US Navy Carrier Aircraft I

During the 1950s the US Navy had introduced no fewer than five advanced swept wing fighters and by 1960 the first of the supersonic Mach 2 world record beating McDonnell F4H Phantoms were being delivered. Indeed, they had even experimented with vertical take-off fighters and a transonic seaplane jet fighter. Bearing in mind the original British lead in jet propulsion immediately after World War II, it is instructive to see how the Americans began to forge ahead so quickly.

In fact, the US Navy was inexplicably slow off the mark to apply the principle of swept wing aerodynamics and its arch rival, the USAF, initially made all the running. This is even more surprising when it is realised that the fighter that effectively gave them command of the skies in the Korean War was actually developed from a naval jet fighter. This was the famous North American F-86 Sabre, which had its origins in the FJ-1 Fury that had been ordered by the Navy in 1944. This was a straight-winged single-engined fighter characterised by its then unique nose intake and straight-through jet configuration. The USAAF ordered a land-based version under the designation XP-86 but a courageous decision was taken to delay delivery and production for a year so that the design could be recast to incorporate a 35-degree swept wing and powered flying controls. Even so, the first XP-86 flew as early as 1 October 1947 and a few months later became the first US fighter to exceed the speed of sound in a shallow dive. The initial production version became the F-86A Sabre and by the end of 1949 two USAF fighter groups were equipped with the new fighter, which proved to have excellent handling characteristics. Subsequently several thousand were built in the United States with licence production being undertaken in Canada, Italy, Australia and Japan. The Sabre can be regarded as one of the most famous aircraft ever built.

Despite its naval origins, the US Navy did not take a serious interest in the Sabre until after the outbreak of the Korean War and eventually ordered three prototypes of a naval version in March 1951. These were designated FJ-2 Fury and eventually some 200 were produced. In most respects they were standard F-86E Sabres powered by 6,000 lb thrust General Electric J47-GE-2 turbojets, which gave a maximum speed of 676 mph at sea level, an initial rate of climb of 7,250 feet/min and a combat ceiling of 41,700 feet. The only modifications for naval service were the obvious ones of an arrester hook, catapult attachment point and power folding wings, as well as a lengthened nosewheel oleo to increase the angle of attack for catapult launches. In addition the armament was changed from six 0.5 inch machine-guns to the standard US Navy fit of four 20 mm cannon. Despite these limited changes, FJ-2 Furies did not begin to reach operational units until January 1954 due to the priority accorded to Sabres for the Air Force and most were allocated to USMC squadrons. Later that year US Navy squadrons began to receive a more advanced version of the Fury under the designation FJ-3. Development of this had started in March 1952 and the main change was the installation of a much more powerful Wright J65-W-2 engine rated at 7,800 lb thrust. This necessitated an enlarged nose intake and a slightly deeper fuselage profile and production aircraft were powered by the slightly derated J65-W-4 engine. In passing it should be noted that the J65 was in fact a licence-built version of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojet and this was used by several other US Navy jets.

Some 538 FJ-3s were built between 1953 and August 1956 and the aircraft equipped no fewer than seventeen US Navy and four Marine squadrons. The first unit was VF-173, which received its Furies in September 1954 and was deployed aboard the USS Bennington in May 1954. An aircraft from another US Navy fighter squadron (VF-21) was the first jet to land aboard the new carrier USS Forrestal, this event occurring on 4 January 1956. In that year also missile-equipped FJ-3Ms began reaching the fleet, these being fitted to carry up to four Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The final Fury variant was the FJ-4, which first flew in October 1954 and represented a complete redesign with the objective of increasing range and endurance. The requirement to carry 50 per cent more fuel resulted in a new fuselage outline while thinner wings and tail surfaces were also fitted. To improve handling aboard carriers, a wider track undercarriage was fitted. A total of 152 FJ-4s were produced but these were used almost exclusively by Marine squadrons, replacing the earlier FJ-2. Deliveries began in February 1955. These were intended for use in the close support role and the four underwing pylons could carry either bombs or missiles. The ultimate attack version was the FJ-4B, which did not appear until the end of 1956 but this had six weapons stations and was fitted with a Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS), which enabled the Fury to use the toss bombing technique to deliver a tactical nuclear weapons. The FJ-4B was issued to nine US Navy and three Marine attack squadrons and when production ended in May 1958 a total of 1,112 swept wing Furies had been delivered, making it one of the most significant naval fighters of the period.

To some extent the development of a naval version of the F-86 Sabre was driven by the sudden appearance of the swept wing MiG-15 over Korea and the realisation that the US Navy’s current straight-winged jets were outclassed. The same motive also led directly to a swept wing development of the existing Grumman F9F-5 Panther. In fact, Grumman had investigated the possibility of swept wing variant when the original Panther design had been proposed but although some design work was done, the decision was made to concentrate on getting the Panther into service. There were also doubts about the suitability of swept wing aircraft for carrier operations due to the problem experienced at that time with low-speed handling. However, the appearance of the Russian-built MiG swept such concerns aside and Grumman was authorised to proceed with the construction of three swept wing Panthers in December 1950. The project was given the highest priority with the result that the prototype F9F-6 Cougar flew in September 1951 and VF-32 received the first production examples in November 1952, although by the time the aircraft was ready for operational deployment the Korean War had ended.

Compared with the Panther, the most obvious change was fitting a new wing with 35 degrees of sweepback at quarter chord, as well as a similarly swept tailplane, although the vertical tail surfaces were substantially unchanged. Inevitably the stalling and approach speeds increased but to assist low-speed handling the chord of the leading edge slats and trailing edge flaps was increased, larger flaps were fitted below the centre section, and rudder controls were boosted by the addition of a yaw damper. The forward fuselage was lengthened by 2 feet and the wing centre section, which included the air intakes, was also extended forward. The lengthened fuselage allowed internal fuel capacity to be increased to allow for the fact that wingtip tanks (as on the Panther) could not be fitted. Flight testing resulted in changes, including the adoption of an all-flying tail and the introduction of spoilers to replace conventional ailerons and improve lateral control. Finally, it was found necessary to fit conspicuous wing fences to reduce a tendency for the airflow to spread spanwise and cause difficulties with lateral control. Taken together, these changes substantially improved handling to the extent that most pilots found the Cougar easier to handle in the carrier environment than its straight-winged predecessor. It should be noted that the problems that the Grumman team experienced echoed those that had affected the British Supermarine Type 510 and Hawker P.1052, and the solutions adopted were much the same.

The Cougar was powered by a 7,000 lb thrust Pratt & Whitney J48 turbojet, which had also been installed in the later Panther variants and was actually a development of the Rolls-Royce Nene of which the British equivalent was named the Tay. However, by the early 1950s new British jet fighters were being designed around axial flow engines such as the Avon and Sapphire and the only British application of the Rolls-Royce Tay was in an experimental jet-powered version of the Viscount airliner (Type 633), which flew in March 1950 but did not enter production. On the other hand the Cougar proved extremely adaptable and ultimately a total of 1,988 were built, the last being delivered as late as February 1960. Although too late to see service in the Korean War, the Cougar rapidly replaced Panthers and Banshees in some twenty US Navy squadrons, these all receiving the F9F-6 and -7 versions. In a parallel with Panther experience, the F9F-7 was powered by an American-designed Allison J33-A-16 turbojet rated at 6,350 lb thrust. However, most of these were eventually refitted with J48s and the last fifty produced were completed with the more powerful Pratt & Whitney engine.

Once the basic F9F-6 was established in production, Grumman had time to look at improving the design and this resulted in the F9F-8, which first flew on 18 January 1954. This incorporated several changes to the wing, including a thinner profile, increased wing area, and extended and cambered leading edges. Additional fuel tankage was incorporated in the extended leading edges and the fuselage tank was enlarged, increasing total capacity from 919 to 1,063 US gallons. The wing modifications resulted in a useful increase in critical Mach number and the additional fuel increased range by almost 300 miles. However, the extra weight reduced the rate of climb and service ceiling but this was offset to some extent by much improved handling and manoeuvrability. There were several sub variants of the F9F-8, including a photo reconnaissance version (F9F-8P), which flew in February 1955, and a two-seat trainer (F9F-8T), which flew in February 1956. Finally, some Cougars were modified for the tactical nuclear strike role with the fitting of LABS as in the FJ-4B Fury and these were designated F9F-9B. Although fighter versions of the Cougar were phased out of frontline service with the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets service by 1959 in favour of more advanced types, the F9F-8P was operational until 1960. The trainer version (later redesignated TF-9J) served with five training squadrons and the last of these, VT-4, did not relinquish its Cougars until 1974. In addition, many reserve units continued to fly Cougars throughout the 1960s.

Although too late to see combat, the swept wing Grumman Cougar and North American Fury provided the backbone of the US Navy’s carrier air groups in the years following the Korean War. As already related, both were developed from straight-wing, first-generation jets under the impetus of the challenge presented by the Russian-designed MiG-15. However, by the early 1950s the US Navy had other projects underway for even more advanced aircraft, although none of these would see full-scale service until the latter half of the decade. The benefits of swept wings had become apparent when allied engineers and scientists gained access to the results of German wartime experience and research, but there were other advanced aerodynamic features that the Germans had applied and a number of US designers attempted to make use of these. Foremost amongst these was the concept of the delta wing pioneered by Dr Alexander Lippisch and when the US Navy needed a fast-climbing interceptor, this configuration appeared to offer some significant advantages. During World War II, the principle of a standing Combat Air Patrol (CAP) was established with waiting interceptor fighters being directed by radar onto incoming targets. However, the new jet fighters had limited endurance so a standing airborne CAP was difficult to organise and costly in fuel consumption. Perhaps more significantly, the performance gap between fighters and jet bombers had narrowed considerably to the extent where the bomber would be difficult to catch in a pursuit scenario. From this problem evolved the concept of a Deck Launched Interceptor (DLI), which remained on short-notice standby on the carrier’s deck. Assuming an inbound missile-armed bomber flying at 550 mph at 40,000 feet was detected by radar at a range of 100 miles, a further nine or ten minutes would elapse before it was close enough to launch its missiles. If the DLI was at five minutes’ notice, this left less than four minutes for it to launch, climb to 40,000 feet and destroy its target. This implied a minimum rate of climb of around 15,000 feet/min, as well as high speed and good manoeuvrability at that altitude.

To meet this requirement the Douglas company proposed a delta-wing fighter powered by a Westinghouse J40 axial flow turbojet, which was expected to provide 7,000 lb thrust, increasing to 11,600 lb with afterburning. A development contract was awarded in June 1947 but as design work got underway the wing planform was progressively modified. Instead of a pure delta wing, the final configuration was more akin to a tailless aircraft with low aspect ratio wings having a sharply swept leading edge and rounded wingtips. The pilot sat well forward with bifurcated leading edge intakes just behind the cockpit. A tricycle undercarriage with a long nosewheel oleo for catapult launches was fitted, and the resulting high angle of attack on the ground required a small retractable tailwheel to guard against excessive pitch up at launch. The standard armament was four 20 mm cannon – a missile armament not being contemplated at this time. With the design finalised, a contract for the construction of two prototype XF4D-1 Skyrays was awarded in December 1948, although the first of these did not fly until 23 January 1951. Even then flight testing was limited due to the fact that the intended Westinghouse J40 engines were not ready and both prototypes were initially powered by Allison J35-A-17 turbojets, which were only rated at 5,000 lb thrust so that the full performance envelope could not be demonstrated.

As will be seen, the Skyray was not the only aircraft to suffer from problems with the J40 engine, which also formed the basis of several other contemporary projects. Even when production examples of the engine became available, they proved to be very unreliable with an alarming tendency to shed turbine blades in flight. Eventually the whole engine project was cancelled in 1953. Nevertheless, the availability of early J40s allowed the Skyray to demonstrate its potential, which it did in spectacular fashion on 3 October 1953 by wresting the absolute world airspeed record from Britain (set by a Supermarine Swift on 26 September 1953 with a speed of 735.7 mph). The average speed achieved by the Skyray over a 3 km course was 752.944 mph. It is interesting to note that both records were set at very low level in very high ambient temperatures where the speed of sound would be in excess of 760 mph so that Mach numbers in the region of 0.98 were attained. In fact, neither aircraft was supersonic in level flight at that time, although they could exceed Mach 1.0 in a dive, especially in colder air at high altitude where the speed of sound reduced to around 660 mph. Despite this success, the cancellation of the J40 engine programme forced the Douglas team to find a suitable alternative and this was to be the Pratt & Whitney J57-P-2. In fact, this was a much better engine, offering 9,700 lb thrust, which could be boosted to 14,800 with afterburning, and was to prove a very reliable powerplant. The later J57-P-8 offered 10,200 lb dry thrust and 16,000 lb with afterburning. Although the physical integration of the new engine with the Skyray airframe posed few difficulties, trials with the first production aircraft (first flight 5 June 1954) revealed aerodynamic problems with the air intakes, which were eventually solved by the addition of a splitter plate between the fuselage and intake, a device applied to many subsequent supersonic aircraft. However, this added further delays to the Skyray’s service debut and it was not until mid 1956 that it finally became fully operational, five years after the first prototype and almost two years after the first re-engined production aircraft had flown (although initial carrier trials were carried out by one of the J40-powered prototypes aboard the USS Coral Sea in October 1953). Nevertheless, the US Navy now possessed a remarkable interceptor. With the J57 engine, the Skyray was now just supersonic in level flight at altitude and had an initial rate of climb in excess of 18,000 feet/ min. In May 1958 a Skyray set a series of time to height records, reaching 15,000 metres (49,212 feet) in only two minutes and thirty-six seconds! The capturing of the world airspeed record was the first time that this had been achieved by a carrier-capable aircraft and the production F4D-1 was the US Navy’s first supersonic fighter, although only just so. Outside the time scale of this book, it is interesting to note that Douglas produced an advanced version of the Skyray, which was the F5D-1 Skylancer. The prototype flew in 1956 and reached speeds of Mach 1.5 at 40,000 feet, as well as possessing a limited all-weather capability, but was not ordered into production.


