A Golden Journey
M. Hill Goodspeed
The ensuing years marked an age of discovery for naval aviation. In April 1914, operating as an element of American forces assembled in response to the Vera Cruz Insurrection in Mexico, naval aviators flew the first combat missions in the history of American military aviation. In addition, whether catapulting from the decks of ships, experimenting with aerial photography, or soaring high over the white sandy beaches of Pensacola in quest of altitude and endurance records, air-minded officers tested the bounds of flight and sought to integrate aviation more fully into the fleet.
"Now the soldier, the sailor, and the airman are the hero of the hour," wrote Lieutenant Frank Simpson, Jr., from Pensacola the day the United States entered World War I. Indeed, the patriotic fervor that arises every time the nation is called to arms captured another generation of young men in April 1917. With the tales of biplanes jousting over the trenches of Europe having filled the newspapers during the previous months, many men aspired to win their wings as aviators and test their mettle in this new dimension of warfare. In just nineteen months, the naval air arm emerged as a sizeable organization, growing from a handful of personnel and flying machines into a force that numbered more than 2,000 qualified pilots and 33,000 support personnel with 2,337 aircraft, dirigibles, and kite balloons.
Though members of the Navy's air arm were the first U.S. military forces to arrive overseas, going ashore in France on 5 June 1917, naval aviation's combat operations during the Great War were largely unheralded. A handful of men logged combat missions with the Northern Bombing Group against enemy submarine bases in Belgium, some flew against Austria from bases in Italy, and Lieutenant (jg) David S. Ingalls became the Navy's first fighter ace in the skies over the Western Front. However, most naval aviators spent the war flying antisubmarine patrols from coastal air stations, with sightings of German U-boats quite rare.
Although statistically naval aviation's performance did not equal that of the Army, World War I proved vital to its development. Naval aviators gained invaluable experience under wartime conditions, both in operations and logistical support of a burgeoning military force. In addition, experience working with foreign forces stimulated thought regarding the employment of aircraft in naval operations, particularly with respect to aircraft-carrying ships, which the British Royal Navy operated during the war.
In the first year of peace, U.S. naval aviation signaled for the entire world the tremendous promise embodied in the airplane. The successful flight of the NC-4 flying boat, which in May 1919 achieved the first crossing of the Atlantic by air, marked the beginning of perhaps the most important decade in the development of the U.S. Navy's air arm. In the months preceding the transatlantic flight, ships of the Atlantic Fleet for the first time departed for winter training in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a formal aviation detachment, including war surplus Sopwith Camels for flying off a wooden deck erected on the battleship Texas (BB 35). In July 1919, Congress appropriated funds for the conversion of the collier Jupiter (AC 3) into the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier, a platform that would truly integrate aviation into the fleet. Commissioned in 1922, she was christened Langley (CV 1).
Ashore, the office that controlled naval aviation, which began with Captain Washington Irving Chambers tucked away in solitude in the Bureau of Navigation in Washington, D.C., received a more suitable status. In July 1921, the Navy established the Bureau of Aeronautics, thus giving aviation a voice in the entrenched bureaucracy. And no better choice could have been made for its first chief. Rear Admiral William A. Moffett was a politically savvy officer who despite early misgivings about flying--he once told a pioneer aviator that any man who flew was either crazy or a damned fool--had embraced air power's importance to the future of naval operations.
Certain obstacles stood in the way of this vision becoming a reality. In 1921 the colorful and outspoken air power advocate, Army Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell, led bombing attacks against captured and obsolete battleships off the Virginia coast. The dazzling photographs of exploding vessels captured the nation's attention and seemed to validate Mitchell's claim that air power, under the control of a unified independent air force, had replaced the Navy as the nation's traditional first line of defense. The public bantering between Mitchell and officers of the Army and Navy reached its climax in September 1925. Following bombastic statements by Mitchell in the wake of the crash of the U.S. Navy airship Shenandoah (ZR 1) about the conduct of the War and Navy Departments in regard to aviation, President Calvin Coolidge convened the Morrow Board to establish military and aviation policy in the United States. The board's findings preserved the naval air arm, and Mitchell's subsequent court-martial ended for a time the campaign to incorporate naval aviation into a unified air force.
Though Moffett's acumen in handling political issues in the halls of Congress was important to naval aviation's development, its ultimate success or failure depended on its performance at sea. "The Navy is the first line of offense and naval aviation as an advance guard of this first line must deliver the brunt of the attack," Moffett wrote in 1925. "Naval aviation cannot take the offensive from the shore; it must go to sea on the back of the fleet. . . . The fleet and naval aviation are one and inseparable."
At that time, naval aviation's seagoing force consisted of Langley, which following commissioning served only in an experimental role; a handful of seaplane tenders; and scout and observation airplanes deployed on ships of the line. Sea-based naval aviation had yet to demonstrate any offensive prowess that would dispel the traditional tenet of the supremacy of the battleship. All of this changed with the appointment of Captain Joseph Mason Reeves to the post of Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet. Living up to his nickname, "Bull" Reeves drove his charges hard, demanding that they innovate and push the limits. He ordered the skipper of tiny Langley to increase the number of airplanes she operated, and drilled the pilots and deck crews incessantly in an effort to reduce the time it took to launch and recover aircraft. Finally, with Langley and later the sister ships Lexington (CV 2) and Saratoga (CV 3)--monstrous carriers that displaced over 30,000 tons with speeds in excess of 30 knots--Reeves seized upon opportunities to demonstrate the offensive potential of the carrier. During war games, he foreshadowed the Day of Infamy by launching a dawn attack against Pearl Harbor, and in Fleet Problem Nine in January 1929, separated Saratoga and one escort from the main group and launched a surprise strike against the Panama Canal. "We take off at 3:30 a.m. to bomb the canal," an excited Lieutenant Artie Doyle wrote on the eve of the landmark attack. "They haven't a chance to stop us." The success of the strike marked the birth of the concept of the carrier task forces that would roam the Pacific during World War II.
Other elements of aviation developed as well. The patrol planes that had performed so well during World War I continued to form an important element of the air arm. Far-ranging in battle, they dramatically demonstrated their capabilities by staging record distance flights throughout the 1920s and 1930s. And on board the battleships and cruisers of the fleet, catapult-launched biplanes provided the eyes for the ship's great guns. Though marred by three accidents, one of which took the life of Rear Admiral Moffett, the Navy's rigid airship program proved an interesting facet of interwar aviation. Envisioned as long-range scouts, the giants in the sky operated F9C Sparrowhawk fighters in one of the more unique operational evolutions in the history of aviation, launching and recovering them using a trapeze raised and lowered from an internal hangar.
The whine of Stuka dive bombers piercing the air of the Polish countryside on 1 September 1939 signaled the beginning of World War II. Within months the frigid waters of the North Atlantic became the greatest naval battleground in history, and U.S. Navy ships and aircraft engaged in Neutrality Patrol operations to guard the nation's Atlantic shores. Yet, much attention was focused west on the broad blue expanse of the Pacific. Throughout the 1930s Imperial Japan sought to expand its influence in the Far East, launching military actions into China and secretly fortifying island bases in the Pacific. That the U.S. and Japan would clash seemed inevitable, though none could envision the manner in which it would begin, with the explosion of Japanese bombs one quiet Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The following day, Aviation Cadet Bill Prescott wrote his parents from Pensacola, describing the reactions of his fellow flight students. "The faces of my friends were very changed . . . I realized then what this strenuous training we had undergone was meaning to them now." Naval aviation was off to war.
World War II marked naval aviation's ultimate test, the proving ground for the tactics and doctrine espoused by its proponents. Naturally, the platform upon which the airplane went to sea en masse, the aircraft carrier, figured prominently in combat operations. Four great carrier battles took place between the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1942. The first, occurring in the Coral Sea on 7-8 May, was the first naval engagement in history in which the ships of the opposing forces never came within sight of one another. The battles at Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz, fought in the waters off Guadalcanal in August and October respectively, represented bitter struggles that, coupled with the vicious air-to-air engagements over the island, broke the back of Japanese naval aviation. Yet, of all the great sea battles, one stands alone as the defining moment of naval aviation's ascendancy.
Outwardly insignificant, a spit of sand and coral west of Hawaii, Midway and its surrounding waters represented a decisive battleground on 3-6 June 1942. In an all-or-nothing gamble, Japanese Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto steamed the lion's share of his forces across the Pacific in an effort to destroy once and for all the U.S. Pacific Fleet's surviving carrier air power. Against all odds, Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz committed all the forces at his disposal to battle, assembling a motley assortment of Navy, Marine Corps, and Army Air Forces aircraft on Midway. Additionally, he sent three carriers--Enterprise (CV 6), Hornet (CV 8), and the badly damaged Yorktown (CV 5), which had been badly damaged by bombs at Coral Sea--to intercept the invaders. The area at which they assembled was appropriately nicknamed "Point Luck."
The Americans benefited from an intelligence coup, namely the breaking of the Japanese naval code, but it was the skill and heroic determination of the aircrews that saved the day. The pilots and gunners pressed home their attacks, and in a stunning blow sank four Japanese flattops in a matter of hours, turning the tide in the Pacific War. Victory did not come without cost, however, particularly among the carrier-based torpedo plane squadrons. Of the forty-one TBD Devastators launched on the morning of 4 June, only six survived the gauntlet of Japanese fighters and antiaircraft fire. One of the surviving aircrewmen was Aviation Radioman Third Class Lloyd Childers. Recovering in a hospital following the battle, he was visited by his brother, who also happened to serve in the same squadron. When he asked about the fates of his fellow gunners in Torpedo Squadron (VT) 3, Childers received the sad news that he was the only one to survive. Half a century later, tears still returned to his eyes as he recounted that moment.
In August 1943, the first of the new Essex-class carriers launched strikes against Marcus Island, and over the course of the next two years, the fast carriers spearheaded the offensive across the Pacific. When challenged by Japanese carriers at the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, F6F Hellcat fighters of the U.S. air groups shot down some 250 attackers in a matter of a few hours, giving the engagement the lasting nickname of the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. Carrier-launched fighter sweeps neutralized enemy air power, clearing the way for landings at Saipan, Leyte, Okinawa, and numerous other far-flung islands, while bombers and torpedo planes helped render the Japanese navy and merchant marine impotent. And though battered by kamikazes, the Japanese suicide planes that screamed out of the clouds, not one American fleet carrier was sunk by the "divine wind."
Antisubmarine warfare had become a central mission for naval aviation during the Great War, and during World War II it truly came of age in the struggle against Hitler's wolfpacks of prowling U-boats. Whether flying TBM Avenger torpedo bombers off the tiny decks of escort carriers or sub-hunting aircraft like the PBY Catalina or PV Ventura/Harpoon, naval aviators played a role in sending over eighty U-boats to the bottom during the Battle of the Atlantic. Some did so employing advanced technology--the Mk 24 "Fido" homing torpedo, sonobuoys, aerial rockets, and magnetic anomaly detection gear--that represented a monumental leap in the evolution of antisubmarine warfare. The colorful Captain Daniel V. Gallery, in command of the carrier Guadalcanal (CVE 60), did things differently. Driving U-505 to the surface during a 4 June 1944 attack off the coast of Africa, his hunter-killer group consisting of Guadalcanal and five escorts managed to capture the boat, the first prize at sea seized by the U.S. Navy since 1815. Lighter-than-air craft were also used to great advantage to patrol for enemy submarines. Based in the states and overseas, blimps maintained a silent vigil over convoys traversing the Atlantic, logging some 380,000 flight hours over the course of World War II.
In 1931, the Army and Navy had reached an agreement preventing the sea service from operating land-based multiengine aircraft, making naval aviation a truly sea-based force of carrier aircraft, floatplanes, and flying boats. But, wartime requirements superceded this prewar arrangement, and Navy and Marine Corps squadrons began operating bombers with names like Liberator and Mitchell that were more familiar to Army Air Forces crews. In the Atlantic, they logged antisubmarine patrols over waters familiar to naval aviators of the First World War. Halfway around the globe, these patrol bombing squadrons operated from captured island bases, launching daring single-plane raids against targets on land and afloat, often at an altitude of just a few hundred feet.
