February 21, 1945: USS Saratoga, Candidate for Toughest Ship of World War II

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A Brief History

On February 21, 1945, while supporting the US invasion of Iwo Jima in the Pacific, the US aircraft carrier USS Saratoga CV-3 was struck by 3 Japanese suicide planes known as Kamikaze.  Not only did Saratoga survive those devastating hits, she was also hit by 5 aerial bombs, and suffered extensive damage, 123 men dead and 192 wounded.  Thirty-six of her 70 aircraft were destroyed, and the battle was not yet over!

Digging Deeper

Only 2 hours later, the Japanese returned for another attack on the stricken ship, and Saratoga was hit again, and again refused to go down.  Not only did the big ship not sink, the highly trained and courageous damage control parties put out the fires and the carrier was able to recover 6 of her planes that had been flying during the attack.  Saratoga was sent back to Bremerton, Washington, for repairs, and ended the war as a training carrier.

As you can tell by the designation “CV-3,” the Saratoga was the third US aircraft carrier (after the USS Langley CV-1 and USS Lexington CV-2).  Laid down in 1920 as a battle cruiser, the Saratoga was converted to an aircraft carrier while still under construction, a fortunate change mandated by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 that sought to reduce and control the number of large warships (battleships and battle cruisers, but ignoring the new type of ship, aircraft carriers).  Stretching 888 feet long and with a beam of 106 feet, the Sister Sara displaced 43,746 tons fully loaded.  She was also heavily armed, boasting 8 X 8 inch guns (in 4 twin mounts) and 12 X 5 inch guns (mainly as anti-aircraft guns) as well as numerous smaller guns, an armament worthy of  a heavy cruiser.  The Saratoga carried between 70 and 90 aircraft, a healthy complement for those days, and was manned by a crew of 2791.  (The 8 inch guns were removed after a refit in 1942.)  The Saratoga and her sister ship, the Lexington, were considerably larger than the Langley that preceded them and the USS Ranger that followed, and was even 64 feet longer and with nearly double the displacement of the 3 Yorktown Class carriers that followed the Ranger.

Although the survival of the Saratoga despite terrible damage during the Iwo Jima action would be enough to get this tough ship mentioned among the most resilient of ships, she had also been torpedoed in January of 1942, and again months later, and obviously survived both of those attacks (August 1942 in the Guadalcanal campaign).  Saratoga survived a minor collision with the oiler, USS Atascosa in 1943, and was rammed by an escorting destroyer in October of 1944.  In fact, the Saratoga was 1 of only 3 US Aircraft carriers that were in service from the first day of World War II to the last.  Even then, this mighty vessel was not done!

Used as a training ship in 1945 after repair, the Saratoga served as a troop transport bringing fighting men back to the US after the war in the Pacific ended.  Deemed obsolete after the war, the Sara Maru was designated for the ignoble duty as a target ship for the new nuclear bomb technology.  Incredibly, she survived her first nuclear bombing in 1946 (Operation Crossroad) when an airburst atom bomb (test “Able”) of 23 kilotons failed to sink the Saratoga and some of the other ships in the test.

Participating in a second nuclear attack test, Saratoga was more heavily damaged by the underwater detonation of the atom bomb, a test that showed such use of a nuke was more effective against ships than an airburst (even battleships were sunk in this second test, known as “Baker”).  Even then, it took 7 ½ hours for the mighty carrier to sink, and without the benefit of damage control parties.

USS Saratoga CV-3, the fifth US Navy ship to bear that name, had proven to be a tough customer indeed, although much of that credit needs to be shared with the effective and heroic damage control parties and crew.  Sister Sara rightfully belongs in the pantheon of great ships, and was a tough cookie indeed.  What other ships do you consider among the toughest, most resilient of World War II?  If you have a favorite tough ship or an interesting story of the toughness or survival of a World War II warship, please share it with your fellow readers.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

USS Saratoga CV-3: An Illustrated History of the Legendary Aircraft Carrier, 1927-1946 (Schiffer Military History) (Hardcover)

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.