World War II: USS Lexington (CV-2)

Crew of U.S.S. Lexington Abandoning Ship

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

Authorized in 1916, the US Navy intended USS Lexington to be the lead ship of a new class of battlecruisers. Following the United States' entry into World War I, the development of the ship halted as the US Navy's need for more destroyers and convoy escort vessels precluded that for a new capital ship. With the conflict's conclusion, Lexington was finally laid down at the Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company in Quincy, MA on January 8, 1921. As workers constructed the ship's hull, leaders from around the world met at the Washington Naval Conference. This disarmament meeting called for tonnage limitations to be placed on the navies of the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. As the meeting progressed, work on Lexington was suspended in February 1922 with the ship 24.2% complete.

With the signing of the Washington Naval Treaty, the US Navy elected to re-classify Lexington and completed the ship as an aircraft carrier. This aided the service in meeting the new tonnage restrictions set in place by the treaty. As the bulk of the hull was complete, the US Navy elected to retain the battlecruiser armor and torpedo protection as it would have been too expensive to remove. Workers then installed an 866-foot flight deck on the hull along with an island and large funnel. Since the concept of the aircraft carrier was still new, the Bureau of Construction and Repair insisted that the ship mount an armament of eight 8" guns to support its 78 aircraft. These were mounted in four twin turrets fore and aft of the island. Though a single aircraft catapult was installed in the bow, it was seldom used during the ship's career.

Launched on October 3, 1925, Lexington was completed two years later and entered commission on December 14, 1927, with Captain Albert Marshall in command. This was a month after its sister ship, USS Saratoga (CV-3) joined the fleet. Together, the ships were first large carriers to serve in the US Navy and the second and third carriers after USS Langley. After conducting fitting out and shakedown cruises in the Atlantic, Lexington transferred to the US Pacific Fleet in April 1928. The following year, the carrier took part in Fleet Problem IX as part of the Scouting Force and failed to defend the Panama Canal from Saratoga.

Interwar Years

Late in 1929, Lexington fulfilled an unusual role for a month when its generators provided power to the city of Tacoma, WA after a drought disabled the city's hydro-electric plant. Returning to more normal operations, Lexington spent the next two years taking part in various fleet problems and maneuvers. During this time, it was commanded by Captain Ernest J. King, the future Chief of Naval Operations during World War II. In February 1932, Lexington and Saratoga operated in tandem and mounted a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor during Grand Joint Exercise No. 4. In a harbinger of things to come, the attack was ruled a success. This feat was repeated by the ships during exercises the following January. Continuing to take part in various training problems over the next several years, Lexington played a key role in developing carrier tactics and developing new methods of underway replenishment. In July 1937, the carrier aided in the search for Amelia Earhart after her disappearance in the South Pacific.

World War II Approaches

In 1938, Lexington and Saratoga mounted another successful raid on Pearl Harbor during that year's Fleet Problem. With tensions rising with Japan two years later, Lexington and the US Pacific Fleet were ordered to remain in Hawaiian waters after exercises in 1940. Pearl Harbor was made the fleet's permanent base the following February. Late in 1941, Admiral Husband Kimmel, the Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, directed Lexington to ferry US Marine Corps aircraft to reinforce the base on Midway Island. Departing on December 5, the carrier's Task Force 12 was 500 miles southeast of its destination two days later when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Abandoning its original mission, Lexington began an immediate search for the enemy fleet while moving to rendezvous with warships steaming out from Hawaii. Remaining at sea for several days, Lexington was unable to locate the Japanese and returned to Pearl Harbor on December 13.

Raiding in the Pacific

Quickly ordered back to sea as part of Task Force 11, Lexington moved to attack Jaluit in the Marshall Islands in an effort to divert Japanese attention from the relief of Wake Island. This mission was soon canceled and the carrier returned to Hawaii. After conducting patrols in the vicinity of Johnston Atoll and Christmas Island in January, the new leader the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, directed Lexington to join with the ANZAC Squadron in the Coral Sea to protect the sea lanes between Australia and the United States. In this role, Vice Admiral Wilson Brown sought to mount a surprise attack on the Japanese base at Rabaul. This was aborted after his ships were discovered by enemy aircraft. Attacked by a force of Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers on February 20, Lexington survived the raid unscathed. Still desiring to strike at Rabaul, Wilson requested reinforcements from Nimitz. In response, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher's Task Force 17, containing the carrier USS Yorktown, arrived in early March.

