The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2000, Volume 46, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

U.S.S. Saratoga (CV3): An Illustrated History of the Legendary Aircraft Carrier 1927-1946

By John Fry. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1996. Photos, notes, 176 pp. $39.95 Hardcover.

Reviewed by Mark Allen, Editor of the San Diego Maritime Museum’s quarterly, Mains’l Haul: A Journal of Pacific Maritime History.

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In the morning hours of December 7, 1941, tugs nudged the largest ship yet to visit San Diego into place alongside a newly-built pier on North Island. As the U.S.S. Saratoga’s sailors threw the first lines to shore, they were interrupted by an unforgettable message crackling over the PA system: “War has been declared with Japan – air raid on Pearl Harbor.” Nearby, her tactical officer was interrupted in an equally characteristic peacetime naval activity, on the sixth hole at Coronado. Still in his golf shoes, he spent the rest of Sunday working frenetically at his desk to get the carrier back to sea. Into the night, author John Fry tells us, San Diegans stood by the bay and watched as boats ferried sailors to North Island from downtown. Saratoga sailed the next day into the war’s precarious beginning, encountering a Japanese torpedo, four Kamikaze hits, and another torpedo to end the war as the oldest remaining American carrier. It is fitting that Saratoga’s war began in San Diego, for although she was home-ported in Long Beach, the veteran ship and her crew had significant local connections.

John Fry, a San Diegan whose father and two uncles served aboard “Sara,” has written an exhaustive biography of the ship, salted with anecdotes and richly illustrated with photographs, not infrequently taken at sea off Coronado. Overshadowed by her famous sister Lexington, the Saratoga has been the subject of no previous books or articles, despite the fact that “Lady Lex” and “Sister Sara” were the first American carriers launched. (Only the Langley, based at North Island, preceded them — and it was a vessel converted from ferrying coal to carrying aircraft.) The author’s chronological format in which each chapter is devoted to events under successive captains is logical, and while sometimes numbing, the emphasis on recurring events highlights incidents one might otherwise ignore. Familiar to anyone who’s ever served on a flattop but astonishing to the rest of us is the sheer number of crashes aboard, a natural result of the mad but useful idea of mating an aircraft to a pitching deck. The nation’s first fatal carrier accident took place aboard Sara off San Diego in 1931, belying her nickname “Ship of Happy Landings,” and the book is filled with reminders that there is nothing routine about “routine carrier operations,” in peace or war.

Saratoga’s twenty-one years spanned an aeon in the history of naval aviation. Launched in 1925 to carry biplanes and homing pigeons, she was sunk by a nuclear weapon. She was actually designed as a battle cruiser, but in one of history’s small ironies, the pioneering arms control treaty of 1921 required that she be finished instead as an apparently innocuous new type of vessel, the “airplane carrier.” The chapters on her prewar career chronicle the wargames known as “fleet problems,” whose essential problem lay in steering admirals away from battleships and toward an awareness of the potential of air power. Saratoga herself ultimately fell victim to new airborne technology, for in 1946 she was anchored among the obsolescent ships at Bikini Atoll as a target for an atomic bomb test.

The 1931 arrival in San Diego of the largest ship yet built in North America was a major event, for her visit was the fruit of decades of local striving to deepen the shallow natural harbor for an anticipated flood of seaborne prosperity. Her connections to the region were fourfold, including visits, the flight operations training which primarily occurred off Coronado, and the boot camp experience of many of her personnel — Fry’s father and uncles among them — in San Diego. Most significant was the fact that her aircraft were based on North Island, flying out to join her at sea, then returning after every cruise. North Island was thus, for aircrews, literally a short hop away from the Pacific Theater. This wartime connectedness of San Diego to American success in the Pacific is reinforced in the story of the Sara’s Jimmy Thach working out the “Thach weave” — aerial tactics crucial to defending against formidable early-war Japanese fighters — with matchsticks on his Coronado kitchen table. Certainly many a faraway flier longed to see the familiar landmark of Point Loma and touch down on solid ground, whether after enduring grueling combat in the skies over Guadalcanal, Rabaul and Iwo Jima, or merely the rigors of “routine” carrier operations.

Saratoga’s biography fills a niche for both naval aviation enthusiasts and readers interested in the key role San Diego played in the history of naval aviation on the Pacific coast. As with most ship biographies, the thick layer of factual detail does not quite mask the sentimental attachment beneath. “Strange how we could get so sentimental about an inanimate object — a bunch of steel, nuts and bolts,” a crew member recalled, feelings which reflect memories of being young and sheltering with thousands of shipmates between the thin steel walls that protected them from the Pacific.

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