Naval aviation's combat operations during the war also increasingly involved flying at night. The first air-to-air kill under the stars for the Navy came on 26 November 1943, when the crew of a TBF Avenger off Enterprise blasted two snoopers out of the sky near the Gilbert Islands. The following year, VT-10 employed the same type of airplane to attack Truk Island, sinking or beaching thirteen ships in the first nocturnal attack mission from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The most unanticipated use of an aircraft at night proved to be the ad hoc employment of lumbering PBY Catalina flying boats in the attack role. Painted black to mask them in a darkened sky, these radar-equipped airplanes proved highly effective in bombing Japanese shipping and shore installations. Over 70 percent of all attack sorties flown by PBYs during the war came under the cover of darkness.
In 1945 the U.S. Navy had emerged from the ashes of Pearl Harbor into the most powerful fleet ever assembled, and to a large extent it was an air navy. More than in any other conflict, air power played a decisive role in the prosecution of World War II, and sea-based air power proved important to final victory for the United States. U.S. naval aircraft logged 284,073 combat sorties, dropping 102,917 tons of ordnance. Naval airmen destroyed 9,291 aircraft in the air, and sent 564 ships totaling 2,536,664 tons to the bottom. However, one of the last acts of the war portended a volatile future for naval aviation even amidst its greatest triumph. Indeed, the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved symbolic of two monumental struggles, that over naval air power's relevance in the atomic age and a cold war marked by limited conflicts that would call the wings of gold to arms under the most trying of circumstances.
Flying boats flew long-range patrols throughout the Korean War, but the air-sea rescue duties they had performed so well during World War II largely shifted to the helicopter. Popularized in the novel The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the intrepid crews of slow and lumbering HO3S helicopters repeatedly braved adverse weather conditions and hostile ground fire to rescue downed airmen over enemy territory.
The men who fought the war represented change as well. Naval aviation lagged behind the surface Navy in the acceptance of African-Americans during World War II. Had it not been for an administrative oversight and his light complexion, the one black man who wore wings of gold during the war, Lieutenant (jg) Oscar Holmes, may not have ever flown as an instructor in a Navy aircraft. However, with President Harry S. Truman's desegregation of the armed forces, black airmen and aviators began serving alongside their white counterparts during the Korean War. On 5 December 1950, the pilot of a F4U Corsair of Fighter Squadron (VF) 32 made a forced landing in the snowy, rugged terrain of North Korea. From above, one of his squadronmates saw him struggling to get out of the cockpit of the burning aircraft, and intentionally made a wheels-up landing near the downed fighter to render assistance. His repeated efforts, along with those of the pilot of a rescue helicopter, failed and Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African-American naval aviator to fly in combat, subsequently died in his plane. His would-be rescuer, Lieutenant (jg) Thomas Hudner, received the Medal of Honor. One African-American sailor, after hearing the story of Jesse Brown, applied for the aviation cadet program. When he retired nearly thirty years later, Frank Petersen wore the stars of a Marine Corps lieutenant general.
All told, naval aviators logged 346,487 flights during the Korean War, dropping some 195,000 tons of ordnance and losing 559 aircraft to enemy ground fire and four to enemy aircraft. They demonstrated that naval air power was indeed relevant in the atomic age. Soon there would be more battlegrounds over which to fight, in the Middle East and again in the waters of the Western Pacific.
Naval aviation experienced a second golden age in the decade following the Korean War. In 1955, the Navy's first supercarrier, Forrestal (CVA 59), was placed in commission, providing an added degree of flexibility to carrier aviation that increased with the commissioning of Enterprise (CVAN 65), the world's first nuclear-powered flattop, in 1962. It was a period marked by tremendous technological advances in aircraft as well. The front-line fighters of the Korean War could at best achieve speeds of less than 600 mph, but just three short years after the war, the Navy was conducting test flights on the F8U (F-8) Crusader, which became the first operational fighter aircraft in history capable of flying over 1,000 mph in level flight.
