We were standing on the flag bridge of the aircraft carrier Lexington, facing across the flight deck below us, and looking out over the blue water of the Pacific towards the New Jersey, somber in black paint, 2,000 yards off our port quarter—45,000 tons of brand-new battleship steaming in the task force formation at 25 knots as we neared the shore of Honshu. It was mid- February of 1945, and we were about to make the first carrier strikes on the Tokyo area, fully expecting an avalanche of Kamikazes from hour to hour. Because it was the first time the Fast Carrier Task Force had sailed within fighter range of the enemy’s greatest concentration of defensive airfields, all of us were a bit on edge.
My companion, an officer with a long and creditable record on the staff of an air admiral, a veteran of many encounters that he had sweated out on the bridge of one carrier or another, waved his hand towards the majestic New Jersey. He made no secret of his envy of the security enjoyed by the personnel aboard her—for Jap dive bombers never wasted their bombs on battleships.
“There’s a shameful waste of the taxpayers’ money,” he ventured, taking it for granted that I would agree.
I did not; nor do I now, looking back over the record.
The New Jersey cost a cool $100,000,000. She is one of ten fast battleships built just before or during the war, each of which cost a similar sum. That adds up to a grand total—and I use round figures because I like round figures—of just $1,000,000,000.
It is not a trifling sum, especially if it be added to the considerable outlay made in earlier years for the 13 older battleships which served us during this war, and to the cost of their periodic modernization. It is, in fact, a hell of a lot of money.
It must be admitted, at the outset, that the battleship did not win the war. It was not the weapon of decision, in the European theater or even in the naval war in the Pacific. Our battleship force was prostrated at Pearl Harbor; and no battleship of ours appeared in combat for almost a year, when the Washington and South Dakota showed up in the Solomons. The aircraft carriers, destined for the heroic role in the Pacific struggle, delivered the main offensive blows. The carriers took the lion’s share of punishment. Beyond any shadow of doubt, the battlewagons had an easy time of it by comparison—even if we average in the lumbering veterans a quarter century old and more which were used to support amphibious landings, some of which caught suicide bombers and suffered heavy damage.
It would be ridiculous to claim for the battleship the distinction which properly belongs to a new ship-type, born of the new warfare. But it would be a grievous mistake to ignore the contribution the battleships made to our Pacific victory. It would be a mistake, because it would be unjust to a great many loyal, capable officers and men, and also because it would distort our judgment of the future needs of the fleet.
Mine was a roving assignment, and six weeks after my unsatisfactory conversation on the bridge of the Lexington, I was off the shore of Okinawa, on duty aboard the battleship Washington-—the first vessel of the United States Navy in two wars to sink an enemy battleship. The Okinawa operation was bitter and costly from start to finish; and to witness it from the navigating bridge of the Washington was to see the mission of the battleship in a typical pattern. The armored, gun-firing ship served in obscurity—in the shadow of the flamboyant flat-top—but it served us well. It paid dividends, because it was essential to the command of the seas. And command of the seas was essential to the defeat of the Japanese enemy. It was the basic ingredient of our Pacific victory.
It might be well to begin this appraisal of the role of the battleship by noticing the salient characteristics of the type, elementary though they may be. It is a massive, compact vessel, most of which is under water, displacing 30,000 to 45,000 tons, from 600 to 900 feet long, and drawing from 20-odd to 35 feet of water. Its most essential gear, in the protected citadel of the ship, is covered by heavy armor plate along the belt, and by substantial layers of deck armor. In its contemporary form, it carries a main armament of nine guns of 16-inch caliber, in three turrets, firing shells of about one ton for a distance up to 20 miles with impressive accuracy. Our modern battleships mount about twenty 5-inch dual purpose guns, primarily for anti-aircraft fire, and approximately 125 barrels in the category of anti-aircraft machine guns, of 40 or 20 millimeters. They make 27 knots, or in the case of the Iowas, better than 30 knots, enabling them in general to pace the carriers and cruisers of the fast striking forces. Unlike any other ship type, however, the battleship is designed specifically to stand and slug it out with any adversary.
