By 1945, the United States had become, in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s celebrated phrase, “the great arsenal of democracy.” One of the most potent weapons in this arsenal was the Essex-class aircraft carrier, 20 of which were launched in the course of World War II. These 27,100-ton flattops, each stretching the length of nearly three football fields and carrying 90 t0 100 warplanes, were built, on average, in just a little over 18 months, a remarkable accomplishment. Not a single carrier in this class was lost.
But for Princetonians, it was the decision to name one member of the Essex class Princeton that affirmed the resilience of American naval power.
All told, six U.S. warships have commemorated the Revolutionary Battle of Princeton; the fourth, an Independence-class aircraft carrier, was destroyed in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, two years after being christened by Margaret Dodds, wife of Princeton’s 15th president. In the wake of this loss, the Essex-class Valley Forge, then under construction, was renamed Princeton, and on July 8, 1945, it, too, was christened by Mrs. Dodds.
In a further mark of continuity, its first captain was John M. Hoskins, who had lost his foot in the attack on the fourth USS Princeton as he was preparing to assume command. Both he and Mrs. Dodds addressed a crowd of about 60,000 people at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the future vice admiral promising that Princeton’s crew would do “all in their power to avenge that marvelous fighting ship of the same name.”
But what was hailed by The Princeton Bulletin, the wartime successor to The Daily Princetonian, as the “first step on its long journey to the land of the rising sun” was one voyage it would not complete. A month later, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atomic bombs, heralding the end of World War II. With the Princeton commissioned Nov. 18, 1945, its future would instead be shaped in the waters of Korea and Vietnam.
John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.