World War II, Navy in

views updated


WORLD WAR II, NAVY IN. President Woodrow Wilson, after World War I, was determined that the United States would be the foremost naval power both for the country's good and that of the rest of the world, and plans were made to modernize and expand the 1916 building program. But postwar isolation and disarmament sentiment was strong. The defeat of Wilson's Democratic party in 1920 led to a proposal for a naval disarmament conference in Washington, D.C. The four other major powers: Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy, accepted, Japan reluctantly. Its outcome was a seeming agreement on battleship limitation: United States and Great Britain, 525,000 tons; Japan, 315,000 tons; France and Italy, 175,000 tons. To obtain Japan's consent, a clause was added forbidding new fortifications on any island possessions in the Far East. This clause in effect underwrote Japanese naval supremacy there. Another naval conference, held in London in 1930, limited cruiser tonnage, but the international climate worsened after the rise of Adolf Hitler and Japan's 1931 invasion of Manchuria, and all naval treaty limitations expired on 31 December 1936.

The United States did not even attempt to build up to its allowed treaty limitations until 1933 and thereby fell behind in naval strength, especially in the cruiser category. Construction was stepped up with the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was fully aware that successful diplomacy depended on naval strength. His strong ally in Congress was Chairman Carl Vinson of the House Naval Affairs Committee. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 was used to increase naval construction to reach full treaty strength, and the Vinson-Trammel Act of 1934 authorized 120 combat ships to be laid down in the next ten years. The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 provided for a revival of that deteriorated arm of national security.

Two qualitative revolutions took place in the navy during the post–World War I years. One was in naval aviation, led by Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, 1921–1933, and Rear Adm. Joseph M. Reeves, who created the carrier task force between 1927 and 1931. The second was in engineering: ships adopted high-pressure steam, alternating electric current, high-speed diesel engines, and double-reduction gears, all initiated by Rear Adm. Samuel M. Robinson, chief of the Bureau of Engineering from 1931 to 1935.


World War II for the navy began in 1940 with Roosevelt's "short of war" policy. That year Congress authorized $4 billion for a two-ocean navy, and fifty destroyers were transferred to Great Britain in exchange for Atlantic bases. In 1941 U.S. destroyers began convoying in the western Atlantic. In the Pacific, Japanese forces moved toward Southeast Asia and in December attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack was made by a force of six carriers with 423 aircraft aboard. They struck the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and the air stations nearby in several waves beginning at 7:55 a.m. on Sunday, 7 December 1941. One battleship was destroyed, another capsized, and four more sunk at their mooring. Several other types of ships were lost or damaged, 149 aircraft were destroyed, and 2,334 American servicemen were killed and 1,141 wounded. But no carriers were harmed; one was on the West Coast being repaired and two were at sea on missions delivering marine aircraft to Wake and Midway islands.

For Americans, Pearl Harbor was a disgraceful tragedy. For Japan it turned out to be a brilliant tactical victory but a lost opportunity when a second strike was not made on the Pearl Harbor base facilities, particularly the exposed oil tanks containing 4.5 million gallons of precious fuel. Destruction of the tanks would have forced the Pacific fleet back to the West Coast and broken the line of sea communications to Australia. Instead, a prostrate U.S. Navy was allowed several months to recover. Loss of the battleships but not the carriers resolved the longstanding controversy among U.S. naval officers as to which comprised modern capital ships.

Pearl Harbor gave Japan a temporary strategic success. Within hours after the attack there, Japanese military forces struck at the Philippines and Malaya. Declarations of war followed and a new maritime phase of World War II began. Then came several months of almost worldwide disaster at sea for Great Britain and the United States. Two British battleships were sunk off Malaya by Japanese aircraft. The remainder of American, Dutch, and British naval forces in the Far East and Indian Ocean were destroyed or scattered. The British naval base at Trincomalee, Ceylon, was bombed by the same carrier force that hit Pearl Harbor. But the Allies were not forced into a negotiated peace, as the Japanese had expected.