As the combined forces moved towards Rabaul, Brown learned on March 8 that the Japanese fleet was off Lae and Salamaua, New Guinea after supporting the landing of troops in that region. Altering the plan, he instead launched a large raid from the Gulf of Papua against the enemy ships. Flying over the Owen Stanley Mountains, F4F Wildcats, SBD Dauntlesses, and TBD Devastators from Lexington and Yorktown attacked on March 10. In the raid, they sank three enemy transports and damaged several other vessels. In the wake of the attack, Lexington received orders to return to Pearl Harbor. Arriving on March 26, the carrier began an overhaul which saw the removal of its 8" guns and addition of new anti-aircraft batteries. With the completion of the work, Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch assumed command of TF 11 and began training exercises near Palmyra Atoll and Christmas Island.

Loss at Coral Sea

On April 18, the training maneuvers were ended and Fitch received orders to rendezvous with Fletcher's TF 17 north of New Caledonia. Alerted to the Japanese naval advance against Port Moresby, New Guinea, the combined Allied forces moved into the Coral Sea in early May. On May 7, after searching for each other for a few days, the two sides began to locate opposing vessels. While Japanese aircraft attacked the destroyer USS Sims and oiler USS Neosho, aircraft from Lexington and Yorktown sank the light carrier Shoho. After the strike on the Japanese carrier, Lexington's Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Dixon famously radioed, "Scratch one flat top!" Fighting resumed the next day as American aircraft attacked the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. While the former was badly damaged, the latter was able to take cover in a squall.

While the American aircraft were attacking, their Japanese counterparts commenced strikes on Lexington and Yorktown. Around 11:20 AM, Lexington sustained two torpedo hits which caused several boilers to be shut down and reduced the ship's speed. Listing slightly to port, the carrier then was struck by two bombs. While one hit the port forward 5" ready ammunition locker and started several fires, the other detonated on the ship's funnel and caused little structural damage. Working to save the ship, damage control parties began shifting fuel to correct the list and Lexington began recovering aircraft that were low on fuel. In addition, a new combat air patrol was launched.

As the situation aboard began to stabilize, a massive explosion occurred at 12:47 PM when gasoline vapors from the ruptured port aviation fuel tanks ignited. Though the explosion destroyed the ship's main damage control station, air operations continued and all of the surviving aircraft from the morning's strike were recovered by 2:14 PM. At 2:42 PM another major explosion tore through the forward part of the ship igniting fires on the hanger deck and leading to a power failure. Though assisted by three destroyers, Lexington's damage control teams were overwhelmed when a third explosion occurred at 3:25 PM which cut off water pressure to the hanger deck. With the carrier dead in the water, Captain Frederick Sherman ordered the wounded to be evacuated and at 5:07 PM directed the crew to abandon ship.

Remaining aboard until the last of the crew had been rescued, Sherman departed at 6:30 PM. All told, 2,770 men were taken from the burning Lexington. With the carrier burning and wracked by further explosions, the destroyer USS Phelps was ordered to sink Lexington. Firing two torpedoes, the destroyer succeeded as the carrier rolled to port and sank. Following Lexington's loss, workers at the Fore River Yard asked Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to rename the Essex-class carrier then under construction at Quincy in honor of the lost carrier. He agreed, the new carrier became USS Lexington (CV-16).

USS Lexington (CV-2) Fast Facts

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Aircraft Carrier
  • Shipyard: Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company, Quincy, MA
  • Laid Down: January 8, 1921
  • Launched: October 3, 1925
  • Commissioned: December 14, 1927
  • Fate: Lost to enemy action, May 8, 1942


  • Displacement: 37,000 tons
  • Length: 888 ft.
  • Beam: 107 ft., 6 in.
  • Draft: 32 ft.
  • Propulsion: 4 sets of turbo-electric drive, 16 water-tube boilers, 4 × screws
  • Speed: 33.25 knots
  • Range: 12,000 nautical miles at 14 knots
  • Complement: 2,791 men

Armament (as built)

  • 4 × twin 8-in. guns, 12 × single 5-in. guns

Aircraft (as built)

  • 78 aircraft



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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Lexington (CV-2)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: USS Lexington (CV-2). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Lexington (CV-2)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).