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by James Kurth

The story of the U. Navy in World War II has a central role in the long history of America's wars and indeed of America itself. The story obviously had great meaning and taught important lessons to the generation that fought World War II and also to the generations that came of age in its aftermath. But even now, almost sixty-five years after the end of the war, it is a story filled with potential meaning and importance for the young students of today. For there are aspects of this story that are part of the very nature of America, and even of the human condition itself.

In this essay, we will focus upon two features of the history of the U. Navy in World War II: first, the way in which it recapitulates the qualities of many of the great epic stories to be found in classical literature and in world history, and second, the way in which it illustrates continuing and enduring realities about the making of U. military policies and strategies, and particularly about the American way of making war.

An American Epic: Struggles and Dramas

The history of the U. Navy in World War II is an epic story, one equivalent in its excitement, engagement, and grandeur to the great epics of classical literature and world history. It can be seen as a series of distinct and concentrated battles or events, each of them a great struggle and drama comparable to the most important and legendary events in the history of any country and at any time. These include, for example, such battles of the classical age as Marathon and Salamis, which preserved Greek civilization from Persian conquest. They also include such battles of the modern age as Trafalgar and Waterloo, by which Britain defeated Napoleonic France, not only preserving itself but also establishing both the European balance-of-power system and the British Empire upon a new basis, one which would decisively shape the character of Western civilization for the next century.

In our review of the U. Navy in World War II, we will primarily discuss the Pacific theater. Here, we will focus upon four great events or struggles: (1) the attack on Pearl Harbor; (2) the Battle of Midway; (3) the political struggle over U. Pacific strategy; and (4) the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Of course, there were other great and well- known naval struggles in the Pacific that should also be discussed, especially the campaign to take Guadacanal and the Solomon Islands and the campaign to re-take the Philippines; the latter included the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which involved more warships and a greater ocean area than any other naval battle ever. However, the complexity of these particular campaigns and battles requires a rather lengthy exposition in order to make their meaning and consequences clear, and so we will not be able to focus upon them given the space limitations of this particular essay.

We will also discuss the U. Navy's role in the European theater, particularly in the Battle of the Atlantic. In addition, most of the Pacific events also had a counterpart or analogue in the European theater, and so it will be useful to compare and contrast the Navy's role in the Atlantic war versus the Pacific war.

Like the great events and struggles drawn from the histories of classical Greece and modern Britain, those involving the Navy in World War II have the character of being at once strategic, dramatic, and tragic. Moreover, these events combine into a grand, unfolding narrative, one that takes the form of a classical epic.

The Character of Classical Narratives

Classical narratives, the ones that have had the most engaging and enduring power, often share particular elements or even share a particular sequence and development. The elements and sequence usually include something like the following: (1) at the beginning, a state of innocence, but also self-indulgence. This is suddenly shattered by (2) a devastating enemy assault and even disaster, followed by (3) a continuing enemy challenge which culminates in a decisive moment of truth in which one barely escapes extinction. There then follows (4) a period of uncertain recovery but firm determination, and this in turn is followed by (5) a period of long and hard testing, during which one slowly and painfully grows to strength and mastery. Finally, there is (6) triumph, redemption, and apotheosis.

For the most part, these particular elements and their sequence can be found in the great epics and histories of the classical age: the stories of the Greeks in the Trojan War, as told by Homer; of the Greeks in the Persian War; of the founding of Rome, as told by Virgil; and of the Romans in the Punic Wars. For the most part, too, these elements and their sequence can be found in some of the great national histories of the modern age. This especially seems to be the case with the history of successive British struggles with great continental powers seeking to establish hegemony over Europe and to subdue Britain in the process: the wars with Spain under Phillip II, with France under Louis XIV, and again with France under Napoleon. (The British tried to recapitulate this narrative when confronting Germany under Wilhelm II; however, its victory in World War I was so costly that it turned out to be a pyrrhic one.)

Indeed, this particular form of narrative probably has even deeper foundations within Western consciousness. Many of the same elements and much of the same sequencing can be found in the Bible, beginning with the origins of man and woman in the Garden of Eden, followed by the entry of the Serpent and the Fall, through successive people chosen by God and their subsequent falls, to final triumph and redemption (and in the Christian faith, resurrection) with the coming of the Messiah.

It may now be becoming evident that the story of the Navy in World War II, and particularly in the Pacific theater, fits this form of classical narrative. On the eve of its entry into the war, America is characterized by a state of innocence and self-indulgence. The devastating enemy assault comes on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The enemy relentlessly presses this challenge during the first half of 1942, culminating in the decisive Battle of Midway in June. There then ensues within the U. government and between the U. military services a political struggle over Pacific strategy, along with bloody and arduous battles at Guadacanal and the Solomon Islands. Then comes the long and hard period of testing and the slow and painful growing in strength, which culminates in the terrible but decisive battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Finally, there is triumph and redemption, ending with the apotheosis of September 2, 1945 -- the majestic surrender ceremony on the deck of the battleship U. S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay.

American Realities: Patterns and Issues

However, the history of the U. Navy in World War II not only presents a grand epic in the classical form. It also presents a series of vivid illustrations of some recurring and enduring patterns and issues in the making of U. military policies and strategies. These patterns and issues have long been central in the analyses of American political scientists and military historians, and they provide excellent and engaging topics for the teaching about American wars.

In this essay, we will focus upon six of these patterns and issues: (1) bureaucratic identities and intelligence failures; (2) service competition and party politics; (3) the classical American Way of War and its manifestation in the U. Navy of the 1940s; (4) personal honor and moral choice: (5) national morale and political will; and (6) the play of fate and chance. As it happens, each of the Pacific war events which we have listed exemplifies one or more of these themes.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

Indisputably one of the most dramatic events in American history, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor also presents an archetypal case of a recurring and enduring American reality -- the functioning -- and the malfunctioning -- of the U. military and intelligence bureaucracies. [1]

To begin with, the circumstances leading up to Pearl Harbor illustrate the perennial conflicts which occur within the U. Navy between its different component services, each with its own distinct bureaucratic identity. In the case of Pearl Harbor, this was a conflict between the battleship service and the carrier service. Although the naval aviation and aircraft carrier part of the Navy had been growing in importance and influence since the 1920s, in 1941 it was still subordinated to the battleship admirals. These of course saw the battleship as the only true capital ship, and they not only believed that carriers would remain marginal in U. naval strategy but that a successful attack by Japanese carrier aircraft upon Pearl harbor would be impossible. This conception represented a classic case of how bureaucratic identity and interests shape (and distort) bureaucratic perceptions and plans.

The attack on Pearl Harbor also presents a classic case of intelligence failure. In particular, crucial intelligence -- and more importantly the interpretation of intelligence -- fell between the gap between different intelligence services. For example, State Department officials in Washington knew that Japan would initiate hostilities on December 8, 1941 (which would be December 7, U. time), but they thought that any attack would occur someplace in Southeast Asia. Conversely, Navy officers in Pearl Harbor knew that Japan could initiate an attack on Pearl Harbor, but they did not know when it would be (and in any case did not believe that it would be successful). In short, Washington knew the date of the attack and Pearl Harbor knew the place, but no one knew both.

Pearl Harbor also illustrates the crucial role of chance in warfare. As it happened, on December 7 all of the eight battleships stationed at Pearl Harbor were in port, but the two aircraft carriers stationed there were away at sea. Consequently, the battleships were sunk, but the carriers survived. This instantly accomplished a bureaucratic and strategic revolution within the Navy: not only had Pearl Harbor demonstrated the effectiveness of aircraft carriers, but it rendered them the only remaining basis for U. naval strategy.

Pearl Harbor also illustrates the crucial role of choice in warfare. The commander of the Japanese fleet ordered two successive air strikes on Pearl Harbor. After the second strike, the returning head pilot reported that the battleships had been destroyed, but that there had been no sign of the carriers. The Japanese commander had planned a third strike to destroy the oil and gasoline storage facilities servicing the U. fleet, but now he became concerned that the U. carriers might be able to undertake a counterattack upon his own fleet. Consequently, he ordered his forces to withdraw and to steam back to Japan. This left the crucial oil and gasoline supplies available to service the U. fleet during the first six months of the Pacific War.

