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Pearl Harbor, the Missing Carriers: USS Enterprise, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga

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On the morning of December 7th 1941 8 of the 9 Battleships assigned to the US Pacific Fleet were in Pearl Harbor. Seven, the USS California, USS Maryland, USS Oklahoma, USS Tennessee, USS West Virginia, USS Arizona and USS Nevada were moored on Battleship Row. The USS Pennsylvania was in the massive dry dock which she shared with the destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes. The USS Colorado, a sister ship of Maryland and West Virginia was at the Puget Sound Naval Yard being overhauled.

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USS West Virginia sinking at left and USS Tennessee burning at Pearl Harbor

At the time both the United States Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy still viewed the Battleships as the heart of the fleet and the essence of naval power. Aircraft Carriers were still viewed as an adjunct and support to the traditional battle line.

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Thus as the Japanese Carrier Strike Group, the Kido Butai under the command of Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo approached Pearl Harbor and intelligence reports came in indicating that the carriers were not present the Japanese were not overly concerned. The lack of concern was in a sense ironic because the force they assigned to destroy the Battleships of the Pacific Fleet was the carrier strike group, not their battle line.

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The Kido Butai enroute to Pearl Harbor

Comprised of six carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku the force embarked over 300 first line aircraft. The aviators of the air groups aboard the carriers had been training for months to attack Pearl Harbor. Their aircraft had been specially outfitted with Type 91 Model 2 aerial torpedoes designed to run in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor and Type 99 Model 5 armor piecing bombs modified from battleship shells. These weapons would be employed with a devastating effect on the morning of December 7th 1941.

The three carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet, the USS Saratoga, USS Lexington and USS Enterprise had been dispatched on missions that took them away from Pearl Harbor that fateful Sunday.

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USS Lexington

The Lexington and Task Force 12 had departed Pearl Harbor on December 5th to ferry 18 SB2U Vindicator Dive Bombers of VSMB-231 to Midway Island. Saratoga was entering San Diego to embark her air group and Enterprise which had left Pearl Harbor on November 28th to deliver VMF-211 to Wake Island was due to return to Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December. As such none of these ships were in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Their absence helped save the United States and Allied cause in the Pacific.

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USS Saratoga

The United States had other carriers but all were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet due to the belief that Nazi Germany was a greater threat than Japan. The USS Yorktown was at Norfolk in between deployments in support of the Neutrality Patrol. USS Ranger was returning to Norfolk from a patrol, USS Wasp was at Grassy Bay Bermuda and the newly commissioned USS Hornet was training out of Norfolk. The USS Long Island, the first Escort carrier was undergoing operational tests and training out of Norfolk.

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Had any of the three carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet been in Pearl Harbor on the morning of the Japanese attack the results would have been even more disastrous for the United States. Instead the carriers began operations against the Japanese almost immediately. Carriers based on the East Coast including Hornet, Yorktown and Wasp were transferred to the Pacific. In the perilous months following the Pearl Harbor attack the US carriers took the fight to the Japanese conducting raids against Japanese held islands. In April 1942 the Enterprise and Hornet, the latter with 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers under the command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle struck Tokyo.

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USS Hornet launching the Doolittle Raiders

The result was that Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto decided to attack Midway Island to force the US fleet and its carriers into a decisive battle. Although the Japanese had lost a good number of aircrew from Shokaku and Zuikaku at the Battle of Coral Sea, while sinking the Lexington Yamamoto remained committed to the decisive battle. That battle was decisive, but not in the way Yamamoto had planned. Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu were sunk by aircraft operating from Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet. Yorktown was lost in the battle bat it was a decisive defeat for the Japanese.

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Sinking the Akagi at Midway

In the succeeding months in the vicious battles around the Solomon Islands the remaining US carriers proved decisive. Although Wasp and Hornet were sunk in those battles and both Saratoga and Enterprise often heavily damaged they held the line. The carriers that the Japanese missed proved decisive in turning the tide and winning the war.

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Raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor the USS West Virginia in Tokyo Bay

Though Yamamoto did not realize it the attack on Pearl Harbor signaled the end of the supremacy of the Battleship and the ascendency of the Aircraft Carrier. By 1943 Battleships were regulated to escorting the fast carrier task forces or conducting shore bombardments. The ultimate irony was that the last battleship engagement in history was won by the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Raised from the mud the West Virginia, Tennessee, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania joined by the USS Mississippi rained destruction on two Japanese task forces attempting to penetrate Leyte Gulf and destroy the US invasion force transports at the Battle of Surigao Strait.

The ironies and intricacies of war. They are amazing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Humble Harbinger: The USS Langley CV-1

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Last week the US Navy’s newest Aircraft Carrier the USS Gerald R Ford was launched and christened. Looking at the behemoth it is hard to believe that nine decades ago the US Navy was experiment with its first aircraft carrier the USS Langley.

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Now Langley was not the first aircraft carrier. That honor went to the Royal Navy’s HMS Furious. The HMS Argus, a converted passenger liner was more comparable to Langley and served many of the same purposes for the Royal Navy.

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Langley was not much to look at, her nickname in the fleet was the “Covered Wagon.” She was not built as a carrier. Instead, like most of the early aircraft carriers in the US Navy, Royal Navy, French Navy and Japanese Navy she was converted from a ship built for a different purpose. Langley initially took to the water as the USS Jupiter, AC-3 a Collier, or coal ship in the days before oil replaced coal as the fuel for warships. Her more infamous sister ship, the ill-fated USS Cyclops disappeared with all hands in what is called the Bermuda Triangle in March 1918.

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She was converted into a carrier in 1920 and joined the fleet again as Langley on March 22nd 1922. At 542 feet long and 65 feet in beam she would fit several times over on the flight deck of any current US Navy carrier. Her slow speed of 15 knots meant that she would be relegated to training aviators, participating in fleet exercises and testing new aircraft.

