Before the first aircraft carrier was built, the navy recognized the importance of aircraft in scouting for the navy and providing intelligence about the whereabouts of the enemy. Almost as soon as airplanes began to fly, designers were adapting them for use at sea. The first seaplane was invented by a Frenchman named Henri Fabre and flew in Martigues near Marseilles, France. By 1911, the US Navy had its first seaplane in operation, the Curtis A-1 Triad. By the Spring of 1914, the Navy’s Curtis NC4 had flown across the Atlantic with a crew of six, eight years before Charles Lindbergh attempted it solo.
The navy would not build its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley until 1922, and its mother was the lowly Seaplane Tender.
It came right after the first viable airplane was invented around the 1910s; usually, a light-armed warship reconverted from civilian vessels. The French Navy La Foudre, inspired by the experimental floatplane Fabre Hydravion a year prior, was the first to set sail. It transported float-equipped planes beneath hangars on the main deck, where a crane lowered them into the sea. In November 1913, La Foudre received further modifications, now boasting a 10-meter-long flat deck that allows her seaplanes to launch. Another civilian cruiser was converted sometime in 1913, which eventually paved the way for the first-ever purpose-built Seaplane carrier and tender, the HMS Hermes Soon after her keel was laid down, the Royal Navy bought her. A dozen more started sailing after that, constructed from different countries such as Australia, Japan, Spain, and the United States, arriving just in time before the First World War.
Also known as Seaplane Carriers, these vessels also provided facilities needed for operations aside from carrying supplies. But, while the vessel appeared to be a promising development during that early period, their overall designs was “purely defensive.” Unlike the versatility of warships today, Seaplane Tenders solely focused on supporting the operations of seaplanes, meaning strictly for carrying, launching, and recovering—nothing more, nothing less. It also served as the eyes of the fleet, delivering reconnaissance information to the big guns of the battleships. As auxiliary vessels, the sea plane tenders were kept well to the rear of the fleet’s battle formations. They were slow and barely armed as well.
Check out some of the unheralded US seaplane tenders that did the tedious work of scouting and reconnaissance ahead of the fleet.
Initially named SS Skaneateles, this auxiliary ship was built to tend military kite balloons in the late 19th century. When the tethered balloons became obsolete, she was converted into a seaplane tender and was renamed after the aviation pioneer Orville Wright. She served in the Asia Pacific and participated in the Treasury-Bougainville operation (1943 – 1944) and the Western New Guinea operations (1944) during the Second World War. In 1945, she was reclassified as a Miscellaneous Auxillary and received a new name, the USS San Clemente (AG-79).
After providing additional assistance during occupation duties and in China in 1946, she was relieved from service and docked at New York Naval Shipyard. USS Wright was then moved to her final disposition in 1948, wrapping up her naval career with two battle stars.
USS Jason was originally a collier, a bulk cargo ship, in service with the US Navy in 1913 before she was converted into a Seaplane Tender in 1930. Her service was short compared to USS Wright, which was decommissioned and sent to the Puget Sound Navy Yard in 1932. She was sold into commercial use under the American Steam Ship Corp. as SS Jason in 1936, but she barely reached her tenth anniversary before scrapping at Baltimore in 1948.
Her service awards include Mexican Service Medal, World War I Victory Medal (with Armed Guard clasp), and Yangtze Service Medal.
A converted collier, USS Langley was the first turbo-electric-powered ship of the US Navy. Her keel was first laid down in 1911 (initially named USS Jupiter) and was commissioned in 1913 before being reclassified as a CV in 1922 and finally as Seaplane Tender (AV-3) in 1937.
Unfortunately, she sunk South of Tjilatjap, Java after a Japanese bombing attack in 1942. For her service and sacrifice, she earned two battle stars.
So far, we’ve already mentioned three US Seaplane Tenders, but most of them were converted from other vessels. Until USS Curtiss, the first-ever purpose-built with her keel first laid down in 1938 and commissioned to service in 1940. Her namesake was inspired by the American aviation and motorcycling pioneer Glenn Hammond Curtiss, A founder of the US aircraft industry. She served the US forces at the Asia Pacific Theater. She participated in the infamous Pearl Harbor – Midway (1941) campaign, as well as the Guadalcanal-Tulagi landings and the Capture and defense of Guadalcanal (1942), Santa Cruz Islands (1942), Gilbert Islands operations (1943), Consolidation of Solomon Islands (1943), and Okinawa Gunto operation (1945). With this, you can barely imagine the many accolades it earned, including seven battle stars for World War II and two service medals after the war—probably one of the most decorated Seaplane Tenders.
After over three decades of sailing, USS Curtiss docked to her final disposition and sold for scrapping in 1972.
The sister ship of USS Curtiss, USS Albemarle, was built just before the US entered the Second World War and was commissioned to service at the end of 1940. She was designated to support the fleet at the Europe-Africa-Middle-East and sailed towards the Asia Pacific. The third vessel named after the Albemarle Sound, USS Albemarle, also witnessed the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll in 1946. She was decommissioned, then re-commissioned a couple of times, and even converted as an aircraft repair ship at one point.
She eventually became a USNS vessel for the Military Sealift Command (MSC) bearing the name Corpus Christi Bay (T-ARVH-1) and served troops during the Vietnam War between 1966 to 1969. In 1973, she was finally placed out of service and sold for scrap two years later.
Originally built as a replenishment oiler, the USS Patoka was commissioned to serve in the US Navy in 1919 before she received remodeling in 1939 as a Seaplane Tender. The Patoka bore the distinction of being the tallest ship in the navy at one time because she had an airship mooring mast on her stern, 125ft above the waterline. A bridge in Texas, known as the Rainbow Bridge between Port Arthur and Beaumont Texas, ended up tangling the Patoka in controversy. Port Arthur wanted the bridge for commerce and transportation, but their partner community on the other side of the Neches river, Beaumont didn’t want it at all, saying it would restrict shipping traffic up the river. Thinking they might kill the deal(they were obligated to pay for half of it), Beaumont demanded that the bridge be high enough for even the tallest ship in the navy to get under, the USS Patoka. Port Arthur ended up agreeing to the deal and built the bridge 177 feet high, giving it an arch like a rainbow. As it would turn out, the USS Patoka never passed under it.
The Patoka was assigned to the American and Asia Pacific Theater during the Second World War. Then in 1944, she was converted to operate as a mine craft tender.
After the war, USS Patoka sailed to the Far East for her occupation service between 1945 to 1946 before returning arriving back home in the US. Barely two years later, she to was sent to a breaking yard for scrap, ending her naval career.
See Part 2 of the Seaplane Tenders here.