Other aircraft designs supported two fundamental elements of sea-based air power's role in national defense--nuclear weapons delivery and antisubmarine warfare. In 1955 the Navy commissioned its first heavy attack squadrons, and the A3D (A-3) Skywarrior and subsequent A-5 Vigilante aircraft joined with the supercarrier to form naval aviation's atomic punch. To combat potential attacks on task forces by Soviet bombers, the Navy procured the F-4 Phantom II, a high-altitude interceptor equipped with Sparrow missiles that could hit targets head-on at extended ranges. However, it was in the traditional realm of hunting enemy submarines in the globe's ocean depths that patrol aviation made its greatest contributions. With the Soviet navy's submarine fleet increasing dramatically, P2V Neptunes and P-3 Orions joined antisubmarine helicopters in providing naval aviation's answer to the enemy's underwater threat. Such was the importance of this mission that selected Essex-class carriers were designated antisubmarine carriers and formed the nucleus of task groups that hunted submarines, a modernized version of the escort carrier hunter-killer groups of World War II.
As it built its "blue water" capability, naval aviation found itself on call. Naval aircraft flew top secret intelligence gathering flights along the Soviet border, supported the Marine landing in Lebanon in 1956, patrolled the troubled waters between Taiwan and mainland China, and assisted in photoreconnaissance and blockade operations during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. And in 1964, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps RF-8A Crusader aircraft began flying surveillance missions over Laos, a nation wracked by internal discord. Its neighbor to the east, the divided country of Vietnam, was nominally democratic in the South and Communist in the North. The leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, who fought against the Japanese during World War II and later expelled the French from his native land, sought to consolidate his nation under Communist rule. Here his interests and those of the United States clashed, resulting in a gradually escalating crisis that erupted on 5 August 1964 when U.S. Navy carrier aircraft launched air strikes in response to North Vietnamese attacks against U.S. destroyers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. Enemy antiaircraft gunners shot down two aircraft that day, including the A-1 Skyraider flown by Lieutenant (jg) Richard Sather and the A-4 Skyhawk of Lieutenant (jg) Everett Alvarez. Sather became the first naval aviator killed in action during the Vietnam War, while Alvarez was taken captive, the first prisoner of war of the North Vietnamese. He would not see freedom again until 1973, a span of nearly nine years during which many other naval airmen would lose their lives or share the torturous hardships of captivity.
Vietnam was a most peculiar war, its prosecution governed more by political considerations than those on the battlefield. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the air war over North Vietnam, where periodic bombing halts and restrictive rules of engagement hampered the application of air power and adversely affected the morale of the men who flew into harm's way. Bombing missions over the north commenced in 1965 with the initiation of Operation Rolling Thunder. Following a bombing halt between 1968 and 1972, President Richard Nixon ordered the commencement of Operations Linebacker I and II. Over the course of the war, twenty carriers made eighty-seven combat deployments to the waters off Vietnam, and sailors soon labeled the constant armada of ships on station there the "Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club." With stocks of Soviet antiaircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles on the ground and MiG aircraft in the air, North Vietnam developed a sophisticated and deadly aerial defense system into which naval aviators flew virtually around the clock. "As the stars diminished into deepening blue, I saw from thirty miles the face of death--SAMs [surface-to-air missiles]," wrote one naval aviator in his diary after returning from a combat mission over North Vietnam in December 1965. "The fear at the moment of the explosions was indescribable. Again, all of a sudden, with stark reality and terror, we were at war."
It proved a costly endeavor, for over the course of the war a total of 711 Navy and Marine Corps aircraft fell to enemy fire. During one cruise, Carrier Air Wing 16, embarked on Oriskany (CVA 34), lost thirty-nine aircraft in combat and ten in operational losses; twenty-seven pilots and aircrewmen did not return home with the ship. Though enemy aircraft proved no threat to the carrier task forces, operational accidents resulted in catastrophic fires on board Oriskany, Forrestal, and Enterprise, resulting in the deaths of 205 men.
In the face of such adversity, those in the cockpits acquitted themselves well. Naval aviators shot down sixty-one enemy aircraft, including five by Lieutenant Randall H. Cunningham and Lieutenant (jg) William Driscoll, the first aces of the Vietnam War. The diminutive A-4 Skyhawk proved the workhorse of the war, joined by the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II. The Intruder, an all-weather attack platform, executed many daring, single-plane night raids into North Vietnam, including one flown by Lieutenant Commander Charles Hunter and Lieutenant Lyle Bull on 30 October 1967, in which ten SAMs were fired at the lone airplane. Perhaps the most dramatic air operations of the war involved the rescue of downed airmen by intrepid helicopter crews, who braved heavy enemy fire in slow, lightly protected aircraft to execute rescue attempts deep in enemy territory, both day and night.
