War requires the use of a variety of machines, from submarines and aircraft to battleships and cruisers. But carriers are often the centerpiece of modern combat fleets. The aircraft carrier is an incredible warship that serves as a seagoing airbase equipped with a full-length flight deck and facilities for carrying, arming, deploying, and recovering aircraft. Carriers were once wooden vessels that evolved during the twentieth century. The carriers in this article, most of which saw the majority of their action during World War II, are from multiple navies and were sunk during their incredible service.
Aircraft carriers can be classified according to the type of aircraft they carry and their operational assignments. Escort carriers are small, slow, cheap and could be built quickly. Fleet carriers are medium-sized and were designed to operate with the main fleet of a nation’s navy. Light carriers are smaller than standard carriers and similar in concept to an escort carrier but were intended for higher speeds. Throughout WWII all of these types were active and many were sunk in epic fashion. Stick around to end of the article to learn about the one that was amazingly recovered just this year…
USS Saratoga was a Lexington-class 91-aircraft fleet carrier that was a part of the Pacific Fleet for her entire career. It was originally designed as a battlecruiser but was converted by the US Navy to comply with the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which was a treaty among the winners of WWI that limited the construction of battlecruisers. The Saratoga, along with other ships discussed in this article, was used to develop and refine carrier tactics prior to World War II, and was active throughout most of that conflict.
It survived multiple battles and attacks, like its involvement in the surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After Pearl Harbor, it became the centerpiece of unsuccessful efforts to relieve Wake Island where it was torpedoed by Japanese submarines. It bounced back and even sunk an enemy carrier during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, but it was torpedoed again. Following the Battle of Iwo Jima, where it was damaged by kamikazes, it was sunk as a target during nuclear weapons tests in Operation Crossroads. She received the American Defense Service Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with 8 battle stars and the WWII Victory Medal.
USS America was a 79-aircraft fleet carrier. It was around for over half a century and traveled all over the world. She spent time in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, made three Pacific deployments during the Vietnam War and also served in the Persian Gulf War’s operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It was one of three Kitty Hawk-class supercarriers built for the United States Navy in the ‘60s.
She was the first large aircraft carrier to be expended in weapons tests after the previous mentioned Operation Crossroads, which was was a pair of controlled nuclear explosions conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll. USS America was scuttled after being used as a target in 2005. This decision was met with protests from former crew members who wanted her to be instituted as a memorial museum. She is the largest warship ever to be sunk.
HMS Hermes was a 20-aircraft British fleet carrier that was the world’s first ship to be designed as an aircraft carrier. Hermes served briefly with the Atlantic Fleet but was then assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet where she worked with other carriers to develop multi-carrier tactics. She also conducted anti-submarine patrols and hunted German commerce raiders and blockade runners during WWII. Hermes was eventually attacked and sunk by several dozen Japanese dive bombers.
Chitose was a 30-aircraft Imperial Japanese Navy light carrier used during World War II. Above is an image of its original form as a seaplane tender that carried Kawanishi E7K Type 94 “Alf” and Nakajima E8N Type 95 “Dave” floatplanes. Chitose saw many naval actions, participated in the Battle of Midway and was bombed by B-17 Flying Fortresses off Davao, Philippines. After surviving these attacks, she was finally sunk by torpedo bombers during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
USS Yorktown was a huge 90-aircraft fleet carrier that was named after 1781’s Battle of Yorktown. She was the lead ship of her class and had an upgraded design. Yorktown was active between 1937 and 1942 when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine during the Battle of Midway. It received two of its three battle stars for helping stop the Japanese expansion. She also has an American Campaign Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and a WWII Victory Medal.
USS Block Island was a Bogue-class escort carrier that was named after Block Island Sound off Rhode Island. It could hold 24 aircraft and operated as a part of an anti-submarine hunter-killer group. She was eventually torpedoed off the Canary Islands in 1944 by the German submarine U-549, making it the only American carrier sunk in the Atlantic during World War II. It received two battle stars for its service.
HMS Ark Royal was a 60-aircraft fleet carrier of the Royal Navy that was active during World War II. Her design was different from previous carriers, as its hangers and flight deck were an integral part of the superstructure. Ark Royal was involved in many crucial conflicts, including WWII’s first aerial and U-boat attacks, operations off Norway and the Malta Convoys. While the “lucky ship” survived many battles, she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-81.
Shinyo was a 27-aircraft Imperial Japanese Navy escort carrier whose name means Divine Hawk. She was converted from the German ocean liner Scharnhorst after the Battle of Midway. The conversions took around a year between 1942 and 1943 and she entered service as a convoy escort in the western Pacific. Shinyo served for less than a year before being torpedoed by the US submarine Spadefish. Her aviation fuel tanks were detonated and the resulting explosion sank the ship.
