From Fleet Exercise to Fast Carrier Task Force: The Development of Multicarrier Formations

Contents:

The Bureau of Aviation and Pre-war Developments
The UK and Japan: Influence on the US and Alternative Approaches to Carrier Formations
Doctrine Applied and Early Wartime Lessons: 1941-1943
PAC 10 and the Fast Carriers
Task Force 58 and the Final Fleet Engagements
Conclusion
Bibliography

Will Edwards
International Producer
The Cipher Brief

At 6:00AM on the morning of December 7th, a signal flag is raised on the deck of the flagship Akagi. Five more identical flags rise simultaneously on the decks of the five other carriers in the strike force. The first airplanes begin to roll off of the six flight decks and in eight minutes, the last of 183 aircraft of the first wave are aloft and bound for Pearl Harbor. 1 As soon as the last aircraft is airborne, elevators began to lift aircraft for the second wave. Deck personnel across all six carriers arrange the airplanes, beginning astern and progressing forward in lines of three until all 171 aircraft are spotted and ready for launch in less than ninety minutes. The signal flags drop once more and the second wave is airborne as the first wave, 274 miles away, drops its payload of torpedoes and armor piercing bombs. The second wave of aircraft traverses the same expanse of ocean and drops its own ordnance. By 10:00AM, the attack is over. 2 Eight American battleships and eleven other vessels have been sunk or damaged by an enemy fleet that at all times remained beyond the horizon and out of radar range.

In many ways the attack verified what many American aviators had postulated for nearly two decades: a large air attack launched from a multicarrier task force and coordinated for simultaneous impact can surprise or overwhelm an enemy’s defenses and deliver a decisive victory. In the months that followed Pearl Harbor, the US faced a shortage of capital ships in the Pacific. Rearmament had only begun in 1939 and the new classes of fast battleships and carriers would not be ready until 1943. Until these new ships entered service the US Navy would have to take on the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) at peak strength. Because the carriers were unscathed at Pearl Harbor, naval aviators gained the opportunity they had been hoping for since the interwar period: the opportunity to put carriers at the center of the naval task force and finally maximize its offensive power. 3

This opportunity for the aviators was a long time in the making. The potential advantage offered by carrier-based naval aviation drove all of the major naval powers to reexamine their naval strategies and develop new ships, aircraft, and doctrine during the interwar period. These advances slowly fulfilled the original promise of naval aviation: whoever controls the air controls the sea below it. Yet the immense cost of carriers and their air wings, and additional logistical requirements, combined with a lack of opportunity to test theory and ideas in peacetime, delayed progress towards turning the carrier into a fully realized operational weapon during the interwar period, something that would not occur until 1943 with the formation of the Fast Carrier Task Forces. Even as wartime experience enforced the carrier’s strengths and weaknesses, the learning process continued to be long and convoluted. This paper seeks to answer why wartime carrier operations took so long to come into alignment with the interwar concepts of the carrier’s potential. It proposes that developing effective carrier operations and doctrine was delayed and obstructed by bureaucratic inertia supporting the battleship, overcoming technological limitations related to defense, and lack of ships in the early war period rather than correcting conceptual flaws or a need to learn from battlefield experience. Technology and ships would come in time, but overcoming the ‘Gun Club’ required more aviator flag officers in navy command. With these barriers removed, the carrier task force became something greater than its original role. The Fast Carrier Task Force relied on the synergy of ships for logistics, intelligence, and defense to make its task force deadly and in so doing became responsible for the fleet’s wellbeing and this required a synergy of leadership. Aviators had to do more than demonstrate the carrier’s superior reach and striking power over the battleship, they had to demonstrate its superior ability to integrate and protect the other portions of the fleet.

The Bureau of Aviation and Pre-war Developments

In 1921, naval aviators succeeded in opening the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) within the Department of the Navy. This institution coordinated issues related to “…design and construction of aircraft, management of air personnel, development of aerial warfare at sea, and even for the provision of funding for naval aviation.” 4 While naval aviation remained in a nascent stage, BuAer’s responsibilities were wide in scope but relatively minor in importance. The most important aspect of BuAer’s formation would prove to be its purpose of delineating naval aviation as a service independent of the Army Air Service (AAF). BuAer guaranteed that US naval aviation would have the organization necessary to defend its interests and develop aircraft and tactics specific to its increasingly unique needs. Early US naval airmen were already aware of the difficulties faced by their British counterparts who had no such organization and had to contend for scarce resources within a single air service. 5 While this difference in administrative structure may seem trivial, it meant that British naval aviators had no organizational influence to draw on when making acquisition requests, and this deficiency severely hampered British carrier aviation, which had begun the interwar period with a wide margin of superiority over both the US and Japanese programs. Conversely, the US Navy experience with BuAer showed how a small office with a string of excellent leaders could expand its role and influence within a military bureaucracy. 6 By 1941, BuAer had successfully petitioned for design and production of several types of carrier aircraft and an expansion of the carrier shipbuilding and naval aviator training programs.

The year 1922 yielded a series of milestones for the development of US naval aviation that ensured the carrier a permanent place in the US Navy. The Langley, the first US carrier was launched, the Washington Naval Conference concluded with a comprehensive agreement limiting the tonnage of all capital ships, and as a result, two cruisers were repurposed as America’s second and third carriers. Christened as the Lexington and Saratoga, the ships would allow the US to remain within its treaty obligations while expanding its carrier program. 7 With carriers finally in service, the ensuing cycle of technological development of carriers and their aircraft and lessons learned from fleet exercises slowly bore proof for the proponents of naval aviation as a strike weapon. The confluence of these factors produced one of the first key insights for carrier doctrine: amassing striking power required organizing and launching planes in the most efficient manner possible. 8 This was the stepping-stone to the aviators’ envisioned role of the carrier: strike the enemy carrier first to achieve decisive advantage over the battle space and thus command of the sea. 9

