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USS 'Bunker Hill' burning after being hit by a kamikaze aircraft - 11 May  1945
Siege at Sea - The Fast Carriers 1944-45

Continuous War
Of the many changes which have taken place in land warfare in the past two centuries one of the most important has been the way in which during almost all recent wars combat has become very nearly continuous.   In the Napoleonic era an army might experience only one or two days of battle in a campaign lasting many months,  and a battle would seldom last more than a part of one day.   In the First World War,  by contrast, a soldier at the front would find himself in action or under bombardment for weeks at a time - day and night - and what were described as 'battles' (e.g. Verdun, Passchendaele, the Somme)  would last for several months.  This trend has led some writers to argue that modern conflicts on land do not take the form of battle but rather of 'siege'.

In any event one effect of this trend,  and one which became evident early on in the First World War,   was the very large number of psychological casualties caused by the protracted and continuous nature of modern land warfare.   From this arose the concepts of 'shell shock' or,  in a later terminology, 'combat fatigue'.

However,  as of mid-1944 warfare at sea had still not taken on this character.In the First World War - almost as much as in the Napoleonic Wars - a fleet or squadron action would be a matter of some hours rather than of days or weeks.  Battle would be rare - and the life of sailors in the British Navy would consist largely of monotonous routine "sweeps" and patrols.  ( One qualification which has to be made to this is that the threat from the mine and the submarine meant that the sailor was never be able to feel completely secure.   At any time a ship might be mined or torpedoed without any warning.   This meant that crews were under continuous stress in a way which would not have applied in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries,  although this would  have been offset by the fact that in such times there was a much greater threat from the sea itself  -  from foundering in bad weather, from being driven aground by unfavourable winds and from other natural dangers).

The development of submarine warfare against merchant shipping - and in particular of 'wolf pack' tactics - meant that convoy actions in the Second World War might last for several days,  and the duration of such actions greatly intensified the ordeal for the crews involved.   Nonetheless, action would still be a matter of several days rather than of weeks or months.  When the survivors of these convoys reached their destination port the merchant and naval crews would have a brief respite from battle.  The duration of the U-boats' engagement in battle was also restricted,  primarily by their very limited supply of torpedoes.

However,  developments in the Pacific were soon to create new conditions at sea,  conditions comparable to those of 'siege' warfare on land.

The Central Pacific Offensive and Leyte

J.F.C. Fuller ["The Decisive Battles of the Western World" Vol. III ] writes thus of the Central Pacific offensive directed by Admiral Nimitz  -

"Nimitz's problem differred from MacArthur's.  The latter was land-based,  but Nimitz had to move his base along with him,  which meant that his fleet had to be both his base of operations and his striking force.  It was therefore a four-fold organization - a floating base,  a fleet,  an air force,  and an army,  combined in one.  That it was designed,  built and assembledwithin 18 months of the Battle of Midway Island is without question the greatest organizational feat of naval history."

The developments which led to operations becoming both more continous and more protracted were  the 'fleet train' -  which by provisioning,  refuelling and rearming ships at sea meant not only that forces could remain at sea for long periods but that they could remain at sea and continue operations almost indefinitely, despite long periods of action  - and the dramatic intensification of air-sea warfare.

For,  in the days of sail,  ships could remain at sea for long periods - sometimes as long as a year - and of course did not need to refuel.  However, if involved in a serious encounter with the enemy they were likely to need to return to a naval base to replenish their ammunition.   And in any case encounters between opposing ships were only occasional  -  and remained so into the Twentieth Century.

What led to combat taking place day after day was the coming to maturity of air-sea warfare.  This meant that a fleet operating so to speak 'at the front' ( i.e. within a few hundred miles of enemy air bases) could be attacked almost hourly for day after day and for week after week.   Moreover, the fleet itself could be called upon to conduct offensive air operations almost continuously,  again for weeks at a time.  And the immense strength of the American Fast Carrier Force meant that it could remain in an operational area  for unprecedentedly long periods - and all the time slugging it out with land-based airpower.

