World War II/Vietnam War: USS Shangri-La (CV-38)

USS Shangri-La (CV-38), September 1945. US Naval History & Heritage Command

An Essex-class aircraft carrier, USS Shangri-La (CV-38) entered service in 1944. One of over 20 Essex-class carriers built for the US Navy during World War II, it joined the US Pacific Fleet and supported Allied operations during the final phases of the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific. Modernized in the 1950s, Shangri-La later served extensively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean before taking part in the Vietnam War.  Completing its time off Southeast Asia, the carrier was decommissioned in 1971.

A New Design

Designed in the 1920s and 1930s, the US Navy's Lexington- and Yorktown-class aircraft carriers were intended to meet the limitations set forth by the Washington Naval Treaty. This levied restrictions on the tonnage of different types of warships as well as placed a ceiling on each signatory’s total tonnage. This system was further revised and extended by the 1930 London Naval Treaty. As the international situation deteriorated in the 1930s, Japan and Italy elected to depart the treaty structure.

With the collapse of the treaty, the US Navy moved forward with efforts to create a new, larger class of aircraft carrier and one which made use of the experiences gained from the Yorktown-class. The resulting ship was wider and longer as well as possessed a deck-edge elevator system. This had been incorporated earlier on USS Wasp (CV-7). The new class would normally embark an air group of 36 fighters, 36 dive bombers, and 18 torpedo planes. This included the F6F Hellcats, SB2C Helldivers, and TBF Avengers. In addition to embarking a larger air group, the new design mounted a more powerful anti-aircraft armament.

The Standard Design

Construction commenced on the lead ship, USS Essex (CV-9), on April 28, 1941. With the US entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Essex-class soon became the US Navy's principal design for fleet carriers. The first four vessels after Essex followed the class' initial design. In early 1943, the US Navy requested several changes to improve future vessels.

The most noticeable of these changes was lengthening the bow to a clipper design which permitted the installation of two quadruple 40 mm mounts. Other alterations included moving the combat information center under the armored deck, enhanced ventilation and aviation fuel systems, a second catapult on the flight deck, and an additional fire control director. Referred to as the "long-hull" Essex-class or Ticonderoga-class by some, the US Navy made no distinction between these and the earlier Essex-class ships.


The first ship to move forward with the altered Essex-class design was USS Hancock (CV-14) which was later re-named Ticonderoga. This was followed by additional ships including USS Shangri-La (CV-38).  Construction commenced January 15, 1943, at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. A significant departure from US Navy naming conventions, Shangri-La referenced a distant land in James Hilton's Lost Horizons.

The name was chosen as President Franklin D. Roosevelt had cheekily stated that the bombers used in the 1942 Doolittle Raid had departed from a base in Shangri-La.  Entering the water on February 24, 1944, Josephine Doolittle, wife of Major General Jimmy Doolittle, served as sponsor. Work quickly advanced and Shangri-La entered commission on September 15, 1944, with Captain James D. Barner in command.  

USS Shangri-La (CV-38) - Overview

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Aircraft Carrier
  • Shipyard: Norfolk Naval Shipyard
  • Laid Down: January 15, 1943
  • Launched: February 24, 1944
  • Commissioned: September 15, 1944
  • Fate: Sold for scrap, 1988


  • Displacement: 27,100 tons
  • Length: 888 ft.
  • Beam: 93 ft. (waterline)
  • Draft: 28 ft., 7 in.
  • Propulsion: 8 × boilers, 4 × Westinghouse geared steam turbines, 4 × shafts
  • Speed: 33 knots
  • Complement: 3,448 men


  • 4 × twin 5 inch 38 caliber guns
  • 4 × single 5 inch 38 caliber guns
  • 8 × quadruple 40 mm 56 caliber guns
  • 46 × single 20 mm 78 caliber guns


  • 90-100 aircraft

World War II

Completing shakedown operations later that fall, Shangri-La departed Norfolk for the Pacific in January 1945 in company with the heavy cruiser USS Guam and the destroyer USS Harry E. Hubbard.. After touching at San Diego, the carrier proceeded to Pearl Harbor where it spent two months engaged in training activities and carrier-qualifying pilots. In April, Shangri-La left Hawaiian waters and steamed for Ulithi with orders to join Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's Task Force 58 (Fast Carrier Task Force).  Rendezvousing with TF 58, the carrier launched its first strike the next day when its aircraft attacked Okino Daito Jima. Moving north Shangri-La then began supporting Allied efforts during the Battle of Okinawa.

