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Leyte Gulf: The Greatest Naval Battle in the History of the World

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USS Gambier Bay being attacked by Japanese Surface Forces battle 

I will break into Leyte Gulf and fight to the last man…would it not be shameful to have the fleet remaining intact while our nation perishes?” Vice-Admiral Takeo Kurita – 1944

”In case opportunity for destruction of a major portion of the enemy fleet is offered, or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task.”

Admiral Chester Nimitz – In his order to Halsey, prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf – October 1944

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The Old Battleships of the 7th Fleet

Sixty-nine years ago the largest and most geographically expansive naval battle ever fought began. A few days before the forces of General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific command and Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Central Pacific command joined to invade and liberate the Philippines from the Japanese. It was less than three years since Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and two and a half years after MacArthur had left the Philippines vowing “I shall return.” 

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The Japanese knew that the battle for the Philippines was a must win. An American victory would ensure that Japan would be cut off from the vital natural resources of Indo-China, the Dutch East Indies and Borneo, particularly oil, without which it could not remain in the war.

The Imperial Navy was tasked to work with land based air forces to thwart the invasion by drawing off the American Fast Carrier task forces and allowing heavy surface forces to seek out and destroy potentially vulnerable troop transports and supply ships in Leyte Gulf.

It was a complicated plan, but one which had a chance of disrupting the American invasion, and came perilously close to doing so.

Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s Northern force of four aircraft carriers without viable air groups was a decoy. Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura and Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima commanded separate task forces both committed to breaking into Leyte Gulf through Surigo Strait. Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita who commanded the main effort, the powerful Center Force which was to break into Leyte Gulf through San Bernardino Strait. Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi commanded the Philippines based 1st Air Fleet which turned to the use of Kamikazes as a means to destroy American warships.

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Kamikaze attack

The US forces included the American Third Fleet commanded by Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was the primary naval force composed of the Fast Carrier Task Forces and fast battleships. Adusmiral Thomas Kinkaid commanded the 7th Fleet which was the invasion force and its escorts, including a number of carrier task forces built around the Escort Carriers and the old battleships of Jesse Oldendorf’s Task Group. The latter included a number of the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack including the USS West Virginia, USS California, USS Tennessee, USS Maryland and USS Pennsylvania. Oldendorf’s flagship, the USS Mississippi was not at Pearl Harbor but likewise one of the “old ladies” of the fleet.

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The battle was unique because of how long it went and how many separate engagements were included.  Not counting patrol craft, submarines and auxiliaries close to 300 warships and nearly 2000 aircraft were engaged in 5 separate engagements waged by surface ships, naval air forces and submarines.

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USS St Lo blows up after being hit by Kamikaze 

The battles included an engagement in which American Submarines took on the Center Force, naval aircraft engaged the Center and Southern Forces, the old battleships fought the last battleship against battleship engagement in history, heavy surface forces engaged and were repulsed by light forces and a decoy force which would suffer terribly would keep the bulk of the best American forces out of the main battle. It would also see the first coordinated use of Kamikaze suicide attack aircraft by Japan.

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USS West Virginia 

Tonight I am linking a number of articles that I have written previously about this amazing battle. In the next few days I will add a couple new articles to the collection.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Introduction and the Battle of Palawan Passage

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Sinking the Musashi 

Slaughter at Surigao: The Old Ladies get their Revenge

For those unfamiliar with the battle that would like a deeper treatment than I provide in these links I recommend The Battle of Leyte Gulf 23-26 October 1944 by Thomas C Cutler, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour by James Hornfisher, Battle Of Leyte Gulf by Edwin P Hoyt, Leyte: June 1944-January 1945 (History of United States Naval Operations in World War II) by Samuel Elliott Morrison and Battle of Surigao Strait by Anthony P Tully. Hoyt and Morrison’s books were the first that I ever read on the subject back when I was in Junior High School but for an overview I think Cutler’s work is better. The other two works present interesting and informative views of two of the decisive engagements of the battle.

