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Carrier Operations in World War II

World War II-era land-based aircraft were larger and carried heavier weapons loads and were not designed to cover long distances like the smaller, lighter carrier-based bombers. US carriers, with unarmored flight decks were highly vulnerable to air assault, especially from land-based aircraft. Thus, land-based air power was much more suitable to neutralize targets or intercept attack within the confined waters and land areas of New Guinea and the Solomons. Aircraft carriers, on the other hand, serving essentially as mobile air bases were highly suitable for operation in the vast stretches of the Central Pacific with the ability to maneuver aircraft in and around the open waters between the scattered island chains. Through the use of scouting aircraft, carriers could conduct reconnaissance operations and air searches to evaluate the enemyís strength and position. With fighter aircraft, carriers could protect the fleet and landing forces by intercepting and destroying enemy aircraft. As well, the carrierís bomber aircraft could strike enemy airfields and naval forces ashore or at sea, and inflict sufficient damage to render them neutral and unable to attack or defend. By controlling the enemyís air power, groups of heavy and light carriers, screened by surface ships, could open the way for island conquests, cover and support amphibious operations, and help to hold the conquered areas. Thus carrier operations were to dominate the Central Pacific campaign.

The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was designed to prevent the U.S. Pacific Fleet from interfering with Japanís plans to occupy areas of Southeast Asia and gain control of the regionís natural resources that were essential to industrial and military production. In order to maintain unhindered access to this area, Japan sought to establish a protective island barrier running from the Kuriles in the north through the Central Pacific, around the Netherlands East Indies to the Burmese-Indian border. The comprehensive plan called for strikes to neutralize U.S. forces in Hawaii followed by the occupation of Wake, Guam, and strategic points in the Philippines and Malaysia. Once this phase was completed, Japan would move towards consolidating and expanding these Southeast Asia holdings to include Singapore, Sumatra, Borneo, Java and other key islands.

Although a number of surface combatants were destroyed or significantly damaged during the Japanese aerial assault of Pearl Harbor, untouched were the submarines, repair shops, power plant and fuel tanks as well as those vessels at sea during the attack. These included carriers Lexington, (CV-2), Saratoga (CV-3), and Enterprise (CV-6). As well, Langley (CV-1) was in the Philippines while Ranger (CV-4), Yorktown (CV-5), Wasp (CV-7) and the newly commissioned Hornet (CV-8) were stationed on the East Coast.

The first strikes against the Philippines, Wake, and Malaysia began December 8 followed by Guam on December 10. Guam fell the same day and Wake held out until the end of the month. In the Philippines, portions of the U.S. Navy Asiatic Fleet began to evacuate to Borneo while those American forces remaining behind entered into a six-month, losing battle to hold the islands. In early December, the Japanese had also occupied the Gilbert Islands and were preparing for landings at Rabaul, New Britain. In late January, Japan secured Borneo after the Naval Battle of Balikpapan (January 23-25). By February 15, Singapore had surrendered and southern Sumatra, the Celebes, Ambon, Timor and Rabaul were all in enemy hands. The Battle of the Java Sea (February 27) in which Langley (CV-1) was sunk, followed by the Battle of Sunda Strait (February 28 - March 1) secured the surrender of Java. Rangoon, the chief seaport of Burma, and the Andaman Islands, 250 miles south of Rangoon, were occupied by Japanese forces on March 8 and March 23, respectively. As well, the Japanese had landed at Lae and Salamaua on the Papua Peninsula in New Guinea and were conducting air strikes against Port Moresby, also on the Papua Peninsula, and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands.

On May 6, 1942 the Philippines finally capitulated. Thus, within the first five months of 1942, Japanís sphere of influence encompassed the Kuril Islands to the north, the Marianas, Marshalls, Gilberts, and Carolines in the Central Pacific, the Philippines, Indochina, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Borneo, Netherlands East Indies, and portions of China, New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago.

During this period the American, British, Dutch, and Australian forces that remained in the Pacific worked to consolidate their commands and coordinate defense of their territories. With limited resources the combined forces could not halt Japanís conquest of the area. However, several carrier raids conducted by the U.S. Navy did help slow the process and also reveal weaknesses and strengths in the current methods for carrier operations. These missions were generally built around a task force consisting of one carrier plus escorts for protection. The composition of each task force changed with the requirements of each mission. Task Force 17 (TF 17) was organized around Yorktown (CV-5) and used to secure the U.S. presence on Samoa. From Samoa Task Force (TF 8), built around Enterprise (CV-6), and TF 17 (Yorktown, CV-5) conducted raids on Japanese bases in the Marshalls and Gilberts to protect Fiji from enemy attack. Task Force 11 (TF 11) (Lexington, CV-2) carried out raids on Rabaul in February which helped delay Japanese landings on Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea. Then in March, TF 11 accompanied by TF 17 (Yorktown, CV-5) inflicted damage to the Japanese forces in the Lae-Salamaua area.