U.S.S. Lexington, Saratoga, and Langley (from top to bottom) at anchor in Puget Sound, 1929. (wikimedia commons)

U.S.S. Lexington, Saratoga, and Langley (from top to bottom) at anchor in Puget Sound, 1929. (wikimedia commons)


The addition of Lexington and Saratoga to the fleet in 1928 allowed proponents of multicarrier operations to test their concepts in fleet exercises. Fleet Problem IX, conducted in January of 1929 yielded the most important results. It pitted the two new carriers against a strongly defended land-based force at the Panama Canal. An improvised attack by the Saratoga’s aircraft, launched at a distance of 140 miles, caught the defending forces by surprise, however the judges of the test deemed that defending aircraft would have sunk the Saratoga. The aviators claimed that her vulnerabilities were exaggerated and there was no way to settle the dispute. 10 While the shortcomings of wargaming brought disagreement to the value of Problem IX, it was discussed in detail in a formal critique attended by seven hundred officers. 11 With so many young aviators in attendance, it is likely that several among them grasped the future implications of such a surprise attack and the true impact of Problem IX may lie in its accessibility to the men who would be future aviation strategists and practitioners. For the moment, however, the accepted doctrine lagged behind the carrier’s promise. The 1934 edition of the Navy’s War Instructions described carriers as “simply mobile airplane bases and their use depends upon the employment of their aircraft.” 12

In that same year, John Towers, a career aviator who would continue to be a staunch and prescient carrier advocate, already understood the implications that different aircraft and their capabilities would have on the use of carriers. Dive-bombers proved especially hard to defend against once in a dive and torpedo bombers could potentially sink a carrier with one hit. Towers understood the carrier’s weaknesses but also understood they could be remedied by having cruisers and carriers train as a unit. The plentiful anti-air (AA) batteries and speed of the cruiser would allow it to defend the carrier without hindering one of its greatest assets: mobility. This method of training was adopted during WWII, vindicating Towers and carriers would be accompanied by increasing numbers of support ships. 13

Subsequent Fleet Problem exercises, carried out regularly until 1940, revealed both the offensive potential of the carrier and its severe defensive vulnerability. A carrier in the 1930’s now had the ability to quickly launch an air wing capable of delivering dive-bombing, level bombing, and torpedo attacks at range against an enemy carrier. Assuming the two sides launch at the same time, the air wing that found its enemy first and successfully scores hits could destroy an enemy fleet without suffering damage to its own carriers. Carriers at this time lacked adequate AA defenses and relied on their speed and defensive fighters to avoid attack. 14

By 1941, US aircraft carriers had benefitted from important technological advances that would greatly expand both their offensive and defensive capabilities. The installation of a CXAM radar system on the Yorktown, combined with short-wave radio communication among aircraft, greatly increased a carrier’s ability to detect enemy fighters and offer a directed, cohesive defense. This was a boon for the more aggressive minded carrier admirals who believed that a carrier could break up a strike force superior in numbers if it had dedicated defensive fighters directed by radar and effective command and control. 15 In advocating for unique aircraft designs, BuAer’s efforts bore significant results. Advancements in radial engine technology afforded carrier aircraft increased speed and climbing rates with minimal increases to the aircraft’s weight and size. Radial engines allowed carriers to hold more aircraft and therefor more offensive and defensive power per ship. The advantage of BuAer’s insistence on unique aircraft and engine designs over Britain’s universal designs can be illustrated by the ratio of carrier tonnage to attack aircraft in the respective navies. By 1941, the ratio was 537 tons per aircraft in the US carrier forces and 1,430 tons per aircraft in the British carrier forces. 16

Prior to Pearl Harbor, carriers were subordinate to the battleship and the argument over single versus multi-carrier operations remained an unresolved analytical exercise. The potential of the carrier remained hindered by several factors: number of carriers, naval airplane production, a strong majority of battleship proponents, and conversely, a lack of aviators of flag rank. At this time, only two flag officers were career aviators. Despite staunch support, effective leadership, and contributions to naval aviation, even Admirals King and Halsey were not considered career aviators. They were among a group of aviators who came to aviation late in their careers and often did so as a means of furthering their careers. 17 The distinction between career aviators and latecomers was important because carrier tactics required a different mindset than gun-based fleet tactics. Conceptualizing the way carriers and their strike aircraft operated over time and space to deliver attacks at long range was hard to master. As will be shown, this often compelled non-aviators to be cautious when in command. Cautious use meant wasted time and that diminished the carrier’s striking power where timing was crucial. In such an offensively geared weapon, caution would prove to be a liability. In the coming war, the US Navy would learn the hard way that carriers need aviators.

The UK and Japan: Influence on the US and Alternative Approaches to Carrier Formations

The US Navy’s network of attachés to the fleets of other countries allowed it to gain information and insights on carrier aviation. The British Royal Navy was particularly fruitful. Besides influencing the decision to create BuAer, beginning in 1939 the US Navy was able to glean valuable lessons from the Royal Navy’s wartime tactical experience with their carriers. For instance, the placement of radar on carriers was based on the recommendations of US observers embedded in the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet. This prompted the addition of radar to the Yorktown as part of its 1940 overhaul. This enabled Admiral Halsey’s early 1941 experiments that used radar and spotters to direct a carrier’s fighter combat air patrol (CAP). Initial experiments placed control of directing fighters with the senior pilot in the air. British experience highlighted the value of placing responsibility of CAP direction with a shipboard officer. Halsey recorded improved results after implementing the British method and this improved the survivability of US carriers. 18 As radar continued to improve, so would carrier defense. Thanks in part to the Royal Navy, aviators had refuted one of the Gun Clubs primary arguments. 19

