In the wake of the war-built Essex-class ships were three aircraft carriers that served as crucial testbeds for the technology and operations of their huge Cold War–era progeny.
The three large, or battle, carriers of the Midway (CVB-41) class were the largest warships built by the United States in World War II, had an important role in the Cold War, and were the first U.S. Navy ships to embark nuclear weapons. The Battle of Midway in early June 1942 is generally cited as the event that illuminated the need for the three ships. The battle was in many respects the turning point of the Pacific war, when Japanese naval forces were decisively defeated, opening the way for an American offensive in the Pacific.
Based on the lessons of the battles of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and Midway, the Navy proposed a 45,000-ton large carrier, that would—appropriately—be named the Midway, as well as additional fleet carriers of the Essex (CV-9) class. The CVB actually originated with a proposal from the Navy's General Board for a large carrier that would have an armored flight deck and be particularly well compartmented below decks to help resist battle damage. The board held hearings on the proposed battle carrier as early as March 1942, and Congress approved construction of the lead CVB (as well as nine additional Essex-class ships) in July.
In early August, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox approved contract awards in the fiscal 1943-44 authorization for 690 new ships, including four large carriers, the CVB-41 through -44. On 12 August, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to the secretary approving the entire program except for the four 45,000-ton carriers. The President disapproved the CVBs because of their long construction time in comparison to the 27,100-ton Essex-class ships, which he believed were a better investment of resources. At the same time, U.S. fleet commanders showed no enthusiasm for the larger ships.
Roosevelt confidant Captain Edward L. Cochrane, however, believed that shifting two of the planned CVBs to the New York Navy Yard, which had excess drafting capacity because of the cancellation of the large battleships of the Montana (BB-67) class, would interfere little with other carrier construction.1 Both Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia and the New York yard would construct CVBs, with the drafting work done at New York.
Cochrane, who would become chief of the Bureau of Ships in November 1942, apparently had a major influence on the President, and Roosevelt agreed to CVB construction. A memorandum from Secretary Knox on 29 December 1942, approved the construction of two ships (CVB-41 and -42) and on 26 May 1943, the President approved building a third ship (CVB-43). The fourth ship—CVB-44—was formally cancelled on 11 January 1943.
Bigger in Every Way
After several design iterations by the Bureau of Ships, the CVB design evolved as one of the world's largest warships, with a standard displacement of 45,000 tons and an overall length of 968 feet.2 With a beam of 113 feet, the carrier would be the first U.S. ship designed from the outset that was too large to transit the 110-foot-wide locks of the Panama Canal. (The Essex-class carriers could transit the canal locks only with their 40-mm starboard gun sponson removed and the port-side elevator in the vertical position. Also, three World War I–era battleships that were modernized after Pearl Harbor had bulges that increased their beam from 108 to 114 feet.)
The CVBs were the U.S. Navy's first armored-deck carriers. They were also distinctive, with a massive starboard island structure and funnel somewhat reminiscent of the old Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3), built in the 1920s. The new ships were to have the heaviest antiaircraft battery of any warship, with 18 single 5-inch/54-caliber guns of a new, long-range design, plus 84 40-mm and 28 20-mm guns.
The ships were designed to operate up to 144 contemporary aircraft. With an estimated optimum aircraft takeoff and landing interval of some 30 seconds, it would—in perfect circumstances—take more than an hour to launch or recover its air group.3 The aircraft would be moved between the hangar and flight deck by one deck-edge and two centerline elevators. Two hydraulic flight-deck catapults would launch the heaviest aircraft.
Carved in Steel
The keel for the CVB-41 was laid down on 27 October 1943 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. During the war and afterward reports circulated that the CVBs were converted from unfinished Iowa-class battleship hulls. That was a shipyard myth. The two unfinished Iowa hulls were scrapped. During the war, consideration was given to converting the six Iowa-class battleships when still under construction to aircraft carriers. Undersecretary of the Navy James Forrestal was a prime advocate of such conversions, declaring, "I think the conversion of the BB-63 and BB-64 would be very wise indeed."4 But the Bureau of Ships demurred, arguing that it was more efficient to simply build more Essex-class carriers, and undertook no battleship conversions.
When the CVB-41 was launched on 20 March 1945, the U.S. Navy had 88 aircraft carriers of all types and sizes in commission. Another 25 were under construction, and an additional 31 were on order. Although more than two-thirds of the flattops in service were escort carriers, 26 fast carriers were in service with 16 more in various stages of construction.