During World War II, our battleship strength increased gradually, by new construction and the repair and modernization of older vessels, until before the end we had 23 in combat service. The oldest, the Arkansas, was commissioned in 1912. The newest, the Missouri, was only shaken down in time to join the fleet for the last few months of operations in Japan’s home waters—and to bask in the limelight of the news while Japanese emissaries formally surrendered on her main deck. Profoundly different as they are, the Arkansas and Missouri can be discussed, and their work appraised, in a single bracket. It is because the battleship is the most stable of ship types in our time. Although it has grown in size and weight and armament with the decades, it has the same basic mission—a mission which remains essential for the present and the future.
As a rule, six fast battleships were employed with the Fast Carrier Task Force— the show-piece of the United States Fleet and the greatest naval force ever sent into battle by any power in the history of naval warfare. From two up to ten old battle- wagons were assigned to the Amphibious Force in the Pacific, to give fire support at amphibious landings and to provide close cover for the amphibious forces against the enemy’s surface units.
The functions of the battleship were several. One quite generally overlooked, at least underrated, was the escorting of the most important of our convoys. A dozen transports, each carrying several thousands of military personnel, constitute a valuable convoy. It is not enough to send a few destroyers along with them, and a couple of jeep carriers for air cover. There is always the chance that the enemy will bring out a fast heavy cruiser, or a pocket battleship (which is the same thing), in the hope of making a killing. So it was that several of our veteran battleships were kept busy for much of the war in the Atlantic, where the enemy had armored surface craft on the loose, protecting the most important of our convoys on their hazardous journeys to European ports.
Far more important, however, was the role of the battleships assigned to the amphibious forces—in Europe and the Pacific. In contrast to the first world struggle, this war was in large part one of amphibious landings, on both sides of the globe. And a landing on a hostile, defended coast is traditionally the most difficult of all military operations. It was so in the Punic Wars. It is so today. And it will still be so after the atomic bomb is taken for granted and fitted into the age-old pattern of war.
To land forces on an enemy’s coast, it is necessary first to command the intervening seas, then to assure one’s command of the air along the beaches and for many miles in all directions, and then to pulverize the beaches and coastal fortifications on and behind the beaches. Finally, it is necessary to provide a dense curtain of shellfire, lifted as one’s own assault troops move in to the beach, and thereafter to continue support of the landing forces by naval gunfire—at least until sufficient land artillery is put ashore. Beyond this, of course, it is necessary to defend the amphibious force itself, including its supply and ammunition ships and tankers, against enemy attack from the air, surface, or submarine forces of the enemy.
This is a big order; and no one weapon or ship type could fill it. The battleship, however, played a major role. Excepting the first landings in the Solomons, every major amphibious landing in the war was supported by the fire of some battleships. At Iwo Jima, in many ways the most difficult of all amphibious operations in history, we used six old battleships—the New York, Texas, Nevada, Arkansas, Idaho, and Tennessee. For several days, two of our fast battleships also were moved in to join in the battering of the Japanese defenses on Iwo.
These older ships could not have fought a first-rate fleet engagement against the most modern armored ships, could not have steamed with the fast carriers. On paper, at least, they could not have faced a like number of Japan’s best battleships with a fair chance of success. But they could and did throw an amazing volume of accurate fire into the beaches and hilltop positions of Iwo Jima, blasting deeply into the sturdy, well-protected fortifications the Japs had built so painstakingly.
The Arkansas was 33 years old, a ship of but 26,000 tons mounting 12 guns of 12-inch caliber. Undeniably, she was an old hulk; but her guns and fire-control gear were equal to the task of bombardment. Her salvo weighed but 5 tons, compared to the 9 tons of the new battleships. But day after day her big guns and secondary battery pounded the positions radioed back from spotting planes hovering over the contested island. The other five old battlewagons, with 14-inch main batteries, likewise poured in their fire.
The Washington came up, detached from the Fast Carrier Task Force for four days, to add her 16-inch shells-—800 tons of them—to the concentrated hell handed out to the Jap defenders. The Washington alone also threw in 2,300 rounds of 5-inch. How many American lives were saved by the preinvasion bombardment of landing beaches in this and other operations, and how many more were saved by the fire support given after landings, we shall never know. We can be sure, however, that the number was large.
