Scouting Three, USS Saratoga, 1939 (1)Hurrying across the hills of Southern California, 18 SBC Helldivers of Scouting Squadron Three (VS3) make a fine display for the (4)The men of VS3 aboard their home base, USS Saratoga. The ship’s main battery of 8″ guns make a nice backdrop. Note the small saluting/practice gun at the base of the big rifle barrels. Many have dismissed this defensive armament as a throwback, a sop to the old-school admirals who could not fathom that the day of the big gun ship had been eclipsed by aircraft.

But these two carriers were built in the mid-1920’s and entered service in 1927. Simply put, the aircraft of that time were not an effective substitute for a warship’s heavy armament – and that was on a sunny day suitable for flying. In bad weather or darkness the ship’s aircraft were of almost no value whatsoever. Big guns were needed, but how big? The “Lex” and “Sara” were faster than any battleship of that time, so battleship-sized guns were not required. What they could not outrun was a cruiser. Given that typical armament for a cruiser was 8″ guns it made sense to provide the same weaponry to the two carriers.

Less than ten years after the two carriers were commissioned, the advances in aviation technology made the big guns less important and they were eventually removed. While those guns were still part of the ship though, they were not there at the insistence of traditional or narrow-minded navy brass. When the two carriers were designed the question must have been asked: what were they to do on a zero-visibility day with aircraft grounded, and an enemy cruiser swept in through the mist? Answer: Provide the two ships with all-weather firepower. Makes good sense.

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