The Last Hours of the USS Langley

80-G-185870: USS Langley (CV 1), starboard bow, at French Frigate Shoals, October 27, 1937. U.S. Navy photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. (2015/12/22).

The Last Hours of the USS Langley February 22, 1942: USS Langley departed Fremantle in the company of the freighter Sea Witch and the steamers Duntroon and Katoomba. Sea Witch carried twenty-seven Curtiss P-40’s, disassembled and crated-up below decks, while Langley carried thirty-two assembled P-40;s, already fueled, as deck cargo, along with thirty-three USAAF pilots and twelve USAAF enlisted men as passengers. The entire convoy was under the escort of the cruiser USS Phoenix, and was to proceed to Ceylon, via the Cocos Islands, south of the Sunda Strait, at which point Langley and Sea Witch would detach, and reverse direction to the north-east, for Tjilatap on the south coast of Java. Here special preparations, including the felling of trees and demolition of native homes, had been taken to make space for the P-40’s to taxi, take-off and land.

February 23,1942. In a change of plan, Admiral Helfrich, who had assumed effective command of all ABDACOM forces, ordered both Langley and Sea Witch to detach from the convoy, and proceed direct, at best speed to Tjilatap. Admiral Glassford, commander of the US Asiatic Fleet, was only informed of this decision after the fact, but subsequently endorsed it. The same day, Helfrich partially rescinded his order. And Sea Witch was directed to proceed with the convoy, and detach, as planned, off Cocos Island. Langley, however, was ordered to proceed direct to Tjilatap at flank speed.

80-G-185885: USS Langley (CV 1) during conversion, port side, while at Norfolk Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia, May 9, 1921. U.S. Navy photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. (2015/12/22).

February 26, 1942. 3 pm, local time. Langley makes first contact with ABDACOM forces, in the form of two Dutch PBY flying boats. They advise Langley’s captain, Commander R.P. McConnell USN, that the Dutch minesweeper Willem Van der Zaan, currently twenty miles to the west, will rendezvous with the aircraft tender. And escort her to Tjilatap. However, McConnell had already been advised by Admiral Glassford that two USN destroyers, Whipple and Edsall, whose accumulated damage had precluded them sailing with the ABDAFLOAT striking force to intercept the Japanese’s western invasion convoy, were to act as Langley’s escort. On his own initiative, McConnell disregarded the rendezvous with the Willem Van der Zaan, and proceeded towards Tjilatap, steering a zigzag pattern at 13 knots, in the expectation of rendezvousing with the two destroyers at 0600 local time, on February 27.

February 26, 1942. After dark. McConnell receives revised orders from Glassford, directs him to follow Helfrich’s orders and accept escort by Willem Van der Zaan and (conditions permitting)   Dutch PBY’s. McConnell duly reverses course, away from Tjilatap, for some eight hours, to search for his erstwhile escort, which he believes has been following him at its’ best speed of ten knots.

February 27, 1942. 0700, local time, McConnell sights the lights of an unidentified ship, and puts his helm hard over to starboard, steering into a rain squall. After Langley emerges from the squall, there is no ship in sight, and McConnell continues to retrace his course, when, at 0720, he sights the two PBY’s that he had encountered the previous afternoon. Most unexpectedly, they are circling over Edsall and Whipple, which had not only overtaken the Langley during the night, but were now approximately 200 miles SSE of where McConnell had originally expected to rendezvous with them an hour before. This discrepancy has never been adequately explained.

80-G-433311: President Warren G. Harding, with Commander Whiting, USN; Secretary Work and Rear Admiral William Moffet on the flight deck of USS Langley (CV 1), 1921-23. Photograph received October 2, 1951. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. (2016/12/20).

Battle of Jutland

February 27, 1942, 0720, local time. Edsall advises Langley that she is in contact with a suspected enemy submarine, so the aircraft tender, under escort by Whipple, executes a six-mile radius circle around Edsall’s position, and reverses course towards Tjilatap. Shortly after, Edsall abandons her hunt for the submarine contact, and rejoins the other two ships, with the two destroyers taking up station, one on either of  Langley’s bows, to act as her screen.

February 27, 1942, 0900, local time. Langley’s lookout sighted a Kawanishi H6K flying-boat shadowing the American ships. McConnell immediately requests fighter cover. His request coincided with one from Admiral Doorman, commanding the striking force in the Java Sea. Glassford had no fighters under his control. Helfrich had control of both the surviving Dutch Brewster Buffalos and USAAF P-40’s. At that moment, however, the P-40’s were committed to escorting USAAF strikes against the western invasion convoy, north of Java, (during which operation ten of the P-40’s actually encountered  the spotter planes for Admiral Takagi’s cruisers, but declined to engage them) and Helfrich declined to send any Buffalos to McConnell’s aid. This despite that Helfrich was directly responsible for prioritizing Langley’s arrival at Tjilatap and detaching her from the convoy for the lone dash to the port.

February 27, 11.40 am, local time. Nine Mitsubishi G4M bombers of the 11th Air Fleet attacked in formation from 15,000 feet. Langley proceeded to zigzag, while McConnell gave the command “Commence firing”, and then ordered “Full right rudder” as the enemy made their first run.

Radioman Charles A. Snay made a signal: “Langley being attacked by sixteen (sic) aircraft.”

McConnell’s evasive action was successful, and the first stick of bombs landed approximately 100 yards off Langley’s port bow. Langley resumed her zigzag, the Japanese circled for their second run, undeterred by the American’s scanty anti-aircraft fire. As the bombers passed overhead, McConnell ordered full right rudder again, but this time no bombs were dropped. The leader of the Japanese formation had, by now divined, McConnell’s tactics, and as they came in on the third run, he accurately second-guessed the American captain.