After the initial landings, naval gunfire was of particular value because it was so accurate. There were times, in the Iwo operation, when assault units in the middle of the island called on the gunfire support force for salvos to be dropped only 300 yards ahead of our own front lines. That reflects the great confidence our Marine officers had in the precision of naval gunfire; and it illustrates the extent to which naval guns replaced land artillery in the conquest of some of the smaller islands.
Because it occurred at the time and place of greatest news interest—the landings— gunfire of battleships in amphibious jobs was well publicized during the war, especially in the last few months when security considerations did not forbid the disclosure of fire support operations in some detail. Standing off the beaches of Okinawa, battleships and other gun-firing ships of the support force delivered 25,000 tons of shells, of 5-inch caliber and larger. This volume of fire from ships offshore not only shattered the defenses of the western beaches but made the actual landings relatively easy. It harassed the enemy’s forces steadily through the entire campaign on land, making it impossible for him to deploy his forces as he might have liked, and neutralizing his offensive weapons. At times, naval batteries were called upon for special tasks, such as firing a continuous all-night barrage of star shells, to prevent the Jap from undertaking stealthy night attacks against our forward positions. In the small islands of the Pacific, there were few positions out of range of heavy naval guns; and this made possible the full utilization of naval artillery until the islands were secured.
Except for the enemy’s air attacks on the ships themselves, fire support at landings is not an especially hazardous assignment. At Okinawa, it was rough duty, but the worst of the punishment was taken by the destroyers on picket duty, some miles out from the support force and escort carriers giving air support. The enemy’s shore batteries rarely proved effective against our ships, in the Pacific landings. Yet even when there are no air attacks from hostile forces, bombardment operations are not a picnic—as men on other duty sometimes imagine. They represent hard work for all hands, and plenty of it. The work begins long in advance of the first salvo, on a battleship, for the ship must be made ready for main battery fire. Details of men must move through the entire ship, taking down and stowing securely such gear as electric fans, nonessential light bulbs, and anything else that would be shaken loose or broken by violent vibration and concussion. All loose gear on the weather decks has to be lashed tightly in place.
On the night preceding a scheduled bombardment, gunnery and fire-control officers and some petty officers with key jobs at fire control or gun stations are called to the wardroom, where they study maps of the target area, learn the full plan of bombardment, and find out also what the operation plan provides for communications and spotting of fire. Next day all hands are piped to breakfast early—possibly at 0300 or 0330—to put the vessel in readiness for a long, hot, noisy, dirty day of nerve-shattering noise and tension. After the first salvo, and for the remainder of the day, the ship is filled with the pungent fumes of burned powder. Vibration stirs up all the accumulated dust in working and living spaces, which fills the air circulated through the ship. Necessarily, the vessel is closed up tight below the main deck, with watertight doors and hatches dogged down. After a few days of this regimen, the powder fumes, dust, and noise take their toll, and almost everyone has a weary, drawn look about him, plus a stinging headache.
At the best, shore bombardment is not a lark. At the worst, with hostile aircraft breaking through the screen of friendlies on combat air patrol and coming in for attacks, it can be as rugged as any other duty.
In the main, tactical support of landing forces was the mission of the old battleships, although nearly all the fast battleships got a few opportunities to take part in amphibious landings-—in the Marshalls, Marianas, or Okinawa campaign. Normally, the fast battleships had a different and less widely understood function. As they were commissioned and shaken down, they were assigned to the Fast Carrier Task Force—the far-ranging, swift fleet that gave strategic cover to the vulnerable, slow ships of the amphibious force. Usually, this carrier force was deployed in three, four, or sometimes five task groups, each with three or four carriers, two battleships, several heavy cruisers, a light or anti-aircraft cruiser or two, and something like a score of destroyers. The carriers were grouped in the center, while battleships and cruisers took stations on a circle outside them and destroyers formed a circular screen still farther out.
Before the war’s end, there were ten of these fast battleships, in three classes. The North Carolina and Washington, built just before the war, are 35,000-ton ships capable of making 27 knots. The four South Dakotas, which came into combat service one by one from the autumn of 1942 onwards, included the Massachusetts, Indiana, and Alabama—besides the SoDak, as Battleship X was usually called by men in the task force. These were of similar tonnage and speed, although beamier and of quite different silhouette. The four Iowas, including Iowa, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Missouri, are very different ships, 200 feet longer and very much larger. The greater ratio of length to beam and far more powerful propulsion equipment give them a speed of better than 30 knots. The armament of all the ten fast battleships is substantially the same, save that the main battery guns of the Iowas are about 7 feet longer (50 calibers instead of 45), and therefore are accurate to a greater range and have a greater maximum range.
