During the Pacific War, both USN and IJN operated (or at least preferred to) carrier battle groups composed of multiple carriers plus their screening ships. IJN's Kidō Butai - which carried out the assault on Pearl Harbor - consisted of 6 carriers. Late in the war, USN mainly operated Fast Carrier Task Forces, which were composed of multiple task forces of 3-4 carriers each plus their escorts.
During the inter-war period when people weren't familiar with how to use carriers, the USN operated single-carrier groups. Fleet Problem XIII exposed weaknesses with this setup, and recommended more carriers per group:
The exercise showed that one carrier was insufficient for either fleet attack or area defense, so the practice of two or more carriers operating together became policy. Admiral Harry E. Yarnell said that six to eight carriers would be required for a Pacific campaign, but no orders were placed for new carriers, as Depression-era financial difficulties caused President Herbert Hoover to limit naval expenses.
Later when supercarriers appeared and after the post-war drawdown, the USN reverted to the single-carrier carrier strike group which persists today.
My question is: why did WWII-era carrier battle groups require multiple carriers? And why did the USN go back to single-carrier groups? Was it:
- Putting enough planes in the sky
- Eliminating a single point of failure, the carrier
Fleet Problem XIII highlighted the problem of having a single carrier in an attack flight - Saratoga was "sunk" during the exercise, and the attacking Blue fleet lost any air cover which allowed the defending Black fleet, which still had the Lexington, to attack the remaining battleships and other vessels of Blue fleet.
Also, another exercise (Grand Joint Exercise No 4 - which, incidentally, incorporated Sunday morning air raids on the Army airfields from an invading fleet), demonstrated how the two carriers (Saratoga and Lexington) provided mobility and support (Lexington was able to recover Saratoga's planes after the latter's deck was rendered "inoperable").
Fleet Problem XIII & Grand Joint Exercise No. 4:Reconsidering Aircraft Carrier Doctrine
Surprisingly, despite the big difference between the displacement of a super carrier (Enterprise is about 90,000 metric tons) and a WWII era vessel (Lexington was 33,000), the air wings' sizes are roughly the same (up to 90 planes on the Enterprise, and about 80 on the Lexington). I would have thought the smaller ship would allow fewer planes, limiting the strike power. On the other hand, the planes of today have a much stronger strike capability.
As for the change in doctrine - the single carrier group came about almost right after the end of the war, as the military began being drawn down. The obvious reason is cost. But the other reason is that no other nation had a comparable Navy. Add the multi-role capabilities of the super-carrier and developments in anti-air and missile strike technology, and you don't need to follow the same doctrine as in WWII.
Do not confuse world war with peace time. Even though during the cold war there were military actions, the magnitude is not the same. During WWII USA built almost 100 carriers of many sizes, while in the cold war usually only 12 big carriers were available.
During cold war, USA actually used several carriers at the same time in a single theater whenever it was required. For example in the Gulf War, where several carriers were in the Red Sea.
In the present, since USA has many interest worldwide, they must keep military presence in many places, as result they divide their forces in all oceans. While in the WWII their influence was inferior, because many seas were covered by the Royal Navy. As result its ships where concentrated in less oceans.
A carrier strike group consisting of a single carrier is a peacetime construct. This is enough for patrolling and "power projection" purposes. The U.S. Navy has basically been at "peace" since the end of World War II (some land bombardment in the Korean War, but no naval battles), and of course, during the Interwar period.
Groups with multiple carriers formed up in World War II because reserves were needed against enemy "first strike" capabilities. Hopefully, a U.S. fleet wouldn't lose all of its (multiple) carriers at the same time. My guess is that we will see a return to multi-carrier groups if there is another major (naval) war.
the WW2 carrier was not as we now have a multi role carrier. Each carrier had a specific task, be it air defence, ground attack, ASW, etc. etc… Therefore a task force that had more than a very limited role would have multiple carriers assigned to it, at least one for each role requiring aircraft. An amphibious assault group for example might have a strike carrier and an air defence carrier. A convoy crossing the Atlantic would have an ASW carrier and maybe and air defence carrier as well (though most didn't, adding a small complement of fighters to the ASW carrier as chances of meeting hostile aircraft were limited).
For larger operations where the number of aircraft in a single carrier's complement would be too small for the task, multiple carriers would be assigned to a single task force.
That has not changed by the way. During Desert Shield/Storm multiple carriers were assigned to the operation at any one time. Same in Vietnam where at least 2 carriers were on station at any time and during peak periods 3 or even 4 were assigned.
Battle Of Midway: Aircraft Carriers In Service Then And Today
The recent discovery of the wrecks of two aircraft carriers brings the Battle of Midway into focus. The Akagi and Kaga, both Imperial Japanese Navy ships, were found by an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) operated from the research vessel Petrel. Two more Japanese aircraft carriers sunk in the battle remain hidden in the depths of the North Pacific. The only U.S. Navy carrier sunk, USS Yorktown, was found in 1998.
There are fewer aircraft carriers in service currently than in 1942. This will change in the coming . [+] years as China, India and United Kingdom expand their current fleets.
In many eyes the war in the Pacific was the high-point of Aircraft Carrier warfare. The Battle of Midway, fought on June 3-6 1942, saw unprecedented carrier battle groups meeting in combat. Japan fielded 4 large aircraft carriers supported by 2 light carriers. These faced 3 U.S Navy carriers.
Japan had been a leading adopter of aircraft carriers before the war, launching its first, Hōshō, in 1921. This was arguably the first purpose-built carrier in the world, being launched before Britain’s HMS Hermes.
Going in to the battle Japan had the largest carrier fleet in the world with 13 ships. The U.S. Navy ranked third with 8, after the Royal Navy who had 9. France had 1, bringing the total of 31 carriers in commission around the world on the eve of the battle. Compared to today, there are just 28 carriers in service with fixed-wing planes.
The Japanese task force had the advantage in numbers, and had the most experienced carrier pilots in the world at that time. But intelligence was on the U.S. side. Without surprise the Japanese attacks were blunted and the U.S. Fleet scored a major upset. All 4 Japanese carriers were sunk for 1 U.S. flat-top. It was a massive blow to the Imperial Japanese Navy carrier force, and they never recovered.
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After World War two carrier design progressed rapidly, mainly to cater for jet aircraft. Innovations included angled flight decks, better catapults for launching heavy aircraft and elevators which don't obstruct the runway. The classic flat-top appearance remains but carriers are, generally, much larger and better designed.
Few countries could afford to keep in the game however. The U.S. Navy has become the undisputed king of this arena with 11 nuclear-powered ‘super carriers’ and 9 large amphibious ships which can carry F-35 jets. Russia in particular struggled to develop comparable carriers. Today they only have one in service, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Britain has, despite leading the way with many carrier innovations, had a bumpy journey including years without operational carriers at all. But the two very large Queen Elizabeth Class carriers should reestablish it as leading carrier power. Currently the first is in service and the second is undergoing sea trials. India and China are the main growth nations.
Japan meanwhile stopped building carriers altogether. Although the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is one of the largest and most modern navies in the world, carriers were avoided.
That will change however. Japan has been building helicopter carries, described as 'destroyers' for political reasons. Largely in response to Chinese naval expansion two of these are slated to get F-35 Lightning-II jets. In the future more countries will operate carriers and the total number in service will exceed Midway levels.
U.S. And Chinese Carrier Groups Mass In The South China Sea
Destroyer Squadron 15&mdashPublic Domain
Tensions between China and its regional neighbors in the South China and Philippine Seas increased markedly this week. Naval exercises by both the United States and China have massed an unusual number of warships in the South China Sea at a time of renewed diplomatic friction as concerns over China’s territorial ambitions grow.
The uptick began late last week. The War Zone reported that China’s Liaoning Carrier Strike Group (CSG) maneuvered through the strategic Miyako Strait on Sunday, just southwest of Okinawa. Since then, a separate point of tension between China and the Philippines over a mass of fishing vessels identified as part of China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) led to a series of heated diplomatic exchanges between Manila and Beijing.
Open-source intelligence analysts tracked the movements of the Liaoning carrier strike group this week as it appeared to traverse the Luzon strait, the body of water that, along with the Bohai Channel, separates the Philippines and Taiwan. This crucially strategic area is also the primary boundary between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea and connects the greater Pacific to the northern reaches of the South China Sea.
The landings on Leyte
After supporting the American landings in the western Caroline Islands throughout early September 1944, Adm. Marc Mitscher’s fast carrier task force began launching attacks against Japanese positions in the Philippines. On September 21 Manila was struck by U.S. carrier planes for the first time, and Luzon was hit the following day. On September 24 Mitscher’s planes bombed the central Philippines and conducted photographic reconnaissance of the area around Leyte and Samar, where landings were to take place in October. It had originally been planned to attack the Philippines at a somewhat later date, but the air strikes revealed an unexpected weakness in the Japanese defense of the islands. The American Joint Chiefs of Staff, acting with necessary haste, moved to capitalize on the situation. The invasion timetable was revised, and preparations were made for an amphibious assault on Leyte Island in the central Philippines on October 20. Leyte had a free undefended approach from the east and adequate anchorages, as well as good access to the other islands in the archipelago. Moreover, the seizure of Leyte would bypass and isolate Japanese forces on Mindanao.
