Air Power on the Sea: The Aircraft Carrier
National Archives from Navy.
Navy dive bombers attack Japanese ships during Battle of Midway. Note smoke from burning Japanese ship.
Before the First World War, relations between Britain and Germany became strained when the two countries engaged in an arms race. The Germans felt that a great power had to have a great navy as well as overseas colonies. The British felt that survival on their islands required that they have a navy superior to any other in the world. So each began building more and better battleships.
Battleships, floating steel fortresses carrying guns far more powerful than any that could be used by a field army, were symbols of military might. They were called “capital ships.”
The arms race ended with World War I. At the end of the war, the mighty German High Seas Fleet – which spent most of the war in the Baltic and never reached a higher sea than the North Sea – was no more. Britain had more battleships than any other country, but many of her “battle wagons” were old, slow and had only 12‑inch guns. A new threat to British sea supremacy was shaping up far from Europe. Two Pacific powers, the United States and Japan, decided to build new battleships. Unlike Germany in the previous naval arms race, neither country was thinking about Britain. The Japanese worried about the Americans, and the Americans about the Japanese.
In 1915, Japan announced a program to build 16 battleships and battle cruisers. The battle cruiser was a ship, pioneered by the British and the Germans, that looked like a battleship but had thinner armor. It was faster than a battleship but carried the same heavy armament. The U.S. Congress passed a law authorizing creation of a navy “second to none.” The United States began building 10 new battleships which, like those of the new Japanese ships, would carry 16‑inch guns. In response, the British began building four enormous – 48,000‑ton – battle cruisers and started designing battleships with 18‑inch guns. A new, three‑runner naval arms race was beginning.
At this point, the United States took advantage of two facts. First, Britain was broke and exhausted by the late war and could not hope to out‑build the American shipyards. Second, Japan just didn’t have the industrial capacity to compete in an all‑out arms race. The United States called on the other countries to join in a naval arms limitation treaty. The treaty, the Washington Treaty of 1921, imposed a moratorium on capital ship building and set limits for the world’s major naval powers. Britain and the United States were allowed to have the largest navies, Japan, the next largest, and France and Italy somewhat smaller fleets. France and Italy, like Britain, had been impoverished by the war and were happy to have an excuse for not spending a lot of money on battleships.
Japan, which had been one of the Allies, but which was untouched by the war, was less happy. The Japanese saw the terms, which let them have less than the Americans or British, as evidence of Anglo‑American racial prejudice. They were right. But they couldn’t hope to compete with the Americans in an arms race. So they accepted the treaty, and the long‑simmering Japanese‑American rivalry grew hotter.
When the treaty was signed, the United States was building two battle cruisers, which would be the first such ships in the American navy. Both battleships and battle cruisers were considered capital ships. To keep from exceeding its capital ship quota, the United States altered the construction of two battle cruisers to make them into a new type of ship – aircraft carriers. The projected battle cruisers would make excellent aircraft carriers because they were so big and so fast. Size was important, because the larger the ship, the more space planes would have to take off and land. There was no way a ship could be built that was as big as the average air field, so all navy planes but the big patrol bombers had to be constructed to have a maximum of lift. That was also why speed was important. During take‑offs, the carrier headed into the wind and proceeded at full speed to enhance the plane’s own take‑off speed. The two former battle cruisers became the U.S.S. Lexington and the U.S.S. Saratoga, which for many years were the world’s biggest, fastest, and most powerful aircraft carriers.
They weren’t the first. In the U.S. Navy, the U.S.S. Langley (named after aircraft pioneer Dr. Samuel Langley), a converted collier, had preceded them.
During World War I, the British had experimented with aircraft carriers. The H.M.S. Furious had a flight deck, but it was too short and located behind the funnels, which created too much turbulence. Furious could handle only amphibian planes that landed in the water and had to be winched aboard the ship.
In the U.S. Navy, cruisers and battleships had been carrying seaplanes on catapults since 1912. These aircraft, too, landed on the water and were hauled up to the deck. The British then built the H.M..S. Argus, which had an unbroken flight deck, but Argus was not commissioned until after the war. Meanwhile, the Japanese had not been idle. Japan commissioned its first ship designed from the start to be an aircraft carrier in 1922. That ship, Hosho, entered the Imperial service 12 years before Ranger, the first purpose‑built American carrier, was commissioned.