USS Gambier Bay was a Casablanca-class escort carrier that could hold one more aircraft than the USS Bismarck Sea, which is discussed later. It took part in the Battle off Samar during the battle of Leyte Gulf. She was sunk by Japanese surface ships of center force, making it the only American aircraft carrier sunk by enemy surface gunfire during World War II. It received four battle stars and the award of the Presidential Unit Citation to “Taffy 3” for extraordinary heroism.
USS Hornet was a 90-aircraft fleet carrier that was the seventh ship to be named Hornet. It was a Yorktown-class ship that was launched by the United States Navy and participated in the Battle of Midway and the Buin-Faisi-Tonolai Raid. She was hit by Japanese torpedo bombers and dive bombers from Japanese Fast Carriers. After failed attempts to scuttle the Hornet she was eventually sunk by the Japanese destroyers Makigumo and Akigumo. It received four stars for its service.
Akagi was a 66-aircraft Japanese fleet carrier built and used by the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was named after Mount Akagi. She was the second Japanese carrier to enter service and participated in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Pacific War, the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the invasion of Rabaul and the conquest of the Dutch East Indies. She was scuttled after being damaged during the Battle of Midway.
USS Independence was a light carrier that could hold 30 aircraft and was the lead ship of her class. It was converted from the hull of a cruiser by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation. The Independence was active in the attacks on Rabaul and Tarawa before being torpedoed by Japanese Aircraft. She was used as a target during Operation Crossroads atomic bomb tests and received an impressive eight battle stars for her service.
USS Langley was a seaplane tender that could hold 34 aircraft. It was converted from the collier USS Jupiter and was the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier and their first turbo-electric-powered ship. In 1942 she was attacked by nine twin-engine Japanese dive bombers and was so badly damaged that she had to be scuttled by torpedoes and gunfire from escorting ships. It received four battle stars for its service.
HMS Courageous was a 48-aircraft fleet carrier was the lead ship of the Courageous-class cruisers built for the Royal Navy during World War I. She was designed to support the Baltic Project. The ship was very lightly armoured and armed with only a few heavy guns. It patrolled the North Sea and participated in the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight. She was eventually converted, used, torpedoed and sunk during WWII.
USS Liscome Bay was an escort carrier that could hold 28 aircraft. She was a Casablanca-class ship that was the only one to be named after Liscome Bay. It departed from San Diego, CA to Pearl Harbor in 1943. She ended up in the invasion of the Gilbert Islands and was eventually torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese submarine I-175. It received one battle star for its service.
USS Princeton was a light carrier that could hold 45 aircraft. It was an Independence-class ship that was the fourth with its name. She was launched in 1942, active in the Pacific Ocean and participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. Unfortunately, it was sunk by a land-based Japanese bomber. She earned 9 battle stars and one of its service flags was rededicated in 2004.
Hiryū was a 53-aircraft Imperial Japanese Navy fleet carrier whose name means Flying Dragon. She supported the Japanese invasion of French Indochina and the conquest of the Dutch East Indies, took part in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Wake Island, and her aircraft bombed Darwin, Australia and helped sink two British heavy cruisers and several merchant ships during the Indian Ocean raid. She was bombed and set afire in the Battle of Midway.
USS St. Lo was a 28-aircraft Casablanca-class escort carrier. Its first name was Chapin Bay, then Midway and was finally named after the town of Saint-Lo in Normandy, France. She was sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf and became the first major warship to sink as the result of a kamikaze attack. She received the Presidential Unit Citation for the heroism of her crew in the Battle off Samar and four battle stars for her service.
USS Wasp was a large 76-aircraft fleet carrier that was lost in action in 1942. She was the eighth ship with this name and was a reduced version of the Yorktown-class hull. This made it more vulnerable than most other United States carriers of that time. She was initially a part of the Atlantic campaign but was transferred to the Pacific where she was sunk by the Japanese submarine I-19.
Akitsu Maru was an 8-aircraft escort carrier that the Imperial Japanese Army also used as a landing craft depot ship. The former passenger liner is considered to be one of the first amphibious assault ships. She was torpedoed off the entrance to Manila Bay by the United States submarine Crevalle and was sunk by the US submarine Queenfish in 1944.
HMS Audacity was an 8-aircraft British escort carrier used by the Royal Navy during World War II. She was the first of her kind. Before becoming an aircraft carrier, she was originally the captured German merchant ship Hannover that was renamed Sinbad before being converted and commissioned as HMS Empire Audacity. It was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in late 1941.
HMS Avenger was a Royal Navy 15-aircraft escort carrier used during World War II. She took part in the largest and most successful Russian convoy of that time, as well as Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. On her way home, 9 hours after leaving, she was sunk by the German submarine U-155.
Kaga was a 72-aircraft fleet carrier used by the Imperial Japanese Navy. She was originally intended to be one of two Tosa-class battleships but was rebuilt to increase her top speed, improve her exhaust systems, and adapt her flight decks to more modern, heavier aircraft. The ship was active during the Pacific War, the Shanghai Incident, the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pearl Harbor raid. It was scuttled after the Battle of Midway.