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Lieutenant Commander Godfrey DeCourcelles Chevalier

The first takeoff from Langley was on 17 October 1922 when Lieutenant Virgil Griffin flew a Vought VE-7 off her bow. It was the beginning of carrier based aviation in the US Navy. Nice days later Lieutenant Commander Godfrey DeCourcelles Chevalier made the first landing on Langley landing a Aeromarine 39B trainer on a deck equipped with experimental arresting gear. Chevalier died less than a month later when his Vought VE-7 crashed on a flight from Norfolk to Yorktown Virginia. Langley was the first carrier of any navy equipped with a catapult and on 18 November 1922 her Commanding Officer, Commander Kenneth Whiting was the first aviator to be catapulted from a ship.

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Commander Kenneth Whiting

Whiting is considered by some to be the “father of the aircraft carrier” and had been instrumental in the selection of Jupiter for conversion, the conversion process and the continued development of carrier aviation following his command of Langley.

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Langley remained the primary training carrier for the Navy until 1936 when she was converted into a Seaplane Tender. In the decade and a half that she served in this role she was used to test various catapult and arresting systems the knowledge gained being useful in the development of new carriers. Likewise the aviators trained aboard her would go on to help develop US Navy Carrier aviation before and during the Second World War.

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Langley served in the Southwest Pacific during the opening months of the war and was sunk on 27 February 1942 after being attacked by Japanese bombers near Tjilatjap Java.

When the Gerald R Ford enters service in 2016 she will continue a tradition that began with the humble USS Langley, the illustrious Covered Wagon.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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103 Years of Naval Aviation: Celebrating Eugene Ely and the First Flight on and Off a Ship

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On a blustery November 14th in the year 1910 a young civilian pilot hailing from Williamsport Iowa became the first man to fly an aircraft off the deck of a ship.  At the age of 24 and having taught himself to fly barely 7 months before Eugene Ely readied himself and his Curtis biplane aboard the Cruiser USS Birmingham anchored just south of Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads.

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Eugene Ely (above) Captain Washington Irving Chambers (below)

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Ely was there because he was discovered by Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers.  Chambers had been tasked with exploring how aircraft might become part of Naval Operations. Chambers had no budget or authority for his seemingly thankless task nor any trained Navy aviators. But when he heard that a German steamship might launch and aircraft from a ship Chambers hustled to find a way to stake a claim for the U.S. Navy to be the first in flight.

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Weather was bad that day as is so typical for Hampton Roads in November. Between rain squalls Ely decided to launch even though Birmingham did not have steam up to get underway to assist the launch.  Ely gunned the engine and his biplane rumbled down the 57 foot ramp and as he left the deck the aircraft nosed down and actually make contact with the water splintering the propeller. The damage to his aircraft forced Ely to cut the flight short and land on Willoughby Spit about 2 ½ miles away. This is not far from the southern entrance to the modern Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel.

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Chambers would talk Ely into making the first landing on a Navy ship the Armored Cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay on January 18th 1911. In this flight his aircraft was modified and equipped with an arrestor hook, a standard feature on carrier aircraft since the early days of US Navy aviation.

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Ely landing on USS Pennsylvania (note the “arrestor cables” on the deck)

Ely desired employment in the Navy but the Navy Air Arm had not yet been established so he continued his exhibition flying around the country. Ely died in a crash while performing at the Georgia State Fairgrounds on October 11th 1911 less than a year after his historic flight off the deck of the Birmingham.

Ely would not be forgotten. Though he was a civilian he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Congress in 1933. The citation read in part: “for extraordinary achievement as a pioneer civilian aviator and for his significant contribution to the development of aviation in the United States Navy.”

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It is hard to believe that Naval Aviation traces its heritage back to this humble beginning. However the next time you see whether in person or on television aircraft taking off and landing from a modern super carrier remember the brave soul named Eugene Ely who 103 years ago gunned his frail aircraft down that short ramp aboard the Birmingham. To Ely and all the men and women who would follow him as Naval Aviators.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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70 Years: Celebrating the Miracle at Midway

It is hard to imagine now but in June of 1942 it seemed a good possibility that the Americans and British could be on the losing side of the Second World War.

In June 1942 the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific appeared nearly unstoppable. The Imperial Navy stormed across the Pacific and Indian Oceans in the months after Pearl Harbor decimating Allied Naval forces that stood in their way.  The British Battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk by land based aircraft off of Singapore. A force of Royal Navy cruisers and the Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes were sunk by the same carriers that struck Pearl Harbor in the Indian Ocean.  Darwin Australia was struck with a devastating blow on February 19th and on February 27th the Japanese annihilated the bulk of the American, British, Dutch and Australian naval forces opposing them at the Battle of the Java Sea. American forces in the Philippines surrendered on May 8th while the British in Singapore surrendered on February 15th.

In only one place had a Japanese Naval task force been prevented from its goal and that was at the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Between 4-8 May the US Navy’s Task Force 11 and Task Force 17 centered on the Carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown prevented a Japanese invasion force from taking Port Moresby. Their aircraft sank the light carrier Shoho, damaged the modern carrier Shokaku and decimated the air groups of the Japanese task force. But it was the unexpected raid by US Army Air Corps B-25 Bombers launched from the USS Hornet under command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle on April 18th 1942 which embarrassed Yamamoto so badly that he ordered the attack to take Midway and destroy the remaining US Naval power in the Pacific.

In May US Navy code breakers discovered the next move of the Imperial Navy an attack on Midway Island and the Aleutian islands.   Since the occupation of Midway by Japanese forces would give them an operational base less than 1000 miles from Pearl Harbor Admiral Chester Nimitz committed the bulk of his naval power, the carriers USS Enterprise CV-6, USS Yorktown CV-5 and USS Hornet CV-8 and their 8 escorting cruisers and 15 destroyers.  His force of 26 ships with 233 aircraft embarked to defend Midway while a force of 5 cruisers and 4 destroyers was dispatched to cover the Aleutians.  Midway itself had a mixed Marine, Navy and Army air group of 115 aircraft which included many obsolete aircraft, 32 PBY Catalina Flying Boats and 83 fighters, dive bombers, torpedo planes and Army Air Force bombers piloted by a host of inexperienced but resolute airmen.