There, in a paragraph, is what happened to $1,000,000,000. We have now to see what those ships did, to earn dividends on such a colossal investment.
The most constant duty of the battleships with the fast carrier force was to provide anti-aircraft protection for the carriers. Being difficult to hit, and much more difficult to damage seriously by dive bombing or suicide attacks, the battleships were rarely singled out for attack by Japanese pilots. The flat-tops, with their enormous expanse of fragile flight deck, were relatively easy targets. And of course their aircraft, with fuel tanks of avgas and armed with bombs and rockets at times, were not protected by armor, whether they were on the flight deck or hangar deck. The carrier was easier to hit, and much more likely to suffer heavy damage from fire and explosion after being hit.
This I learned for myself during the weeks I served aboard the Washington. In that period, through most of the Okinawa operation, I witnessed—at a random guess—75 attacks on ships of our task group by enemy planes. One plane crashed into a destroyer by mistake when diving for the Hancock. One dived on the Washington, but turned away (to my immense satisfaction) at low altitude to make unsuccessful passes at the Hancock and Enterprise, only to crash into the sea in flames. All the other attacks were on the carriers, so far as I can recall. Without precise statistics, therefore, it is a fair guess that fully 95 per cent of enemy air attacks on the carrier task force were directed at the carriers, even though these were only about 15 per cent of the ships in the force.
Broad of beam and riding deep in the water, rolling but little save in very heavy seas, the battleship is an excellent gun platform. It was designed to be so. Half its personnel, roughly, are in the gunnery department. It usually mounts twenty 5-inch barrels—by all odds our most valuable antiaircraft weapon—and its weather decks are fairly covered with anti-aircraft machine guns. This great anti-aircraft fire-power was important in the defensive strength of the carrier task force. Comparing the Iowa with the pre-Pearl Harbor Texas, for example, one finds that the Iowa’s fire-power in 5-inch guns is five times greater, and its fire-power in automatic weapons 63 times greater. One night on the way up to Tokyo in February of 1945, I watched from the bridge of the Lexington (which did not disclose her position by firing) while the Missouri picked off two Jap planes her gunners never saw—simply firing where radar said the planes had to be. It is uncanny to see the white flashes of 5-inch bursts and the red tracer of 40-mm. filling the skies, with no visible target, and then abruptly see a plane tumble out of the clouds in a mass of orange flame, to burn briefly on the black surface of the water and then disappear. Many times over, battleships did this sort of job with quiet efficiency, thanks to the superb gunnery and fire control of a great ship existing for no other purpose than to fire her guns.
In combat conditions, when griping was the rule, there was plenty of complaint on the carriers that the idlers on the battlewagons were living the life of Riley, with no risk, and —worst of all—doing a slovenly job of A.A. protection for the oft-attacked flat-tops. I served on battleships and carriers alike, moving from one to the other without prejudice, within the Fast Carrier Task Force. My considered impression is that the personnel in battleships had a definitely easier time of it, although gun crews specifically on some battleships were kept at battle stations longer hours than their opposite numbers on carriers. But although the nervous strain was less acute on the armored ships and casualties to personnel very much less, I never saw any basis for the feeling that the battleships did not do their full share in meeting enemy air attacks, or did not do that share skillfully. If the statistics show larger scores of enemy aircraft shot down by A.A. fire of carriers, it could be (1) because there were twice as many carriers as battleships in the Task Force, and (2) because the carriers (unfortunately for them) had better opportunities for fire at short ranges. In any event, anti-aircraft work was only one of the responsibilities of the battleships, and not their primary commitment.
Battleships serving with the fleet had a number of minor roles which increased their usefulness—although, standing alone, they would not warrant the outlay for, or even the operating cost of such vessels. For example, every battleship has a complete hospital and operating room, with a sufficient staff of medical officers and pharmacist’s mates. Severely wounded personnel, or others requiring long hospitalization or surgery, are transferred from destroyers to the battleships. The transfer is not without its hazards, and calls for the finest seamanship. But many lives have been saved just that way. A rolling, pitching tin can is no proper place for a wounded man, even when there is space for him, and a qualified medical officer.