Given that the US and Japan entered the interwar period as potential adversaries, and Japan’s relatively late advances in carrier aviation, US carrier development did not benefit from Japan as it did from the UK. Though the US had naval attachés in Japan in the 1920’s and 30’s who learned a great deal about the IJN’s growing fleet capabilities, they were unable to learn much regarding carrier aviation. Although able to visit several Japanese battleships, attachés were never allowed to visit carriers. 20 Later intelligence would shed some light on Japan’s ability to operate carriers. In 1940, a US naval aviator witnessed landing operations on a Japanese carrier and reported that they were much slower than that of the Saratoga. 21 In that same year, the Zero fighter entered service. While there is evidence to suggest that US Naval Intelligence may have had information on the Zero’s capabilities gleaned from one American observer at a Tokyo airshow and from a specimen downed over China in 1941, the findings, if true, did not have much bearing on the assumptions underpinning War Plan Orange. 22 In regards to naval aviation, US planners already assumed that the quality of Japanese pilots, airplanes, and torpedoes would be very capable. 23

Though Japan’s early wartime experience did not directly affect the US’s eventual adoption of multicarrier formations, it validated both the offensive power and defensive weakness of multicarrier formations predicted by US Naval theorists. Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 relied heavily on carrier-based aircraft for support of land-based operations and was a formative experience for its future carrier doctrine and operations. The IJN’s experience fighting in China revealed the necessity of amassing air power at a single point of attack, and of concentrating carriers for mutual defense. 24 The tactical lessons and combat experience would benefit the future attack on Pearl Harbor. The most important development prior to Pearl Harbor was Japan’s creation of the First Air Fleet, the administrative and operational organization for all of Japan’s naval air forces. Unified operational command of the carriers facilitated their use as an offensive weapon that could operate with some autonomy from the main fleet. 25 As will be shown, the US Navy would not achieve this until 1943. Though the invasion of China must have afforded foreign observers an opportunity to witness Japanese naval aviation in action, this author could not find assessments or opinions among contemporary US aviators on IJN carrier tactics at this time, and it cannot be said how the IJN’s adoption of multicarrier operations affected the US Navy’s own considerations on the subject.

Whether or not Japanese tactics influenced US aviators prior to the war may be a moot point because they relied on defensive tactics that were unacceptable to US Navy planners. By the mid 1930’s, Japan and the US had independently reached the same conclusions on the carrier’s offensive strengths and defensive weaknesses. In regards to the latter, the US solution emphasized radar directed CAP tactics, whereas the IJN focused on tactics that favored surprise first strikes and mobility. 26 In this debate, the US approach proved to be superior and the Gun Club proved to be right. Pearl Harbor demonstrated the First Air Fleet’s multicarrier offensive power and the Battle of Midway revealed its defensive shortcomings. 27 Without radar directed CAP, sufficient AA defense, and no element of surprise, the IJN lost four carriers in five minutes. 28 The importance of Midway will be discussed in greater detail below. The essential point here is that US Navy planners who were reluctant to adopt the carrier correctly identified a critical weakness in carrier defense and obstructed the employment of carriers until this weakness was overcome through technology.

While Japanese influence at the tactical level was very limited, casting Japan as a potential adversary influenced the development of carriers at the strategic level. As early as 1923, the Langley was incorporated into versions of War Plan Orange 29 and subsequent versions of the plan reflected the evolving capabilities and increasing range of carriers and their aircraft. 30 Following the success of the Saratoga’s mock attack of the Panama Canal in Fleet Exercise IX, aviators realized the carrier offered a solution to confronting Japan’s interlocking network of island defenses stretched across the Central and South Pacific. 31 Further study on applying carriers to this issue would lead to the development in 1943 of the ‘Island Hopping’ strategy. 32 In tandem with a logistical fleet train that could maximize the area and duration of operations, the envisioned carrier group would allow US forces to isolate and bypass heavily defended islands on their way to mainland Japan, thus avoiding costly land invasions. For the time being, carriers would gradually become more integral to subsequent iterations of War Plan: Orange.

Doctrine Applied and Early Wartime Lessons: 1941-1943

With the onset of war with Japan, the debate over carriers versus battleships was temporarily resolved with the neutralization of the battleships in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The debate over single versus multicarrier operations, however, would have to wait. At the end of 1941, the US Navy had only five carriers in the Pacific and they constituted the only available capital ships. 33 They would remain so until the new Essex-class carriers and Iowa-class battleships came into service in 1943. For the first four months of 1942, the carrier admirals were ordered to avoid engaging the Japanese fleet and were relegated to raiding actions against island bases.

The first fleet engagement would occur at the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8th, 1942. This would be the first battle in history where two fleets would fight one another beyond visible range. The Battle of the Coral Sea had three important outcomes for the future use of US carriers. First, by sinking a Japanese light carrier and damaging two fleet carriers, American aviators demonstrated they could sink an enemy ship while it was underway in the heat of battle. 34 Second, the performance of the air groups in this strategic US victory was overshadowed by loss of ships. It occurred at the expense of the Lexington and an out-of-commission Yorktown. 35

For those within the US Navy who remained unconvinced over the carrier’s use, the message was mixed. The successful surprise achieved by the air wings proved the devastating power of hitting first, but the removal of two carriers from service received more scrutiny. The loss was so great that the circumstances of the battle went largely unnoticed. The carriers were constrained by the narrow sea and thus could not use their speed and maneuverability to any benefit. Third, aviators criticized Admiral Fletcher, a non-aviator, for misusing the carriers’ offensive power and wasting an opportunity to launch a final strike against two IJN carriers prior to the end of the battle. While this would become a common gripe within the aviator camp, both sides had legitimate points. The aviators were correct in pushing for aggressive tactics, but Admiral Fletcher was correct in placing priority on blocking the way to Port Moresby and depriving Japan of their strategic objective. A final air strike could also have jeopardized the defense of the fleet. To pursue the Japanese carriers would have meant risking the loss of Port Moresby. 36 Whether Fletcher was right or wrong, this was the first of many underwhelming carrier battles where a non-aviator’s command was criticized for misusing a carrier’s offensive power.