The capacity of this force to move into an enemy area,  establishing and then maintaining air superiority in that area, was convincingly  demonstrated in the period between November 1943 and  June 1944  -  beginning with the US landings in the Gilbert Islands and ending with the US occupation of the Marianas.  However, airborne and ground resistance in these outlying  island groups was in each case quickly eliminated,  and as yet operations had thus not become a matter of more than a few weeks.

It was with the Allied landings in the Philippines that the new siege character of naval-air warfare became apparent.  Land operations became more protracted  -  primarily because the land areas involved were larger  -  and the fleet supporting these land operations was required to operate within easy range of dozens of enemy air bases,  which meant that it was impossible for the carrier force to neutralise all of these bases at any one time.   Moreover, these bases were easily reinforced by aircraft staged in from Formosa and Japan.

In the case of the landings on Leyte the problem was compounded by the fact that adequate US airfields on the island could not be completed according to schedule,  which meant that the fast carriers were required to remain on station for an additional month  -  providing air cover which was originally meant to have been provided by land-based aircraft.   Finally,  the prolonged air-sea battle was made more fierce, and more desperate, by the enemy's adoption of kamikaze tactics from 24 October 1944 onwards.

The fast carriers had in any case been engaged in strikes against the Philippines since early September,  and  in the 'Formosa Air Battle'  in early October,  as a preliminary to landings on Leyte.   By the end of November,  when the carrier force withdrew from the Philippine Sea,  it had,  as Morison writes "been at sea almost continously for 84 days. "  As he comments "The resulting strain on all hands was severe."


This pattern was to be repeated with yet greater intensity in the Okinawa operation.  The fast carriers were in action almost daily from mid-March to mid-June 1945,  and for much of this time - at the height of the kamikaze offensive - were forced to remain continuously on station providing air cover for the invasion shipping.  Probably  the strain this imposed  became even more severe than that in the Leyte operation.

The task force took some of its heaviest casualties between March and May 1945.   On 18 March the carriers Yorktown, Enterprise and Intrepid were hit.   The next day Franklin was hit by bombs which set off a succession of huge explosions,  and nearly sank her.

Although Franklin survived,  her casualties were extraordinarily heavy - 724 killed or missing and 265 wounded  -  probably greater than aboard any ship in history which did not sink.   The carrier Wasp, in the same task group was hit a minute or two after Franklin,  with 101 killed and 269 wounded,   but was able to operate for several days before retiring for repairs.

On 7 April the carrier Hancock was hit by another kamikaze, and suffered 72 killed and 82 wounded.

On 11 April,  in a kikusui attack (a massed kamikaze attack- 'kikusui' literally translated means 'floating chrysanthemum') by 185 aircraft, Enterprise was hit again,  as was the fast battleship Missouri and two radar picket destroyers of the carrier force, and the carrier Essex was damaged by a near-miss.  On 14 April the radar picket-line was attacked by kamikazes again and two destroyers damaged.  On 16 April,  in another kikusui attack, Intrepid was hit again  -  by an aircraft which started serious fires aboard and forced her withdrawal for repairs.

On 11 May,  during the sixth kikusui attack of the campaign,  the Task Force flagship Bunker Hill was hit by two kamikazes which started intense fires (see photograph at head of page),  damaged her very seriously and caused  396 dead and missing, and 264 wounded.  Bunker Hill,  like Franklin,  was out of action for the rest of the war.

Three days later a group of 26 kamikazes attacked Task Force 58, and the Enterprise was hit yet again and badly damaged.  (This was the third time that Enterprise had been hit by a kamikaze and the fifth action in which she had received serious damage).

Although Task Force 58 was subjected to this series of destructive attacks it was the invasion shipping which bore the brunt of air assault during the campaign,  and - most of all - the small ships of the radar picket-line guarding the invasion fleet.

By the end of the campaign 32 US vessels had been sunk and another 368  damaged.  16 destroyers were lost, and no fewer than fifty seriously damaged.  The fleet lost 763 aircraft.

