Friday, December 29, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: The World's Greatest Industrial Power Hits its Stride

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy had eight carriers, one more than the United States Navy. They used six of them in a coordinated operation against Pearl Harbor, one of the most devastating tactical victories of all time. Despite the fact that the Japanese added two carriers (converted from ocean liners) to their fleet during the year that followed, they lost a total of six, four during the Battle of Midway alone. On the American side, losses and urgent repairs had whittled down the number of battle-ready carriers in the Pacific to just one, the Newport News-built Enterprise (CV 6). Rather than having the Japanese on the run as the end of 1942 approached, it would seem that the two mighty fleets had battered each other down to parity, but it would prove to be short-lived.

USS Essex (CV 9) shortly after her launch at Newport News Shipbuilding on July 31, 1942. The James River Bridge can be seen in the background.  (Naval History and Heritage Command Photo)
USS Essex (CV 9) begins trials on the James River just after her commissioning on December 31, 1942. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum File Photo)
On the last day of 1942, one of the most amazing comebacks in naval history was well underway, produced by what had become the world's greatest economic powerhouse, epitomized by the commissioning of a new class of fleet carrier. They would not only be the largest American carriers commissioned during the war, but they would emerge in such numbers that task forces consisting of as many as 16 fleet (CV) and light (Independence-class CVL) carriers would become possible within the following two years. Thousands of shipyard workers, making manifest the plans of designers and naval architects, most of whom were working in Hampton Roads, made it all possible.

From its first proposal through initial construction, the design of the Essex-class carrier went through more than six major transformations and ended up nearly 30 percent larger. (Naval History and Heritage Command Image)
As has been reported previously, the nation, the Hampton Roads area in particular, had been girding itself for war far in advance of the Pearl Harbor attack. On that day, there were already five of this new class of carrier under construction, three of them at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. A year and three weeks later, December 31, 1942, the industrial might of the region, and the nation, hit its stride with the commissioning of USS Essex (CV 9), the first of ten of its class that would be constructed by the massive shipyard on the James River. Between the Essex in 1942 and Boxer (CV 21) in 1945, a carrier of the Essex class was delivered from Newport News shipbuilding to the Navy every 90 days.  Two weeks after Essex was commissioned, the keel for USS Shangri-La (CV 38), was laid at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the first of three Essex-class carriers that would be produced at the government-owned facility on the Elizabeth River.

Two Essex-class carriers, probably Hornet (CV 12) and Franklin (CV 13), are nearing completion at Newport News Shipbuilding in October 1943. Although Franklin was heavily damaged by kamikaze aircraft in March 1945 and was mothballed after the war, Hornet would undergo extensive modifications over the years, serving long enough to serve as the recovery carrier for the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum File Photo) 
Freed from the constraints imposed by the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, designers could incorporate innovations that would not only give the carrier class more range and the ability to carry greater numbers of more powerful aircraft, but their triple-bottomed hulls, enhanced compartmentalization and extensive damage control features greatly enhanced their survivability. Few would dispute that if the carrier Franklin (CV 13), which had had begun construction at Newport News Shipbuilding three weeks before Essex’s commissioning, had been of an earlier design, she would have been destroyed off Japan in March 1945. Although 724 men were killed and 265 wounded in the inferno that ensued after the carrier sustained two direct 500-pound bomb hits, Franklin ultimately made it back to Pearl Harbor. 

After some gun and radar installations, USS Franklin (CV 13) passes the downtown Norfolk waterfront after leaving Norfolk Naval Shipyard in February 1944. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum File Photo)
While the 36,000-ton Franklin, also built in Newport News, took 25 months to complete, a comparable Japanese carrier, the 37,000-ton Taiho, took 32. Although a leap forward in design, incorporating an armored flight deck and belt armor earlier Japanese carriers lacked, Taiho could only carry 72 aircraft versus the Franklin’s 90. While Franklin survived the war, Taiho only lasted three months after her commissioning, sunk by a single American torpedo. 
It would seem that the dictum expressed by naval theorist Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan was placed above this model of USS Essex (CV 9) at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum to give a sense of irony.  Before the Second World War, his adherents relegated aircraft carriers to the role of supporting battleships, which were considered the "backbone and real power" of the Navy.  But the Essex in particular exemplified the capital ship that not only could deliver overwhelming firepower, but take some "hard knocks"in return.  Long before the Essex class emerged, the striking power of the carrier had long since eclipsed that of the battleship, but the Essex class closed the "backbone" gap so thoroughly that battleships were not even that important as guards for the carriers during the latter part of the war, and were themselves largely relegated to supporting amphibious landings. (M.C. Farrington
Between December 31, 1942 and the end of the war, one Essex-class carrier was delivered to the Navy roughly every 90 days from Newport News Shipbuilding.  The last of the class built in Newport News, USS Leyte (CV-32), was delivered in April 1946. Of the 24 that were ultimately completed at five different shipyards, Leyte, her sister ship Boxer (CV 21), along with the carriers Valley Forge (CV 45) and Philippine Sea (CV 47) remained in active service following the war and were among the first to attack Kim Il Sung's forces during the Korean War.  Despite being decommissioned and placed into reserve status, most of the others, including Essex, would go on to enjoy careers lasting into the 1970s.   

At 70 to 78 million dollars apiece, it took a unified Congress, buoyed by a galvanized electorate, to authorize the expenditures for the Essex-class carriers and the hundreds of other vessels that won the war. It took shipyards willing to work ahead of schedule and under budget. It took Sailors willing to use these vessels bring the fight to the enemy’s home waters, braving the real possibility of death in the process. With this willingness to pay any price and bear any burden they, in service to the American people, utterly defeated a radical enemy, winning the Second World War, not only with their hearts, but with their hands and wallets.

Despite the difference in the economic situation for America with respect to its geopolitical rivals today, what was true 75 years ago is thankfully still true: The two major shipyards of Hampton Roads, Newport News Shipbuilding and Norfolk Naval Shipyard, are still open for business, and their services will be needed for the foreseeable future. 

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