In April Task Force (TF 16), built around Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8) carried out raids on Tokyo in a joint Army-Navy effort lead by Army Air Force Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle and Admiral William F. Halsey. Under this arrangement the Enterprise would provide defensive fighter coverage for Hornet as she carried the Armyís B-25 bombers that would be launched from her flight deck to conduct the assault on Tokyo. This was the first time that U.S. Navy had utilized multiple carriers as part of a single task force.

Following her rapid advance through the Pacific, Japan could further secure her gains and move towards establishing additional controls around India, Australia, or other Central Pacific islands. Because Rabaul, New Britain and points along the northern shores of New Guinea were already under their occupation, Japanese command chose to further isolate Australia by cutting British and American supply and communication lines in the South Pacific. This would entail securing access to allied-held Port Moresby on the southern shores of New Guinea and then advancing southeast into the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. Chicago, Portland, Astoria, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Pensacola, Louisville while the battleship Colorado and carrier Saratoga were stationed on the West Coast.

Japanís naval leaders also sought to remove the threat that U.S. carrier forces had presented to their recent gains in the Pacific. As such, it was decided that in addition to the New Guinea-Solomons drive, engagements against Midway and the Aleutians would also be initiated in order to draw the U.S. carriers out into battle. By late April, Japan was ready to begin the southeast advance and strikes against Port Moresby and Tulagi in the Solomons were initiated. In response, a U.S. carrier group organized around Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5) was sent into the southeast area of the Coral Sea to halt the two Japanese carrier forces headed towards Tulagi.

The resulting Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942), consisting of a series of air strikes, was the first carrier battle where opposing ships never came within sight of each other. American losses from enemy air strikes included the Neosho (AO-23), Sims (DD-409), and Lexington (CV-2). American air power, however, was able to inflict enough damage to enemy carriers to convince Japan to postpone the Port Moresby invasion for lack of sufficient air cover to protect the landing forces. Neither a victory nor a defeat for either side, this was the first time the Japanese advance through the Pacific had been successfully challenged.

The outcome of Coral Sea had no effect on the Aleutian and Midway campaign plans. Although the Japanese succeeded in occupying portions of the Aleutians after initial strikes on June 3, the Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942) was the first major defeat for Japan. For the United States, the Yorktown (CV-5) and the destroyer Hammann (DD-412) were sunk against Japanís loss of four carriers and one cruiser. As well, the U.S. losses in aircraft were significantly lower compared to the four Japanese carriers that were each lost with their entire complement of planes. Casualties on the Japanese side were also greater and included a significant number of experienced pilots. With such high losses in materials and lives, Japanís margin of military superiority and their rapid advance through the Pacific were checked. Plans to move beyond the Solomon Islands were cancelled and Japan focused on strengthening current holdings. This gave the allied forces the opportunity to introduce some offensive measures into what had been a purely defensive strategy in their campaign to maintain some control in the Pacific.

It was felt that Japanís major air base on Rabaul would be a key launching point for any forthcoming advances. Allied control over this facility would ultimately open the way for a southern advance into the Philippines and subsequent assaults against Japan. As such, the Allies developed a strategy whereby they sought to establish a series of airfields and advance bases through the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Bismarck Archipelago that could support a drive towards the capture of Rabaul. The first phase of this campaign focused on securing Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Santa Cruz on the eastern end of the Solomons and Buna on Papuan Peninsula in New Guinea. With operations being conducted out of allied-held Port Moresby, the Papuan campaign would not require extensive additional naval support. However, taking Guadalcanal and the eastern Solomons would first require amphibious landings supported by carriers and surface ships.

