Aircraft Carriers: Players on the World Stage
Excerpted from "On Wave and Wing: The 100 Year Quest to Perfect the Aircraft Carrier".
In December 1941, the aircraft carrier burst upon the world stage in a twentieth century version of Shock and Awe. Literally overnight the flattop leapt into the global spotlight with the stunning Pearl Harbor attack. Thus, the carrier resembled the proverbial country-western musician who worked twenty years to become an overnight sensation.
The U.S. and Japanese navies had commissioned their first carriers in 1922, beginning two decades of perfecting ships, aircraft, and operating doctrine. But the global leader was the British Royal Navy, which initiated the carrier to combat in World War I. In 1917 the battle cruiser HMS Furious was converted to operate Sopwith biplanes, and the next year she launched what a future generation would call a “power projection” mission against a German Zeppelin base.
Actually, the aircraft carrier’s origins predated the Great War. In November 1910, pioneer flyer Eugene Ely of the Glenn Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor company demonstrated the potential of ship-based aircraft by taking off from a platform rigged on a U.S. Navy cruiser. Two months later he plunked his pusher down on the improvised deck of another warship, dragged to a stop by hooks that snagged ropes stretched across the platform. The captain of USS Birmingham declared Ely’s feat the most important landing since the dove returned to Noah’s ark.
Both ships were anchored, and neither stunt was repeated. But the seed had been planted; it germinated, sprouted, and cropped.
During the 1920s and 1930s ships and aircraft evolved, forming an increasingly potent binary. Fabric-covered biplanes gave way to all-metal monoplanes with greater speed, range, and ordnance capability.
When World War II erupted in 1939 the Royal Navy was confronted with enemies in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean—and potentially in the Pacific. Though possessing the world’s most powerful fleet, Britain had to allocate its ships according to geo-strategic need. Thus, in November 1940 HMS Illustrious launched 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplanes to attack the powerful Italian fleet in Taranto Harbor. The nocturnal attack was a spectacular success, sinking or sidelining three enemy battleships. The naval balance in the Middle Sea had shifted—overnight.
Historians still argue the influence of Taranto on Japanese plans for Hawaii, but the similarities are obvious. Carriers defined the Pacific War: in fact, only flattops could have launched the attack against Hawaii in December 1941.
The Imperial Navy showed the world the way to naval supremacy by grouping six carriers into a unified striking force—something that no one else had remotely approached. When the smoke cleared on December 8, the world’s greatest ocean became a giant chessboard with squares defined by degrees of latitude and longitude. With America’s naval kings—battleships—sidelined, the mobile, long-range queens carried the fight.
Over the next four years aircraft carriers were essential to both navies. Four major carrier battles were fought in 1942, providing America essential victories at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal. Midway in June proved decisive: U.S. carrier planes sank all four Japanese carriers engaged with one American flattop lost. Following that, Japan never regained the strategic initiative.
A new generation of U.S. carriers spearheaded the Central Pacific offensive of 1943-45. With new aircraft on their decks, Essex and Independence class ships enabled nearly every amphibious operation of the Pacific War. Their victory off the Mariana Islands in June 1944 ended the Imperial Navy as an offensive arm and provided roosts for General Curtis LeMay’s firebirds as B-29s began searing Japanese urban-industrial areas.
Meanwhile, carriers proved vital in the Atlantic. U.S. and British escort carriers—small, slow ships operating specially-trained antisubmarine squadrons, helped defeat Admiral Karl Doenitz’s U-boats. The mission largely was accomplished by May 1943, clearing the transatlantic convoy routes that enabled the D-Day landings thirteen months later.
Since then, the carrier has never lost its prominence on the world’s oceans.
But new threats arose in unchartered realms. Only five years after V-J Day, when America possessed 99 carriers of all types, a mere fifteen were in commission. When General Quarters sounded in Korea, just five were assigned to the Pacific Fleet.
For the next three years U.S. and British carriers launched an endless succession of strike and interdiction sorties against Communist forces. During the critical weeks of summer 1950, tailhook aircraft were essential to staving off total defeat for the South Korean and American armies. Compressed into the shrinking Pusan pocket, with almost no Air Force units remaining on the peninsula, allied ground forces could not have survived without naval aviation. Subsequently blue airplanes helped offset the enormous disparity of ground forces when China’s quilted masses spilled south of the Yalu.
Long story short: aircraft carriers helped save the Republic of Korea.
Throughout the Cold War, carriers stood sentry on the periphery of the Soviet empire, a capability that Russia still cannot match. Naval aviators logged more than half the sorties over North Vietnam, and however misdirected “Mr. Johnson’s War,” tailhookers were always there, always “ready on arrival.”
Since then, carriers have launched jets in an immense variety of seas and missions, including Britain’s Sea Harriers that enabled retaking the Falklands in 1982. Subsequently, sea-based airpower has been felt repeatedly in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria.
War at sea is nearly extinct, and there can never be another Midway, let alone a Leyte Gulf. But for territorial independence and oceanic power projection, the carrier remains unrivaled as America’s world-spanning ace card.