The assault on Leyte marked the joining of the two major advances on Japan—the central Pacific offensive commanded by Nimitz and the southern Pacific approach under MacArthur. MacArthur was given overall command of the Leyte operation, and Nimitz provided strong naval support from the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Adm. William (“Bull”) Halsey’s Third Fleet covered the landings with carrier-based aircraft and guarded against attacks by the Japanese fleet. Preparatory and diversionary carrier strikes preceded the landings: the Ryukyu Islands (including Okinawa) were attacked on October 9–10, northern Luzon on October 11, and Formosa and the Pescadores on October 12–13. Part of the carrier force was struck by Japanese aircraft on October 13–14, and two U.S. cruisers were damaged and forced to retire. Over the following days, U.S. carrier planes responded with attacks on Japanese air bases in Formosa and the northern Philippines, and October 18–19 saw further strikes on targets near the landing beaches.
On October 20 the amphibious landings at Leyte began after air strikes, and heavy naval bombardment prepared the beaches. Men of the central Philippines attack force, under Vice Adm. Thomas Kinkaid (commander of the Seventh Fleet and MacArthur’s principal naval subordinate), went ashore on the east coast of Leyte. The initial landings were entirely successful and almost completely uncontested, as the Japanese had chosen to mount their defense farther inland and out of the range of naval gunfire. More than 130,000 men of Lieut. Gen. Walter Krueger’s Sixth Army were ashore by the end of the first day, but the Japanese had already put in motion a plan that was designed to drive the U.S. from the Philippines and potentially turn the tide in the Pacific.
Mitscher and the Mystery of Midway
Just a handful of veterans of the Battle of Midway—virtually all of them now in their 90s—survive as we mark the 70th anniversary this summer of that stunning naval victory. The subject of scores of books and movies, the decisive showdown has been studied and debated exhaustively. Yet even seven decades on, some lingering questions continue to perplex historians.
Five years ago in these pages, Ronald Russell, webmaster of the Midway veterans’ online site (www.midway42.org) and author of the thoughtful and respected volume No Right to Win (iUniverse, 2006), noted the glaring discrepancies between Captain Marc “Pete” Mitscher’s official report on the battle—particularly the actions of the air squadrons of the USS Hornet (CV-8) on 4 June 1942—and the recollections of most of the pilots who flew off the Hornet that day. 1 Russell wrote correctly that the discrepancies left students of the battle wondering about “what actually happened to all of those aviators on that epic day.” While it may be impossible at this remove to resolve the mystery with certainty, it is the purpose of this article to suggest a possible answer.
The origins of the puzzle stretch back to the commissioning of the new-construction Hornet in March 1942. The newest American carrier, the Hornet did not even have sufficient time to qualify most of her pilots as she steamed south from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Panama Canal, then up the U.S. West Coast to Alameda, California. There the planes of her air group were struck below to the hangar deck, so she could take aboard 16 Mitchell B-25 bombers for an Army Air Forces raid on Tokyo led by Lieutenant Colonel “Jimmy” Doolittle. Naturally, pilot training had to be suspended while the Hornet was thus encumbered, and only after Doolittle and his fellow pilots took off did the Hornet resume normal carrier operations. Given that timetable, the Hornet had not been able to participate in any of the early American raids against Japanese outposts in the Marshall Islands and elsewhere. The Battle of Midway was therefore her first action against an enemy force.
On 28 May 1942, the Hornet left Pearl Harbor in company with her sister ship, the Enterprise (CV-6), for a rendezvous nearly 1,500 miles to the north, a location optimistically code-named Point Luck. Cryptanalysts under Commander Joseph Rochefort, working in the dark, air-conditioned basement of the 14th Naval District headquarters in Honolulu, had determined that the Japanese were embarking on a major operation to seize the two-island atoll of Midway, and Admiral Chester Nimitz had decided to send his carrier force there in the hope of springing an ambush.
An Incorrect Assumption
The crucial role of the code-breakers in the Battle of Midway is well known—often even overstated. Some students of the battle have asserted that Rochefort and his colleagues were able to provide Nimitz and the other senior American planners with a copy of the Japanese order of battle. That, however, was not the case, which is particularly important in assessing the role of the Hornet air group in the subsequent battle. While Nimitz did know that the Japanese were sending four carriers—plus supports and escorts—to attack Midway, the available intelligence did not tell him how the Japanese would deploy those four carriers—a point to bear in mind. We know now, of course, that all four ships operated together as a single task force—the Mobile Striking Force, or Kido Butai. But at the time, Nimitz and the other key decision-makers assumed that the Japanese would operate their four carriers in two separate groups. 2
The source of that assumption is unclear, but it may well be something as simple as a case of mirror-imaging: The United States operated its three carriers in two task forces (TF 16 and TF 17), so it perhaps seemed quite likely to the Americans that the Japanese would do the same. Evidence of this assumption is in Nimitz’s initial orders to the task-force commanders and the commanders on Midway. In those orders, Nimitz suggested that “one or more [of the enemy] carriers may take up close-in daylight positions” for the attack on Midway, while “additional carrier groups” operated against American surface forces. In the briefing that Mitscher’s intelligence officer, Lieutenant Stephen Jurika, gave to the pilots on board the Hornet the night before the battle, Jurika told them “there were at least two carriers, two battleships, several cruisers and about five destroyers in the attack force which would attempt to take Midway” and that “the support force some distance behind contained the rest of their forces.” 3
Those assumptions were reinforced at 0603 on 4 June when a PBY Catalina out of Midway reported the first sighting of the enemy: two carriers and two battleships, 180 miles north of the atoll. Two carriers! Where were the others? Forty-five minutes later, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the senior American officer afloat, sent a message (which Mitscher monitored) to the commander of TF 16, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, to remind him: “Two carriers [are] unaccounted for.” 4 It is important to remember those assumptions in considering what happened next.
A Curious Lack of Documents
At 0705, the Hornet and Enterprise began launching aircraft. The Yorktown (CV-5)—the third U.S. carrier at Point Luck—held her strike force back to await further news, presumably information about those “missing” two carriers. By 0800 all the planes from the Enterprise and Hornet were aloft. The Enterprise planes flew to the southwest on a bearing of approximately 239 degrees True, toward the coordinates sent in by the PBY two hours earlier.
But what about the Hornet’s planes? Which way did they go? That turns out to be a complicated question.
For starters, there is a gaping hole in the official record concerning the activities of the Hornet’s air group on 4 June. Though all unit commanders were required to submit official written reports after each action, there is only one official report from the Hornet, written by—or at least signed by—Pete Mitscher. Stamped “Secret” and dated 13 June 1942, it is sufficiently detailed in its description of events, but it is not accompanied by a group commander’s report or reports from any of the squadron commanders. The absence of a report from the torpedo squadron (VT-8) is easily explained: Torpedo Eight from the Hornet was wiped out in its attack on the Kido Butai that morning only one pilot survived, Ensign George Gay. Though he was debriefed, and much later wrote a personal memoir, Gay never wrote an after-action report. There is no explanation, however, for the absence of reports from any of the three other squadrons.
In the one report that does exist—Mitscher’s—he asserts that “The objective, enemy carriers, was calculated to be 155 miles distant, bearing 239° T[rue] from this Task Force one division of 10 VF [fighters], Squadron Commander in charge, was sent with 35 VSB [bombers] and 15 VTB [torpedo planes].” It is noteworthy that Mitscher uses the passive voice: The range and course bearing “was calculated”—by whom he does not say. Similarly, the strike force “was sent” and while he does not specifically say that it was sent on that bearing of 239 degrees, that is certainly implied. (Of course, passive voice was—and is—common in Navy parlance. Even today, officers do not make requests, instead their chits read: “It is requested that. . .”—as if the request existed independently of the author.)
Mitscher’s 13 June report continues: “They [the pilots] were unable to locate the enemy and landed on board at 1727.” Mitscher explains this by noting “about one hour after the planes had departed the enemy reversed his course and started his retirement.” And it is true that the Kido Butai turned from the southeast to the northeast at 0917 that day. As a result of that turn, Mitscher writes, the American pilots failed to spot the enemy and eventually returned to the carrier—those who could. Mitscher even included a map in his official report showing the air group flying on the 239-degrees-True course and missing the Japanese carriers because they had turned north. 5
(Most) Pilots Tell a Different Story
For more than 50 years, students of the Battle of Midway took Mitscher at his word and described the Hornet air group as missing the Japanese because the American planes flew south of the target. But, as Ronald Russell noted in his February 2006 article, unofficial evidence, mainly from postbattle interviews, memoirs, letters, and other such sources, mostly (though not exclusively) indicate that the Hornet air group had not flown to the southwest on a course of 239, but to the west—on a course of 265 degrees.
