Carrier Evolution X: Battle CVAs

USN Carrier Evolution X: The battle carriers

Tenth article in a series by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission: Naval Aviation News, January 1963, pp 54-56.

The life of the Midway also demonstrates the progress of our Navy; the accommodation of our ships to aircraft of high performance; the use of missiles; exploitation of electronics; the capability to employ a whole family of weapons unheard of when her keel was first laid. No other navy, no other service of any country, has a single military unit as powerful, as versatile and as mobile as this great ship.—VADM George W. Anderson, Jr., Chief of Staff, U.S. Pacific Command, 1957.

Like the CVEs, the CVBs (now CVs or CVNs) were a direct product of World War II needs and experience, though their missions were different. The former were to be most effective in providing close support of troop landings. The latter was designed to pit against the enemy the most potent aircraft carrier the world had yet seen.

Tough, rugged

The CVBs were to provide a solution to the problem of designing a tough rugged ship that would have good aircraft operating features as well as every possible characteristic that would enable it to both give and take punishment. Our early war losses were caused by our failure to adequately control damage sustained. It was obvious that we needed a much sturdier aircraft carrier than we operated in the early years of the war, one with an armoured flight deck and improved compartmentation. The resulting design gave us a new breed of ship, battlecruiser fast, battleship rugged, and with more aircraft operating capacity than anything we had known.

USS Midway

USS Midway (CVB-41) was the first of six planned carriers of a new design. Construction began during World War II. Toward the end of hostilities, three of the new carriers were cancelled. Upon delivery, the Midways were the mightiest aircraft carriers in the world.

Faster, heavier aircraft

At the same time, aircraft designers were producing larger, heavier types to be operated off seagoing carriers. These higher performance planes, heftier, faster, would place great demands on the flight decks of the proposed CVBs. The planes would require greater room, and these considerations added to the overall weight of the constructed carrier.

On 9 July 1942, Congress authorised their construction. Already, the toll on both U.S. and Japanese carriers had been heavy. In January that year, Saratoga was damaged by submarine torpedo and forced to a yard for repairs. In the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, the light carrier Shoho was sunk by U.S. carrier-based planes which, the next day, also damaged the Shokaku. In this battle, the Yorktown was damaged; the Lexington, ravaged by uncontrollable fires, sank. During the decisive Battle of Midway, the Imperial Japanese Navy lost the Akagi, the Kaga, the Hiryu, and the Soryu. Yorktown, already damaged at Coral Sea, was hit again at Midway and on 7 June was sunk.

Midway: Turning point

Midway was a significant victory for the Allied forces. While proving a turning point in the war, it again conclusively demonstrated the warfare potential and, in fact, superiority of carrier aviation. To commemorate the occasion, the escort carrier CVE-63 was named USS Midway, but on 15 September 1944, her name was changed to USS St. Lo, relinquishing her name to the first of a new class aircraft carrier then being built, USS Midway (CVB-41).

This battle carrier was laid down on 27 October 1943. A sister ship, CVB-42, was laid down as USS Coral Sea on 1 December 1943, but upon the death of the President, was renamed USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. The third large aircraft carrier built, CVB-43, became USS Coral Sea. Contracts for the new carriers were signed 7 August 1942, and by 18 September, plans for them were well under way. On that date, the Chief of the Bureau of Ships wrote to the Commander in Chief, U. S. Fleet, to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations and to several Bureau chiefs, discussing the proposed contract design:

It will be noted that the island is shown offset from the side of the flight deck to the maximum extent permitted by clearance for passage of the Panama Canal. This location of the island has the obvious advantage that a straight fore and aft flight deck runway for airplanes is interfered with to the least possible extent. It gives a flight deck width in way of the island of 107 feet (32.6 metres).

Panama Canal transit

This was one of the last times the Panama Canal was a limiting factor in the construction of aircraft carriers. The “Canal block” was broken when it was later decided to construct a carrier not to go through it.

Concerning the island structure, BuShips continued:

Extensive wind tunnel model tests of the CV-9 class island with a large number of modifications involving various degrees of streamlining and attempts to reduce smoke nuisance on the flight deck caused by stack gases have been performed. These studies showed clearly that the details of island contour were of negligible importance in effect upon air-flow patterns as compared with the bulk of the ship and of the island itself. In view of these conclusions, attempts to streamline the various essential protuberances on the island and of the island itself were discarded in the case of the CV-9 class and, therefore, have not been incorporated in the present plans.

Island structure debate

The island structure was the subject of considerable correspondence in the months and years following. There was an obvious effort by most bureaus to keep the island as small as possible. In this there was general agreement. Comment and discussion became extensive when locations of specific spaces in the island were brought up, as well as uses to which they would be put. Occasionally, proposed requirements threatened to bloat the island structure, but as alternate locations were found, it was possible to keep it to a reasonable size. In October 1942, for instance, the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, RADM John S. McCain, noted:

Location in the island of the following space, the functions of which do not necessarily require island space is noted: Pilot balloon room, two squadron lockers, Repair I, flight deck crew, flight deck control, flight deck equipment, and one unassigned space … This bureau considers that effort should be continued to reduce island size.

Hangar deck catapult

The original proposals called for the installation of two flush deck type catapults capable of launching VT type aircraft and one double action type in the hangar, capable of launching fully loaded VSB type aircraft. But by October 1942, the General Board considered the complications involved in the installation of a hangar catapult and decided against it. Within the year, the decision was reached to eliminate hangar catapults from Essex class carriers, then either under construction or planned.

Hangar fires resulting from combat damage offered particular danger in both Japanese and U. S. aircraft carriers during the early days of the war. In designing the CVB-41 class carriers this danger was considerably lessened by the introduction of four bulkheads in the hangar, dividing it into three spaces connected by sliding doors.

Underwater subdivision of compartments and spaces was given considerable attention, in event of torpedo or mine hit, and was described as “excellent.” To provide additional protection, the flight deck was armoured with 3½ inches (8.9 cm) of solid steel, and the deck side belt armour at the waterline tapered from 7½ inches (19 cm) to three (7.6 cm).

The long, hard slog

In 1943, the wave of war in the Pacific turned against the Japanese as Allied forces made a concerted offensive, capturing Rendova Island in July. The Japanese-held airfield at Munda in New Georgia Island was taken by the Allies, who invaded Bougainville in October and landed on the Gilberts in November.

That same year, U. S. shipyards launched and the Navy commissioned another 15 CVs and 24 CVEs.

In early 1944, the Marshalls were taken. On the first day of this operation, complete control of the air was obtained and maintained by carrier-based aircraft. The Marianas were invaded in June and Guam recaptured in August. Leyte was occupied in October-November, the opening blows struck by Task Force 38 under VADM Marc Mitscher. American shipyards, mass production well organised, launched seven more CVs and 33 more CVEs.


From 18 March to 21 June 1945, the Okinawa campaign raged. The desperate Japanese had already turned to the Kamikaze strikes and now introduced the Baka bomb, seriously damaging the carrier Franklin. Between May and August, carrier-based aircraft were launched against the Japanese home islands, destroying or immobilising the remnants of the Japanese Navy.

On 2 September, the formal terms of surrender were signed and World War II was over. Eight days later, on 10 September, USS Midway was commissioned, the first of the CVBs, CAPT Joseph F. Bolger commanding. In the following month, on 27 October 1945, USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42) was commissioned. Construction on USS Coral Sea (CVB-43) was delayed, the ship finally being commissioned on 1 October 1947. Three additional CVBs, the 44, 56 and 57, were cancelled.

Midway V2aMidwayV2bMidwayV2c

USS Midway, on 6 September 1947, conducted Operation Sandy, the first launch of a heavy ballistic rocket (a captured German V2) from a moving platform. The liquid-fuelled rocket travelled only a small distance before blowing up, with most of the debris landing six miles or so from the launch point. The USN opted for solid-fuelled rockets after this experience.

Midway was a giant among aircraft carriers. She had an overall length of 968 feet (295 metres), an extreme beam of 136 feet (41.5 metres) at the flight deck, and had a standard displacement of 45,000 tons. Midway had a trial speed of 33 knots, four propellers and a shaft horsepower of 212,000.

