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The Submarine and Aircraft Carrier: a new Strategy for an Evolving Navy


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The Submarine and Aircraft Carrier:

A New Strategy for an Evolving Navy

MIDN Conway

Since the introduction of galleys in 2000 B.C., naval power has been the key to success in international politics. The nation that controls the sea holds the decisive advantage in modern warfare. Until World War II, this naval dominance was always the result of a strong fleet based around capitol ships and battle ships. However, between the years of 1940 and 1950, naval strategy dramatically changed. Naval strategy was initially perfected and glorified by a Professor at the Naval War College named Alfred Mahan. His beliefs were idolized and taught to most Navy officers of the 20th century. Mahan strongly believed “The fleet must be built around giant battleships that could score decisive victories not small hit and run (guerre de course) cruisers on which U.S. naval tactics had long depended” (Hagan 188). During the initial stages of WWII, the United States Navy was appropriately called the “gun club” of the world. As enemy forces such as Japan and Germany evolved in offensive tactics and strategy, senior American capitol ship officers, who were disciples of Mahan’s theory, dominated naval policy. It wasn’t until the events of Pearl Harbor that the United States was forced to exclusively use offensive means besides the battleship. Furthermore, Mahan’s theory that naval power could only be achieved through a fleet of giant battle ships instead of smaller, quicker vessels was disproved by the U.S. strategy to defeat Japan in the Pacific theatre through the use of the submarine and the aircraft carrier.

The first American plan to defeat Japan in a Pacific war was developed my Mahanians at the Naval War College in 1911. The plan was called War Plan Orange and was the U.S. largest concern after WWI. The plan theorized that Japan would slowly expand throughout the Pacific by attacking strategically held American islands. In response, the Pacific Fleet based out of Hawaii would simply advance west to win an unbalanced battleship showdown. Once the Japanese main battle fleet was defeated, the U.S. Fleet would control the majority of the Pacific islands. Variations of this plan were adjusted until December 7, 1941, “A day that will live in infamy” (Worth 12).

On December 7, 1941 at 0745, 191 Japanese torpedo planes, dive bombers, and fighters engulfed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. The planes had come without warning and U.S. Navy personnel were clearly not prepared. Within half an hour, the Oklahoma, Arizona, California, and West Virginia were sunk by torpedoes and two other inboard battleships were severely damaged. By that time, the Americans were informed of a second wave of attacks and the Japanese were subdued by 0900. The Pacific fleet had been torn apart and nearly all its battleships rested on the sea floor. Fortunately for the U.S., the Japanese had completely missed the Pearl Harbor repair facilities, submarine base, and oil tanks. Also, the Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers were untouched because they had been at Wake and Midway islands. The surprise attack provoked the U.S. to immediately retaliate. Now the Pacific Fleet was forced to primarily use carriers and submarines, the only vessels that weren’t destroyed (Symonds 140).

The U.S. Navy’s reaction to Pearl Harbor was one of relief rather than shock because “the event of a war with Japan, long expected by all Navy men, had at last become a reality” (Hagan 307). The day after the attack Theodore Roosevelt addressed Congress asking for a declaration of war against Japan. Congress responded, “To the enemy we answer- you have unsheathed the sword and by it you shall die. To the president of the United States we answer- for the defense of all that is America we salute the colors and forward march” (Worth 45). As the death toll from Pearl Harbor reached 2400 and the “ship count” diminished, Roosevelt questioned his faith in the Navy. The assumption that carrier based aircraft couldn’t sink battleships had been terribly wrong. The overconfidence of naval intellectuals and disciples of Mahan, such as Captain William Puleston who had observed in a naval publication “Japan has been energetic in her efforts to create naval aviation, but she is usually a step behind” was gone forever (Hagan 306). Pearl Harbor marked the end of the battleships’ reign in the United States Navy. The Navy’s plan to track down the Japanese fleet and eliminate them from the Pacific would heavily rely on the success of two weapons platforms. The aircraft carrier and the submarine, which had both been characterized as secondary means of warfare, would become as strategically important as the sunken battleships once were.

