It is often said that we make our own luck. Less often, but just as truly, it is said that whoever invents a thing generally discovers all the easy mistakes to make; whoever comes next profits from that experience. Sometimes the first inventor never catches up. In developing aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy demonstrated both adages.
Although a U.S. aviator, Eugene Ely, piloted the first plane to take off from and land on a moving ship, the U.S. Navy did not proceed from those experiences in 1910 and 1911, respectively, to invent full-fledged aircraft carriers. That was left to the Royal Navy, which by 1918 was seriously planning a carrier-based torpedo attack on the German High Seas Fleet: If the Germans would not come out to face the Grand Fleet in battle, its aircraft would descend on the Germans.
Once America entered World War I, U.S. naval aviators attached to the Grand Fleet eagerly absorbed the new British ideas. In Washington, a very capable British naval constructor, Stanley V. Goodall, attached to the Bureau of Construction and Repair, brought with him plans of the new British carriers. In 1918 he was asked to help frame the first American staff requirement for a carrier. The British hoped the United States would continue their wartime alliance, and the cooperation lasted through most of 1920. But President Woodrow Wilson's collapse and stroke in the fall of 1919 and the 1920 presidential victory of Republican Warren G. Harding, whose campaign platform included a call for renewed isolationism, ended the collaboration.
In 1918 the captain of the first British carrier, HMS Argus, asked his senior aviator how many airplanes his ship could embark. Like any other aviator of his time, this one thought of the ship's flight deck as a landing strip, like one ashore. Each airplane had to be cleared from the landing strip (struck below) before the next one landed. The ship's capacity was thus set by her hangar size and by the time it took for an airplane to taxi to the elevator and for it to descend, for crewmen to push the plane off the elevator, and for the elevator to rise back to the flight deck.
When the first U.S. carrier, the Langley (CV-1), was commissioned in 1922, U.S. naval aviators drew much the same conclusion. However, by that time the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, was developing aircraft carrier tactics using imaginary future carriers on its gaming floor. The games showed that numbers were vital.
Captain Joseph M. Reeves, head of the school's Tactics Department, took that lesson with him when he assumed command of the Battle Force's aircraft in September 1925. At the time that mainly meant the few planes assigned to the Langley. In early November, Reeves gathered the carrier's aviators and crew together and informed them he planned to greatly increase the carrier's complement of aircraft. In addition, to keep as many Langley planes as possible in the air with the fleet, he proposed to shorten the interval between landings and takeoffs.
Landings had to be handled more efficiently. Arresting gear could bring a plane to rest in a fraction of the length of the carrier deck. The problem was that an aircraft waiting to land had to mark time until the just-landed plane had gone below and the Langley's rather slow elevator returned to the flight deck. Otherwise, if the landing plane missed the arresting gear, it could crash into aircraft on the deck.
The solution Reeves came up with was to push landed planes forward to a parking area at the bow, where they were protected from incoming aircraft by a barrier. When a plane was landing, the barrier would be raised; after a safe landing, the barrier would be lowered so the plane could be pushed over it. Once all the aircraft were on board, they were pushed aft, refueled, and rearmed. Thus was born a key aircraft-carrier innovation—the deck park—and the efficiency of flight operations greatly increased.
The U.S. Navy seems to have been alone among contemporary navies in understanding those ideas. They help explain how the three-carrier U.S. naval force at Midway operated about as many airplanes as did the four Japanese carriers they faced.
Reeves' innovation was not nearly as safe as the previous procedure, as is obvious from the many films showing accidents on board U.S. carriers before and during World War II. Because aviators on board Royal Navy carriers belonged to a different service, the Royal Air Force, during most of the interwar years, it would have been very difficult for a ship's captain to order pilots to take such risks. Reeves could do so because he commanded naval pilots, and because he knew how important numbers were.
Then there was luck. In 1921 the U.S. Navy was building, among other capital ships, six huge battlecruisers. Many Americans, however, saw little point in completing a vast and expensive new fleet after having fought the "war to end all wars." There was congressional interest in stopping the ongoing program, and at least one proposal called for completing two of the battlecruisers as carriers. That probably would not have happened—except that in November 1921 President Harding's administration called a naval disarmament conference.
The resulting Washington Naval Treaty allowed each signatory to convert a few existing capital ships to carriers. The U.S. government chose two of the battlecruisers, which became the carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). They were far larger than the contemporary state of carrier aviation might have justified, and within a short time (well before they had been completed) the pair were widely derided within the Navy as white elephants. Analysis by the Naval War College suggested it would have been more efficient to divide up the available carrier tonnage into smaller flattops, and the USS Ranger (CV-4) was designed in line with that idea.
As it turned out, however, the Washington Naval Treaty was a stroke of luck for the U.S. Navy. The two huge ex-battlecruisers carried many more aircraft than any other carrier in the world at that time. As the Naval War College had concluded in Reeves' time, sheer numbers of aircraft translated into enormous combat power. Because operating multiple carriers was not yet possible, the numbers had to be concentrated on board individual ships.
The big flattops' first major test was Fleet Problem IX, a simulated carrier-plane strike on the Panama Canal's locks in January 1929. The successful results proved that carrier air power could be effective against both land and sea targets.
That lesson bubbled beneath the surface of U.S. naval aviation throughout World War II. In effect, the 18 April 1942 Doolittle raid, in which Army Air Forces bombers took off from a carrier to attack Japanese cities including Tokyo, reinforced it. By 1945 the Navy was pointing out that because carrier aircraft could take off much closer to enemy targets and were so numerous, they could drop about 60 percent as much bomb tonnage on Japan as could Army Air Forces B-29s. Thus American carriers retained the viable, important land-attack mission even after the Imperial Japanese Navy had been destroyed.
The postwar U.S. Navy became vitally interested in striking land targets, making the point that unlike land-based bombers, its aircraft could strike from nearly any direction. That alone would severely dilute any Soviet air defense. On this basis the Navy began to develop a new kind of carrier, shaped by the likely requirements of long-range bombers.
The U.S. Air Force, formed in 1947, naturally took a dim view of sharing its primary strategic mission with the Navy, and as the Department of Defense budget was badly squeezed in 1949, the Air Force and the Army successfully argued that the new supercarrier United States should be canceled. Even so, Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson allowed the Navy to continue to develop heavy attack aircraft suited to existing carriers.
Once the Korean War broke out, it became obvious that carrier planes attacking land targets were invaluable; the carriers were much closer to Korea than were land bases in Japan. The Navy heavy-carrier program was revived, the first such ship being the USS Forrestal (CV-59). Present-day U.S. carriers are her lineal descendants, and land attack is still a vital naval role.
It all goes back to that mixture of perception and luck in the 1920s—the perception, mainly on Reeves' part, that a carrier could be quite different from a landing strip ashore, and the luck of converting two very large ships into carriers, whose huge aircraft capacity could be attributed to Reeves' innovations.