Finally, Pearl Harbor famously illustrates the role of national morale and political will in warfare. As is well known, the Japanese attack instantly united the American public, which had previously been greatly divided over the issue of U. entry into World War II. It produced an extraordinary national morale and political will for prosecuting the war (at least the war with Japan), which the Roosevelt administration could never have achieved on its own or by any other way.

The Battle of Midway

With its ultimate outcome in suspense until the very end, the story of the Battle of Midway in June 1942 is one of the most gripping tales ever told in military history. It also nicely illustrates several of our patterns and issues. [2]

To begin with, Midway, like Pearl Harbor, demonstrates the crucial role of intelligence. In this case, however, it is a story of intelligence success, rather than intelligence failure. Through ingenious methods and dogged persistence, U.S. Navy intelligence specialists had cracked a Japanese code which indicated movements of the Japanese fleets. This allowed U. naval officers to determine that an immense Japanese carrier and invasion task force was heading toward Midway Island and to thus send out the U. fleet (which was significantly smaller than the Japanese one) to disrupt the Japanese and prevent the conquest of the strategically- crucial island.

Once the opposing American and Japanese fleets encountered each other and the battle was joined, Midway becomes an intensely human story, one exemplifying such qualities as personal honor, moral choice, and the play of chance. The U. attack on the Japanese fleet began with a courageous but sacrificial assault by American torpedo aircraft. Despite the personal heroism of their pilots, this assault failed to cause any damage to the Japanese ships.

However, the U. torpedo effort did succeed in drawing down to a low altitude the Japanese fighters which were protecting those ships. It was at this point that chance played its decisive role. As a result of a set of two or three very improbable coincidences, U.S. dive bombers now arrived on the scene, at the very moment when the Japanese carriers were most vulnerable. In the ensuing dive-bomber assault, three Japanese carriers, the bulk of the force, were sunk, providing the Americans with an amazing victory.

The Battle of Midway was not yet over, however. The Japanese commander still held a large fleet in reserve to the west, which was unknown to the Americans. He expected to lure the unsuspecting U. fleet into a trap and a night-time battle, which was the kind of operation in which the Japanese navy excelled and in which U. carrier aircraft could not effectively operate.

The U. commander, the thoughtful and sensible Admiral Raymond Spruance, was under intense pressure from his staff to pursue and destroy the Japanese ships which remained from the earlier daytime battle and which were now retreating to the west. However, Spruance discerned that the U. had already accomplished its objective of destroying the Japanese carriers and preventing the occupation of Midway Island and that any further U. fleet action would be for little gain but with substantial risk. Demonstrating impressive moral character, he withstood the pressure from those around him, and he decided that the battle was over and ordered the U. fleet to return eastward to a more secure position.

The Political Struggle over U. Pacific Strategy

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor certainly united the American public and produced a strong political will and firm determination to prosecute a relentless war against Japan. In 1942, however, there was not yet a similarly strong and firm commitment to wage a relentless war against Germany, even though Hitler had formally (and foolishly) declared war against the United States on December 11, 1941, immediately after Pearl Harbor. In fact, there remained throughout much of 1942 serious political divisions within America with respect to how to prioritize the war (or, in some ways, the different wars) with the two different enemy powers and between the Pacific and the European theaters. This was the famous debate between a Pacific (or Japan) - first strategy and a Europe (or Germany) -first strategy. The ensuing political struggle provides an excellent example of party politics and service competition. [3]

On the Pacific-first side was much of the Republican Party and the Mid-Western and Western regions of the United States. Another, and crucial, part of this Pacific-first coalition was the U. Navy, especially its erascible and strong-willed Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King. Conversely, on the Europe-first side was much of the Democratic Party and the Eastern and Southern regions of the United States. Another and crucial part of this Europe- first coalition was the U. Army, especially its highly- capable and widely-admired Chief of Staff, General George Marshall.

Although the Democrats controlled the White House and also possessed a substantial majority in Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt knew that, in order to effectively prosecute the war (and especially the war that he himself prioritized, the war against Germany), he had to have bi- partisan support. The result for U. strategy was a sort of grand bargain, by which Roosevelt and the Democrats got their war against Germany, but the Republicans got their war against Japan. Thus, the U. government assigned roughly equal amounts of military resources to each of the two theaters until 1944.

Moreover, there were second, lower-level, divisions within the U. military with respect to the Pacific theater itself. Each of the military services had its own preferred strategy for defeating Japan. The Navy, under the command of the clear-thinking and effective Admiral Chester Nimitz, and also its brother service, the Marines, wanted an advance straight across the Central Pacific. This would entail invading and occupying a limited number of small islands along the way, a climactic battle with the Japanese fleet, and the blockade of the home islands of Japan, until it was forced to surrender. Since the Pacific was, after all, an ocean (indeed, the largest ocean in the world) and since the Navy had long been assigned overall command in the Pacific theater, it might seem obvious that the Navy would get its way.

However, the Army and also the Army Air Force (which by now had become virtually independent of the Army) each had its own and different preferred strategy. The Army forces in the Pacific were under the command of the charismatic General Douglas MacArthur. He naturally wanted these forces to play the major role in defeating Japan, with the Navy assuming a largely supporting role. This would entail an advance upward from Australia through the South and West Pacific, invading and occupying several large islands along the way, including the Philippines (where MacArthur had famously pledged, "I shall return"), and ultimately culminating with the invasion and occupation of the home islands of Japan itself.

At first glance, it might seem that MacArthur's strategy for the Army in the Pacific would have little chance of acceptance back in Washington. It promised to be more costly in American casualties than the Navy's strategy, and the high command of the Army itself much preferred to focus upon defeating Germany. However, MacArthur had long been the Republican Party's favorite general (he had even been the Army Chief of Staff under President Herbert Hoover). Consequently, in order to maintain the bi-partisan support for the two wars and the two theaters, MacArthur largely got his way. More accurately, both the Navy and MacArthur got their way, i.e., the United States pursued both strategies in the Pacific theater.

Finally, the Army Air Force had its own preferred strategy by which it would defeat Japan. Although technically still part of the Army, the Air Force developed a plan for the strategic bombing of Japan's cities that would permit it to operate almost completely independent of the Army. It would, however, have to depend somewhat upon the Navy and the Marines, because it would have to establish and use bases for its bombers on some of those islands which the maritime forces conquered during their thrust across the Central Pacific. Those bases, and thus the basis for the bombing strategy, were available by Fall 1944, and the Air Force then began the ruthless and systematic destruction of Japan's cities, a campaign which finally culminated with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 (which the Air Force has always claimed was the decisive action which brought the Pacific war to an end).

And so as it turned out, each one of three U. military services received enough military resources to convincingly wage its own war in the Pacific. In effect, the United States deployed enough resources to fight and win three wars against Japan; in this sense, Japan's defeat was massively over determined.

The U. war in the Pacific thus becomes an archetypal example of the classical American way of war. Many military historians have concluded that this distinctive way of war has been characterized by the effective employment of both (1) the overwhelming mass of military forces, with respect to both men and material, and (2) the wide-ranging mobility of these forces. Indeed, when he was interrogated by U. officers after the surrender, the Japanese wartime leader, General Hideki Tojo, said that what had surprised him about the U. military and what had accounted for Japan's defeat was the U. ability to operate its forces at great distances from their bases, to bypass and leap-frog around Japan's bases, and to continuously resupply and replace those forces.

The Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa

The battles of Iwo Jima (February - March 1945) and Okinawa (April - June 1945) were two of the deadliest battles in American history. Coming late in the war, when many Americans thought that it was nearly over, the 7000 U. fatalities at Iowa Jima and 12500 at Okinawa were a profound demonstration of how costly the Pacific war was and of the even more terrible costs to come, when U. forces finally undertook the invasion of the home islands of Japan. Given the magnitude of these two epic battles, they certainly exemplified several of the themes which we have been discussing. [4]

To begin with the U. invasion forces at both Iwo Jima and Okinawa perfectly represented the overwhelming mass, far- reaching mobility, and sustained force of the classical American way of war. In each battle, the assembled and deployed U. naval and ground forces were comparable in scale to those that the United States had employed in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

Essential as mass and mobility were, however, they would not have been sufficient by themselves to produce an American victory. For that, extraordinary demonstrations of personal honor, and many of them, were also required. Indeed, the courage, determination and sacrifice of the Marines at Iwo Jima made that battle the finest hour in the entire history of the Corps. As Admiral Nimitz later said, "at Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue."