Despite a mixed reaction among Naval planners, real action against the Japanese afforded the crews of the two carriers experience and insight that led to important changes that would benefit carriers in the future. Several reports from Yorktown airmen highlighted the detrimental evasive tactics of the Japanese fleet. When under attack, individual vessels would scatter, depriving the carriers in the center of essential AA protection. 37 Despite contentions over proper carrier use, the Naval strategists had recognized this issue prior to the war and both aviators and the Gun Club already recognized the advantages of close cooperation for mutual defense among task force vessels. Additionally, the experience provided valuable lessons regarding reformulating carrier air groups and AA defensive doctrine. The fighter contingent was increased to twenty-seven aircraft and precise zones and rules of engagement were assigned for each type of AA weapon. 37 These lessons would serve carrier crews well in the next fleet engagement, one that would have important consequences for the Pacific War.

The Battle of Midway, less than a month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, pitted four Japanese carriers against three US carriers and land-based aircraft. The relative parity of aircraft belied the outcome: all four Japanese carriers would be sunk at the cost of one US carrier. The disparity was due in large part to the advantage supplied to the US by superior intelligence. They knew the Japanese were coming whereas the Japanese were not expecting three carriers at the onset of the battle. The element of surprise afforded by intelligence allowed US carrier aircraft to achieve the great goal of a carrier based attack: the fleet that discovered the enemy first could inflict catastrophic damage at little risk to itself. The Battle of Midway was unquestionably a decisive strategic victory for the US and a display of naval air power, yet the battle’s contribution to the advancement of carriers was once again mixed for the following reasons. First, it did not hasten the adoption of multicarrier doctrine. In fact, the opposite was true. Due to the loss of the Yorktown at Midway, the US carrier fleet was reduced to four fleet carriers in the Pacific. Admiral King commanded that, to avoid the risks associated with concentration, no carrier would operate in a multicarrier formation until more escort vessels were available. 39 Second, unlike the Battle of the Coral Sea where aviators had proof that carriers should be commanded by aviators, there was little to criticize in Admiral Fletcher’s command of what was universally hailed as a decisive victory. The third and final outcome was the most important, but would take time to become significant: the creation of Commander of Air Forces, Pacific Fleet (ComAirPac) in September of that year. The position would go to then head of BuAer, Admiral Jack Towers, the most senior career aviator in the Navy. 40 The primary duty of this position was to advise Admiral Nimitz and develop and standardize aviation tactics and doctrine, but did not offer any command responsibilities. 41

U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-5) listing to port following the Battle of Midway


Following Midway, the US Navy had a few months of respite until taking the offensive at Guadalcanal in August 1942. For the carriers, the long Guadalcanal campaign culminated in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The campaign would prove frustrating for the cause of the aviators. Once again, carriers would find themselves in confined waters in range of land based aircraft and commanded by non-aviator flag officers who were repeatedly accused of failing to maximize the carrier’s offensive potential. To make matters worse, the overcautious commanders still suffered losses. By the end of the campaign, the US would lose the Wasp, Hornet and see the Enterprise heavily damaged. The latter two casualties were a result of Admiral Kincaid’s indecision during the battle and indicative of how essential aviator command was. He ordered the carriers to engage too late which caused several problems unique to the necessary timing of carrier strikes. While Kincaid hesitated, the Japanese had already launched their strike. By the time his CAP was in the air, they did not have altitude advantage over the incoming Japanese planes. Successful carrier defense was always uncertain at this stage in the war and putting the CAP at a disadvantage made matters worse. 42 The Japanese planes got through and knocked two more US carriers out of the war, leaving the Saratoga as the only fully operational carrier in the Pacific.

AA bursts above the U.S.S. Enterprise (CV-6) at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. (US Navy Photo)

AA bursts above the U.S.S. Enterprise (CV-6) at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. (US Navy Photo)


The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands did yield two benefits for furthering the cause of multicarrier operations. First, the addition of two new battleships of the South Dakota-class to the carrier task force provided a much more effective AA defense. Though too slow to remain with the carriers at all times, the large vessels could carry more AA batteries than any other type of ship. This addition would pique the imaginations of carrier tacticians and later produce impressive results for AA defense when the Iowa-class battleships arrived. Second, Admiral Kincaid would be the last non-aviator to command a carrier. From the end of 1942 forward, carrier task forces would remain in the hands of aviators. 43

The end of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands began a six-month hiatus for US carrier action and that time was used wisely for consolidating lessons learned into new doctrine. Unified doctrine is always an important aspect of warfare because from doctrine, officers can apply their initiative. This was especially important for carriers, which derived their advantage from initiative. 44 At the end of 1942, Admiral Fred Sherman developed a paper entitled ‘Principles of Handling Carriers.’ The document, a culmination of his experiences as a career aviator, outlined how a carrier can best use its fighter CAP to defend itself from enemy aircraft. 45 In early 1943, Admirals Sherman and Ramsey, both devoted aviators, attempted to settle a debate over the proper composition of a carrier force. Admiral Sherman advocated the defensive strength of a multicarrier formation whereas Admiral Ramsey advocated the offensive flexibility of a single carrier formation. After a series of exercises where each took turns commanding the two remaining carriers, the debate ended in a draw. 46 Despite having similar levels of aviation experience and equal devotion to the future of aviation, two staunch carrier supporters remained in disagreement, and this was indicative of the aviation community at large. Important for later debate, Admiral Sherman had solved the issue of coordinating simultaneous flight operations and rendezvous procedures of multiple carriers. 47 This combined with the advent of new defensive technologies would win the debate for the advocates of multicarrier formations by year’s end.