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As I said in the next few days I plan on adding more articles on this fascinating battle. If things work out I should have something on the Battle off Samar, the Battle of Cape Engano and the Kamikaze debut.

Have a nice night and never forget the sacrifice of all of the brave sailors.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Requiem of Empire: The Yamato Class Battleships

Emperor Hirohito on Musashi in 1943

The is a long delayed installment of my series on Battleships. Previous were about the Battleships constructed under conditions of the London Naval Conference.  These have dealt with the British King George V Class, French Dunkerque and Richelieu Classes, Italian Vittorio Vento Class and the American North Carolina and South Dakota ClassesI then wrote an introduction to the Post Treaty Super-Battleships. This article is the first in that series which will include articles on the German Bismarck and Tirpitz, British Vanguard and American Iowa Class.

They were the largest and most heavily armed battleships ever built. Shrouded in secrecy by the Imperial Japanese Navy and Government the ships were designed to offset projected American numerical superiority. Their names were symbolic of Japan’s history. Yamato was named after Yamato Province, the ancestral home of the Yamato People, the dominant native ethnic group in Japan. Musashi was named after Musashi Province in which lays Tokyo Prefecture.  A third ship of the class, Shinano, was named after Shinano Province in central Japan which was the home of the prestigious Taketa Shingen family during the Senguku period.

The Conning Tower and Bridge of Musashi

The secrecy surrounding their design and construction was unprecedented. Those charged with their deign and construction were thoroughly checked out by Japan’s secret police and sworn to an oath of secrecy. The oath sworn by builders of Musashi at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries  Nagasaki Shipyard were sworn to the oath shown below:

I am aware that all work work involving the construction of the No. 2 Battleship is vital to national security. I will make utmost effort to maintain the  secrecy of the project, and swear that I will leak no information relating to the said battleship, even to relatives and close friends. In the event I violate this oath,  I will submit to the punishment determined by the company and the Navy.  

Yamato during Consrtuction

Security measures around the shipyards where Yamato and Musashi were constructed  were immense. At Nagasaki where there was a large foreign business and missionary population where the shipyard was visible from most of the city at hemp screen of 75,000 square meters was constructed to shield the ship from prying eyes and spies.

Musashi under Construction

When actual preparations for construction were taken in 1937 secret police swept the areas of foreign, especially Chinese workers. Security was increased inside and outside the shipyard, all blueprints accounted for and placed under strict guard while all shipyard workers were photographed with any having knowledge of the plans or supervising the construction sworn to the secrecy oath.

When a top secret blueprint went missing in 1938 at Nagasaki an intense investigation that included the torture of numerous suspects and the jailing of a blueprinter who accidentally swept the document into the trash was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

Armor and Protection of Yamato Class

Few pictures exist of the ships and Japanese Naval Officers destroyed many of the records of the ships design and construction just prior to the end of the Second World War. Throughout their existence they were a mystery to the American Navy. During the war the U.S. Navy estimated them to carry nine 16” guns and displace between 40,000-57,000 tons. Even the highly regarded Jane’s Fighting ships listed them at just 45,000 tons.

Yamato and Musashi together in 1943

Preliminary design work began in 1934 and progressed rapidly following Japan’s withdraw from the League of Nations and renunciation of the Washington and London Naval Treaties and withdraw from the 1936 naval talks in London. The early designs varied in the caliber of guns, size and armor, propulsion systems and endurance. Gun calibers ranged from 16” to 18.1” and a combined diesel-turbine system was considered but rejected in favor of traditional steam turbines.

The final design was for a class of five ships. Each would displace 64,000 tons standard displacement and 72,000 tons at full load. They were 862 feet long with a beam of 127 feet.  They were so large that the docks they were built needed to be expanded and special extra large launch platforms had to be built.  At Nagasaki the dock at to be expanded by cutting into the hill adjacent to it.

