The USS Ranger and USS Wasp: America’s early carriers in the Battle of the Atlantic

Of the US Navy’s pre-war force of eight aircraft carriers, only two, the USS Ranger and the USS Wasp, were to see action in the Atlantic, both played crucial roles during the early and desperate days of World War Two.

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Pre-WWII US Navy flat hats from USS Ranger and USS Wasp

The name for the USS Ranger (CV-4) had a long tradition in the US Navy ever since the 18-gun sloop commanded by John Paul Jones in the Revolutionary war. CV-4 was commissioned into service on June 4, 1934. Unlike other US carriers, Ranger was the first aircraft carrier that was built and designed as a carrier and not converted from other ships. The Ranger was small, designed to displace 13,800 tons as opposed to the larger Yorktown class carriers of close to 20,000 tons. The tonnage of the CV-4 was later raised to14,500 when an island was added onto the design. Since the United States was adhering to the Washington Naval Treaty, a carrier of CV-4’s size would allow for five more similar sized carriers to be made and the US wanted numbers more than size. The Ranger had six boilers which vented up in the aft part of the ship and three aircraft elevators, and was the first US Navy ships to be armed with light automatic weapons to defend against dive bombers.

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The USS Ranger

The first USS Wasp was a merchant schooner purchased by the Continental Navy in 1775, 161 years and 6 different Wasps later, the eighth USS Wasp (CV-7) was laid down in 1936 and commissioned in 1940. Built to be under 15,000 tons, the USS Wasp, like the Ranger, was the only ship of its class. To save space for a larger complement of airplanes, the Wasp was constructed with lower power machinery, less armor, and without side protection from torpedoes. The Wasp did have a modern feature, being the first carrier to boast a deck edge elevator.

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View of the Wasp’s deck edge elevator

Both the USS Ranger and the USS Wasp spent their early lives protecting American interests mostly between the Caribbean, the East Coast of America and the Panama Canal. In April 1941, the United States took a more active role in the European War by expanding its Pan-American Security Zone almost to Iceland, thus allowing American warships to operate in these waters and guard British merchant ships from submarine attack while in American waters.

When America officially entered World War Two, both the USS Ranger and USS Wasp were in the Atlantic. Being smaller, slower and less armored than other American carriers they were kept in the Atlantic where the German, Italian and Vichy French Navies were not as strong as the Japanese.

In December 1941, the Ranger conducted patrols in the Atlantic while the Wasp was part of a task-force sent to Martinique acting on faulty intelligence that French Navy ships in the Caribbean and West Indies would make a breakout attempt to head back to France.

In early 1942, the Ranger ferried P-40E fighter planes to Ghana that would later be sent to the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in China. In May 1942, the Wasp also did ferrying duty, launching Royal Air Force Spitfires from her deck sent to reinforce the RAF presence on the island of Malta. By mid-1942, the US Navy had lost the USS Langley, Lexington and Yorktown, leaving only three US aircraft carriers in the Pacific. The carrier force in the Atlantic was bolstered by four new Sangamon class escort carriers: Sangamon, Suwannee, Chenango and Santee, made from converted from oil tankers. With these new carriers in the Atlantic, Wasp was able to relocate from the Atlantic to assist the American landings at Guadalcanal in the Solomon islands.

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Wildcats and Spitfires on the deck of USS Wasp.

The US Navy suffered more losses to its carrier force in August and September 1942 when the USS Enterprise was damaged in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and the USS Saratoga was hit by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-26 a week later. This left only the USS Hornet and the USS Wasp on operational status.

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Landing Signal officer David McCampbell on the USS Wasp. McCampbell would go on to become the US Navy’s highest scoring ace.

On Tuesday, 15 September 1942, the Wasp and Hornet were providing air cover for transports carrying the 7th Marine Regiment to Guadalcanal as reinforcements. At 2:44 pm a spread of six torpedoes were fired at Wasp by the Japanese submarine I-19 with three torpedoes striking in quick succession near the ship’s gasoline tanks and magazines. Two of the six torpedoes passed ahead of Wasp and one hit the destroyer USS O’Brien (DD-415). The sixth torpedo passed either astern or under Wasp and struck the battleship North Carolina. A rapid succession explosions in the forward part of the ship threw aircraft on the flight and hangar decks into the air and fires broke out in the hangar and below decks. Water mains in the forward part of the ship had been rendered inoperable and uncontrolled fires set off ammunition, bombs, and gasoline. The ship listed 10-15° to starboard and oil and gasoline spilled on the ocean and caught fire. After more explosions and with effort to fight the fires proving ineffectual, the order was given to abandon ship at 3:20 pm and was completed by 4:00 pm and the USS Wasp slipped beneath the waves. The sinking of the USS Wasp left the Navy with the USS Hornet as the only operational carrier in the Pacific until October 24, 1942 when the USS Enterprise returned after repairs.

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The sinking of the USS Wasp.

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Souvenir pillow case from the USS Ranger.

In November 1943, a new Essex class carrier named USS Wasp (CV-18) was launched and served throughout the rest of the war.

The Pacific was not the only place where America started offensives against the enemy. At 06:15 on November 8th, 1942 the USS Ranger, then 30 miles northwest of Casablanca launched her planes to support the American invasion of North Africa. In three days, the carrier launched 496 combat sorties attacking enemy air bases, coastal defenses, troop concentrations and French naval targets.

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Aircraft prepare to take off from the USS Ranger for Operation Torch, the Allied Invasion of North Africa

Since the Germans kept their battleships in port and used their U-boats as their main offensive weapon. The duties of the Ranger were mostly ferrying aircraft to the war-zone and anti-submarine and shipping patrols in the Norwegian Fjords. In 1943, she was reported sunk by U-boat U-404 Commander Otto von Bülow over German radio which was publicly denied by the Americans. By 1944, the Ranger, was seen as outdated for combat use and became a training ship. Although a proposal was made to upgrade the Ranger it was decided the resources would be better used on newer carriers. The Ranger saw the rest of the war as a night fighter training ship and remained the only pre-war US carrier to never have fought the Japanese. When the war ended, the Ranger, along with the Enterprise and Saratoga were the only survivors of the pre-war US Carrier Fleet. The Ranger was decommissioned in October 1946 and sold for scrap in January 1947.

Although their battles were much smaller in scale than other US carriers in the Pacific, the USS Wasp and USS Ranger both played a vital part in the early days of World War Two protecting American and British ships and men before America’s Arsenal of Democracy could get into full gear and overpower the enemy with soldiers and material.

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Pillow cases from the carriers Wasp and Ranger

For More Reading on the USS Wasp and USS Ranger Check Out:

The Battle for Hell’s Island: How a Small Band of Carrier Dive-Bombers Helped Save Guadalcanal

Operation Torch 1942: The invasion of French North Africa (Campaign)

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