The most important influences during this break in carrier operations were related to advancements in radio technology in the form of communications and radar. The very-high-frequency (VHF) radio allowed a ship and its aircraft to communicate on four different short-ranged channels that kept the enemy from listening in. Four simultaneous conversations streamlined the process of relaying updates between different ships and aircraft. The new Mark IV radar increased its range and reliability and tied it to the plan position indicator (PPI), a cathode ray tube that displayed ships and aircraft positions. This was integral for defense as well as coordinating task force formations. The IFF (Identification, friend-or-foe) transponder was installed in all aircraft and, when activated, signaled to friendly ships that the incoming aircraft was not hostile. All of these radio-based devices were coordinated through the combat information center (CIC). The lull in hostilities in the early part of 1943 not only allowed time for these new technologies to come into service; it afforded crewmen the time to practice integrating all of this information within the CIC. Also of note, the new ships arriving in 1943 and the ones under retrofit received increased AA guns for defense. The most important of these was the long-range 5 in. gun with a radio triggered proximity (VT) fuse. Instead of requiring a direct hit, the shell would explode when in the vicinity of a metal object, namely an enemy aircraft. Last but not least, the F4F Wildcat was phased out in favor of the new F6F Hellcat. 48 The sum total of these technologies offered a comprehensive defense that would vastly increase the survivability of the carrier and its task force.

PAC 10 and the Fast Carriers

The arrival of the first Essex-class carriers coincided with a revolutionary statement known as PAC-10. This document, issued on June 10, 1943, sought to formalize US naval doctrine in the Pacific. Most importantly for aviators, it reflected the sum total of their experience and recommendations on the proper use of carriers in battle. PAC-10 emphasized flexibility and stipulated that carriers be concentrated within a supportive defense screen when under attack. In regards to offense, PAC-10 deferred to rules to be formulated by the ComAirPac, Admiral Jack Towers. With Towers and his staff in charge of offensive doctrine, aviators had a tactician and strategist they could rely on to maximize the offensive potential of the carrier. 49 By August of 1943, this stipulation, combined with the growing number of Essex-class carriers in the Pacific, compelled Admiral Nimitz to establish a uniform doctrine for offensive carrier deployment. Towers’ recommendations would solidify the role of the carrier as ‘the principal element of the fleet’ in addition to its increasing role as the defender, not only of its own task force, but of all forces within fleet operations. 50 As more carriers came into service and contributed to the offensive, this latter statement would grow in importance.

The attack on Marcus Island, the first engagement following PAC-10 would be a test of new technologies in addition to new doctrine. The Hellcat would see its first use in battle and the carrier crews would gain battle experience with their new radar and AA systems. 51 The increased number of Essex-class carriers allowed commanders to finally experiment with formations of varying size. Captain Herbert Duckworth, a planner of the operation later said: “virtually all techniques of ship handling for a multicarrier force which were later used successfully had their origins in this operation.” 52 While the operation was a success, it highlighted Admiral Charles Pownall, the new Commander of the Fast Carrier Forces, as a leader who failed to seize aggressive opportunities. 53 Despite new doctrine and technology, the old issue of aggressive leadership continued to limit carrier performance.

In November 1943, the US undertook its first operation in the Central Pacific, codenamed Operation GALVANIC. In preparation for GALVANIC, the employment of carriers still suffered from the influence of senior ranking officers who adhered to battleship centric fleet tactics. The stipulation that followed the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands that aviators command only applied up to the task force level. Admiral Raymond Spruance, Deputy Commander of the Pacific Fleet, assigned each of his four carrier task forces to defensive sectors. The experience from Guadalcanal had shown aviators how this deprived carriers of their mobility and it resulted once again in the unnecessary loss of planes, ships, and lives during GALVANIC. In the after action report from the Essex, Captain Ralph Oftsie explained the flaws in Admiral Spruance’s original plan of assigning fixed defensive zones for each of the four carrier task forces:

It would appear that the basis for assigning areas as above indicated was, (1) to insure the physical presence of the surface [sic] vessels of the Task Group in the immediate vicinity of the objective being covered, and, (2) that the carriers could adequately protect themselves while so operating in support. The first of these assumptions fails to give consideration to the mobility of the modern CV Task Group and the range of its aircraft. The second gives the enemy the immeasurably valuable opportunity to strike at the carriers, while gaining no benefit whatever in return.

The Carrier Task Group should be given the maximum freedom of maneuver in any assigned mission.” 54

With defense of the amphibious landing as his primary objective, Admiral Spruance deployed the carriers as if they were battleships that had to remain close to the objective and could sustain a heavy beating. He was unwilling to place his faith in the carrier’s ability to concentrate its air wing at a point far removed from its own position. Additionally, despite the transfer of tactical command to carriers outlined in PAC-10, Spruance ordered that the commander of the battleships take control in the event of a surface engagement with the Japanese. 55

Operation GALVANIC and subsequent actions subjected the carriers to new, intense night attacks by Japanese attack aircraft. As Japan lost its ability to face the US fleet head on, it focused on tactics where it had a distinct advantage, and night attacks were especially effective against the restrictive defensive zones instituted by Spruance. Existing technology made defense possible, but it would require trial and error to develop proficiency in fending off these deadly attacks. The process of directing fighters with only radar was slow and prone to confusion. 56 Beginning in 1944, each carrier was outfitted with a “Bat” team, a squadron of a radar-equipped Avenger fighter-bomber and two Hellcats. 57 While technology and practice made night operations more effective, they were still the most dangerous of carrier operations.