Designed to keep the sea for long periods of time, the battleship has an immense fuel capacity. Consequently, one of the functions of the fast battleships attached to the carrier task force is to “top off” some of the destroyers every two or three days. The destroyer comes alongside; hose lines are led across the 50-yard space of turbulent water (it’s always turbulent on fueling days, somehow); and while both ships steam on parallel courses at 7 or 8 knots, black oil is pumped into the destroyer. This makes it possible to keep the task force as a whole steaming steadily in the combat area, without having to interrupt scheduled operations nearly so often to rendezvous with the tankers of the service squadron.
In the last two months of the war, the fast battleships were just beginning to develop another function—the bombardment of strategic targets in the enemy’s main islands. Our battleships, old and new alike, had carried out innumerable shore bombardments in preceding months, but almost always in tactical support of amphibious landings—with the notable exception of Truk, and lesser shellings of minor island positions. Once it became practicable to take heavy ships to within a mile or two of some of Japan’s major seaports, the fast battleships and heavy cruisers of the Carrier Task Force were ordered in to Kamaishi, Muroran, and various other industrial centers of Japan, to pour their shells into steel plants, copper refineries, shipyards, and such targets.
For the most part, the destruction of strategic targets in Japan was the responsibility of the Army Air Forces. But Japan happened to have developed nearly all her vital industries within a few miles of her coasts. And her main railroads mostly parallel the shore lines, within gunshot of the water. There was ample depth of water for heavy ships up to within point-blank range of these cities. The result was an unusual opportunity for the accurate fire of naval guns. Had the war continued longer, this would have become a far more important factor in the destruction of Japan’s capacity for supporting a war.
Up to this point, we have noticed only the secondary missions of the battleship. It remains to consider the principal function of this ship type. It is designed and built for one dominant purpose—to engage with its main battery the armored ships of the enemy and destroy them. And while our battleships have had many diverse uses, they have been constantly employed to provide cover for the more vulnerable ships of the fleet, fleet train, and merchant fleet against the armored surface ships of the enemy. This is the rock bottom of sea power—to assert and maintain command of the sea communications that may be necessary to our over-all military operations.
The United States fought in the Pacific under severe handicaps from the Pearl Harbor attack until the latter months of 1943. The battleship force was paralyzed at Pearl Harbor. Our carriers were few and ill- matched. We were obliged to wage a defensive war, limiting our offensive operations to hit-and-run carrier raids. For these operations, a task force usually was made up of one or two flat-tops, three or four heavy cruisers, and a destroyer screen. No battleships. By great skill and an artful mingling of caution and daring, our naval forces won several important victories in this period of our weakness—notably the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. But both were really defensive operations, forced upon us by the strategic initiative of the enemy. And at Midway in particular, in June of 1942, our fleet was not able to pursue the enemy force and destroy it in detail, because the Jap had heavy armored ships and we did not.
Under certain conditions, of course, land- based or carrier-based air power can sink heavy armored ships. It has been done— repeatedly. But it calls for a great concentration of aircraft that is not always practical, and for tolerably good weather conditions that cannot be requisitioned when needed. We sank the mighty Yamato in the spring of 1945 with carrier-based aircraft. But to be on the safe side, Admiral Mitscher sent out almost 400 planes. I have never before or since seen a sky so black with planes as while the flights of torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters were forming up, over the Carrier Task Force, in preparation for the long run northwest to sink the Yamato. Such aerial armadas are not always available; and the only sure way to fight an enemy having battleships is to send battleships against him. The only way to be certain of one’s sea communications, while the enemy has a battle fleet in being, is to keep one’s own battleships so disposed as to be able to intercept an enemy force before he can strike into the sea area used by our transports, supply ships, tankers, and other vessels. In other words, we could not undertake major offensive operations with safety until we had a strategic concentration of battleships, based far enough out to intercept any Japanese battle force which might challenge our amphibious force during or after a landing. We could not, with safety. And we did not.