HMS Eagle was an early 30-aircraft Royal Navy fleet carrier. She was initially assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet, then later to the China Station and spent the first nine months of WWII in the Indian Ocean searching for German commerce raiders. She was eventually sunk by the German submarine U-73 in 1942 while escorting a convoy to Malta during Operation Pedestal.
HMS Glorious was a 48-aircraft fleet carrier used by the Royal Navy during World War I. She was the second of the three Courageous-class battlecruisers that was designed to support the Baltic Project. Like the other ships in this class, Glorious was relatively lightly armed and armored. After being called home from the Indian Ocean to support operations in Norway, she was sunk by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the North Sea.
Ryūjō was a 48-aircraft Imperial Japanese Navy light carrier whose name means Prancing Dragon. It was built small and lightly to exploit a loophole in the previously discussed Washington Naval Treaty. But due to issues with her construction she was rebuilt and employed for multiple battles. It was sunk by an American carrier aircraft at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons.
HMS Biter was an escort carrier that launched on December 28, 1939, commissioned in the Royal Navy on May 6, 1942, then sold to France and eventually renamed Dixmude. The Biter could hold 21 aircraft and spent its final days in the Mediterranean Sea. It was sunk as a target ship by the United States Navy in 1966.
Aquila was an Italian fleet carrier that was converted from the trans-Atlantic passenger liner SS Roma in the early ‘40s. Due to the signing of the Italian armistice, which stipulated the surrender of Italy to the Allies, all work on the 51-aircraft ship stopped and it was never finished. It was eventually sunk by Italian divers to prevent it from being used as a blockship by the Germans.
Unryū was a 57-aircraft fleet carrier that was the lead ship of her class in the Imperial Japanese Navy. Fuel and aircrew shortages limited her use after she was commissioned in 1944. In preparation for the American invasion of Luzon the IJN ordered her to transport aircraft and supplies to the Philippines. Unryū was eventually sunk after being torpedoed by the American submarine Redfish.
Bismarck Sea was a Casablanca-class escort carrier that could hold 27 aircraft. She was launched on April 17, 1944 under the name Alikula Bay but was renamed when she was transferred to, and commission by, the US Navy a month later. After escorting convoys from San Diego to the Marshall Islands it took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima where it was sunk by two Japanese kamikaze aircraft.
Graf Zeppelin was a 42-aircraft German fleet carrier that was laid down on December 28, 1936 and launched on December 8, 1938. It was never actually operational and was eventually sunk by The Soviet Union as a target ship on August 16, 1947. She was later discovered in 2006 by a Polish oil ship.
Taihō was a 65-aircraft fleet carrier of the Imperial Japanese Navy whose name means Great Phoenix. She was built by Kawasaki at Kobe with heavy belt armor and an armored flight deck, which was a first for any Japanese carrier. She was sunk by the American submarine USS Albacore during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944.
Sparveiro was a light carrier that could hold 34 aircraft. The Italian ship started out as the ocean liner MS Augustus. The conversion began in 1942 but was never completed or delivered to the Regia Marina. It was sunk by the Germans in order to block Italy’s Genova Harbor.
USS Oriskany was a giant 91-aircraft fleet carrier that was nicknamed “Mighty O” and “The O-boat.” She was one of the few Essex-class aircraft carriers and was named after the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Oriskany. Unlike many of the ships in this article, it was sunk in order to become an artificial reef after decades of service.
Shōkaku was a large 72-aircraft fleet carrier that was the lead ship of her Imperial Japanese Navy class. The Soaring Crane took part in several key naval battles during the Pacific War, including the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. She was eventually torpedoed and sunk by a United States submarine at the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
Zuikaku was a giant 72-aircraft Shōkaku-class fleet carrier of the Imperial Japanese Navy. She was one of six carriers involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor and fought in several of the most important naval battles of the war. Zuikaku was the last of those six to be sunk when it was hit by aircraft from US Navy Task Force 38 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Zuihō was a 30-aircraft light carrier of the Imperial Japanese Navy whose name means Auspicious Phoenix or Fortunate Phoenix. She participated in many operations during World War II including the Battle of Midway, the Guadalcanal Campaign and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. It was used as a decoy during the Leyte Gulf battles and sunk by American aircraft.
USS Lexington was a massive fleet carrier that could hold an amazing 91 aircraft. She was nicknamed “Lady Lex” and “Gray Lady” and was the lead ship of her class. It was originally designed as a battlecruiser but later converted and entered service as a part of the Pacific Fleet. She was sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. The shipwreck was finally found in 2018…
Lost and Found
The research vessel RV Petrel discovered the USS Lexington with a remotely operated underwater vehicle during an expedition to the Coral Sea. It’s nearly two miles below the surface and around 430 nautical miles off the coast of Queensland. The ROV identified the carrier with a view of its nameplate on the stern, seen above. They also found multiple aircraft consisting of seven Devastators, three Dauntlesses and a single Wildcat.