Task Force 58 and the Final Fleet Engagements

The replacement of Admiral Pownall by Admiral Pete Mitscher in January, 1944 was a significant turning point in tactical carrier command. Admiral Mitscher was a career aviator who understood how to use carriers aggressively. Mitscher was put in command of Task Force 58, the new designation for what would become the most storied task force of the Pacific War. Task Force 58 was more than just the concentration of first-class naval vessels, it was the culmination of cumulated wartime experiences and applied theory under experienced aviator leadership at all levels. 58 While aviators and non-aviators alike could agree that Mitscher was the most capable man for the job, perhaps just as significant was the appointment of his battleship commander, Admiral Ching Lee. Admiral Lee combined aggressive tactical expertise with the humility to cede priority of operations to the carriers and carry out the battleships new primary role as a massive AA battery. 59 Throughout the spring of 1944, TF 58 would rack up a string of successful island raids. As its fame grew, it attracted more experienced aviation talent.  60

The Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944 would be TF 58’s first engagement with enemy carriers. Despite qualitative and quantitative superiority, TF 58 scored only minor successes in the battle, managing to sink only one carrier and damage three others. 61 The shortfall came from Admiral Spruance’s overcautious decision to tie TF 58 to covering the amphibious landing and not release the carriers until it was too late to chase down the IJN fleet. Aviators like King, Towers, and Mitscher saw this as one more example of a battleship admiral underutilizing the carrier task force’s offensive power and instead attempting to engage the IJN fleet in a battleship gunnery duel. 62 Impending administrative changes would ensure that this would be the final occurrence of a battleship admiral misusing a carrier task force. Admiral King ordered that any non-aviator admiral in command of a task force must take on an aviator as his chief of staff. 63 This had the effect of breaking apart the remaining clusters or pro-battleship flag officers. The final signal of the battleship’s waning relevancy was the dissolution of Commander of Battleships Pacific Fleet as a position in December 1944. 64

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest fleet engagement in history, occurred in October 1944. The IJN would lose three carriers and six hundred aircraft and the battle would become known as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.’ Though an overwhelming strategic victory for the US Navy, it exposed a flaw in carrier doctrine and from that, the newfound responsibility of the carrier task force. Admiral Halsey, in command of Carrier Task Force 38, broke from the main body of the fleet in an unplanned maneuver in order to find and destroy the IJN carriers. Though this was in keeping with the aggressive tactics favored by naval aviators, it produced a severe drawback. It left Admiral Kincaid’s 7th fleet without sufficient protection to hold its position and cover the amphibious landing. To make matters worse, Halsey’s inexperience with operating a fast carrier group at night and in tandem with fast battleships caused him to waste valuable time reorganizing his fleet, allowing the IJN carriers to escape. In committing to the destruction of enemy carriers, Halsey exposed a new reality for the carrier task force: in gaining its position as the fleet’s center, the carrier was now responsible for the fleet’s defense. 65 While the fleet had always relied on the protection afforded by carrier-based aircraft, the formation of the carrier task force required concentrating AA battery equipped battleships and cruisers around the carriers. By pursuing the IJN carriers, Halsey deprived Kincaid’s 3rd fleet of supporting AA fire and the main guns of the battleships for the surface engagement. At the time when the carrier task force had finally developed a ship composition that afforded it adequate defense without sacrificing mobility, it inherited a greater strategic role that superseded its tactical capabilities.

Aircraft carriers of Task Force 58 at anchor following the Battle of the Philippines Sea, Ulithi Atoll, December 8, 1944. (Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-294131)

Aircraft carriers of Task Force 58 at anchor following the Battle of the Philippines Sea, Ulithi Atoll, December 8, 1944. (Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-294131)


Following Leyte Gulf, the Japanese fleet would retreat to its home waters and stay there for the remainder of the war. The transition in doctrine guiding the use of carriers from the beginning to the end of the Pacific War can be summed up as a transition from maximizing offensive power in order to overcome the carrier’s defensive shortcomings to a doctrine that was more balanced. The technological advances and influx of new carriers meant that the fleet of 1944 could sacrifice offensive striking power for better defense and make up the difference through more carriers and fighter aircraft. 66 This coincided with another change in thinking on how best to target the enemy’s center of gravity. As IJN fleet forces dwindled, the emphasis for the air war switched from targeting the IJN’s carriers to targeting its airplanes. 67 The role of the carrier would change to one the aviators wanted least: operations in confined waters against land based targets. To make matters worse, Japan attempted to offset its dearth of ships and aircraft with Kamikaze tactics. In response, the number of fighters in a carrier’s air wing increased sharply. By war’s end, the proposed plans for carrier operations in Operation OLYMPIC, the invasion of the Japanese home islands, stipulated that an air wing have 80% fighters. 68 The war ended before the operation became necessary. In a post-war era without any other large navies, the Fast Carrier Task Force was no longer needed.

Conclusion

The wartime experience proved that the success of the carrier and the aviators were inextricably linked. This was recognized early on by Admiral Towers, who in a January 1942, successfully advocated to a reluctant House Appropriations Committee to raise the cap from nine aviator admirals to thirty-one by 1943. 69 By the end of 1944, this figure would be closer to forty-seven flag officers. 70 The trend was also supported by the addition of new carriers and the mandate of Admiral King that ensured only aviators could command carriers. As carriers were entering service in greater numbers than cruisers or battleships, the growth of aviator flag officers would outpace any other cohort.  This increasing trend in aviator flag officers precedes the increases in carrier operations that begin in 1943, and most importantly, their use in aggressive, offensive actions.

Beyond the trend of increasing aviator flag officers, appointing aviators to key positions in operational planning and strategic command roles provided the administrative structure that put carriers at the center of the fleet. Perhaps the most influential position was the appointment of Admiral Forrest Sherman to the position of Head of the Plans Division for Admiral Nimitz, which he would hold for the duration of the war. Sherman’s replacement of Admiral Steele, a battleship officer who did not understand carriers, would finally bring a career aviator’s perspective to offensive planning at the highest level of command. 71 Two other key replacements were that of Admiral Pownall by Admiral Marc Mitscher for command of Task Force 58 and the elevation of Admiral Jack Towers to the position of Deputy Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Deputy Commander in Chief, Pacific Area. 72 These men and their staffs turned ideas and technology into victories and revolutionized the Navy while winning the war.