The United States submarine fleet’s basic doctrine was “The primary task of the submarines is to attack enemy heavy ships. A heavy ship is defined as a battleship, a battle cruiser, or an aircraft carrier. On occasions the primary task may, by special order, be made to include light cruisers or other types of ships” (Smith 105). However this doctrine was put to the side for a more intense retribution. The employment of submarines to pierce the backbone of enemy trade became a major importance. The United States would now rely on unrestricted submarine warfare, a strategy which had been disapproved by the Wilson administration three decades prior. As the “silent service”, the name given to the American submarine force, success rate increased so did its secrecy. This policy of secrecy eventually made the Americans superior to the Japanese and Germans in submarine warfare. When Pearl Harbor occurred, the U.S .had 73 submarines in the Pacific and a few of them were already at sea. These submarines’ Captains were immediately ordered to sink any Japanese ship, military or merchant, that they spotted. Within a week, the U.S. recorded its first submarine sinking of WWII when the USS Swordfish sank the Atsutasan Maru off the coast of Indochina. This attack was merely the first step for the most decisive weapons system of the Pacific war (Wright 121-123).

Fleet type submarines were usually manned by a crew comprised of 7 officers and 70 men. They could cruise for 12,000 miles and carried enough supplies to last more than two months. Their underwater endurance at 2.5 knots was 48 hours and even longer if they didn’t move. When surfaced, these subs were powered by a diesel-electric engine and motor combination. If submerged, all power was derived from large storage batteries. At this time, submarines were armed with six to ten 21-inch torpedo tubes, one 3-inch 50 caliber deck gun, and two 50 caliber machine guns. Up to 18 spare torpedoes could be stored in the torpedo rooms behind the crewmen berthing area. Torpedoes were initially powered by turbines that ran on a combination of compressed gasses and steam. As submarine intelligence evolved, torpedoes became more efficient through the use of electric power. Their warheads were compacted w/ TNT and detonated when they passed near the magnetic field of a ship’s hull. Until 1943, American submarines did not have radar so they relied on sightings through the periscope and ineffective sound listening gear. Orders from Pearl Harbor were sent daily but no responses were given in order to uphold the submarines’ secrecy and an unknown whereabouts from the enemy. The determination of American submariners to overcome these difficulties proved to be their greatest advancement in the war. After the early stages of the Pacific war, American recorded submarine sinkings dramatically increased (Morison 188).

Submarine action in the Pacific Fleet was categorized as either special missions or patrol. Special missions involved supporting the fleet through mine laying, rescue, and raids. Patrols were simply normal cruises searching for enemy ships. Arguably the most successful patrol in the Central Pacific was the surge of the USS Trout into enemy waters. The success of this submarine started after it left port in Pearl Harbor during late spring of 1942. Within the first day of its departure, the Trout had damaged two small freighters and a larger steamer. Within the week, the Trout had severely damaged another 15,000 tonnage ship. Even as the Trout’s orders changed from patrol to support, it continued to extensively damage the enemy fleet. Two months after its departure, the Trout returned home after firing 22 of its 24 torpedoes, damaging 9 enemy ships, and sinking 3 ships (199-200).

Another submarine that was just as effective in the early stages of the pacific war was the Triton. Even though it left port with damaged equipment, it managed to sink 5 enemy ships within its first month of patrol. After that, targets became scarce and it was used for secondary means. In September of 1942 its purpose was to carry Army reconnaissance troops, aid Army bombers by radio, and rescue any pilots that might be forced to eject. Undoubtedly, the submarine that played the biggest role of significance throughout the entire Pacific war was the Nautilus. Out of 26 submarines, it was the only one to sink an enemy ship at the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war for the United States. During the Battle of June 4th, the Nautilus was also used for a fatal depth charge against Japan’s most lethal carrier. On New Years Day of 1943, this submarine was also used to rescue 28 catholic refugees on the island of Bougainville. One of the Nautilus’s most beneficial special missions occurred during the Makin Raid. It was selected to transport 222 Marines of the 2nd Raider Battalion. Once the Marines stormed the island, the Nautilus was ordered to provide bombardment support. In the midst of this order, the Nautilus defended the shore and sunk a transport ship carrying 60 Japanese infantry. The use of submarines also resulted in strategic outcomes at the Battle of Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, Guadalupe Canal, and many other battles during the beginning of the war. As the war continued and submarines became better equipped, they dominated the seas and recorded many tactical victories for the U.S. Pacific Fleet (“U.S. Submarine War”).

