Defense Media Network

Carriers at War

Centennial of Naval Aviation

For almost seventy years, the pre-eminent symbol of a nation’s sea power has been the aircraft carrier. Today nine nations are members of the aircraft carrier fraternity (with China presumably about to become the newest once it finishes rebuilding of the ex-Russian Navy Varyag, now renamed Shi Lang). But only the United States has more than three aircraft carriers in active service. And when the decks of the carrier’s cousins the amphibious assault ships (LHA and LHD), are included, the United States has on hand more than twenty-five warships capable of launching squadrons into harm’s way.

From a humble beginning in World War I using converted vessels equipped with cranes for their sea-launched aircraft to today’s specialized superships utilizing steam-powered catapults that fling multi-ton supersonic aircraft off a non-skid, low solar absorbing flight deck, the carrier has taken the fight to distant enemy shores, conducted reconnaissance, battled enemy fleets, defended supply convoys, supported amphibious operations, conducted humanitarian missions, defended the international laws of free sea travel, defused regional military tensions, and recovered astronauts – in short, the aircraft carrier has proved to be more versatile than its early advocates imagined.

The Japanese seaplane carrier Wakamiya launched seaplanes that bombed German installations and ships in Sept. 1914.

Naval aviation was still in its infancy when on Sept. 5, 1914, just two months after the outbreak of World War I, the Japanese Navy conducted the world’s first sea-based naval operation against an enemy installation. For two months, until Nov. 6, the seaplane carrier Wakamiya, converted from a transport ship, launched seaplanes that bombed German communications installations on the Tsingtao peninsula and ships in Qiaozhou Bay during the siege of Tsingtao operation. The seaplanes conducted almost daily reconnaissance and air strikes during the operation – making a total of 49 attacks in which 190 bombs were dropped – and were instrumental in causing the Germans to surrender on Nov. 7, 1914.

On Dec. 25, 1914, the British Royal Navy Air Service launched the world’s second sea-based naval aviation operation against an enemy installation. The target was the German Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven, located at the mouth of the Elbe River. At the time the only German aircraft capable of reaching British soil were the lighter-than-air Zeppelin dirigibles. The threat of large fleets of German dirigibles bombing English cities had caused panic throughout the country. To counter the threat, the Royal Navy planned a pre-emptive raid. Three seaplane tenders, the forerunners of the aircraft carrier, supported by a combined surface and submarine escort, would steam to a point in the Heligoland Bight, about forty miles off the

British seaplane carrier HMS Empress, along with HMS and HMS , launched the second sea-based naval air raid, on Cuxhaven, in 1914. Imperial War Museum.

German North Sea coast. There each tender would launch its complement of three planes, each armed with three 20-pound bombs. The mission called for the seaplanes to conduct reconnaissance of the installations and, if possible, bomb them. On the morning of the raid, the engines of two of the seaplanes failed to start. The remaining seven aircraft, fighting fog, low cloud cover, and anti-aircraft fire, successfully completed their mission. Though damage was slight, the raid clearly demonstrated that air attacks from ship-launched planes were possible. And as Flight, the official publication of the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom noted, because all the ships on the mission wound up fighting the enemy, for the first time in history a naval attack was “delivered simultaneously above, on, and from below the surface of the water.”

The British soon added additional seaplane tenders to its fleet and went a step further by converting the cruiser HMS Furious into the world’s first aircraft carrier. But, despite the strategic promise that ship-based naval aviation offered, the technology was too primitive for it to make a major contribution to the war effort. Most action came in the form of patrols, particularly in providing convoys aerial protection against U-boat attack. The only other significant naval aviation attack against land installations occurred in July 1918, when the Furious launched a seven-plane raid on the Zeppelin base at Tondern (now the Danish city of Tønder), heavily damaging it.

Sopwith Camels spotted forward on the flight deck of HMS Furious, en route for the attack on the German Zeppelin sheds at Tondern, July 1918. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo.

By war’s end, all of the major sea powers had a naval aviation arm of some sort, but Great Britain was the only nation possessing what could be considered a carrier fleet. The U.S. Navy’s formal introduction to naval aviation officially began in 1910, when civilian stunt pilot Eugene Ely successfully flew his Curtiss biplane off a wooden platform constructed on the light cruiser USS Birmingham. Shortly thereafter a department of aeronautics was established within the Bureau of Ordnance. The Navy sent pilots to Europe during World War I, but they operated from land-based airfields.