US Navy Carrier Aircraft II

The US Navy could not be accused of being unwilling to try out new concepts. Even before the Skyray development was initiated, it had commissioned the construction of three prototype fighters from Chance Vought in June 1946. These were again based on German work and the result was a revolutionary tailless design with directional control achieved by twin fin and rudder assemblies at mid span on each wing. Like the Skyray, the new XF7U-1 Cutlass was intended as a deck-launched interceptor and to achieve the required performance a twin-engine configuration was adopted, two Westinghouse J34-WE-32 turbojets with afterburning being set side by side in the fuselage nacelle. The result was unlike anything flown before or since and, considering the unorthodox layout, performed better than might have been expected, although several serious problems were encountered. The prototype XF7U-1 flew on 29 September 1948 and was followed by the first of fourteen production F7U-1s in March 1950. These were eventually allocated to the Navy’s Advanced Training Command at Corpus Christi in 1952 as problems with the J34 engine as well as handling difficulties made the Cutlass unsuitable for carrier deployment. These caused the cancellation of the F7U-2 with more powerful J34s and development was centred on the F7U-3, which was re-engined with Westinghouse 4,660 lb thrust J46-WE-8A engines. The centre fuselage was entirely re-designed and the underwing section of the vertical tail surfaces was virtually eliminated. The F7U-3 was first flown in December 1951 and initially four Navy squadrons (VF-81, VF-83, VF-122, VF-124) were equipped with the Cutlass, although operational deployments did not commence until May 1954, the first being VF-81 aboard the USS Ticonderoga. A total of 290 F7U-3s were delivered, which included ninety-eight F7U-3Ms with provision to carry four Sparrow air-to-air missiles and twelve F7U-3P photo reconnaissance aircraft. However, the type’s record in service was very poor with serious maintenance problems and a frighteningly high accident rate so that production ceased in 1955 and it had been entirely replaced before the end of the decade. Originally intended as a pure interceptor, it was outclassed in this role by the Skyray and subsequently was more often utilised in the attack role, carrying two 1,000- or 2,000 lb bombs, and it could also be fitted with a centreline pod carrying forty-four 2.75 inch air-to-air unguided rockets.

Although the US Navy was never able to field a swept wing jet fighter in the Korean War, things might have been different if development of another design had progressed as hoped. This was the McDonnell F3H Demon, which was ordered in prototype form in September 1949 following the company’s response to an earlier request for proposals issued by the Bureau of Aeronautics in May 1948 for a swept-wing naval interceptor. For its time, the Demon was an advanced design with sharply swept flying surfaces, wide lateral air intakes and provision for afterburning with the tailplane and fin being set well above the jet efflux. The prototype XF3H-1 flew on 7 August 1951 but even by that time the programme was in deep trouble. Things were not helped by a BuAer requirement that the Demon should be redesigned as an all-weather fighter under the designation F3H-1N. This significantly delayed development, the first production examples not flying until December 1953. In the meantime a much more serious problem had arisen in the shape of the failure of the Westinghouse J40 engine programme. The afterburning 9,200 lb thrust J40-WE-8 had initially been selected as the powerplant for the Demon but the XF3H-1 prototype was only fitted with the unreheated 6,500 lb thrust J40-WE-6. Eventually the afterburning variants were fitted to both prototypes and initial carrier trials were carried out aboard the USS Coral Sea in October 1953. Even by that time the J40 was proving unreliable, resulting in damage to one aircraft, and both being grounded for various periods. When testing of production F3H-1Ns began, the results were even more disastrous with no fewer than five aircraft being destroyed in accidents, including three in which the pilot was killed. In most cases the root cause of the accident was a failure of the J40 engine and it was quite clear that the Demon was seriously underpowered. Matters were so bad that many of the fifty-eight F3H-1Ns completed were never even flown, but were shipped by barge down the Mississippi from St Louis to Memphis where they were used as instructional airframes.

The US Navy had a major commitment to the J40 engine, which was the prime powerplant for several projected aircraft (including the F4D Skyray and twin-engined A3D bomber), and was reluctant to abandon development despite the evidence of flight tests. However, the McDonnell team was determined to salvage the Demon programme and persuaded the US Navy to allow two F3H-1N airframes to be converted to accommodate an Allison J71-A-2E rated at 9,700 lb thrust (14,400 lb with afterburning). Thus powered, the first F3H-2N flew on 23 April 1955 and proved to be a much better performer, although the Demon would have benefited further if an even more powerful engine could have been fitted but this was not possible without a major redesign. Eventually the F3H-2N began to reach squadrons in late 1956, subsequently embarking in the USS Forrestal for a Mediterranean deployment in January 1957. The standard F3H-2N was armed with fuselage-mounted 20 mm cannon but in August 1955 the missile-armed F3H-2M made its first flight. This could carry four AAM-N-2 Sparrow 1 semiactive homing guided missiles, which relied on the target being illuminated by the aircraft’s AN/APG-51B radar. In this guise the Demon became the US Navy’s first all-weather missile armed interceptor and remained in service until replaced by more capable fighters in the early 1960s. Thus the Demon was too late to see service in the Korean War and had been phased out of service by the time the United States became involved in Vietnam.

Despite the fact that the Demon had a relatively inauspicious career, it did provide the springboard for another project that was to become not just a first-class naval fighter, but one of the most successful all-round combat aircraft ever flown – the Mach 2 capable McDonnell F4H Phantom II. Although the first flight and subsequent development of this superb aircraft lie outside the period covered by this book, its initial development can actually be traced back as far as 1953 when McDonnell began a series of studies aimed at offering a substantial improvement in capability and performance of the F3H Demon. Under the designation Model 98, a series of single- and two-seat, single and twin-engined proposals were made. Of these, and after discussions with the US Navy, the Model 98B powered by either two Wright J67s or two General Electric J79s was taken as the basis for a new single-seat aircraft initially designated AH-1 in recognition of its planned attack role. However, by May 1955 when the construction of two prototypes was authorised, it was decided that they would be completed as two-seat, missile armed, all-weather fighters under the designation YF4H-1. Subsequently the prototype flew on 27 May 1958 and its startling performance led to substantial US Navy orders and, in a remarkable achievement, it was also ordered in quantity for the USAF – the first time that a naval fighter had achieved this distinction.

In fact, successful as the Phantom was to prove, it would not be the US Navy’s first fully supersonic fighter as it was preceded by two other types, both of which were easily capable of exceeding Mach 1 in level flight. The first of these to enter service was the Grumman F11F-1 Tiger, which had first flown on 30 July 1954 and subsequently entered operational service in early 1957. Development of the F11F had commenced in December 1952 when the possibility of applying the area rule principle to the swept wing F9F was investigated. It quickly became apparent that a fresh design would be required and this evolved as a slim-fuselaged, swept wing jet fighter with an empty weight of around 13,000 lb. The incorporation of area rule led to distinctive narrowing of the fuselage where the wings were mounted in order to eliminate rapid changes in the total cross-sectional area presented to the airflow. The slim fuselage was achieved by using an axial flow jet engine, in this case an afterburning Wright J65, which was actually a licence-built version of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. Considerable attempts were made to reduce weight and one unusual feature was that the wingtips were folded down manually, saving the complexity of the more conventional power-actuated upward-folding wings. The first prototype was lost in an accident in October 1954 due to an engine flameout – a recurrent problem with the J65. However, the second prototype had flown by then and was able to carry on the test programme, exceeding Mach 1 for the first time before the end of the year. A third prototype flew in December 1954 and incorporated various modifications, including redesigned tail surfaces, a longer nose, air intake splitter plates, a new clear-view canopy and had provision for an air-to-air refuelling probe to be fitted. A standard armament of four 20 mm cannon was fitted and the F11F-1 could carry four Sidewinder missiles or two missiles and two drop tanks of 150 US gallons.

Carrier trials aboard the USS Forrestal in April 1956 highlighted the need for further modifications, notably increasing the fuel capacity to make good shortfalls in range and endurance. As already related, service entry followed in 1957 but the Tiger’s operational career was relatively short and it was withdrawn from frontline units by 1961, although it enjoyed a longer career with second line training units and was adopted as the mount for the famous Blue Angels naval demonstration team. When the Tiger passed out of frontline service, it was the end of an era for Grumman who had provided naval fighters continuously from 1933 and it was not until the 1970s that another Grumman jet fighter (the F14 Tomcat) was to serve aboard US carriers. The reasons for the Tiger’s premature withdrawal were varied but included poor handling, which made it an unsteady gun platform, and the unreliability of the J65 engine. However, the main reason was that it was totally eclipsed by another fighter that had entered service at the same time.

This was the Chance Vought F8U Crusader, which originated from a US Navy requirement for a supersonic air superiority fighter issued in 1952. This company had, of course, made its name as the builder of the famous Corsair piston-engined fighter but had experienced less success with its subsequent jet designs. Awarded a contract in May 1953 for further development of its proposals, Chance Vought produced a fairly conventional design based around a single Pratt & Whitney J57-P-11 turbojet, which could produce 18,900 lb thrust with afterburning and was positioned towards the rear of the long fuselage. A pointed radome with a semi-circular chin air intake below gave the Crusader a distinct profile but its most unusual feature was the high-mounted swept wing with noticeable anhedral. This was unusual in a jet fighter but was accounted for by a unique feature intended to make the task of landing this hot ship aboard a carrier easier than it might otherwise have been. In normal flight the top surface of the wing centre section lay flush with the top of the fuselage but at slower speeds the leading edge could be raised by means of screw jacks, so increasing the angle of incidence of the whole wing relative to the fuselage. This in turn effectively reduced the nose-up attitude of the whole aircraft, improving the pilot’s view of the deck while also increasing lift. The high wing layout did mean that the main undercarriage legs had to retract in the fuselage, which resulted in a relatively narrow wheel track.

In service the F8U Crusader offered a substantial increase in performance over previous naval fighters. The top speed was around Mach 1.7 at altitude, although the initial rate of climb was only 12,000 feet/min, still very good but well below that achievable with the Skyray. This difference was accounted for by the weight of the Crusader, which grossed at 34,000 lb compared with the 25,000 lb MAUW of the Skyray. However, the Crusader had a much better endurance and was capable of carrying a wide variety of weapons apart from the internal four 20 mm cannon. The standard fit was either two (later four) Sidewinder infra-red homing homing missiles, or up to 5,000 lb of bombs or rockets, or any combination of these. Given the advanced performance of the Crusader, its development and entry into service was completed in an amazingly short time, especially when compared with earlier jets such as the Skyray and Demon. The prototype XF8U-1 flew in March 1955 and production standard aircraft were coming off the assembly lines by the end of 1956 with the first squadron (VF32) forming in March 1957. By the end of the year the squadron was deployed aboard the USS Saratoga and subsequently various versions of the Crusader flew with no fewer than seventy US Navy and USMC squadrons in a career that lasted until the mid 1980s. A total of 1,261 Crusaders were produced, which included forty-two for the French Navy, one of the few cases where US Navy fighters were exported. One of the most important variants was the RF-8 in which a battery of five cameras replaced the 20 mm cannon and provision was made for additional fuel. Both fighter photo reconnaissance versions saw considerable action during the Vietnam War, some units serving right through to the end in 1973.

The variable incidence wing of the Crusader was one example of altering wing characteristics to overcome the problem of landing high-performance swept wing aircraft on a carrier deck. A more ambitious solution dated as far back as 1946 when Grumman were asked to build a research aircraft to test swept wings with an eye to their later application to the XF9F-2 Panther. The initial proposal was for a single-engined, high-mounted, modified delta-wing aircraft with a T-tail and a contract was issued in April 1948 for two prototypes. However, by 1950 a new specification was issued calling for a fighter that would have good low-speed handling qualities and be capable of transonic speeds. At the same time a heavy armament and long range was required so that the final Grumman design increased in weight from around 18,000 lb MTOW to over 31,000 lb. After investigating the possibility of using variable incidence, the Grumman team went a step further and proposed a variable sweep wing with full-span leading edge slats and flaps along 80 per cent of the trailing edge.

The prototype XF10F-1 Jaguar eventually flew on 19 May 1952 but almost immediately severe problems were manifest. These were both technical failures and stability problems, although the wing sweep mechanism itself caused no trouble and turned out to be very reliable. The Achilles’ heel of the project was the use of the ill-fated Westinghouse J40 engine. The cancellation of this engine in 1953 and the subsequent grounding of all aircraft fitted with it effectively ended the Jaguar programme. Nevertheless it should be recognised as a pioneering attempt at what was actually a viable proposition and the concept of variable sweep was incorporated in the American F-111 and B-1 bombers, and the European Tornado.

At this point brief mention should be made of two significant aircraft that were built in prototype form to explore the concept of a VTOL combat aircraft. These were the Convair XFY-1 and the Lockheed XFV-1. Both came about as a result of studies made by both the US Navy and Air Force in the late 1940s and with the outbreak of the Korean War development funds became available. The two designs were very similar in concept, power for take-off and conventional flight being provided by turboprops driving a pair of three-bladed contra-rotating propellers. With broad chord blades these acted as helicopter rotors to lift the aircraft from the ground, the transition to horizontal flight being made gradually as speed and altitude increased. The Lockheed XFV-1 had short stubby wings with wingtip tanks, and a cruciform tail assembly that incorporated four wheels on which the aircraft rested when on the ground. The pilot was provided with an ejector seat. For initial flight trials a 5,850 hp Allison XT40-A-6 turboprop was installed with a more powerful YT40-A-14 scheduled for later tests, although this never actually became available. The production FV-2 would have had an even more powerful T54-A-16. The prototype was fitted with a temporary fixed undercarriage to permit conventional take-off and landings for the initial test flights and officially flew on 16 June 1954, although it had previously become airborne in high-speed taxi trials. Although transitions from horizontal to vertical flight modes and back again were made in the air, vertical take-offs and landings from the ground were never attempted as the trials engine did not produce enough power. The programme was cancelled in mid 1955 when it was realised that even if full transitions could be achieved, the performance of the turboprop fighter would lag well behind that of contemporary jets.