Many of the difficulties for U.S. submarines such as malfunctioning torpedoes and indirect orders had been resolved by the end of 1943. Submarines were sinking enemy vessels at a rate of 50 per month. The overall impact that the U.S. Navy had on the outcome of the Pacific war was incomparable. Considering the submarine force comprised 1.6% of U.S. personnel in the Pacific fleet but still accounted for sinking 54% of the enemy’s fleet, “The U.S. submarine fleets were clearly represented in the Allied effort for achieving victory” (Morison 232). Furthermore, U.S. submarines played a role in Japan’s eventual surrender by nearly eliminating all of their military and merchant ships in the Pacific. The 16,000 men who served and 3500 men who died in U.S. submarines during the Pacific war were undoubtedly “military pioneers who rewrote tactical and strategic wartime doctrine on the fly” (Wright 132).

Another break for the United States was the absence of their carriers from Pearl Harbor. The Lexington and Enterprise were safely delivering aircraft to Wake and Midway islands when the December 7th attack occurred. Their presence, matched with the success of naval aviation, placed the aircraft carrier in the role that the sunken battleships had left behind. The aircraft carrier would become the immediate as well as permanent American platform in the surface war of the Pacific. America went to war not knowing that their worst loss had already happened. The roles of carriers and battleships did a complete reversal after Pearl Harbor. The carrier was once used to protect the battleships but now it was the center of the fleet (Maga 128). Unlike the submarines of the Pacific theater, the carriers were used to carry out missions of strategic importance rather than sink anything within sight. Once Congress declared war against Japan, Roosevelt immediately ordered two more carriers from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, for the first 18 months of the conflict, the U.S. had barley enough carriers to “hold the line” or project power in the Pacific. By the end of 1942 only two carriers were operational in the war against Japan. The U.S. Navy eventually built 12 more carriers in response to their changing naval strategy (Wright 104)

During the Pacific War, two classes of carriers were built: Essex-class and Independence-class. The Essex-class was the largest class of carriers ever built. They were propelled by 2 steam turbines that could move up to 33 knots. There armament was comprised of 4 dual purpose guns, 18 quad 40mm guns, and 61 single 20mm anti-aircraft guns. These carriers could hold up to 100 aircraft and a crew of 2600. Starting In December of 1942, these Essex-class carriers started to enter the fleet and by late 1943 there were enough to carry out multiple operations throughout the Pacific theater. Due to the early lack of carriers, a program was established to quickly create fleet carriers from “surplus” light cruiser hulls. These smaller carriers made from converted ships were designated as the Independence-class. The conversion included a replacement of the superstructure and weaponry with a flight deck and island. These ships’ original 5/38 dual purpose guns were replaced by four quad 40mm guns. Although these carriers were powered by two steam engines, the could only move at 30 knots. They were capable of holding 45 aircraft and a crew of 1400. Following WWII, these “quick replacement” carriers were immediately retired because they were poor for sea travel and unequipped to launch most aircraft. During the Pacific War, a common task group was comprised of two heavy Essex-class carriers and one light Independence-class carrier (“Carrier Battles”).

Carriers mainly performed three types of operations: carrier raids, carrier versus carrier battles, and amphibious landing support. In December of 1941, the Yorktown, one of the carriers sent from the Atlantic fleet, recorded America’s first carrier attack when its task force sunk two Japanese battleships. This was merely the first step for a carrier force that would dominate the Pacific front. The United States first organized attack against Japan was the Doolittle Raid. This daring operation called for an air-attack on the Tokyo area of Japan. The carrier played a pivotal role in the success of this initial mission. The Army’s B-25B bomber was selected for use in this attack because it could endure 400 miles of flight and still have fuel to land in China. However, an aircraft carrier would be needed to transport and launch the twin-engined planes within striking distance of the Japanese mainland. On April 2, 1942, the Hornet, lead by LT Doolittle, left Pearl Harbor and crossed the Pacific. Joined by the fleet carrier Enterprise, which provided air cover during the approach, the Hornet steamed toward the launching point off the coast of Japan. Although a minimal amount of damage was caused to Japan, the Doolittle Raid generated many strategic benefits. Japan was truly embarrassed and vowed to eliminate such attacks by destroying the American carriers (Morison 236). This decision led to the two greatest defensive actions of the War in the Pacific: Battle of Coral Sea and Battle of Midway.

