Aircraft carriers were generally the largest ships in any nation's fleet and replaced battleships as the primary support vessels of the U.S., British, and Japanese navies during the war because their bomber aircraft were more flexible and could reach more-distant targets than the big guns of any battleship.
Most U.S. aircraft carriers saw action in the Pacific. When war first broke out, the navy had seven aircraft carriers in operation. They were the primary target of the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor, but all were out to sea when the Japanese struck. Aircraft carriers played decisive roles in several important battles in the Pacific, including the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. Though massive and heavily protected, aircraft carriers were not invincible, and several U.S. carriers were destroyed in combat. The Lexington, for example, was sunk at Coral Sea, the Yorktown at Midway, and both the Wasp and the Hornet during the campaign to take Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands. At one point in 1942, the Enterprise was the only operational carrier in the Pacific Fleet, and it was limping as a result of enemy attack.
In the motion picture Jaws, fisherman Quint, played by Robert Shaw, admits that his hatred of sharks stems from watching many of his shipmates get eaten alive after the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis on July 30, 1945. That scene, rewritten by Shaw, was later called one of the movie's best by its director, Steven Spielberg.
New carriers began joining the fray in 1943. By the middle of 1945, thirteen 27,100-ton Essex-class and nine 13,000-ton Independence-class light carriers were in service. These ships, capable of carrying large numbers of aircraft, conducted much of the Allied offensive against the Japanese, whose own fleet of carriers had been heavily damaged in fighting.
From the Battle of Midway until the end of the war, only one U.S. light carrier was sunk by enemy fire: the Princeton, which was hit by Japanese bombs during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944.
Only two American aircraft carriers saw action in the Atlantic. The Wasp was briefly part of the British Home Fleet and made two voyages into the Mediterranean Sea in April 1942 to unleash fighter planes during the campaign to take Malta. And the Ranger — kept out of the Pacific because of its slow speed and lack of torpedo planes — also aided the British in the Atlantic, particularly during the invasion of North Africa in 1942.
Figure 12-1 USS Iowa firing its 16-inch guns during a drill in the Pacific, circa 1944.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (80-G-59493)
The German navy did not have any aircraft carriers, though it did have some formidable battleships, including the 41,700-ton Bismarck and the 42,900-ton Tirpitz.