That evidence comes mostly from the pilots themselves, who, in postwar oral interviews recalled that they had flown “westerly,” as one put it, “almost due west,” according to another, or more precisely (from yet another), “at 265 degrees.” When one pilot, Troy Guillory, initially said that the air group flew “westerly,” his interviewer suggested that he must be mistaken, that the course was to the southwest, at 239 degrees. No, said Guillory. “We went the wrong way to start with”—and pointing to the chart—“to the 265 line.” Ensign Ben Tappan stated simply, “We were going west.” The commander of the Hornet’s scouting squadron (VS-8), Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) Walt Rodee bluntly said, “We took the bearing and the course they gave us. It was about 265. . . . It was almost due west.” Rodee did not file an after-action report, but he did make note of the course in his flight log—which he kept. Finally, the radar operator on board the Hornet recalled tracking the air group as it flew away from TF 16, and said that as far as the CXAM radar could track the air group, it had flown outbound on a course of 265 degrees. Significantly, not all the pilots agreed. Ensign Clayton Fisher, who flew as wingman for the group commander on 4 June, claimed until his death in January 2012 that the air group flew southwest on a bearing between 235 and 240 degrees. 6
Explaining the discrepancy between Mitscher’s report and the pilots’ memories is difficult. The absence of any squadron reports from the Hornet is by itself suspicious and encourages the conclusion that Mitscher’s official report may well be in error. Not surprisingly, Spruance thought so, too. In his own report on the battle, he wrote, “Where discrepancies exist between Enterprise and Hornet reports, the Enterprise report should be taken as more accurate.” That is an astonishing statement to make in an official report, and comes close to asserting that Mitscher’s report was not to be trusted. 7
A Calculated Risk
To try to resolve this mystery, it is essential to re-examine what the Americans knew—or thought they knew—about Japanese intentions that day. Remember that most of the high command—including Mitscher—believed the Japanese were operating in two carrier groups: the one that had been sighted, and a second one, which was presumed to be operating 80 to 100 miles to the rear. Mitscher knew that the planes from the Enterprise were going after the two carriers that the PBY had sighted and reported, and he may have harbored fears that even if that strike were successful the other two enemy carriers would remain untouched—and more important, that the element of surprise would be lost.
Pete Mitscher was the most senior U.S. Navy aviation officer afloat that day. Rear Admiral Bill Halsey, an aviator who was supposed to have commanded at Midway, was in the hospital. Captain George Murray, commander of the Enterprise, was Naval Aviator No. 22, and Spruance had designated him as tactical air officer for the strike. But Mitscher, who was Naval Aviator No. 33, had been selected for promotion to rear admiral, and his staff already was referring to him as “Admiral Mitscher.” In Halsey’s absence, Fletcher was the senior officer afloat, but neither he nor Spruance were aviators. It is easy to imagine that, in Mitscher’s mind, it was up to him to ensure the proper coordination of the air strikes.
Mitscher knew there would be only one chance to effect surprise, and that once surprise was lost, the battle would become a toss-up. If the Enterprise planes succeeded in surprising and sinking the two enemy flattops at the known coordinates, it is entirely reasonable to assume that Mitscher may have calculated the best use of the Hornet’s air group was to find and sink the two carriers that had not yet been sighted—but which presumably were operating 80 to 100 miles behind the other Japanese ships. In consideration of those factors, Mitscher may have told his air group leader, Commander Stanhope Ring, to take the entire air group to a position 80 miles behind the leading Japanese carriers. If one calculates that bearing from the Hornet’s position that morning, it turns out to be about 265 degrees.
If that is what happened, Mitscher apparently did not share the revised objective with any of the four squadron commanders—just with group commander Ring. That would explain why the commander of Torpedo Eight, Lieutenant Commander John Waldron, was so surprised—and then angry—when he was told the course he was to fly. He knew that a course of 265 would not lead them to the coordinates he had carefully plotted in the ready room that morning based on the location of the sighted Japanese carriers.
Broken Silence, Angry Words, and a Breakup
There are no official transcripts of the radio chatter that morning because everyone was supposed to be observing radio silence. The objective, after all, was surprise. But years later, many of the air-group pilots recalled what they heard being transmitted, and their memories are revealing.
After the Hornet’s planes launched between 0700 and 0755 that morning, the bombers and fighters climbed to 20,000 feet while the torpedo planes flew almost three vertical miles below them at 1,500 feet. Though they all flew under radio silence, only about 15 minutes into the mission several of the pilots remembered John Waldron’s voice coming through their headsets: “You’re going the wrong direction for the Japanese carrier force.” Ring was furious that Waldron had broken radio silence, and equally furious to be challenged on an open radio net—in effect, in front of the entire command. The next voice on the air was Ring: “I’m leading this flight,” he snapped. “You fly with us right here.” Waldron was not intimidated. “I know where the damned Jap fleet is,” he insisted. Ring, even angrier, barked back: “You fly on us! I’m leading this formation you fly on us.” There was a brief silence before a final rejoinder came from Waldron: “Well, the hell with you. I know where they are and I’m going to them.” Three miles below Ring, Waldron banked his plane to the left, heading southwest. His entire squadron went with him. 8
History tells us, of course, that Waldron was right. He did know where “the damned Jap fleet” was. And when he found it, his squadron was annihilated in a futile and hopeless attack against overwhelming odds. But meantime, what was happening with the rest of the Hornet air group? A half hour after Waldron departed, the Wildcat fighters accompanying the strike force began to run low on fuel and they, too, abandoned the mission, flying back toward the Hornet on a reciprocal course. None made it, for they had waited too long and failed to find the task force. All of them ran out of fuel and ditched in the ocean. Two pilots lost their lives.
Soon after the departure of the fighters, some pilots in the bombing squadron (VB-8) recalled hearing another broadcast from Waldron: “Stanhope from Johnny One. Stanhope from Johnny One.” There was no reply, but there were more messages from Waldron: “Watch those fighters!” and “My two wing men are going in the water.” 9 It was evident now that Waldron had indeed found the Kido Butai. Soon after that, the planes from the Hornet’s bomber squadron, led by their CO, Lieutenant Commander Ruff Johnson, peeled off from the formation and turned south. Ring broke radio silence in an attempt to recall them, but they continued on, partly to look for the Japanese, partly to see if they could make it to Midway’s airfield because Johnson doubted that his pilots had enough fuel left to make it all the way back to the Hornet. Eleven of them eventually landed on Midway three went into the water out of fuel and three managed to reach the Hornet.
Ring continued to fly west, now with just the scout bombers still in company. At 225 miles out—nearly 100 miles beyond the calculated range to the target—the scout bombers, too, left, low on fuel. Astonishingly, for a few brief moments Ring flew on by himself. Very soon, however, he gave up and turned. He flew back toward the Hornet completely alone—abandoned by his entire command. In the day’s final tally, just 20 of the 59 airplanes that took off from Hornet that morning returned. Not one of them had dropped a bomb on an enemy ship.
The Case for Fudging an After-Action Report
The episode has gone down in the history of the Battle of Midway as “the flight to nowhere.” As Mitscher noted laconically in his official report, “None of Scouting Eight or Bombing Eight made contact with the enemy.” That much of Mitscher’s report, at least, is true enough. But if the recollections of the pilots are accurate, much of the rest of his report is not. So we are still left with the puzzle of why Mitscher recounted a dramatically different story in his report. 10 It can’t be known for certain, but a very plausible explanation is that three considerations influenced Mitscher.
First, by the time Mitscher sat down to write that report nine days later, he knew that all four Japanese carriers had been operating as a unit, so that if he had, in fact, made an independent decision to send the entire air group to look for two of them elsewhere, that decision would now be revealed as—at the least—unwise. Second, by then Mitscher also knew most of the details of the several mutinous actions of the squadron commanders who, one by one, had defied orders and abandoned the group commander. If all that were reported officially, Mitscher would almost certainly have to file court-martial papers against each of them. Disobeying orders during a war patrol, after all, is mutiny.
Finally (and this may have been decisive) by 13 June when Mitscher wrote his report, it was very clear that the Americans had won an overwhelming victory at Midway—indeed, the greatest triumph in U.S. naval history. It simply would not do, then, to sully that achievement with a raft of posthumous courts-martial against men such as Waldron. So instead of filing mutiny charges, Mitscher wrote this: “Torpedo Eight, led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, U.S.N., was lost in its entirety. This squadron flew at 100 knots below the clouds while the remainder of the group flew at 110 knots climbing to 19,000 feet. Lieutenant Commander Waldron, a highly aggressive officer, leading a well-trained squadron, found his target and attacked. . . . This squadron is deserving of the highest honors for finding the enemy, pressing home its attack, without fighter protection and without diverting dive bomber attacks to draw the enemy fire.” 11
So Waldron was not a mutineer—he was a hero. Mitscher may well have asked himself what was to be gained by submitting a report that attacked the memory of the martyred Waldron or filing court-martial papers against any of the other squadron commanders. So instead Mitscher recommended all of them for medals, told those squadron commanders who had survived not to file reports, and submitted what he knew to be a false report.