The Battle of Coral Sea was the first of six Pacific battles between apposing aircraft carrier forces. Although Japan argued that it was a tactical victory, it was more likely a strategic defeat that began to deplete the power they had gained five months earlier. The actions which took place at Coral Sea would have dire consequences a month later at the Battle of Midway. Coral Sea action was initiated when Japan attempted to capture a fort on the coast of New Guinea, a strategic American Island. The amphibious assault team was provided air cover by the aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. Fortunately the United States intercepted Japanese communications and countered the invasion with two of their own carriers. After two days of gruesome combat, the Japanese seaborne invasion was subdued. Although the United States lost one of its carriers in the battle, the Japanese carriers were damaged enough to eliminate them from the upcoming operation, the Battle of Midway. Their absence from this carrier showdown would add to the reasons for Japan’s horrible defeat (“Carrier Battles”)

The strategic battle that best proved the aircraft carrier’s naval power was the Battle of Midway. It represented Japan’s endpoint of naval supremacy and the inception of U.S. naval power in the Pacific. Japan attacked Midway to lure and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers. Once again, due to American intelligence, the U.S. carriers were warned and awaited Japan’s attack. On June 4, 1942, in the second of the Pacific’s great carrier battles, the skill and determination of naval aviators prevailed. Through the efforts of the Pacific Fleet carriers, the base at Midway remained operational and became a key component in the United States Pacific offensive strategy. This naval force, which completely resolved around the carrier, took an offensive stand and never looked back (Morison 145).

As more and more “gun club” captains were replaced, the mission of the aircraft carrier intensified and improved. Just as Flag Officer Ronald Spector had observed, “The fighting methods which were to spell the downfall of Japan had come of the age in the seas and beaches. The methods of carrier-borne attacks and fast-carrier warfare backed w/ the industrial output of the U.S., they were to prove unstoppable” (Hagan 331). By 1945, naval aviators had beat Japan and simultaneously won the “war” against the “gun club” of senior capitol ship officers. Just like the submarine, the aircraft carrier had changed naval strategy in a way that was never conceived before the events of Pearl Harbor (332).

The United States Navy’s control of the sea during the later half of WWII set a new standard for naval power. By September of 1945, the war ended as quickly as it had started. Through the trial and tribulations of the Pacific theater, the U.S. Navy had successfully phased out the policy that had governed naval actions for nearly a century. The victory of the United States in the Pacific proved it was possible to attain naval dominance and international success without the use of Mahanian principles or theorists. The “silent victory” of the 3600 submariners who died at sea confirmed that guerre de course could be a decisive strategy in naval warfare. All the great surface battles in the war against Japan were won by carrier task groups. Accordingly, the battleship was forever replaced by the aircraft carrier and its immense potential. The United States never constructed a battleship again but has continued to structure the fleet solely around the carrier. The age of the battleship had quickly ended and Mahan’s theory became just as outdated.

Works Cited

“Carrier Battles in the Pacific.” History Television. 2003. PHP Programming. 29 April 2005

< http://www.everblue.net/1942/>.

Hagan, Kenneth J. This People’s Navy. New York: The Free Press, 1991.

Maga, Timothy. America Attacks Japan. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. Morison, Samuel E. History of Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 4. Boston: Brown and

Company, 1961.

Smith, Steven T. Wolfpack. New York: Wiley and Sons Inc, 2003.

Symonds, Craig L. Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

“U.S. Submarine War in the Pacific.” Battle Below. 2002. BB Online. 28 April 2005

< http://www.battlebelow.com/subwar.htm>.

Worth, Ronald H. Congress Declares War. Jefferson: McFarland Inc, 2002.



Wright, Mike. What They Didn’t Teach You About World War II. Novato: Presido Press, 1998.


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