4,900 American sailors had been killed in the campaign,  and more than 4,800 wounded.

The Strain of Command

The Allied fleets involved in the Pacific operations of 1944-5 were the largest and most complex which the world has seen,  with the exception only of the fleet which launched the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 - and the fleet which carried out the invasion of Okinawa was even larger than the Normandy fleet.  Moreover the expansion of these forces had been unprecedentedly rapid.  (It is worth remembering here Fuller's observation that their creation constituted the greatest organizational feat in naval history).

Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner commanded the invasion fleets for the Guadalcanal operation in August 1942,  the Gilberts,  Marshalls and Marianas in 1943-44 and the Iwo Jima and Okinawa landings in 1945.  At Guadalcanal he had commanded 51 ships,  for the invasion of the tiny island of Iwo Jima 495,  and for Okinawa 1,213 ships (of 45 different types).  This last figure is for Task Force 51 - the Joint Expeditionary Force - and does not include the 88 ships of the Fast Carrier Force (commanded by Vice Admiral Mitscher),  22 ships of the British carrier task force,  and some 200 vessels of the logistic and service forces and fleet train.  This immense armada,  more than 1,500 ships,  was organised as Fifth Fleet under the overall command of Admiral R.A. Spruance.

This dramatic increase in the numbers of ships in itself of course added greatly to the complexity of operations,  as did the proliferation of different types of vessel.  It combined with the inherent complexity of amphibious warfare - and the yet further complexity introduced by air power - to impose unprecedented demands on the mental capabilities and the endurance of commanders and off their staffs.  Admiral Turner,  despite what was renowned in the navy as his 'computer-like brain',  was to comment after the Marshalls operation "I was dead tired.  I stayed dead tired for the rest of the war."

Within the Fast Carrier Force the mental and emotional demands on commanders and staff officers were also enormous.  The numbers of ships involved were much smaller than in the amphibious force,  but with as many as 17 fast carriers at one time, operating more than 1,200 aircraft, the force imposed comparable complexities.  Arleigh Burke,  Mitscher's Chief of Staff,  who went on to become Chief of Naval Operations,  later remarked of his service with the carriers "I never worked so hard in my life, either before or since, and I don't believe any other person in that staff did either."

Admiral Marc Mitscher aboard flagship USS 'Randolph'  -  off Okinawa, May 1945
The complexity and the protracted nature of operations were combined with intense danger.  When the Task Force 58 flagship Bunker Hill was hit  on 11 May fourteen of Mitscher's staff were killed.   He was forced to find a new flagship,  transferring to the Enterprise, only to have to transfer again (this time to the carrier Randolph) three days later,  when Enterprise received her third hit from a kamikaze.

On 31 March Admiral Spruance's flagship, the cruiser Indianapolis,  was hit by a kamikaze and badly damaged,  forcing him to transfer to the battleship New Mexico.  On 12 May New Mexico was also hit in a kamikaze attack and suffered 54 killed and 119 wounded.  Members of Spruance's staff were at first unable to find the admiral,  but after a while discovered him manning a fire hose.

It may well be an indication of the extraordinary strain imposed on its commanders that the three most senior admirals of the Fast Carrier Force - Vice Admirals Mitscher,  McCain and Lee - all died of natural causes within a very short time.   Willis Lee died in August 1945.   McCain died only four days after the Japanese surrender in September 1945,  and Marc Mitscher,  who had already suffered more than one heart attack during the war,  was to die in February 1947.   (Of the five US vice-admirals in command at Leyte Gulf,  only one - Daniel E.  Barbey - lived beyond early 1947.  Vice Admiral Theodore Wilkinson,  one of the Seventh Fleet's two amphibious task force commanders at Leyte and one of the three senior amphibious force commanders in the Pacific, died in February 1946).  This may well indicate how great was the strain imposed on all the personnel of US naval forces in these epic campaigns during 1944 and 1945.

The Fast Carrier Force

The Battle of the Philippine Sea

 The Battle for Leyte Gulf