Because it was desperately necessary to keep the enemy out of the New Hebrides and New Caledonia, the United States launched the attack on Guadalcanal in the late summer of 1942. It was extremely costly, because it had to be undertaken with inadequate numbers of assault forces and insufficient supplies, with skimpy air support and without full command of the adjacent seas. What made the task of the Marines at Guadalcanal so tough was not the Japanese garrison they encountered. It was the constant flow of Japanese reinforcements and supplies, down the Slot day after day and week after week, and the recurring attacks on our forces by the enemy’s surface ships and aircraft.
Guadalcanal was destined to be an ugly assignment, in any case. But it was far worse because we did not truly command the waters of that area. And we could not assert command of those waters because we had no battle force ready to challenge the Japanese fleet. By November, three months after the venturesome landing in the Solomons, the South Dakota and Washington appeared in the South Pacific. The result was the Battle of Savo Island, in which the Washington took an enemy battleship of the Kongo class under fire, silenced her batteries, and then inflicted such damage that she later sank. This, while the South Dakota was drawing the fire of Japan’s heavier ships. The destruction of the enemy battleship took less than ten minutes.
Battleships may live out their lives in idle luxury, seemingly the pampered pets of a sentimental navy wedded to ships of the line. They may never fire their guns in a fleet engagement. But if their main battery fire is needed, it usually achieves momentous results in three or four salvos, taking half that number of minutes. From the Battle of Savo Island onwards, the enemy kept his heavy armored ships more discreetly disposed; and in the end he lost his entire navy because he was unwilling to commit his battle force to action while it was still superior in strength.
At Leyte Gulf, in October of 1944, our landing force was handicapped by the inability of the Navy to assert complete command of surrounding waters. The divisions landed there had to annihilate the Jap garrison of 30,000 troops, and then deal with a similar force brought from the islands to the west. But the Leyte operation provided our sea forces with their greatest opportunity of the entire war to establish undisputed American control of the Pacific. In a shrewdly conceived but badly executed attack, the enemy committed most of his sea forces and great numbers of land-based aircraft to an all-out attempt to drive MacArthur’s force out of the Philippines.
The American battleship came into its own in this history-making engagement; and as it happened, the big chance for the battle- wagons came in the Battle of Surigao Strait, one of the three nearly simultaneous battles which together comprise the Battle for Leyte Gulf—in its totality the greatest naval action of World War II-—or of all time. A part of the Japanese fleet, consisting of two battleships, one heavy cruiser, and four destroyers, advanced through Surigao Strait during the hours of darkness on October 25, heading for Leyte and the American beachhead, taken five days previously. Well informed of the enemy’s movements (as we usually were), we had our support force of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers—the naval screen of the landing force itself—disposed in the Strait to set a trap. Rear Admiral Oldendorf, in tactical command, deployed his destroyers on the flanks of the approaching enemy force, and sealed off the Strait with his battleships—old battleships—and cruisers.
The heart of naval warfare with surface ships—of the traditional art of maneuvering fleets in battle—is so to dispose one’s ships that each of them can bring all its guns to bear on the enemy, while the enemy is-unable to do the same. The most satisfactory way to accomplish this is the classical maneuver known as crossing the “T”—moving across the course of the enemy force so that all one’s batteries can bear, while only the forward turrets of the enemy’s foremost ships can reply. Oldendorf crossed the “T” as the unsuspecting Nips steamed through Surigao Strait. The result was the prompt sinking of the two Jap battleships and three destroyers. The cruiser escaped, but was caught and sunk later by our aircraft.
This is not the place to repeat the full chronicle of the Battle for Leyte Gulf, in some phases of which our forces were not as fully successful as Oldendorf’s task force. But the deadly fire of those old battlewagons in Surigao Strait, it must be emphasized, made a major contribution to the greatest victory of our fleet in all its history. At Leyte Gulf, Japan’s sea power was shattered. There remained only the task of picking off the remnants, ship by ship, in the home waters where they took cowering refuge.
The full significance of the victory at Leyte Gulf, of our new mastery of Pacific waters, only became apparent in succeeding operations. In every operation up to that time, the enemy was able to reinforce his garrisons, or to harass seriously our amphibious forces. But in the next major campaign, the landings on Luzon, in January of 1945, the picture was greatly changed. When the forces under MacArthur landed on Luzon, they had to fight only the Japanese then on the island. There were no reinforcements. Controlling the seas roundabout, our naval forces were able to insure that not one enemy vessel reached Luzon after January 9, and that no supplies were sent in to the garrison of the island. Never, after Leyte Gulf, did a surface ship of the enemy so much as threaten our amphibious forces or our fleet train. Command of the seas was achieved. It was not achieved solely by our battleships, of course. But it is difficult to conceive its being achieved so promptly and decisively without our battleships.