The Convair XFY-1 was much more successful and featured a broad delta wing, together with upper and lower vertical fins. This made a much more stable base (an important consideration aboard ship) but in other respects the design was similar to that of the Lockheed aircraft with the same powerplant and a tilting ejector seat for the pilot. Initial tethered flights commenced in April 1954 and these culminated in the first free flight in which transition to horizontal mode was successfully accomplished and was then followed by a vertical landing. This occurred in November 1954 and subsequently the XFY-1 recorded a maximum speed of 610 mph at 15,000 feet and had an excellent rate of climb, reaching 30,000 feet in 4.6 minutes. Despite the apparent success of the programme the project was cancelled in 1956, one possible reason being that the widespread adoption of VTOL combat aircraft might result in a reduction in the size of the US Navy’s carrier fleet – something that many Admirals did not wish to see. A similar attitude prevailed in Britain in the 1960s when aircraft such as the P1127 and Kestrel (forerunners of the Harrier) were seen by some as a possible threat to the Royal Navy’s carriers.

Convair were to achieve considerable success with the production of delta-winged jet fighters for the USAF (F-102 and F-106) and applied some of their experience to produce a jet-powered water borne fighter, the XF2Y-1 Sea Dart. Powered by two 3,400 lb thrust J34-WE-32 engines, the Sea Dart was very similar in outline to the F-102 Delta Dagger except that the engine intakes were on the top of the fuselage to prevent spray ingestion on take-off. Instead of a conventional flying boat hull, the XF2Y-1 was fitted with retractable hydro skis, which offered less drag in the air and permitted higher speeds on the water. The official first flight was on 9 April 1953, although the aircraft had previously been briefly airborne during taxi trials. There were problems both with the engines, which failed to develop the expected thrust, and with controlling the aircraft on take-off while running on the skis. Consequently only three development YF2Y-1s were built and one of these crashed in November 1954. Although the US Navy continued test and evaluation trials, the project was finally halted in 1956.

By the mid 1950s, the development of jet combat aircraft for naval use had advanced considerably in the decade following the end of World War II. By 1955 high-performance swept wing aircraft, some with supersonic capability, were either in service or under active development in both Britain and America. However, it was almost inevitable, given the strength of their industrial base, that the Americans should forge ahead. Thus in 1955, while the Royal Navy was still operating straight-winged Seahawks and Sea Venoms, the US Navy had swept wing Furies and Cougars and was about to introduce the fast-climbing Skyray, while the supersonic Crusader (capable of speeds in excess of 1,000 mph) had already flown in prototype form.


French Naval Operations 1958-2000

Charles de Gaulle is the flagship of the French Navy (Marine Nationale). The ship is the tenth French aircraft carrier, the first French nuclear-powered surface vessel, and the only nuclear-powered carrier completed outside of the United States Navy. She is named after French statesman and general Charles de Gaulle.

The ship carries a complement of Dassault Rafale M and E‑2C Hawkeye aircraft, EC725 Caracal and AS532 Cougar helicopters for combat search and rescue, as well as modern electronics and Aster missiles. She is a CATOBAR-type carrier that uses two 75 m C13‑3 steam catapults of a shorter version of the catapult system installed on the U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, one catapult at the bow and one across the front of the landing area. Charles de Gaulle is the only non-American carrier-vessel that has a catapult, allowing operation of American aircraft such as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the C-2 Greyhound.

The visible presence of powerful Marine warships was an important part of the policy of de Gaulle and his successors. In asserting that France had returned to the major world power role Marine warship visits were freely used to reinforce this message. In the last forty years of the 20th Century Marine vessels paid visits to most countries possessing a sea coast, the training mission of the helicopter carrier Jeanne d’Arc on an annual cadet training cruise being the vessel frequently chosen. Three visits merit particular mention, a warship visit to the United States in 1964, President de Gaulle’s highly controversial visit aboard the cruiser Colbert to Canada in 1967, and the visit of the missile destroyer Duguay-Trouin to China in 1978, the first foreign warship to pay a courtesy visit to China since 1940. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact organisation warships visited Bulgarian and Romanian ports, and also Angola.

Operations involving surface ships are best set out in chronological sequence. In April to October 1974 Marine, Royal Navy and United States naval vessels worked to clear war debris in the Suez Canal resulting from the 1973 Egypt-Israel conflict. Four years later Marine vessels supported a French contingent protecting French technical aid staff at a time of unrest in Mauritania.

Marine aircraft flew over Mauritania and Chad during the periods of civil unrest and conflict in the late 1960s and 1970s. These former colonies were seen as a NATO southern flank glacis. Marine aircraft flew from bases at Dakar and Nouakchott and were concerned with intelligence gathering. The flights were almost certainly watching and passing details of the advance of Libyan forces into Chad, and later in the 1970s the activities of the Polisario insurgents in Morocco. The Aéronautique (from 1998 Aéronavale) also maintained patrols over metropolitan French coastal areas.

The independence of Djibouti, to become the Territory of the Afars and Issas in the spring of 1977 raised particular issues for the Marine. Both of the territory’s neighbours, Ethiopia and Somalia were known to be interested in its future. It was, though, an important base for the Marine’s operation in the Indian Ocean which had included an evacuation of civilians from Madagascar in 1972, and for the reassertion of French control in the Comores in 1975. A permanent force of five small frigates or other patrol vessels had been set up in 1972 to demonstrate French power and interest in the area. To make this interest entirely clear a major demonstration of Marine, Aéronavale and surface ship power was essential; this took the form of the arrival of the Clemenceau, the anti-submarine missile frigate Tourville, the missile destroyers Dupetit-Thouars and Kersaint, and the assault landing ship Ouragan for the actual independence, these vessels being relieved by the Foch and other vessels of the same capabilities a little later. The point was duly made. French naval installations although in certain details scaled down were nevertheless secured for future use.

The year 1982 provided an unexpected opportunity for Aéronautique training with also very timely help in aircraft and missile recognition training for Royal Navy vessels in the south Atlantic on their way to the Falklands. Facilities at Dakar were made available to help the movement of British troops and on exercises Super Étendard aircraft equipped with Exocet missiles made mock attacks on the Royal Navy ships whose crews were shortly to meet the same aircraft and missiles in the hands of the Argentinians.

The fighting and civil war in Lebanon from 1982 to 1989 involved the Marine in a series of operations. The first of these along with ships of other navies was the evacuation to safety of French nationals, some 1,200 being rescued. Marine vessels also patrolled along the coast. There followed a requirement to help with support for the multi-national French, American and Italian force on land. Landing vessels were used on occasions, the Foch participated in the patrolling and a small air and support base was opened at Larnaca in Cyprus. In October 1983 fifty-eight French soldiers of the multi-national ground force were killed and on 17 November Super Étendard aircraft from the Clemenceau which had arrived in the area attacked a rebel stronghold believed to have been held by Iranian and other Islam extremist groups. Reports on the success or otherwise of the attack are contradictory, but other air attacks were to follow into early 1984 before the withdrawal of the force. Marine vessels maintained general patrolling only further out to sea in the eastern Mediterranean until 1989 when ongoing Lebanese violence appeared to threaten the Christian community. The Foch and four frigates restored a measure of security despite intense Syrian hostility and, after the evacuation of wounded, the Foch and the four were withdrawn. Some minesweepers together with United States and Italian vessels were despatched south for work in the Gulf of Suez.

As a consequence of French military intervention in Chad a crisis in French relations with Libya arose in September 1984. The Foch and escorts were sent to display power off the Libyan Coast, a démarche which brought Libyan action to a halt.

Two Marine humanitarian operations evacuating civilians from an area in conflict or struck by natural disaster occurred in 1986. In January Marine, Soviet and Royal Navy warships (including as she was on the spot the British Royal Yacht Britannia) covered the evacuation of civilians from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen over a fourteen-day period. In May vessels mainly auxiliary logistic support based on Noumea evacuated people made homeless by a typhoon on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

The opening of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980 soon led to the harassment of tanker and container ships sailing from Basra. Iranian coastal missile boats and helicopters armed with missiles attempted to interfere and minefield warnings were issued. After an initial display of force that included the Suffren a small escort vessel patrol system was set up, the vessels accompanying merchant shipping. Friction and mine laying worsened in 1985-86 and led to a major crisis in July 1987 when following a diplomatic incident the Iranians seized the staff of the French Embassy in Teheran and held them as hostages. In response there followed a notable display of power projection by the Marine. In late July and August first the frigate Georges Leygues, then the Clemenceau supported by the missile destroyers Suffren and Duquesne with finally a squadron of minesweepers together with logistic support vessels were despatched to the Straits area. The Clemenceau remained in the area for just over a year, the other vessels exchanged crews with the arrival of replacements every three months or with crew reliefs flown out from France. The crew of the Clemenceau were given forty-five days’ leave in France on rotation. In June the Teheran government began to give way and by September the crisis had ended. The firm proactive French response, with the massive supply needs of warships and aircraft fuel, food, water and turn-over of personnel was only made possible by the availability of the Djibouti base.

In 1988 further unrest in New Caledonia and the Tuamotu archipelago required small-scale Marine support for two military stabilisation forces.

The Iraq invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War that followed in July 1990 caught the French government by surprise, it had been believing that Saddam Hussein’s earlier pronouncements had been only rhetoric. The war also caught the Marine at a difficult time. The Clemenceau was thirty years old, the Foch only two years younger. The largest missile ships Duquesne and Suffren were also thirty years old and under repair. Although the liberation of Kuwait had been approved by the United Nations there were powerful political voices in Paris opposing any deployment of French forces in any operation led by an American. At the same time an operation led by the United States and Britain without France would be a serious loss of status and prestige, most particularly in the Gulf Arab states. It is against this background, culminating later in the resignation of the Defence Minister that the uneven pattern of French commitment to the war has to be understood.

At the outset, the Marine despatched two frigates, Montcalm and Dupleix with two sloop escorts to the Gulf for the evacuation of French nationals from Kuwait. These were followed by the Clemenceau carrying a company of infantry and forty-two helicopters designed to support ground warfare, and the now obsolescent anti-aircraft cruiser Colbert. These arrived in the Gulf and exercised with United Arab Emirate forces in ground warfare manoeuvres, the helicopters participating from land airstrips in the exercises. It was believed that this show of force indicated alliance with the assembling U.N. force and maintained French prestige – but it also begged the question of what use was the Clemenceau with no strike aircraft while the Foch which had strike aircraft embarked remained in the Mediterranean. Argument over the legitimacy of further operations was settled by the sacking by the Iraqis of the French Embassy in Kuwait and plans were then prepared for a French ground forces participation. The Clemenceau was slowly withdrawn calling at the Saudi Arabian port of Yanbu for the helicopters to be landed and then flown back on to the Gulf theatre, the ship then returning to Toulon. The whole deployment was criticised as a failure, impressing no one, not even the Iraqis, but it should also be remembered that even a full complement of Super Étendard aircraft would have counted for little against the massive American strength.

Agreement was reached (after a vain attempt by Paris to assemble a European Union formation headed by a Marine admiral) on an allocation of zones for the blockade of supplies to Iraq, the United States, Great Britain and France each receiving an area for control, that for France being the southern coast line of the Arabian Peninsula and the Hormuz Straits. The French land force units were disembarked at Yanbu. The aircraft carriers were not used again, there being a shortage of both aircraft and trained crews and the inability of the Super Étendard to carry a cost-effective bomb load at long range. At the time of the final preparations for the great Desert Storm land offensive and at its actual opening there was only one Marine combat vessel, the missile destroyer Jean de Vienne, replaced in rotation by the Latouche-Tréville, on escort duty in the Gulf. To help the French land forces were the support vessels Foudre and La Rance in use as hospital ships.

In the Mediterranean three nuclear-powered attack submarines and four conventional boats were keeping watch off the Algerian and Libyan coasts in case of any reprisal threat of which there was little sign other than rhetoric from the Libyan leader Gaddafi. The Foch was kept at Toulon apparently arising from concern that any alignment with America in the ground forces operations would lead to unrest in the Maghreb. There had earlier been dissent in the Council of Ministers over the issue of the balance of international relations.

While the Army and the Air Force were fully involved in the fighting, the Marine was not. In the period after the cease-fire, though, Marine mine-clearance vessels were to play the lead part in a French-Belgian and Netherlands formation of ships.

The message, ruefully absorbed, for the Marine was that France alone could now never be considered to be in the same super-power league as the United States. It could not command the same mass of naval or air resources, nor could it have at its disposal the wealth of satellite intelligence, much now real time. Attempts to present powers that it could not possess only harmed France, and real value would be best gained by useful support.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia was to provide the Marine in its last 20th Century commitment to show such support. A combined United States, Royal Navy and Marine aircraft carrier force maintained an effective blockade of the Adriatic coastline in 1993, the Clemenceau serving until June and then being replaced by the Foch. The frigate Jean de Vienne and a sloop were used in a close blockade of the Montenegro coast, and the hospital ship La Rance was stationed at Dubrovnik. During these operations personnel of the Marine were brought back to NATO procedures and communications.

The October 1998-June 1999 Kosovo crisis and operation formed a last chapter of the Yugoslav events, the necessary ending of Serb administration. Intervention became essential after a massacre in January 1999. For the Marine the years 1988 and 1999 had proved difficult, the costs and logistic requirements had imposed force reductions. No anti-aircraft missile frigate could be made available until the arrival of the Cassard in mid-February. The Clemenceau was now no longer in service, the age of the Foch daily more evident. It was however felt important that the Marine should be present and all not left to the Americans and British.