Is that what happened? The best answer a responsible historian can offer now, 70 years later, is “probably.” The historical quest is never-ending, however, and it is not impossible that one day additional material will come to light that will help explain further the enigma of the so-called flight to nowhere. In the meantime, how do we assess the actions and decisions of Marc Mitscher at Midway? Here was the man who, over the next three years, would command the Fast Carrier Task Force that led the American drive across the Pacific to Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, and became known as “The Magnificent Mitscher.” Should that assessment be modified based on the likelihood that he knowingly filed a false report about the Battle of Midway? Or given the circumstances of 13 June 1942, was his decision to gundeck the story of the flight to nowhere a reasonable one?
1. Ronald Russell, “Changing Course: The Hornet’s Air Group at Midway,” Naval History, February 2006, pp. 48–53.
2. For a discussion of this see Appendix E (pp. 387–88) in Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
3. Nimitz to Commander Striking Force, 28 May 1942, Action Reports microfilm, reel 3, p. 3. The passage from Jurika’s intelligence briefing is from the diary of E. T. “Smokey” Stover in Stover and Clark Reynolds, The Saga of Smokey Stover (Charleston, SC: Tradd Street Press, 1978), p. 29 (diary entry of 7 June).
4. Fletcher’s message to Spruance is in John B. Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), p. 248.
5. Mitscher to Nimitz, 13 June 1942, Action Reports microfilm, reel 3. Also available at www.history.navy.mil/docs/wwii/mid5.htm.
6. These interviews, conducted by Bowen Weisheit, are collected in the bound volume “The Battle of Midway: Transcripts of Recorded Interviews,” Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy. Weisheit’s conclusions are in his book, The Last Flight of Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Jr. (Baltimore: Ensign C. Markland Kelly Memorial Foundation, 1993).
7. Spruance to Nimitz, 16 June 1942, Action Reports microfilm, reel 3. Also available at www.midway42.org/reports.html.
8. Weisheit’s interviews of Troy Guillory (14 March 1983) and Ben Tappen (1981), “Transcripts.” The last response from Waldron, as rendered here, is an amalgam of what Guillory and Tappen recalled.
9. Enclosure (H) to Hornet Serial 0018, dated 13 June 1942, by Leroy Quillen, radioman/gunner for Ensign K. B. White, in VB-8, Action Reports, reel 2. Quillen remembered the initial call as “Johnny One to Johnny Two,” but others recalled it as “Stanhope from Johnny One.”
Did the Navy Have a Plan for Russia’s Super Aircraft Carrier?
The Soviet supercarrier Ulyanovsk would have been a naval behemoth more than 1,000 feet long, with an 85,000-ton displacement.
Here's What You Need to Remember: Great nations have carriers, Russia considers itself a great nation, and therefore the ship would be a symbol of national revival and destiny. In other words, a new carrier would be one more reason to forget the bad old days when the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Had she ever sailed, the Soviet supercarrier Ulyanovsk would have been a naval behemoth more than 1,000 feet long, with an 85,000-ton displacement and enough storage to carry an air group of up to 70 fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
With a nuclear-powered engine—and working in conjunction with other Soviet surface warfare vessels and submarines—the supercarrier would have steamed through the oceans with a purpose.
Namely, to keep the U.S. Navy away from the Motherland’s shores.
But the Ulyanovsk is a tantalizing “almost” of history. Moscow never finished the project, because it ran out of money. As the Cold War ended, Russia plunged into years of economic hardship that made building new ships impossible.
The Ulyanovsk died in the scrap yards in 1992. But now the Kremlin is spending billions of rubles modernizing its military—and wants a new supercarrier to rival the United States.
Big Goals, Bad Timing:
Builders laid the keel for the Ulyanovsk in 1988, just as the Soviet empire began to break apart. The ship was such a large project that builders wouldn’t have finished her until the mid ’90s.
Construction took place at the Black Sea Shipyard in Ukraine—often called Nikolayev South Shipyard 444. It’s an old facility, dating back to the 18th century when Prince Grigory Potemkin signed orders in 1789 authorizing new docks to repair Russian naval vessels damaged during the Russo-Turkish War.
The famous Russian battleship Potemkin—scene of the famous 1905 naval mutiny and the subject of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film—launched from the same shipyard.
Early in the Soviet period, the shipyard constructed battleships. During the ’60s and ’70s, workers built Moskva-class helicopter carriers and Kiev-class carriers at South Shipyard 444.
But none of these ships came close to the Ulyanovsk.
Named after Vladimir Lenin’s hometown, everything about the supercarrier was huge, even by Russian standards.
Her propulsion system would have comprised four KN-3 nuclear reactors, a model originally used to power enormous Kirov-class battlecruisers, such as the heavy guided-missile cruiser Frunze. Ulyanovsk could have easily reached 30 knots while under way.
The carrier would have carried at least 44 fighters on board—a combination of Su-33 and MiG-29 attack jets configured for carrier operations. Ulyanovsk’s two steam catapults, ski-jump and four sets of arresting cables would have created a bustling flight deck.
The ship’s designers planned three elevators—each capable of carrying 50 tons—to move aircraft to and from the cavernous hanger deck. Plus, the carrier would have had helicopters for search-and-rescue work and anti-submarine warfare missions.
The Soviets planned a complement of 3,400 sailors—roughly half of the crew aboard an American Nimitz-class carrier, but sizable compared to other Soviet vessels.
Why Build It?:
That the Soviets even wanted a supercarrier was remarkable. The massive ships have never figured significantly in the Soviet or Russian naval inventory.
Currently, Russia has only one carrier—the significantly smaller Admiral Kuznetsov—launched in 1985. Multiple mechanical problems have plagued the ship ever since, and she doesn’t go anywhere without an accompanying tug vessel.
But there was a logic behind the Ulyanovsk. James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, explained that the Soviets wanted to create a defensive “blue belt” in their offshore waters.
The “blue belt” was a combination of land, sea and air power that would work together to thwart U.S. carrier and submarine forces. Russia could defend the homeland while providing safe patrol areas for ballistic-missile subs performing nuclear deterrent missions.
“Those ‘boomers’ need to disappear for weeks at a time into safe depths,” Holmes said. “Soviet supercarriers could have helped out with the air- and surface-warfare components of a blue-belt defense, chasing off U.S. Navy task forces that steamed into Eurasian waters.”
But pride and national honor also prompted the decision to build the Ulyanovsk.
“There’s also the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses aspect to carrier development,” Holmes continued. “If the U.S. is the world superpower and the U.S.S.R. wants to keep pace, then Soviet leaders want the same toys to demonstrate that they’re keeping pace. It sounds childish, but there are basic human motives at work here.”
“It’s not all about the roles and missions carriers execute,” he said. “It’s about national destiny and dignity.”
But by the mid ’90s, Russian naval vessels were rusting at their moorings, sailors served without pay and the United States stepped in to help deactivate Soviet-era nuclear submarines and provide security for the Russian nuclear arsenal.
“The Soviets weren’t dumb,” Holmes explained. “They wouldn’t spend themselves into oblivion to keep up with the Joneses, and as a great land power, they obviously had enormous claims on their resources to fund the army and air force. There was only so much to go around for ‘luxury fleet’ projects.”
“Bottom line, if you can’t afford to keep the existing fleet at sea, where are you going to get the money to complete your first nuclear-powered supercarrier, a vessel that will demand even more manpower that you can’t afford?”
Moscow’s Military Rises Again…or Not?:
But Russia now seems willing to revive its supercarrier dream. “The navy will have an aircraft carrier,” Russian navy chief Adm. Viktor Chirkov recently said. “The research companies are working on it.”
Other Russian media reports indicate that designers are in the early phases of planning a new carrier class that would be slightly larger than the Nimitz class—and capable of holding an air wing of 100 planes.
But economic problems — including a looming recession — and the expense of maintaining and modernizing the rest of the nation’s aging fleet makes it doubtful whether Russia can build such an expensive ship.
Holmes estimates the cost of a new Russian carrier could be as much as $8.5 billion and take up to seven years to complete. But the professor also said the Russian quest for a carrier is serious.
Great nations have carriers, Russia considers itself a great nation, and therefore the ship would be a symbol of national revival and destiny. In other words, a new carrier would be one more reason to forget the bad old days when the Soviet Union disintegrated.
“We think of the Soviet Union as a dreary place, but Russians also remember that it wielded great power,” Holmes continued. “That’s a potent memory.”
For Moscow’s navy, the failure of the Ulyanovsk project is one of the biggest, baddest memories of them all.
This article is being republished due to reader interest. It was first published years ago.
Why Does The United States Only Have Eleven Aircraft Carriers?
Throughout the history of carrier aviation, it has been said that the first thing a President asks during times of crisis is: “Where is the nearest aircraft carrier?” Our nation’s aircraft carriers have and will continue to serve as the centerpiece for our National Security Strategy. Given the Administration’s recent embrace of the Navy’s “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power” and the increased commitment to the Pacific Rim, this holds true more now than ever before.
