Tag Archives: aircraft carriers

Pearl Harbor and the Advent of the Aircraft Carrier, But Can the Carrier Remain Supreme?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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.

Japanese-carriersJapanese Aircraft preparing to launch at Pearl Harbor

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. The Kido Butai was the largest carrier strike group assembled until late 1943 when the U.S. Pacific Fleet fielded a larger carrier strike group, something no other country has done since.

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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. These aircraft would ultimately take part in the Battle of Midway and the sinking of the Japanese Cruiser Mikuma. 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 Neutrality 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 these 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 of that attack resulted in a severe embarrassment and loss of face to the Imperial Navy. the strategic and psychological implications were such 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 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. From that point, though they still were superior to the U.S. Navy in numbers of Carriers and surface warships, and still maintained a massive number of islands which they had fortified and built airbases on in defiance of treaties they agreed to at the end of the First World War,

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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 were 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.

It was a fascinating turn of events. The Japanese dispatched the cream of their carrier air forces to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl. Harbor, and though they crippled the battleships they failed to destroy the American aircraft carriers, at Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, Midway, or the Guadalcanal campaign. In the following years the Enterprise and Saratoga, bolstered by the carriers of the Essex Class, and the Light Fleet Carriers of the Independence Class, and helped by the addition of dozens of Escort Carriers, which relieved them of the mundane tasks of convoy escort and amphibious landing support, wreaked havoc on the Imperial Japanese Navy from late 1943 on. The Battles of the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, the raid on Formosa, and the strikes on the Japanese homeland proved the superiority of the carrier force the Japanese missed at Pearl Harbor and failed to destroy in subsequent engagements.

Today, nearly eight decades later there is a question of the relevance of aircraft carriers, even though the United States, Great Britain, China, Russia, India, and other nations continue their development. I have to admit, that with the development of other weapons platforms and technologies, that I do not know the ultimate fate of the aircraft carrier. However, like the Ships of the Line that dominated late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries., the Ironclads that dominated the late 19th Century, and the Dreadnaughts that dominated until Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor was 78 years ago. Since then carrier and submarine eclipsed the power of the the battleship. We cannot assume that the era of the aircraft carrier will continue without end. The Japanese discounted the power of the aircraft carrier and submarine, assuming that battleships supported by carriers and submarines would maintain control of the Oceans. They were wrong. Regardless of what weapons system we presume will dominate the future, we also must admit the very real possibility that we could be wrong. Technologies that we have not ever began to imagine, except possibly in the realm of science fiction may change everything we believed possible.

i am neither the prophet nor the son of the prophet, thus my opinion is only that: I believe that the carrier will remain the centerpiece of Naval power and strategy for the next decade, and possibly another, but as a military and Naval historian I cannot predict that they remain so longer than that. Thus the United States Navy, and for that matter all navies begin looking toward and planning for technologies that are either in their infancy or not yet imagined. To ignore that fact would be to ignore history. We do that to our detriment.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, imperial japan, Military, national security, Navy Ships, News and current events, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

Nothing Remains Static: The Never Built G3, Amagi, and Lexington Class Battle Cruisers

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Artists Depiction of G3 Battlecruiser 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This weekend I will be reflecting on the old year and the coming new year, but tonight I decided to tweak and republish an article from about four years ago dealing with the battle cruisers being built by Great Britain, Japan, and the United States after the First World War. They represented the pinnacle of naval design for their era and would have been far superior to their adversaries had technology and war remained static. As Admiral Ernest King noted:

“Nothing remains static in war or military weapons, and it is consequently often dangerous to rely on courses suggested by apparent similarities in the past.”

As the First World War ended a new Naval Race was heating up. The United States had announced its intention during the war to build a navy second to none while Imperial Japan was making plans for a fleet that would give it superiority in the Western Pacific. The British, though still be far the largest naval power in the world were burdened by the massive costs of war and empire, but also seeking to maintain their naval dominance and to that end they were in the process of building a class of massive super-Dreadnought battleships, and Battle Cruisers.

The ships known as battle cruisers were first built by the British Royal Navy as a compliment to the all big gun Dreadnought battleships. The Battle Cruiser concept was for a ship of roughly the same size and firepower as a Battleship but sacrificing protection for greater speed, endurance and range.  and Japan joined in the Battle Cruiser race before and during the war. Unlike Britain the United States had concentrated on building battleships but following the war began to design and build its own class of massive battle cruisers.