The ships of the carrier task force did not have a spectacular role in that operation. Aboard the Enterprise throughout that period, I found it a quiet affair (although it would not have been so on the Hancock or the Ticonderoga). While carrier-based planes neutralized the enemy’s air bases for a thousand miles in all directions from the Lingayan Gulf, the ships themselves steamed up and down the South China Sea, 75 to 500 miles from the landings. The task force with its component of battleships and heavy cruisers was stationed between our amphibious forces at Lingayan Gulf and the several mainland bases from which the enemy might send surface forces to harass our landing force. The fleet, in other words, was providing strategic cover for the vulnerable ships and men of the amphibious force. This is not exciting. It is not flashy. It does not make headlines. But it is essential to the success of an amphibious landing. Until mastery of the seas is achieved, any amphibious offensive is a fearful risk, to be undertaken only in desperation.
In the Iwo Jima operation, a similar pattern prevailed. While the carriers sent strikes against the enemy’s home air bases and also provided air support for the landings, gunfiring ships held themselves in readiness to deal with any surface ships the enemy might be so foolhardy as to send out from Tokyo Bay or the Inland Sea. The carrier task force, with its complement of fast battleships and cruisers, was always in strategic concentration with the amphibious forces.
There was no interference from Japanese surface craft with our Iwo landings, or our constant reinforcement and logistical support of the Marines who fought the bitter fight for that tiny little island so vital to American strategy. Command of the seas set the stage for the assault and conquest of the island.
At Okinawa, it was in the same pattern. This campaign, which I witnessed from the decks of the Washington, was hard in all respects, and especially for the fleet elements involved. The fast carriers and the destroyers of the amphibious force took terrible punishment—beyond what most Americans realize even today. The Kamikaze really came into his own at Okinawa. But at no time did the enemy’s surface ships ever offer a serious threat to our landings in the Ryukyus. Decisive superiority in gun-firing ships insured our full access to the islands marked out for seizure.
Such was the role of the battleship in the Pacific war. Rarely did the great steel hulks emerge from their obscurity. Their bombardments of the beaches were valuable, but could not compete with the heroism of the assault troops for attention in the news. Their continuing value in covering the more vulnerable ships of the amphibious force was even less spectacular. For sea power is not usually a dramatic affair. The battleship rarely achieves its major purpose by gunfire. Instead, it accomplishes its end largely by simply existing—by being at the right place, ready for action. When we did not have battleships available for combat in the Pacific, the Japanese went where they chose, reinforced their garrisons where they liked, and defied us to launch any great offensive. When we put battleships into the Pacific, and in substantial numbers, we achieved command of that immense ocean, and moved our task forces like pieces on a chess board.
The least-known element of the United States Fleet, probably, was the battle force embodied in the Fast Carrier Task Force. It consisted of all the fast battleships, the battle cruisers Guam and Alaska, a string of heavy and light cruisers, and an appropriate destroyer screen. It had its own signals, its own operation plans (almost never used, but no matter), its own commanders and staff personnel—who rode the battlewagons in enviable idleness but were ready always to move away from the carriers on a moment’s notice and form up for a surface action. This fleet-within-a-fleet never fought an action, even at Leyte Gulf, whatever its component ships may have done at times. I saw it in formation as a fleet only once—for maneuvers and firing practice a day out of Ulithi, on the way to Okinawa. Parts of this force were detached for bombardment missions along the Japanese coast. But the battle force itself never saw action as such.
Yet it served its purpose. For it gave absolute assurance that the fast carriers could roam the ocean at will, confident that their only danger was from enemy air, never from enemy surface ships. Simply by going along for the ride, if they did nothing else, the fast battleships gave to the carriers, the main offensive weapon of the new naval warfare, a security and an independence of movement they could not otherwise achieve.