The Japanese Fleet was led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamato and was built around the elite First Carrier Striking Group composed of the Pearl Harbor attackers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu. Led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo its highly trained and combat experienced air groups composed of 273 aircraft. This force was escorted by 2 Battleships, 3 Cruisers 12 Destroyers. Yamamoto commanded a force of  2 light carriers, 5 Battleships, 11 cruisers and 27 destroyers.  Meanwhile a  force of 4 battleships, 12 destroyers assigned screen to the Aleutian invasion force which was accompanied by 2 carriers 6 cruisers and 10 destroyers. The other carriers embarked a further 114 aircraft.  The Japanese plan was ambitious but it was so ambitious that the Japanese Task forces were scattered over thousands of square miles of the Northern Pacific Ocean from which they could not rapidly come to the support of each other.

With the foreknowledge provided by the code breakers the US forces hurried to an intercept position northeast of Midway. They eluded the Japanese submarine scout line which the Japanese Commander Admiral Yamamoto presumed would find them when they sailed to respond to the Japanese attack on Midway.  Task Force 16 with the Enterprise and Hornet sailed first under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A Spruance in place of the ailing William “Bull” Halsey. Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher was built around the Yorktown which had been miraculously brought into fighting condition after suffering heavy damage at Coral Sea. Fletcher assumed overall command by virtue of seniority and Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders to apply the principle of “calculated risk” when engaging the Japanese as the loss of the US carriers would place the entire Pacific at the mercy of the Japanese Navy.

On June 3rd a PBY Catalina from Midway discovered the Japanese invasion force and US long range bombers launched attacks against but inflicted no damage. On the morning of the 4th the Americans adjusted their search patterns in and the Japanese came into range of Midway and commenced their first strike against the island.  In response land based aircraft from Midway attacked the Japanese carrier force taking heavy casualties and failing to damage the Japanese task force.

The American Carrier task forces launched their strike groups at the Japanese fleet leaving enough aircraft behind of the Combat Air Patrol and Anti-submarine patrol.  As the Americans winged toward the Japanese fleet the Japanese were in confused.  A scouting report by an aircraft that had been delayed at launch discovered US ships but did not identify a carrier until later into the patrol.  This was the Yorktown and TF 17. The Japanese attempted to recover their strike aircraft and prepare for a second strike on the island and then on discovery of the carrier embarked on the task of unloading ground attack ordnance in favor of aerial torpedoes and armor piercing bombs.  The hard working Japanese aircrew did not have time to stow the ordnance removed from the aircraft but by 1020 they had the Japanese strike group ready to launch against the US carriers.

As the Japanese crews worked the Japanese carriers were engaged in fending off attacks by the US torpedo bomber squadrons, VT-6 from Enterprise, VT-8 from Hornet and VT-3 from Yorktown.  The Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed TBD Devastators as they came in low to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of the Devastators were shot down.  Only Ensign George Gay’s aircraft was able to launch its torpedo before being shot down and Gay would be the sole survivor of the squadron.

Torpedo 6 under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties losing 10 of 14 aircraft with Lindsey being one of the casualties.  The last group of Devastators to attack was Torpedo 3 under the command of LCDR Lem Massey from the Yorktown.  These aircraft were also decimated and Massey killed but they had drawn the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to the deck leaving the task force exposed to the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown.

There had been confusion among the Americans as to the exact location of the Japanese Carriers, the Bombing 8 and Scouting 8 of Hornet did not find the carriers and had to return for lack of fuel with a number of bombers and their fighter escort having to ditch inn the ocean and wait for rescue.  The Enterprise group under LCDR Wade McClusky was perilously low on fuel when the wake of a Japanese destroyer was spotted.  McClusky followed it to the Japanese Task Force.  The Yorktown’s group under LCDR Max Leslie arrived about the same time.  The found the skies empty of Japanese aircraft. Aboard the Japanese ships there was a sense of exhilaration as each succeeding group of attackers was brought down and with their own aircraft ready to launch and deal a fatal blow to the American carrier wondered how big their victory would be.

At 1020 the first Zero of the Japanese attack group began rolling down the flight deck of the flagship Akagi, aboard Kaga aircraft were warming up as they were on the Soryu.  The unsuspecting Japanese were finally alerted when lookouts screamed “helldivers.” Wade McClusky’s aircraft lined up over the Akagi and Kaga pushing into their dives at 1022. There was a bit of confusion when the bulk of Scouting 6 joined the attack of Bombing 6 on the Kaga.  The unprepared carrier was struck by four 1000 pound bombs which exploded on her flight deck and hangar deck igniting the fully fueled and armed aircraft of her strike group and the ordnance littered about the hangar deck.  Massive fires and explosions wracked the ship and in minutes the proud ship was reduced to an infernal hell with fires burning uncontrollably. She was abandoned and would sink at 1925 taking 800 of her crew with her.

LT Dick Best of Scouting 6 peeled off from the attack on Kaga and shifted to the Japanese flagship Akagi. On board Akagi were two of Japans legendary pilots CDR Mitsuo Fuchida leader of and CDR Minoru Genda the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and subsequent string of Japanese victories.  Both officers were on the sick list and had come up from sick bay to watch as the fleet was attacked.  Seeing Kaga burst into flames they stood mesmerized until Akagi’s lookouts screamed out the warning “helldivers” at 1026.  Best’s aircraft hit with deadly precision landing tow of their bombs on Akagi’s flight deck creating havoc among the loaded aircraft and starting fires and igniting secondary explosions which turned the ship into a witch’s cauldron.  By 1046 Admiral Nagumo and his staff were forced to transfer the flag to the cruiser Nagara as Akagi’s crew tried to bring the flames under control. They would do so into the night until nothing more could be done and abandoned ship at 2000.  Admiral Yamamoto ordered her scuttled and at 0500 on June 5th the pride of the Japanese carrier force was scuttled.

