The first U.S. Navy ship designed and built from the keel up as an aircraft carrier took less than three years to complete.
But when the USS Ranger (CV-4) slid down the ways at Newport News Shipbuilding on Feb. 25, 1933, the pioneering flattop incorporated more than a decade of design studies and a dozen years of experience with three previous vessels that had been converted to carry and launch airplanes.
It also reflected the Navy's early struggle to determine the best size for this new kind of warship -- and its willingness to experiment in order to come up with the right answer.
At only 769 feet long and 15,758 tons in displacement, the Ranger was a $15.2-million gamble on smaller, more efficiently designed aircraft carriers that could carry nearly the same number of aircraft as the larger and earlier USS Lexington and USS Saratoga, which had been converted from cruisers.
It also incorporated such innovative features as a flush flight deck with no island and six side-mounted folding smokestacks, not to mention the crucial introduction of the open hangar deck.
Still, as naval architect and historian William A. Fox notes in "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships," the Navy backtracked during construction, adding an island superstructure on the Ranger's starboard side.
That changed gave it a weight and balance problem that dogged the ship all its life.
Nevertheless, the one-of-a-kind flattop played a critical role during World War II, when it served as the largest and most capable aircraft carrier in the U.S. Atlantic fleet.
Overhauled at the Norfolk Navy Yard in early 1942, the Ranger made its first mark as a ferry when it delivered 140 Army P-40 Warhawk fighters to Africa in two quick, successive voyages from New England.
Later that year, it led a task force of four smaller escort carriers in support of Operation Torch during the Allied invasion of North Africa. Conducting nearly 500 sorties, its F4 Wildcat fighters and SBD Dauntless dive bombers destroyed 85 enemy aircraft and sank a battleship as well as damaging a cruiser and destroyer, earning the Ranger the nickname "The Mighty R."
After another overhaul at Norfolk in late 1942 and early 1943, the carrier ferried 75 more P-40s to Africa before returning to New England and serving as a training vessel. It also sailed with the British Home Fleet off the Orkney Islands, where its planes sortied out to score numerous successes against German shipping.
During the remainder of the war, the smaller, slower Ranger served as both an aircraft ferry and training vessel in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, including night flight training and operations off San Diego and Pearl Harbor.
It was decommissioned on Oct. 18, 1946 and sold for scrap in 1947.
-- Mark St. John EricksonCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun