The Magazine

USS Enterprise

Hail and Farewell

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By BARRETT TILLMAN
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Naval commentators have long insisted that in time of crisis, presidents ask, “Where are the carriers?” Aircraft carriers have been America’s geostrategic trump card for seven decades. But in the original crisis, Washington mavens wanted to know, “Where are their carriers?”

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy not only launched the attack that precipitated American entry into World War II, it also propelled the flattop to world-historical importance. Six Japanese aircraft carriers and their escorts secretly crossed the Pacific and, operating as an integrated unit, struck Hawaii. At the time, neither the American nor the British Navy, each with global commitments, could have concentrated so many flattops on a single mission. Naval historian John B. Lundstrom has aptly described Japan’s Pearl Harbor striking force as “a 1941 atomic bomb.”

With its battleships destroyed or benched, and with marginal submarine torpedoes, Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet had one option for taking the war to Japan. Nimitz began with three carriers, reinforced over the next several months with others from the Atlantic. His champion flattop was the USS Enterprise (CV-6), commissioned in 1938, the seventh American naval vessel to bear the name and immediate predecessor of the one now retiring. She became the single most essential platform of the Pacific War.

This Big E escorted her sister, Hornet (CV-8), in launching the Doolittle Raid against Japan in April 1942, then played an essential role in the strategic victory at Midway in June. That battle cost her older sister Yorktown (CV-5), but Japan never recovered from the loss of four of its own carriers. Consequently, two months later America launched its first offensive of World War II at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. There Enterprise fought two more carrier duels, keeping Japanese forces in the area to a manageable level. At the height of the campaign in mid-November, the Big E was America’s only remaining fleet carrier in the Pacific. Saratoga (CV-3) was sidelined with battle damage, while the other four Pacific Fleet carriers had been sunk between May and October. 

In the Atlantic, where Winston Churchill confided that the German submarine threat to Britain’s lifelines was his greatest concern of World War II, carriers performed an essential function in suppressing the U-boats. The Royal Navy, which had invented the aircraft carrier in the Great War, now converted merchant ships into small flattops to provide air cover for convoys at sea beyond range of land-based planes. The United States followed, and by the spring of 1943 Allied escort carriers (CVEs) had closed the dreadful Mid-Atlantic Gap, where wolf packs had voraciously fed on fat merchantmen. Thirteen months before D-Day, the U-boat master, Admiral Karl Dönitz, admitted the obvious: Carrier aircraft working with destroyers had made life short or tenuous for German submarines. 

At war’s end the U.S. Navy possessed 99 carriers of all types, mostly CVEs. Enterprise had just completed extensive repairs of kamikaze damage sustained three months before, but soon was retired as the Navy acquired bigger, newer ships. She had earned a record 20 battle stars, becoming the most decorated man-o-war in American history. But she was sold for scrap by an uncaring naval bureaucracy, and by 1960 she was gone. Much of her steel went to Japan.

Little appreciated today is the critical contribution of tailhook aviation to saving Korea in the summer of 1950. When the Communist steamroller left Pyongyang Station for Seoul and points south in late June, USS Valley Forge (CV-45) and a British carrier responded. In contrast, nearly every allied airfield on the peninsula was overrun or rendered untenable, forcing Air Force squadrons back to Japan in August. They had to overfly the Yellow Sea en route to operating areas around the shrinking Pusan Pocket. 

Three U.S. flattops provided on-call tactical airpower that was essential in offsetting the North Koreans’ large manpower advantage. Then in September, carrier aviators supported the Inchon landings, which reversed the course of the war. In all, 11 fleet carriers and 6 light or escort carriers logged 38 deployments during the “police action.” Carriers were so heavily engaged in Korea that flattop aircrew and sailors accounted for one-third of U.S. Navy deaths. 

All the while, progress was leaping ahead by orders of magnitude. In 1961 the current “Enterprise VIII” hoisted her commissioning pennant to become the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier. Her captain was Vincent de Poix, who had flown from CV-6 in 1942. He had five of his old ship’s portholes installed in his new command.