VB-3 under LCDR Max Leslie from the Yorktown stuck the Soryu with 17 aircraft, only 13 of which had bombs due to an electronic arming device malfunction on 4 of the aircraft including the squadron leader Leslie.  Despite this they dove on the Soryu at 1025 hitting that ship with 3 and maybe as many as 5 bombs. Soryu like her companions burst into flames as the ready aircraft and ordnance exploded about her deck. She was ordered abandoned at 1055 and would sink at 1915 taking 718 of her crew with her.

The remaining Japanese flattop the Hiryu attained the same fate later in the day after engaging in an epic duel with the Yorktown which her aircraft heavily damaged. Yorktown was abandoned after a second strike but when she did not sink her her returned to attempt to save her. However despite their efforts she and the destroyer USS Hamman DD-412 were torpedoed by the Japanese Submarine I-168. Hamman sank almost immediately with heavy loss of life while Yorktown sank on the morning of the 7th.

It was quite miraculous what happened at Midway in those five pivotal minutes.  Authors have entitled books about Midway Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway and the titles reflect the essence of the battle.  A distinctly smaller force defeated a vastly superior fleet in terms of experience, training and equipment and when it appeared that the Japanese Fleet would advance to victory in a span of less than 5 minutes turn what looked like certain defeat into one of the most incredible and even miraculous victories in the history of Naval warfare.  In those 5 minutes history was changed in a breathtaking way.  While the war would drag on and the Japanese still inflict painful losses and defeats on the US Navy in the waters around Guadalcanal the tide had turned and the Japanese lost the initiative in the Pacific never to regain it.   The Japanese government hid the defeat from the Japanese people instead proclaiming a great victory while the American government could not fully publicize the information that led to the ability of the US Navy to be at the right place at the right time and defeat the Imperial Navy.

When one looks at implications of the victory it did a number of things. First it changed the course of the war in the Pacific probably shortening it by a great deal.  Secondly it established the aircraft carrier and the fast carrier task force as the dominant force in naval warfare which some would argue it still remains.  Finally those five minutes ushered in an era of US Navy dominance of the high seas which at least as of yet has not ended as the successors to the Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown ply the oceans of the world and the descendants of those valiant carrier air groups ensure air superiority over battlefields around the world.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Graf Zeppelin and Aquila: Dreams of the Axis Carrier Air Enthusiasts

While the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy developed mature Fleet Air Arms and the French Navy experimented with the conversion of a Normandie class battleship hull into a carrier the Bearn the German Kriegsmarine and Italian Royal Navy the Regio Marina lagged behind. The Italian effort was hobbled by inter-service rivalries and doctrinal debates as well as political battles. As a result the Italians maintained a Seaplane Carrier until Mussolini decided in favor of a carrier. In Germany the effort was precluded by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1935 the Anglo-German Naval Treaty allowed the Germans to build carriers up to 35,000 tons displacement and the same year Hitler announced that Germany would build aircraft carriers. German Naval and Luftwaffe Officers travelled to Japan in 1935 to study the Japanese Carrier Akagi and the German Carrier Flugzugträger A later the Graf Zeppelin was laid down a year later.

The Italian Aircraft Carrier Aquila

Neither ship would ever become operational. The Italian ship named Aquila which was converted from the Ocean Liner Roma was begun in 1941 and by 1943 was nearing completion and already her static tests when Italy surrendered and she was commandeered by the Germans.  Damaged by an allied air attack in 19on 44 she was partially scuttled on 19 April 1945.  Aquila was salvaged and consideration was given to completing her after the war but she was scrapped in 1951.

Incomplete Aquila in German hands 1944

Reggiane Re.2001 Falco II

As a carrier Aquila displaced 28,000 tons full load and would have been capable of a maximum speed of 30 knots.  She was designed to carry an air group of 51 Reggianne Re.2001 OR Serie II figher-bomber/torpedo bombers able to carry a able to carry a 600 kg torpedo or bomb.  Had she been started in 1938 or 1939 instead of 1941 she might have been completed in time to be of assistance to the Italian Navy in its operations against the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

The Kriegsmarine Carrier Graf Zeppelin

The Germans faced their own challenges and despite the fact that Graf Zeppelin was launched on 8 December 1938 she was never completed and never achieved an operational status.  Part of the problem was the weakness of the Kreigsmarine in relation to the other services, especially Goering’s Luftwaffe which maintained control of all German aircraft design, construction and operation. The other major issue was the lack of experience the Germans had in carrier design or construction which resulted in a number of retrofits which lasted until 1943 when she was nearly complete. At that point in time Hitler now thoroughly disillusioned with the Kriegsmarine surface units suspended her construction.   She was scuttled in April 1945 before she could be captured by the Soviets. The Soviet Union would study her and use her in ordnance testing to see what kind of damage a carrier might absorb.  She sank following being hit by 24 bombs, projectiles and two torpedoes.

The incomplete Graf Zeppelin

As a carrier Graf Zeppelin was 33,550 tons and would have capable of 35 knots with a 9,000 mile cruising range at 19 knots. Her air group would have been comprised of 30 Bf 109T fighters and 12 Ju 87 dive bombers.

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The completion of either of these ships by the Axis Powers would probably not altered the course of the war but would have been an interesting footnote to history had they become operational and participated in any action against Allied Carriers.