Aircraft carriers provide four-and-a-half acres of survivable, sovereign U.S. territory wherever they deploy. They represent a unique warfare capability that can quickly arrive at a trouble spot and provide robust, and sustainable combat air power. The modern air wing can provide credible combat capacity with 80-125 air dominance, strike, electronic warfare, and surveillance combat missions each day. Carriers are both responsive and capable of immediate action, as they enable our nation to project power worldwide from the sea without dependence on other governments or local bases. By relying on aircraft carriers, our country avoids the huge investment required to establish and maintain bases and infrastructure ashore in a foreign country. So there’s no question our nation needs its aircraft carriers - so the next question is why do we need eleven? The combatant commanders request aircraft carrier presence the same way they request ground troops or aircraft deployments. Their staffs analyze the current environment and decide what forces they require to maintain peace, or if necessary, conduct combat operations. While wartime capacity and routine operational presence are very important, they are not the only factors defining the need for eleven aircraft carriers. Maintenance required for the ship, and the training required to keep the crew combat ready, are also essential considerations that have been studied and refined over the history of aircraft carrier operations.
While continuously deploying two or three carriers oversea has become a normal practice, the current aircraft carrier inventory allows our country to “surge” more carriers to a hot spot if needed during an international crisis. During the Gulf War in the early 90s and again a decade later after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the Navy simultaneously deployed as many as six aircraft carriers for combat operations. We surged to six for Desert Storm in 1991, four for enduring Freedom in 2001, and six for Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The aircraft carriers that were in the training cycle or undergoing light maintenance were quickly made available for these operations. The aircraft carriers that were already deployed provided an immediate, credible, and lasting combat capability until the other carriers and shore based forces could flow into the area. An aircraft carrier has large ammunition magazines, aircraft fuel storage tanks, and supply storerooms. Everything that is required to support sustained combat flight operations is available in a single mobile package. Since the carrier can replenish any of these commodities at sea, not only do these carriers serve as first responders, they may also continue combat operations for many months.
The best way to demonstrate why we need eleven aircraft carriers is to look at a recent typical day in the Navy. On that day, two carriers were deployed to the Middle East. Another carrier was under way to relieve one of those deployed carriers. Two carriers were underway near the coast of the United States conducting training. One carrier had just returned from deployment and was in a post-cruise stand-down period. Two were in-port for light maintenance and were conducting shore-based training events. Two were in various stages of a heavy maintenance period, and one was in a Refueling Complex Over-Haul (RCOH) period. So let’s add it up -- two deployed, one on its way, two underway for training, one in post deployment stand-down, two in-port for light maintenance/training, two in heavy maintenance and one in RCOH equals eleven total aircraft carriers. While on any given day these numbers may be somewhat different, the fact remains that the aircraft carrier fleet is kept busy with operational requirements, training, and maintenance.
A History of Fluctuating Requirements
During my early Pentagon tours, the prescribed requirement for aircraft carrier inventory was fifteen. I believe this requirement was based on the calculated minimum number of carriers required to support Major Combat Operations (MCOs) and provide routine presence. Over time, it was decided that we could save money if we accepted additional risk by reducing the force to twelve. Recently, we assumed even more risk by reducing the force to eleven. While current law dictates that the Navy maintains the inventory at eleven, Congress has given the Navy relief to allow the inventory to slip to ten during the period between the decommissioning of the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) in 2012 and the delivery of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) in 2015. I’m confident that number of carriers has the Navy’s operational schedulers scrambling to lay out the carrier schedules to meet the carrier presence requirements for the next few years.
Maintenance - ‘Pay me now or Pay me Later’
Typical maintenance periods range from six to eleven months, depending upon where the ship is in its comprehensive maintenance cycle. At the mid-point of its fifty year lifetime, the aircraft carrier will undergo a refueling complex overhaul (RCOH) that lasts about forty-four months. Additionally, at any point in time, there will probably be two carriers in heavy maintenance, and one carrier will be in the RCOH process. When the required maintenance or RCOH is complete, underway training commences for the next deployment.
With some risk, maintenance can be deferred for short periods of time, but keep in mind that the maintenance schedules have been refined to an ideal interval given the experience of operating the ships. Deferring maintenance tends to be one of those “pay me now or pay me a whole lot more later” propositions that can upset the entire balance of the rotation cycle. With fewer carriers, more time will be spent underway meeting the presence requirements, and less time will be available to take care of the ever-important maintenance. This will cause increased risk for the crew, and in the long run, increase the cost of operations and maintenance.
Operational Tempo and Sailor Morale
There is also a different kind of risk associated with the longer deployments. Crew fatigue and morale can degrade over the course of a lengthened deployment. The son of one of my old shipmates is a naval aviator in an E-2C Hawkeye squadron that is currently deployed on an aircraft carrier. He is at the four-month point of what looks like will be an eight or nine-month cruise. He is already talking about everyday being the same it is like being in the movie “Groundhog Day.” Quite likely the carrier fleet will continue to see deployments of eight or nine months for the next couple of years. It will be challenging for the commanding officer and air wing commander to keep the crew focused on safe and effective operations during the later stages of the deployment. The long time away from home may cause retention to slip from the currently great statistics. This situation is less than ideal and will become expensive in that every sailor who decides the sacrifice is too hard and leaves the Navy will result in a requirement for a new recruit that must be found and trained. This is yet another example of the increased operational costs associated with trying to meet presence requirements with a smaller carrier fleet.
I recently posted a discussion about my experiences maintaining fleet readiness as a commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73). I provided a detailed discussion of how our Navy prepares our ships and crews for combat. In summary, the aircraft carriers that are not deployed undergo what is generally referred to as a turnaround training cycle. This period is made up of maintenance, training, and some amount of time serving as an operationally ready aircraft carrier that can rapidly deploy in response to our nation’s needs. When an aircraft carrier returns from a deployment, it typically spends a couple weeks in a post-cruise stand-down for the crew. After the post-cruise stand-down, the ship may maintain a ready-carrier condition for a few months or it may transition into a maintenance period that could last from a few months to nearly a year. Determining the schedule for the carrier fleet is a very dynamic balancing act that flexes to meet the needs of our country.
In combat, a fighter pilot always expects to “rise to the occasion” but in fact he will always fall back to his level of training.” - Lt (jg) Bill “Willy” Driscoll, Navy Ace
The length of the turnaround cycle is also important for the carrier air wing. This time is needed to conduct shore-based training and perform maintenance and upgrades to the aircraft. The air wing typically spends several months in weapons and tactics training prior to deploying aboard the ship. Occasionally, the air wing squadrons may require several months of non-deployed time to transition to a new or upgraded aircraft.
Can’t Predict an Unpredictable Security Environment
One area where we can change the schedule, of course with risk, is to provide less presence globally. However, providing less presence is an open acknowledgement that our country will not continue to influence the world in the manner we have in the past. There are critics who contend that our enemies will defeat us in the financial world, not on the battlefield. Maybe that will be our downfall in the end, but if we give up our ability to defend ourselves, the sea lanes and our allies anywhere in the world, our world will rapidly change in what I predict will be disastrous ways. When I was a junior officer in my E-2C Hawkeye squadron, a few of my friends would like to have lofty discussions about the world, our Navy, and carrier aviation. We would argue about the value of presence. We would describe how we each thought our presence made a difference in the world. We talked about how our presence influenced bad actors into deciding not to do bad things. The problem with our argument is that we had no proof. How do you prove that something didn’t happen because the carrier was right off a bad actor’s coast … or might have been? After all of these years, I still can’t prove that our presence prevented disasters, but one thing I do know is that on all of my deployments, we were able to make a difference because we were there and responded to the aggression of others. On every one of my deployments, I can think of at least one event that was of historical significance. Let me run down the list of operations that my shipmates and I participated in during 10 cruises: Iranian hostage crisis, evacuation of Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon (twice), Grenada, response to the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, several freedom of navigation operations off Libya, response to the murder of Col. William R. Higgins, Operation Southern Watch in southern Iraq (three times), Kosovo, several presence operations off the coast of North Korea, operations in Afghanistan (four times), and combat operations in Iraq (three times). Our arrival on the scene was often all that was needed to quiet a belligerent, but sometimes our warfighting capabilities were put into action. Either way, the aircraft carrier has and will continue to impact history, to what degree will be a direct result of the size of aircraft carrier fleet.
Finally, it will be interesting to watch our aircraft carrier fleet over the next few years. With only ten carriers available for operations, something must change in the way we operate. What will change? Will it be less presence overseas, longer deployments, or less maintenance? In my view, none are good options.
Recent headlines provide part of the answer to my question:
Eisenhower aircraft carrier strike group deploys for 9 months . " Navy says will be the longest of its type in a decade." (Associated Press)
Why did carrier battle groups require multiple carriers? - History
The Solomon Islands were the scene of the Pacific war's lengthiest and most bitterly fought naval campaign. Including the fighting in the immediate vicinity of Guadalcanal, more than a dozen battles raged in these confined waters. Most of them were night surface battles, where the weapons and tactics of the Japanese Navy were at their finest. Unfortunately, the Japanese were faced with a foe willing to accept heavy losses in order to prevail, and also one who learned from past mistakes.
#1. Battle of Eastern Solomons
(August 23-25, 1942)
The first major carrier battle over the Solomons occurred shortly after the American landings. The Japanese realized that reinforcements were desperately needed on the island. Simultaneously, they needed to knock out the American airbase at Henderson Field, which was quickly becoming a menace to Japanese shipping in the area. Consequently, Admiral Yamamoto put together a powerful expeditionary force whose aim was first to destroy any American fleet units that might be in the area, and then eliminate Henderson Field. This force sortied from Truk on August 23rd. Simultaneously, several other reinforcement, support, and bombardment groups sortoed from both Truk and Rabaul.