During the interwar years, the “war to end all war” mentality and the Great Depression had enormous short-term impact on all military branches. But, crucially for naval aviation, the greatest long-term impact came from the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 (also known as the Five-Power Treaty), the first of three naval treaties during this period. Signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, and Italy, the document was what today would be called an arms limitation treaty. It was the first treaty to regulate the size, type, and number of warships a nation could build and possess. The impact on the U.S. Navy was enormous. New battleship construction ground to a halt, and two battle cruisers then under construction were converted to what would become the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga. The effect in Japan was equally profound. A battleship and a battle cruiser under construction were converted to the carriers Kaga and Akagi respectively. Two other carriers, Shoho and Zuiho, were based on a flexible design that allowed for conversion to tankers, submarine tenders or aircraft carriers. Shoho was launched in 1934 as a submarine tender before being converted to a carrier in 1940. Zuiho began service in 1934 as a high-speed oiler and was converted to an aircraft carrier shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

USS Ranger (CV-4), foreground; USS Lexington (CV-2), middle distance; and USS Saratoga (CV-3), background, lie at anchor off Honolulu, April 8, 1938, during Fleet Problem XIX. The sisters Lexington and Saratoga, converted from battlecruisers, and the undersized Ranger epitomized U.S. Navy carrier forces pre-war, and were the laboratories for developing tactics and technologies. National Archives photo.

It is the irony of naval aviation that before it had a “father,” it had what amounted to a “crazy uncle” in the form of airpower visionary and maverick Army Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell. Shortly after the end of World War I, Mitchell embarked on a high-profile campaign to create an independent air service, one that would usurp the Navy’s traditional function as the nation’s first line of defense. As Mitchell saw it, just as the Army was responsible for land warfare, and the Navy responsible for sea warfare, the new air service would be responsible for war waged in the air. This meant that in addition to land-based airfields, the air service would also “own” all aircraft carriers.

Mitchell’s high-profile efforts caused even the conservative members of the Navy’s “Gun Club” to close ranks in support of naval aviation. In February 1921, the Bureau of Aeronautics was formally established, with Rear Adm. Willaim A. Moffett, considered the father of naval aviation, as its first chief.

Though committed to battleship fleets, the U.S. Navy moved aggressively in studying how best to use naval air power. In 1922, the Navy commissioned its first carrier, the USS Langley (CV 1), a converted collier. From 1923 to 1940, the Navy conducted Fleet Problems I-XXI, a series of exercises that historians regard as being pivotal in the development of U.S. carrier doctrine. Langley’s impressive performance in Fleet Problem VI, an attack on the Hawaiian Islands, caused the Navy to accelerate the completion of the new fleet carriers Lexington (CV 2) and Saratoga (CV 3).

Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi in April 1942 during the Indian Ocean Raid as seen from an aircraft that has just taken off from her deck. The aircraft on the flight deck preparing for takeoff are Aichi D3A Type 99 dive bombers. Like Lexington and Saratoga, Akagi was converted from a battlecruiser. Kure Maritime Museum photo.

Taken as a whole, what is most remarkable about these Fleet Problems is how the planners and ship captains overcame an incredible array of logistical and technological problems. Lacking sufficient aircraft carriers, they used surrogates (usually battleships) whose catapult-launched scout planes became attack squadrons. They also refused to be blocked by the limitations of the immature aviation technology and imaginatively looked past the fragile, under-powered and under-armed aircraft and weapons systems they had to work with.

When World War II began for the United States in 1941, the country faced a maritime strategic reality of enormous complexity and danger. The possibility of having to fight a two-ocean war was no longer an exercise of war game imagination, but a dread realization of its inevitability. To meet that commitment, the United States had only seven fleet carriers (Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise, Wasp, and Hornet), a total of thirteen aircraft carriers of all types including the now obsolete Langley, and ranked third in naval airpower behind Japan and Great Britain.

The situation in the Pacific in the opening months of the war was particularly dire. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Fleet launched one of the greatest attacks in naval aviation history. The Japanese fleet under Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo that contained six aircraft carriers achieved total surprise over the U.S. military bases on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The primary target was the naval base at Pearl Harbor. When the second wave of Japanese squadrons retired, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet had been gutted. The heart of the fleet, its battleships, were either sunk or badly damaged. The only silver lining in the carnage that left 2,345 personnel killed was that Nagumo had rejected launching a third strike to knock out the fuel storage, maintenance and dock facilities. That, and the fact that the fleet’s carriers were at sea when the attack occurred, gave the U.S. Navy the opportunity to recover.