McConnell obviously had the option to turn to the right again, or break the pattern and order a port rudder. It was a gamble, and McConnell bet the wrong way, assuming that his adversary would expect him to break to the left this time. Instead, McConnell ordered the full right rudder for a third time. However, instead of being thrown off, the Japanese anticipated the maneuver, and were already matching the turn as Langley’s helm went over.

Seven bombs were dropped in the third run; two straddled the ship. The other five were direct hits, as follows:

View of the hangar of the United States Navy’s first aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV-1) during the 1920s. The larger plane in the foreground is a Douglas DT torpedo bomber, with its wings removed. Other aircraft are Vought VE-7s of Fighter Squadron 2 (VF-2), including BuNos A5936 (marked “2-F-9”) and A5938 (marked “2-F-8”). The ship’s boats are stowed along the hangar sides.

1. Hit aft motorboat, and started fires in two other motorboats and on deck.

2. Set fire to the deck cargo of P-40’s, and to other boats and rafts.

3. Hit port after elevator, destroying more aircraft, and starting further fires. The aircraft caught fire, but did not explode, as Langley’s crew had drained the full fuel tanks during the interval between their sighting by the Japanese flying boat and the attack.

4. Struck the supports for the port uptake and destroyed more aircraft on deck.

5. Struck the flight deck aft on the starboard side, destroying the officers quarters and exploding on the lower deck.

Langley briefly lost radio communication as the power supply was severed, but the operators switched to battery power. The fire mains were cut on the upper deck, with the starboard main wrecked beyond repair. The hull was pierced through, and the ship was taking on water, and soon had a 10 degree list to port, which was increasing rapidly. McConnell ordered the wrecked aircraft on the port side pushed overboard , in an effort to lighten the ship, but to no effect. The engine room was flooded, telephones were out throughout the ship, the gyro compass was out of action, and helm control was moved aft, to the emergency steering position, then forward to the wheelhouse once, in a vain attempt to bring Langley under control, and beach her at the nearest point on the Java coast.

Despite a continuing stream of apparently upbeat radio transmissions to the outside world, with the engineering officer reporting four feet of water in the port motor pit, no power for his guns, his ship ablaze from end to end, and with no means of fighting the fires, Commander McConnell really had no choice when issuing his next command,

“Prepare to abandon ship. Pass the word.”

Although this command strictly meant that the officers were only meant to inspect the boats and rafts, and warn the men of the danger, as often proved to be the case in WW2, its ambiguous wording led many men to panic, and start jumping overboard. Fortunately for many of Langley’s crew, the Edsall observed what was happening, and closed to pick up survivors. Luckily for men going over the stern, at this point Langley’s engines stopped, as the machinery spaces flooded.

Being abandoned after receiving crippling damage from Japanese bombs, south of Java, 27 February 1942. USS Edsall (DD-219) is standing by off Langley’s port side. Photographed from USS Whipple (DD-217). Courtesy of Captain Lawrence E. Divoll, USN(Retired), 1981. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 92472

Langley continued to transmit all during the action, reporting hits on the flight deck, the aircraft stowed there, the well deck, which was reported to be filled with fumes from leaking aviation fuel. There was also a reference to the enemy tactics, stating that the “Jap planes were…too high for our guns.” The operators retained their sense of humor throughout, though. One signal, which probably mystified both the listening Dutch and Japanese, read:

“We are all okay so far…Mama said there would be days like this, she must have known…”

Langley’s penultimate signal concluded:
“…shot to hell..”

It was followed by:

“Signing off.”

February 27, 13.32, local time. On the bridge, Commander McConnell ordered “Abandon Ship.” Two relatively undamaged boats, which had survived the fourth Japanese attack, a strafing running at low-level were lowered, while the wounded were placed in a motor launch, only for the davits to give way at one end, spilling the men into the sea; the davit supports had been severed by shrapnel. 

Sinking, after being bombed south of Java, 27 February 1942. Photographed from USS WHIPPLE (DD-217).

The boats were followed by seven life rafts, and two balsa rafts. After an inspection to see that no-one living remained aboard, and having assured themselves that all confidential books, papers and charts had been thrown overboard, McConnell and his executive officer followed the crew over the side. The executive boarded No. 4 motor launch, and joined the USS Edsall and her whaleboat in searching for survivors in the water. Commander McConnell boarded the Whipple, where he conferred with the destroyer’s captain, Lt.Cmdr E.S. Karpe. They agreed that the Langley must be sunk.

The Whipple fired nine 4” shells into Langley’s waterline, followed by two torpedoes.

The list increased, the Langley keeled over, and the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier sank, just seventy-five miles from her destination, a distance that could have been more than covered under darkness, if she had not been ordered to reverse course. Admiral Glassford prepared a report in which he implied Langley’s abandonment was premature, but the damage she incurred would have (and did) sink many much larger and more modern ships during the war. If McConnell can be criticized in the handling of his ship, it could only be for being obliged to obey contradictory orders against his better judgment. That final fatal helm order was just the toss of a coin, and could have gone either way.

The SS Sea Witch, following the original routing for herself and Langley, without incident, made her arrival at Tjilatjap on schedule, and discharged her cargo intact, before returning safely to Australia with a consignment of evacuees.

The Last Hours of the USS Langley Written by Hadrian Jeffs

The Last Hours of the USS Langley Sources:

Battle of the Java Sea: Thomas, D; 1968

The Lonely Ships: The Life and Death of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet; Hoyt, E.P.: 1976

Fall of Afghanistan The Last Hours of the USS Langley

The Last Hours of the USS Langley