The Foch remained on station from the end of January to the end of May. Until mid-February the anti-submarine frigates Surcouf and Montcalm were in support, from mid-February the Cassard with a Royal Navy frigate, and in May the anti-aircraft frigate Jean Bart. Two nuclear-engined attack submarines, the Amethyst from February to April and the Saphir in May were at work off the Montenegro coast at Kotor ensuring a blockade of Serbia. The presence of the Foch was seen by some, especially air force personnel, as unnecessary and unhelpful. The Foch’s aircraft had to fly on operations from land, the carrier’s catapults being unequal to the task; some friction ensued. Much of the supply necessary for the force was brought by auxiliaries from Djibouti, but another limitation for the Foch was her small stock of guided bombs which could not easily be replenished.

The Marine cooperated with and helped the small states of former French West and Equatorial Africa (with the exception of Guinea Conakry) and has maintained a small warship on patrol in the Gulf of Guinea. This patrol and a much longer lasting requirement for the Marine opened in the last years of the century, one requiring only small vessels but tactical skill in ships’ boat handling, combating piracy off the coast of Somaliland.

The predicament of “boat people” seeking escape from Vietnam in the early 1980s presented the Marine with a humanitarian problem in the South China Sea off the Gulf of Siam. On occasions a corvette on patrol would pick up boats crowded with refugees and with the cooperation of a charity, Médecins du Monde, at first landing them in Malaysia or the Philippines. On one such occasion the Jeanne d’Arc on a training cruise was involved. Such rescue raised a number of issues, the diplomatic propriety of an armed warship engaged in such work far from its metropolis, the increasing unwillingness of countries to receive refugees, some political objection by the French Communists at home and the charity’s shortage of funds and consequent difficulty in resettling the hundreds of people rescued.

The policy that emerged eventually provided for Marine helicopter search, communication systems and rescue of “boat people” on the spot, provision of food and water, all prior to the refugees being transferred to one of the charity’s rescue vessels, a policy akin to that of traditional help in the event of a nature disaster.

Although only indirectly related to the Marine its ships and operations, mention should be made of the massive sales of French naval equipment, ships built in France for direct sale or vessels at the time surplus to requirements of the Marine, submarines, aircraft, Exocet and Crotale missiles. Training staff have been sent on loan service to a number of foreign navies. On at least one occasion, during the Iran-Iraq war French-made missiles were launched against French vessels.

At the start of the 1990s the Marine’s total strength was 66,000, a total including the Aéronavale and Fusiliers marins. Its operational command structure was built on five commands, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and ICBM submarines. One or two frigates were to be stationed permanently in the Red Sea/Indian Ocean, at Papete and New Caledonia and one at Martinique.

The building of the new generations of ships and the uses to which they were put makes impressive reading. Behind the story, though, lay another, especially in the late 1980s and 1990s. The second aircraft carrier was not the only vessel, but one among a number of others to be cancelled. Navies everywhere became more and more expensive at an alarming rate, yet if the ships were not fully abreast of all aspects of technology they became liabilities rather than assets. Great Britain was experiencing the same difficulties, the Royal Navy suffering cuts in a number of categories of warship that it considered essential. The common difficulties led to a meeting in December 1998 at St Malo at which President Chirac of France and Prime Minister Blair of the United Kingdom sponsored agreements for much closer naval cooperation, in particular including joint operations in crises and a series of joint exercises. A century after the historic 1905 Marine naval visit to Portsmouth, the Charles de Gaulle was welcomed in the Solent in June 2005 at a review essentially marking the bi-centenary of the battle of Trafalgar.


Dynastic Egypt’s Naval Warfare

Battle of the Delta was a sea battle between Egypt and the Sea Peoples, circa 1175 BCE when the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III repulsed a major sea invasion. Illustration by Igor Dzis

A contingent of the Sea Peoples Invasion came by water. The Ramesses III reliefs text at Medinet Habu, Western Thebes, states that there was a naval encounter at the mouths of the Nile in the Delta. The king’s defensive measures included a stockade of lances that was set up on the shore to impede the enemy ships. At the minimum, this was done to prevent the Sea Peoples from landing their troops. In the accompanying reliefs, perhaps reflecting artistic sensibility, only four Egyptian ships attack five Sea Peoples war vessels. The king remained on land while his archers provided the necessary attack force. No chariots were employed because the battle was fought from shore to ship and from ship to ship. The naval victory was celebrated at a coast fortress. Ramesses III indicates the types of ships employed in this defense, and that they were also divided into three groups: ordinary transporters, galleys, and coasters. The first term was the most common one, and we can assume that the king requisitioned all types of Nile-bound vessels in order to provide his defense. The second refers to cargo ships whereas the third was employed for naval vessels undertaking lengthy voyages in the Mediterranean along the eastern coastline of Palestine and Syria.

The naval battle, quite rightfully, has been the subject of much study. The ships of the enemy reflect an Aegean tradition, one that was based on relatively long sea voyages across a large extent of water. In other words, they were not mere coasters or trading vessels. The hulls of the enemy fleet were angular and the prows and sternposts vertical. In addition, it seems that the Egyptian fleet blockaded the river outlets in order to prevent the enemy from escaping. This novel interpretation implies that Ramesses purposely waited until the enemy was close to disembarking and then, after having trapped them between shore and sea, attacked. In the scenes of battle, the enemy ships are stationary and within range of the land-based archers. Their vessels appear slender and lower in the water than the Egyptian ones, but a problem remains concerning the artistic impression. The Egyptian ships, on the other hand, reveal quite astounding details. Their high angular sternpost has no native parallel. The aftercastles were built with two stories, thereby providing a higher base for the naval archers and giving the helmsman a better position. But the high bulwark that protects the rowers is not known in the Nile Valley even though it was commonplace among the Aegean Bronze Age galleys. The low prow may imply the practice of ramming and therefore reflect a technological defense against the maritime activities of the Sea Peoples. This interpretation, however, seems questionable. Under Ramesses II and III the Egyptians began to employ a type of merchant ship hitherto unknown within the Nile Valley. These ships, called menesh, were probably built in the royal dockyards. But they were not developed from local sailing vessels known to the Egyptian for many centuries earlier. Lucien Basch has proposed that these menesh were derived from the north, and he pinpoints Syria, although Phoenicia is meant, as the origin. Known from the early years of Ramesses II, these ships were also present in the naval battle of Ramesses III against the Sea Peoples but operated as well in the Red Sea for voyages to the fabulous land of Punt, inland from the Somali coast or, as has been recently argued, along the southern coastline of Arabia. By and large, it seems reasonable that in Dynasty XIX, if not somewhat earlier, the flotilla of Egypt was reorganized according to the naval traditions of the Phoenicians. Their ports had close connections with various peoples traversing the eastern Mediterranean, and possibly their shipwrights had developed the high prows and sterns of other foreign sea cruisers. Moreover, these high prows were also common in scenes of the Syrian ships that unloaded their produce at Thebes in Dynasty XVIII. It appears reasonable to conclude that the Egyptian state improved its own merchant and combat navy during the second half of Dynasty XVIII and the first part of the succeeding dynasty in order to transport soldiers and to deliver “tribute” from Asia. Later, however, they would be used in sea combat.

The reliefs show that the fighting was mainly hand-to-hand, notwithstanding the presence of Egyptian archers on land and in the ships. Many of the Sherden and other enemies are carved in the position of captives. Their hands are constrained within wooden shackles. Some Egyptians have spears whereas others brandish swords. The Peleshet, Sherden, and other sea enemies mainly depended upon spears, swords, and protective shields. The reliefs depict one enemy ship captured by Sherden “mercenaries,” and we can see their round shields, medium but thick swords, and distinctive helmets. (Note that the Sherden do not appear to have been part of the archer contingent of the Egyptian army.) Here, an Egyptian with shield is about to climb into an enemy ship. In another location one vessel has already been seized. Avner Raban, after subjecting the scenes of warfare, concluded that Ramesses’ flotilla may have been built upon the lines of the Sea Peoples’ fleet. We can add that it is equally possible that the Egyptians, with the Sherden for instance, may have reorganized their ships along more up-to-date military lines. Whether or not this was a contemporary innovation must remain open, especially because the encounter between Ramesses II and the Sea Peoples early in his reign could have provided such an impetus. At any rate, the juxtaposition of both fleets is so close that we must conclude that only the final hour of the battle is pictorially recorded. The melee appears similar to a land battle, with the tactics of the Egyptian navy dependent upon the use of archers, thereby reflecting the New Kingdom tradition of the composite bow. In other words, just as with chariots, bows and arrows provided the main element of fighting.

Although the navy (such as it was) was certainly not as extensive as the navies of contemporary nations/states. For much of the Dynastic Period, shipping in the Mediterranean was mostly commercial, not military, but this seemed to change towards the latter part of the New Kingdom, when the Delta coastline was under threat from several seaborne foreign armies. For example, there was a raid by Sherden pirates in the second year of Ramesses II’s reign; these pirates were not only defeated, but were also incorporated into the Egyptian military as mercenaries. However, Ramesses II’s reaction to this seemed to be the building of multiple fortresses along the coastline, rather than increasing the number of military ships.

Most of the time, the ancient Egyptian fleet seems to have been used more for the transport of troops to battlefields as quickly as possible for the active engagement in naval battles. For example, towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period, Kamose (making a point to emphasise the amount of timber to be used in the construction of the flotilla) arranged for his fleet to lay siege to the Hyksos capital of Avaris, the soldiers and war supplies being transported to the site more quickly than they could be by marching overland. This would change to some extent later in the New Kingdom, but not hugely.

Much of the evidence for actual naval battles and warships seem to come from the reign of Ramesses III, when (in the eighth year of his reign) the Sea Peoples attacked at the Delta border. They came first over land (but were defeated in a single battle at the northern edge of the Sinai desert) and then by sea, where they were defeated in what seems to have been a fairly epic naval battle. This naval battle is portrayed at the mortuary temple of Medinet Habu, where the relief depicts handto-hand combat between the Sea Peoples (on five boats) and the Egyptians (on four boats which were, naturally, larger than their Sea Peoples counterparts). Ancient Egyptian artistic sensibilities and aesthetics must be taken into account here and it is safe to say that perhaps the numbers of vessels depicted on the reliefs do not accurately reflect the actual numbers that took part in the battle. It is possible, as with the smiting scenes discussed elsewhere, the artists were instructed to portray the superiority of the Egyptian fleet, or maybe there simply was not enough room on the relief to fit in the correct numbers of vessels.

The Egyptian vessels have rows of up to twenty-two oarsmen along with archers and foot-soldiers (although the exact numbers are difficult to discern with any precision), outnumbering the people on board the Sea Peoples vessels, where it is argued that the figures on-board must have doubled-up as warriors and rowers. The Egyptian vessels are described as having low prows, high, angular sterns, with ‘aftercastles’ of two storeys, and a high bulwark. The Sea Peoples boats were angular, with vertical prows and sterns (very much in the tradition of Aegean ships), designed to do well on long sea voyages. One of the Sea Peoples vessels has seemingly capsized or been brought down by the Egyptian flotilla and the Sea Peoples dead are seen floating in the surrounding water. As with the Sherden pirates discussed above, the Sea Peoples were apparently also assimilated into ancient Egyptian empire after Ramesses III’s victory, although in the long-term this solitary victory was only putting-off the unavoidable as the region of Canaan was lost to the Sea Peoples by the end of the Twentieth Dynasty.

It would seem that most of the time, particularly during the latter part of the Dynastic Period, any Egyptian fleet was mostly used to protect and enforce Egypt’s trade interests. For example in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, the Saite pharaohs created a large fleet of war-galleys, in the style of Graeco-Phoenician ships, in order to regain (albeit temporarily) control of trade in the Levantine.

Despite this evidence for some aspect of naval warfare later on in Dynastic Egypt, throughout most of the Dynastic Period Egypt’s military forces were chiefly land-based, resorting to naval battles rarely, with the flotilla mostly being used to transport equipment and soldiers to battles. Certainly, there is a dearth of evidence for Egypt’s flotilla in the New Kingdom, but there is a wealth of evidence for the land-based forces; this either suggests that the sea-based military was not as important or developed as the land-based army, or that there is simply an annoying lack of primary resources providing relevant information. The former is the most likely explanation, with the land-based military indeed being far more advanced and essential to Dynastic warfare than the ancient Egyptian navy (such as it was).

The Plan Orange Disaster – A What If… Part I

Secrets abound in times of war, as does what Winston Churchill termed the “bodyguard of lies” surrounding any important military “truth.” Some sixty years ago the failure of American, British, and Russian military intelligence to penetrate Japan’s secret stratagems placed the U.S. Navy on the wrong side of the greatest naval debacle in history. How and why the United States suddenly implemented a version of War Plan Orange that had been abandoned as unfeasible in the 1920s is, perhaps, even more important than the story of the proud warships gutted by its implementation.

From War Plan Orange to Rainbow

In the 1890s, U.S. military staffs began to consider the Pacific a potential major arena for international conflict. Initially they envisioned Europeans as the anticipated enemy—one of the earliest plans called for the destruction of a weak French Asiatic squadron in support of America’s Open Door Policy in China. The joint U.S. Army and Navy Planning Boards, for the sake of secrecy and perhaps from the awareness that giving names to possible enemies tends to raise levels of international tension, soon devised a color-based system for identifying nations during planning. They designated the United States as “Blue,” the British as “Red,” the Germans as “Black,” and so forth. The acquisition of the Philippines in 1898 increased the emphasis on defensive operations in surrounding waters and necessitated giving consideration to the acquisition and protection of “stepping-stone” logistical bases from the West Coast of the United States to Manila Bay, and onward to the resources and markets of the Orient.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, a new potential enemy emerged in the Pacific. With the Meiji Restoration, Japan had embraced Western-style industrialism and the imperialism that inevitably accompanied it. A modern Imperial Japanese Navy, modeled on the British Royal Navy (not to mention trained by that navy, and often using ships built in British shipyards), played the key role in defeating Russia in 1904–1905. The naval successes at Port Arthur and Tsushima established the UN as a force to be reckoned with. In the eyes of U.S. military planners, this impressive display earned Japan its own designation, “Orange,” and afterward actions deemed necessary to counter future Japanese aggression in the Pacific could be found in War Plan Orange.