In the short term, the tactical situation shifted heavily in favor of the Japanese. But Adm. Isokoru Yamamoto, the planner of the attack on Pearl Harbor, knew the clock was ticking against Japan. When the decision to go to war was made, he replied that he would “run wild” for six months to a year. After that, he had “utterly no confidence” in what would follow. His prediction was uncannily accurate. Japanese ascendancy in the Pacific would come to a fiery end within seven months.

B-25 Tokyo raiders take off from the deck of the USS Hornet in April 1942. National Archives photo.

America’s first important counter-thrust occurred on April 14, 1942. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt had urged the Joint Chiefs of Staff to quickly come up with a retaliation operation against the Japanese home islands. Initially such an operation was thought impossible; the short range of Navy dive bombers would place the precious carriers too close to Japanese air bases. But when it was determined that specially modified Army Air Corps B-25 Mitchell medium bombers could be launched from a carrier deck, the operation later known as the Doolittle Raid, named after the Army Air Corps commander of the operation, Lt. Col.l James H. Doolittle, was born.

On April 13, the Hornet, carrying sixteen B-25s on its flight deck, and her escorts rendezvoused with Vice Adm. William Halsey’s Task Force 16, built around the Enterprise. The plan called for the Hornet to launch the bombers when the carrier was about 550 miles off the Japanese coast. After the bombers had hit their targets they would then continue to China where they would land on airfields under Nationalist Chinese control. Unfortunately, Japanese patrol ships discovered the fleet when it was still about 700 miles off the coast. Despite the extreme range, the decision was made to launch, and all sixteen bombers successfully took off from the Hornet. Tactically, the raid caused little damage, but strategically its impact was enormous. American morale received a tremendous boost. It also caused top Japanese leaders to change the direction of future operations. The destruction of the American carriers assumed high priority.

Aichi D3A Type 99 “Val” dive bombers from either the Shokaku or Zuikaku on their way to attack U.S. Navy ships on May 7, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Japanese Defense Agency, War History Section.

The Imperial Japanese Navy saw its first opportunity to achieve that goal in the Southwest Pacific, with the New Guinea offensive designed to capture the strategic harbor of Port Moresby. Thanks to the fact that the Japanese codes had been cracked, Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander in chief Pacific Fleet, was aware of the Japanese plans and he ordered Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher and Task Force 17, built around the carriers Lexington and Yorktown, to stop the offensive. The result was the Battle of the Coral Sea. It began on May 4, 1942 and was not only the first carrier versus carrier battle, but the first time that both sides fought without either fleet being in sight of the other. When the battle ended on May 8, in terms of ships lost, the Japanese had won a tactical victory, with the light carrier Shoho, the destroyer Kikuzuki, and the minelayer Okinoshima sunk and the fast carrier Shokaku damaged. The Americans, however, had lost the Lexington, the destroyer Sims, and the oiler Neosho sunk and the Yorktown damaged. But strategically, the Americans had scored a major victory. The planned seaborne invasion of Port Moresby was canceled. Also, the damage to Shokaku and the loss of most of Zuikaku’s aircrews meant that these two carriers would be unable to participate in the next great sea engagement of the war, the Battle of Midway.

USS Lexington (CV 2) during the Battle of the Coral Sea, seen from USS Yorktown (CV 5), May 8, 1942. The large number of planes on deck and low sun indicate that the photo was taken early in the morning, prior to launching the strike against the Japanese carrier force. Yorktown has several SBDs and F4Fs on deck with engines running, apparently preparing to take off. Lexington has planes parked fore and aft, and may be respotting her deck in preparation for launching aircraft. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