Once the landing sites were secured, airfields would be constructed to provide land-based air cover for subsequent landings further up the chain. As each island was secured, bases would be established that would ultimately bring air power to within range of Rabaul. Operations began August 7, 1942 with landings in the Solomons and continued until the Japanese withdrew north from the Papuan Peninsula in January 1943 and began evacuating Guadalcanal the following month. In the six months it took to secure the waters around Guadalcanal and the eastern Solomons there were six major naval battles resulting in the loss of carriers Wasp (CV-7) and Hornet (CV-8) and over two dozen surface combatants in addition to auxiliaries and patrol boats. Major naval battles included: August 9, 1942, Battle of Savo Island (night surface action); August 24-25, 1942, Battle of the Eastern Solomons (carrier action); October 11-12, 1942, Battle of Cape Esperance (night surface action); October 26, 1942, Battle of Santa Cruz Islands (carrier action, Hornet lost); November 12-15, 1942, Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (cruiser, battleship/night surface action); November 30, 1942, Battle of Tassafaronga (night surface action).

Japan had expended tremendous military resources at Guadalcanal. Unable to recover from these losses Japan, after Guadalcanal, essentially fought a defensive war for the remainder of the conflict. Conversely, the allied forces, backed by increasing military production, were able to initiate and maintain an offensive drive that would result in the defeat of Japan. With the first phase of the Rabaul campaign completed, there was a pause in military operations as allied leaders developed a basic overall strategy for the offensive against Japan.

Soviet military analysts and historians subdivide the war into three distinct periods, each of which reflected the basic political-military conditions that characterized its duration. The second period of war (19 November 1942 - 31 December 1943), which commenced with the Soviet strategic counteroffensive at Stalingrad, was a transitional period marked by alternating attempts by both sides to secure strategic advantage.

In January 1943 the Combined Chiefs of Staff agreed to allocate a greater percentage of men and material to the Pacific and by May 1943, it was decided that the American Joint Chiefs of Staff would lead the campaign. The basic structure of the campaign involved three major drives across the Pacific carried out by the Central, South, and Southwest Forces of the Navyís Pacific Fleet in conjunction with the Armyís forces for the Southwest Pacific Area. The Central Pacific Force was to advance from Pearl Harbor towards securing the major Japanese naval base on Truk in the Caroline Islands.

The South Pacific Force in the Solomons and Southwest Pacific Force in New Guinea were to cooperate in a drive to Rabaul with the Southwest Pacific Force then continuing on to secure the north coast of New Guinea. Under a fourth drive, North Pacific Forces were to liberate the Aleutians from Japanese occupation forces. Prior to World War II, the U.S. Navy was organized on a task basis. Under the jurisdiction of a Commander in Chief, the United States Fleet was divided into a Battle Force (consisting of battleships, destroyers, and some cruisers), based in the Pacific and a Scouting Force (consisting mostly cruisers to carry out fleet reconnaissance) stationed in the Atlantic. Each task-based force was organized into vessel types that were further divided into flotillas, squadrons, or divisions. Each vessel type commander reported to the force commander who in turn reported to the Commander in Chief, the United States Fleet.

With the advent of war in Europe and a pending conflict in the Pacific, a 1941 Executive Order reorganized the United States Fleet into three area fleets Ė the United States Pacific Fleet, the United States Atlantic Fleet, and the United States Asiatic Fleet. This organizational structure was designed to allow for more flexibility in the composition of forces within the fleets in order to meet changing international conditions. By early 1942 the Asiatic Fleet no longer existed and by early 1943 the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets were organized into numbered fleets consisting of type forces (for administrative purposes) and task forces (for operational purposes) assigned to geographic areas. Types were subdivided into flotillas, squadrons, and divisions for distribution among task forces.

Under Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the Pacific Ocean Area, the Central Pacific Force became the U.S. Fifth Fleet under Admiral Raymond A. Spruance and the South Pacific Force became the U.S. Third Fleet under Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr. The Southwest Pacific Force became the U.S. Seventh Fleet under Admiral Thomas C. Kincaid. The Seventh Fleet, however, was not under the jurisdiction of the Pacific Fleet and the Pacific Ocean Area but instead was placed under the command of General Douglas MacArthurís forces for the Southwest Pacific Area. Type Forces for the Pacific Fleet included Air Force, Amphibious Force, Battleships, Cruisers, Destroyers, Service Force, Minecraft, Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons, and Submarine Force. Task Forces (TF) were subdivided into Task Groups (TG), and Task Units (TU) as needed. Thus TU 58.2.3 was a component of TG 58.2 which was a component of TF 58 which was a component of the Fifth Fleet.

