The USS Saipan (CVL-48) was a "light" carrier serving the U.S. Navy from the end of the Second World War through Vietnam. The lead ship of her class, Saipan was commissioned in July 1946.
A "light" carrier is approximately 33 – 50% smaller than a full-sized carrier. The first light carrier design was the Independence-class, which was actually a conversion from a battle cruiser.
The Saipan class, by contrast, was designed from the keel up as an aircraft carrier. Only two of these were built (the other being the USS Wright). Constructed by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation of Camden, New Jersey, Saipan was over 684 feet in length, 115 wide across the flight deck and displaced 19,000 tons under a full load. Crew compliment was approximately 1700 officers and men, with a total aircraft capacity of 42.
Repairs and Upgrades
Because of her relatively diminutive size, Saipan rapidly became obsolete as a carrier with the transition from prop-driven to jet-powered aircraft in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Following eighteen months of training duty out of Pensacola and maneuvers in the Caribbean, Saipan went into the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in mid-1947 for overhaul and maintenance. Her next maintenance period was between July and December of 1948; the work was carried out at NS Norfolk.
Saipan returned to Norfolk in November 1954 after a series of extensive deployments, undergoing repairs through April 1955.
Saipan's career as a carrier ended in March 1963 when she entered the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company yard at Mobile. There, the vessel spent the next three-and-a-half years undergoing conversion to a command ship, where the fleet commander maintains communications, office space and other facilities. Saipan received a new name and designation in 1965, becoming USS Arlington (AGMR-2). The converted vessel was recommissioned at the end of August 1966, though outfitting continued into January 1967.
Saipan's first several months were spent training student pilots out of NAS Pensacola (Florida). In April 1947, she was assigned to NS Norfolk. Over the next several years, her function was primarily to carry out routine missions and tasks in home waters. However, she did carry out one diplomatic mission in February 1948, carrying the U.S. delegation to the inauguration of Venezuela's first democratically-elected president, Rómulo Gallegos. Six months later, she steamed to the Arctic to rescue eleven airmen who were stranded on the ice cap.
In 1949, she assisted with carrier qualifications for pilots of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Over the next few years, she continued to function as a training ship, sailing in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Caribbean. In October 1953, she was ordered to Korea to assist with peacekeeping duties in the wake of the fragile cease-fire that brought a halt to the shooting war in Korea.
Saipan remained in the Far East, continuing surveillance and reconnaissance work along the Korean coast among other duties. In April 1954, the US began its involvement in Southeast Asia by sending aerial support to the French during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in the last days of the First Indochina War. After delivering aircraft to an Air Force base in the Philippines, Saipan made a brief stop at NS Sasebo (Japan), then got underway for Norfolk, heading westward via the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and Atlantic.
Saipan's crew provided humanitarian assistance to victims of Hurricane Hazel in October 1954 before returning to her routine duties off the Atlantic coast. A second relief mission was undertaken the following September after Hurricane Janet devastated the Yucatán region of Mexico.
After a period of training pilots out of NAS Pensacola, Saipan was ordered to stand down at Bayonne, New Jersey in October 1957. When she finally returned to duty ten years later, she had been converted into a command ship and renamed Arlington.
As Arlington, the vessel completed three tours of duty at Yankee Station of the coast of Vietnam in the late 1960s; during this period, she also served as the recovery vessel for Apollo 8 and 10.
Arlington was deactivated at San Diego in January 1971 and scrapped in June 1976.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Saipan (CVL-48)
Beyond the usual asbestos risks faced by service personnel aboard naval vessels, there were no major incidents aboard Saipan/Arlington during her years of service that would made such materials friable. After science proved conclusively that asbestos exposure was a major health concern for everyone exposed to it, the USN started finding substitutes for the installation of asbestos in ships and dockyards, and by about 1980 asbestos-containing material was not often utilized. When an asbestos-based product is damaged it becomes friable, which means that individual fibers can break off and enter the atmosphere, and then are inhaled or ingested by ship's crew or shipfitters, potentially leading to the development of mesothelioma.
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Friedman, Norman. U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983)
Mooney, James. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. (Washington DC; Department of the Navy, 1991).