She was armed with 18 five-inch (127 mm)/54 calibre single double-purpose guns, and 21 quad 40mm A.A. mounts. Like the Essex class carriers, CVB-41 had a deck-edge elevator in addition to her forward and aft elevators. She accommodated 379 officers and 3725 enlisted.


Subtle differences

These general characteristics held true for her sister ships. But there were subtle differences, especially in the case of the Coral Sea. Comments in correspondence during construction of the Midway indicated that a large number of minor modifications, learned in the construction of the CV-9 class carriers, the Midway herself, and from wartime experiences, would be incorporated in the final design of CV-43.

Midway had her shakedown in November 1945. Her aircraft aboard consisted of 57 F4U-4 Corsairs, 59 SB2C-4E Helldivers and four F6F Hellcats, totalling 120 aircraft, 17 fewer than her full complement of 137.

The carrier’s nucleus crew came from a Carrier Aircraft Service Unit (CASU) under ComAirLant. Plane handlers were sent to Great Lakes where they boarded the training ships Sable and Wolverine for an approximate six-week period, during which they learned basic carrier work.

Handler training

The February Naval Aviation News of 1946 described their later training:

The men then proceeded to a CASU, where they awaited shakedown of a carrier other than their own. Their own still was building. Most of the Midway’s original crew leaders shook down on the USS Antietam and the USS Charger. On this shakedown, embryo plane handlers stood battle stations, observed the regular crew at work and finally assisted. They were supervised by a training officer from Com-AirLant who expedited their progress.

Following this shakedown, the Midway’s nucleus crew returned to a CASU near where the ship was building. Here they were groomed in taxiing, spotting and parking aircraft. The work [was] accomplished on a runway painted to simulate a flight deck. Also, they familiarised themselves with the aircraft they would be using.


Courtesy of RATOG, USS Midway launches a nuclear-bomb-capable P2V Neptune (wingspan 101 feet, 30.8 metres) in 1949 (above). Sister ship USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the bridge about to go IFR, replicates the feat in 1951 (below).


Midway conducted her shakedown in the Caribbean, devoting 51 out of 57 days to air and gunnery operations, simulating all types of wartime conditions. Exercises included fuelling escort ships at sea, damage control drills and problems, A.A. tracking and firing at towed spars and drones, emergency lube-oil drills for engineers, arming planes, gassing, and use of inert gas.

Battle exercises

Air operations involved all types of flying and battle exercises, climaxing the tour with a two-day strike against the Caribbean island of Culebra—a well-pummelled three-mile tract of land used by U. S. warships for shakedown training at that time.

USS Franklin D. Roosevelt also conducted her shakedown training in the Caribbean, under command of CAPT Apollo Soucek. After post-shakedown alterations in New York, she was shifted to Norfolk, where she became flagship of ADML Marc Mitscher during the first large-scale training operations since the end of World War II. These manoeuvres of the Eighth Fleet took place in the western Atlantic between 19 April and 27 May 1946.

In the following year, during Caribbean manoeuvres, Sikorsky H03S helicopters were operated. Noted Naval Aviation News in June 1947:

It was not the first time a helicopter had operated off a carrier deck. Four (of them) were with the Byrd Antarctic expedition…But the helicopter really proved its worth as a utility and rescue plane off the FDR, a showing which may have an effect on fleet operations of the future.

FDR employment

Activity of the FDR in the early post-war years was typical of that of her sister ships. After an extended yard period between March 1947 and July 1948, she completed refresher training in the Caribbean before leaving for her second tour in the Mediterranean. At this time, the “Berlin blockade” was formed and the presence of CVB-42 in that area provided a “show of strength.” This was her mission for the next five years, as the Berlin blockade was followed by crises in eastern Mediterranean countries and armed aggression in Korea.

Midway 1974
Midway, a hard-working carrier in November 1974, became a hard-working museum that opened in June 2004, close to downtown San Diego. In its first year, Midway Museum attracted 879,281 visitors.

In October 1952, the CVBs were re-designated attack aircraft carriers (CVAs). In 1953 the fleet modernisation program was authorised. First aircraft carrier to undergo rework was the FDR. The ships were equipped with steam catapults, hurricane bows, and the angled-deck design of Project 110.