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.

The French seaplane tender/carrier Seaplane tenders, 1912. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

USS Wright (AV-1)

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).

USS Wright
USS Wright (AV-1) underway, date and location unknown. (Image source: Navsource)

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 (AV-2)

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.