The rapid technological shifts resulting from World War I, coupled with postwar diplomatic initiatives and the economic difficulties of a worldwide depression, dictated numerous changes in War Plan Orange between 1919 and 1939. In various guises and with the occasional twist and turn, planning moved from a determined direct defense of the Philippines by the U.S. fleet in the early 1920s, to the anticipated loss of those islands to a superbly trained well-equipped, and (thanks to its Chinese adventures) veteran Japanese military in the 1930s. By early 1939, Plan Orange called for the recapture of the Philippines after a two- to three-year methodical advance across the Central Pacific, at which time Japan’s home fleet would be confronted and destroyed allowing a close blockade of the home islands (hopefully decisive without the need for an invasion). In mid-1939, with war in Europe threatening to erupt at any moment, War Plan Orange was incorporated into Rainbow 1, a unilateral defense of the Western Hemisphere against Germany, Japan, and their fascist minions.

By mid-1940 a new plan, Rainbow 4, offered a multilateral defense of the Western Hemisphere, assuming alliances with Great Britain and France. This plan forbade any Blue offensive action in the Pacific—a clear acknowledgment of Germany as the most dangerous of potential opponents. In essence, the United States would abandon the Philippines, Guam, and even Wake Island to a hopeless delaying action against superior Japanese forces. Rainbow 4 allowed Japan a free hand in Asia and the Pacific while the military assets of the United States and its eventual allies knocked Germany out of the war as quickly as possible.

Japan: Options and Planning Through 1939

The industrialization of Japan’s economy may have saved the nation from direct European domination in the late 1800s, but it resulted in a quandary for Japanese leaders. The home islands simply lacked the raw materials to support massive industrialization. Thus, the history of modernized Japan became one of aggressively seeking control of Asian resources. Through 1920, military success followed military success, yet European and American diplomats more often than not managed to strip away the fruits of Japanese victory. After 1920 the Japanese government became increasingly dominated by its officer caste, the same men who had found victory to be bittersweet, at best. They knew a reckoning with their foreign tormentors could not be avoided, and the greatest threat appeared to be the United States, a nation with seemingly endless industrial might.

Japanese naval thinking fixated on victory through a single great battle. Before the technological changes during and following World War I, planners envisioned the U.S. fleet being brought to battle near the home islands. As had the Russians at Tsushima, the U.S. Navy (USN) would be debilitated by its extended voyage, considerably improving the odds against a numerically superior American fleet. After the technological changes, the expected interception point moved south and east, its location varying with changing plans from the coasts of the Philippines to the Marshall Islands. With the distance traveled less of a debilitative factor (speed, range, and durability had improved dramatically), the IJN planned an attritional war against the advancing USN. Submarines, land and naval airplanes, and night attacks by light surface units equipped with the superb Type 92 “Long Lance” torpedo, would deplete the American forces by as much as thirty percent before the main battle fleets clashed and decided the issue.

The timing and location of the final battle, as well as the success of the UN’s strategy of attrition, depended upon which nation seized the initiative. If Japan struck first (first strike, the surprise attack, being prominent in Japanese military tradition), it could quickly seize the U.S. Pacific bases—the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and perhaps even Midway Island and the Aleutians—forcing the USN into a protracted advance of one to two years’ duration. This would allow time for the attritional strategy to work; but a danger (almost a certainty) existed that the production capacity of the United States would so far exceed that of Japan that the USN would actually be stronger, despite a thirty percent attrition of its starting forces, once it breached Japan’s defensive perimeter in the Pacific. If the Americans struck first, especially with the UN scattered across the Pacific and along the coasts of Asia, disaster would result. Thus, by 1940, as the Imperial Army continued to advance in China, Europe dissolved in flames, and the American people prepared to elect a president to lead them away from or into war, the UN lacked a truly effective counter to an aggressive War Plan Orange.

Democracy at Work

The Democratic Party nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a third consecutive term as president in 1940. The Republican Party opposed the highly popular Roosevelt with Wendell L. Willkie, a major player in the corporate world but not a man expected to win the heart of the common man, still suffering from the Great Depression. It may never be known exactly who leaked details of Rainbow 4 to the American press, but on October 18 newspaper headlines across the United States screamed FDR PLANS TO ABANDON OUR BOYS IN THE PHILIPPINES TO THE JAPS! Gen. Douglas MacArthur, caught unprepared by reporters that morning, inadvertently added fuel to the political fire: “Gentlemen, no American president has ever willingly abandoned an inch of American soil to an enemy, much less thrown away the lives of American soldiers and sailors. Our good President would be the first person to agree with me on that. In fact, I have so much faith in President Roosevelt that I would willingly leave for Manila today.”

The Republican Party knew a possible winning gambit when they saw (or leaked) it, especially with less than a month remaining until the election. Hammered by Willkie on the only issue available, and with the polls only a week away, Roosevelt finally offered a statement to the American public via his Sunday radio chat. “I will no more abandon America’s sons than I would my own children. The United States Navy is one of the most powerful forces in the world; should—and I pray it never does—war come to the Pacific, the enemy will be met and destroyed in the Philippines.” Somewhat reassured, voters elected their president to a third term, though not by the expected landslide.

The day after the election, three things of note occurred. In Washington, naval planners dusted off old copies of an aggressive Plan Orange to use in preparing a new multilateral war plan, Rainbow 5. In San Francisco, a vacationing Gen. Douglas MacArthur received orders to take command immediately in the Philippines. And at his office in Tokyo, Adm. Isokura Yamamoto, the man commanding the Japanese navy, smiled as he read the news from the United States.

Yamamoto and Plan Z

Isokura Yamamoto towers above the great admirals of history, despite his five-foot-three-inch height. As a young officer he paced a deck at Tsushima, sacrificing two fingers to Imperial glory. Later, he attended Harvard and served as a naval attache in Washington, gaining a firsthand understanding of the overwhelming resources and industrial capability of the United States. Throughout his life he excelled at games of skill and strategy—bridge, poker, and shogi (similar to European chess). And it was with great skill that he tackled the problem of defeating the American giant.

In August 1939, Yamamoto found himself at the pinnacle of his profession, commander and chief of the Combined Fleet. Two months later he observed a demonstration of naval air power from the bridge of the carrier Akagi. Turning to his chief of staff, the admiral remarked “Impressive! If I can use our fast carriers to sink the American fleet in the mud of Pearl Harbor, I shall run wild in the Pacific for a year, maybe two.” From behind the two men, the absentminded (though brilliant) Capt. Kameto Kuroshima murmured “Be careful what you wish for, Admiral.” Pressed for an explanation of his less than artful words, Kuroshima replied “The mud of Pearl is shallow. If the Americans are the industrial geniuses that you have preached about so often, then they will simply raise the ships and repair them. Far better if the mud is deep, and the victory permanent.” Yamamoto agreed but lacking the ability to force the USN into a deep water engagement, he assigned Kuroshima the task of planning a preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor. The resulting plan, though offering a strong possibility of tactical success, left both men troubled because it would not force the United States to negotiate a peace treaty.

Roosevelt’s commitment to defend the Philippines changed everything. The strike at Pearl scrapped Yamamoto officially unveiled “Plan Z” to the army and navy in September 1941.The plan meshed well with the idea of a Southern Offensive then being championed by the army, one designed to secure quickly the Philippines and Malaysia as a stepping-stone to resource-laden India and the East Indies.8 Plan Z anticipated an immediate advance of the USN from Pearl following the line Midway-Wake Island-Guam-the Philippines, in order to secure American territory, avoid Japanese land-based air and light surface units in the Marshalls, and force the battle line of the IJN into a decisive engagement east or northeast of the Philippines. Without attrition of the USN, the Japanese Combined Fleet, divided as it supported the army, would face anticipated ratios of (USN: IJN) 13:9 in battleships, 20:12 in cruisers, and 60:40 in destroyers by M plus 20 (the earliest date on which the American fleet should near the Philippine coast). Only in fast carriers, 4:6, and naval air power, 400:500 planes, would ratios favor the IJN. Yamamoto, however, expected the Americans to split their light surface forces in order to support the British and Dutch, to escort troop convoys closely following their main fleet, and to cover the fleet’s large logistical train.

Central to Plan Z was a daring scheme to lull the Americans into misusing their carriers. Five old merchantmen would be converted to appear as flattops—including dummy planes on the decks. These vessels, accompanied by the light carrier Ryujo, would operate west of the Philippines. If they could fix American attention, Yamamoto’s Fast Strike Force of six carriers, supported by two battle cruisers and assorted lighter vessels, would have an opportunity to weaken the USN with repeated strikes once it reached Guam. The carriers would then drive the U.S. fleet through the southern approaches to Manila—either San Bernardino Strait or Surigao Strait—where Yamamoto would be waiting with a gauntlet of destroyers, cruisers, and battlewagons quickly concentrated from forces supporting the Southern Offensive. Surviving elements of the American battle fleet would undoubtedly reach Manila, where they could be pounded by land-based airplanes operating from newly captured fields on Luzon or those recently occupied in (formerly French) Indochina. To avoid a change of heart by the Americans, Guam and Wake Island would not be seized until after the defeat of the USN’s main fleet.

Though the Imperial Japanese Army did not smile upon Plan Z, arguing that the fast carriers would be better used covering the invasion of Malaysia and clearing the South China Sea of Allied naval forces, they could not disagree with Yamamoto’s logic: “Only the complete destruction of the American Pacific fleet and the loss of the Philippines will shock the citizens of the United States into a negotiated peace. It will take twenty years and the resources of Asia to allow our nation to achieve industrial parity with our enemy. Samurai of Japan! We must have that quick peace!” In the end, all present concurred that land-based aircraft and those surface units scheduled to rendezvous at Surigao Strait would suffice to cover the invasions.

In the following months, as negotiations with a U.S. government angry at continued Japanese expansion in China and obviously preparing for a showdown in the Pacific, moved toward collapse, Tokyo set December 7, 1941, as the date for its assault against Allied territories in the Pacific. Sunrise of that day found Yamamoto off the Philippine coast, aboard the hastily completed super-battleship Yamato, wondering how quickly the USN would sortie from Pearl Harbor.

Kimmel at the Helm

Roosevelt’s choice of the two key officers responsible for finalizing and implementing the War Plan Orange segment of Rainbow 5 has been debated by historians almost as much as it has been lamented by Americans as a whole. It is not difficult to argue that the self-proclaimed military genius MacArthur’s mouth earned him the hot seat; but the much maligned Adm. Husband Kimmel is a different story. War Plan Orange actively sought a big-gun confrontation, and Kimmel was a big-gun admiral, having served on a dozen battlewagons in his career. Though he lacked experience with naval aviation, carriers constituted a virtually untried arm of the U.S. Navy at that time. Without doubt, Kimmel was the consensus choice to implement War Plan Orange. Even Gen. George Marshall whole-heartedly supported the aggressive Kimmel for the role.

In early November 1941, Kimmel held a conference for his top officers at Pearl. There, he presented the plan that would be implemented as it happened the following month. In the Philippines, MacArthur, recently reinforced by fifty P-40 fighters and twenty-four B-17 bombers, would fight a delaying action, preserving Manila Bay as a primary fleet anchorage. A British fleet of two battleships, a carrier, and screening elements would similarly defend Singapore, the Gibraltar of the Pacific, as a secondary base for the U.S. fleet. Southward, the ABDA flotilla (a small U.S.-British-Dutch-Australian force built around two heavy cruisers) would be reinforced by the carrier Yorktown.10 It would secure a secondary supply route to the Philippines from Australia, distracting Japanese naval forces in the process.

Task Force 1—eleven battleships, three cruisers, and eighteen destroyers—under the tactical command of Kimmel, aboard the battleship Pennsylvania, would sail on M plus 2 to Wake Island via Midway, arriving on M plus 12. In case Wake had fallen, a battalion of Marines in APDs (old destroyers modified as high-speed transports) accompanied the task force. A convoy transporting a coastal defense battalion, fifty crated aircraft, and supplies for Wake, trailed the task force by approximately five days. TF 1 would sail from Wake for Guam by M plus 15. Guam, probably lost to the Japanese in the first days of the conflict, would be briefly bombarded and recaptured by the Marines. On or about M plus 21, the fleet would leave Guam for Manila, arriving off the Philippines no later than M plus 25 and taking a northern route around Luzon, hopefully forcing the IJN to give battle or face the interdiction of its forces engaged in the invasion of the Philippines. Elements of the victorious TF 1 would arrive in Manila by M plus 28, at the latest.

Task Forces 2 and 3, centered respectively, on the carriers Lexington and Saratoga, would sortie from Pearl immediately upon the opening of hostilities. The carrier groups, each protected by a screen of cruisers and destroyers, would scout ahead of the fleet (TF 2 to the north, TF 3 to the south). Through M plus 15, the task forces would operate approximately 300 miles forward of TF 1. After the relief or recapture of Guam, the carriers would be reined in, to fifty miles, allowing them to fly CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over TF 1 as Japanese naval and land-based aircraft became more of a threat.

Task Force 4, composed of the carrier Enterprise and the fast battleships North Carolina and Washington—the last-named warship rushed to commissioning as the Japanese threat loomed— would provide a diversionary force. From either Pearl or its normal cruising station southeast of the Marshalls, TF 4 would raid through the Japanese mandates; its high-speed run concluding with a daring assault on Truk, the major IJN base in the area. TF 4 would then rendezvous with TF 1 near the Philippines around M plus 22.

On M plus 30, a large convoy with men and matériel for Guam, Wake, and the Philippines, would leave the West Coast. Task Force 5, composed of cruisers and destroyers, would escort this force to the Philippines—if the Japanese had not yet sued for peace. “The Japanese will face us because they must face us—or abandon their invasion forces in the Pacific. And their battle line cannot stand against us!” Kimmel stated at the conclusion of the briefing. He was interrupted by the man who would command TF 4, William F. “Bull” Halsey: “Be careful what you wish for, Admiral!” Ordered by Kimmel to explain his outburst, the unrepentant Halsey warned, “Somewhere across that water a little yellow bastard is telling other little yellow bastards the same thing; only he’s saying that our battleships cannot stand against their carriers. And until those carriers are burning, I say be damned careful what you wish for!”  As it turned out, both men were correct to some degree.

