On 7 December 1941, aircraft carriers stunned the world. The organization, competence, and power of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) striking force that attacked Pearl Harbor—the Kido Butai—was unprecedented. The fleet’s six large carriers had launched 350 aircraft in two waves against the U.S. Pacific Fleet and other American targets.
Before 1941 no nation had operated six carriers together as a dedicated striking force, and, according to naval aviation historian John Lundstrom, the bold move constituted “a kind of 1941 atomic bomb.”1 Besides the IJN, only the U.S. and British navies ever had six carriers operational at one time, let alone integrated into anything resembling the Kido Butai. Only Britain and Japan had the opportunity to deploy multiple carriers in combat before the end of 1941, but they seldom fielded more than two together.2
When the war in Europe had broken out in September 1939, the Royal Navy had seven aircraft carriers (six with air groups) embarking 177 mostly obsolescent aircraft, with 55 more planes ashore. A little more than two years later, just before the Pearl Harbor attack, Britain had six operational carriers (three prewar flattops having been sunk) and Japan eight. The United States’ two-ocean navy had seven carriers, each typically carrying 72 aircraft, but 50 percent of the aircraft in most U.S. air groups remained biplanes into 1941.3
Whatever the Royal Navy lacked in modern naval aircraft, it did not want for courage and imagination. On the night of 11-12 November 1940, HMS Illustrious launched 21 Fairey Swordfish bombers against Taranto Harbor, at the heel of the Italian boot. Italy’s navy mistakenly thought its deep-draft warships safe in the harbor’s relatively shallow 40-foot waters. At the cost of two aircraft, the Swordfish torpedoed three Italian battleships, putting one permanently out of action. Within days the Japanese naval attaché in Rome had evaluated the attack and forwarded his findings to Tokyo.
When Admiral Chester Nimitz assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on the last day of 1941, he sought a means of hitting back at Japan. With his battleships destroyed or critically damaged at Pearl Harbor, he turned to his carriers, which providentially had been untouched on 7 December.
From February to May, the USS Lexington (CV-2), Yorktown (CV-5), and Enterprise (CV-6) conducted mostly single-carrier raids against Japanese bases, from the Central Pacific to New Guinea to Marcus Island—only 1,000 miles from Tokyo. The first time two American carriers operated together in combat was on 10 March, when the Lexington and Yorktown teamed up to strike New Guinea targets. Though the damage inflicted was minimal, the strikes provided valuable experience in combat operations and helped boost morale in the States.
By far the greatest boost occurred in April, when the new USS Hornet (CV-8), escorted by the Enterprise, launched 16 Army Air Forces B-25 bombers against the Japanese homeland. The twin-engine planes struck targets in six cities, and though all the aircraft were lost in China and Russia, most of their Army crews survived. Tokyo learned the obvious lesson: America’s carriers had to be destroyed.
That same month off Ceylon, planes from IJN flattops sank the venerable HMS Hermes, the world’s first ship to be designed and built as a carrier. Because her air squadron was ashore at the time of the attack, the strike was more an execution than a battle. The first true carrier battle, fought entirely by aircraft, occurred the next month in the Coral Sea.
American intelligence had detected a Japanese invasion force bound for Port Morseby, New Guinea, and Nimitz sent available forces to intercept. On 7-8 May, the Lexington and Yorktown fought three Japanese carriers in the Battle of the Coral Sea. In a textbook attack, both U.S. ships’ air groups put 93 planes over one target, smothering the small carrier Shoho in a deluge of bombs and torpedoes. The “Lex’s” Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon entered naval lore with his strike report: “Scratch one flattop.”
The next day the Americans took on two bigger, more dangerous opponents: the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. Exchanging air strikes, both sides scored. The Lexington succumbed to torpedoes, while Douglas SBD dive bombers mauled the Shokaku. With the Saratoga (CV-3) laid up for repair from a previous submarine attack, Nimitz was left with just three available flight decks—the Hornet, Enterprise, and heavily damaged Yorktown—and over the next month faced his greatest challenge.
Again U.S. signals intelligence yielded priceless information: Japan’s plans to seize Midway Atoll, nearly 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu. The Enterprise and Hornet deployed under Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance in Task Force 16, while the patched-up Yorktown operated in Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, America’s most experienced carrier admiral. Both units were waiting northeast of Midway on 4 June.