Though the air war in the North consumed the majority of carrier assets in Vietnam, other naval aviation elements contributed significantly to the war in the South. Long devoted to antisubmarine and search and rescue duties, Navy helicopters assumed a new role in South Vietnam with the establishment of Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) (HAL) 3 in 1967. Initially flying UH-1 "Hueys" procured from the Army, the Seawolves supported the Navy's riverine operations, providing close air support for armed patrol boats operating in the Mekong Delta. They joined Light Attack (VAL) Squadron 4, flying fixed-wing OV-10 Broncos, in providing the Navy with a unique strike mission that contrasted sharply with those flown from aircraft carriers. Similarly, the unconventional nature of the war pressed modified OP-2E Neptune maritime patrol planes into service dropping sensors to monitor traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Other patrol aircraft flew from bases in South Vietnam, ranging up and down the coastline executing Operation Market Time, providing surveillance of vessels attempting to supply Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces from the sea.
Though the cease-fire signed in January 1973 removed the last American combat forces from Vietnam, the North Vietnamese offensive two years later provided the final chapter to a bitter and divisive time in American history. Four U.S. Navy carriers supported Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Saigon, and the haunting final images of the war were of South Vietnamese men, women, and children scrambling to climb aboard Marine helicopters that represented their last chance for freedom.
Like all branches of the U.S. military, the Navy emerged scarred from the decade-long involvement in Vietnam. The tumultuous social upheavals of the era affected the sea service in the form of racial unrest on board carriers at sea and what many viewed as relaxed standards of discipline espoused by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt to keep pace with changing times. Funding for personnel and hardware dropped dramatically, and a distinct schism existed between the population of a nation tired of war and the military tasked with defending it. However, the world remained fraught with danger, and naval aviation continued to make repeated forays into harm's way.
The forces of naval aviation differed markedly from those that had served in combat over Vietnam. From a personnel standpoint, one noteworthy change was the introduction of women to the ranks of naval aviators and naval flight officers, as Lieutenant (jg) Barbara Allen became the first to earn her wings in February 1974. Tragically, she died in an aircraft accident in 1981 while serving as a flight instructor. In 1990, Commander Rosemary Mariner became the first female commanding officer of an operational squadron in the history of the U.S. military. In addition, in 1993 the Defense Department lifted the restriction on women flying combat missions, and in December 1998 women aviators were among the aircrews that launched off Enterprise (CVN 65) to attack targets in Iraq during Operation Desert Fox.
The post-Vietnam era also brought a changing of the guard with respect to ships and aircraft. The last of the World War II-era Essex-class carriers were decommissioned, and the nuclear-powered Nimitz (CVN 68) and her sister ships began joining the fleet. The F-14 Tomcat, an aircraft that in many respects symbolized post-Vietnam naval aviation, replaced the venerable F-4 Phantom II, which had been a workhorse in Southeast Asia, on carrier decks. Thus, it was appropriate that on 19 August 1981, a pair of Tomcats assigned to VF-41 off Nimitz shot down two Libyan Su-22 Fitter jets that attacked them during exercises in the Gulf of Sidra. The act defied Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi's proclamation of a line of death in that body of water, and represented the beginning of a decade in which naval aviation's quick strike capability represented American interests abroad. Carrier aircraft returned to Libya in 1986, spearheading a concentrated air strike against military installations in response to a terrorist attack.
In the eastern Mediterranean, in response to the 23 October 1983 bombing of the headquarters of a Marine peacekeeping contingent in Beirut, Lebanon, President Ronald Reagan ordered carrier aircraft from John F. Kennedy (CV 67) to strike targets in Syria, the nation partially responsible for the attack. That same month, carrier aviation also supported the invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, an effort to rescue some 1,000 Americans trapped amidst a bloody power struggle over governance of the island.