They were armed with nine 18.1 inch guns in triple turrets which could fire a projectile weighing over a ton. The secondary armament consisted of 12 6.1 inch guns mounted in triple turrets formerly mounted on the Mogami Class cruisers when those ships were equipped with 8” guns. Anti-aircraft defense included twelve 5” guns and twenty-four 25mm anti-aircraft guns. During the war two of the 6.1 inch turrets were removed and replaced with twelve more 5” guns and the 25mm battery was raised to 162 guns. Fire control systems were designed in such a way that the ships could engage multiple surface targets at the same time.

The ships were protected by a massive armored belt ranging from 16 inches to 8 inches with 26 inch armor on the face plates of the main gun turrets. The armor was advanced with excellent sloping but had a flaw where the upper and lower belts connected just below the waterline which exposed them to damage from torpedoes.

Yamato and Musashi viewed beside Battleship Nagato (foreground) just before the Battle of Leyte Gulf

They were powered by 12 Kampon boilers which powered 4 steam turbines and four three bladed propellers. These developed 150,000 shp and could drive the ship at a top speed of 27 knots.

Yamato

Construction of Yamato began on November 4th 1937 at Kure Naval Shipyard. Musashi on March 28th 1938. Traditionally such events were large public ceremonies but these were limited to just a few Naval Staff and Shipyard executives.  Yamato was Launched on August 8th 1940 and commissioned on December 16th 1941, just 9 days after Pearl Harbor. Musashi was launched on November 8th 1940 and commissioned on August 5th 1942 just two days before the U.S. Marines invaded Guadalcanal and two months after the disaster at the Battle of Midway.

Yamato served as Admiral Yamamoto’s flagship at Midway where she saw no action. The next two years she was and Musashi alternated as fleet flagship and conducted operations with Battleship Division One in operations between Mainland Japan and the major Japanese base at Truk. On December 25th 1943 while escorting a convoy she was torpedoed by the submarine USS Skate and suffered heavy damage which flooded a magazine.  On March 29th while underway Musashi was struck near the bow by a torpedo from the USS Tunny.

Musashi Under Attack at the Battle of Sibuyan Sea

Both ships participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and were part of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Central Force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Musashi was sunk by U.S. Navy Carrier aircraft from the Third Fleet on October 24th 1944 during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Hit by 17 bombs and 19 torpedoes she sank with the loss of nearly 1100 of her crew of almost 2400 men. The survivors were rescued by destroyers and disembarked at Corregidor. Some were sent by troop transport to Japan but one of the ships was torpedoed and sunk leaving her survivors adrift for 19 hours before rescue. Those who reached Japan were isolated from the population while about half of the survivors remained in the Philippines where 117 of 146 of those assigned to the defense of Manila were killed in action.

Yamato or Musashi under air Attack

Yamato saw action in the surface engagement on October 25th against the Escort Carriers and Destroyers of Taffy-3 during the Battle off Samar. Her guns helped sink the Escort Carrier USS Gambier Bay but was forced away from the action by torpedo attacks from the valiant destroyers of Taffy-3.

Yamato under Attack April 7th 1945

By April 1944 Japan’s Navy was decimated and U.S. Naval Forces were raiding Mainland Japan. When the United States landed on Okinawa the Japanese Navy and air force launched wave after wave of Kamikaze attacks on the ships in the waters around the island. Yamato, along with Light Cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers were designated the Surface Special Attack Force and loaded with a full load of ammunition but only enough fuel for a one way trip got underway on April 6th. The mission was for Yamato to reach Okinawa, beach herself and serve as an “unsinkable” gun battery until she was destroyed. The force was spotted by U.S. Navy flying boats hours after their departure and on April 7th over 400 aircraft launched from Task Groups 58.1 and 58.3. The first wave began its attack at 1230 and by 1400 the ship was mortally wounded. Stuck by at least 8 torpedoes and 11 bombs she was dead in the water and began to capsize at 1405. At 1420 she turned turtle and at 1423 exploded when her forward blew up sending up a mushroom cloud nearly 20,000 feet.  Under 300 of her crew of nearly 2400 were rescued.