The Fast Carrier Task Force was a remarkable amalgamation of advanced technology and talented people. In becoming the center of the fleet, the carrier lost some of its superior offensive capability. Though the carrier was undoubtedly the most important piece, it remained only a piece, and it relied on the capabilities of the other vessels inside and outside of its task force. While the carrier had finally succeeded in meeting the high expectations of its earliest advocates, it had also become something few had foreseen: the caretaker of the fleet’s safety. The advent of the defensive technologies that enabled multicarrier formations reduced the carrier’s mobility and from that, other vessels began to depend on the carrier as much as it depended on them. The transition to the carrier required that the Gun Club accept the offensive supremacy of the carrier, but soon thereafter it required that aviators accept that offensive operations had become subordinate to the fleet’s wellbeing. The carrier’s replacement of the battleship took so long because the carrier could only do so when it was fully capable and when the aviators were fully prepared to lead.

Bibliography

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Hone, Thomas C. 2013. “REPLACING BATTLESHIPS WITH AIRCRAFT CARRIERS IN    THE PACIFIC IN WORLD WAR II.” Naval War College Review 66, no. 1: 56-76. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2015).

Hone, Trent. 2009. “U.S. NAVY SURFACE BATTLE DOCTRINE AND VICTORY IN THE   PACIFIC.” Naval War College Review 62, no. 1: 67-105. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2015).

Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

Levy, James P. 2014. “WAS THERE SOMETHING UNIQUE TO THE JAPANESE THAT    LOST THEM THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY?.” Naval War College Review 67, no. 1: 119-124. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center,   EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2015).

Lundstrom, John. Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006.

Mahnken, Thomas. “Gazing at the sun: The office of naval intelligence and Japanese naval innovation, 1918–1941.” Intelligence and National Security, 11, no. 3 (1996).

Melhorn, Charles M. Two-Block Fox: The Rise of the Aircraft Carrier, 1911-1929. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1974.

Miller, Edward S. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991.

Millett, Alan R., and Williamson Murray. Military Innovation In the Interwar Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Morison, Samuel Eliot, History of United States Naval Operation In World War II. [1st ed.] Boston: Little, Brown, 1947.

Parshall, Jonathan B., and Anthony P. Tully. Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005.

Parshall, Jonathan, and J. Michael Wenger. 2011. “Pearl Harbor’s Overlooked Answer.” Naval History 25, no. 6: 16-21. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2015).

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Archive Sources

National Archives, College Park

“Action Report, Air Operations Against Truk Atoll, 16-17 February 1944.” Record Group 38, Box 974, National Archives Building at College Park, College Park,   MD.

“Air Operations of Yorktown Air Group Against Japanese Forces, May 7th 1942.” Record Group 38, Box 1535, National Archives at College Park, College Park,   MD.

“GALVANIC Operations: Report of USS Essex for the Period 18-25 November 1943.” Record Group 38, Box 974, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

“Personal Account of Attacks on Japanese Carriers, June 4 1942.” Record Group 38, Box 10, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Yorktown (CV-10). Record Group 38, Box 1536, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

(Return to April 2016 Table of Contents)