The CVB-41 was christened the Midway by Mrs. Bradford William Ripley II, widow of a naval aviator killed during training. The first USS Midway had been a small fleet auxiliary (AG-41), renamed Panay in April 1943 so that the escort carrier CVE-63 could have the appellation. That ship, in turn, was renamed the Saint Lô in September 1944.
The Midway was placed in commission on 10 September 1945, eight days after Japan's formal surrender on board the battleship Missouri (BB-63). Subsequently, the Midway carried out trials and air group workup for the next few months.
On 1 March 1946, the carrier, with portions of air group CVG-74 embarked, departed Norfolk, Virginia, with three destroyers to conduct cold-weather tests. Operating off the coast of Labrador and above the Arctic Circle, this evaluation of carrier operations in arctic waters was called Operation Frostbite. It demonstrated that cold-weather carrier operations were feasible, although at a reduced tempo. The task force returned to Norfolk on 22 March.
A more historic operation occurred in September 1947. After the war, both the United States and the Soviet Union exploited German missile technology and test-fired a large number of V-2s.5 That month at Norfolk, the Midway took aboard two operational V-2s (without warheads) and a dummy training missile. The carrier went to sea with U.S. and German rocket scientists and engineers—among them Wernher von Braun, "father" of the V-2—on board. On 6 September, one of the rockets was launched from the carrier's flight deck in Operation Sandy. The 46-foot, 14-ton missile lifted off and immediately began to tilt to starboard. Within seconds, the missile's control vanes corrected its attitude to the vertical, and the only launch of a V-2 missile from a moving platform was a success.
Cold War Deployments
When World War II ended in Europe in the spring of 1945, the Soviets were in firm control of Eastern Europe, mostly by military occupation. Communists also threatened Turkey and Greece and won control of Bulgaria and Soviet troops refused to withdraw from Iran.6 As a countermove, in April 1946 the United States sent the battleship Missouri, a light cruiser, and a destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean. Officially the ships were there to return the remains of a Turkish diplomat who had died in the United States in November 1944; in reality, they were sent to warn the Soviet Union of U.S. interest in Turkey remaining noncommunist.
No aircraft carrier accompanied the Missouri. At one stage of planning for the operation, the large carriers Midway and Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42) were to have accompanied the dreadnought. The carriers, however, were dropped from the operation when the State Department concluded that the Soviets might consider so large a force a provocation. But the Missouri's visit initiated the practice of sending major fleet units into the Mediterranean. The Roosevelt did operate in the Mediterranean from 8 August to 4 October 1946 with the 123 aircraft of Battle Carrier Air Group 75 (CVBG-75). The aircraft on this single carrier possessed more striking power than the combined air forces of all Mediterranean nations.
During the 1946 cruise, the FDR visited Athens to bolster the government of Greece in its fight against communists. At other Mediterranean port calls, the Roosevelt opened her decks to thousands of visitors, starting a custom of goodwill visits by U.S. warships. This show of naval force, begun with the Missouri visit, was a major milestone in the development of U.S. foreign policy in the postwar era.
From late 1947, on a continuous basis, at least one U.S. carrier operated in the Mediterranean, and from mid-1951 at least two attack carriers normally sailed that sea until the end of the Cold War. The Midway's first Med deployment was from November 1947 to March 1948, with carrier air group CVBG-1. She made port calls in Gibraltar, Algeria, Malta, Italy, and France.
Finding a Nuclear-Strike Carrier Plane
The U.S. Navy's most significant effort in carrier development in the immediate postwar years was the drive to achieve a nuclear-strike capability. When World War II ended, the United States had a very limited nuclear capability because of the few atomic bombs available, which could only be delivered to a target up to 1,500 miles away by a small number of modified B-29 Superfortress bombers. The Navy had no nuclear capability. The atomic bomb had been developed as an Army project with only a few Navy officers involved, albeit serving in key positions.
During the war, the Navy had begun developing a large, three-engine attack aircraft—the North American AJ Savage—intended specifically to operate from the three Midway-class carriers as well as future, larger flattops. It was to be powered by twin piston engines and an auxiliary J33 turbojet. The first XAJ-1 prototype flew on 3 July 1948. But the Savage would not be ready for fleet operations until the fall of 1949, and the Navy was not willing to lose time in the development of a carrier-based nuclear-strike capability. The only naval aircraft that could carry a 10,000-pound bomb and stood any possibility of taking off from a carrier deck was the Lockheed P2V Neptune, a new twin-engine, land-based patrol aircraft. It had a wing span of 100 feet, a length of 78 feet, height of 28 feet, and take-off weight of some 60,000 pounds.