However, as the reality of the terrible casualties at Iwo Jima and Okinawa began to sink into the mind of the American public, it had an effect upon U. national morale and political will. In the immediate aftermath of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, in the late Spring and early Summer of 1945, U. political leaders, and particularly the new President, Harry Truman, knew how difficult it would be to sustain national morale and political will throughout the even more deadly invasion of Japan that was planned for late 1945 and early 1946. This prospect certainly concentrated these leaders' minds upon finding some other way to defeat Japan and to end the war. It clearly was of great weight in Truman's decision to use the atomic bombs as soon as they became available, i.e., in August 1945.

The Battle of the Atlantic

Although the Navy was the preponderant military service in the Pacific theater, the Army clearly played that role in the European theater. There, the role of the Navy was largely a supporting one, providing transport and gunfire for the Army's successive invasions, along with protecting supply convoys in their perilous journey across the Atlantic. These kinds of naval operations did not make for dramatic and climactic battles, and the Navy has not paid much attention to the European and Atlantic theaters when it teaches about World War II at its military schools and its war college. Nevertheless, the Battle of the Atlantic, particularly the campaign which the U. Navy waged against German U-boats from the Fall of 1941 to the Spring of 1943, does provide an engaging and gripping story and also a series of important and useful illustrations of some of the themes which we have been discussing.

Since Britain was desperately dependent upon a continuing supply of vital resources and armaments across the Atlantic, a supply continuously threatened by the growing fleet of German U-boats, the Royal Navy had begun extensive convoy- protection operations in 1940. However, by the Summer of 1941, the British naval forces were stretched thin to their limit. At this point, President Roosevelt made the decision to have the U. Navy assist the Royal Navy in its anti- submarine activity, particularly in the Western Atlantic. Thus began a largely secret U. naval war against Germany, one which was carried on for several months before the official and real war began after Pearl Harbor. [5] This naval war was secret because Roosevelt knew that he did not yet have enough unity within the American public to provide the political will to engage in a public war. But he also knew that German U-boats would likely respond with counter- attacks upon the U. destroyers which were engaged in anti- submarine operations in support of British ships, and indeed this soon became the case. During September and October 1941, Germany U-boats attacked U. destroyers on three separate and escalating occasions, and Roosevelt then publicly denounced these encounters as unprovoked German assaults on innocent U. ships. Clearly, Roosevelt was anticipating that the naval war in the Atlantic would eventually escalate to the point that there would at last be enough public unity and political will within the U. for it to declare a full and real war against Germany.

When that full and real war did come after the German declaration of war upon the U. on December 11, 1941, the U-boats launched a ferocious and effective assault on U. shipping, not only in the broad Atlantic itself but also on the vital sea routes up and down the Eastern seaboard of the U. and in the Gulf of Mexico. It is now almost completely forgotten, but during the first six months of 1942, German U-boats sunk so may U. and Allied merchant ships that for awhile it seemed that with their U-boats alone, the Germans would be able to knock the United States out of the war. [6] The U-boats were greatly facilitated in their attacks because American civilians living along the shore insisted upon leaving the lights of their buildings on at night, and this provided a perfect backdrop for high-lighting the silhouettes of the ships which were the U-boats' targets. This was a perfect illustration of individual choice prevailing over national morale, and it took several months before the U. government could effectively enforce a reversal of these American priorities.

Even after the American public was brought into line and the Eastern seaboard suitably darkened, the U-boats continued for many months to sink large numbers of American merchant ships. A major reason for this was a feature of the bureaucratic identity of the U. Navy. The Navy had long seen itself as a rival to the Royal Navy, and this attitude was especially intense in the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, who was an open Anglophobe. U.S. naval officers thought that there was nothing that they could learn from the Royal Navy, which they viewed to be stuffy, old-fashioned, and overly-defensive. Unfortunately, they applied this attitude to the Royal Navy's system for protecting convoys, which was actually quite effective. Instead, the U. Navy tried one imaginative anti-submarine innovation after another, all of which failed, until at last by July 1942 it came to agree that the convoy system was best. adoption of the convoy system, along with technological improvements upon it, were the major reasons why the Navy was able to win the Battle of the Atlantic by May 1943. [7]

The Atlantic War versus the Pacific War

It seems clear enough from our above account that the war in the Atlantic was very different from that in the Pacific. However, there are some interesting and illustrative comparisons that can be drawn between events and operations in the two theaters.

First, when President Roosevelt ordered a secret naval war in the Western Atlantic in the Fall of 1941, one of his purposes was to provoke the Germans into taking hostile action against U. ships, which in turn would provoke the American public into going to war with Germany; this interpretation is widely accepted among professional historians. However, Roosevelt's actions toward Japan in the Fall of 1941, particularly the U. oil embargo, served to provoke Japan into planning the attack on Pearl Harbor; it is not surprising, therefore, that over the years a small minority of historians have taken the much more controversial and dubious position that Roosevelt deliberately provoked, and even expected and welcomed, the Pearl Harbor attack.

Second, Germany's campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare against American merchant ships was widely perceived within the United States to be ruthless and immoral. However, immediately after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt authorized the U. Navy to engage in unrestricted warfare against Japanese merchant ships. The only real difference between the German and the American campaigns was that the German one was at first an impressive success but eventually became a failure, while the American one at first a failure but eventually became a resounding success. (By the Spring of 1945, virtually no merchant shipping was reaching Japan.)

Third, several of the U. ground campaigns in the European theater had rough counterparts in the Pacific theater. The North African campaign of November 1942 - May 1943 served as an effective training exercise for the U. Army, converting it from an incoherent collection of inexperienced troops into a real army; the Guadacanal campaign of August 1942 - February 1943 did much the same for both the Army and the Marines. The Italian campaign of 1943 - 1945 has often been criticized as being an unnecessary and costly diversion from the most direct and effective way to defeat Germany, i.e., across France; the Philippines campaign of 1944 - 1945, including the giant naval battle of Leyte Gulf, which the U. Navy considers to be one of the most important battles in the history of naval warfare, has similarly been criticized as an unnecessary and costly diversion from the most direct and effective way to defeat Japan, i.e., across the Central Pacific. Finally, as we have already noted, the massive and mobile U. logistical achievement at Normandy was later recapitulated at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

With respect, however, to the much bigger question of which U. military service, and which Allied power, did the most to win the wars against Germany and Japan, there is a crucial difference between the European theater and the Pacific one. In Europe, the United States was only one of three major Allied powers (the others were the British Empire and the Soviet Union), and the U. Army was thus only one of three major armies fighting Germany. In the Pacific, the United States was clearly the most central Allied power, and the U. Navy was clearly the most central U. military service fighting Japan. The commanding prominence of the United States in the Pacific War, and the commanding prominence of the U. Navy there, means that ever since, the Navy has seen itself as forged in the cauldron of that war, shaped in its image, and bearing the legacy of that truly epic story and heroic age.

For other FPRI essays by James Kurth, visit:

For the texts, videos, and lesson plans from our history weekends on military history, visit:

---------------------------------------------------------- Notes

[1] Good accounts of the attack on Pearl Harbor are given by Max Boot, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (New York: Gotham Books, 2006), chapter 8; and Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan (New York: The Free Press, 1985), chapters 3-5.

[2] A detailed and vivid account of the Battle of Midway is given by Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), chapter 7.

[3] Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, revised and expanded edition (New York: The Free Press, 1994), chapters 13-14; Russell W. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), chapter 13.

[4] Spector, Eagle Against the Sun, chapters 21, 23.

[5] Millett and Maslowski; For The Common Defense, pp. 435- 439.

[6] Barrie Pitt, The Battle of the Atlantic (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1977), chapter 6.

[7] Pitt, Battle of the Atlantic, chapters 6-7.