The Americans would have had three carriers with which to meet the Japanese force, but Wasp was detached to refuel on the 23rd, so she would be out of the coming action. Thus, the Americans would field two carriers ( Saratoga and Enterprise ) and 176 aircraft to the Japanese two heavy carriers ( Shokaku, Zuikaku ) and one light carrier ( Ryujo ) and 177 aircraft pretty much a straight-up fight. As he was prone to, however, Yamamoto divided his forces, sending Ryujo off by herself in advance of the main force, ostensibly to be in a position to attack Henderson Field, as well as supporting the Guadalcanal reinforcement convoy under Raizo Tanaka coming down the Slot from Rabaul.
As usual, division of forces cost the Japanese, as the Americans got in the first blow. Catching Ryujo by herself, and with most of her fighters either gone (on a strike against Guadalcanal) or (inexplicably) still on her decks, they quickly turned her into a burning, sinking wreck. The Japanese heavy carriers, however, counterattacked and damaged Enterprise badly with three bomb hits. However, she managed to transfer the majority of her airwing to Henderson Field before limping away to the southeast. A second Japanese strike failed to find the Americans (which meant that Enterprise would live to fight another day). After an abortive attempt to engage the Americans in a night surface fight with battleships and cruisers, the Japanese Main Force began retiring to Truk.
This was a mistake. The Japanese heavy carriers were thus far unscathed, while they had rendered one of the American CVs impotent, thus leaving them with the advantage. Instead, by withdrawing, Yamamoto had left Tanaka's reinforcement convoy practically unprotected in the Slot. On the morning of the 25th, as the Japanese began approaching Taivu Point, American aircraft from Henderson found the convoy and gave it a pasting. A transport was sunk, and an older destroyer so badly hit that she had to be scuttled. Several other warships were damaged. At this point, Tanaka wisely withdrew.
The Japanese had an opportunity for a decisive victory and had failed to grasp it. American carrier power in the region was diminished, but not broken. Further, with the installation of Enterprise's aircraft at Henderson, the American airfield was a more prickly target than ever. This established an operational precedent, as Henderson would be fed a steady stream of carrier-borne reinforcements. Because of American airpower, the waters around Guadalcanal would continue to be a very dangerous place during the daylight hours.
Main Body (Nagumo)
Detached Carrier Strike Force (Hara)
Vanguard Force, Main Body (Abe)
Support Force, Main Body (Kondo)
+ 1 seaplane tender
Support Group, Reinforcement Force (Mikawa)
+ 3 transports, 4 patrol boats
#2. Battle of Santa Cruz
(October 25-27, 1942)
Yamamoto's second attempt to achieve naval superiority in the area around Guadalcanal came in late October. Shokaku and Zuikaku again formed the core of Combined Fleet's carrier forces, although Zuiho was along for the ride as well. And again, Yamamoto divided his forces into a van, main body, and a plethora of weak and mutually non-supportive support groups (oxymoron intended).
The Americans got their licks in early, punching a 50-foot hole in Zuiho 's flight deck and sending her back to Truk. However, the Japanese put together a very effective attack against Hornet which left her dead in the water. Enterprise and several other American ships were also damaged. Several attacks later in the day crippled Hornet beyond repair, and as attempts to tow her had proved futile, she was abandoned. An American counterattack had badly damaged Shokaku , necessitating her withdrawal, and both the Japanese and the Americans quit the field soon thereafter. American losses had been more serious, but again they had managed to stave off the Japanese efforts to nullify Henderson Field.
Main Body (Nagumo)
Vanguard Force (Abe)
Airgroup Force (Kakuta)
Advance Force (Kondo)
#3. Battle of the Bismarck Sea
(March 3-4, 1943)
At the same time as the Guadalcanal campaign was raging, an equally bitter series of battles was occurring on the island of New Guinea. In early march, a convoy set out from Rabaul to land much-needed reinforcements in the Buna - Gona area. It was composed of eight transports escorted by eight destroyers, and screened by an inadequate light combat air patrol.
Unbeknownst to the Japanese, the American air force had been experimenting with a new aerial tactic called skip-bombing, wherein the attacking airplane drops a bomb with a long-delay fuze close to the surface and lets it skip into the side of the target ship. This was the first occasion in which the Americans would use this new tactic. As soon as the Japanese came under the radius of American airpower, the convoy was attacked relentlessly. The first day's attack (by high altitude B-17s) sank two transports and damaged a third. Two destroyers were tasked with rescuing the survivors and making a high speed run to New Guinea to deposit them. This they did, and returned to the plodding convoy before dawn the next day.
March 4 proved to be a disaster for the Japanese. Coming within range of American and Australian medium bombers, the convoy was savaged by skip-bombing and strafing. By noon, all six remaining transports and four of the destroyers were sinking or sunk. The remaining four destroyers recovered what few survivors they could and fled north to Rabaul. After this, the Japanese would never again attempt to run slow transports into the face of American airpower.
#4. Battle of Kula Gulf
(July 6, 1943)
On the night of July 5th, an American cruiser and destroyer task force was notified of the approach of a Japanese destroyer reinforcement group outbound from Buin. The Americans reversed course and moved to meet them off of Kolombangara. First contact was made at 0106 by Japanese radar (!) aboard Niizuki The Americans enjoyed an advantage in terms of gunfire, and the Japanese had several ships loaded with combat troops, but as usual the Japanese advantage in torpedoes and tactices made up the difference.
The Americans maintained a line-ahead formation and began firing at 0157. They quickly demolished Niizuki , which drew fire from every American cruiser. Japanese torpedoes were already in the water, however, and at 0203 they hit Helena , which lost her bow back to the No. 2 turret, and then took another two hits which sank her. Meanwhile, the Japanese had several vessels damaged by gunfire, and Nagatsuki had run aground. Both forces began a general retirement.
However, both sides still had destroyers in the area attempting to rescue survivors one Japanese and two American. Around 0500 Amagiri and Nicholas exchanged torpedoes and then gunfire. Amagiri was hit and retired, leaving Niizuki 's survivors to their fate. The Americans, by contrast succeeded in rescuing many of Helena 's survivors. The final casualty was Nagatsuki abandoned by her crew in the morning after they failed to get her afloat, she was bombed into a sinking state by US planes.
The losses were about even for both sides. Given the disadvantages the Japanese had labored under, the Americans really ought to have done better. This battle is intriguing, too, for the fact that it was the Japanese who used their search radar effectively. However, American radar gunfire control (which the Japanese still did not have) had allowed them to inflict rapid damage to the opposing force.
#5. Battle of Vella Gulf
(August 6-7, 1943)
Yet another Japanese destroyer reinforcement group, this time headed for Kolombangara, was intercepted by an American destroyer force near Vella LaVella. The Americans used the black backdrop of Kolombangara to hide their ships. They also avoided using their guns until their torpedoes were in the water. By the time Shigure , which was at the tail end of the Japanese column (with Tameichi Hara aboard) spotted the Americans at 2344, the American fish were about a minute away from their targets. As Shigure began launching an eight-fish salvo, the three lead Japanese destroyers were hit within moments of each other. Shigure , too, was hit by a dud torpedo as she turned away. The fish punched a hole in her rudder.
The Americans then closed in to finish the job with gunfire. Practically no resistance came from the crippled Japanese DDs. Shigure had no choice but to run for her life. In all, the Japanese had lost three ships and over 1,200 men. The Americans suffered not a single casualty.
This battle is important because for the first time American destroyers had demonstrated that, given the opportunity, they could meet and best their opposite numbers. By being relieved of their normal duties of screening cruisers, and the linear tactics that role had thus far imposed, the American DDs were able to employ innovative torpedo tactics which had worked beautifully. The Japanese Navy had been served notice that its reign of nighttime torpedo supremacy was at an end.
#6. Battle off Horaniu
(August 18, 1943)
By mid-July, the situation on Kolombangara was such that the Japanese were making every effort to remove heir troops. A Japanese barge convoy, escorted by destroyers, was sent out on the 17th to attempt the mission. An American destroyer force had come north that night to intercept and destroy the barges.
Both forces spotted each other at 0029 on the 18th. The Japanese launched torpedoes at very long range, but the Americans had formed up line abreast and thus combed their wakes. After another series of manuevers, however, the two destroyer forces found themselves line abreast and within long gunfire range. Both groups hammered away at each other, but were generally ineffective. At around 0100 the Isokaze 's radar (erroneously) detected another American force closing from the south, at which point the Japanese retired. In the interim, though, most of the Japanese barges had scattered, leaving only two for the Americans to find and sink.
Neither side had been particularly impressive this night. The only redeeming feature for the Americans was the fact that with radar controlled gunfire they had at least scored more near-misses and straddles than their enemy. The other important thing to note is that, once again, the Americans had demonstrated that their destroyers (at least) were beginning to learn how to take the sting out of Japanese torpedo tactics.
