With this system, the Lexington could reach speeds of up to 34 knots.

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Armament

Originally designed as a battlecruiser, the Lexington’s initial armament was impressive. However, with her conversion to an aircraft carrier, her heavy guns were reduced in favor of anti-aircraft weaponry. By the time of her service in World War II, she was equipped with 8 x 8-inch guns, 12 x 5-inch anti-aircraft guns, and a complement of smaller caliber guns for defense against aircraft and torpedo boats.

Firing the 8 inch guns on board the USS Lexington in 1928.

Aircraft Facilities

The most significant modification during her conversion was the addition of facilities to handle aircraft. The Lexington featured a long and flat wooden flight deck, under which lay a spacious hangar deck for the storage and maintenance of aircraft. She was equipped with several aircraft elevators to transport planes between the flight and hangar decks, and she also had a state-of-the-art catapult system to assist with aircraft launches. At her peak, the Lexington could carry and operate over 80 aircraft, including fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance planes.

Protection

Defensive measures on the USS Lexington were robust. Her belt armor, the primary defense against torpedoes and shells, was around 7 inches thick. The protective decks ranged in thickness from 1 to 2 inches. In addition to this, the ship’s vital areas were protected by bulkheads up to 7 inches thick. This combination of armor was designed to provide the Lexington with protection from both surface threats and aerial bombs.

Service In World War II

The Pacific Prelude

As the storm clouds of World War II gathered over the Pacific, the USS Lexington stood as a bulwark of America’s naval presence in the region. Japan’s aggressive expansionist policies in Asia had necessitated a swift and decisive naval response from the Allied forces, and the USS Lexington, with its aircraft-carrying capabilities, was positioned at the forefront of this strategic pushback.

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Early Operations and Wake Island

In the initial phases of the war, the Lexington’s primary mission was deterrence and support. A notable early operation was the planned reinforcement of Wake Island, a crucial strategic point in the Pacific. While the Lexington was en route with a detachment of Marine fighter planes, Japanese forces overwhelmed the island’s defenses, leading to the mission’s cancellation. Although the attempt to reinforce Wake Island was unsuccessful, the operation underscored the vital role aircraft carriers like the Lexington would play in projecting power across the vast expanse of the Pacific.

The Battle of the Coral Sea: A Turning Point

In May 1942, the Lexington’s role in the Pacific theater reached its zenith during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Partnered with the USS Yorktown, another American aircraft carrier, the Lexington’s air groups set their sights on the Japanese fleet. The initial stages of the battle saw significant success, with Lexington’s aircraft playing a pivotal role in sinking the Japanese light carrier Shoho.

Preparing to launch her aircraft during the Battle Of The Coral Sea.

Sinking Of The USS Lexington

Background: The Battle of the Coral Sea

The sinking of the USS Lexington (CV-2) is intrinsically tied to the Battle of the Coral Sea, which occurred from May 4th to 8th, 1942. This battle was the first carrier-to-carrier naval engagement in history and was critical in halting Japan’s southward expansion in the Pacific.

May 7th, 1942: Striking the Enemy

On May 7th, aircraft from the Lexington, along with those from her sister ship, the USS Yorktown, managed to locate and sink the Japanese light carrier Shoho. This early success boosted the morale of the American forces. However, the main threat, the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, still lurked in the vicinity, setting the stage for the confrontation on May 8th.

May 8th, 1942: The Fateful Day

The morning of May 8th saw both sides launch their aircraft in hopes of locating and decimating the enemy’s fleet. The USS Lexington’s air group, alongside aircraft from the Yorktown, struck the Shokaku, causing considerable damage and rendering its flight deck inoperative.

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However, Japanese aircraft had also managed to locate the American carriers. At around 11:00 AM, the Lexington was struck by two torpedoes on the port side. These initial impacts caused significant damage, including flooding of several compartments and a list to port. Shortly after, the ship was hit by three bombs. One bomb penetrated the flight deck and detonated below, sparking fires. Another caused a significant rupture in the ship’s avgas (aviation gasoline) storage, releasing vapors which would later have catastrophic consequences.

The crew, well-trained in damage control, immediately jumped into action. Fires were combated, and counterflooding efforts were initiated to correct the ship’s list. For a time, it appeared that the situation was stabilizing, and the Lexington might be saved.

The Catastrophic Explosion

At approximately 12:47 PM, the ship was rocked by a massive explosion. The avgas vapors that had been released from the damaged storage tanks had found an ignition source, leading to a devastating blast. This explosion led to further fires and additional explosions in the early afternoon. The situation quickly deteriorated, with the fires becoming uncontrollable, endangering the entire vessel and its crew.

The Final Moments and Abandoning Ship

By late afternoon, with fires still raging and the prospect of saving the ship diminishing, Captain Frederick C. Sherman, the Lexington’s commanding officer, gave the order to abandon ship. This order ensured the safety of the majority of the crew, with over 2,700 officers and sailors being rescued by accompanying destroyers and cruisers.

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Seeing the wounded Lexington at risk of falling into enemy hands or acting as a hazard, the decision was made to scuttle her. The USS Phelps, a destroyer, was given the grim task. It launched torpedoes into the once-proud carrier, and at approximately 8:00 PM on May 8th, the USS Lexington sank beneath the waves of the Coral Sea.

USS Lexington after being abandoned.

Aftermath and Legacy

The loss of the USS Lexington was a significant blow to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet. However, the Battle of the Coral Sea was, in many ways, a strategic victory for the Allies. The Japanese advance was halted, and the engagement showcased the importance and vulnerabilities of aircraft carriers in modern naval warfare. The “Lady Lex” was remembered not just for her sinking, but for the valor of her crew and her contributions to the early stages of the Pacific war.

Why is thе Lеxington callеd thе Bluе Ghost?

Thе USS Lеxington еarnеd thе nicknamе “Bluе Ghost” bеcausе of its haunting rеappеarancе. Aftеr bеing sunk in thе Battlе of thе Coral Sеa during World War II, rеports еmеrgеd of its sightings by еnеmy forcеs. Thе USS Lеxington, sееmingly dеstroyеd, would suddеnly еmеrgе and rеappеar in subsеquеnt battlеs, appеaring as if it had rеturnеd from thе dеpths. Its striking bluе camouflagе paint and unеxpеctеd rеturns lеd to thе nicknamе “Bluе Ghost,” marking its еlusivе and surprising appеarancеs during wartimе.