---------------------------------------------------------- Copyright Foreign Policy Research Institute (

Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Morison, already convinced of the value of personal involvement as a result of sailing experience while writing his biography of Christopher Columbus, wrote to President Roosevelt suggesting the preparation of an official history of the Navy in the war, and volunteering for the task. Both President Roosevelt and the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox agreed, and in May 1942 Morison was commissioned as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Naval Reserve, and assigned a staff of assistants, with permission to go anywhere and to see all official records. Morison's reputation as a knowledgeable sailor (based on his analysis in the biography of Christopher Columbus) preceded him, and he was welcomed on a number of ships, eleven of them in all by the end of the war. [1]

The result was a normal historical work, not a prescribed official history. Limitations of the History of U.S. Naval Operations are mostly due to its shortened period of publication. Some material, especially related to codebreaking, was still classified, and later in-depth research into particular occurrences in the war did clarify points that had been passed over rather lightly. Some rewriting was incorporated in the later printings of this series. This History of U.S. Naval Operations also intentionally avoided a certain amount of analysis, for instance deferring to other works for the causes of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. The intended audience for the work, to quote from the preface, was "the general reader rather than the professional sailor."

  1. The Battle of the Atlantic: September 1939 – May 1943.
  2. Operations in North African Waters: October 1942 – June 1943 . 1947. OCLC1035606545. OL2917797W.
  3. The Rising Sun in the Pacific: 1931 – April 1942.
  4. Coral Sea, Midway, and Submarine Actions: May 1942 – August 1942.
  5. The Struggle for Guadalcanal: August 1942 – February 1943. ISBN978-0-252-06996-3 .
  6. Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier: July 22, 1942 – May 1, 1944. ISBN978-0-252-06997-0 .
  7. Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls: June 1942 – April 1944.
  8. New Guinea and the Marianas: March 1944 – August 1944. ISBN978-0-252-07038-9 .
  9. Sicily – Salerno – Anzio: January 1943 – June 1944 . 1954. OCLC1035618324. OL6510710M.
  10. The Atlantic Battle Won: May 1943 – May 1945. ISBN978-0-252-07061-7 .
  11. The Invasion of France and Germany: 1944–1945.
  12. Leyte: June 1944 – January 1945 . 1958. OCLC1035611842. OL24388559M.
  13. The Liberation of the Philippines: Luzon, Mindanao, the Visayas: 1944–1945 . 1959. OCLC1149421696. OL6510710M.
  14. Victory in the Pacific: 1945 . 1960. OCLC1036894412. OL24590968M.
  15. Supplement and General Index . 1962. OCLC1036864613. OL24366206M.

An abridgement of the fifteen-volume work was written by Morison and published in 1963:

Grumman F4F Wildcat: U.S. Navy Fighter in World War II

Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of VF-5 (Fighting Squadron 5) fly a tight formation near their home, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5).

‘It was not as you remember it, Saburo. I don’t know how many Wildcats there were, but they seemed to come out of the sun in an endless stream. We never had a chance….Every time we went out we lost more and more planes. Guadalcanal was completely under the enemy’s control….Of all the men who returned with me, only Captain Aito, [Lt. Cmdr. Tadashi] Nakajima and less than six of the other pilots who were in our original group of 80 men survived.’

Those words of top Japanese ace Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, part of a November 1942 conversation that was reported in fighter pilot Saburo Sakai’s autobiography, Samurai, might be the best tribute ever paid to the Grumman F4F Wildcat. While the newer Vought F4U Corsairs and F6F Hellcats grabbed the spotlight, it was the Wildcat that served as the U.S. Navy’s front-line fighter throughout the early World War II crises of 1942 and early 1943.

The Wildcat is unique among World War II aircraft in that it was originally conceived as a biplane. By 1936, the Navy had drawn up specifications for its next generation of shipboard fighters. Although presented with ample evidence that the era of the biplane was over, a strong traditionalist faction within the Navy still felt the monoplane was unsuitable for aircraft carrier use.

As a result, on March 2, 1936, Grumman was ordered to develop yet another single-seat biplane, the G-16, to replace the successful F3F biplane series. The design, the XF4F-1, was ordered both to placate the traditionalists and to be a backup for the Navy’s first monoplane, the Brewster F2A Buffalo. Grumman engineers, however, showed that the installation of a larger engine in the F3F would result in performance comparable to that expected from the new design, and began work on a parallel monoplane project, the G-18 (or XF4F-2). The Navy finally saw the logic of Grumman’s actions and officially sanctioned them.

Although redesigned as a monoplane, the XF4F-2 that rolled out of Grumman’s Bethpage, Long Island, assembly shed on September 2, 1937, showed a strong family resemblance to the F3F family with narrow-track landing gear that retracted upward and inward into the barrel-shaped fuselage. That, in combination with the placement of the cockpit high on the fuselage to give good vision, helped give the Wildcat its distinctive, pugnacious appearance.

Although the new ship was not a true ‘aerobatic’ performer, it was stable and easy to fly and displayed excellent deck-handling qualities. One problem that would remain with the F4F throughout its life, however, was its manual landing gear retraction mechanism. The gear required 30 turns with a hand crank to retract, and a slip of the hand off the crank could result in a serious wrist injury.

The prototype F4F had to best two competitors during spring 1938 trials before its acceptance by the U.S. Navy–the prototype F2A and a naval version of the Seversky P-35. Although the F2A was judged the winner because of teething problems encountered with the F4F, the Navy saw enough potential in the design to order continued development incorporating a newly designed Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engine with a two-speed supercharger.

The resulting redesign, the XF4F-3, differed from the original in several respects. Longer-span wings with squared tips–later a Grumman trademark–were added, and the armament of four .50-caliber machine guns was concentrated in the wings. Weight, however, had crept up to 3 tons. First flight for the new machine was February 1939, about two months after the first flight of the Mitsubishi A6M1 Zero prototype in Japan.

International tensions were rising, and the Navy awarded Grumman a contract for 600 Wildcats by the close of 1940. Enough of them were received to begin operations from the carriers Ranger and Wasp by February 1941.

First combat for the F4F was not with the U.S. Navy but with Britain’s Royal Navy, and its first victim was German. The British had shown great interest in the Wildcat as a replacement for the Gloster Sea Gladiator, and the first were delivered in late 1940. On Christmas Day 1940, one of them intercepted and shot down a Junkers Ju-88 bomber over the big Scapa Flow naval base. The Martlet, as the British also called it, saw further action when 30 originally bound for Greece were diverted to the Royal Navy following the collapse of Greece and were used in a ground attack role in the North African Desert throughout 1941.

The Wildcat’s American combat career got off to a more inauspicious start. Eleven of them were caught on the ground during the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, and nearly all were destroyed. It was with Marine squadron VMF-211 at Wake Island that the Wildcat first displayed the tenacity that would bedevil the Japanese again and again. As at Pearl Harbor, the initial Japanese attacks left seven of 12 F4F3s wrecked on the field. But the survivors fought on for nearly two weeks, and on December 11, Captain Henry Elrod bombed and sank the destroyer Kisaragi and helped repel the Japanese invasion force. Only two Wildcats were left on December 23, but the pair managed to shoot down a Zero and a bomber before being overwhelmed.

Carrier-based F4F3s engaged the enemy soon after. On February 20, 1942, Lexington came under attack from a large force of Mitsubishi G4M1 Betty bombers while approaching the Japanese base at Rabaul. The F4F fighter screen swarmed over the unescorted bombers, and Lieutenant Edward H. ‘Butch’ O’Hare shot down five of them. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and became the first Wildcat ace.

During the Coral Sea battle in May, F4Fs from the carriers Lexington and Yorktown inflicted heavy losses on the air groups from Shokaku, Zuikaku and Shoho but could not prevent the sinking of Lexington. While the air battles were by no means one-sided, they were clearly a shock to many Zero pilots, who had faced little serious opposition up to that time.

By the time of the Midway engagement in June, the fixed-wing F4F-3 had been replaced by the folding-wing F4F-4. Although the new wings enabled the carriers to increase their fighter complement from 18 to 27, the F4F-4’s folding mechanism, coupled with the addition of two more machine guns, raised its weight by nearly 800 pounds and caused a falloff in climb and maneuverability.

Nearly 85 Wildcats flew from Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet during Midway, but it was the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber that was destined to be the hero of the battle, sinking the carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, and dealing the Imperial Navy a disastrous defeat.