#7. Battle of Vella Lavella
(October 6, 1943)
In October, the Japanese ran another /destroyer barge force towards Vella Lavella to try and rescue the 600-some soldiers stranded there. An American destroyer group was dispatched to block this movement. For once, the Japanese would enjoy a numerical advantage as they outnumbered the American destroyers nine to six, although three of their DDs also carried troops. Further, the American commander (Captain Walker) decided not to join his two groups of three destroyers before approaching the likely scene of battle. Thus he would bring his three 'tin cans' up against a much superior force.
The Japanese actually spotted the Americans visually a minute before American radar returned the favor, but the Japanese were unsure of their sighting for another several minutes. As luck would have it, their course and speed were such that they stood a good chance of crossing the American 'T'. However, the Japanese commander then engaged his squadron in a complex series of evolutions which wasted the intial advantage. At 2256, both columns opened up on each other simultaneously.
The Americans lost one ship ( Chevalier ) crippled almost immediately to a torpedo, and the next destroyer in line ( O'Bannon ) then proceeded to ram her sister. However, American gunfire was simultaneously tearing Yugumo apart. After a brief exchange of further gunnery between Selfridge , Shigure and Samidare , the Japanese retreated the way the came, apparently fearing larger American forces were approaching the area. The Japanese barges, however, accomplished their mission and rescued all the remaining Japanese troops on the island. All in all, not an impressive showing for the Americans, who should have waited to join forces before attacking the Japanese.
#8. Battle of Empress Augusta Bay
(November 2, 1943)
On November 1, 1943, the Americans landed a large amphibious force on the important island of Bougainville. They expected a vigorous response from the Japanese, and they got one. Admiral Sentaro Omori sortied from Rabaul at once with a powerful surface force of two heavy and two light cruisers, and six destroyers. The Americans, having sent most of their assault transports out of the danger zone before nightfall, awaited the Japanese with four light cruisers and eight destroyers. The advantage in both gunfire and torpedoes clearly lay with the Japanese.
Fortunately for the Americans, the Japanese force was a 'pick-up' team which hadn't practiced together, and Omori tried playing a game that was a little over his head. Confused by conflicting reports he was receiving from his scout planes as to the composition of the American force to his south, he executed a series of 180-degree turns (in pitch blackness) which were designed to give his aircraft more time to bring him information. Instead, all they did was throw his squadron into disarray, leaving his screening force far out of position, just as the Americans arrived on the scene. The Americans, coming upon the Japanese screen, launched torpedoes first, and then opened with guns. The Japanese screening force, upon spotting American destroyers, tried desperately to evade the torps they knew to be in the water, and ended up either colliding with each other or suffering near-misses. Sendai nearly hit Shigure , and Samidare sideswiped Shiratsuyu , staving in her hull and putting her out of the fight. Sendai was then buried in 6-inch gunfire.
Omori tried bringing his main bodyinto the battle. This only succeeded in causing further collisions, as Myoko tore Hatsukaze 's bow off, and Haguro nearly hit two other destroyers. A brief, inconclusive fight followed between the two Japanese heavies and the four American lights. Although the Japanese launched a large salvo of torpedoes, they were ineffective. The Americans achieved several gunfire straddles, but failed to hit their targets. At 0229 Omori ordered a general withdrawal. The Americans found the hapless Hatsukaze ( Myoko was still wearing her bow when she returned to Rabaul) and sank her with gunfire.
The Japanese had clearly lost this fight, failing to bring their heavy units to bear conclusively, and wiping out most of their own screening destroyers through their own ill-considered maneuvers. The invasion of Bougainville wouldn't be stopped this night.
#9. Carrier Raid on Rabaul
(November 5, 1943)
Rabaul was the stronghold of Japanese defense in the Solomons. Five separate airfields ringed the base there, stocked with several hundred aircraft maintained by 20,000 of the Empire's best aircraft technicians. The anchorage at Simpson's Harbor could usually be counted upon to be swarming with a variety of Japanese warships. As a result, it had never been seriously threatened by the Americans.
However, with the invasion of Bougainville, Rabaul was now directly jeopardized for the first time. Because the Battle of Empress August Bay had not turned out to Japan's advantage, she needed to act quickly to stomp out this threat. The Navy therefore reacted to reinforce Rabaul and prepare a counterstroke against the Bougainville invasion by moving a variety of additional cruisers to Rabaul. This was potentially very bad news for the Americans, because they had barely come away from the battle on the 2nd with a margin of victory. Against the forces now massing at Rabaul, there would be little chance of the American light surface units in the neighborhood of Bougainville prevailing. Furthermore, most of the US battleships and cruisers were elsewhere preparing for the invasion of Tarawa. In order to pre-empt a move by the Japanese, Rear-Admiral Frederick Sherman put together a bold operational plan to attack the Japanese force at its base. Racing in under a weather front with two carriers, Sherman relied on land-based airpower from New Guinea to protect his ships, while launching every one of his own planes to attack Rabaul. His sagacity was rewarded by near-total surprise and clear weather over the target.
Simpson's Harbor was crowded with ships, and most of them were refueling and in no way prepared to get underway. As they frantically cast off and scrambled for the harbor entrance, American aircraft had a field day. While no Japanese ships were sunk, many were damaged and would have to be sent back to Japan for months of repair work. Fewer than a dozen attacking aircraft were shot down. Upon recovering their aircraft, Sherman's raiders then raced away southward towards friendly air cover. The Japanese were unable to locate them before they escaped. Any Japanese hopes of contesting the Bougainville landings had vanished.
No one realized it at the time, but Rabaul was essentially finished as a prime naval base for the Japanese. Land-based airpower would now keep it under constant air attack, and its own air groups would be steadily depleted. As time passed, Rabaul would become a backwater, it's garrison of nearly 100,000 men left to 'wither on the vine,' its large group of skilled aircraft mechanics left with less and less to do.
#10. Battle of Cape St. George
(November 26, 1943)
With the Americans now consolidating their hold over Bougainville, the Japanese began beefing up troops and supplies on the island of Buka. On November 25, they put together yet another 'Tokyo Express' of five destroyers, three of them laden with troops, and sent them out of Rabaul. Waiting for them were six American destroyers. The Japanese succeeded in dropping off their loads at Buka, but trouble began on the way back home.
American radar spotted the Japanese first, allowing the Americans to close and launch torpedoes without being initially detected. Both of the Japanese screening destroyers were hit, sinking one ( Onami ) and crippling the other ( Makinami ). The Americans then closed in on the destroyer-transports, who scattered and ran for it. Yugiri didn't make it, being pounded by several opponents. The crippled Makinami was also sunk. The American forces tried a stern chase of the other two fleeing Japanese destroyers, but were unable to catch them.
No realized it at the time, but this was the last 'Tokyo Express', and the last surface fight in the Solomons. Freed from screening duties, US destroyers had again held their own against their vaunted Japanese adversaries. There would be no more major naval battles until the invasion of Saipan.
The end of the Solomon Islands campaign marked the snapping of the logistical backbone of the Japanese Navy. After months of grueling fighting in the region, the critical cruiser and destroyer contingents of Nihon Kaigun had been depleted past the point of recovery. Many vessels had been sunk in the course of the conflict, and many more seriously damaged and put out of action for months. Even those vessels still in some semblance of fighting trim had largely been denied regular maintenance and refits, making them less and less efficient as time wore on. The net result was a fleet that was in no position to assume the multiple burdens being placed upon it. Japan no longer had enough escorts to shield its remaining carriers, and guard convoys against submarine attacks, and retain sufficient strength (and profficiency) to engage in surface battles.
The Americans, by contrast, had now gained the initiative in the entire Pacific theatre. While American ship losses in the Solomons had been severe, they had been more than made up by the prodigious output of its hyperactive shipbuilding programs. The Americans had also done a better job of rescuing their surviving sailors and airmen than their Japanese opponents, meaning that the US Navy was preserving its cadre of veteran combat men. By the end of the Solomons campaign, therefore, the US Navy had not only begun to achieve material superiority, it was also pulling ahead technologically, tactically, and in terms of training. The Americans had now forged the naval power that would hand Japan an unbroken string of defeats until the end of the war.
Kamikazes at the Battle of Okinawa
On May 6, 1945, a twin-engine kamikaze plane&rsquos bomb exploded beside the destroyer Luce, part of the radar picket ship screen surrounding Okinawa, and ripped her starboard side &ldquolike a sardine can.&rdquo Flames shot 200 feet high. A minute later, a kamikaze fighter slammed into Luce&rsquos 5-inch stern port guns, and their magazine erupted in a fireball. Luce went down five minutes later with 149 men lost. In the water, sharks hit men &ldquoleft and right, just tearing them up,&rdquo said radioman Tom Matisak, who saw them rip into the ship&rsquos barber. &ldquoIt was an awful, bloody mess as they chopped him up and pulled him under.&rdquo
For three months in 1945, this was an all-too-common occurrence in the seas off Okinawa, where 10 mass kamikaze attacks, each with hundreds of suicide planes, struck the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The attacks did not alter the course of the Pacific war, but the death toll of more than 4,900 Navy crewmen increased the misgivings of some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about invading Japan.