That morning American squadrons from Midway and the three carriers suffered severe losses against Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s four carriers, all veterans of Pearl Harbor. But then, with the Japanese combat air patrol focused on low-flying torpedo planes, three SBD squadrons from the Enterprise and Yorktown caught Nagumo’s carriers in dive-bombing attacks. Though unintentional, the timing worked supremely well. In minutes the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were destroyed, leaving only the Hiryu to continue the fight. Her squadrons mortally wounded the Yorktown before she was sunk by SBDs that afternoon. Japan irrevocably lost the momentum it had built during the first six months of the Pacific war.4
In early August, the United States took the offensive. In the Solomon Islands, carriers supported the Marines’ seizure of Guadalcanal’s airfield. Two carrier battles were fought during the subsequent campaign for control of the island, with the Ryujo sunk at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in August and the Hornet destroyed in October at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The outcome of the first battle forced Japan to postpone landing reinforcements on Guadalcanal, and the IJN suffered grievous aircrew losses in the second fight. As a result of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, however, only “The Big E,” the Enterprise, remained available to the Navy in the Pacific; enemy subs had sunk the Wasp (CV-7) and again crippled the Saratoga. By the time the Guadalcanal campaign’s turning point was reached in mid-November, the “Sara” was steaming back to the Southwest Pacific after undergoing repairs at Pearl Harbor.
Perfecting the Breed
With Guadalcanal secure in early 1943, other offensive operations were possible in the Pacific. But additional amphibious assaults were limited to the umbrella of land-based airpower until the next generation of carriers arrived that summer.
The Essex (CV-9) class incorporated much of the institutional knowledge gained in the Lexingtons and Yorktowns, especially concerning flight-deck and damage-control operations. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, three Essex-class carriers were under construction, with two more laid down by year’s end. Seventeen Essexes were built and commissioned during the war—most of them in less than 20 months, a remarkable achievement. Displacing 27,100 tons, the ships came in 872- and 888-foot versions. They operated 80 or more aircraft including new types, such as the TBF Avenger torpedo bomber, F6F Hellcat fighter, and SB2C Helldiver dive bomber. They brought speed, punch, and reach to the Pacific war. In the world’s largest ocean, range was crucial, and the new generation of tailhook aircraft permitted amphibious operations beyond the reach of friendly land-based fighters. Otherwise, America’s island-hopping strategy could not have succeeded.
After the attrition of 1942, however, not enough fast carriers (30-plus knots) were under construction to meet expected demands. Consequently, the Navy decided to convert nine light cruiser hulls to Independence (CVL-22)-class light carriers. Though embarking barely one-third as many aircraft (none of which were dive bombers) as their big sisters, they were fast enough to operate with the Essexes and made excellent task-group teammates. Both types of carriers launched strike aircraft and bomber escorts, and maintained combat air patrols. During the light carriers’ two years of war in the Pacific, only one would be sunk: the USS Princeton (CVL-23) at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944.
The fast carriers spearheaded American offensives across the Pacific. From the Gilberts and Marshalls to New Guinea, the Marianas, and the Philippines, their potent offensive capability was present wherever assault troops waded ashore. The carriers brought their own air-defense force. With Hellcats mated to shipboard radar, controlled by specially trained fighter director officers, American task groups were nearly immune to conventional air attack until arrival of the kamikazes in late 1944.
Japanese carriers began receiving air-search radar in the summer of 1942 but never integrated communications with sensors, as the Anglo-Americans did. Allied radar technology expanded dramatically during the war to include search, height-finder, and fire-control sets as well as means of electronic identification of friend or foe (IFF). Furthermore, Essex- and Independence-class carriers were designed with large, elaborate combat information centers laid out for optimum effectiveness.
Typically, a U.S. Navy task group included two Essex-class and two Independence-class carriers, supported by three or four cruisers and 12 to 15 destroyers. A carrier group might also include one or more battleships for greater antiaircraft gunfire—a historic reversal of the role of the big-gun combatants from capital ships to escorts. While an individual U.S. task group was not quite the match of the Pearl Harbor attack’s Kido Butai, the Americans often combined three or four task groups—12 to 16 flattops—into a task force. Beginning in 1944, Pacific Fleet units operated alternately as the Fifth Fleet under Admiral Raymond Spruance and the Third Fleet under Admiral William F. Halsey. The fast-carrier components were Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58 under Spruance and Vice Admiral John McCain’s Task Force 38 with Halsey.