When news of the U.S. invasion of Guadalcanal reached the Japanese on August 7, 1942, they launched airstrikes from Rabaul. Flying escort was the elite Tainan Kokutai (air group), which counted among its pilots Sakai (64 victories), Nishizawa (credited with 87 before his death in October 1944) and other leading aces. But over Guadalcanal, the Zeros were off-balance from the start. Their first glimpse of the new enemy came when Wildcats of Saratoga‘s VF-5 dived into their formation and scattered it.

Sakai and Nishizawa recovered and claimed eight Wildcats and a Dauntless between them, but they were the only pilots to score. The Navy F4Fs, in return, brought down 14 bombers and two Zeros.

Although exact Japanese losses over Guadalcanal are not known, they lost approximately 650 aircraft between August and November 1942–and an irreplaceable number of trained, veteran airmen. It is certain that the F4Fs were responsible for most of those losses. During the Battle of Santa Cruz on October 26, 1942, Stanley W. ‘Swede’ Vejtasa of VF-10 from the carrier Enterprise downed seven Japanese planes in one fight. Marine pilot Joe Foss racked up 23 of his 26 kills over Guadalcanal John L. Smith was close behind with 19 and Marion Carl, Richard Galer and Joe Bauer were among other top Marine aces.

A large part of the Wildcat success was tactics. The agile Zero, like most Japanese army and navy fighter craft, had been designed to excel in slow-speed maneuvers. U.S. Navy aviators realized early on that the Zero’s controls became heavy at high speeds and were less effective in high-speed rolls and dives. Navy tacticians like James Flatley and James Thach preached that the important thing was to maintain speed–whenever possible–no matter what the Zero did. Although the Wildcat was not especially fast, its two-speed supercharger enabled it to perform well at high altitudes, something that the Bell P-39 and Curtiss P-40 could not do.

The F4F was so rugged that terminal dive airspeed was not redlined. The A6M2’s 7.7mm cowl guns and slow-firing 20mm cannons were effective against an F4F only at point-blank range. But F4F pilots reported that hits from their .50-caliber wing guns usually caused complete disintegration of a Zero.

The Zero and Wildcat shared one serious liability, though. Neither could be modified successfully to keep pace with wartime fighter development. It was determined that the F4F airframe could not accommodate a larger engine without an almost complete redesign, which ultimately did take shape as the new 2,000-hp F6F Hellcat.

The Wildcat’s air combat role began to wane when the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair arrived at Guadalcanal in February 1943. Nevertheless, the stalwart F4F was still the front-line fighter when Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto launched Operation I-Go against Allied forces in the Solomons in April, and Marine Lieutenant James Swett shot down seven (and possibly eight) Aichi D3A1 Val dive bombers in a single combat.

As 1943 wore on, the Wildcat gradually was relegated to a support role as the F6F replaced it aboard fleet carriers. The F4F’s small size, ruggedness and range–enhanced by two 58-gallon drop tanks–continued to make it ideal for use off small escort carrier decks. The little warrior–in both U.S. and Royal Navy markings–contributed to eliminating the U-boat menace in the Atlantic.

General Motors/Eastern Aircraft produced 5,280 Wildcats like this FM-2. The fighter was optimized for smaller escort carriers, with a more powerful engine, and a taller tail to cope with the torque.

A General Motors­built version of the F4F received a marginal boost when a Wright 1,350-hp single-row radial was installed in place of the 1,200-hp Pratt & Whitney. The first production models of the new variant, designated the FM-2, arrived in late 1943. The FM-2’s new engine, coupled with a 350-pound weight reduction, produced improvements in performance over the F4F. In fact, postwar tests revealed the late-model A6M5 Zero to be only 13 mph faster.

FM-2s were normally teamed with TBF Avengers in so-called VC ‘composite’ squadrons on small escort carriers. During the Battle of Samar on October 25, 1944, FM-2s and Avengers from several ‘baby flattops’ aided destroyers in disrupting an overwhelming Japanese battleship task force that surprised the American invasion fleet off the Philippines. The aircraft, although handicapped by a lack of anti-shipping ordnance, so demoralized the Japanese that a potential American disaster was averted.

Although opportunities for air combat were few, FM-2s notched a respectable 422 kills–many of them kamikaze aircraft–by the end of the war. On August 5, 1945, a VC-98 FM-2 from USS Lunga Point shot down a Yokosuka P1Y1 Frances recon bomber to score the last Wildcat kill of the war.

In terms of sheer numbers, the F4F’s kill tally was less than the Corsair and much less than the Hellcat. But the Hellcat did not appear until the really critical combats were long over it was the underdog F4F, flown by highly skilled U.S. Navy and Marine pilots, that provided the few sparks of victory early in the war, when the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific seemed overwhelming.

Many aircraft achieved greatness during World War II, but few could be called heroic. The F4F Wildcat, usually outnumbered and outclassed by its opponents, was a heroic airplane.

This article was written by Bruce L. Crawford and originally published in Aviation History. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!

By Emily Hegranes

Alright, everyone, today I am going to take you on a shallow dive into a topic that’s tough for a lot of people to talk about for many different reasons: racial segregation. Specifically, the history of racial segregation in the Navy through World War II. It is never fun, but it is a very important part of our history, and something that we need to examine no matter how uncomfortable it can make us feel.

The history of black sailors in the Navy begins with the War of 1812, as the U.S. Navy was not established until after the American Revolution. At the beginning of the war the official policy forbade recruitment of black sailors, but a shortage of men forced the Navy to accept any man who was willing to serve. According to modern estimates, 15–20 percent of the Navy’s force during the War of 1812 was made up of black sailors. While a number of black men did defect to the British Navy, it is important to note that many of these were enslaved men, who had been promised freedom in return for their service. One of my favorite quotes from this period comes from Commodore Joshua Barney during the Battle of Bladensburg. When President James Madison asked if his black sailors would “run on the approach of the British?” Barney replied: “No, Sir . . . they don’t know how to run they will die by their guns first.” One such man was Harry Jones, who was one of the many black seamen who did not abandon his post, but rather fought valiantly, getting wounded in the process.

Harry Jones is listed as number 35 of this naval hospital registry of wounded.

To my surprise, I found out that the U.S. Navy was integrated during the Civil War, unlike the U.S. Army. While federal regulations limited African American sailors to 5 percent of the enlisted force, during the war that participation grew to 20 percent, nearly double the percentage who served in the Army. There were approximately 18,000 black men and 11 women who served in the Navy during the Civil War. One important point to note, however, is how their ranking and status was dependent on whether they came on board free or formerly enslaved. Formerly enslaved men were classified as “Boys,” and given lower pay and rating.

While integration on ships continued through World War I, so did the lack of equality between black and white sailors. Some African American sailors were promoted to petty officers, but none would be promoted past that rank as their white counterparts would. Because of the segregation policies of the U.S. armed forces, their participation was relegated to support roles, most commonly as mess attendants and firemen.

It is at this point in the U.S. Navy’s history that it took a large step backward. After the war, African American enlistments were banned altogether, from 1919 through 1932. The only black sailors were the ones who joined before the 1919 ban, who were allowed to stay on until retirement. African Americans once again were allowed to serve on U.S. Navy ships in 1932, but only as stewards and mess attendants.

In June 1940, the Navy had 4,007 black personnel, which represented 2.3 percent of the 170,000 service members in the Navy. All were enlisted and, with the exception of six regular-rated seamen, all were steward’s mates. They were characterized in the black press as “seagoing bellhops.” Within a month on the attack on Pearl Harbor, the number of African Americans in the Navy increased to 5,026, but they still were restricted to working as steward’s mates. An exception to this was the Navy bandmaster Alton Augustus Adams, who was recalled to active duty along with eight other black musicians, creating the Navy’s first racially segregated ensemble.

The USS Mason (DE-529) was the only Navy vessel during World War II to have an entirely black crew who were not cooks or waiters. The Mason served in convoys, escorting support ships to England. In one incident, the crew quickly welded the cracks in their ship’s hull so they could continue their duties. They unfortunately were not fully recognized until 1995, when 11 of the surviving members were given letters of commendation by Navy Secretary John Dalton.

The Navy did not allow women of color to serve until 25 January 1945. The first black woman sworn into the Navy was Phyllis Mae Dailey, a nurse and Columbia University student. She was the first of only four black women to serve in the Navy during World War II.