Extensive tests with the Neptunes were conducted ashore at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland before two P2V-2s, loaded aboard the Coral Sea (CVB-43) by crane, took off from the carrier's deck with the aid of rocket boosters on 28 April 1948. A dozen of the planes were modified to carry nuclear weapons. Designated P2V-3C, they were to be loaded aboard the Midway-class carriers by crane to fly atomic strikes. On 7 March 1949, three Neptunes launched from the Coral Sea, which was then off the East Coast. Two flew to a nearby airfield while the third, weighing 74,000 pounds on takeoff, with a five-ton dummy bomb on board, flew across the country, dropped its "bomb" on the West Coast, and then returned east to land at Patuxent River—a round-trip of nearly 23 hours and 4,500 miles. Despite the demonstration, the Navy was still far from having a practical carrier-based nuclear-strike capability.
All three of the Midways had their flight decks strengthened to operate the loaded Neptunes and were modified to store and assemble nuclear weapons. The Coral Sea was the first to be fitted to handle "nukes." Completed in March 1950, its special weapon spaces were installed at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The ship then moved to the nearby Norfolk naval base, where a crane deposited a P2V-3C on board. On the night of 20-21 April 1950, a gun-type (uranium) MK VIII atomic bomb was assembled on board ship, albeit without certain critical components, and loaded into the Neptune. At 0730 the aircraft, weighing 74,668 pounds, took off amid a cloud of JATO (jet assisted take-off) exhaust in the first launch of a nuclear weapon from an aircraft carrier.
Deliveries of AJ-1 Savages to fleet squadrons began in September 1949, although the first carrier takeoff was not made until April 1950 from the Coral Sea. The Savage was the first true carrier-based heavy-attack aircraft. With a gross weight of 47,630 pounds, the AJ-1 could carry a MK III or a MK IV atomic bomb or an equal weight of conventional weapons to targets 750 miles from the carrier and return.
Special Weapons at Sea
On 14 June 1950, President Harry S. Truman released 90 nuclear bomb assemblies—without the plutonium core—from the Atomic Energy Commission to permanent military control; a small number were placed aboard Midway-class carriers as they departed Norfolk for operations in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. While, in theory, this gave the carriers a nuclear-strike capability, the Savages were awkward to operate on straight-deck carriers, while the Neptunes had to be loaded aboard by crane. Still, the three CVBs were the world's first warships to be armed with nuclear weapons.
The nuclear components for atomic bombs were not placed aboard aircraft carriers until at least 1953. In the interim, under a program code-named Daisy Chain, an elaborate scheme was developed to fly the plutonium cores from Savannah, Georgia, to a NATO-controlled airfield in the Mediterranean area where modified TBM-3R Avenger aircraft would be waiting to fly the components out to the carriers.
The Midway-class CVBs initially served with the Atlantic Fleet, making periodic deployments to the Mediterranean and other NATO areas during the early phases of the Cold War. They did not participate in the Korean War, as many U.S. political leaders feared that Korea was the first step in a process that would escalate to war in Europe.
The Midway became the first of her class to enter the Pacific Ocean when she departed Norfolk on 27 December 1954. Sailing by way of the Cape of Good Hope, she joined the U.S. Seventh Fleet off Taiwan in February 1955. In late June she sailed to Washington's Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for an extensive modernization. In the yard through September 1957, she received an enclosed hurricane bow, angled flight deck, three steam catapults, and other updates. The Coral Sea followed into the Pacific in September 1960; the Roosevelt remained in the Atlantic. The availability of larger carriers of the Forrestal and later classes in the Atlantic beginning in 1955 permitted the shift.7
Carriers at War
Subsequently deploying to the Western Pacific on a regular basis, the Midway was in the South China Sea during the Laotian crisis in the spring of 1961, but no shots were fired by U.S. carrier planes. The first Midway-class carrier to launch aircraft in combat was the Coral Sea. In response to a Vietcong attack on a U.S. military compound in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, on 7 February 1965, the Coral Sea, Hancock (CV-19), and Ranger (CV-61) launched strikes against military targets in North Vietnam. The only U.S. loss was an A-4E Skyhawk and its pilot from the Coral Sea.
