This is Karl’s final article in a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. aircraft carrier in 2022
The United States entered World War II following the Japanese naval air strike against the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Fortunately, the three U.S. aircraft carriers were not in port during the attack, and within weeks, American naval forces were hitting back at Japanese outposts in the Pacific.
The carriers USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Yorktown (CV-5), newly returned from the Atlantic, struck the first blows against enemy forces at the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. The Enterprise narrowly became a casualty when a crippled enemy bomber attempted to crash into the ship bust just missed the flight deck.
The USS Saratoga (CV-3), however, was torpedoed near Oahu in January 1942 and was forced to return to the West Coast for repairs and modernization. Meanwhile, her sister ship, the USS Lexington (CV-2) launched a raid on the new Japanese stronghold of Rabaul in New Guinea, where a young fighter pilot named Edward “Butch” O’Hare earned the Medal of Honor for single-handedly devastating a bomber formation attempting to attack the carrier.
The U.S. carriers kept up their tempo of hit-and-run attacks including a surprise foray against a Japanese landing in New Guinea; strikes against Wake Island; and a spectacular raid against the Japanese homeland by Army Air Corps B-25 bombers flying from the USS Hornet (CV-8) on Apr.18, 1942. The large planes could not land back aboard the carrier, so the raid required landings in eastern China, but not one of the 18 attacking Mitchells landed as planned.
While Enterprise and Hornet were occupied with the Tokyo raid, Lexington and Yorktown fought history’s first carrier clash at the Battle of Coral Sea from May 4-8, 1942. The Japanese lost a light carrier, Shoho, and suffered major damage to the fleet carrier, Shokaku, while Yorktown sustained bomb damage. The less-nimble Lexington was also hit by bombs as well as struck by torpedoes that ultimately doomed her. Heavily damaged, she was later scuttled becoming the first U.S. fleet carrier to be sunk during the war.
Naval intelligence estimates warned of an upcoming Japanese offensive planned against the American outpost on the Midway atoll at the end of the Hawaiian-island chain, so Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor. Yorktown underwent a marathon three-day repair that patched her up sufficiently to deploy to Midway, while her original air group was largely replaced by fresh aircrews from Saratoga’s old squadrons.
In an epic three-day clash in early June 1942, dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown devastated the Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, in what became known as the “six minutes that changed the world.” A day later, a fourth Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, succumb. Hiryu’s planes, however, crippled Yorktown before an enemy submarine finished her. Though costly, particularly among the U.S. Navy’s torpedo squadrons, the American carrier victory at the Battle of Midway stopped the Japanese advances in the Pacific once and for all.
Success at Midway permitted an early U.S. offensive at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, and the American carriers were in the thick of the six-month struggle for the island. Submarine attacks damaged Saratoga (again) and sank the USS Wasp (CV-7), which had ferried British fighters to besieged Malta in the Mediterranean just a few months earlier. Two carrier clashes, one in August and the other in October, ultimately repelled Japanese attempts to recapture Guadalcanal, though at the cost of Hornet.
While both sides in the Pacific reinforced into the first months of 1943, the USS Ranger (CV-4) supported the Operation Torch invasion of French Morocco and Algeria in November 1942.
Soon, an entirely new type of flattop, the escort carrier, took to the seas. Employed as aircraft transports, amphibious assault support ships, and submarine killers, the “Jeep Carriers” became indispensable in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
Meanwhile, shipyards furiously hammered out new carriers for fleet service, including the conversion of nine cruiser hulls into light carriers of the Independence class, and the astonishing completion, in time for combat, of 12 Essex-class fleet carriers. Matching these achievements was the training of new air groups to deploy on these new flight decks, strengthening the offensive power of the fleet exponentially.
With the newly constructed flattops joining the surviving American carriers from the summer of 1943, the U.S. Pacific Fleet wielded a dominating naval aviation force that sustained a relentless amphibious offensive that drove Japanese forces back into the Western Pacific. A huge carrier clash off Guam on June 19, 1944, saw Japanese carrier aviation literally shot from the sky, never to be a factor again.
Despite devastating kamikaze suicide attacks in the later stages of the war, the carriers led the continued advance across the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and right off Japan’s shores, when the war ended in August 1945. The mobility and destructive power of the carriers and their air groups won a resounding victory in the Pacific, but the rise of the atomic bomb and short-sighted government policies would soon endanger the carrier as never before.