At 0800, December 7, an aide awakened Kimmel at his office on Oahu with the news that Japan had just invaded the Philippines. He immediately ordered War Plan Orange to be implemented and prepared to board Arizona, rather than Pennsylvania. Kimmel had placed the usual flagship of the Pacific Fleet in dry dock only three days earlier for annual servicing of its shafts, and rather than sail late, the admiral ordered it to join the M plus 30 convoy as reinforcement for his by then theoretically victorious fleet.

An hour later Kimmel’s blood pressure soared when he learned that Douglas MacArthur had somehow managed to be taken by surprise. Most of his planes had been destroyed on the ground and the Imperial Army had landed at points across the Philippines with minimal resistance. Turning to Ensign Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt, his newly appointed aide, Kimmel snarled, “If MacArthur loses my base before I get there, he better have died gloriously—or I will kill him myself!”

As the U.S. fleet began its exodus from Pearl, a last telegram crossed the Pacific to Tokyo.14It read, “Hope to leave for Tokyo tomorrow. Plan to Climb Mount Niitaka next week.” Unknown to the American telegraphist, the sender, Takeo Yoshikawa, had been carefully observing the U.S. base for six months. His telegram, received at the American Desk of Japanese Naval Intelligence and forwarded immediately to Yamato, gave rise to cheers among Yamamoto’s staff. Their admiral, an avid climber, had picked the phrase “Climb Mount Niitaka” as the signal that the U.S. battle fleet had entered the fray.

A Stillness on the Sea

MacArthur had, indeed, been caught unprepared despite the obviously critical place of the Philippines in War Plan Orange. Clark Field outside Manila, bloomed with fires from the prettily arrayed rows of U.S. planes pummeled by Japanese bombers. By 2000 on December 7, only thirty-one fighters, twenty-seven bombers (including five B-17s), and three seaplanes remained operational.

Though MacArthur failed to contest the landings in the Philippines, that did not mean resistance melted away. On the contrary, Americans as well as the green Filipino Constabulary fought magnificently on the ground. As early as December 9, Gen. Nasaharu Homma, commanding the Imperial Army’s invasion of Luzon, sent a message to Tokyo demanding increased naval air support and additional troops. Yamamoto refused to release his carriers (now lurking west of Guam), partly out of fear that too rapid a success on the ground would cause the U.S. fleet to return to Pearl, thus evading his trap. As a result, considerable friction developed between the army and navy hierarchies. Fortunately for Japan, Yamamoto’s threat to resign, following on the heels of naval successes in the South China Sea on December 8, squelched that particular internal conflict.

On December 7 a British force composed of the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, with the carrier Indomitable providing air cover, sortied from Singapore to disrupt Japanese amphibious landings along the Malaysian coast. On the following day, Indomitable’s CAP found itself swamped by waves of Japanese fighters and bombers. The British lost all three capital ships, but not before scout planes from their carrier reported the source of their numerous attackers—six Japanese flattops, steaming just within maximum range of Clark airfield. For once, MacArthur acted with alacrity, dispatching every available plane to attack the enemy task force. The uncoordinated waves of U.S. planes began their attack as darkness fell across the South China Sea. Short on fuel and blanketed in darkness, few of the bombers and fighters managed to return to Clark, but those that did allowed MacArthur to send his historic message at 2330 that evening: “Tonight there is a stillness on the South China Sea where once the fleet of Japan roamed at will. I have avenged the brave crews of the Repulse, the Prince of Whales [sic], and the Indomitable. Five carriers of the Japanese Navy have been confirmed as destroyed by my heroic American aviators, and another is damaged and presumed sinking.”

Thus Yamamoto won a double victory that day—three British capital ships stricken from the Royal Naval list, and MacArthur’s reassurance to the world that the carrier might of Japan had been destroyed. Kimmel, steaming rapidly to Wake Island, is reported to have held a dinner party the following evening, neither the first nor the last warrior deceived into celebration while a trap waited patiently mere days ahead. Rear Adms. Wilson Brown (TF 2) and Frank Fletcher (TF 3), scouting far forward of TF 1, breathed sighs of relief. Until that moment, each man had wrestled with nightmares of their single carriers isolated and destroyed by the numerically superior IJN naval air power. Fletcher, always concerned about the fuel levels of his ships, even slowed his advance the following day to replenish.

Only aboard Enterprise, flagship of TF 4, did a senior American officer seem to have doubts concerning the veracity of MacArthur’s message. A young flier overheard Halsey, then suffering from a constantly worsening skin rash, snorted, “That son of a bitch was born an egotistical liar. Even those yellow bastards aren’t stupid enough to put six big carriers where his fliers could get at ’em. Doug couldn’t sink an outhouse, not even if he dropped a brick one in the middle of Subic Bay. I hope to God that Wil and Frank see through this crap. ‘Stillness on the sea’—shit!”

The Plan Orange Disaster – A What If… Part II

The Failure of War Plan Orange: Key Engagements


It’s a military truism that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and it was certainly as applicable to Plan Z as to the ill-fated Plan Orange. Yamamoto faced two unexpected problems: the ABDA command reinforced by Yorktown, and TF 4 rampaging through the Marshall Islands. Both moves caught the Japanese admiral flat-footed (Yamamoto strongly believed that the USN would sensibly mass its carriers for battle) and demanded immediate attention.

Operating from secure bases in the Netherlands East Indies, the ABDA task force pushed tentatively northward on December 8, threatening to disrupt the valuable convoys supporting the invasions of the Philippines and Malaya. Two days later Yamamoto dispatched a task force centered around the slightly damaged Ryujo and the light carrier Hosho to counter the threat. On December 17, after a week of sparring, fighters and bombers from Yorktown caught the Japanese carriers in the process of launching a strike against the ABDA task force. In the face of stiff resistance from a reinforced enemy CAP (fighters were already aloft for the planned strike against Yorktown), American dive-bombers hit Hosho five times, while two torpedoes and three bombs turned Ryujo into a flaming hulk. But this victory had a stiff price—Yorktown expended seventy-three planes in the attack, including all of its torpedo bombers and over half of its fighters. Adm. Karl Doorman, aboard the cruiser De Ruyter, had little choice but to order withdrawal until the depleted air wing could be reinforced; especially after Japanese submarine 1-17 sank Langley (once designated CV 1, then redesignated AV 3, an aviation transport), ferrying replacement aircraft to Yorktown, on December 19. Nonetheless, the ABDA provided the only true victory for the Allies during the brief Pacific War.

Unless he chose to weaken his Fast Strike Force, Yamamoto lacked carriers to send against the U.S. task force raiding through the Marshalls. Still, the fleet base at Truk, an obvious target for the Americans, offered an opportunity to attrit the USN. On December 9, Yamamoto dispatched a light force led by Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka in the cruiser Jintsu to Truk. It included two additional cruisers, Myoko and Nachi, and eight destroyers. Tanaka had orders to attempt to develop a night action if the Americans approached the base.

Slowed by a boiler failure on the hastily commissioned Washington, TF 4 did not enter strike range of Truk until December 22. Even then, Halsey hesitated to commit his dwindling air group against a possibly heavy Japanese air defense. Holding a cruiser and four destroyers back to defend Enterprise, the admiral ordered the remainder of the task force to close and bombard Truk under cover of darkness. Capt. Tameichi Hara, skippering the destroyer Amatsukaze, describes what followed:

A seaplane reported two American battleships [North Carolina and Washington], two cruisers, and six destroyers steaming directly to Truk shortly before dark on December 22. Tanaka, perhaps the best in our navy at night actions by small ships, deployed us in parallel lines, an interior of three cruisers led by two destroyers, and an exterior of six destroyers. At 1123, [destroyer] Kuroshio spotted shapes approaching the front of our column at about 48°. A cloudy night, the Americans had approached to less then 3,000 yds before being spotted! Strangely, they seemed not to see us at all, until our division unleashed 48 torpedoes and turned quickly to port for reloading. At that instant star shells burst above the enemy battleships, and the leader, the North Carolina [actually the cruiser Chicora], was hit by concentrated fire from our cruisers. I was busy for the next few seconds as shell splashes swamped my frail vessel. The Kuroshio was not so lucky—at least one large caliber shell penetrated a magazine and it seemed to lift completely from the water. Seconds later, Murata [a spotter] screamed, “Hits! Torpedo hits along the line!” My heart almost stopped before I realized that he meant the enemy line, and not ours … By 0058, it seemed that the sea was covered in burning ships. A large American vessel, obviously out of control, bore down on us. I ordered our 5-inch guns to open fire—a mistake as an enemy cruiser quickly hit us once the flashes revealed our position, our first damage of the engagement… At 0153, Jintsu, burning and dead in the water, flashed a message to launch remaining torpedoes and disengage. It grieved us to so abandon our comrades, particularly my friend and mentor, Tanaka . . .

Clearly, our success against the vastly superior American force resulted from our constant training in night combat actions and proper use of the torpedo, aspects of war neglected by the enemy. But given time, the USN could match the training, if not the warrior spirit, of the Imperial Navy. Thus the advantage of our grossly outnumbered ships would be fleeting—I prayed to my ancestors that it would last long enough for Yamamoto to crush the enemy’s main battle line…

In the confused night action at Truk, both American battleships suffered severely. Each took two torpedoes, Washington’s already slow pace dropping to fifteen knots. All three USN cruisers sank before dawn, along with three destroyers. Halsey had little option except to return to Pearl—abandoning the damaged battlewagons to join Kimmel would result in their destruction. Even then, IJN submarine 1-221 managed to penetrate TF 4’s reduced ASW (antisubmarine warfare) screen and sink Washington on December 25.

Admiral Tanaka, his flagship reduced to a hulk by numerous large caliber hits, actually survived the battle, the vessel towed to Truk the following day. The other Japanese cruisers and three destroyers were not as lucky. Tanaka shifted his flag to Amatsukaze, and having effectively stripped two battleships and a carrier from the American fleet, began moving his battered survivors to join Yamamoto off Luzon for the final showdown.

What Damn Carriers?

Task Force 1 reached the vicinity of Wake Island on December 19, shortly after Kimmel received a belated notification of Yorktown’s successful action against the Japanese light carriers. Though Kimmel should have been puzzled by the failure of the IJN to seize the lightly defended islands of Guam and Wake, he apparently wrote the matter off to Yamamoto’s incompetence as a naval commander (perhaps understandably—Kimmel was operating under the delusion that Japan had lost as many as eight carriers). The task force tarried only briefly in the vicinity of Wake, and then only because of a torpedo hit on the old battleship Texas (screening forces sank three IJN submarines in the area, of which only one managed a torpedo attack). The battlewagon’s crew quickly fixed a temporary patch over the gaping hole in its bow, allowing it to remain with the task force when the latter turned for Guam on December 20.

As TF 1 neared Guam, IJN submarine contacts increased. By December 26, when the APDs unloaded their Marines as reinforcements for Guam’s defenders, screening destroyers had defeated over a dozen attacks. Despite four confirmed kills, exhaustion took its toll, and 1-214 at last managed to hit Nevada with four torpedoes before being forced to the surface and rammed by the destroyer Manley. Though valiant damage control efforts saved the battleship from sinking, its propellers and rudder had been smashed. When Kimmel began the last stage of his voyage on December 27, both Nevada and Manley remained at Guam. The APDs also stayed, to screen the damaged battleship.

Brown’s Task Force 2 and Fletcher’s Task Force 3 failed to find a single Japanese vessel in their rush across the Pacific, though Lexington’s air group bombed and strafed the small Japanese airfield on Saipan on December 24 and 25. War Plan Orange had called for the carrier task forces to close with TF 1 on the final leg of its journey, but Kimmel, thinking the threat from enemy naval aircraft had been minimized signaled Brown and Fletcher to unite their task forces on December 29, approximately 300 miles due west of Legaspi airfield on Luzon. They would then proceed, under Fletcher’s command, to the Formosa-Luzon gap, fixing the position of the IJN Combined Fleet for Kimmel’s rapidly approaching TF 1.

Had the carriers united at 0800 December 29, as ordered, a thin chance existed that they could have survived the onslaught that overwhelmed them individually; but Fletcher, on December 28, had again slowed TF 3 for refueling, despite the fact that the Saratoga’s tanks were well over half full. His first indication of a problem came at 0937 on the following day, while still eight full hours south of TF 2. When given a radio message from Lexington that read, “Under attack by large numbers of Japanese carrier planes. Where is TF 3? All the world wonders,” Fletcher could only exclaim, “Carrier planes! What damn carriers can they still have?” At last ordering the task force to full speed, Fletcher revectored his search planes and tried to contact Brown’s force.

The world will never know exactly what happened to TF 2. How did Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo’s “Ghost Fleet,” the six carriers of the Fast Strike Force, manage to surprise Wilson? Why did Nagumo continue to pound the task force after Lexington sank? And why was no effort made to rescue the thousands of survivors abandoned in the shark-infested Pacific waters? What we do know is that a carrier, three cruisers, eight destroyers, and two fast oilers succumbed to eight hours of repeated air attack. The suffering of their crews, until taken by the sharks or succumbing to dehydration, is perhaps better left unimagined.

The death of Saratoga seems almost anticlimactic after the horrors experienced by TF 2. At 1628 on December 29, one of Fletcher’s scouts (before being destroyed) reported four Japanese heavy carriers approximately 250 miles west-northwest of TF 3. Fletcher quickly launched a full strike, retaining only six fighters for CAP. While getting the strike into the air, Saratoga’s CAP killed a Japanese flying boat, but only after it had reported TF 3’s position. Though Nagumo’s fliers were exhausted after destroying TF 2, he nonetheless managed to deploy a small striking force of eight torpedo planes, twelve dive-bombers, and nine fighters (none would find their way home in the gathering darkness). These found Saratoga at 2010, quickly overwhelmed its CAP, and sank the carrier with three torpedo and at least four bomb hits. Fletcher died on his bridge. The remainder of TF 3, crowded with Saratoga’s survivors, made full speed for Guam. As for the American air group, it reported sinking two carriers attempting to hide in a rapidly advancing storm front, then disappeared plane by plane as each exhausted its fuel. Though Nagumo reported 112 of his 497 available planes lost on December 29, he never mentioned a U.S. attack on his force. Ironically, the two carriers reported destroyed by Saratoga’s air group may well have been the oilers attached to TF 2.