Carrier and amphibious commands required enormous logistical support. Essential elements of the war-winning Pacific strategy included advanced bases at anchorages such as Majuro in the Marshalls and Ulithi in the Carolines. Meanwhile, underway replenishment forces kept carrier task groups supplied for prolonged periods. For instance, most of Task Force 58 steamed continuously for three weeks in June 1944, during which time it fought in one of the pivotal naval clashes and classic carrier battles of the war—the First Battle of the Philippine Sea.
When Marines and GIs landed on Saipan in the Marianas Islands on 15 June, Tokyo was forced to respond, since American B-29s based in the Marianas would be able to bomb the Home Islands with near impunity. Thus, for the first time since October 1942, the U.S. and Japanese carrier fleets clashed.
The two-day First Battle of the Philippine Sea pitted 15 American flight decks against 9 Japanese, and 950 U.S. carrier aircraft against some 750 carrier- and land-based Japanese planes. Ironically for the world’s largest carrier battle, the outcome depended heavily on American submarines, which sank two of Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s flattops on 19 June, the day Hellcats splashed more than 300 enemy aircraft. Mitscher’s Task Force 58 was unable to close the distance on Ozawa’s fleet until the following afternoon, when 220 planes were lofted in a last-chance effort to strike Japan’s retreating survivors.
Avengers from the Belleau Wood (CVL-24) torpedoed the 30,000-ton carrier Hiyo, which sank that evening. On returning to the task force that night, some 200 pilots plus air crewmen desperately sought to land on any flight deck available. While most landed safely, about 55 aviators and carrier crewmen died in deck crashes or drowned when their planes ran out of fuel. Nevertheless, the U.S. victory was so lopsided that the battle is still called “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” The next time Japanese carriers appeared in the war would be the last.
Jeeps and Babies
Half a world away from the Pacific, where the fast carriers were making history and headlines, American carriers had made a less glamorous but enormously significant contribution to victory. Escort carriers—nicknamed “jeeps” or “baby flattops”—were instrumental in defeating the U-boats in the Atlantic. Many CVEs (derisively said to stand for “combustible, vulnerable and expendable”) were built on oiler hulls, but the most numerous were the 45 converted merchantmen of the Bogue/Attacker class (30 went to Britain) and 50 ships of the purpose-built Casablanca class. Typically displacing 7,800 to 9,800 tons and with a top speed of 19 knots (compared with the Essex-class ships’ 27,100 tons and 33 knots), they were relatively slow, but jeep carriers nevertheless made life difficult and often short for Grand Admiral Karl DÖnitz’s submarines. By closing the mid-Atlantic gap—where convoys were beyond the range of land-based Allied aircraft—escort carriers denied U-boat wolf packs a prime hunting ground. The Battle of the Atlantic peaked in May 1943. Then, in concert with U.S. and Royal Navy surface forces, the jeeps hunted down the U-boat hunters. American Avengers sank or helped sink 40 Axis subs throughout the war.5
Carriers also participated in other campaigns against the Western Axis. The USS Ranger (CV-4) and four escort carriers supported the Allied landings in French Morocco in November 1942. Much farther north, the Ranger, operating with the British Home Fleet, launched air strikes against German-controlled shipping off Norway in October 1943. During Operation Dragoon, the August 1944 invasion of southern France, Hellcats from two American escort carriers operated over the Riviera—surely the most posh venue naval aviators ever bombed and strafed.
In the Pacific jeep carriers wore multiple hats, serving as antisubmarine, close-air-support, and fleet-replenishment ships. Certainly their best-known action occurred during one of the Battle of Leyte Gulf’s four major naval clashes, when six jeeps and their escorts were caught by an immensely superior Japanese surface force. In the 25 October 1944 Battle off Samar, Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague’s “Taffy Three” unit fought a lopsided battle for survival against 23 Japanese warships, including four battleships and eight cruisers, losing two CVEs and three escorts. Nevertheless, the extreme aggressiveness of the American response—from the air and sea—convinced Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita to call off the pursuit of the American force. That same day, Task Force 38, minus one of its task groups, committed five fleet carriers and five light flattops in the Battle off Cape Engaño and sank all four of Admiral Ozawa’s decoy carriers. Among them was the Zuikaku, the last surviving carrier of the Pearl Harbor strike force.