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HMS Invincible Blowing Up at Jutland 

During the war the weaknesses of the type were exposed during the Battle of Jutland where three British Battle Cruisers, the HMS InvincibleHMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary blew up with the loss of most of their crews; of the 3311 officers and sailors on the ships only 26 survived. The HMS Lion was almost lost in a similar manner but the heroic actions of her crew saved her from her sisters fate. The British ships had glaring deficiencies in armor protection and the arrangement of their ammunition magazines and hoists which certainly contributed to their loss. Their German counterparts on the other hand proved much tougher and though all sustained heavy damage while engaging British Battleships and Battle Cruisers, only one the Lützow was lost. She absorbed over 30 hits from large caliber shells and only lost 128 crew members.

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HMS Hood

As the war progressed other Battle Cruisers were built, the British launched the HMS Repulse and HMS Renown and completed the HMS Hood shortly after the war was over. The Japanese built the four ship Kongo class from a British design, the first of which, the Kongo was completed in a British yard. As the powers embarked on the next Naval Race planners and naval architects designed ships of massive firepower, better protection and higher range and speed. All would have been better classed as Fast Battleships.

The British designed and began construction on the G3 class in 1921, while the Japanese began work on the Amagi Class, and the United States the Lexington Class. However the construction and completion of these ships as Battle Cruisers was prevented by the Washington Naval Treaty.

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The treaty, which was ratified in 1922 limited the United States and Great Britain to a maximum of 525,000 tons in their battle ship fleets and 125,000 tons in aircraft carriers.  The Japanese agreed to a limit of 315,000 tons and the French and Italians 175,000 tons each. Tonnage for battleships was limited to a maximum of 35,000 tons with a limitation on guns size to 16 inches.  Since the bulk of the ships planned or being built by the US and Japan exceeded those limits they would be effected more than the British whose post war shipbuilding program had not begun in earnest, in fact the G3 Class had just been approved for construction.

The G3 class would have comprised four ships and been similar to the N3 Class Battleships. They were very well balanced ships and would have mounted nine 16” guns in three turrets on a displacement of 49,200 tons and deep load of 54,774 tons. They had an all or nothing protection plan meaning that the armored belt was concentrated in vital areas around the armored citadel, conning tower, turrets and magazines and engineering spaces. Their armor belt would have ranged from 12-14 inches, deck armor from 3-8 inches, conning tower 8 inches, barbettes 11-14 inches, turrets 13-17 inches and bulkheads 10-12 inches. Their propulsion system of 20 small tube boilers powering 4 geared steam turbines connected to 4 propeller shafts would have produced 160,000 shp with a designed speed of 32 knots.

The four ships, none of which were named were ordered between October and November of 1921. Their construction was suspended on November 18th 1921 and they and the N3 Battleships were cancelled in February 1922 due to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty. Many concepts of their design were incorporated in the Nelson Class battleships which were a compromise design built to stay within the limits of the treaty.

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Amagi Class as Designed, Akagi as Completed (below) 

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The four planned Japanese Amagi Class ships would have mounted ten 16” guns on a displacement of 47,000 tons at full load. Their propulsion system 19 Kampon boilers powering four Gihon turbines would have given them a maximum speed of 30 knots, They would have had less protection than the G3 ships being more of a traditional Battle Cruiser design. As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty the Japanese elected to convert two of the ships, the Amagi and Akagi to aircraft carriers. Amagi was destroyed on the ways during the great Tokyo earthquake and Akagi was completed as a carrier. The other two vessels were scrapped on the ways.

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The United States Navy planned the six ship Lexington Class. These ships would have mounted eight 16” guns on a ship measuring 874 feet long and 105 feet in beam, displacing 43,254 tons at full load, or nearly the size of the Iowa Class battleships. They would have had a maximum speed of 33 knots being powered by 16 boilers which drove 4 GE electric turbines producing 180,000 shaft horse power. Theirs was a massive engineering plant and while the class did not have as heavy armor protection as either the G3 or Amagi classes, they were superior to them in speed as well as endurance. Upon ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty four of the six ships were cancelled and the remaining two, the Lexington and Saratoga competed as aircraft carriers.  Had any of the ships been completed as Battle Cruisers it is likely due to their speed that they would have operated primarily with the the carriers that the US Navy built during the 1930s.

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One can only speculate what the navies of World War II would have looked like had the Washington and the subsequent London Naval Treaties not been ratified. One can also only imagine how the war at sea would have been different had the ships completed as carriers been completed as Battle Cruisers.

However that was not to be, of the planned 14 ships of these three classes only three were completed, all as aircraft carriers, ships that helped to forge the future of naval operations and warfare for nearly a century. Thus the uncompleted ships are an interesting footnote in naval history yet have their own mystique. and one might wonder if the new aircraft carriers currently being built by the United States, Britain, China, India and other nations will also be displaced by advancing technology as were these ships.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy

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.

Japanese-carriersJapanese Aircraft preparing to launch at Pearl Harbor

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.

cv-6-01USS Enterprise at Midway

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

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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Filed under aircraft, History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy

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.

Bf 109 T

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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