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100 Years of Navy Aviation: Part One the Aircraft Carriers

Eugene Ely makes the first takeoff from USS Birmingham on November 14th 1910

On a blustery November 14th in the year 1910 a young civilian pilot hailing from Williamsburg Iowa became the first man to fly an aircraft off the deck of a ship.  At the age of 24 and having taught himself to fly barely 7 months before Eugene Ely readied himself and his Curtis biplane aboard the Cruiser USS Birmingham anchored just south of Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads.  Ely was there because he was discovered by Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers who had been tasked with exploring how aircraft might become part of Naval Operations. Chambers had no budget or authority for his seemingly thankless task but hearing that a German steamship might launch and aircraft from a ship hustled to find a way to stake a claim for the U.S. Navy to be the first in flight. Weather was bad that day as is so typical for Hampton Roads in November and between rain squalls Ely decided to launch even though Birmingham did not have steam up to get underway to assist the launch.  Ely gunned the engine and his biplane rumbled down the 57 foot ramp and as he left the deck the aircraft nosed down and actually make contact with the water splintering the propeller and forcing him to cut the flight short and land on Willoughby Spit about 2 ½ miles away not far from the southern entrance to the modern Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel is.  Chambers would talk Ely into making the first landing on a Navy ship the Armored Cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay on January 18th 1911.  Ely died in a crash at the Georgia State Fairgrounds on October 11th 1911.

USS Langley CV-1

The Naval was slow to build upon the early achievements and the British and France would commission Aircraft Carriers well before the USS Langley CV-1 a converted Collier was commissioned.  After Langley the Navy commissioned the converted Battlecruisers USS Lexington CV-2 and USS Saratoga CV-3 in the mid 1920s.

USS Lexington CV-2 October 1941

The three ships formed the nucleus of the Navy’s embrace of aviation and the pilots that they trained and the experience gained would be the foundation of the Navy’s success in the Second World War.  They would be joined by the USS Ranger CV-4 the first U. S. Navy Carrier designed as such from the keel up in 1934.

USS Enterprise CV-6

In 1937 the Navy commissioned the first of its true Fleet Carriers the USS Yorktown CV-5 which was followed by the USS Enterprise CV-6 in 1938, the USS Wasp CV-7 an improved version of Ranger in was commissioned in 1940 and the USS Hornet CV-8 in 1941.   These ships would bear the brunt of US Navy operations in the first year of the war following the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Of these ships only the Enterprise and Saratoga would survive the first year of the war in the Pacific.  Langley now a Seaplane Carrier was sunk during the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942. Lexington would go down at Coral Sea in May 1942.  Hornet would launch the Doolittle Raid against Japan on April 18th 1942.  Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet would take on and defeat the Japanese Carrier Strike force and sink the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu at Midway to avenge Pearl Harbor. Yorktown was sunk in the battle but Midway stopped the Japanese advance in the Pacific.

The U. S. went on the offensive in August invading Guadalcanal in the Solomons Islands. The Guadalcanal campaign and the numerous sea battles in the adjacent waterways would claim many American and Japanese ships. Wasp was sunk by a Japanese submarine on September 15th 1942 and Hornet was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz on 27 October 27th 1942.  Saratoga spent much of 1942 in the yards having been torpedoed twice leaving the often battered Enterprise as the sole U. S. Navy Carrier facing the Japanese until Saratoga was repaired and the first of the Essex Class Fleet Carriers and Independence Class Light Fleet Carriers entered service and arrived in the Pacific.

USS Yorktown CV-10 1944 a good example of the wartime Essex class ships  below USS Cabot CVL-28 an Independence Class Light Fleet Carrier


The Essex Class ships became the nucleus of the Fast Carrier Task Forces in the Pacific and with their smaller consorts of the Independence Class would dominate operations at sea from 1943 on.  The Essex class would eventually number 24 ships with several more canceled before completion becoming the most numerous of any class of Fleet Carriers produced by the U. S. Navy.  The Essex class would figure prominently in all offensive operations including the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Battle of Leyte Gulf, the campaigns at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and raids on the Japanese home islands.  In the process they and their air groups would be instrumental in sinking hundreds of Japanese ships including the Battleships Yamato and Musashi and destroying thousands of aircraft.  A number were heavily damaged by Kamikazes but none were lost with the epic story of the USS Franklin CV-13 and her survival after being hit by two bombs from a Japanese plane that slipped through the Combat Air Patrol. The resultant explosions and fires amongst her fueled and armed aircraft nearly sank her but for the heroic efforts of her crew including Chaplain Joseph O’Callahan who won the Medal of Honor caring for the wounded and dying and directing damage control teams. The ship lost 724 men killed and 265 wounded in the attack but survived though without power and dead in the water 50 miles off the Japanese coast.

Murderers’ Row

The Essex class were iconic and the ships etched their names in naval history. The Essex, Yorktown, Hornet, Wasp, Hancock, Ticonderoga, Franklin, Bunker Hill, Intrepid, Lexington and the other ships of the class had legendary careers. These ships became known as “Murderers’ Row” for their expertise in killing off Japanese ships and aircraft.  Fittingly four of the ships, the Hornet, Yorktown, Lexington and Intrepid have found a second life as museum ships and Oriskany was sunk as an artificial reef off the coast of Florida where she is a favorite of recreational divers.

USS Croatan CVE-25 a Bogue Class Escort Carrier

During the war the Navy also built 118 Escort Carriers converted from merchant ships for use as convoy escorts, anti-submarine warfare and close air support for amphibious operations. 38 of these ships saw service in the British Royal Navy during the war.

USS Hancock CVA-19 in 1969 showing the extent of the modernizations that brought the Essex Class into the jet age

In the post World War II drawdown many carriers were decommissioned and the oldest, the Saratoga and Ranger disposed of.  The three ship Midway class entered service after the war and incorporated design improvements learned from combat operations in the war. As the Navy entered the jet era it was found that the existing carriers would need significant modernization to handle the new aircraft. Among the improvements made to the Midway and Essex class ships was the angled flight deck, steam catapults, hurricane bows and improved landing systems.  These improvements allowed these World War II era ships to remain front line carriers into Vietnam and in the case of the USS Midway and USS Coral Sea into the 1990s.