Despite the U.S. Navy’s overwhelming victory at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a potent new Japanese threat debuted there—kamikazes. Suicide aircraft sank the escort carrier St. Lo (CVE-63) and damaged several other flattops. By year’s end, the kamikaze crisis forced the Navy to accept Marine Corps F4U Corsair squadrons aboard fast carriers to bolster fleet air defense.
The suicide-plane threat dominated U.S. Navy defensive strategy for the remainder of the war, as thousands of kamikazes were flung against Allied warships. No fast carriers were sunk by kamikazes, though three would be knocked out of the war: the Enterprise, Franklin (CV-13), and Bunker Hill (CV-17), the latter two with terrible casualties. The Franklin’s toll remains indefinite due to the captain’s poor record keeping, but exceeds 800 dead.6
In 1945 U.S. fast carriers supported the final amphibious operations of the war—the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa—drawing the noose tight around Tokyo’s neck. Aircraft from Third and Fifth fleet carriers also pounded the Home Islands, disproving the airpower theory that naval aviation could not match land-based air. In July three days of strikes against the major naval base at Kure finished off the floating remnants of the Imperial Japanese Navy.7
For all the American satisfaction of an overwhelming victory for U.S. naval aviation in 1945, the essence of the tailhookers’ war actually had occurred three years earlier. The most decisive victories for carrier airpower had been achieved during six months of 1942, when the United States and Japan fought four of the Pacific war’s five carrier battles. First defensively at Coral Sea and Midway, and then supporting the Guadalcanal offensive at the Eastern Solomons and the Santa Cruz Islands, U.S. carriers pointed the way to the Marianas—and to Japan itself.
2. Japan occasionally placed two carriers off China as of 1932, and the British briefly teamed two off Norway in 1940. Subsequently, the Royal Navy dispatched two-carrier efforts in the Mediterranean, mostly to reinforce Malta.
3. Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events, vol. I, 1909-1945 (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006), p. 97. Also see http://www.fleetairarmarchive.net/History/Index.htm.
4. See Gordon Prange et al., Miracle at Midway (New York: Penguin, 1983).
5. Barrett Tillman. TBF-TBM Avenger Units of World War 2 (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 1999), p. 74.
6. Emails, May 2010, from Joseph A. Springer, author of Inferno: The Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin (Osceola, FL: Zenith, 2007).
7. For an assessment of Alexander Seversky’s classic Victory Through Air Power, see Barrett Tillman, Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), pp. 21-23, 280-281.
The Dauntless: Weapon of Decision
By Barrett Tillman
Three aircraft were indispensable to victory in the Pacific: the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber; the Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter; and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber. The Hellcat won air superiority for almost every amphibious operation from late 1943 onward, and the Superfort delivered the apocalyptic blows that forced Japan into surrender. But neither could have exerted its influence absent the Dauntless.
Officially designated the Douglas scout bomber (hence SBD), the Dauntless evolved from the Northrop BT design of 1934, heavily modified by chief engineer Ed Heinemann after Douglas obtained Northrop’s El Segundo factory. Delivered to Fleet squadrons in 1940, the SBD was considered an interim design until the larger, more capable Curtiss SB2C Helldiver appeared. But that plane was delayed until the end of 1943, by which time the Dauntless had won the crucial Pacific war battles.
Carrier air groups deployed with two SBD units—a bombing and a scouting squadron, which performed both roles. Throughout 1942 Navy SBDs sank six Japanese carriers and contributed to the destruction of numerous other combatants, including battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. Dauntlesses probably sank more enemy tonnage during that period than all other American aircraft combined. Marine squadrons flew the type at Midway and Guadalcanal, and during the latter campaign they were especially valued as the major striking arm of the “Cactus Air Force.”
The SBD’s carrier swansong was the 19-20 June 1944 First Battle of the Philippine Sea; thereafter the SB2C fully replaced it. However, Marine aircrews continued flying Dauntlesses from land bases, notably in the Central Pacific and in support of the Army in the Philippines.
No other aircraft contributed as heavily to America’s Pacific effort: Whether on offense or defense, SBDs represented the margin of victory at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Guadalcanal battles. Seven decades later, the image remains iconic: 70 degrees nose-down, perforated dive flaps deployed, radioman-gunner looking aft over twin .30-calibers, making 240 knots to deliver a quarter- or half-ton bomb with war-winning precision.
