Under the Washington Treaty the US Navy was allowed to convert two incomplete 33,000-ton battle-cruisers into aircraft-carriers. The ships chosen were the Lexington and Saratoga, and the opportunity was taken to incorporate many ideas from a cancelled carrier design of 1919. When completed in 1925 the USS Lexington (CV.2) was a remarkable ship, with a massive 'island' superstructure on the starboard side, flanked by two twin 203-mm (8-in) gun turrets forward and two aft. At the time of Pearl Harbor the ship was delivering aircraft to the US Marines on Midway Island, and so escaped the disaster. She was hurriedly refitted, losing her cumbersome 203-mm (8-in) guns and four 127-mm (5-in) guns, although she received a few single 20-mm Oerlikon guns to supplement her meagre close-range anti-aircraft armament.
The Lexington's first operation was an abortive attempt to relieve Wake Island immediately after Pearl Harbor, but at the end of January 1942 she provided distant cover for a raid on the Marshall Islands and thereafter saw limited action in the South West Pacific. Not until she was joined by the newer carrier Yorktown in March 1942 did the Lexington really begin to flex her muscles. After a short refit at Pearl Harbor the ship returned to the Coral Sea, where the Japanese carriers were supporting an attack on Port Moresby, New Guinea. On 8 May her Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers attacked the Shokaku and Zuikaku, but without scoring any hits. Unfortunately while this attack was in progress a Japanese counter-strike succeeded in hitting the Lexington with two torpedoes on the port side, and the ship also suffered two bomb hits and several near misses. The 'whip' of the 270.7 -m (888-ft) hull from the explosions ruptured the aviation gasoline tanks, so that even after the fires had been extinguished the lethal vapour continued to seep through the ship. About an hour after the attack a chance spark ignited this vapour, and the ship began to suffer a series of devastating internal explosions. Six hours after the first hit the order was given to abandon ship, and after escorting destroyers had rescued as many of her crewmen as possible the blazing wreck was torpedoed. Surprisingly only 216 lives out of 2,951 were lost. In her short war career the Lexington had failed to inflict severe damage on the enemy, largely as a result of the inexperience of her air group and because of faulty tactical US Navy doctrine, and the loss of a big carrier was a heavy price to pay for the Coral Sea victory.
Specification USS Lexington (CV.2)
Displacement: 36,000 tons standard, 47,700 tons full load
Dimensions: length 270.66m (888 ft 0 in) overall; beam 39.62 m (130 ft 0 in) over flight deck; draught 9,75 m (32 ft 0 in)
Machinery: 4-shaft steam turboelectric delivering 156660kW (210,000 shp)
Speed: 34 knots
Armour: belt 152 mm (6 in); flight deck 25 mm (1 in); main deck 51 mm (2 in); lower deck 25-76 mm (1-3 in);
turrets 38-76 mm (1.5-3 in); barbettes 152 mm (6 in)
Armament: (in 1942) eight 127-mm (5- in) AA, 30 20-mm AA and six quadruple 27.94-mm (1.1-in) AA guns
Aircraft: (1942) 22 fighters, 36 divebombers and 12 torpedo-bombers
Complement: 2,951 officers and enlisted men