Improvised and Expendable, the Independence-Class Light Carriers

Discovery of the sunken wreck of the World War II light carrier, USS Independence (CV-22), off the coast of California has sparked a fair amount of excitement. You can read the details here, but the BLUF is that the USS Independence was scuttled off the coast of California after being used as a target for a nuclear weapons blast during Operation Crossroads in 1946. The survey was a joint venture by NOAA and Boeing to map shipwrecks located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The USS Independence was the lead ship and namesake of the Independence-class light carriers, a rushed but effective class of aircraft carriers built for the U.S. Navy in the early days of the war.  These ships provided invaluable service during World War II but were obsolete by 1945.

NOAA and Boeing teamed to test a new sonar system called "Echo Ranger" to survey the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The resulting imagery of the wreck of the USS. Independence has revealed the wreck in detail. NOAA and Boeing photo

NOAA and Boeing teamed to test a new sonar system called “Echo Ranger” to survey the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The resulting imagery of the wreck of the USS Independence CV-22 has revealed the wreck in detail. NOAA and Boeing photo

As war loomed in early 1941, the U.S. Navy looked for a quick way to acquire aircraft carriers. 52 ships of the Cleveland-class light cruisers had been planned and many of them were already under construction. The U.S. Navy ordered that 9 of the cruiser hulls be converted into light carriers by adding a flight deck over a hanger with a small island. Blisters were added to the hull to compensate for the top weight but the cruiser hulls remained fast with a top speed of almost 32 knots and could keep up with the fleet carriers. The small size of the Independence-class ships meant they could only carry 30 aircraft but when the USS Independence was delivered for service in January 1943, the U.S. Navy had been reduced to only two fleet carriers left in the pacific theater, the overworked USS Enterprise CV-6 that was due for an extensive overhaul and the aging USS Saratoga CV-3.

The Independence-class ships arrived during a critical time in the Pacific war and were immediately put to work. The USS Independence was paired with the newly arrived Essex-class carriers USS Essex and USS Yorktown and for much of 1943 conducted hit and run raids to deplete Japanese airpower throughout the pacific. The second ship of the class, USS Princeton arrived in February 1943 and was paired with the elderly USS Saratoga to carry out a devastating raid on Rabaul Harbor that neutralized the threat of a Japanese heavy cruiser squadron. All nine ships were delivered to the U.S. Navy before the end of 1943 compared to only two Essex-class carriers. The 270 aircraft that these small carriers could field between them saw the U.S. Navy through to 1944 when the Essex-class carriers arrived in bulk.

USS Princeton underway and preparing for combat operations in May 1943. U.S. Navy Photo

During 1944, the air war in the Pacific intensified and the Independence-class carriers switched from a strike role to a support role as they were equipped predominately with fighters and a small amount of torpedo bombers. The USS Princeton became the only casualty of the class after being hit by a single Japanese bomb. The damage was minor but the bomb sparked a fire that burned out of control. This revealed a fatal flaw of the class in that unlike the Essex-class carriers, the Independence-class carriers lacked the internal protection for munitions and fuel that was essential for survival in a combat zone. The trade off for a fast conversion was that the Independence-class had almost no armor over the magazines and in many cases, munitions were stored in unprotected spaces and aviation fuel pipes were routed through corridors to the flight deck.

The Cleveland-class light cruiser USS Birmingham coming alongside USS Princeton to assist with damage control efforts after the carrier had been hit by a single bomb. In this picture, you can see the identical hull between the two ships. An explosion aboard the USS Princeton soon after this photo was taken would kill more than 200 sailors aboard the USS Birmingham and caused damage so severe that the USS Birmingham had to return to the United States for repairs. The USS Princeton was scuttled after it was realized the fires on board could not be brought under control. U.S. Navy Photo

After the war, the remaining 8 Independence-class carriers were declared surplus to the needs of the U.S. Navy and were decommissioned. Some were scrapped and others were gifted to other nations. The USS Cabot became the longest living of the class and served with the Spanish navy as the DeDalo until 1989 before being returned to the U.S. Navy in close to her original World War II configuration. An effort to preserve the USS Cabot was started but ultimately failed. The USS Cabot made her final voyage to Brownsville, Texas in 2002 for scrapping. The ship was stripped of many of her original anti-aircraft guns and fittings which went to other museum ships to help preserve them. Today, only the wrecks of the USS Independence and USS Princeton remain of the class.

Up until 2002, the USS Cabot could have been preserved as a museum but no home was ever found for the ship. Here, Spanish AV-8 Harriers fly past the Cabot in Spanish service. National Archives Photo

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