For the Japanese, the primary purpose of the assault on Midway was to lure the surviving ships of the U.S. Navy, particularly the carriers, into a trap where they would be destroyed. Yamamoto prepared a complex plan composed of eight fleets. Three of the fleets were assigned the diversionary mission of capturing the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. The remaining five fleets steamed toward Midway. The heart of the attack was the First Carrier Striking Force under the command of Nagumo. It included the four fleet carriers Hiryu, Soryu, Akagi, and Kaga. Against the massive Japanese force that also included eleven battleships and twenty-three cruisers, Nimitz could only assemble a force composed of three carriers (including the crippled, hastily repaired Yorktown), eight cruisers and a handful of destroyers. Not only was the U.S. Navy outnumbered and out-gunned, many of the Navy pilots had never seen combat, and their squadrons were composed of generally inferior aircraft. They were going up against some of the finest squadrons in the Imperial Japanese Navy who were flying modern warbirds. As Walter Lord wrote in his classic account of the battle, Incredible Victory, the Americans “had no right to win. Yet they did.” Through a combination of knowledge of the Japanese plans, determination, courage, luck, dedication, skill, and heroic self-sacrifice, the squadrons of the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown sank all four Japanese carriers, turned back the assault on Midway, and stopped further Japanese expansion in the Pacific. The cost to the U.S. Navy was high. The damaged Yorktown was further wounded and was eventually scuttled. Torpedo squadrons flying obsolete TBD Devastators were virtually wiped out. But the strategic initiative now shifted over to the Americans.

Nimitz and his staff began planning for the first offensive action in the war. Their target was a Japanese airstrip under construction on an island in the southwest Pacific that no one had heard of and whose name was difficult to pronounce: Guadalcanal. If the Japanese succeeded in completing the airstrip, their aircraft could sever the sea lanes that connected Australia to the United States.

The Guadalcanal campaign began when the 1st Marine Division assaulted the island on Aug. 7, 1942 and captured the airstrip, which was christened Henderson Field in honor of a Marine pilot killed in action at Midway.

A U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 “Dauntless” of Bombing Squadron Six (VB-6) from USS Enterprise (CV 6), after landing on USS Yorktown (CV 5) at about 1140 hrs on June 4, 1942, during the Battle of Midway. This plane, damaged during the attack on the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga that morning, landed on Yorktown as it was low on fuel. It was later lost with the carrier. Its crew, Ensign George H. Goldsmith, pilot, and Radioman 1st Class James W. Patterson, Jr., are still in the cockpit. Note damage to the horizontal tail.  U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The first carrier versus carrier engagement of the campaign was the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on Aug. 24 – 25, 1942. Squadrons from the Enterprise and Saratoga dueled with squadrons from the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and the light carrier Ryujo. Though the Enterprise was heavily damaged in the battle, it ended in an American victory, because the Japanese both lost more ships (three sunk including the Ryujo), and reinforcements intended for Guadalcanal were temporarily turned away.

The Japanese later got a measure of revenge when a submarine torpedoed and sank the Wasp on September 15 while she was escorting a support convoy to Guadalcanal.

The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands Oct. 25 – 27 was the next carrier versus carrier battle. This time two American flattops, Hornet and the repaired Enterprise, squared off against four Japanese carriers, the Hiyo, Shokaku, and Zuikaku and the light carrier Zuiho. When the battle ended, only one American carrier remained afloat in the theater, the Enterprise. On the Japanese side, the Shokaku and Zuikaku were both damaged, but afloat. Again, however, the Japanese had lost many trained aircrews. When combined with the earlier aircrew losses at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Eastern Solomons, Japanese aircrew quality never recovered.

U.S. Navy operations increased in 1943 as more warships, including the new Essex and Independence– class carriers, began entering the fleet. This growing strength was reflected in the increasing number and range of raids on Japanese island bases up and down the Pacific, from Rabaul to Truk and elsewhere. The high point that demonstrated how much had changed from the early months of the war occurred when more than a hundred warships, including seventeen carriers and twelve battleships (some recovered from Pearl Harbor), participated in Operation Galvanic, the amphibious assault of the Tarawa atoll.

Pilots pleased over their victory during the Marshall Islands attack, grin across the tail of an F6F Hellcat on board the USS Lexington, after shooting down 17 out of 20 Japanese planes heading for Tarawa in November 1943. New U.S. Navy aircraft, carriers, and pilots in numbers unattainable by the Japanese Navy doomed Japan. National Archives.