In addition to these regional crises, the 1980s marked the age of the so-called "Evil Empire," the term President Reagan coined to describe the Soviet Union. The growth of the Soviet navy, including a proliferation of nuclear submarines and the introduction of aircraft carriers, prompted the administration to reemphasize a blue water force capable of combating the Soviets in the high seas. Secretary of the Navy John H. Lehman spearheaded the effort to create a 600-ship force, including fifteen carriers. Given the undersea menace, the Navy's antisubmarine capability became increasingly important. P-3 Orion long-range patrol aircraft, carrier-based S-3 Vikings, and SH-3 and SH-60 helicopters based on carriers, cruisers, frigates, and destroyers engaged in nautical games of cat and mouse throughout the decade.
To explain the value of the aircraft carrier, it is often said that when a crisis erupts, the first question a President of the United States asks is, "Where are the carriers?" In August 1990, Iraqi tanks and infantry rolled across the nation's southern border, conquering the tiny nation of Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia. Within days Independence (CV 62) steamed into the Arabian Gulf and Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) was on station in the Red Sea, their air wings representing the only significant American air power in the region should Sadaam Hussein have ordered his army further south. He didn't, and over the course of the next five months, an American-led coalition assembled the largest collection of military force since World War II. Every element of the Navy and Marine Corps's air component was represented. Six carriers deployed to the theater, their air wings augmented by fifty-nine squadrons and detachments based in Saudi Arabia at airfields within range of Kuwait.
On the evening of 16 January 1991, hundreds of coalition aircraft took to the skies, commencing Operation Desert Storm. That day, a pair of F/A-18 Hornets scored the Navy's first air-to-air kills of the war, shooting down two enemy MiG-21s; and squadrons flying the venerable A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II, both of which had flown combat missions over Vietnam, logged strike missions deep into Iraqi territory.
Meanwhile, MH-53E Sea Dragons from helicopter mine countermeasures squadrons helped clear mines from the waters around the Arabian peninsula while carrier-based aircraft, supported by P-3 Orion patrol planes, obliterated the small Iraqi navy. Whether flying through pyrotechnic antiaircraft fire over Baghdad on the war's first night or destroying Iraqi armor to clear the way for ground forces, naval aviation played an important role in the desert victory. "It was an eerie feeling to fly without care over areas which we had attacked," one pilot wrote after the cease-fire.
Unfortunately, the eruption of the Tailhook scandal quickly overshadowed the triumph in Operation Desert Storm. The alleged misconduct by a small group of officers at the 1991 Tailhook Convention reverberated throughout the entire service, forcing the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy and adversely affecting the careers of scores of other officers. This, combined with the force reductions prompted by the end of the Cold War, tested the mettle of the members of the air Navy, who found themselves continually on call around the world. Even after the victory in the Gulf War, Navy and Marine aircraft continued to patrol the "no-fly zone" over southern Iraq, and in 1993, aircrews began manning up to fly over the former Yugoslavia, an area wracked by political unrest. Over the course of the ensuing seven years, names like Bosnia and Kosovo became quite familiar to them. Naval air power executed missions ranging from humanitarian relief for refugees to engaging in a sustained bombing campaign as part of Operation Allied Force in March-June 1999, during which Navy and Marine Corps aircraft logged over 6,500 sorties.
"Under all circumstances, a decisive naval superiority is to be considered a fundamental principle," wrote George Washington in 1780, "and the basis upon which all success must ultimately depend." Though writing specifically within the context of the American Revolution, the words of the father of our country ring true today. For the United States, a maritime nation surrounded on two sides by ocean waters, it is naval forces that secure freedom of the seas and, in the words of the 1998 posture statement "Forward . . . from the Sea: Anytime, Anywhere," serve as "sovereign extensions of our nation." Since the end of World War II the centerpiece of these forces has been naval aviation, embodied in the might of the aircraft carrier, a veritable symbol of American might abroad. Fittingly, one of these mighty ships is named George Washington. A far cry from the wooden sailing ships about which the first President wrote, she and her sister ships nevertheless represent the decisive naval superiority of the U.S. Navy. And each time an aircraft roars off the deck of a carrier, it represents the continuation of the golden journey begun in 1910.
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