The carriers and their support ships were organized as the Fast Carrier Task Force and were accordingly subdivided into task groups or units. Each carrier had its own air wing that consisted of aircraft organized into various squadrons. Each squadron was identified by its alphanumeric designation indicating the type and function of the aircraft; Fighter Squadron One, consisting of fighter aircraft, thus had the designation VF-1. The ďVĒ referred to the class of fixed wing aircraft that included airplanes, gliders and drones; the ďFĒ referred to its function as a fighter. With wartime improvements in aviation and changing priorities throughout the war, numerous different designations evolved during World War II for naval fixed wing aircraft squadrons. By mid-1943 these included VSB for scout bombers, VTB for torpedo bombers, VO/VS for observation scout, VPB for patrol bombers as well as VR for transports, VJ for utility planes and VSN/VN for training.

At the beginning of World War II a typical carrier aircraft group included fighting, bombing, scouting, and torpedo squadrons. Although the squadrons carried specific designations, their duties and functions often overlapped. Fighters, designed primarily for combat with enemy planes, carried machine guns as well as bombs and rockets and could therefore also be employed as bombers to attack ship and land targets. Torpedo bombers launched torpedo attacks and were also used as light bombers. Both scouting and bomber squadrons employed dive-bombers, the most accurate of the bomber aircraft. This allowed the scouting squadron to carry out reconnaissance and then join with the bomber squadrons to carry out strike missions. As surface and airborne radar evolved and took over the search and detection function of scouts, these squadrons began to disappear, generally replaced by increasing the number of planes to the fighter and bomber squadrons.

World War II fighters included the Grumman F4F Wildcat (with folding wings) introduced in 1941, the F6F Hellcat, 1943, and the Vought Corsair F4U introduced in 1944 (night fighter with inverted gull wing). The Navyís primary torpedo bomber after the Battle of Midway was the TBF-1 Avenger. Scout/dive-bombers included the Douglas SBD Dauntless introduced in 1940 and SB2C Helldiver, introduced in 1943.

Groups of squadrons were assigned to various ships within the task force and subsequent groups, units and individual ships. Under the task force organizational system various components ranging from an individual ship or aviation squadron to a task unit or task group could be withdrawn from the force once the mission was completed and placed on a new reassignment. This approach allowed tremendous flexibility in utilizing naval resources.

The goal of the Central Pacific and South/Southwest drives was threefold: (1) to establish control over the Luzon Strait between Luzon Island in the Philippines and Formosa and block Japanís access to the resources of the Netherlands East Indies; (2) to establish bases close enough to sustain strategic bombing of Japanís military and industrial sites; and (3) to secure key areas to facilitate a possible invasion of the Japanese home islands. A general timetable was established to meet these objectives. Beginning in November 1943, the Fifth Fleet would commence actions against the Gilbert Islands to obtain advance bases for attacking the Marshall Islands. Landings in the Marshalls would begin by January 1944 in order to move towards carrier assaults on Truk by June 1944. Landings on Guam and other Marianas islands would begin by October 1944 to establish airfields for B-29 land-based bombers. Truk was to be secured by December 1944 with the Palau Islands as the next goal. The dual advance by the Third and Seventh Fleets on Rabaul was to continue up through the Japanese-held islands in the central and northern Solomons and along the Huon Peninsula of New Guinea. Rabaul was to be taken by February 1944. Hollandia, on New Guineaís northern coast was to be taken by August 1944. After securing and gaining control of key bases in the Central Pacific and New Guinea/Solomons area, the allied forces could move towards the Philippines, the Ryukyu Islands, and the four major Japanese home islands.

In May 1945, Germany surrendered leaving Japan without an ally and Russia announced it would not renew its neutrality pact with Japan. In June, the Japanese emperor had begun to seek a means to end the war in spite of strong political factions in Japan that were against surrender. In July, the Potsdam Conference, which specified postwar treatment of the defeated Germany, also included a general proclamation calling for the unconditional surrender of Japan. Japanese leaders would not accept an unconditional surrender which did not in some way preserve the imperial system. The allied powers agreed that an unconditional surrender would apply only to the armed forces but did not provide a specific answer regarding the fate of the emperor or the imperial system. Without a clarification on this point, Japan was not prepared to respond to the Potsdam Proclamation and the allied leaders interpreted this silence as a decline to surrender. The July bombardment of Japan continued unbroken into August when the first atomic weapons were dropped from a B-29 on Hiroshima, August 6. Russia invaded Manchuria and declared war on Japan, August 8. On August 9 another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. August 10, Japan and the allied powers agreed to discuss a surrender where the imperial system would be preserved.

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Page last modified: 28-07-2013 19:57:21 ZULU