MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. (April 7) --
Since the invention of the cannon, naval power was dependent on ships carrying the most powerful guns. From the ship-of-the-line of the 17th century to the Dreadnought-style battleship of the 20th, victory depended on the size, range and firepower of the guns.
Aircraft Supplant the Battleship
During the four years of American involvement in World War II, the battleship suddenly found itself supplanted by a relatively new invention, the airplane. The fleets of the world’s greatest naval powers shifted from being a battleship-based force to being an aircraft carrier-based force and brought to the forefront the future importance of Naval and Marine Aviation.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan forced America to enter World War II by conducting a sneak attack against American bases in the Hawaiian Islands. The war started as an air war, with aircraft from six Japanese carriers attacking in two waves with the purpose of knocking out the American Pacific Fleet before it had the chance to get up and fight.
The three carriers of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, the Enterprise, the Yorktown and the Saratoga, were not present during the attack and weren’t in danger at the time. These carriers would be the heart of the Navy as it worked to stem the tide of the Japanese.
Hill Goodspeed, historian of the National Naval Aviation Museum, said that it was a stroke of luck that the American fleet carriers were not at Pearl Harbor at the time because they were the forces America needed to immediately strike back at the Japanese.
During the Battle of the Coral Sea, American and Japanese fleets used their carrier aircraft to fight each other without the ships ever spotting each other, which was the first time in history that a naval battle was fought without either fleet seeing the other. This action stopped the Japanese advance southward.
During the Battle of Midway, a combined Navy-Marine action sank four Japanese carriers, destroying much of Japan’s premier aviation capability. With many experienced pilots gone, the American fleet could more easily gain the upper hand.
Retired Maj. Gen. Michael P. Sullivan, who commanded Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, said pilots on both sides were an extraordinary breed and an important factor for the outcome of the Pacific air war. Sullivan cited the accomplishments of people like Maj. Gen. Victor A. Armstrong, who shot down two Japanese aircraft during World War II and then went on to command squadrons, groups, air stations and an aircraft wing. Sullivan said people of Armstrong’s caliber were fairly common at the time and were very important to winning the air war.
“In World War II, it was all about the who was a better aviator,” said Sullivan. “Sometimes a pilot could be in a better airplane and lose to a better pilot in a lesser airplane. The only weapons airplanes had were guns, so you had to be behind the guy, get in gun range, and blow him away, so it was a lot of skill.”
From Midway on, the Navy and Marine Corps seized the initiative and carried on the offensive. The ultimate objective was to invade and neutralize the Japanese home islands. To do this, ground troops would land on an island and secure it as an advanced base. From that base, they would strike again at another strategically placed island deeper into Japanese territory and repeat the process until the American military held a position from which they could strike Japan itself. Both battleships and aviation would have an important role to play in the advance across the Pacific.
“Battleships did engage in surface action with enemy ships, notably at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but their primary role during World War II was shore bombardment in support of amphibious assaults,” said Goodspeed. “Aircraft also provided close-air support for amphibious operations, their missions also including long-range patrol, defense of the fleet, attacks against enemy forces, antisubmarine warfare and air-sea rescue.”
During the course of the campaign, aircraft proved themselves to be the more versatile weapon.
“Aircraft are three dimensional, they can move up, down, sideways, roll; but battleships are one dimensional, they’re slow and it’s a huge target. It carries a lot and it’s a formidable weapon if it survives,” Sullivan said. “An airplane can go inland 500 or 1,000 miles, while a battleship is stuck out in the ocean. In the Atlantic, Europe and the Pacific, it was a fighter war. You had to rule the skies.”
Starting with World War II, the battleship found itself increasingly left behind as tactics and technology advanced.
“During World War II, I would say battleships had not reached their technical limits. There was work being done to improve their fire control systems to make their guns as accurate as possible,” said Goodspeed. “Fundamentally, the tactics in which they would engage surface forces had not changed in decades and aircraft offered the advantage of being able to strike the enemy at greater range.”
Though battleships saw some improvement after World War II, the advancements in Naval and Marine Corps aviation outpaced those of the battleship. Jet fighters became the mainstay of Naval air forces in the 1950s and guided missiles and bombs became a larger factor in following decades. The advancements in Naval aviation contributed directly to the last U.S. battleship being permanently retired in 2006.