Der Tag

In the early hours of December 30, an exhausted Kimmel received word of the loss of Saratoga. With no word from Task Force 2, and every indication that Yamamoto had more carrier strength than originally thought, Kimmel was caught in a dilemma. Task Force 1 was only forty-eight hours from Luzon at top speed, and less than eighty hours from a presumed safe anchorage at Manila. To turn tail at this point would mean not only admitting the failure of War Plan Orange, but would not guarantee a safe return to Pearl for his battle line, which was mainly intact and still outnumbered the Japanese. Standing on the bridge wing of Arizona, accompanied only by his aide, Zumwalt, Kimmel talked aloud as he worked through his options. “First, Yamamoto will be waiting north of Luzon, guarding his convoys. Second he must have expended the last of his naval air today—what’s he got left, Zumwalt? A couple of escort carriers? Third—well, third I’ll be damned if I want to be remembered as a Scheer! You know that story, Ensign? From 1914 to 1916 the German navy waited for ‘DerTag’—’the day,’ when it would challenge the British fleet in one last battle, to victory or to the last ship. But the Germans never really had the advantage, and when Scheer finally had his chance at Jutland he turned and ran. I still have the advantage, Ensign! This is the most powerful battle line afloat, and I just can’t see running away with it.”

So Kimmel, wishing to avoid the condemnation of future naval historians, continued to Manila. Without air cover, however, he decided to use the most direct route to his anchorage— via Surigao Strait. Unfortunately, Kimmel and the remaining ships of TF 1—nine battleships, three cruisers, and seventeen destroyers—already stood among the damned thanks to the American public, a faulty War Plan Orange, and the genius of Yamamoto.

The Gauntlet

On December 30, shortly after being advised of the sinking of the last American carrier supporting Kimmel, Yamamoto ordered Nagumo to slowly scout southward find the USN’s battle fleet, and drive it to Surigao Strait. Nagumo did just that, using December 31 to rest and reorganize his weary but jubilant air groups. At 1143 on January 1, 1942, his scouts discovered the American fleet steaming at best speed for Luzon. Through the rest of the day, amid constantly deteriorating weather conditions, Nagumo managed to launch only two waves of planes against Task Force 1. One of these never found Kimmel’s fleet, and the other sank the cruiser Vincennes and two destroyers, disabled the aft turret on New Mexico, and started severe fires on Oklahoma and Tennessee. As darkness fell, Nagumo moved northwest and counted his losses: an additional seventy-two planes had fallen victim to heavy antiaircraft fire or accident, bringing his two-day losses to 184 of the 497 original aircraft. Secure in the knowledge that the fate of the American battle line now rested in the hands of his brilliant boss, Nagumo sailed for a rendezvous with invasion forces to be aimed at Guam and Wake Island.

With darkness more or less cloaking his battered TF 1 (both Oklahoma and Tennessee still flamed), Kimmel organized his fleet for a rapid advance through the relatively narrow waters of Surigao Strait. Three destroyers picketed his van of cruisers, Chicago and Augusta, followed closely by Idaho, New Mexico, and California. About a thousand yards separated the van from the remaining battleships led by Kimmel in Arizona, and trailed closely by the two burning vessels, shepherded by four destroyers. The remaining two destroyer divisions deployed 1,500 yards to port and starboard of the van. By 0130 on January 2 it appeared that TF 1, including the laggard battlewagons whose exhausted crews were at last getting the best of fires fed by prewar paint and furnishings, had negotiated the confined waters successfully.

Yamamoto had quietly gathered his Combined Fleet of six battleships—commanded by himself from the super-battleship Yamato—eight heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and forty-two destroyers. Through the storms of January 1, his heavies, screened by a light cruiser and twelve destroyers, steamed back and forth across the west entrance to Surigao Strait. Closer to the entrance, three divisions of ten destroyers, each led by a light cruiser, waited to box the approaching task force. The weather had concerned Yamamoto, despite his commanding position and preponderance of light ships, but the front passed at midnight, and a floatplane launched from the cruiser Tone reported the Americans steaming full tilt through the narrow waters with two burning vessels trailing the main force. At 0148 on January 2, sitting firmly across the American T at a range of only 12,000 yards, Yamamoto flashed the code words, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” This signaled his destroyers, stealthily advancing along the flanks of TF 1, to launch their torpedoes at the enemy. The words of Captain Hara, whose Amatsukaze (still bearing the scars of the action at Truk) was in the division of destroyers some 4,000 yards to port of the American formation, capture the action:

Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! The moonless night and the dark shore to our rear hid us from the enemy as our division alone launched over eighty Long Lances at the enemy line. I targeted the third and fourth battleships in their second echelon. Within seconds, and long before our torpedoes would reach their targets, water spouts began to erupt among the enemy van and second echelon. Hits came quickly, the two burning ships at the rear, Oklahoma and Maryland [actually Tennessee] outlined those vessels in front of them. The Americans appeared to panic, two destroyers colliding in their port division—confusion to which we added with my gun crews’ rapid fire… Then the American battle line disappeared in a wall of water and flame! Apparently the torpedoes from both our port and starboard board divisions arrived at the same time. As the mist and smoke cleared, one American battleship had simply disappeared [West Virginia], a second was turning turtle [Maryland], and a third, minus its bow to the first turret, was surrounded by burning oil and rapidly settling [California].

Later I learned that every American battleship had been struck by at least one torpedo, and quite probably one cruiser and at least five destroyers had also been lost to our opening volley. Then and there I resolved never again to ship aboard a battlewagon. After this, my second night in action, I knew that the Long Lance had ended their day of ruling the waves …

What Hara had viewed as panic was instead the result of two large caliber shells, probably from Haruna, striking the bridge and flag bridge of Arizona. Every man on the bridge died immediately, and the flagship, helm untended, began a gentle turn to starboard. Though control of the rudder was restored in minutes, the damage had been done. The remaining vessels of the second echelon, as well as the destroyer division to port, apparently became confused as they tried to follow the unannounced maneuver.

Worse for TF 1, the salvo had mortally wounded Kimmel, who died within seconds, apparently after whispering his last commands to Ensign Zumwalt. Then, for the first time in history, an ensign took command of a modern battleship in combat. As flames raged through the superstructure of Arizona, Zumwalt, severely wounded himself, ordered a petty officer to send a message to the fleet ordering independent advance to Manila at best speed. Afterward, he made his way, with two ratings, to the bridge. Discovering both wheel and intership communications intact, Zumwalt took control of the battleship, conning it through Yamamoto’s line and to Manila Bay while in constant danger of being roasted alive or falling unconscious from loss of vital fluids. Nor did Arizona flee without drawing Japanese blood; its surviving guns turned the cruiser Yubari into a sinking mass of scrap, and Zumwalt actually managed to ram the destroyer Shirakumo, cutting it completely in half as Arizona escaped Yamamoto’s trap.

Along with the flagship of TF 1, two destroyers and a miraculously undamaged Augusta escaped. Texas, closely following Arizona, also penetrated the Japanese battle line, but capsized an hour later when the patch that its crew had hastily installed off Wake Island gave way and added tons of water to what it had already taken on from two additional torpedo hits. If not for the heroic efforts of the van battleships, Idaho and New Mexico, none of these vessels would have escaped. With Idaho’s speed reduced to half by flooded boilers, Capt. Mark Smith turned his ship to parallel Yamamoto’s battlewagons rather than attempt an escape. Capt. Edward Coombs in New Mexico, despite a fourteen degree list that prevented his remaining primary guns from firing, followed. For a vital half hour the two vessels absorbed the fire of six Japanese battleships and their screen, while Smith pounded battleship Mutsu and Coombs’s secondaries lashed at any enemy vessel in range. As Mutsu drifted out of control, sinking (the only Japanese capital ship lost in the action), New Mexico finally succumbed to its earlier torpedo hits and rolled onto its side at 0222. Less than a minute later, a shell from Yamato apparently penetrated the aft magazine of Idaho. It broke into two sections and sank in minutes.

In the rear of TF 1, Oklahoma and Tennessee had never recovered from the damage inflicted the previous day by Nagumo’s air strikes. With several magazines voluntarily flooded on January 1, numerous secondary casemates ravaged by fire, and additional flooding from the opening barrage of Japanese Long Lances, the battleships attempted to disengage to the west. After destroying the American van, Yamamoto pursued. By 0430 both battleships and their escorts had succumbed to a barrage of torpedoes and large caliber shells.

Dawn found the waters of Surigao Strait smothered with the detritus of battle;—oil, lingering smoke, odd bits of wreckage, and sailors both living and dead. His victory won, Yamamoto counted his losses—one battleship, one cruiser, and fourteen destroyers—and then continued the war. The Japanese made only minimal efforts to rescue American survivors, though hundreds managed to drift ashore over the next four days. Most were immediately taken prisoner by the enemy, less than a hundred reaching the steadily diminishing territory controlled by MacArthur’s now demoralized army.

For the four surviving vessels of TF 1, Manila failed to provide the anticipated refuge. Their trial by fire continued. On January 4 a massive raid by Japanese land-based bombers resulted in a magazine explosion on Arizona. Sheathed in fire, it rapidly settled in the shallow mud of the harbor. The following day, both destroyers fell prey to torpedo bombers. Somehow, Augusta again managed to survive the carnage unscathed only to be scuttled by its crew on January 6, the day MacArthur finally abandoned the port.

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

On January 7, 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the release of information pertaining to the defeat of the American fleet in the Philippines. Panic swept through the United States, a nation that had never experienced sudden defeat on such a scale. Thousands of American families wept for the fathers and sons feared lost to enemy action. Newspapers fed panic and fear with rumors of Japanese fleets off the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific coast. Radio commentators listed the few vessels remaining in the Pacific Fleet between their reports on Axis successes in Europe. And in Washington, Roosevelt and his advisors wrestled with one of the most difficult decisions ever faced by an American government.

They recognized that it would take months, if not years, to replace America’s matériel losses. Even then, the loss of naval cadre would lead to difficulties in training recruits to man the new ships. In addition, in prewar discussions with Great Britain, Roosevelt had already committed the United States to a “Germany First” strategy. Moral issues (and many existed) aside, fascist domination of Europe would hamstring the American economy, only just recovering from the Great Depression. The Philippines and U.S. islands near Japan could not be defended without a strong navy, nor could the United States provide adequate aid to the struggling British Commonwealth in the Pacific Theater without ships. Could Japan successfully invade Hawaii? Probably. Could it invade the West Coast of the United States with Hawaii secured as a fleet base? Probably not—but the UN could eradicate American shipping in the Pacific, shipping that provided raw materials to much of U.S. industry. On the other hand, could Great Britain survive Germany’s U-boats without the assistance of American shipping and the U.S. Navy? Possibly not. Would the American people fight? Could they rally from the fear and panic sweeping the nation? Absolutely! Ultimately, Roosevelt was left with one key question: Could the United States successfully lead the effort to free Europe from Axis domination while simultaneously fighting a war against Japan, a war that threatened American shores, a naval war that would drain men, matériel, and national wealth at an abominable rate?

On January 12, 1942, after a final meeting with representatives of the British government, an exhausted President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to seek a cease-fire and, in conjunction with British representatives in the Far East, open negotiations with the Japanese government. One month later, in words now immortal, he addressed the American people: “On February 12, 1942, a day that will live in infamy, General Douglas MacArthur and representatives of our European allies signed an armistice with Japan aboard the Nevada at Guam. This peace is necessary so that we may lead the struggle against fascism in Europe; but we shall never forget Surigao!”

War Plan Orange had failed. Japan claimed the Philippines as prize, though it allowed the United States to retain Guam and Wake Island (both demilitarized). Great Britain reluctantly agreed to a phased withdrawal from the Far East in exchange for trade concessions with India and guarantees that Australia and New Zealand would not suffer invasion. By the waning days of 1942, Japan managed to establish its Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, stretching from the Gilbert Islands to Indonesia, India, and China. With the collapse of Germany in early 1945, the world quickly polarized—Japan and its puppets arrayed against the rest of the world, led by the United States, Great Britain, and their uncomfortable communist bedfellow, the USSR. Winston Churchill’s 1947 speech, in which he referred to a “Bamboo curtain descending across Asia and the Pacific,” is generally taken to mark the beginning of the brief East-West Cold War that culminated in the wave of internal revolutions led by such heroes as Mao, Gandhi, and Ho, and in the misnamed Sixty Minute War of 1953. But that, as the storyteller invariably says, is another story.

The Reality

It is difficult to imagine any simple set of circumstances that would have allowed Japan to win any form of victory in World War II. Even Yamamoto, its premier naval strategist, knew that the industrial might of the United States must prevail in the long run. For Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor seemed the best chance in a very desperate scenario. And Pearl Harbor was little more than a bee sting on the foot of a sleeping giant, awakening both an industrial power and personal commitments to victory among Americans that eventually doomed Japan while allowing the United States to support their allies in the destruction of European fascism.

Only military rashness of an improbable nature could have offered Japan an opportunity of victory. To tie that rashness to U.S. politics seems more than reasonable in a nation where civilian guidance governs the ultimate deployment and strategy of its military forces (too often to the detriment of young, underpaid, and frequently unappreciated American servicemen). Everything following Roosevelt’s decision to implement a long-abandoned and seriously flawed version of War Plan Orange is, of course, fiction. In reality, the United States closely followed its prewar plan of a gradual erosion of Japanese power, which would have culminated in the invasion of the home islands had not the atomic bomb interfered. Fortunately, the discovery of the true industrial potential of the United States accelerated the course of the Pacific War—matériel was available to maintain Europe as first priority while still overwhelming Japan with ships, planes, and bombs.

