USS Langley (CV-1) was built from the USS Jupiter (AD-3; 1910-1920) which was itself originally designed to haul coal as part of the Proteus class of accessory ships. Langley served as an early aircraft carrier from 1922 to 1936. Langley was then converted to a seaplane tender in 1937. Essentially without defenses, Langley was sunk by Japanese aircraft on February 27, 1942 about near Cilacap on the southern shore of central Java.
USS Lexington (CV-2) was originally to be a battle-cruiser, but due to treaty limits became an aircraft carrier which was commissioned in December 1927. She carried 78 planes and was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942.
USS Saratoga (CV-3) like her sister-ship Lexington, Saratoga was originally to be a battle-cruiser, but due to treaty limits became an aircraft carrier which was commissioned in November 1927. Saratoga was at San Diego when the war started, and was en route to Wake when that island fell on December 23. On January 11 while sailing southwest about 420 miles from Hawaii and headed for a rendezvous with USS Enterprise, Saratoga was torpedoed by submarine I-6 (a prototype built in 1935; Saratoga was her key accomplishment) and had to return to Pearl Harbor and later Bremerton for repairs. Saratoga did not join the attack group at Midway, but did haul replacement planes afterwards. With 90 aircraft aboard, Saratoga joined Wasp and Enterprise for the start of the Solomons campaign. Planes from the Saratoga sank the Japanese light carrier Ryujo (capacity about 33 planes) and damaged the seaplane tender Chitose during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons August 24-25. The Japanese attack was focused on the Enterprise. Saratoga was torpedoed (again) on August 31 by I-26. Saratoga reached Pearl Harbor September 21 and was back at sea November 12. Over the next two years Saratoga has collisions with fleet oiler USS Atascosa (AO-66) and destroyer USS Clark (DD-361).
USS Ranger (CV-4) was commissioned in June 1934, and had many of the same limits as the Wasp. Ranger was deemed too slow for use in the Pacific theater so the ship spent most of the war in the Atlantic Ocean. She normally carried 76 airplanes.
USS Yorktown (CV-5) was commissioned in September of 1937 as the lead ship of the Yorktown class. Her design attempted to learn from the lessons of Langley, Ranger and Lexington. Designed to handle 90 planes, she sailed for the Pacific from Hampton Roads in April of 1939. Yorktown was recalled to the Atlantic to perform neutrality patrols from May to December of 1941. When war started for the United States Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga were in the Pacific, while Ranger, Wasp and Hornet were in the Atlantic. Yorktown was ordered back to the Pacific, and reached San Diego on December 30, 1941.
In parallel with the Enterprise’s airstrikes in the Marshal Islands, planes from Yorktown attacked installations in the Gilbert islands. The Yorktown aircraft inflicted moderate damage to the Japanese naval installations on the islands and destroyed three aircraft. The raid was largely a tactical failure as seven Yorktown aircraft were lost, as well as a floatplane from one of the accompanying cruisers. Planes from Lexington and Yorktown on March 10 raided Lae and Salamaua on eastern New Guinea. On May 4 Yorktown’s air group made three consecutive attacks on enemy ships and shore installations at Tulagi and Gavutu on Florida Island in the Solomons, sinking the destroyer IJN Kikuzuki, three minesweepers and four barges. Five seaplanes were destroyed, but Yorktown lost 2 Wildcats (the pilots were recovered) and one torpedo plane (crew lost).
During what became the Battle of the Coral Sea Japanese planes from carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku and Shoho sank the destroyer USS Sims (DD-409) and heavily damaged oiler USS Neosho (AO-23). Yorktown’s and Lexington’s planes found Shoho (a light carrier normally carrying 30 planes) and sank her on May 7th. On May 8 Yorktown planes scored two bomb hits on Shokaku, damaging her flight deck and preventing her from launching aircraft. During the battle Yorktown was damaged, and Lexington was sunk.
A key statistic was the US lost 69 planes while the Japanese lost 92.
One underappreciated outcome of Coral Sea was neither Shokaku nor Zuikaku was available for fighting at Midway. Yorktown was hurriedly repaired at Pearl Harbor, and her planes sank the Japanese carrier Soryu at Midway on June 4. Despite poor attack planning, planes from Enterprise and Hornet sank the Kaga and Akagi. However, the remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, was able to launch a strike of 24 bombers and 6 fighters. Three bombs were hits on Yorktown, and a second wave of planes scored two torpedo hits on Yorktown. In the meantime, planes from Yorktown and Enterprise sank the Hiryu. Yorktown had been abandoned, but salvage crews were put aboard to try and save her. However, despite six nearby destroyers, submarine I-168 launched four torpedoes. Two struck Yorktown and another sank destroyer USS Hammond (DD-412).
USS Enterprise (CV-6) was commissioned in May 1938, was a member of the Yorktown class, and carried 90 planes. After acting as escort to the Hornet for the Doolittle Raid, she missed the Battle of the Coral Sea, but fought with distinction at the Battle of Midway, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (seriously damaged) and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The loss of the Hornet left the damaged Enterprise as the only operational U.S. carrier in the South Pacific. On 13 November, aviators from Enterprise (which was still being repaired at sea until just before the battle) helped to sink the IJN Hiei, the first Japanese battleship lost during the war. After the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal ended on November 15, 1942, Enterprise had shared in sinking sixteen ships and damaging eight more.
USS Wasp (CV-7) was commissioned in April of 1940. Due to treaty limitations Wasp was originally built with almost no armor, less speed than other Yorktown class vessels, and no torpedo protection. During August of 1941 the Wasp ferried fighter planes to Iceland to support the American occupation of that island. Wasp served in the Atlantic theater, including two deliveries of Spitfires to Malta in April and May (and an unfortunate collision with one of her escorts, USS Stack, DD-406, on March 17), until she was ordered to Norfolk in June. Wasp was torpedoed by I-19 (which also sank the destroyer USS O’Brien DD-415 and damaged the battleship USS North Carolina BB-55 in the same salvo) south of the Solomon Islands on September 15 and sunk. She was carrying 62 planes at the time.
USS Hornet (CV-8) was commissioned in October 1941 and launched the B-25s that executed the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942. Normally carrying 72 aircraft, Hornet was too late for the Battle of Coral Sea, but was a key participant at Midway. Bomb damage to Enterprise on 24 August, torpedo damage to Saratoga on 31 August, and the sinking of Wasp on 15 September left Hornet as the only operational U.S. carrier in the South Pacific. The Enterprise was repaired in time for the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (October 26-27), during which Hornet was sunk.