The United States made a very late entrance into the battlecruiser game. The reasons for this are unclear; the Royal Navy built the world’s first battlecruiser in 1908, with the Germans and Japanese quickly following suit. Since the USN viewed the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy as its most likely foes in the early part of the twentieth century, it’s surprising that the Americans would concede the battlecruiser race to enemy navies. The most charitable interpretation is that the USN recognized the basic problem with the battlecruiser form; its inability to participate in the line of battle because of light armor. The Japanese recognized this problem as well, but decided that, given the size of the Pacific theater of operations, battlecruisers would nonetheless be useful. To the credit of the USN, it consistently built the best protected battleships in the world, which may have made the battlecruiser culturally unpalatable.
The USN began to think seriously about battlecruisers in 1912 and 1913. The first designs were genuinely appalling; one early design was over 1000′ long, could make over 36 knots, but was armed with only 8 12″ guns. The first serious design was commissioned in 1916, and envisioned a ship with seven funnels, 10 14″ guns, boilers on two levels, and a speed of 35 knots. When the United States became involved in World War I, the Royal Navy handed over the plans to HMS Hood, which revolutionized the US design. In the final design, the Lexington class battlecruisers would carry 8 16″ guns in four twin turrets, displace 43500 tons, and make 33.25 knots. The design was competitive with but probably inferior to that of the Japanese Amagis, which would have carried heavier armor. Both the Japanese and the American ships would likely have been outclassed by the British Invincible class. The battlecruiser naming strategy was odd largely for the lack of any particular strategy. While the USN has historically been very programmatic about its ship names (submarines after fish, battleships after states, cruisers after cities, destroyers after people), the proposed names of the battlecruisers were Lexington, Constellation, Saratoga, Constitution, Ranger, and United States.
The Washington Naval Treaty intervened, and almost all the new battlecruisers were scrapped or cancelled. Because the Royal Navy had converted several ships into aircraft carriers prior to Treaty ratification, it was decided that the United States and Japan would both be allowed to convert two of their incomplete battlecruisers. The United States Navy decided to spare Lexington and Saratoga. In her new incarnation, Lexington displaced 38000 tons, could carry 91 aircraft, and could make almost 34 knots. The conversion worked out beautifully, with Saratoga and Lexington being far more effective as aircraft carriers than they would have been as battlecruisers. Of course, it took a while for the USN to figure out what to do with its huge new ships, and Lexington spent most of the prewar period participating in exercises and simulations designed to determine the proper employment of the fast carrier. The most famous of these involved surprise air attacks on the Panama Canal and Pearl Harbor. The sparing of Saratoga and Lexington led to an aircraft carrier naming convention that, with exceptions, tended to focus on major battles (Essex, Enterprise, Yorktown, Midway, etc.)
Lexington was one of three carriers in the Pacific at the beginning of World War II. Fortunately, all three were away from Pearl Harbor during the attack. Lexington was ferrying aircraft to Midway, but participated in the search for the Japanese task force after the attack. In early 1942 Lexington participated in raids against Rabaul and other targets in the South Pacific before returning to Pearl in March. On April 15 Lexington left Pearl Harbor to rendezvous with the carrier Yorktown in an effort to stop the Japanese advance on New Guinea. The Japanese were launching a maritime effort to seize Port Moresby, allowing them to severely degrade communications between the United States and Australia.
The Battle of Coral Sea began on May 7 with the sighting of the small Japanese carrier Shoho. Lexington’s dive bombers destroyed Shoho in less than ten minutes, but failed to locate the two much larger Japanese carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku. Both sides launched strikes on May 8, and both airgroups found their targets. Planes from Lexington and Yorktown severely damaged Shokaku, but failed to sink her. Lexington was hit by two torpedos and three bombs, but because of her large size and sound construction, was able to maintain speed and begin to recover her aircraft. Unfortunately, damage control was not up to the standard it would reach later in the war. Gasoline fumes spread on the lower decks of the ship, resulting in a huge explosion. With uncontrolled fires raging, Lexington was abandoned by her crew. Shortly thereafter she was scuttled by an accompanying destroyer. The battle has typically been rated both a tactical and strategic victory, despite the loss of a fleet carrier, as the Japanese invasion failed and Shokaku and Zuikaku could not participate in the Battle of Midway. Lexington’s sister, Saratoga, survived the war and was sunk in the Bikini atom bomb tests.
Trivia: What battleships carried the heaviest broadside before 1940?