German Submarine Warfare

German submarines during the first six months of 1942 sank helpless merchant ships along the U.S. coast in the Atlantic, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Caribbean Sea. Allied losses in shipping amounted to 800,000 tons in June 1942, comparable to the losses of April 1917 in World War I, whereas German submarine sinkings by British and U.S. naval forces in the first six months of 1942 amounted to only the tonnage equivalent of one month of Germany's submarine production.

Karl Doenitz, the German admiral in charge of submarines, was perhaps the Allies' toughest naval opponent. He believed Germany could win the war by sinking an average of 750,000 tons of shipping per month. In March 1943 it looked as if he might do it. But in the next two months, the situation changed dramatically. In May 1943, U-boats were sunk in large numbers, thirty-one in the first twenty-two days. The Battle of the Atlantic was just about over.

Victory against the German submarines was primarly the result of British efforts; the United States' contribution was mostly in mass production of ships and weapons. The Germans were defeated by the Royal Navy's battle-scarred escorts, by the Royal Air Force Coastal Command under navy control, and by British scientists with their microwave radar and operational analysis. Americans provided the small escort carrier used to cover the mid-Atlantic, which shore-based aircraft could not reach.


The war in the Pacific was essentially a struggle for command of the sea. The combined efforts of all U.S. armed services were needed, but the first year of fighting was almost entirely a naval war. During December 1941 the Japanese effectively, if temporarily, neutralized American naval and air power in the Pacific. Through superior preparation, Japan's armed forces quickly achieved their original objectives, subjugating Malaya, Indonesia, and Burma. By the spring of 1942 they were confronted with the problem of what to do next to maintain the initiative; the choice was an advance toward Australia. The Japanese army, eagerly watching the weakened Soviet Union, would not release enough troops to invade Australia itself, so plans were made to occupy New Guinea, New Caledonia, and the Fiji Islands.

The Japanese offensive ground to a halt by June 1942 as they discovered that U.S. power in the Pacific had not been eliminated. The first carrier battle, in the Coral Sea (7–8 May 1942), checked the advance southward, and a decisive setback came shortly thereafter (4–6 June) at Midway Island in the Central Pacific. The real turning point in the war came in the last months of 1942at Guadalcanal, where the navy afloat and the U.S. Marines ashore fought a bloody struggle against a desperate foe. When the United States gained complete control of the island early in 1943 the Japanese braced themselves for the American offensive they knew was coming. The offensive began in late 1943 with two major advances. One was the navy's drive directly through the Central Pacific, starting from the base in Hawaii. The Gilbert Islands were captured in 1943 and the Marshalls and Marianas in the spring and summer of 1944. The second advance, stemming from the initial campaigns in the South Pacific, was from Australia along the New Guinea coast toward the Philippines. The two drives joined at the Philippines in November 1944. The movement toward Japan then began with bloody assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa early in 1945.

American Submarine Warfare

Early 1944 saw the beginning of the American submarine campaign, which reduced the Japanese merchant marine to such a degree that the economy of that maritime nation was on the brink of collapse before the first atomic bomb was dropped. At the war's beginning, Japan had 6.9 million tons of shipping. It was not materially reduced until December 1943, when the faulty exploding mechanism in U.S. torpedoes was finally corrected. Within a year Japanese merchant tonnage was cut to 1.8 million, most of it confined to the Sea of Japan and the Inland Sea, both closed by mines to U.S. submarines.

Japanese antisubmarine operations were inept. Convoys remained small, so U.S. submarine attack groups—"wolf packs"—did not need to exceed four ships. American crew morale was high. Submarine duty was hazardous, but bold tactics paid off. Attacks by strategically located U.S. submarines against combat ships contributed largely to winning the Battle of the Philippine Sea (19–20 June 1944) and the Battle of Leyte Gulf (23–25 October 1944). Vice Adm. Charles A. Lockwood was the able commander of submarines, Pacific fleet.