There is no place in warfare for cost accounting. It is utterly useless to count the cost of any battle, any weapon, any arm of the service. A war is something to be won at any cost. So it is impossible to reckon the value of our battleships, and weigh them in the scales of monetary value against their out-of-pocket cost. I don’t know whether the ten fast battleships were worth $1,000,000,000. And I don’t care, because nobody else knows, or can ever find out. But I am sure the war would have taken a far heavier toll of American lives, would have cost far more in money, and would have lasted longer, if we had not put our fast battleships into the Pacific war, beginning in 1942. And I am also sure that the war would have been over sooner, and would have cost less in life and treasure, if we had had those ten fast battleships, as the solid core of our sea power, from the first days of the war.
All this concerns the role of the heavy armored ship in a war now ended. I have not discussed the future of the battleship, because I do not know the future of the battleship. In this respect, I am no worse off than anybody else. Perhaps the new weapons of a new age are destined to make tomorrow’s war a macrocosm of a Kentucky hill feud- one nation sitting on its front porch and firing opportunely at a rival neighbor when he steps out on his front porch. It is at least conceivable that an entire war might be fought at fabulously long range, from beginning to end, without the dispatch of mobile forces or any direct encounter between organized military units. If that be the pattern ordained by technology, there will be little need for sea power—or air power, or ground forces. And the battleship will join the dinosaur, which it so resembles to the imaginative eye. But if, as I personally think more probable because more reasonable, the military applications of atomic energy are not much more revolutionary than the invention of gunpowder in its time, we shall find that command of the great seas must remain the foundation of military power for an insular nation like ours.
Small though they have become, the oceans continue—through all the mutations of military technology-—highways for invasion, frontiers for defense against invasion. If in some future struggle the world should be largely aligned against us, our security in the last desperate resort will lie in the interception and destruction of hostile forces approaching by sea or over the sea. For that grim task, command of the sea will be essential.
If, as seems more probable, and certainly more cheerful, another conflict finds us waging coalition war, our allies will be overseas. And the measure of our success in coalition war will be our capacity to shuttle men and munitions to our partners and to the battlefields, across the broad seas. World War II was the first global war; and the victory of the Allies stemmed directly from the mobility of their fighting man power and materiel. Sea power is the sine qua non of coalition war, when the partnership of allies extends beyond a single continent. And that sea power would be precarious, in the foreseeable future, without heavy armored ships.
Before World War II, our aircraft carriers were numerically less than half our battleship strength. Today our battleships are greatly outnumbered by fast carriers, without counting escort carriers. That change of ratio tells the story of a basic change in the offensive weapons of naval war. It measures the declining relative importance of the battleship. But it does not ring down the curtain on the mission of the battleship.
The ship of the line may undergo some alterations. Indeed, it would be strange if it did not; for change, although slower than in most ship types, has been continuous. The battleship of tomorrow may launch gigantic guided missiles, instead of firing shells from rifled guns, thus extending its range enormously. By some such means, it may regain some of the offensive character it lost in World War II. It may suffer radical changes of hull design, to resist the stresses of atomic warfare.
Indeed, there is a strong probability that the heavy armored ship will gain in prestige and usefulness in the age of atomic weapons, precisely because of its ruggedness. The performance of battleships in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini was quite good enough to warrant our believing it will be just as essential to command of the seas in future as it has been in decades past.
That is for the future to determine. But those who glibly pronounce the doom of the heavy armored ship, as the costly toy of Navy brass, should have been at Iwo, to see the ancient Arkansas throwing shells into Jap positions. They should ponder on the versatility and persisting usefulness of a vessel whose keel was laid in January of 1910, whose architects—laboring over drafting tables while Louis Bleriot made the first flight across the English Channel—had scarcely heard of the strange contraption which the Wright Brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk six years before. While the swift, deadly successors of those primitive airplanes soared overhead at Iwo, the old Arkansas got in some good licks. Her designers would have been proud of her, if they had lived long enough to see the fighting climax of her career at the dawn of the atomic age.
To be sure, they might have shivered with awe before the grandeur of atomic energy a year later, when the Arkansas sank in the blinding fury of rent atoms. But that was only the melodramatic end of a ship which still had something useful to give to science and engineering after a long and distinguished career.
The balance sheet of the future has yet to be tallied up. Whatever it may show, the ship of the line in World War II paid gratifying dividends.