Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
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Blog #63, February 24, 2019

History Matters: 75th Launching Anniversary of USS Shagari-La

After a 40 month personal absence (retirement can be busy) today marks resumption of my periodic long form "History Matters" writings because there is always an important story to tell about the old Norfolk Navy Yard.

Today I wish to look back upon the 75th Launching Anniversary of USS Shagari-La but what better way to set the scene than to first see some actual film footage of the event taken at Norfolk.

Also it was important to write home about these historic events as depicted by this rare postal cover from the day of the launching at the Norfolk Navy Yard on February 24, 1944.
Launching Aircraft Carrier USS Shangri-La cover canceled at the
Portsmouth, Virginia Navy Yard on February 24, 1944
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection)

It is a long standing tradition and celebration of sorts to break a bottle of champagne upon the bow of a ship to properly christen it and then watch it slide into its element. On this day Mrs. James H, Doolittle bestowed those same honors with Shipyard Commander Rear Admiral Felix Gygax nearby upon the platform along with an estimated 100,000 souls watching the event (note the people on top of the Building 163 roof in the distance).

Photo #1 ~ CV-38 USS Shangri-La
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Film Collection, Photo Serial 7203(44) taken on 2/24/1944 - cropped image)

The many untold thousands of men and women that have labored here at Norfolk, especially in the World War II era, really did help win the war on the Homefront. I'll provide some personal closing observation comments at the end of this blog but I feel that today's story is best told from the perspective of Lieutenant Commander Arthur Sydnor Barksdale Jr. who wrote a very detailed yet unpublished typescript entitled "History of the Norfolk Navy Yard in World War II". Page 166 through a portion of Page 168 follow are now presented as written in 1945.

5. The Big Flat Tops

The largest capital ship new construction program which the Norfolk Navy Yard engaged in during World War II was the aircraft carrier program, three 34,800-ton Essex class aircraft carriers having been built during the war. These vessels were the U.S.S. SHANGRI-LA, CV38; U.S.S LAKE CHAMPLAIN, CV39; and the U.S.S. TARAW, CV40.

The order for these three carriers was placed with the Navy Yard in a SecNav Dispatch on August 7, 1942. The ships were the same class as CV20, the ESSEX, which was launched in Newport News on July 31, 1942, the first of the new fleet of big flattops that was destined to carry the war to Japan.

The first of these vessels to be begun in the Navy Yard was the CV38, then unnamed.  The keel was laid on January 15, 1943, on Buildingways No. 1, from which the second group of four LSTs had been launched in December.

Two months later, on March 15, 1943, the keel for the CV39 was laid in Drydock No. 8, following the launching of the final group of LSTs from that dock. Lacking additional facilities to accommodate a third capital ship, the Yard could not lay the keel for the CV40 until one of the others two ships was completed.

The big flat tops were given high priority by the Navy Department because of the necessity for combat carriers in Pacific operations. With the work well underway on the DE and LST programs. The Yard devoted full energy of its new construction division to these vessels. All of the tank landing ships had been launched by the time the keel of the CV39 was laid, but the destroyer escorts were under construction on Buildingways No. 2 and in Drydock No. 2 simultaneously with work on two big carriers, so that the early spring and summer of 1943 saw the Yard carrying its heaviest new construction workload.

Few ships built in the Norfolk Navy Yard aroused so much interest on the part of the employees as did the SHANGRI-LA. The usual practice in assigning ships for construction is to assign them simply as hull numbers, and to designate the name of the vessel subsequently. In the case of the CV38, the name SHANGRI-LA was not assigned until August, 1943, a year after the ship had been ordered. The announcement from Secretary Knox of the naming of the vessel was greeted with enthusiasm by Yard personnel.

The story of this name is perhaps well known, but it bears brief repetition here. The originator of "Shangri-La" was James Hilton in his novel "Lost Horizon," the name being given to a mythical location in Asia. Questioned by reporters as to where the American planes which bombed Tokyo in the first raid on the Japanese capital came from, President Roosevelt quipped that they came from "Shangri-La".  Much later, the actual source of the attack was disclosed as USS HORNET, the ill-fated aircraft carrier which was lost in the battle of Santa Cruz, October 16, 1942, with B-26's under then Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle making the raid on April 18, 1942. From the President's grim wisecrack came the name of the CV38.

To build this vessel a nationwide war stamp and bond campaign was conducted, especially among school children, who bought stamps to raise funds for the carrier. Upon completion of the fund raising drive, the name of the ship was assigned, and Norfolk was given the privilege of building her.

This nationwide interest in the SHANGRI-LA followed the ship through the final stages of its building, and the most colorful launching ceremony in the Norfolk Navy Yard's history resulted when, on February 24, 1944, the ship, Norfolk's first aircraft carrier, went down the ways.

Present at the ceremony was Mr. Hilton, author of the book, and Mrs. Doolittle, wife of General, who christened the vessel. The Governor of Virginia, Colgate W. Darden, Jr., made the principle address. The largest throng ever gathered in the Yard saw the ceremony. War time restrictions stripping launching ceremonies of most of their colorful trappings were in effect, but for this significant event, regulations were relaxed sufficiently to permit all Yard employees and their families to be present for the occasion. The yard newspaper, "Speed Victory" estimated the throng at 100,000.

Commissioned on September 15, 1944, The SHANGRI-LA was delivered to the fleet on November 1.

So as to reflect upon the moment the ship's Sponsor, Mrs. James H. Doolittle and her Flower Girl, Miss Mary McClellan (14) a daughter of a Navy Yard workman look out upon the crowd that has gathered to witness Norfolk's first aircraft carrier launching.

Photo #2 ~ CV-38 USS Shangri-La
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Film Collection, Photo Serial 7212(44) taken on 2/24/1944)

Norfolk has provided the United States Navy with the tools of the trade to maintain a global force for peace for in excess of 251 years by not only repairing warships but for a certain time in our proud heritage also building them. 

The USS Shangri-La's launching seventy-five years ago on this date as Norfolk's first aircraft carrier that was crafted by the talented men and women of this shipyard in order to take the fight to Japan in the Pacific is a very noteworthy achievement because –"history matters".



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