All three Midway-class ships subsequently carried out operations against Vietcong and North Vietnamese targets. From 1965 to 1975, the Midway made nine deployments to the war zone, the Coral Sea eight, and the Roosevelt—still an Atlantic Fleet carrier—one. The Midway and Coral Sea also had important roles in the evacuation of military personnel and civilians from Saigon when South Vietnam fell in April 1975.
On 11 September 1973, in a historic move, the Midway became the first U.S. aircraft carrier based overseas when Yokosuka, Japan, became her home port. From there, with air wing CVW-5 embarked, she operated in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean areas for 18 years. On 2 November 1990, she arrived in the North Arabian Sea to provide air support for Operation Desert Shield. And, with five other U.S. carriers, the Midway flew missions in support of Desert Storm in 1991. Keeping pace with the larger carriers, her aircraft flew 3,339 combat sorties—an average of 121 per day—during the conflict.
Desert Storm marked the end of the Midway-class carriers in the Fleet. The Roosevelt, which had undergone the least modernization because of scheduling and cost issues during the Vietnam War, had been the first decommissioned—after 32 years of service on 30 September 1977—and scrapped. The Coral Sea hauled down her commission pennant on 30 April 1990, after 42 years in the Fleet; she, too, was scrapped.
The Midway departed Yokosuka in August 1991, relieved as the overseas-based carrier by the Kitty Hawk (CV-63). She was decommissioned at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego on 17 March 1997 after serving in the Fleet for almost 46 years. The ship was stored at Bremerton, Washington, but was under way again on 30 September 2003, when she was towed south to Oakland, California, for restoration work.
Finally, she was taken in tow on the last day of 2003, en route for San Diego. There, in June 2004, she officially opened as the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum. Today from her flight deck can be seen the site of what was the Glenn Curtiss training camp on North Island where, on 23 December 1910, the U.S. Navy accepted an offer by Curtiss to teach a naval officer to fly without charge. Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson reported to the Curtiss camp for flight training. He became Naval Aviator No. 1.
Mr. Polmar, a Naval History contributing editor and frequent contributor to and columnist of Proceedings, is the author of Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events, vol. 1 and 2 (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2006, 2007.)
1. Details of this CVB decision process are found in Friedman, Aircraft Carriers, pp. 202-204; also see Hearings of the Navy General Board. Cochrane was promoted to rear admiral and became Chief of the Bureau of Ships in November 1942; he was promoted to vice admiral in April 1945; he served in that post until September 1945. back to article
2. The original displacements of the major U.S. war-built ship classes were:
Standard Full Load CVB-41 Midway 45,000 tons 60,100 tons BB-61 Iowa 45,000 tons 57,540 tons CV-9 Essex 27,100 tons 33,000 tons
Source: Department of the Navy, Ships' Data U.S. Naval Vessels, vol. I (Washington, D.C., 15 April 1945). back to article
3. Most sources list the Midway air group at 130+ aircraft, e.g., Norman Friedman, U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), p. 395, lists 64 F4U-4 Corsairs, 64 SB2C-5 Helldivers, and 4 F6F-5N and 4 F6F-5P Hellcats. The 144 aircraft number is based on Memorandum from Op 03-5 to Informal Advisory Board, subj.: Design of New Aircraft Carrier, June 30, 1946, p. 2. back to article
4. Memorandum from the Undersecretary of the Navy to the Secretary of the Navy, June 15, 1942 [no subject]. Four battleships of the Iowa class were completed in 1943-1944. The last two ships of the class, the Illinois and Kentucky, were laid down in 1945 and 1944, respectively, but never completed. After the war the conversion of the Kentucky to various missile configurations was contemplated, but never undertaken; both hulls were scrapped. James Forrestal, Under Secretary of the Navy from August 1940, became Secretary of the Navy in May 1944 upon the death of Secretary Frank Knox. In 1947 he became the first Secretary of Defense. back to article
5. In October 1945 the British fired three captured V-2 missiles from Cuxhaven on the North Sea in Operation Backfire. Subsequently, over the next few years 68 V-2s were test fired in the United States and 11 in the Soviet Union. back to article
6. Iran (Persia) had been jointly occupied by Soviet and British troops during the war, dividing the country in half. back to article
7. The Midway-class designations were changed from CVB to CVA on 1 October 1952, and to CV on 30 June 1975. back to article