Surface Warfare

Naval surface warfare developments during World War II may be divided into four categories: (1) carrier, (2) amphibious, (3) antisubmarine, and (4) mobile or afloat logistics. Except for antisubmarine operations all were products of the U.S. Navy's task force system of organization. Ships must be operationally prepared for modern, fast-moving naval warfare, while at the same time their maintenance, support, and constant replenishment are provided for. A ship functions only at sea but returns to port periodically to be reconditioned for sea duty. Combat operations therefore are separated in time from logistic support. The captain of a naval ship is responsible to two seniors; one is charged with a task within the navy's mission while a second oversees the ship's upkeep, supply, replenishment, and training.

This concept was most dramatically represented in the operations of the carrier task forces, which were normally composed of four aircraft carriers with protecting battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. In April 1944 task fleets were formed, the Third and Fifth fleets under Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr., and Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, respectively. The intent was to enable one campaign to follow quickly upon the last. The so-called "fleets" were actually only top commanders and staffs of task fleets and major task forces. One group would conduct an operation while the other planned the next. The ships were the same in both fleets, a fact the Japanese never learned.

The task fleets were composed primarily of carrier, amphibious, and mobile support task forces. Carriers, as the capital ships, operated within circular formations with their protecting ships around them. Manned aircraft offensive strikes were made chiefly by Grumman TBF bombers for level bombing and torpedo attacks and Douglas SBD planes for searches and dive-bombing. Grumman F6F fighters defended ships and aircraft. Radar and the proximity fuse were other developments that contributed to American naval success.

Amphibious assault operations included naval gunfire support, air support, ship-to-shore and shore-to-shore movements, and capturing of beachheads. American success in this new type of warfare was achieved chiefly with skillfully designed landing craft in adequate numbers. One type, the LST (landing ship tank), proved the most useful logistic craft of the war. Its ample tank deck made it suitable for hospital, repair, and many other support functions.

Mobile logistics enabled naval forces to remain indefinitely in the forward areas, close to the enemy, cruising at sea in virtually constant readiness. Combat ships were able to receive fuel and other supplies from service vessels either while under way or at anchorages near operating areas such as the Ulithi Atoll. Advance base facilities were maintained afloat at all times and techniques were contrived for transferring fuel, ammunition, stores, and personnel at sea.

Neglect of the peacetime American merchant marine required an enormous wartime shipbuilding program to move men and materials across two oceans. More than 3,500 ships were built, mostly 10-knot Liberty ships and 15-knot Victories. These were operated by the War Shipping Administration to provide for the ocean transport needs of the war economy and the armed forces.

The foremost naval figure of World War II was Adm. Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations and navy member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A forceful man, King insisted on the prosecution of the war in the Pacific although by agreement between Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain, the European theater had priority.

Rich resources, an intelligent labor force, and freedom from bombing gave the United States an almost unlimited economic potential for war. A heartland facing two oceans, the United States could be allied in a continental war in Europe and fight a maritime war in the Pacific.

The extraordinary significance of naval operations on World War II's outcome made a deep impression on American policymakers. Indeed, six future U.S. presidents served in the Navy during World War II: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, since 1945 the United States has maintained the largest and most technologically sophisticated navy in the world.


Blair, Clay. Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975.

Buell, Thomas E. The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond Spruance. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.

Falk, Stanley. Decision at Leyte. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.

Lewin, Ronald. The American Magic: Codes, Ciphers, and the Defeat of Japan. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982.

Potter, E. B. Nimitz. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1976.

Prange, Gordon W. At Dawn We Slept. New York: Viking, 1991.

John D.Hayes/a. g.

See alsoAircraft Carriers and Naval Aircraft ; Blockade ; Coast Guard, U.S. ; Convoys ; Minesweeping ; Naval Operations, Chief of ; Navy, Department of the ; Pearl Harbor Spanish-American War, Navy in ; Task Force 58 ; Underwater Demolition Teams ; World War II .

About this article

World War II, Navy in

Updated About content Print Article