Phyllis Mae Dailey being sworn in as the first Black nurse in the U.S. Navy.

On paper, the history of Navy segregation ended on 27 February 1946, when Circular Order 48-46 officially desegregated the service. A major catalyst for this order was the Port Chicago disaster of 17 July 1944, and the ensuing mutiny convictions of 50 black sailors.

This is merely an overview of the history of racial segregation in the Navy until the end of World War II. It by no means is the definitive explanation of the injustices wrought upon black people during their time serving our country, and it should be noted that after the 1946 Circular Order, segregation and racism did not just vanish. But I still wanted to share this, because it is something I think we need to remember, and something from which we can still learn. The most amazing and admirable thing I took away from this research is that, despite the discrimination they had to know they would face, African Americans still chose to serve and be integral parts of a system that did not always appreciate them or treat them equally. So, to all those who served in conditions unworthy of their sacrifice, thank you. May we never forget what you went through, so we can always strive to be better.

A group of African American Seabees poses with the Prisoners of War they captured in between their many other duties on the island of Guam, 1944.

Navy destroyer USS Johnston, sunk during World War II in 1944, found after 'deepest wreck dive in history'

James Cameron had words of advice for undersea explorer Victor Vescovo, who recently broke the Oscar-winning director's record for reaching the deepest known point in the ocean. (May 14) AP Entertainment

A U.S. Navy destroyer sunk more than 76 years ago has been found in "the deepest wreck dive in history."

The USS Johnston, led by Captain Ernest Evans, sunk in October 1944 after charging "outgunned and outmanned" to protect an American landing force in the Philippines from a massive line of Japanese warships during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, according to Naval History and Heritage Command records.

The World War II battle eventually led to American victory, but only after more than 2,600 casualties on both sides. Nearly 190 crew members of the Johnston's 327 died – including Evans, the first Native American in the Navy to be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.

USS Johnston off Seattle, Washington, 27 October 1943 a year before it sank in October 1944. (Photo: Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

The destroyed ship lay at the bottom of the ocean, at more than 20,000 feet, until it was discovered in the Philippine Sea in 2019.

The NHHC assessed the wreck then as "probably the Johnston based on relative location," but were unclear on whether the ship was the Johnston or the Hoel, which had features identified on the wreckage, according to the news release.

Diving crews had been unable to reach it for an up-close look, partly because of its depth – it's about 60% deeper in water than the RMS Titanic.

"Just completed the deepest wreck dive in history, to find the main wreckage of the destroyer USS Johnston," tweeted Caladan Oceanic founder and pilot Victor Vescovo, a former Naval officer.

Researchers found the wreckage of the USS Johnston World War II era destroyer at a depth of 20,400 feet under the Philippine Sea. (Photo: Courtesy of Caladan Oceanic)

"We located the front 2/3 of the ship, upright and intact, at a depth of 6456 meters [21,180 feet]. Three of us across two dives surveyed the vessel and gave respects to her brave crew."

The expedition found the bow, bridge and mid-section of the Johnston intact, along with two full gun turrets, twin torpedo racks and multiple gun mounts and the hull number "557" still visible, according to Caladan's statement on the dive.

It's been so wonderful to share the story of the USS Johnston with so many people. Her crew and Captain, Ernest Evans - the first Native American in the Navy to be awarded the Medal of Honor, were extraordinarily heroic. Here's video from the dive and the bridge they fought from.

— Victor Vescovo (@VictorVescovo) April 4, 2021

At 20,000 feet, there is low oxygen, so the ship didn't deteriorate like it would in shallower waters, Vescovo explained on Twitter, also tweeting video of the shipwreck.

All sonar data, imagery and field notes collected during the dives will be turned over to the U.S. Navy for dissemination and further research.

“We used data from both the US and the Japanese accounts and as is so often the case the research brings the history back to life. Reading the accounts of the Johnston’s last day are humbling and need to be preserved as upholding the highest traditions of the Navy. This was mortal combat against incredible odds," said Naval historian Parks Stephenson.


By David Alan Johnson

Any American submarine that had made contact with a Japanese task force a year or two earlier would almost certainly not have had the success that Darter and Dace had with Admiral Kurita’s task force. It is very likely that the entire enemy fleet would have come away unscathed. The reason was that until late 1943, the U.S. Navy did not have a reliable torpedo.

The Trouble with the Mk 14

Throughout 1942 and 1943, submarine commanders fired scores of the new Mk 14 torpedo at enemy targets without recording any hits. This was causing a severe crisis of morale in the submarine service, as well as a failure to damage the enemy’s naval and merchant fleets. Lt. Cmdr. Frederick B. “Fearless Freddie” Warder was one captain who had his share of torpedo trouble. He had brought USS Seawolf through six war patrols, all of which were beset by faulty torpedoes. The seventh patrol was no improvement.

Warder came upon an 8,000-ton Japanese transport at anchor in Talomo Bay in the Philippines and fired four Mk 14 torpedoes at the stationary target. Every one either missed or did not explode. Warder then reloaded Seawolf’s tubes with the older Mk 10 torpedoes. The first Mk 10 exploded against the transport’s stern. Another was fired from the stern tubes, which hit and sank the transport. This was evidence enough for him. He filed a forceful report to his superiors, complaining that the Mk14s were defective.

The warheads of several American torpedoes are given final checks prior to loading aboard a U.S. submarine at its New Landon, Connecticut, base in July 1943.

Tests were carried out to determine exactly what was wrong with the Mk 14s, which were supposed to be superior to the old Mk 10s. The tests concluded that the problems were threefold: the Mk 14s tended to run at least 10 feet deeper than the depth that was set, causing them to run underneath their targets the magnetic detonators used with the Mk 14s were detonating prematurely, causing the torpedoes to explode before reaching their target and contact detonators tended to jam when striking the side of the target vessel.

A Japanese Navy-Inspired Solution

A new depth control valve solved the problem of the Mk 14’s running depth. Solving the difficulties of the magnetic detonator proved to be a lot more trying. After several inadequate and thoroughly frustrating attempts, it was decided to abandon the magnetic device in favor of the contact mechanism, but the contact detonator had its own set of problems.

Fortunately for the ordnance men who were running the tests, the solution turned out to be fairly simple. The detonator’s firing pin was found to be too heavy. A 3,000-pound torpedo striking a target at a speed of 46 knots imposed too much inertial friction on the firing pin, which prevented the heavy pin from traveling fast enough and from striking the detonator’s primer cap hard enough to cause detonation. Japanese ships were entering port with Mk 14 torpedoes sticking out of their sides below the water line. Workshops at Pearl Harbor designed and produced a new kind of firing pin.

The Boston Navy Yard during World War II

In 1932, the Department of the Navy designated the Boston (Charlestown) Navy Yard to be the building site for destroyers. Two years later, the USS McDonough (DD-351) slid down the ways, marking the first major ship launching at the yard in over a decade. The launch of McDonough ushered in the most productive period of ship construction in the history of the Navy Yard. By September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the Boston Navy Yard had completed and commissioned six new destroyers. Furthermore, several other destroyers and auxiliary vessels were in various stages of construction across the facility. Though Germany's invasion of Poland sparked war in Europe, the United States remained neutral.

USS O'Brien DD-415 (foreground) and USS Walke DD-416 under construction in Dry Dock 2, Charlestown Navy Yard, October 3, 1938.

Shortly after the beginning of hostilities in Europe, the U.S. Navy organized a neutrality patrol utilizing several of the new vessels built in Boston. This patrol monitored the activities of warships of belligerent nations within 300 miles of the coasts of North and South America as well as in the Caribbean Sea. Beginning in 1940, the Navy and Coast Guard began providing escorts for merchant convoys bringing provisions, fuel, and military supplies to Great Britain in this neutral zone. The work of these escorts in the oftentimes rough waters of the North Atlantic was punishing, and the Boston Navy Yard had to focus on the constant maintenance and repair of these ships.

After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, attacks on convoys bound for Great Britain increased dramatically. With the establishment of bases for the German Kriegsmarine (Navy) and Luftwaffe (Air Force) in France, losses in merchant shipping and British escorts nearly surpassed the production capacity of North American and British shipyards. To keep the British in the fight, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pledged that America would provide all assistance “short of war.”