As American forces edged closer to mainland Japan in 1944 and 1945, Japanese leaders adopted desperate measures to thwart the looming disaster. One was the mass kamikaze attack.The loss of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Mariana Islands and the better part of Japan&rsquos air force during the summer of 1944 forced many senior officials to realize that the war was lost. B-29s now menaced mainland Japan&rsquos major cities and ports from new Mariana bases. American submarines were shutting down the oil and rubber pipeline from Southeast Asia. Peleliu was about to fall, and the Philippines would be next.
A negotiated peace being Japan&rsquos best hope, Japanese military leaders embraced attritional warfare as a means of forcing the Allies to drop their demand for unconditional surrender.
Its ideological underpinnings were gyukosai and Bushido. Gyokusai was an ancient term meaning &ldquosmashing the jewel&rdquo &mdash perishing by suicide or in battle rather than suffering the ignominy of capture. A vestige of the samurai warrior code, Bushido was characterized by a studied indifference to death. The new strategy was first applied in September 1944 during the defense of the Palua Islands stronghold of Peleliu. Rather than launch a banzai attack at the beach, the usual Japanese tactic, Colonel Kunio Nakagawa&rsquos troops awaited the invaders inside the caves, tunnels, and fortifications that they had carved into the jagged coral ridges. They patiently waited for U.S. Marines to enter prepared &ldquokill zones&rdquo where they could be raked by gunfire from multiple positions.
The Japanese achieved their goal at Peleliu: during the battle&rsquos first two weeks, the American casualty rate surpassed anything seen in the Pacific war. The new strategy became the template for the defenses of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Japan&rsquos air forces officially embraced the strategy on October 19, 1944, when Admiral Takijiro Ohnishi, commander of the First Air Fleet, met with the 201 st Air Group&rsquos senior pilots at Mabalacat Airfield in the Philippines. He told them Japan&rsquos salvation no longer depended on civilian and military leaders, but on its young pilots and their &ldquobody-hitting spirit.&rdquo When Ohnishi finished speaking, &ldquoin a frenzy of emotion and joy&rdquo all of the pilots volunteered for the first Special Attack Unit.
Never before or since has there been a phenomenon quite like the Japanese suicide pilot &mdash the kamikaze, named for the &ldquodivine wind&rdquo typhoon that destroyed an invasion fleet under Kublai Khan in 1281 before it reached Japan. General Torashiro Kawabe claimed that the kamikaze did not regard himself as suicidal. &ldquoHe looked upon himself as a human bomb which would destroy a certain part of the enemy fleet &hellip [and] died happy in the conviction that his death was a step toward the final victory.&rdquo It was a coldly logical decision considering that there were fewer skilled pilots, and they were flying outdated planes that were being routinely shot down.
The Japanese simply armed their warplanes with 500-pound bombs and crashed them into American ships. &ldquoIf one is bound to die, what is more natural than the desire to die effectively, at maximum cost to the enemy?&rdquo wrote Captain Rikihei Inoguchi, the First Air Fleet&rsquos senior staff officer. The &ldquofight to the death&rdquo strategy&rsquos objectives were embodied in the slogan of the Thirty-Second Army that defended Okinawa: &ldquoOne plane for one warship/One boat for one ship/One man for ten of the enemy or one tank.&rdquo The kamikaze pilots wore white headbands emblazoned with the Rising Sun and good-luck &ldquothousand-stitch&rdquo wrappers made by 1,000 civilians who had each sewn a stitch with red thread it supposedly made them bullet-proof. Before climbing into their cockpits, the pilots lifted their sake cups in a final toast to the emperor and sang, &ldquoIf we are born proud sons of the Yamato race, let us die/Let us die with triumph, fighting in the sky.&rdquo
The suicide attacks began October 25, 1944, during the U.S. invasion of the Philippines. A kamikaze squadron commander sent off his 18 pilots with the exhortation, &ldquoPut forth everything you have. All of you, come back dead.&rdquo They sank the carrier escort St. Lo, killing 113 crewmen, and damaged the carrier escort Santee. Six pilots returned after failing to find targets. Days later, kamikazes crashed and badly damaged the aircraft carriers Franklin and Belleau Wood.
It was just the beginning.
Between October 1944 and March 1945, suicide attacks killed more than 2,200 Americans and sank 22 vessels. At Iwo Jima on February 21, fifty kamikazes from the 601st Air Group sank the carrier escort Bismarck Sea and badly damaged the carrier Saratoga. The kamikazes&rsquo acme was during the 10 large-scale attacks, or &ldquokikusuis&rdquo &mdashmeaning &ldquochrysanthemums floating on water&rdquo &mdash launched against the picket ships surrounding Okinawa. During Kikusui No. 1 on April 6 &mdash five days after L-Day on Okinawa &mdash the onslaught by 355 kamikazes and 344 escort fighters began at 3 p.m. and lasted five hours. &ldquoDear parents,&rdquo wrote Flying Petty Officer 1/c Isao Matsuo on the eve of the mission, &ldquoplease congratulate me. I have been given a splendid opportunity to die. This is my last day.&rdquo Twenty-two kamikazes penetrated the combat air patrol shield on April 6, sinking six ships and damaging 18 others. Three hundred fifty U.S. crewmen died.
The clash between death-seeking Japanese flyers and American sailors and pilots determined to live produced gruesome casualties. John Warren Jones Jr., on the destroyer Hyman when she was crashed, saw two men stagger from the inferno with their naked bodies covered with third-degree burns. Two shipmates had their heads blown open. One had &ldquoa big piece of plane through his chest and sticking out both sides.&rdquo By April 1945, though, it was apparent that many kamikaze pilots, perhaps because of fuel shortages that limited their training, possessed meager flying skills and could be easily shot down. As defeat loomed larger by the week, volunteers for kamikaze duty dried up resentful conscripts increasingly filled the ranks. They often flew to their deaths drunk and bitter. One pilot, after takeoff, strafed his own command post.
The Japanese fell short of their goal of &ldquoone plane one ship,&rdquo but sank 36 American warships, and damaged 368 other vessels at Okinawa. The Navy&rsquos losses were the highest of the Pacific war: 4,907 sailors and officers killed, and 4,824 wounded. Japan lost an estimated 1,600 suicide and conventional planes at Okinawa. The 9/11 hijackers excepted, the kamikaze disappeared after the advent of unmanned missiles, and in the absence of a samurai tradition like that of World War II Japan.
Here's Every Aircraft Carrier in the World
Consider this your comprehensive guide to air power at sea.
Only a handful of countries have aircraft carriers in their arsenals. They form an exclusive club of members that have decided their interests stretch so far from their own waters, they need to put air power at sea.
Broadly speaking, there are three aircraft carrier types today: larger carriers that carry both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters smaller carriers that operate helicopters and amphibious ships that have full-length flight decks, hangars, and carry helicopters.
Some of the world's carriers are new, bristling with planes and capable of circumnavigating the globe without refueling. Others, meanwhile, are at least a half-century old and carry just a handful of obsolete planes, rarely leaving base.
Here's a comprehensive look at the world's fleet.
The United States now operates 10 Nimitz-class "supercarriers," aircraft carriers that dwarf all other flat-tops worldwide both in size and capability.
The Nimitz carriers are 1,092 feet long and weigh a whopping 101,600 tons&mdash60 percent larger than their nearest counterparts, the Queen Elizabeth class. Each ship is propelled to speeds in excess of 30 knots by a pair of nuclear reactors, giving them nearly unlimited range. The ships are built with high-tensile steel for protection, with layers of Kevlar over vital spaces.
Each Nimitz typically carries an air wing consisting of 24 F/A-18C Hornets, 24 F/A-E/F Super Hornets, 4 to 5 E/A-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, 4 E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft, 2 C-2 Greyhound transport aircraft, and 6 Seahawk helicopters.
In addition to the Nimitz-class, the U.S. Navy also operates nine landing helicopter dock ships of the Wasp and America classes. These ships are 843 feet long and displace roughly 40,000 tons. The ships are designed to carry air and land elements of a U.S. Marine corps landing force and have full-length, carrier-like flight decks.
Each ship can carry 10 MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor transports, 4 CH-53E heavy transport helicopters, 3 UH-1 Huey helicopters, 4 AH-1Z attack helicopters, and 6 AV-8B Harrier jump jets. With minimal modification, each Wasp can carry 24 Harriers.
The America class is optimized toward carrying Marine aviation units and can carry a few more Ospreys. In the near future, the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter will replace the Harriers on a 1:1 basis, and the America class will be capable of supporting up to 20 F-35Bs at once.
Several new supercarriers, USS Gerald R. Ford, USS John F. Kennedy, USS Enterprise, and USS Doris Miller&mdashthe first naval ship to be named after a Black sailor (and an enlisted sailor)&mdashare under construction. An America-class ship, USS Tripoli, is also under development.
The age of supercarriers like the USS Gerald R. Ford may soon come to an end. Earlier this year, the acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly told Defense & Aerospace Report the Navy may not purchase any more of this class of carrier.