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Essex Class Aircraft Carriers: Revolutionizing Modern Warfare

Naval warfare changed dramatically during the ferocious fighting days of World War II. Before the outbreak of war, the general military dogma still favoured the colossal battleship and you can certainly see why. If it was a case of simply ship vs ship out on the high seas, the bigger and badder your ship was, the better chance you stood. The more guns you had, the more chance you had of putting a hole in your enemy’s ship before they did the same to you. 

But as I said, things changed completely between 1939 and 1945, particularly with the events that took place in the Pacific theatre of war. The aircraft carrier, initially seen as occupying a supporting role, was now thrust centre stage as Japan and the United States traded blows across a stretch of water measuring 8,600 km (5,343 miles) between the two countries.

The Essex Class Aircraft Carriers that began appearing during World War II would go on to be the 20th century’s most numerous class of capital ships with 24 built between 1941 and 1950. Not only did they play a fundamental role in the defeat of Japan, they were heavily involved in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars also. But perhaps most importantly their appearance also coincided with a major shift in naval doctrine, which led to the rise of the aircraft carrier and the carrier strike force. 

Pre War  

The end of the First World War had brought a firm conviction that carnage on such a scale must never be allowed to happen again. Part of this was the Washington Naval Treaty signed in 1922 by the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Italy, and Japan which effectively placed size limitations on future battleships, battlecruisers and aircraft carriers. 

Noble intentions no doubt, but by the mid-1930s both Japan and Italy had withdrawn and pretty soon every former signatory was making a mockery of the treaty as large-scale naval construction once again kicked into gear – talk about short memories. 

Early Aircraft Carriers

As I mentioned earlier, aircraft carriers certainly didn’t hold the same prestige before World War II as they did by the end. The first ship designed to accommodate seaplanes was the HMS Ark Royal launched in 1914, though to call it a bonafide aircraft carrier would certainly be a stretch. 

The first purpose-built carriers were the British HMS Hermes and the Japanese Hōshō. The Hermes was started first in 1918, while the Hōshō was the first to be commissioned in 1922 – so I’ll leave it up to you as to which was the real first. As the world crept towards the second major conflict of the 20th Century, aircraft carriers typically accommodated three types of aircraft; torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters, usually used for fleet defence and bomber escort duties. These were normally all fairly small, single-engined aircraft with folding wings – to allow for easier storage. 

It’s worth highlighting again that at this point aircraft carriers were seen as supporting actors, with the battleship still reigning supreme in the eyes of naval commanders around the world. 

World War II  

While the most famous surprise aerial attack to come from aircraft carriers during World War II came on the 7th December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, it had been roughly modeled on an attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto by the British on 11th and 12th December 1940. 

Twenty-One Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers flew from HMS Illustrious and disabled three of the six Italian battleships while in port, with a loss of just two aircraft. This was the first time aircraft carriers, and their aircraft, of course, proved themselves as more than a match for the titanic battleships that were still very much in vogue.   

Just under a year later, planes with the Japanese rising sun beneath their wings began streaking across Hawaii. The attack on Pearl Harbour lasted just one hour and fifteen minutes, but sank four battleships and badly damaged four more, while another 11 ships were either sunk or damaged – but quite miraculously, not a single one of the three Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers were in Pearl Harbour at the time. 

The attack on the Hawaiian islands had been brutally effective, but once the dust settled, most agreed that things could have been so much worse. The Japanese had left the Americans reeling, but it wouldn’t be long until Uncle Sam climbed to his feet and hit back. 

Development of the Essex Class Carriers

Some argue that the events of 7th December 1941 forced the U.S to re-think its naval strategy, but in truth, the potential behind aircraft carriers had been growing for some time. The British attack on Taranto and the Japanese on Pearl Harbour merely confirmed lingering suspicions. Aircraft launched from a carrier could hit targets at over 200 miles, while battleships were constrained to 20 miles or less. While one of these monstrous vessels could still wreak havoc on other ships and also land targets, they could be horribly exposed when swarms of aircraft descended on them.   