Then, in 1944, two pivotal battles irrevocably established American naval might: the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June and the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October. American amphibious landings on Saipan caused the Japanese to respond with Operation A-Go, which called for the Japanese fleet under Vice Adm. Jisaburo Ozawa to destroy the American fleet and disrupt the landings. This time, though, it was the Japanese fleet that was outnumbered. Ozawa had fifty-five ships, including five fleet and four light carriers and 473 aircraft. Adm. Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet had 112 ships, including seven fleet and eight light carriers and 956 planes. Even though 300 land-based aircraft from Japanese airfields in Guam and Tinian helped balance the odds, the Americans held an additional advantage. Too many of Ozawa’s squadrons had a majority of “green” pilots while American pilots were all well trained and experienced. This carrier versus carrier battle began on June 19. When it concluded on June 20, Ozawa had lost three carriers sunk and more than 600 planes (carrier and land-based) destroyed. One American fighter pilot commented that the battle reminded him of a turkey shoot back home, thus giving the engagement its nickname “The Marianas Turkey Shoot.” The battle was notable for one particular act of courage. The last American air attack on June 20 occurred so late in the day that night had fallen by the time the squadrons returned to the fleet. Despite the danger of attack by enemy submarines and night aircraft, Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher, commander of Task Force 58, ordered his flattops to be illuminated and the escorts to fire star shells to help guide the aircraft. The risky move paid off. Out of 216 aircraft in the strike, 116 landed safely. Of the remainder, twenty never returned and eighty either ditched or crash-landed. No ships were attacked.

In the fall of 1944, the Japanese navy was in desperate straits. Because almost all its experienced pilots had been killed in action, its remaining aircraft carriers were hollow shells. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed troops on the Philippine island of Leyte, the Japanese high command decided to risk everything in one titanic knockout blow named Sho-Go (Operation Victory). Three fleets were organized. One, under Ozawa, was built around four aircraft carriers, all but empty of pilots and aircraft. Its sole purpose was to act as a decoy to lure Adm. William Halsey’s powerful Third Fleet, with its sixteen carriers, away from the landing beaches. When that happened, two powerful surface fleets built around battleships and heavy cruisers would attack from the center and south, blast their way through the Seventh Fleet under Vice Adm. Thomas C. Kinkaid, basically an amphibious support fleet that included battleships raised from Pearl Harbor and small, thin-hulled escort carriers.

USS Kitkun Bay (CVE 71) of Taffy 3 prepares to launch Grumman FM-2 Wildcat fighters of composite squadron VC-5 during the Battle of Samar on Oct. 25, 1944. In the distance, Japanese shells are splashing near the USS White Plains (CVE 66). The aircraft visible on the left is a Grumman TBF Avenger. National Archives.

At first, things worked out the way the Japanese hoped. Once Halsey’s aircraft spotted Ozawa’s fleet, the aggressive commander commenced pursuit. Though the second fleet, under Vice Adm. Kiyohide Shima, failed to reach the landing beaches, it succeeded in drawing away the bulk of the Seventh Fleet. When the third Japanese fleet, under Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita approached, only three escort carrier task forces, Taffy 1, Taffy 2, and Taffy 3, stood in its way. Kurita had under his command four modern battleships including the gigantic Yamato and its 18-inch guns, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers. Despite the overwhelming odds, the aircraft and ships of the Taffys put up such a spirited defense that Kurita thought he was fighting a much larger force. At the moment when he was at the threshold of his objective, Kurita lost his nerve and ordered his fleet to retire. MacArthur’s troops were saved. It was the last Japanese fleet action in the war.

While the carrier war in the Pacific produced some of the most famous naval aviation battles in history, the Battle in the Atlantic is notable for the almost total obscurity of its naval aviation action. Exceptions are the Ark Royal’s participation in the sinking of the Bismarck, where its Swordfish torpedo bombers sufficiently damaged the German battleship allowing for the British surface fleet to sink it, and the British attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto in 1940, which influenced Japanese tactics for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The biggest reason for the relative anonymity of naval aviation’s contribution was the nature of the primary enemy threat: German U-boats. This greatly simplified the Allied response. With the exception of the Ranger, which because of design limitations remained in the Atlantic, and the Wasp’s participation in resupplying the British at Malta, American fast carriers did not participate in the Atlantic or Mediterranean theaters.

HMS Ark Royal, whose battle honors included participating in the sinking of the Bismarck, with Fairey Swordfish aircraft taking off as another approaches from astern. The obsolete Swordfish served throughout the war. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo.