A final idea (critical to this hypothetical victory) that must be addressed is the concept of civilian morale, or the “national will” to continue a struggle. War has definite learning curves associated with it. We are familiar with those present on the field of battle; the techniques, for example, that once learned, enhance individual survival. But civilians far removed from the field of battle seem to have a learning curve as well, a process of gradual inurement to increasingly long casualty lists as well as to individual material sacrifice. In reality, Pearl Harbor was a small shock that began a process of acclimatization to war. Without small shocks to prepare them for greater losses, could the American will to resist have been temporarily weakened by the horrific losses postulated in this alternative line of history? Quite possibly; at least, that will could have been weakened enough to accept a rapidly negotiated peace—which in the end was Japan’s only real hope for victory in the Pacific.


The PBR Story

A Uniflight pleasure craft and a PBR steam side by side. Both boats shared the same 31-foot fiberglass hull and were constructed in Bellingham, Washington. The PBR typified the ability of American manufacturers of the period to quickly develop specialized equipment for the military based on off – the- shelf technology.

This late-model Mark I boat (PBR-130) on the trailer features four finned underwater exhaust pipes for quiet running and two water jet nozzles with gates, shown here in the up position for forward motion. If they were in the down position, covering the nozzle discharge opening, the closed gate would cause water to shoot under the boat, resulting in reversing the boat’s motion.

The PBR’s life began at Hatteras Yacht Company in New Bern, North Carolina, in the spring 1965. Responding to a request for a 30-foot patrol boat, Hatteras’ president, Willis Slane, proposed a 28-foot fiberglass hull powered by water-jet pumps. Water jets would allow the new boat to operate in extremely shallow water. Enthusiastic about the proposal, the Bureau of Ships asked for a prototype. Slane, who had flown transports over the Hump for the Army Air Forces during World War II, gave it his all. Working 24-hour days, his team of builders and suppliers produced a working prototype in just two weeks. Powered by jet pumps manufactured by Indiana Gear Works and fitted with a wooden deck and a speedboat style windshield, the boat achieved speeds of up to 30.5 knots. Sadly, Mr. Slane did not live to see his creation showcased. The night before the demonstration, he died of a heart attack. Sarah Phillips, a long-time employee, had warned her boss to slow down, but Slane, who suffered from diabetes, ignored these warnings, ultimately working himself to death to transform his vision into a working prototype.

Impressed with his boat, the Navy asked for bids for a patrol boat similar to Slane’s beloved prototype. The boats had to achieve speeds of 25 to 30 knots, draw just nine inches of water while cruising, and accommodate a crew of four along with extensive equipment and weaponry, including a twin .50-caliber machine gun in an armored turret forward and a .30-caliber gun (later replaced by a .50-caliber) aft. Making matters even more challenging for the vender, the Navy requested 120 boats in less than six months. United Boatbuilders of Bellingham, Washington, won the contract with the lowest bid. Unlike Hatteras, which was primarily a builder of recreational boats, United had extensive experience working with the Navy, having previously built boats ranging from 15 to 52 feet under Navy contract. The eventual Mark I design incorporated United’s 31-foot fiberglass cruiser hull along with a completely new, Navy-designed superstructure. Twin General Motors’ 216-horsepower diesel engines powered the boat’s water-jet propulsion system, and Raytheon Pathfinder 1900N radar provided enhanced navigation and target acquisition capability. Fully loaded, the boat weighed 14,600 pounds and could reach speeds of up to 25.7 knots—slower than the Hatteras prototype but within the Navy’s specifications for a 25–30-knot boat. The original boats cost $75,000 each ($547,000 in 2014 dollars).

The beauty of the PBR design was its innovative application of off-the-shelf technology to a military role. The commercially manufactured Styrofoam-filled fiberglass hull, for example, would prove remarkably durable in combat. Unlike metal, it did not rust or corrode and was strong enough to withstand beaching. It was also relatively easy to repair. But most remarkable, shaped warheads often failed to trigger on the hulls: lacking a solid target to detonate, they tended to penetrate and exit the boat’s hull without exploding.

The PBR’s jet propulsion system allowed the boat to travel on virtually any waterway in the delta and perform maneuvers impossible for the traditional, propeller-driven boats. A PBR could run over a sandbar or beach itself on dry land without damaging the propulsion system and could stop or turn 180 degrees in its own length. Lieutenant Peter A. Huchthausen, a PBR officer in charge based in My Tho, developed a begrudging respect for the boat’s newfangled capabilities during training at Mare Island, California. “A PBR handled so well at high-speed that the slightest touch of the helm caused immediate and violent reaction. At slow speeds it was an obstinate beast. Successfully handling the PBR at lower speeds required the coxswain to turn the helm exactly the opposite than would be done on a normal boat because of the reverse effect of the nozzles.&helllip; Nevertheless, the ardent small-craft handler could learn in short order to set these bundles of energy smartly alongside a pier, even against the strong river current.” One of Seaman Jerry Hammel’s favorite tricks to play with his PBR was to spin it around on a single axis like a top. “You could hurt somebody if you did not tell them ahead of time what you were going to do. You could throw them off the boat.”

The PBR, though, was not immune to problems. Fully loaded, the Mark I PBR ultimately drew one foot 10.5 inches of water—far more than the nine inches planners had originally requested. The Mark I boats deployed to Vietnam never attained the trial speed of 25 knots. The GM engines, almost uniformly, could not reach speeds greater than 2600–2650rpm (rotations per minute) compared with the trial speed of 2700rpm. Many crews exacerbated the problem by carrying extra engine oil, water, and ammunition. “The boats were way slower than advertised,” lamented Fred McDavitt. “If a crew added a couple extra boxes of .50-cal ammo or carried the patrol officer and/or a Vietnamese policeman, the boat could barely achieve speeds above 12 knots.” At the heart of the PBR’s shortfalls were the Jacuzzi pumps, which greatly reduced the efficiency of the GM engines—so much so that with screws instead of water jets, one Uniflight representative told Fred McDavitt, the boat probably would have achieved speeds in excess of 40 knots.

To make the boats lighter, some crews removed engine covers and other unessential equipment. BM1 Williams often went out on patrol with just three-quarters of a tank of fuel and a minimum ammunition load, figuring that if his boat got into a real jam, the HAL-3 Seawolves could back him up with their helicopters’ extra firepower. Engineman Fireman (ENFN) Clem Alderson, a young River Section 531 sailor from Washington State, increased the maximum speed of Williams’ 105 boat and several others to 30 knots by shimming the governors of the engines so they could run as high as 3,200rpm as opposed to the 2,800 maximum rate set by the factory. Alderson also grafted triangular shaped wedges to the underside of the hull about three quarters of the way aft so that at about 12 knots the boats would “jump” up on the step and achieve speeds up to 25 knots. “Alderson had a surgeon’s touch,” explained McDavitt, “but no matter how fast your PBR could go, it couldn’t outrun a bullet. Speed, such as it was at 30 knots, provided a false sense of security.”

Other problems with the Mark I models included drive shafts that did not stand up well to the rigors of Southeast Asia and fiberglass hulls that were easily damaged during sampan and junk searches. 56 The hulls also developed leaks from pinhole cracks, as well as bullet holes, which caused water to seep into the Styrofoam between the fiberglass layers and slow the boats down. To rectify the problem, the boats had to be removed from the water and quarter-inch holes drilled in the keel to allow the water to drain. These holes, in turn, had to be patched with fiberglass.

Finally, just about every PBR crew complained about the constant need to clean clogged jet pump intakes. The screen over the intake had sharp blades, which cut up most of the water hyacinth and other plants before they entered the pumps, but what little got through this filter could wreak havoc on the propulsion system. When an intake clogged during a high-speed run, the PBR would make an unexpected U-turn known as a “flying 180,” occasionally sending equipment and crewmembers tumbling off the boat. To prevent such mishaps, boat captains had their crews clean the intakes once or twice per patrol, depending on the amount of flotsam on the river. Seaman Jere Beery vividly remembered the unpleasant duty: “The intakes are on the bottom of the PBR and I would have to strip naked, jump in, go underneath the boat, and clean them.” On occasion, a live snake would be caught in an intake. According to Lieutenant Robert P. Fuscaldo, “some of those snakes were pretty angry. We used to try and lift the cover off the pumps and push them out with a broom handle, but sometimes that didn’t work and you had to go underneath and pull them out, so it was interesting.”

Despite these issues, the boat generally performed better than expected given how hastily they were procured. As one Naval Ship Systems Command report explained, the PBR “was not built to current U.S. Navy standards,” nor was it subjected to an “adequate test and evaluation period.” Not surprisingly, a few bugs arose once it deployed in combat, but most were resolved expeditiously in theater. Author Tom Cutler, a veteran of the riverine forces, phrased it more eloquently: “Born in an atmosphere of urgency and tested under actual combat conditions, the PBR could have been a disaster. Instead, it proved to be a fierce little combatant that accomplished its mission.” More than anything else, the PBR demonstrated that off-the-shelf technology could be adapted for military use when circumstances demanded it.

In the blue-water oriented Navy of the Cold War, the PBR was a unique vessel in other ways as well. In contrast to the average Essex-class carrier of the period, with a crew of more than 2,600 men, the average PBR carried just four men: a boat captain, an engineman, a gunner’s mate, and a seaman. Initially, boat captains were junior officers and chief petty officers, but as the war progressed, a select group of first- and second-class petty officers also was given the opportunity to command these boats. In no other Navy command or ship were enlisted sailors given so much responsibility. Every crewmember cross-trained to perform every role on the boat, and during combat everyone was a gunner. For enlisted men accustomed to performing highly specialized work on large ships, the jack-of-all-trades nature of the PBR experience made them feel like sailors of yesteryear, and the danger of the rivers led many to think of themselves as a an elite group—a status unofficially conferred by the black berets they adopted as part of their uniform. “It was a unique experience to be on a 31-foot boat in the middle of a country where everyone wanted to kill you,” recalled Jere Beery. “You really develop a since of camaraderie.” Beery’s African-American shipmate, Seaman Harold Sherman, claimed many years later that it was the only assignment in his entire Navy career where he did not experience some form of racism.63 McDavitt agreed that PBR service was unique but challenged its “elite” status. “A lot of people ended up in riverine warfare who had been ‘volunteered’ from other commands,” he said. “We were no different from any other ship in the Navy.”

Patrols lasted up to 18 hours and covered distances of up to 35 miles from a base. For chow, sailors subsisted mainly on canned rations heated on the engine manifolds. To liven up the menu, some crews purchased kerosene camp stoves to prepare seafood and vegetables purchased from the locals. Eating Vietnamese food, however, was not without risk. Bacteria on unwashed produce could easily send a sailor running to the stern of the boat to defecate. Signalman 2nd Class Roderick Davis of River Section 512 described this act, known as “hanging ten,” as practically an Olympic event. “One had to step over the transom, drop trou, squat down on the flat stern board, hold on while hanging out, and finally, wipe while holding on precariously with one hand. Thence step back inboard. It took courage, skill, and balance and you could get points at the end of the exercise for a good dismount.” For the PBR sailor, privacy was the first casualty of war.

PBRs generally patrolled in two-boat sections. The main mission of the patrols during the day was inspecting river craft for contraband and checking IDs. One PBR would approach a contact at an angle, which allowed all weapons to concentrate on the target, and the crew would conduct the search while the other PBR stood at a distance to provide cover. All searches were to be conducted midstream as far from the shoreline as possible. Between 2100 and 0600, the patrols enforced night curfews and on occasion ambushed Viet Cong river crossings. Interdiction, in short, was the major objective of Task Force 116. The February 1966 Game Warden Operation Order stated that PBRs would not participate in shore assaults with the VNN River Force, nor would they normally conduct patrols in waterways and canals off the major rivers. If ambushed from the shore, the operation order advised PBRs to make a speedy withdrawal. “River Patrol Force Boats,” it noted, “are not designed, armed, or armored to stand and fight against superior firepower in the manner of VNN RAG craft.” Air strikes or artillery support could always be called in against the target following a tactical withdrawal.

The initial rules of engagement as promulgated in the February 1966 operation order allowed PBRs to stop any South Vietnam-flagged vessel (or one with no flag) to demand identification or search the vessel. Since PBRs did not have time to search every sampan and junk on a river, they often randomly chose their quarry. If a sampan failed to heed orders to come to, warning shots could be fired, but a sampan could not be engaged directly until its occupants fired first on the PBR. The staff officers who devised the operation order understood the counterinsurgency nature of the Game Warden mission and wanted to avoid alienating the local populace through the use of excessive force. Nevertheless, the inherent conservatism of these rules of engagement often put the PBR crews at a distinct disadvantage in combat. As Peter Huchthausen wrote, they “gave the enemy the luxury of choosing when and where to engage,” and whittled away “our advantage in firepower … to an easy parity with the Viet Cong.”

Bored with the endless searches of sampans and junks, some PBR sailors sought out firefights either by setting up night ambushes or by venturing up some of the smaller rivers and canals in the delta. Signalman 1st Class Chester B. Smith, a boat captain and patrol officer with River Section 531, explicitly favored night patrols because of the curfew. “We had full authority on the river after sunset,” he said in an interview. “If we saw something moving, we could go after it. You could not necessarily shoot them, but you could go after them because they were fair game. The philosophy was that if you could get them in a compromising situation, they would want to shoot. If they did, we could then return fire. There was nothing there that could outrun us unless they had a tremendous jump on us.” On occasion, this type of aggressiveness led to spectacular successes, but tragedies also occurred when some patrol officers were too bold. On large rivers the PBR’s maneuverability and firepower made them difficult targets, but in narrow canals or near the shore, the advantage rapidly shifted to the enemy. As critical as some sailors were of the TF 116 Operation Order, it was designed to minimize risk and maximize the impact of the River Patrol in stopping infiltration.