Aircraft carriers required specialized planes and highly skilled pilots because they provided such limited take‑off and landing space. Arresting gear helped to slow landing planes, and carriers built during World War II had catapults to help their planes become airborne. Still, to a high‑flying pilot, his carrier was a tiny dot that might be moving faster than most craft on the ocean.
And if he were flying any kind of bomber, his target was usually even smaller.
Carrier‑based bombers were considerably smaller than their land‑based coun‑terparts. There were three kinds – high‑level bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. Bombs dropped from high altitude had more penetration than those released at a lower level, but if dropped on ships that were under way, their chances of scoring a hit were extremely small. The U.S. Navy invented dive bombing so its planes could hit those small, fast‑moving targets. Dive bombing was dangerous, because, to a gunner on the surface, the plane appeared immobile, only getting bigger as it approached the ship. Even more dangerous was torpedo bombing, because the plane appeared equally immobile while flying just above the water.
Aircraft carriers were now firmly established in the world’s navies, but they weren’t considered capital ships. Until 1937, the world’s navies concentrated on rebuilding their old battleships – even battleships those that weren’t so old.
When the Japanese battleship Nagato was commissioned in 1920, she was the most powerful battleship in the world. Nagato’s armor was increased, raising her displacement by 6,000 tons. Her speed stayed the same, because she received new engines. And the range of her 16‑inch guns was increased by allowing them greater elevation. In 1937, limitations on capital ships ended and all naval powers resumed building battleships. The United States built the most, but Japan built the most powerful. Musashi and Yamato were two monsters each carrying nine 18‑inch guns and displacing 72,908 tons when fully laden.
Naval historian Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that the two ships “would have inaugurated a new standard for battleship construction – as H.M.S Dreadnought had done 40 years earlier.”
But that was not to be. This was, to a large extent, because of something the proud owners of these super ships did December 7, 1941.
On that day, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku carried out the attack he had planned over the opposition of the Naval General Staff – a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Naval General Staff, the part of the Japanese navy responsible for plans, had no faith that mere airplanes could successfully cripple a whole battle fleet. But Yamamoto believed that immobile ships crowded into a harbor would make good targets. He called in specialists to develop shallow‑running torpedoes, armor piercing bombs and tactics suitable for operations in a constricted space such as Pearl Harbor. Then he created the First Air Fleet – six aircraft carriers escorted by two battleships and a number of cruisers and destroyers.
At the last moment, the Naval General Staff ordered Yamamoto to send three of his carriers to the naval force about to begin operations in Southeast Asia. Yamamoto said that if he had to do that, he and his whole staff would resign. The Naval General Staff backed down. The First Air Fleet sailed under the command of Admiral Nagumo Chuichi, an old battleship admiral who was not convinced he could accomplish his mission.
Fortunately for the United States, all the aircraft carriers in its Pacific Fleet were elsewhere. Nagumo could hardly believe his success. His planes had sunk or crippled every battleship in the U.S. Pacific Fleet as well as many other smaller ships and a large number of land‑based planes – most of them caught on the ground. From that day on, he was a fervent supporter of air power.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet was suddenly at war without battleships. Admiral Ernest J. King, commander‑in‑chief of the United States fleet, was hoarding all the newest battleships in the Atlantic, in line with the official policy that major enemy was Germany. It only gradually dawned on King that battleships were useless against Germany but would be most helpful fighting Japan. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, and his staff had to improvise. They created a new tactical formation, the carrier task force. It was modeled on Yamamoto’s First Air Fleet. It was built around one or more carriers which were escorted by cruisers and destroyers.
The new formation got its first big test in the Battle of the Coral Sea, when American and Japanese fleets slugged it out without ever coming to within sight of each other. All the action was done by airplanes. The battle was a tactical draw but a strategic U.S. victory, because it turned back an attempted Japanese invasion of the south coast of New Guinea, which would put Japanese troops in place for an invasion of Australia. The heaviest American loss was the end of “Lady Lex,” the big old U.S.S. Lexington.
The second test was the Battle of Midway. This was Yamamoto’s attempt to finish off American power in the Pacific. The Japanese plan was complicated. A diversionary attack on the Aleutians was supposed to draw off the American ships. Meanwhile, a task force under Nagumo, which included all four of the large Japanese carriers now operational, would attack American forces on Midway Island. Then the main Japanese fleet, commanded by Yamamoto himself from his flagship, the enormous Yamato, would wipe out the American ships returning from the north and invade Hawaii.
