In the 1920s, USS Lexington was one of the first ships in the United States Navy to utilize a turbine-electric propulsion system. It was believed that this new system would improve the survivability and performance of the aircraft carrier. Each of Lexington’s four electrical generators could produce 35,200 kilowatts. All together, the generators were powerful enough to fulfill the electricity requirements of a decent sized city. And, for 30 days that is exactly what she did.
In 1929, a drought in the Pacific Northwest crippled electricity production in the region, which was heavily reliant on hydroelectric power. The power shortage became so severe that USS Lexington was ordered to port in Tacoma, Washington and supply electricity to the city. For 30 days the aircraft carrier produced a quarter of Tacoma’s electricity. After that time rains restored the regions power production enough for Lexington to return to her regular duties.
The benefits of new engine were never to materialize in battle, as the “turbine-electric propulsion systems were more vulnerable to shock damage than ordinary, geared engines, flooding of the engine compartment required time-consuming and expensive repairs, and the power/weight ratio of the turbine-electrics was much worse than of conventional engines”. USS Lexington was lost in 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea, partially due to her turbine-electric system.
Whatever her weaknesses in combat, USS Lexington’s mission in Tacoma was a profound success. Moreover, her time as a power plant epitomizes the often overlooked civil assistance militaries historically provide to the countries they serve.
Hat Tip: SteelJaw and sid
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.