Artists’ conception of USS United States CVA-58 a victim of Truman Era Air Force politics

The Navy began its first super-carrier the USS United States in 1949 but the ship and class was cancelled by Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, not a fan of the Navy or Marine Corps due to opposition by the Army and the newly founded Air Force.  The ship would have carried 12-18 nuclear capable bombers as well as 45-50 jet fighters and attack aircraft and been 1090 feet long and displaced 65,000 tons.  It would not be until after the Korean War that the Navy would begin construction of its first super-carriers.

USS Midway CVA-41 in 1971

During the Korean War most of the Essex class ships were called back into service with 15 modified to conduct jet operations while others were converted to serve as ASW Carriers and Helicopter Carriers (LPH) to support Marine amphibious forces. Likewise the Midway’s were modernized as the Navy began to construct the four-ship Forrestal Class which were 1036 feet long and displaced 56,000 tons and designed to carry 100 aircraft. The four ships, Forrestal CVA-59, Saratoga CVA-60, Ranger CVA-61, and Independence CVA-62 would all serve into the early 1990s before being decommissioned. In the past few months Forrestal and Saratoga have begun the journey to be scrapped, sold for a penny each to scrapyards in Brownsville, Texas.

USS Ranger CVA-61

They were all heavily involved in the Vietnam War on Yankee and Dixie Station and both the Atlantic and Pacific during the Cold War. All four have been stricken from the Navy List and are awaiting disposal.  Forrestal was programmed as an artificial reef but she, like Saratoga which had been on donation hold was approved for scrapping. Ranger is still on donation hold and the USS Ranger Foundation is attempting to raise the money to save her. Independence which had been programmed as an artificial reef project was approved for scrapping in 2008.In the past few months Forrestal and Saratoga began the journey to be scrapped in 2014, sold for a penny each to scrapyards in Brownsville, Texas.

USS John F Kennedy CV-67 a modified Kitty Hawk class ship

These ships were followed by the Kitty Hawk class consisting of Kitty Hawk CVA-63, Constellation CVA-64, America CVA-66 and John F. Kennedy CVA-67 which were improved versions of the Forrestal Class with a 60,100 ton displacement and 1047 foot length with the ability to carry 100 aircraft. Kitty Hawk had the distinction of being the last fossil fuel carrier in active U. S. Navy service being decommissioned and placed in reserve in 2009. Her sister the Constellation CV was decommissioned in December 2003 and in 2008 was programmed to be scrapped in the next five years.  America was decommissioned in 1996 after not being given a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) refit in the 1990s due to budget cuts.  America was involved in much of the Cold War, Gulf War and Vietnam including responding to the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, the Intervention in Lebanon in 1983 and the conflict with Libya in the Gulf of Sidra in 1985.  She was sunk as a test bed to see how modern carriers would be affected by battle damage and to incorporate those lessons into future carrier design in May of 2005.  John F. Kennedy was originally planned to be a nuclear ship equipped with 4 A3W reactors.  This plan was shelved and she was completed as a fossil fuel ship. “Big John” served in Vietnam as well as throughout the Cold War and Gulf War and also engaged the Libyans in 1985.  She was placed in the Reserve Force in the 1990s to save money and also served as a training carrier.  Like America she did not receive the necessary maintenance and by 2002 she needed emergency repairs in order to deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kennedy made three deployments in support of the War on Terror and decommissioned in 2007.  She was placed in donation hold and currently two groups are making progress to acquire her as a Museum ship. Like the Forrestal’s the Constellation’s served in Vietnam, the Cold War, Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm and three continued their service into Operation Iraqi Freedom. Constellation began her journey to the scrapyard in August 2014.

USS Enterprise CVN-65

As the Navy continued to develop the capabilities of the aircraft carrier it commissioned the nuclear powered USS Enterprise CVAN-65.  The added capability of nuclear power enabled her to operate without dependence on fossil fuel which in addition to her range and speed allowed her to carry more aviation fuel and munitions than the fossil fuel ships.  Unique among the Nuclear Carriers she produces 280,000 SHP and is powered by 8 Westinghouse (A2W) Reactors driving geared turbines, 4 screws with a classified top speed in excess of 35 Knots and is the quickest carrier going from all stop to full speed. At 1101 feet long and 75,700 ton (93,000 Full Load) displacement she was larger than any other carrier. She served in Vietnam, the Cold War, the Gulf War and Operation Enduring and Operation Iraqi Freedom. She was and was decommissioned in 2013.

USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71 of the Nimitz class

The Nimitz Class of nuclear powered carriers is the most numerous class of capital ship in the U.S. Navy since the Essex Class.  Slightly smaller than Enterprise with a 1088 overall length and 91,000 full load displacement the Nimitz CVN-68 and her sister ships are the mainstay of the U. S. Navy carrier force.  These ships have been the symbols of American naval power for three decades and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.  Each of the ships has embodied successive improvements gained from the previous ships and the latest ships of the class the USS Ronald Reagan CVN-76 and USS George H. W. Bush CVN-77 incorporate technologies that were not known when Nimitz was on the drawing board. Thus whenever a ship is taken in for their Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) it is upgraded to the capabilities of the newest ship.  The class consists of the Nimitz, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN-69, USS Carl Vinson CVN-70, USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71, USS George Washington CVN-72, USS Abraham Lincoln CVN-73, USS John C. Stennis CVN-74, USS Harry Truman CVN-75 as well as the previously mentioned Reagan and Bush. They can carry 90% more fuel and 50% more ordnance than the Forrestal class. Carrying 90 or more aircraft they pack a mobile offensive punch that is not matched by any other surface ship.  The have served in every major military and many humanitarian missions since Nimitz was commissioned in 1974.