The End: Yamato Explodes

The ships were the largest battleships ever built, designed when naval experts planned for a war where the battleship would rule and aircraft carriers play a supporting role. Instead both never faced enemy battleships in combat and both were destroyed by the weapon that the battleship admirals had discounted. It is somewhat fitting that each was commissioned shortly after the triumphs of Japanese and American Naval air power at Pearl Harbor and Midway. However they have attained an almost mythic status in naval lore and are symbols to many Japanese of the sacrifice and futility of the war. Both of the cities where the ships were constructed were destroyed by Atomic bombs. They are tragic reminders of the cost of war in human lives, suffering, economic cost and destruction.

In a sense their poetic names and the myth ascribed to them are a tragic requiem to the Japanese Empire and the cost of war. They and their brave sailors were sacrificed when the war was already for all intents and purposes lost. They, especially the Yamato were sacrificed for no military purpose save a convoluted sense of honor.

Let us pray that it never happens again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Sinking the Musashi

IJNS Musashi

This is the second in a series of articles about the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  The first article in the series is liked here and is entitled

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Introduction and the Battle of Palawan Passage

Following the loss of Atago, Maya and Takao Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force had an uneventful rest of the day on the 23rd as his ships kept a watchful eye and ear for more US Navy submarines.  At about 0800 on 24 October the Center Force was spotted by 3 B-24 Liberator bombers which promptly reported them.

TBF Avenger dropping its “fish” 19 would hit Musashi

One of the ships in the Center Force was the IJNS Musashi, sister ship of the mighty Yamato which was also in the force. The two battlewagons were the largest battleships ever built.  With a full load displacement of 72,800 tons and an armament of nine 18.1 inch guns, the largest battery ever mounted on a warship the two behemoths also had massive anti-aircraft batteries and the Japanese were counting on them leading the Center Force to a miraculous victory during the battle.  Admiral Kurita addressed his commanders prior to the battle:

“I know that many of you are strongly opposed to this assignment.  But the war situation is far more critical than any of you can possibly know.  Would it not be shameful to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes?  I believe that the Imperial General Headquarters is giving us a glorious opportunity.  Because I realize how very serious the war situation actually is, I am willing to accept even this ultimate assignment to storm into Leyte Gulf.  You must all remember that there are such things as miracles.”

Musashi or Yamato under attack October 24th 1944

At 1000 the Musashi’s radar picked up approaching aircraft.  These were from the USS Intrepid and the USS Cabot which were assigned to Rear Admiral Gerard Bogan’s Task Group 38.4. The anti-aircraft crews and damage control teams prepared as the ship’s bugle sounded the alarm.  As the aircraft came closer the main guns of the Musashi fired but ceased fire as the aircraft drew closer.  Helldiver dive bombers plunged downward at the ships of the Center Force and F6F Hellcat fighters unopposed by enemy fighters conducted strafing runs as TBF Avenger torpedo bombers dropped their deadly loads at the Musashi.  The big ship avoided two of the “fish” but a third struck causing little damage and the first wave few away.  Musashi reported that she had sustained a hit and continued on.  The Japanese sailors knew that this would not be the last attack.  Though Musashi had weathered the first strike the American fliers hit the battleships Nagato, Yamato and severely damaged the heavy cruiser Myōkō.

Musashi hit

At 1140 the Musashi’s radar picked up the next wave of attackers and at 1203.  These were from the Intrepid, Essex and Lexington.  Hitting the Center Force in two waves a half hour apart these aircraft delivered punishing blows on Musashi. She was hit by 3 torpedoes and 2 bombs. The torpedoes caused damage that caused a 5 degree list and was down six feet by the bow. The torpedo damage was concentrated midships and one torpedo flooded her number 4 engine room. One of the bombs hit an engine room and disabled her port inline propeller shaft.  With her speed reduced she proceeded on.

Musashi

Thirty minutes following this attack at about 1330 Musashi was attacked again by Helldivers and Avengers. She is hit by 4 1000 pound bombs and 4 torpedoes.  She was now so badly damage that she could no longer keep up with the fleet and dropped behind to fend for herself.  At 1350 this attack ends with her speed reduced to 20 knots and with her down 13 feet by the bow and nearly all of her trim and void tanks full. There is now little room for any more damage forward.