Barely 10 years after the Korean armistice in 1953, carrier aviation launched into a decade long effort in Southeast Asia. Eventually 17 attack carriers made more than 70 deployments from 1964 through 1972, and 4 antisubmarine carriers participated as well. At the end of those nine years, ships and men were worn out. Oriskany (CV-34) averaged nearly one combat cruise a year, and Hancock (CV-19), Ranger (CV-61), and Kitty Hawk (CV-63) were close behind. From the initial reconnaissance missions over Laos to the first strikes against North Vietnam to the mining of Haiphong Harbor, carriers were instrumental in executing American strategy, however erratic and flawed it may have been. More than 450 carrier fliers and crew perished among 2,562 Navy deaths: nearly one in five.

Foremost among the advantages of carriers is “territorial independence.” As admirals are fond of noting, a carrier’s flight deck represents four and a half acres of sovereign American soil. Perhaps the best example was Operation El Dorado Canyon, the retaliatory strike against Libya for a terrorist bombing in Berlin in 1986. Air Force briefers displayed a map showing the route flown by F-111 fighter-bombers from Britain, around the periphery of Western Europe, to avoid overflying wavering allies. Meanwhile, the air wings of Coral Sea (CV-43), Saratoga (CV-60), and America (CV-66), operating in the Mediterranean, contributed more than half the total sorties, with salubrious results on Muammar Qaddafi’s behavior.

Despite the expense and time required for refueling nuclear carriers, the Navy is usually able to meet deployment commitments. “Surge” operations have brought the concentration of unusually large numbers of flattops. The best example was Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-91, when six carriers were concentrated against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, providing timely airpower. Air Force partisans griped that early CNN reports from USS Independence (CV-62) in Operation Desert Shield represented “Carrier News Network.” The flattops directly engaged were Midway (CV-41), Ranger (CV-61), America (CV-67), Eisenhower (CVN-69), and Theodore Roosevelt (CV-71) in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The carriers represented a force multiplier when there was no more ramp space to be had on the Arabian Peninsula. 

In recent decades the Navy has maintained 11 big-deck carriers, excluding ships operating Harrier jump jets and helicopters. Since one nuclear carrier is always refueling, 10 are available for deployments. Enterprise’s replacement, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), is expected to commission in 2015, leaving a shortfall during the interim.

Partisans on both sides of the aisle argue either that America no longer needs 10 deployable flight decks—or that it needs more. The latter is an extremely hard sell, and not only because of cost. There has not been a war at sea in seven decades, and none appears to be on the horizon. Carriers have supported the war against terrorism since 2001, and they also contribute to disaster relief—what sailors call “pizza delivery.” However, the Navy is being redirected more toward Asia and the Western Pacific, where at present the U.S. Navy outweighs the Russian and Chinese fleets combined. When it comes to carriers in particular, the Russians have just one, the conventionally fueled Admiral Kuznetsov; commissioned in 1991, she has spent her career in port or serving in the Northern (Atlantic) Fleet and Black Sea Fleet. China’s lone carrier, Liaoning, is a Russian-built Kuznetsov-class ship currently used for training. 

Whatever happens in the Western Pacific or elsewhere, Enterprise will not be there. She returned from her extended final cruise on November 4, 90 days later than expected. Growing tensions with Iran required her presence until another carrier arrived. Said Boomer Hamilton, “We are pleased to be returning to our families after a very successful deployment, but to know that it is the last time Enterprise will be underway through her own power makes our return very sentimental.”

The ship’s inactivation took place December 1 at Norfolk. Because her eight reactors need to be removed for disposal, the actual decommissioning and dismantling process will require years and will happen without an audience.

Nevertheless, the Big E’s reputation is assured. Heir to the fightingest reputation in the U.S. Navy, owner of records that will forever belong to her alone, she exits her service as a unique player on the global stage of the world’s great oceans and the air above them.

Barrett Tillman is the author of 45 books, including, most recently, Enterprise: America’s Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II.

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