Initially, anti-submarine warfare protection of convoys was provided by British and Dutch merchant aircraft carriers, converted bulk grain carriers and tankers capable of carrying three or four Swordfish torpedo bombers. Nineteen merchant aircraft carriers saw service before being phased out by the arrival of U.S. escort carriers.

American light and escort carriers arguably became the most versatile warship to see service in World War II. They did it all, from anti-submarine warfare, convoy escort, amphibious landing support, ferrying squadrons, and training, to the spectacular defense of landing beaches during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

In August 1945, the United States Navy was the largest in the world, with a fleet that included 105 aircraft carriers and 24,000 aircraft. Though naval aviation had made a pivotal contribution to Allied victory in World War II, its future proved less than secure in the post-war world. As a result of the across-the-board military drawdown, budgets were slashed and carriers were mothballed. In the new nuclear age the now independent Air Force renewed its attack on naval aviation, asserting the supremacy of its nuclear-capable strategic bombers. The “revolt of the admirals” following the cancellation of construction of the supercarrier USS United States resulted in a pause in further cutbacks that many powerful figures in politics thought was only temporary. Then came the Korean War.

In retrospect, the overall weakness of America’s military when North Korean forces poured across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, did much to save naval aviation. The only readily available rapid response aviation force was the Essex-class carrier Valley Forge, which, together with the British light carrier Triumph, began air operations against North Korean airfields, railroad and transportation facilities on July 3, 1950. By August, three more carriers had arrived, the first wave of ships that were either reassigned or swiftly brought out of mothballs. During the next several weeks, air operations focused on supporting the cornered troops defending the Pusan perimeter in the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. Then, on September 15, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the United Nations Forces, launched his strategic counterstroke, Operation Chromite, the amphibious landing at Inchon.

A U.S. Navy Grumman F9F-2 Panther attached to fighter squadron VF-71, Carrier Air Group Seven (CVG-7), on the USS Bon Homme Richard (CV 31) flies over Task Force 77, engaged in operations against North Korean targets on Aug. 1, 1952. The carriers were USS Bon Homme Richard (CV 31), USS Essex (CV 9) (right) and the USS Princeton (CV 37). National Archives.

To support the landing, commander Naval Forces Far East Vice Adm. C. Turner Joy, assembled six carriers, the greatest concentration of naval airpower since World War II. This operation would prove to be the high point of the Navy’s contribution in the war.

Because the North Korean navy was a small littoral force containing only 45 vessels, the U.S. Navy was able to quickly establish control of the seas. And, as the North Korean air force was equally small, U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force aircraft were able to establish air supremacy within a few short weeks. The carriers became mobile airfields, stationing themselves for weeks off the coast of North Korea and conducting strategic air strikes deep within the country, combat air support, and other missions, including patrolling the waters between China and Taiwan to ensure that the war would not spread to in that region. Equally important, the carriers’ success caused Congress to reverse its ship-cutting course and authorize the construction, in 1951, of the Forrestal and three more supercarriers.

The next significant carrier action, the Vietnam War, would prove to be more frustrating. During the Vietnam War, carriers of the Seventh Fleet for the most post part fought from fixed geographic locations in the South China sea, Yankee Station off the coast of North Vietnam, and Dixie Station off the coast of South Vietnam. The Seventh Fleet conducted around-the-clock bombings of logistics facilities, fuel and supply depots, power plants, bridges, and railroads in Laos, North Vietnam, and after 1970, Cambodia.

In the first year of the war, carriers launched 31,000 sorties. On average three carriers remained on station at any one time. For a seven-month period from June 1972 to January 1973, this was more than doubled when seven carriers were assigned to the theater. In the summer of 1972, carriers launched an average of 4,000 sorties a month, amounting to 60 percent of all missions supporting ground operations.

A U.S. Navy Grumman A-6A Intruder aircraft from attack squadron VA-196 “Main Battery” dropping Mk 82 bombs over Vietnam. VA-196 was assigned to Attack Carrier Air Wing 14 (CVW-14) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CVA-64) for a deployment to Vietnam from May 29, 1968 to Jan. 31, 1969. U.S. Navy photo.

The carriers participated in a number of operations, including the episodic Rolling Thunder, and naval air operations succeeded in disrupting enemy supply efforts to a point where they caused a scale-down in the strength and duration of a number of ground offensives. One important contribution was the search and rescue service provided by carrier-based helicopters that retrieved hundreds of downed aviators on shore or at sea.