The first Essex Class carrier, the USS Essex or CV-9 as it was first known, was laid down over six months before Pearl Harbour on 24th April 1941. She was to be 18.2 metres (60 ft) longer, nearly 3 metres (10 ft) wider, and more than a third heavier than the Yorktown-class aircraft carriers that came before it. She was part of a triple order, with CV-10 (later USS Yorktown) and CV-11 (eventually USS Intrepid) both laid down on 1st December 1941. 

Another 8 were ordered on 9th September 1941 and an additional two, two days after the attack on Pearl Harbour. All of a sudden, the U.S had thirteen Essex Class carriers in some stage of production and if that wasn’t enough after the war was formally declared, Congress set aside funds to build another 19 – although the fleet would top out at 24, with several cancelled after the end of the war.   

The attack on Pearl Harbour saw the production of the USS Essex significantly sped up and the carrier was commissioned on 31st December 1942. From then until the end of the Second World War, a new Essex Class Carrier seemed to roll off the production line every few months as the juggernaut that was the U.S manufacturing sector hit top gear.  

The Carriers   

The Essex Class carriers were the largest carriers the U.S had ever built when they entered service, measuring 265 metres (869 ft) in length, with a beam of 45 meters (147.5 ft) and a draft of 8.4 meters (27.5 ft). They displaced around 37,000 tons, although with later modifications that went up to just over 47,000 tons. 

They came with four Westinghouse geared steam turbines and eight Babcock & Wilcox boilers giving them a top speed of 32.5 knots (60 km/h – 37.2 mph) and a whopping range of 37,000 km (23,000 miles) – though they would need to travel at roughly half their top speed to achieve this. The crew included 268 officers and 2,363 enlisted men, with each carrier accommodating between 90 and 100 aircraft, normally a mixture of fighters, torpedo bombers and dive bombers. Many of these could be stationed on deck, with the remaining kept below in hangers accessible via a side elevator on the port side of the ship. This elevator, measuring 18 by 10 metres (60 by 34 ft) travelled vertically up to the flight deck and its position on the side of the ship was chosen so that a large hole wouldn’t be left on the deck if the elevator were to malfunction.  

As we’ll get to shortly, aircraft carriers became the holy grail for attack aircraft as World War II progressed. With this in mind, the Essex Carriers came with a formidable defensive system. This included twelve 127mm (5-inch) guns, four twin turrets on the starboard side near the island (command tower), four on the port side forward and four port side aft. Then we have the seventeen quadruple Bofors 40 mm (1.5 inches) anti-aircraft guns and on average 65 Oerlikon 20mm (0.7 inches) AA guns. Total up all of those, and there were at least 94 separate guns to protect these invaluable ships. 

Radar was also a hugely important factor and the Essex Class Carriers came with the latest technology and all had SK air-search and SC and SG surface-search radars onboard. They also had two Mark 37 fire control directors, early gun-fire control systems, and the Plan Position Indicator, a radar display which allowed the carrier to keep track of ships within its strike force at night or in bad weather – a piece of technology that allowed the ships to remain at top speed without fear of collision. 

World War II Operations 

The Essex Class Carriers were heavily involved in naval operations around the Pacific as the United States gradually inched its way across the ocean towards Japan. Their roles were varied and included, attacking the Japanese fleet, supporting landings, fleet protection, bombing the Japanese home islands, and transporting aircraft and troops.  

Essex Carriers took part in the invasion of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, which began on 20th November 1943, and the amphibious assault on the Marshall Islands, again in the same month. USS Intrepid was present when its Task Force began pounding the Chuuk Islands on 17th February 1944, under what was aptly named, Operation Hailstorm.

U.S forces pretty much obliterated the Japanese presence on the islands, but the USS Intrepid suffered a torpedo hit, jamming the ship’s rudder to port and flooding several compartments. The crew managed to rig a temporary rudder, out of scrap canvas and hatch covers, and the carrier limped back to Pearl Harbour. After repairs, she was back in action supporting the invasion of the Philippines and during the Battle off Cape Engaño, aircraft from USS Intrepid, and other carriers sank four Japanese carriers as the collapse of their Imperial Navy gathered speed. 