Fighting the Carrier War
By Barrett Tillman
Naval history was made on 7-8 May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea. For the first time, two fleets fought a pitched duel without coming within sight of each other. Aircraft carriers, of course, made the feat possible. Later that year, the battles of Midway (4-7 June), the Eastern Solomons (24 August) and the Santa Cruz Islands (26 October) followed the same pattern, with neither fleet seeing the other. The ultimate flattop battle occurred west of Saipan in June 1944; 15 U.S. and 9 Japanese carriers clashed in the fabled “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” officially known as the First Battle of the Philippine Sea.
Command and Control
Prewar U.S. Navy doctrine emphasized single-carrier task groups, a practice that generally remained through 1942. However, when two carrier units operated in concert, the senior task force commander assumed overall responsibility. By far the most experienced U.S. Navy carrier commander of the period was Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, a non-aviator who conned the Yorktown’s (CV-5) Task Force 17 at Coral Sea and Midway, and Task Force 61 at the Eastern Solomons. In the latter capacity he wielded the separate Saratoga (CV-3) and Enterprise (CV-6) task units.
Overall command of U.S. naval forces in a battle or operating area was held by shore-based authority, primarily Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii and later on Guam. Also, from October 1942 until May 1944, Admiral William F. Halsey commanded South Pacific Area forces from his headquarters on New Caledonia.
Finding the Enemy
Job one in carrier combat was finding the enemy. Whichever side got in the first blow gained a tremendous advantage, as epitomized at Midway. An often crucial component of recon was signals intelligence, which played significant roles in alerting Nimitz to Japanese intentions at Coral Sea and Midway.
Initial contact with opposing forces usually was made by long-range reconnaissance aircraft, from Army B-17s at Coral Sea to Navy PBY amphibians thereafter. Japan’s excellent maritime patrol planes commonly worked in concert with carrier forces, sometimes announcing the Americans’ presence by failing to return to base.
Organic scouting in U.S. air groups was provided by the dual-purpose Douglas SBD Dauntless. Air groups retained a dedicated SBD scouting squadron until early 1943, when scouts were absorbed by the bombers, but both units performed each role interchangeably. The Grumman TBF/M Avenger torpedo bomber, which arrived on carriers after Midway, added range and endurance to search flights, augmenting the SBD.
Task force searches spread an aerial net over the Pacific Ocean, as several two-plane scout teams were launched to cover the area of expected contact—typically 15 degrees in width out to 200 miles. If a team found enemy ships, an initial report was sent and, if possible, the scouts executed a bombing attack. At that time the task force commander decided whether the information was worth acting on. If so, a “deck-load” strike was dispatched, usually with 30 or more aircraft.
Fighting the Battle
Carrier battles were extremely expensive propositions. Of the ten Japanese and five U.S. flattops engaged in 1942, losses ran six and three, respectively, or 60 percent for each navy. Those engagements cost more than 1,300 American lives and about 280 U.S. carrier aircraft.
It was not unusual for both sides to find one another almost simultaneously, resulting in overlapping attacks. Thus, task-force defense depended on an airborne combat air patrol, and the number of fighters per carrier grew steadily: from 18 at Coral Sea to twice that number at the Eastern Solomons. But simply cramming more fighters aboard ship was not a full solution. The Navy’s main early war fighter, the F4F Wildcat, needed fast, accurate direction for maximum effectiveness, hence the growing importance of mating communications (multi-channel radios) to detection (far-sighted radars).
Shipboard gunfire also contributed to air defense. Carriers and escorts sprouted numbers and types of antiaircraft guns far beyond the normal armament of 1941. Eventually they included 20- and 40-mms and five-inchers, variously aimed by “seaman’s eye,” directors, and radar.
The U.S. Navy enjoyed a huge advantage over Japan in both radio and radar throughout the war. But integrating fighter-direction equipment and techniques into the Fleet took time and experience. Probably the biggest shock to Imperial Japanese Navy aviators came during the Marianas battle, when radar-directed F6F Hellcat fighters slammed into Japanese formations well beyond sight of the U.S. fleet. The radio-radar potential of 1942 had blossomed into near perfection two years later.