Artist conception of USS Gerald R Ford CVN-78

The Nimitz class will be joined by the USS Gerald R. Ford CVN-78.  The Ford is the first ship of an entirely new class. While approximately the same size as the Nimitz class at 1092 feet long and approximately 100,000 tons full load displacement the Ford class of which three are currently authorized and one under construction will feature many improvements over their predecessors. Among improvements are an advanced arresting gear, automation, which reduces crew requirements by several hundred from the Nimitz class carrier, the updated RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow missile system, the AN/SPY-3 dual-band radar (DBR), as developed for Zumwalt class destroyers an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) in place of traditional steam catapults for launching aircraft, a new nuclear reactor design (the A1B reactor) for greater power generation, advanced stealth features to help reduce radar profile and the ability to operate the new F-35C Lightning II. If the class is built as programmed on a one ship every five year rate with the Ford commissioning in 2015 then 6 ships of the class will be in commission by 2040. The next two ships have been named, the John F Kennedy and Enterprise. 

Of course as with any military technology the future never is certain. In 1918 no one would have thought that the all-big gun Dreadnought Battleships would be eclipsed by the Aircraft Carrier in less than 25 years. While the Carriers have ruled the waves since Midway there are threats to them both military and financial.  Countries such as China while building their own carriers have are developing weapons such as guided ballistic missiles designed to destroy carriers.  As of now there is no defense against such a weapon if a carrier is within range. While China has not yet deployed the weapon it could be a game changer in the Western Pacific. Likewise there is the ever present threat posed by new and advanced submarines even those deployed by 2nd and 3rd world nations.  Finally there is the financial cost which could derail the procurement of more carriers in an era of austerity. The cost of the Ford is currently estimated to be $9 Billion Dollars which if stretched end to end would probably reach Vulcan where the Vulcans would come up with an answer to our current problems.

At the same time the carriers have defied those who predicted their demise since the Truman administration.  Currently no sea based platform has the multitude of capabilities of a carrier and its associated air wing and battle group and thus they should remain the Queens of the Sea for some time to come and the United States Navy which has led the world in their development and operation should continue to lead the way.

The next installment which will appear later this week will discuss the aircraft employed by the United States Navy not only those from carriers, but seaplanes, rotor-wing aircraft and lighter than air ships.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Five Minutes that Changed History: The Battle of Midway 1022-1027 hours June 4th 1942

Instruments of Death SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers at Midway

Six months after Pearl Harbor the United States Navy met the Imperial Japanese Navy in battle on the seas and in the airspace around Midway Island. It was a battle between a fleet that had known nothing but victory in the months after Pearl Harbor, sweeping across the Pacific and the Indian Oceans and decimating Allied Naval forces that stood in their way, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse off of Singapore, a force of Royal Navy cruisers and the Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes in the Indian Ocean, the bulk of the US Asiatic Fleet in the waters around the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies culminating in the Battle of the Java Sea where the bulk of the American, British, Dutch and Australian naval forces engaged were annihilated.  In only one place had a Japanese Naval task force been prevented from its goal and that was at the Battle of the Coral Sea where Task Force 11 and Task Force 17 centered on the Carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown prevented a Japanese invasion force from taking Port Moresby sinking the light carrier Shoho, damaging the modern carrier Shokaku and decimating the air groups of the Japanese task force.

In May US Navy code breakers discovered the next move of the Imperial Navy an attack on Midway Island and the Aleutian islands.   Since the occupation of Midway by Japanese forces would give them an operational base less than 1000 miles from Pearl Harbor Admiral Chester Nimitz committed the bulk of his naval power, the carriers USS Enterprise CV-6, USS Yorktown CV-5 and USS Hornet CV-8 and their 8 escorting cruisers and 15 destroyers, a total of 26 ships with 233 aircraft embarked to defend Midway along with a force of 5 cruisers and 4 destroyers to cover the Aleutians.  Midway had a mixed Marine, Navy and Army air group of 115 aircraft which included many obsolete aircraft, 32 PBY Catalina Flying Boats, of which the 83 fighters, dive bombers, torpedo planes and Army Air Force bombers piloted by a host of inexperienced pilots.

The Japanese Flagship Akagi

The Japanese sent a force of 7 battleships, 7 carriers including the elite First Carrier Striking Group composed of the Pearl Harbor attackers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu and their highly trained and combat experienced air groups composed of 273 aircraft along with 14 cruisers and 39 destroyers assigned to take Midway and destroy the US Navy when it came out to fight as well as a force of 4 battleships, 12 destroyers assigned screen to the Aleutian invasion force which was accompanied by 2 carriers 6 cruisers and 10 destroyers.   The other carriers embarked a further 114 aircraft.  A factor which aided the Americans was the distance between the Japanese Task forces which were scattered over thousands of square miles of the Northern Pacific Ocean from which they could not rapidly come to the assistance of any other group.

With the foreknowledge provided by the code breakers the US forces hurried to an intercept position northeast of Midway eluding the Japanese submarine scout line which the Japanese Commander Admiral Yamamoto presumed would find them when they sailed to respond to the Japanese attack on Midway.  Task Force 16 with the Enterprise and Hornet sailed first under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A Spruance and Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher with the Yorktown which had been miraculously brought into fighting condition after suffering heavy damage at Coral Sea. Fletcher assumed overall command by virtue of seniority and Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders to apply the principle of calculated risk when engaging the Japanese as the loss of the US carriers would place the entire Pacific at the mercy of the Japanese Navy.

On June 3rd a PBY Catalina discovered the Japanese invasion force and US long range bombers launched attacks against it causing no damage.  The morning of the 4th the Americans adjusted their search patterns in and the Japanese came into range of Midway and commenced their first strike against the island.  In response land based aircraft from Midway attacked the Japanese carrier force taking heavy casualties and failing to damage the Japanese task force.  The American Carrier task forces launched their strike groups at the Japanese fleet leaving enough aircraft behind of the Combat Air Patrol and Anti-submarine patrol.  As the Americans winged toward the Japanese fleet the Japanese were in confused.  A scouting report by an aircraft that had been delayed at launch discovered US ships but did not identify a carrier until later into the patrol.  This was the Yorktown and TF 17. The Japanese attempted to recover their strike aircraft and prepare for a second strike on the island and then on discovery of the carrier embarked on the task of unloading ground attack ordnance in favor of aerial torpedoes and armor piercing bombs.  The hard working Japanese aircrew did not have time to stow the ordnance removed from the aircraft but by 1020 they had the Japanese strike group ready to launch against the US carriers.