With the Americans nearing Japan, the Japanese fell back on their most desperate tactic. On 25th November 1944, a kamikaze attack smashed into the USS Essex, killing 15, and wounding 44, while the USS Intrepid was hit by three separate kamikaze attacks, resulting in 66 deaths onboard. 

But if there was an event that typified the rise of the aircraft carrier, it came on 7th April 1945. Now, if you don’t know about the Japanese Yamato-class battleships, then you’d better watch our video on it after this one. The two battleships that comprised the class, the Yamato and the Musashi, remain the largest battleships ever put to sea. By the first week of April in 1945, the Musashi had already been sunk and Yamato was on its way to take part in a suicidal last stand to defend Japan. 

Operation Ten-Go was the last major Japanese naval operation and called for the remnants of the shattered Japanese Navy to essentially beach themselves on Okinawa and fight to the death. Unfortunately for them, U.S Naval superiority was such that they never even made it. Once U.S submarines reported the direction of the Yamato and the nine other ships she was travelling with, the full might of the U.S Navy came crashing down on them.

To even call it a battle, would be a little unfair. With no air support, the Japanese ships were attacked mercilessly by aircraft from eight different carriers, five of which were Essex Class Carriers. They swarmed around the slow Yamato and just over two hours after the attack had begun, the grand battleship that had once been the pride of the Japanese Navy began to capsize. If you needed a more telling example of just how destructive and vital aircraft carriers, and in particular the Essex Carriers had become, it was the events of 7th April 1945. As the Yamato slipped below the waves, it took with it the final remnants of the battleship’s shattered indestructible image – there was now, a new king of the seas.   

Post World War II 

Quite astonishing, though the U.S lost 12 aircraft carriers during World War II, not a single Essex Class Carrier was sunk. They went on to take part in operations during the Korean War and later the Vietnam War, though by that stage the advancement in aircraft technology made them unsuitable for most modern planes and they were primarily used as helicopter carriers or anti-submarine platforms. That being said, it was aircraft launched from the USS Ticonderoga that attacked North Vietnamese aircraft after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, effectively sparking the Vietnam War. 

During the Cold War, several Essex Class Carriers were used in operations when the U.S needed to flex its muscles, most notably the blockade of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and also to support the Bay of Pigs invasion of the island the previous year. 

They also came to be involved in the U.S Space Program as recovery ships between 1960 and 1973 and one Essex Class carrier or another was always on hand to retrieve astronauts once their reentry module had landed in the ocean. USS Hornet was tasked with bringing Neil Armstong and co back home after their historic trip to the moon in 1969, and the steps taken by the three astronauts, the first back on earth, were painted on the deck of the carrier in commemoration. 

End of the Road 

As excellent as the carriers had performed during World War II, and the subsequent years, they were soon supplanted by the new breed of supercarriers and gradually they were also decommissioned, mostly during the 1960s and 1970s. The last operating Essex Class Carrier was the USS Lexington, which was decommissioned in 1991 and became a museum shortly after. Three other Essex carriers today serve as museums, the USS Intrepid, the USS Yorktown and the USS Hornet, while the rest were scrapped, except for the USS Oriskany which was scuttled off the coast of Florida and acts as a scuba dive site. 

The Essex Class Carriers weren’t the biggest carriers during the war, but thanks in no small part to their high numbers, they played a huge role in the shift that saw the aircraft carrier surge to the front of the pecking order when it came to naval war vessels. Quite simply, what came before them and what came after them was entirely different. You could probably argue that that change was coming anyway, but if that’s the case, then these 24 ships were present at exactly the right period of time in history and must be seen as true trailblazers. 

USS Essex (CV-9) – Wikipedia

This Is Why No Essex-Class Aircraft Carriers Were Lost In World War II (yahoo.com)

Home Page (steelnavy.com)

Essex class aircraft carrier CVA CVS US Navy (seaforces.org)

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