Separated from the fleet Musashi was now attacked by aircraft from the Enterprise, Cabot, Franklin and Intrepid that score hits with 11 bombs including the deadly 1000 pounders and 8 torpedoes.  During the course of these attacks which ended after 1530 Musashi sustained 19 torpedo and 17 bomb hits and taken 18 near hits close aboard. At 1620 her skipper Rear Admiral Toshihira Inoguchi began desperate damage control measures to control the increasing list which had reached 10 degrees to port.  Dead in the water she continued to list further and when the list reached 12 degrees at 1915 Inoguchi ordered preparations to abandon ship.  The surviving crew assembled on the deck, the battle flag and the Emperor’s portrait were removed.  Admiral Inoguchi gave his personal notebook to his Executive officer Captain Kenkichi Kato and directed then him to abandon ship. Admiral Inoguchi retired to his cabin and was not seen again.  At 1930 with the list now 30 degrees Captain Kato gave the order to abandon ship and soon with the list increasing further men began to slide across the decks being crushed in the process.  Panic broke out among the crew which had been assembled by divisions and Captain Kato ordered “every man for himself.”  At 1936 the ship capsized and port and went down by the bow sinking in 4,430 feet of water in the Visayan Sea at 13-07N, 122-32E.

The destroyers Kiyoshimo, Isokaze and Hamakaze rescued 1,376 survivors including Captain Kato, but 1,023 of Musashi’s 2,399 man crew were lost including her skipper, Rear Admiral Inoguchi who was promoted Vice Admiral, posthumously.

The rest of the Center Force under Kurita turned around to get out of range of the aircraft, passing the crippled Musashi as his force retreated. Kurita’s retreat was temporary and Kurita waited until 17:15 before turning around again to head for the San Bernardino Strait hoping to find it empty of American ships.  His force was still battle worthy because the majority of the 259 sorties were directed on Musashi and the Heavy Cruiser Myōkō which retired heavily damaged. The Southern Force which had also been hit by American carrier air strikes also continued its push toward Surigao Strait.  The Battle of Surigao Strait, the revenge of the Pearl Harbor Battleships will be the next article in this series.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Introduction and the Battle of Palawan Passage

This is the first of a four article series on the Battle of Letye Gulf. The battle was the largest in history both in terms of the number of ships involved and the amount of area covered. The action was triggered by the American invasion of the Philippines causing the Japanese to initiate their Shō-Gō 1 (Victory Plan 1) to attempt to defeat the Americans.  The plan relied heavily on land based air power which most of unfortunately for the Japanese was destroyed during the American carrier air strikes on Formosa earlier in the month. 

The battle was necessitated by the absolute need for the Japanese to hold the Philippines and defeat the Americans at all costs. As Admiral Soemu Toyoda the Chief of the Combined Fleet explained under interrogation after the war

Should we lose in the Philippines operations, even though the fleet should be left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off so that the fleet, if it should come back to Japanese waters, could not obtain its fuel supply. If it should remain in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines.

The battle was comprised of 5 battles, the Battle of Palawan Passage, the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar. All told about 70 Japanese warships and 210 American and Australian ships were engaged.  A further 300 Japanese aircraft, mostly land based and 1500 American carrier aircraft took part in the battle.  The Japanese order of battle included 1 Fleet and 3 Light Fleet Carriers with a minimal air group, 9 Battleships including the two largest ever built the Yamato and Musashi, 14 Heavy and 6 Light Cruisers and about 3 destroyers.  They were divided into four task forces, the Northern Force under the command of Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa which had all of the Carriers including the last surviving carrier of the Pearl Harbor attack the Fleet Carrier Zuikaku plus the converted hybrid Battleships Ise and Hyuga; the Southern Force which was two distinct and independent task forces under the command of Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima and was built around the ancient battleships Fuso and Yamashiro and 3 Heavy Cruisers; and the Center Force under the command of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita which had the Battleships Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, 10 Heavy and 2 Light Cruisers and 1 destroyers.  The Center force was to pass through the San Bernardino Strait and converge on the American landing forces off Samar with the Southern Force which as to come through the Surigo Strait.  The Japanese also planned for the first use of Kamikazes as part of the action. 