USS O'Brien DD-415 and USS Walke DD-416 undocking from Dry Dock 2 after completion of their hulls. October 20, 1939.

Under the “Destroyers for Bases Agreement,” arranged between the governments of the United States and Great Britain in 1940, fifty WWI era destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy for desperately needed escorts in return for 99-year leases that allowed for the establishment of American military bases in British Territories from Canada to the Caribbean. In September 1940 the Boston Navy Yard was tasked with overhauling and outfitting the first eighteen destroyers that the US Navy was transferring to the Royal Navy. Working as quickly as possible, the shipyard’s labor force had these ships ready for transfer within a matter of days.

During World War II the Boston Naval Shipyard complex encompassed nearly every corner of Boston's Inner Harbor. Due south of this map were even more private shipyard facilities constructing new warships, such as Bethlehem Steel in Hingham and Fore River in Quincy and Braintree.

By the summer of 1941, the Boston Navy Yard was a hive of activity the yard’s labor force had increased from 3,875 in January 1939 to 18,272 in order to meet the increased demand for new ship construction. By then, it had become standard practice to lay the keels of two to four vessels and proceed with their construction at an even pace, with launchings occurring as soon as the hulls were completed. In September, the keels of the first Fletcher Class destroyers to be built at Boston Navy Yard were laid down. The Fletcher Class was considerably larger and more complex in construction than the destroyers previously built at the yard.

In regards to the physical plant of 1941, storage facilities and several new administrative and shop buildings, including a five-story electrical shop, were under construction in Charlestown while ship repair and conversion facilities were expanded at the South Boston Naval Annex (acquired shortly after World War I). Along the waterfront, piers were added, rebuilt, or extended, and the capacity for shipbuilding was dramatically increased with the construction of Shipways 2 and 3 (the latter now referred to as Dry Dock 5). Additional ship repair facilities were acquired by the Navy in Chelsea and East Boston. A Fuel Depot Annex was constructed alongside Chelsea Creek in East Boston and connected by pipeline to a fuel pier extending out into Boston Harbor.

In August 1941, escort duty was extended to Iceland where the likelihood that American warships would be involved in combat had dramatically increased. On September 4, 1941, the USS Greer became the first American vessel to use its weapons, dropping a pattern of depth charges after a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the destroyer. A little more than a month later, on October 17, the destroyer USS Kearny was badly damaged by a torpedo that killed eleven of her crew. Damage control parties saved the vessel and she was subsequently brought into Boston Navy Yard for extensive repairs. The USS Reuben James was not so fortunate, torpedoed and sunk with heavy loss of life on October 31, 1941. At that point, it was clear to the American public that the nation’s entrance into the war was imminent.

Most American’s expected a war with Germany and her Allies, so it came as a shock when, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the US Fleet and nearby military facilities at Pearl Harbor. On December 10, three days after the United States was thrust into war, the Boston Navy Yard launched the destroyers USS Doran (DD-634) and USS Earle (DD-635). That same day, it began construction of two destroyers while work continued on another six that were nearing completion. A day later, December 11, Germany declared war on the United States. The United States Navy would now be fighting a two ocean war.

Part II: The Two Ocean War

In the opening months of 1942, the situation looked very grim for the United States and her allies as the German and Japanese military claimed vast territories throughout Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Simultaneously, sea lanes of communication in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific, were in danger of being cut off by the Axis powers. The United States Navy was fighting a two ocean war and needed more ships, including new types of vessels specifically designed for anti-submarine warfare and troop landings on distant beaches.

In January 1942, the Boston Navy Yard was selected as the building site for a new class of warship, the Destroyer Escort (DE). Boston was a logical choice, since the yard had specialized in building destroyers (DD) for a decade. Slightly smaller than the Fletcher-Class Destroyers then under construction in Charlestown, these escorts required far less time to construct at roughly half the cost. They were designed to protect merchant ship convoys and to destroy enemy submarines with an array of armaments. Some were built to serve in the Royal Navy as part of the Lend-Lease Agreement, but many would be retained by the United States Navy and see service in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theatres.

Charlestown Navy Yard: Before and after World War II

LCMs - "Landing Craft - Mechanized" - were designed to land tanks on enemy beaches. The massive Building 197 depicted here housed the construction of 150 of these LCMs in a single summer at Charlestown during 1942.

National Archives at Boston - Photographs from the <em>Administrative History of the First Naval District in World War II, 1946</em>

As the destroyer escort building program commenced in April, the Navy also selected Boston as the construction site for two types of landing craft for planned invasions on the Atlantic coast of North Africa, and at various locations in the Mediterranean and Pacific: Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM) and Landing Ship, Tank (LST). LCM’s were shallow drafted boats, fifty feet in length that carried troops from transport vessels and land them directly on shore. LST’s were 328 feet long and could discharge water ballast, allowing them to enter shallow waters and beach. Tanks, vehicles loaded with ordnance and supplies, and the personnel to man them, could then be offloaded by means of bow doors and ramp. By the end of the summer, the Navy Yard had completed 150 LCMs. It completed the first LST in November and finished five more before the year’s end.

While the construction of new ships was extremely important, the overhaul and repair of vessels remained the top priority of Boston Navy Yard. The massive Dry Dock 3 at the South Boston Annex was capable of accommodating the largest ships that the US Navy and its Allies possessed. The adjacent Dry Dock 4 and a floating dry dock handled other large combatants, auxiliaries, and transports. The main yard in Charlestown and the Chelsea and East Boston Naval Annexes overhauled and repaired smaller vessels. Overhauls involved all manner of maintenance and upgrade, required an average of eleven days at the shipyard. By the end of 1942, 804 vessels had been overhauled or repaired.

The South Boston Annex of the Boston Naval Shipyard Complex in August 1943. Dry Dock 3 and the piers of the Annex accommodated the largest of the Navy's warships. Left is the battleship USS Iowa BB 61 in Dry Dock 3. In upper center is the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill CV 17 and the heavy cruiser USS Baltimore CA 68.

Shipbuilding Women of the Navy - "SWONs" - welding a hull plate for the future DE 279 in 1943. DE 279 was an Evarts-class destroyer escort that went to the Royal Navy through the Lend-Lease program. She was commissioned as HMS Kempthorne K.483 and returned to the U.S. Navy at the end of the War.

Ship construction and repair at Boston Navy Yard peaked in 1943, with the workforce reaching an all-time high of 50,128 employees, including a large number of women and minorities. Throughout the year, the Yard led the nation in construction of destroyer escorts, breaking numerous launching records in the process. By end of 1943, more destroyer escorts had been launched from the shipways in Charlestown than any other shipyard, federal or private, in America. In total, forty-six destroyer escorts, eleven destroyers, and three LST’s were launched and nearly 900 vessels were repaired.

By 1944 the United States and its Allies had reclaimed many of the conquests of the Axis powers. The invasion of France and the steady advance across the Central and Southwest Pacific would liberate millions. The Boston Navy Yard began setting fast construction records for destroyers, destroyer escorts, and LST’s. Construction time for destroyers dropped from two years to as little as seven months, while destroyer escort construction dropped to slightly more than three months. LST construction time dropped from twelve to seven weeks, with one constructed in only fifty days.

LST 995 and 1020 in foreground were Charlestown-built landing ships. Here they are shown as part of the invasion of Southern France, August, 1944.

The Navy Yard’s destroyer building program reached completion by the summer of 1944 and building programs for destroyer escorts and LST’s were approaching completion. Therefore, for the remainder of the war, production largely shifted to auxiliary vessels, including several Landing Ship, Dock (LSD) which were the largest vessels ever constructed in Charlestown. American warships and those of its Allies continued to be sent to Boston for repair after they were damaged in operations in the Atlantic, Mediterranean or Caribbean. Meanwhile, the Navy Yard overhauled and upgraded others for deployment to the Pacific.

For every year of the war the United States Navy awarded the Yard an “E” for excellence for the precision and quality of the work completed. Between September 8, 1939 when a limited national emergency was declared and the wars end in 1945, the Boston Navy Yard launched 303 vessels and commissioned another 120 ships that were constructed at private yards. In addition, it overhauled 1108 vessels another seventy-four underwent extensive conversion, and 3260 were repaired. In the postwar, the shipyard largely reverted back to a ship repair and modernization facility, a role it fulfilled until its closure in 1974.