Footnotes

  1. Parshall, Jonathan B. and Anthony P. Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), 126-128. This launch procedure is the same as the one described for the Battle of Midway. The procedure and launch timetable would not have changed much between Pearl Harbor and Midway as it had been well established prior to Pearl Harbor.
  2. Morrison, Samuel E., Rising Sun in the Pacific: 1931- April 1942, vol 3 of The History of United States Naval Operations in WWII, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1948), 124.
  3. A note on terms: (1) Naval aviators were naval officers qualified to fly carrier-based planes and trained in their tactics. Given aviation’s nature as a new field, the men drawn to it tended to be staunch supporters, and this paper strives to identify persons as aviators to illustrate this affiliation. The aviator’s counterpart was the ‘Gun Club,’ naval officers who supported the primacy of the battleship.  (2) A task force is a specialized group of vessels that operates within the larger fleet. Thus, a carrier task force is specialized for conducting offensive air strikes and consists of one or more carriers and supporting vessels such as battleships, cruisers, and destroyers.
  4. Till, Geoffrey, “Adopting the Aircraft Carrier: The British, American, and Japanese Case Studies,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 210.
  5. Till, “Adopting the Aircraft Carrier,” 209.
  6. The first head of BuAer, Rear Admiral William Moffett, was replaced in 1933 by then Rear Admiral Ernest King after he was killed in the crash of Navy dirigible USS Akron. King would go on to become COMINCH and CNO of the Navy.
  7. Hone, Thomas, Norman Friedman and Mark Mandeles, American and British Aircraft Carrier Development: 1919-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 30-31.
  8. While the idea of amassing aircraft may seem obvious, the early complications that limited the speed by which aircraft could be spotted, launched, and recovered hindered the potential of the aircraft as a striking weapon. Practice and technological innovations increased the Langley’s complement of aircraft from 12 to 48.
  9. Hone, Friedman, and Mandeles, American and British Aircraft Carrier Development: 1919-1941, 47.
  10. Till, “Adopting the Aircraft Carrier,” 221.
  11. Hone, Friedman, and Mandeles, American and British Aircraft Carrier Development: 1919-1941, 49.
  12. Reynolds, Clark J, The Fast Carriers: The Forging of an Air Navy (New York: McGraw Hill, 1968), 18.
  13. Reynolds, Clark J, Admiral John H. Towers, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 258.
  14. Hone, Friedman, and Mandeles, American and British Aircraft Carrier Development: 1919-1941, 54.
  15. Ibid, 67.
  16. Melhorn, Charles, Two-Block Fox: The Rise of the Aircraft Carrier, 1911-1929, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1974), 110, and Hone, Friedman, and Mandeles, American and British Aircraft Carrier Development: 1919-1941, 198. For additional comparison, the six IJN carriers at Pearl Harbor, which also fielded radial engine aircraft, averaged 585.48 tons per attack aircraft (calculated by this author with figures on ship displacement and aircraft from: Peattie, Sunburst, 225-235).
  17. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 20. Despite continued strong support for the battleship, many officers recognized that becoming an aviator increased the likelihood of securing command of a ship, given that more carriers were under construction. The ‘career aviators’ looked down upon these officers, thinking they were not true supporters of carrier aviation.
  18. Hone, Friedman, and Mandeles, American and British Aircraft Carrier Development: 1919-1941, 68. Combat air patrol (CAP) was the practice of using a carrier’s own fighters, directed by radar and spotters, to protect the carrier task force. Mastering CAP was essential to reducing a carrier’s vulnerability to enemy aircraft.
  19. Ibid, 79.
  20. Mahnken, Thomas, “Gazing at the sun: The office of naval intelligence and Japanese naval innovation, 1918–1941,” Intelligence and National Security, 11, no. 3 (1996), 436.
  21. Mahnken, “Gazing at the Sun,” 436-437.
  22. Peattie, Marc, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Air Power, 1909-1941, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 330, n. 51.
  23. Prados, John, Combined Fleet Decoded, 38-39 in regards to the Tokyo Airshow and Miller, War Plan Orange, 355 in regards to the zero downed over China.
  24. Evans, David, and Mark Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy: 1887-1941, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 347.
  25. Evans, David, and Mark Peattie, Kaigun, 349.
  26. The IJN’s approach to defense in one sentence: The best defense is a good offense.
  27. Parshall, Jonathan B. and Anthony P. Tully, Shattered Sword, 188. The only radar equipped IJN ship at Midway was the battleship Yamato.
  28. The Hiryu did not sink until a torpedo attack later that day, but the initial air attack that struck her and the three other IJN carriers completely disabled her.
  29. War plans were color coded by potential adversary, Japan happened to be orange
  30. Miller, Edward S, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945, (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 127.
  31. Melhorn, Charles, Two-Block Fox, 115.
  32. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 66-67.
  33. Ibid, 23. The five carriers were: Lexington, Saratoga, Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet. The remaining battleships, too slow to keep up with the carriers, withdrew to the California coast.
  34. Reynolds, Admiral John H. Towers, 386.
  35. Morrison, Samuel, The History of United States Naval Operations in WWII, vol. 4, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1948), 64. The Lexington would have survived if not for an electrical generator that had been left on. This caused the ignition of a gasoline explosion that ultimately sank her. Though this was a testament to the carriers’ resiliency rather than fragility, it was overshadowed by the loss.
  36. Lundstrom, John, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006), 203. While an aviator may have weighed the odds better and made better sense of the chaos within the CIC at this time, hindsight shows that Fletcher’s decision was not a terrible one.
  37. “Air Operations of Yorktown Air Group Against Japanese Forces, May 7th 1942,” Record Group 38, Box 1535, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
  38. “Air Operations of Yorktown Air Group Against Japanese Forces, May 7th 1942,” Record Group 38, Box 1535, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
  39. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 29-30. Interestingly, the Japanese took the opposite lesson from their losses at Midway and developed three carrier task forces with better coordination amongst screen vessels for AA defense.
  40. Ibid, 68. While ComAirpac was instituted during the Guadalcanal campaign, its origin was a result of Midway. The victory moved operations back into the South Pacific and the aviators of flag rank with them. Nimitz recognized the need for an aviation advisor and administrator and thus appointed Admiral Towers to the position.
  41. Ibid, 69.
  42. Morrison, Samuel, The History of United States Naval Operations in WWII, vol. 5, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1948), 211-212.
  43. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 34. Admiral King sent Admiral Kincaid north to the Aleutians for a timeout to think about what he had done.
  44. Hone, Trent. 2009. “U.S. NAVY SURFACE BATTLE DOCTRINE AND VICTORY IN THE PACIFIC.” Naval War College Review 62, no. 1: 31-32.
  45. Hone, Thomas C, “REPLACING BATTLESHIPS WITH AIRCRAFT CARRIERS IN THE PACIFIC IN WORLD WAR II,” Naval War College Review 66, no. 1 (Winter2013 2013): 60, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed May 4, 2015).
  46. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 34-35.
  47. Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, 499.
  48. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 54.
  49. Ibid, 72.
  50. Ibid, 76
  51. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 80.
  52. Ibid, 88.
  53. Ibid, 91.
  54. “GALVANIC Operations: Report of USS Essex for the Period 18-25 November 1943. Record Group 38, Box 974, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
  55. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 95-96. A surface engagement is one where the opposing navies are within gun range of one another. The carrier admirals still held command in the event of a carrier vs. carrier battle.
  56. “Action Report, Air Operations Against Truk Atoll, 16-17 February 1944,” Record Group 38, Box 974, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
  57. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 131.
  58. Ibid, 133. When TF 58 left Pearl Harbor in January 1944, it had 12 fast carriers and 8 fast battleships in addition to cruisers and destroyers. The US Navy was no longer concerned about a shortage of capital ships.
  59. Ibid, 126.
  60. Ibid, 145.
  61. Ibid, 202.
  62. Reynolds, Admiral John H. Towers, 477.
  63. It was already the case that only aviators could command carrier task forces. This rule applied to task forces of other ship types.
  64. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 234-235.
  65. Or as Uncle Ben would say to a young Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
  66. Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 103.
  67. Hughes, Fleet Tactics, 105.
  68. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 356.
  69. Reynolds, Admiral John H. Towers, 371.
  70. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers, 215. The figure originally quoted by Reynolds highlighted a rise in aviator flag officers to 26% by the end of 1944. I then multiplied this percentage by the total number of flag officers in 1944, which was 184 admirals in order to reach the number of aviator admirals: ~47. While I realize this method is imprecise, I believe the trend is valid and worth making note of.
  71. Reynolds, Admiral John H. Towers, 441. Admiral Steele’s tunnel vision extended beyond his ability as a strategic planner. He was fired from his next command for crashing a battleship into another battleship.
  72. Ibid, 452-453.

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