Having blunted the tide of Japanese conquest, the United States turned to the offensive in the Pacific. Intelligence that the enemy was constructing an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, astride the line of communication with Australia, determined the decision to invade the “Canal” on 7 August 1942. The resulting campaign included epic battles at sea. Two U.S. carriers were among the ships lost to enemy action. In heated aerial combat, naval aviators dueled with enemy aircraft and attacked Japanese ships endeavoring to reinforce troops on the embattled island. Indeed, Guadalcanal proved to be the watershed battle of the Pacific war, setting the stage for subsequent campaigns across the Pacific. U.S. carrier task forces roamed with impunity, their planes pounding the Imperial Japanese Navy into impotence and spearheading the neutralization of enemy air power in advance of amphibious assaults.
Pacific combat spawned technologies and tactics that defined naval aviation operations in subsequent decades. While World War II sea/air battles became legendary, a major role for naval air power in wartime operations was power projection ashore, the type of role carriers fulfill to this day. In addition, naval aviation became an around-the-clock operation, night missions flown by PBY “Black Cat” squadrons, radar-equipped night-fighters, and other combat aircraft. As part of Project Cadillac, naval aviation also developed an airborne early-warning capability that remains a key component of fleet air defense.
The Navy’s prewar emphasis on War Plan Orange, coupled with a geography that necessitated large-scale sea-service involvement, made the Pacific a more visible theater of operations than the Atlantic with respect to naval aviation. However, in the Atlantic, antisubmarine-warfare operations yielded important dividends in the future Cold War at sea. The campaign against U-boats spawned technological advancements, including magnetic-anomaly detection gear, homing torpedoes, and air-dropped sonobuoys. The suspension of a prewar interservice agreement that prevented the U.S. Navy from operating patrol planes from land bases prompted the procurement of numerous Army Air Forces bombers, notably the B-24 Liberator, which logged antisubmarine patrols and gave birth to postwar patrol squadrons that flew P-2 Neptunes and P-3 Orions in search of Soviet submarines. The use of escort carriers and escorting destroyers as antisubmarine task groups to extend air coverage for convoys crossing the Atlantic was mirrored during the Cold War with the redesignation of some flattops into antisubmarine-warfare carriers.
What made such wide-ranging operations possible was the fact that U.S. factories and shipyards kept naval aviation well stocked. Between 1942 and 1945, the number of aircraft in the Navy’s inventory increased from 7,058 to a staggering 40,912. From shipyards emerged Essex -class carriers that would serve for decades after the war’s end and prove to be one of the most versatile flattop designs ever conceived. The Independence -class light carriers were built on hulls originally intended for light cruisers. Also sliding down the ways at shipyards were “baby flattops,” small-deck escort carriers that, in addition to the antisubmarine role, served as platforms for close air-support missions against enemy beachheads and aircraft transports.
By September 1945, even in light of the contributions of U.S. submarines in the war against Japan, the U.S. Navy had become an air navy. The big-gunned surface ships that had defined naval power in the prewar years were in a supporting role, as naval strike aircraft delivered long-range aerial salvos. Yet as the United States entered the postwar atomic era, naval aviation was viewed by some as an expendable conventional force, a notion soon dispelled in distant Cold War battlegrounds.