The Americans didn’t go to the Aleutians, because they had decoded enough of the Japanese radio transmissions to know that the Aleutians attack was a feint. They did not know, however, where the fleets of Nagumo and Yamamoto were. Scout planes then spotted Nagumo’s ships about the time they launched their first aerial attack on Midway. Admiral Raymond Spruance launched the planes from his carriers, Enterprise and Hornet, in an attempt to get the Japanese carriers while their planes were refueling. Meanwhile, Nagumo had changed his course. The American planes could not find the Japanese ships. While they were searching, the Japanese planes returned and refueled. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown, launched his planes.
Meanwhile, navy, marine, and army planes from Midway attacked Nagumo’s fleet and were shot down or driven off without causing damage. U.S.S. Nautilus, a submarine, launched a torpedo at a Japanese carrier that missed. Nautilus was driven off by depth charges. Then Hornet’s torpedo bombers spotted the Japanese. Every single plane was shot down. Enterprise’s torpedo squadron then appeared, the Japanese shot down 10 of the 14 planes. Yorktown’s torpedo planes attacked next and suffered the same fate.
At this point (at 10:24 a.m.), on June 4, 1942, Nagumo’s carriers had defeated land‑based air attacks and a submarine attack and shot down almost all of the Americans’ most formidable aircraft – their torpedo planes. It looked as if Yamamoto’s main fleet would have little to do.
At 10:26, Lieutenant Commander Clarence McClusky, leading the two dive bomber squadrons from Enterprise back to the carrier after an unsuccessful search, saw the carriers Kaga and Akagi through a break in the clouds. He signaled one squadron to follow him, and dived on Kaga. His second‑in‑command, Lieutenant W.E. Gallaher, led the second squadron on Akagi. The Enterprise dive bombers arrived while the Japanese Zeros were at a low altitude where they had been shooting down torpedo planes. Kaga was soon burning from stem to stern. Akagi took a hit on the flight deck and the explosion blew off the planes that were trying to refuel. Another bomb exploded in the torpedo magazine. Nagumo moved his flag from Akagi to a destroyer and the Japanese abandoned the ship. A Japanese destroyer sent Akagi to the bottom. A third Japanese carrier, Soryu, moved up and prepared to launch its Zeros. Just then, some of Yorktown’s dive bombers under Lieutenant Commander Maxwell Leslie appeared. They dived on Soryu, and three hits turned the Japanese carrier into an inferno. Then Nautilus reappeared and shot three torpedoes into Soryu. The ship broke in two and went down in a sizzling mass of steam.
Nagumo had one carrier left: Hiryu. He sent its planes off to attack the American ships, wherever they were. They found Yorktown, which had just launched its remaining dive bombers. The Japanese planes crippled Yorktown, but, while they were doing that, Yorktown’s second set of dive bombers found Hiryu. They attacked, refueled on Enterprise, and then returned with Enterprise’s dive bombers. The crippled Hiryu began to sink and went to the bottom the next day.
Nagumo signaled to Yamamoto what had happened and recommended he call off the expedition. Yamamoto was beside himself with rage and relieved Nagumo of his command. He refused to turn back. But after a short time, he realized that, without air cover, he would be heading for a disaster. He turned back.
Yorktown, which had been severely damaged in the Coral Sea and hastily repaired, was towed back to Pearl Harbor for more repairs. But a Japanese submarine spotted her and her tow ship and sank them both. “Waltzing Matilda,” as her crew called her, was a big loss, but it was nothing compared to what the Japanese had suffered.
In five minutes, with the destruction of Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu, Nagumo went from complete triumph to utter defeat. Then the destruction of Hiryu wiped out all of Japan’s operational fleet carriers. Japan could never build enough carriers or train enough pilots to come near to matching the Americans.
The Japanese tried, however. They turned what was to be a sister ship of Yamato and Musashi into an aircraft carrier. The new carrier, Sinano, became the biggest and most powerful aircraft carrier in the world, dwarfing the mighty old Saratoga. Sinano made her maiden voyage in November of 1944. On November 29, 1944, the U.S. submarine Archerfish sank Sinano before she could send a plane into combat.
That may have been prophetic. Many naval analysts think that nuclear‑powered submarines may really be the new capital ships. At the present, aircraft carriers have been invaluable in projecting American power to the far corners of the world. But the big, powerful, and highly vulnerable ships have not been used since World War II against a major naval or air power.
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