AM6-2 Zeros Mauled the US Torpedo Bombers

As the Japanese crews worked the Japanese carriers were engaged in fending off attacks by the US torpedo bomber squadrons, VT-6 from Enterprise, VT-8 from Hornet and VT-3 from Yorktown.  The Japanese Combat Air Patrol ripped into the slow, cumbersome and under armed TBD Devastators as they came in low to launch their torpedoes.  Torpedo Eight from Hornet under the command of LCDR John C Waldron pressed the attack hard but all 15 of the Devastators were shot down.  Only Ensign George Gay’s aircraft was able to launch its torpedo before being shot down and Gay would be the sole survivor of the squadron.

Hopelessly obsolete 40 of 44  TBD Devastators were lost in action

Torpedo 6 under the command of LCDR Eugene Lindsey suffered heavy casualties losing 10 of 14 aircraft with Lindsey being one of the casualties.  The last group of Devastators to attack was Torpedo 3 under the command of LCDR Lem Massey from the Yorktown.  These aircraft were also decimated and Massey killed but they had drawn the Japanese Combat Air Patrol down to the deck leaving the task force exposed to the Dive Bombers of the Enterprise and Yorktown.

TBD Devastator attacking Akagi

There had been confusion among the Americans as to the exact location of the Japanese Carriers, the Bombing 8 and Scouting 8 of Hornet did not find the carriers and had to return for lack of fuel with a number of bombers and their fighter escort having to ditch inn the ocean and wait for rescue.  The Enterprise group under LCDR Wade McClusky was perilously low on fuel when the wake of a Japanese destroyer was spotted.  McClusky followed it to the Japanese Task Force.  The Yorktown’s group under LCDR Max Leslie arrived about the same time.  The found the skies empty of Japanese aircraft. Aboard the Japanese ships there was a sense of exhilaration as each succeeding group of attackers was brought down and with their own aircraft ready to launch and deal a fatal blow to the American carrier wondered how big their victory would be.

At 1020 the first Zero of the Japanese attack group began rolling down the flight deck of the flagship Akagi, aboard Kaga aircraft were warming up as they were on the Soryu.  The unsuspecting Japanese were finally alerted when lookouts screamed “helldivers.” Wade McClusky’s aircraft lined up over the Akagi and Kaga pushing into their dives at 1022. There was a bit of confusion when the bulk of Scouting 6 joined the attack of Bombing 6 on the Kaga.  The unprepared carrier was struck by four 1000 pound bombs which exploded on her flight deck and hangar deck igniting the fully fueled and armed aircraft of her strike group and the ordnance littered about the hangar deck.  Massive fires and explosions wracked the ship and in minutes the proud ship was reduced to an infernal hell with fires burning uncontrollably. She was abandoned and would sink at 1925 taking 800 of her crew with her.     LT Dick Best of Scouting 6 peeled off from the attack on Kaga and shifted to the Japanese flagship Akagi. On board Akagi were two of Japans legendary pilots CDR Mitsuo Fuchida leader of and CDR Minoru Genda the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and subsequent string of Japanese victories.  Both officers were on the sick list and had come up from sick bay to watch as the fleet was attacked.  Seeing Kaga burst into flames they stood mesmerized until Akagi’s lookouts screamed out the warning “helldivers” at 1026.  Best’s aircraft hit with deadly precision landing tow of their bombs on Akagi’s flight deck creating havoc among the loaded aircraft and starting fires and igniting secondary explosions which turned the ship into a witch’s cauldron.  By 1046 Admiral Nagumo and his staff were forced to transfer the flag to the cruiser Nagara as Akagi’s crew tried to bring the flames under control. They would do so into the night until nothing more could be done and abandoned ship at 2000.  Admiral Yamamoto ordered her scuttled and at 0500 on June 5th the pride of the Japanese carrier force was scuttled.

Scouting 6 gets the Akagi

VB-3 under LCDR Max Leslie from the Yorktown stuck the Soryu with 17 aircraft, only 13 of which had bombs due to an electronic arming device malfunction on 4 of the aircraft including the squadron leader Leslie.  Despite this they dove on the Soryu at 1025 hitting that ship with 3 and maybe as many as 5 bombs. Soryu like her companions burst into flames as the ready aircraft and ordnance exploded about her deck. She was ordered abandoned at 1055 and would sink at 1915 taking 718 of her crew with her.

The remaining Japanese flattop the Hiryu attained the same fate later in the day after engaging in an epic duel with the Yorktown which her aircraft heavily damaged.

It was quite miraculous what happened at Midway in those five pivotal minutes.  Authors have entitled books about Midway Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway and the titles reflect the essence of the battle.  A distinctly smaller force defeated a vastly superior fleet in terms of experience, training and equipment and when it appeared that the Japanese Fleet would advance to victory in a span of less than 5 minutes turn what looked like certain defeat into one of the most incredible and even miraculous victories in the history of Naval warfare.  In those 5 minutes history was changed in a breathtaking way.  While the war would drag on and the Japanese still inflict painful losses and defeats on the US Navy in the waters around Guadalcanal the tide had turned and the Japanese lost the initiative in the Pacific never to regain it.   The Japanese government hid the defeat from the Japanese people instead proclaiming a great victory while the American government could not fully publicize the information that led to the ability of the US Navy to be at the right place at the right time and defeat the Imperial Navy.

When one looks at implications of the victory it did a number of things. First it changed the course of the war in the Pacific probably shortening it by a great deal.  Secondly it established the aircraft carrier and the fast carrier task force as the dominant force in naval warfare which some would argue it still remains.  Finally those five minutes ushered in an era of US Navy dominance of the high seas which at least as of yet has not ended as the successors to the Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown ply the oceans of the world and the descendants of those valiant carrier air groups ensure air superiority over battlefields around the world.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, US Navy, world war two in the pacific