Returning to Ulithi, the carrier embarked Vice Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. in late May when he relieved Mitscher.  Becoming flagship of the task force, Shangri-La led the American carriers north in early June and began a series of raids against the Japanese home islands. The next several days saw Shangri-La evade a typhoon while shuttling between strikes on Okinawa and Japan. On June 13, the carrier departed for Leyte where it spent the remainder of the month engaged in maintenance. Resuming combat operations on July 1, Shangri-La returned to Japanese waters and began a series of attacks across the length of the country.

These included strikes that damaged the battleships Nagato and Haruna. After replenishing at sea, Shangri-La mounted multiple raids against Tokyo as well as bombed Hokkaido. With the cessation of hostilities on August 15, the carrier continued to patrol off Honshu and airdropped supplies to Allied prisoners of war ashore. Entering Tokyo Bay on September 16, it remained there into October.  Ordered home, Shangri-La arrived at Long Beach on October 21.

Postwar Years  

Conducting training along the West Coast in early 1946, Shangri-La then sailed for Bikini Atoll for the Operation Crossroads atomic testing that summer. After this was completed, it spent much of the next year in the Pacific before being decommissioned on November 7, 1947. Placed in the Reserve Fleet, Shangri-La remained inactive until May 10, 1951. Re-commissioned, it was designated as an attack carrier (CVA-38) the following year and was engaged in readiness and training activities in the Atlantic. 

In November 1952, the carrier arrived at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for a major overhaul. This saw Shangri-La receive both SCB-27C and SCB-125 upgrades. While the former included major alteration's to the carrier's island, relocation of several facilities within the ship, and the addition of steam catapults, the later saw the installation of an angled flight deck, an enclosed hurricane bow, and a mirror landing system.  

Cold War

The first ship to undergo the SCB-125 upgrade, Shangri-La was the second American carrier to possess an angled flight deck after USS Antietam (CV-36). Completed in January 1955, the carrier rejoined the fleet and spent much of the year engaged in training before deploying to the Far East in early 1956. The next four years were spent alternating between San Diego and Asian waters.

Transferred to the Atlantic in 1960, Shangri-La participated in NATO exercises as well as moved to the Caribbean in response to troubles in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Based at Mayport, FL, the carrier spent the next nine years operating in the western Atlantic and Mediterranean. Following a deployment with the US Sixth Fleet in 1962, Shangri-La underwent an overhaul at New York which saw installation of new arrestor gear and radar systems as well as removal of four 5" gun mounts.


While operating in the Atlantic in October 1965, Shangri-La was accidentally rammed by the destroyer USS Newman K. Perry. Though the carrier was not badly damaged, the destroyer suffered one fatality.  Re-designated an anti-submarine carrier (CVS-38) on June 30, 1969, Shangri-La received orders early the following year to join the US Navy's efforts during the Vietnam War. Sailing via the Indian Ocean, the carrier reached the Philippines on April 4, 1970. Operating from Yankee Station, Shangri-La's aircraft commenced combat missions over Southeast Asia. Remaining active in the region for the next seven months, it then departed for Mayport via Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil.

Arriving home on December 16, 1970, Shangri-La began preparations for inactivation. These were completed at the Boston Naval Shipyard. Decommissioned on July 30, 1971, the carrier moved to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on July 15, 1982, the ship was retained to provide parts for USS Lexington (CV-16).  On August 9, 1988, Shangri-La was sold for scrap.          


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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II/Vietnam War: USS Shangri-La (CV-38)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). World War II/Vietnam War: USS Shangri-La (CV-38). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II/Vietnam War: USS Shangri-La (CV-38)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).