Ultimately carrier successes were undercut by a failed strategy, restrictive rules of engagement, and the unpopularity of the war. In consequence, no decisive results were achieved, at a cost of 900 aircraft lost and 881 pilots and aircrew members captured or killed. The carriers’ last mission in Vietnam proved to be not combat but humanitarian. Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of American and South Vietnamese personnel in 1975, included the participation of the Enterprise, Coral Sea, Midway, and Hancock.

The post-war period became another one of reduction and realignment for the Navy. Strategic commitments, including NATO obligations and the concept of a three-ocean navy, were reassessed. The Middle East and its oil fields became a growing priority for the shrinking forward deployable assets. But budget cutbacks forced new shipbuilding programs to be extended or slashed. By 1977, the Navy was reduced to 459 ships and did not have sufficient assets to fulfill the requirements of a three-ocean navy. When President Jimmy Carter proposed further cuts, including the cancellation of the Nimitz-class carrier program, he touched off what one historian called the “great carrier war.” Led by CNO Adm. James Holloway and his successor Adm. Thomas Hayward, the Navy, together with Congressional allies on both sides, successfully defeated the president’s attempt to eliminate additional attack carrier construction.

Things improved for naval aviation following the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. John Lehman was appointed Secretary of the Navy, and during his seven years in office, he oversaw the creation of the “600 ship navy” and developed what was called the Maritime Strategy which was, as historian Robert Love, Jr., noted “predicated on a strong peacetime forward-deployed heavy attack carrier force that could both take the offensive in a general war and provide the president with a quickdraw intervention option in a regional crisis.”

An F-4 Phantom II aircraft approaches for a landing aboard the attack aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67). U.S. Navy photo.

Carriers were put to great use in the 1980s. In 1981, aircraft from the Nimitz and Forrestal were involved in the Gulf of Sidra Incident. Libyan leader Muammar Quaddafi, in violation of international law, claimed the gulf as Libyan territorial water and announced a “line of death” for any vessel or airplane that crossed it. Reagan sent carrier groups into the gulf to enforce the international rights of passage laws. A confrontation ensued in which two Libyan jet aircraft were shot down. In 1982, Great Britain and Argentina fought the territorial dispute known as the Falklands War. In it aircraft from the carrier HMS Invincible supported amphibious operations to liberate the British South Atlantic islands seized by Argentine forces. The following year, the United States launched Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada, to liberate American students held hostage. In addition to participation by the carrier Independence, the campaign saw the first major operational use of amphibious assault ships (Guam and Saipan). The U.S. Sixth Fleet returned to the Gulf of Sidra in 1986 as part of Operation El Dorado Canyon in order to punish Libya for its support of terrorists, and to once again enforce the international right of freedom of navigation. Three years later, in another incident in the gulf, Navy Tomcats once again shot down two Libyan fighters.

The “peace dividend” implied by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1989 proved illusory. The eight-year Iran-Iraq War that ended in 1988 set the stage for a new crisis in the following decade. On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. The American-led international response, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, was the largest military operation since the Vietnam War. Six aircraft carrier battle groups participated in the campaign. Coalition victory in Operation Desert Storm also resulted in a watershed bureaucratic victory for naval aviation. Cmdr. James Paulsen observed, “Following Desert Storm, the Air Force recognized the aircraft carriers’ contributions and the independence they offer to global presence. In light of the restrictions of deployable basing rights, the Air Force reversed its 50-year stance against the need for naval aviation.”

The importance of this independent capability, free of interference by a host country, was underscored in Operation Enduring Freedom, where carrier-based aircraft from a total of four carrier groups proved to be the only practical air support for the campaign against the Taliban. Operation Iraqi Freedom saw the deployment of six carrier groups, and an unprecedented use of carrier-based night operations.

As a result of its recent successes, and the development of new technologies that further enhance the versatility and capability of aircraft carriers, former CNO Adm. James L. Holloway III, noted that today, “The U.S. carrier fleet is at a historic peak in its capabilities as the principal element of American sea power.”

This article was first published in Freedom at Work: USS George H.W. Bush CVN 77.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

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    li class="comment byuser comment-author-admin odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-357">
    Dwight Zimmerman

    There were three:, wikipedia, and

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-admin even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-356">

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    R, Jim