Takao Class Cruiser 1943

Atago

The American fleet was comprised of the 3rd Fleet under Admiral William Halsey which was built around the Fast Carrier Task Forces and Fast Battleships of Task Force 38 under the Command of Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher and the Battle Line Task Force 34 under the Command of Vice Admiral Willis Lee; and the 7th Fleet under Vice Admiral William Kinkaid which was the naval support for the landings.  It had under its control the old Battleships West Virginia, California, Tennessee, Maryland, Colorado and Pennsylvania and 18 Escort Carriers which provided the close air support for the Invasion.  All told the Americans had 8 Fleet and 8 Light Fleet Carriers, 18 Escort Carriers, 12 Battleships, 24 Cruisers and 141 Destroyers as well as submarines, PT Boats, Transports, Landing Ships and Auxiliaries.

Takao

This series will focus on a number of individual battles and decisions in the battle. Part one will focus on the action of the Submarines Darter and Dace against the Center force in the Palawan Passage. The next will be the sinking of the Musashi during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, it will be followed by the revenge of the Old Battleships at Surigo Strait. The next will be the great decision of Admiral Halsey to pursue the Northern Force and leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, followed by the Battle off Samar and last the death of the Japanese Naval Aviation at Cape Engaño.

Maya

The Battle of Palawan Passage

Admiral Takeo Kurita and the powerful Center Force departed their anchorage at Bruneion 20 October 1944.  The task force entered the Palawan Passage on the night of 22-23 October where they were sighted by the American Submarines Darter and Dace which had been posted at the strait for such a possibility.  Darter made radar contact at 30,000 yards at 0018 hours on the 23rd and sent out contact reports.   The two submarines shadowed the Center Force on the surface to gain an intercept position and submerged just before dawn.

USS Darter

Darter struck first at 0524 firing a spread of 6 torpedoes scoring 4 hits on Admiral Kurita’s flagship the Heavy Cruiser Atago. She reloaded and stuck the Heavy Cruiser Takao with 2 torpedoes at 0634.  At 0554 Dace hit the Heavy Cruiser Maya with 4 torpedoes.

Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita

The blow was severe.  Atago was mortally wounded she capsized and sank at 0553 with the loss of 360 crew members. She sank so rapidly that Kurita had to swim and was rescued with his Chief of Staff by a destroyer, but many of his staff members were lost with the ship.  Though Kurita transferred his flag to Yamato he was now without the advice and counsel of officers that might have prevented later mistakes during the Battle off Samar.  Takao suffered heavy damage and though she did not sink she had to proceed crippled to Singapore under the guard of two destroyers. Though she survived the war she never saw action again.   Maya, struck at 0554 by 4 torpedoes suffered much damage and was wracked by powerful secondary explosions.  By 0600 she was dead in the water and sank five minutes later with the loss of 337 crew members.

USS Dace

The attack of the two submarines was significant; the Japanese lost 3 powerful Heavy Cruisers and had to send two of their destroyers away to guard Takao. Likewise the loss of Kurita’s experienced staff hindered his conduct of the battle on the 24th.  The cruisers were a big loss, at 13,000 tons and armed with ten 8”guns they could steam at 35 knots.

Darter and Dace conducted a pursuit of the crippled Takao which had to be broken off when Darter ran aground on Bombay Shoal. Despite the best efforts of her crew and that of the Dace to free her she was hopelessly stuck.  Her crew was unable to scuttle her and the Japanese were able to board her after she was abandoned and for the first time get a look at the details of a Gato class submarine.

Kurita’s force would continue on into theSibuyan Seawhere they would be attacked again.  But that is the subject of the next article.

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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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