Treasures from World War II US Navy Command Files

The National Declassification Center (NDC) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) recently released 192,500 pages of formerly classified U.S. Navy Command Files from the World War II era. The Treasures from World War II US Navy Command Files consist primarily of records from the Pacific Theater. Most of the records date between 1941 and 1946. Some records, however, date as far back as 1917 and some up to 1967.

This collection of records was created by the Office of Naval Records and Library from various Naval components in an effort to convey one of many military experiences during World War II. These records also include some materials created by and about the United States Marine Corps.

These records are arranged by subject, and a subject matter list is available for each box. All records have been declassified, and are fully available for researchers.

Record types vary. They include memos, reports, books, pamphlets, manuals, bound volumes, charts, letters, lists (for example, lists of staff on ships, air strikes, ships at certain battles, dead and missing sailors by state, and crew list), blueprints, maps, diagrams (of ship movements, battles, and command organization), photographs, photograph albums, and aerial photographs.
See items in our National Archives Catalog, National Archives Identifier 23873594

The topics covered by these records are vast and varied. Subjects include: Naval intelligence, combat operations, the investigation into the Pearl Harbor attack, operational planning, submarine and anti-submarine warfare, ships' combat damage control (to include material dealing with the battle damage to US Naval vessels broken down by year), escort operations, and Naval administration. Amphibious warfare operations covered include the invasion of North Africa, Sicily, and Northern France in the Mediterranean and European Theaters the Solomon Islands, Gilberts Islands, Marshall Islands, Mariana Islands (Saipan, Guam, & Tinian), the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa in the Pacific Theater as well as the battles of Wake, Coral Sea, and Midway in the Pacific Ocean.

Additional subjects include mine warfare, post mortems of enemy submarines, and the defense against Japanese aerial suicide attacks on U.S. Naval vessels. Moreover, there are reports on various actions and campaigns, numerous unit histories, and ships’ war diaries. Histories involve those for various Naval aviation squadrons as well as ship histories for vessels such as the USS Saratoga, the USS Ticonderoga, the USS Yorktown, and the USS Franklin. Some histories document World War II submarine operations, as well as the Naval administration of the war. Furthermore, letters for award commendations and citations, as well as letters of condolences, are included. Also covered is a Joint Army-Navy Intelligence study of the Philippines.

For three of the vessels, the USS Enterprise, the USS Yorktown, and the USS Franklin, documents reveal the daily activities of the ships and the sailors. The deck logs (1942 – 1945) from the USS Enterprise indicate the changing activities of the ship. The history of the USS Yorktown contains information about where she fought, sketches of her commanding officers, as well as ship and air group casualties. In contrast to this, the records of the USS Franklin reveal the sailors lives on the ship through their promotions, demotions, discipline, courts-martial, awards, staff transfers, and deaths.

These three aircraft carriers significantly contributed to the war effort in the Pacific Theater. They participated in major battles in the effort to defeat the Japanese Empire. The USS Enterprise, referred to as the "Big E," was damaged several times, but survived the war. She was scrapped in 1960. The USS Yorktown was badly damaged at the Battle of Midway in 1942, and sank. A successor USS Yorktown was built, fought in the Pacific area and was sometimes called the "Fighting Lady", later became a museum in South Carolina in 1975. The USS Franklin, nicknamed "Big Ben," was badly damaged during several battles, but survived the war. This carrier was sold for scrap in 1966.

Of interest to military historians are the strategical and tactical analysis of such battles as the Coral Sea, Midway, Savo Island, and Leyte Gulf. Significant topics include a history of US Naval bases in the United Kingdom, and the US Navy search for German scientific and technological advances for the benefit of the Navy Department, as well as the history of underwater demolition teams.

Diverse subjects include the organization of the USS Enterprise, PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats (as well as a small amount of information about President John F. Kennedy's PT 109), and CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific Command) Headquarters. Accompanying the findings on the Pearl Harbor Navy Court of Inquiry is the profound statement by President Harry S. Truman on the conclusions of the court.

Some of the most interesting records may be the photograph albums of various Pacific Ocean World War II battles. Those battles include Tarawa, Marshall Islands, Mariana Islands (Saipan, Tinian, & Guam), Peleliu, and Iwo Jima.

For some researchers, the terrain studies may be of interest. These studies analyze the land use on various islands in the southwest Pacific area. It is quite surprising the depth of analysis these reports turn out to reveal.

If you have an interest in World War II or the United States Navy, then the Treasures from the World War II US Navy Command Files await exploration. These records are worth your time and your effort to investigate, to study, and to learn.

This page was last reviewed on June 26, 2017.
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U.S. Navy Destroyer Sunk in World War II Is Found 20,000 Feet Under the Sea

It was a mismatch &mdash a small task unit of United States Navy ships confronted by a mighty squadron of Japanese warships.

The Americans went on the attack with every gun and torpedo that they had, repelling the enemy vessels that had threatened to cut off the supply lines for an amphibious landing led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the strategic island of Leyte in the Philippines.

But the heroic stand in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of World War II, came at a heavy cost: Two escort carriers, two destroyers and a destroyer escort from the task force unit, known as Taffy 3, sank.

Now, 75 years after that turning point in the Pacific theater, a private underwater expedition discovered the wreckage of one of those destroyers, which researchers believe to be the U.S.S. Johnston DD-557.

The Fletcher-class destroyer lost 186 members of its crew of 327 sailors, including its commander, Ernest E. Evans, who was the first Native American in the Navy to receive the Medal of Honor. It sank on Oct. 25, 1944.

&ldquoThey were hopelessly outclassed, but they fought anyway,&rdquo said Sam Cox, a retired Navy rear admiral and director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, the preservation arm of the Navy.


Personnel below the rate of petty officer were termed "non-rated." In most enlisted branches, the non-rated personnel filled the lowest three pay grades, but the path of Engine Room Force and music personnel moved them into higher pay grades before becoming petty officers. In a revision to the enlisted structure effective January 1, 1944, the non-rated pay grades were standardized across all branches.

Most non-rated personnel were distinguished by a branch mark around the shoulder seam of the jumper. For seamen the mark was white on blue jumpers, blue on white jumpers and worn on the right side. For firemen of the Enginer Room Force, the mark was worn on the left and was red on blue and white jumpers. A few ratings did not have a branch mark, and instead wore distinguishing marks on the sleeve.

The grade of non-rated personnel was indicated by white cuff stripes on the dress blue jumper. These were not worn on the undress blue or white jumpers. During the war dress blue jumpers began to be issued to recruits without the single stripe for apprentice seaman and steward's mate third class.

Seamen Firemen

Before January, 1944

After January 1, 1944

Enlisted women wore coat-style uniforms rather than jumpers, and thus could not display cuff stripes as men did. In Spetember 1944 new insignia were authorized for non-rated WAVEs, which consisted of diagonal stripes on the upper left sleeve. Distinguishing marks, as in the case of hospital apprentices, were worn directly above the stripes. The backgrounds were the same as for women's rating badges. This would be the basis of the "group rate" insignia for all personnel in 1948.

Hospital Apprentice 1st Class Seaman 1st Class Hospital Apprentice 2nd Class Seaman 2nd Class

The pages on US Navy World War II enlisted ratings and insignia are based primarily on the following:

  • US Navy Department, Bureau of Naval Personnel Manual, 1942, revised through 1946, Washington DC, Government Printing Office, 1942-1946.
  • US Navy Department, US Navy Uniform Regulations, 1941, revised through 1946, Washington DC, Government Printing Office, 1941-1946
  • John Stacey, United States Navy Rating Badges and Marks 1833 to 2008, Matthews NC, ASMIC Pubs, 2008.
  • US Navy Department, Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin and All Hands monthly, 1941-1946, online archive.
  • US Department of the Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command, "Ratings (Jobs) of Enlisted Personnel in the U. S. Navy".
  • US Department of the Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command, "Uniform Regulations, Women's Reserve, United States Naval Reserve, 1943".

All text and images © Justin T. Broderick, 2013 unless otherwise indicated.

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