Baptism by Fire
Aircraft Carriers in World War II

Though aircraft carriers had been in production, in some form since 1919, their utility was not fully realized until the 1940s.

On December 7, 1941, carrier based planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed the U.S. Pacific Fleet homeport at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, decimating the backbone of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific, the Battleship Fleet.

The attack did not catch the three aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet inport as the Japanese had hoped. USS Saratoga (CV 3), just out of overhaul, was moored at San Diego. USS Lexington (CV 2) was at sea about 425 miles southeast of Midway toward which she was headed to deliver a Marine Scout Bombing Squadron. USS Enterprise (CV 6) was also at sea, about 200 miles west of Pearl Harbor, returning from Wake Island.  Without the formidable battleships, the U.S. Navy had no alternative but to reorganize the Pacific Fleet around the development of aircraft carrier battle groups.

In April, 1942, Army Lieut. Col. James H. Doolittle, launched the first American air strike against the Japanese homeland.

Taking off from USS Hornet (CV 8), "Doolittles Raid" bombed Tokyo further illustrating the potential of the carrier to deliver heavy weaponry to strike points without land overflights. Hornet's mission was kept an official secret for a year.

"Doolittles Raid" represents the founding principles of the modern aircraft carrier battle group.

The Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942, was the first naval engagement of history fought without the opposing ships participating in direct combat.  U.S. carrier forces stopped a Japanese attempt to land at Port Moresby by turning back the covering carrier force. During the battle, the Japanese lost the carrier Shoho and the U.S. lost the USS Lexington (CV 2).

A Japanese thrust to occupy Midway Island, led by a four-carrier Mobile Force and supported by heavy units of the Japanese First Fleet, sparked the Battle of Midway, June 3-6, 1942.  The Japanese attack on Midway was met by a greatly outnumbered U.S. carrier force composed of Task Force 17 with USS Yorktown (CV 5) and Task Force 16 with USS Hornet (CV 8) and USS Enterprise (CV 6).

Midway was one of the decisive battles of history that had far reaching and enduring results on the Pacific War. Of greatest importance was the crippling of Japan's carrier strength, a severe blow from which the Imperial Japanese Navy never fully recovered. The four large aircraft carriers sent to the bottom of the sea carried 258 planes along with many of Japan's most highly trained and battle-experienced carrier pilots. Midway was the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

The Battle of Philipine Sea, Jun. 19, 1944, ignited when USS Hornet (CV 12) launched strikes to destroy as many land-based Japanese planes on the island of Saipan as possible before carrier-based Japanese aircraft joined the battle.

The Japanese naval air forces approached the American carriers in four massive waves.  Fighter planes from Hornet and other carriers broke up the attacks before the Japanese reached the American task force. Almost all the Japanese aircraft were shot down in what is commonly known as "The Marianas Turkey Shoot."

Of the 430 planes the Japanese Navy brought to the Philipine Sea, 35 were operational when the battle was over and another Japanese aircraft carrier, Hiji, had been sunk.

After Philipine Sea, U.S. aircraft carriers took part in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944, and the ousting of Imperial Japanese forces from the Philipine Islands in November 1944.

On Sept. 2, 1945 World War II ended when representatives of Japan and the Allied Forces met aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay and Japan signed the instruments of surrender.

At the onset of the war, the three Pacific Fleet cariers were of nine total carriers in the entire U.S. Navy. During four years of war, and in addition to hordes of destroyers, cruisers, battleships, submarines and support ships, American shipyards turned out nearly 30 aircraft carriers.

Today the U.S. Navy maintains 12 super carrier battlegroups.