by Stan Fisher
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2023. Pp. xvi, 260+.
Illus., tables, notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 1682478475
Keeping the Carriers at Sea
I have an abiding interest in the operations of the U.S. Navy’s carrier force during the Pacific war, beginning with watching carrier movies such as The Fighting Lady, Task Force, and Wing and a Prayer on our black and white TV back in the late 50s. I read Edward P. Stanford’s wonderful book about the USS Enterprise, in paperback several times until it fell apart. So when I was offered the chance to review the current book, I jumped at it. I’m glad I did, but it was not what I expected.
In this book, Stan Fisher deals in depth with one of those hidden elements of war, one we armchair admirals tend to forget about. He asks an important question: How did the U.S. Navy “evolve into the most powerful carrier navy in the world?” His answer may surprise you, as it did me (who, to be fair, should have known better). Fisher declares that it did not depend “solely on its ability to quickly procure thousands of airplanes and more than one hundred aircraft carriers. Nor was it solely the production of thousands of courageous naval aviators.” Yes, all those were important, but without the foundation of the technicians and machinists who maintained and repaired the aircraft onboard carriers, it may well have been for nought.
As usual, during peacetime the focus was on technology and tactics. The dirty-shirt, mostly enlisted, crews of the maintenance community were barely given a second thought. At the end of December, 1940, the Navy fielded some 800 carrier planes. These were maintained and repaired by nearly 6,000 technicians. By the end of the war in August 1945, those totals would be nearer 30,000 carrier-based fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers, based on 28 fleet carriers (CVSs and CVLs) and 71 escort carriers (CVEs). And the number of enlisted personnel supporting naval aviation had increased to some 250,000. As Fisher says, “the majority of World War II naval historians have spent their time focused on what the Navy did, but not how such efforts and actions were sustained. This book offers a long overdue and much needed corrective.”
Fisher researched his story by plumbing the depths of the unpublished administrative naval histories compiled by the Navy’s historical units and found in the collection of the Naval History and Heritage command. He tells his story for the most part chronologically with a few excursions into more detailed topical focus. A key element in success was the creation of the Naval Air Technical Training Command (NATTC) in September 1942. Their work both standardized the technical training and improved the quality of the trained technicians who passed through the school system, consolidating much of the prior efforts of the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) and Bureau of Personnel (BuPers). In Fisher’s assessment, “NATTC changed the face of naval aviation technical training from a disjointed, unstandardized, antiquated program into a modern, progressive-thinking administrative organization,” one which soon incorporated both Black men and White women into an increasingly diverse and expert community.
So the story is a war story but it is a story of administrative and bureaucratic warfare as much as one of sailors and aviators operating in a dangerous and difficult physical environment. As a (more or less retired) naval analyst, I was quite attracted to his final chapter, in which he relates the data concerning aircraft availability during the war with the availability of both technicians and materiel. One of the interesting surprises he illuminates is the role of the CVE in shuttling replacement aircraft, supplies, and personnel out to the frontline carriers and returning to base with damaged aircraft and parts, as well as personnel heading back for R&R. In conjunction with supply ships, sometimes specially modified to enhance underway replenishment, the well-developed logistics system by 1944 was creating a new way of naval warfare.
The complexities of this new way of war demanded innovation in administration, training and even in technologies as mundane as jacks needed to replace tires on naval aircraft while at sea. One particular example Fisher describes is the “rim jack” created by Ensign E. W. George while onboard the CVE Suwannee, from pieces of scrap metal. A small thing, literally as well as figuratively, but one which sped up turnaround time for the F6F Hellcats it was designed to work with.
In his data tables and charts, Fisher documents the increase in the Navy’s technical community and compares it to the massive increase in aircraft available. The planning and administration necessary to increase both of these crucial elements of naval air power is as fascinating a story—if perhaps not as exciting a one—as the combat use of the aircraft it produced. Nor does he ignore the economics of procurement and budgets needed to produce such a force. A key step occurred in 1944 when the Radford Board (named for its head, RAdm. Arthur Radford) paved the way for a new strategy and mentality for aircraft operations. The board instigated the creation of the Integrated Aeronautic Maintenance, Materiel and Supply Program (IAMMSP). One of its accomplishments was a change of policy, which saw new aircraft production assigned to combat units while damaged aircraft or those needing extensive maintenance were shipped back to the United States for repair and assignment to training units. The new policy set in motion a series of revisions in where and how aircraft were maintained and repaired, one result of which was a reduction in spare parts held onboard the CVs and the concomitant increase in capacity for carrying aircraft.
There is much more to the story told in Sustaining the Carrier War, a volume in the Naval Institute Press series "Studies in Naval History and Sea Power." To me, it was eye-opening reading and is of value not only for historians—professional or amateur—of the Great Pacific War, but also instructive for the modern U.S. Navy, which has exhibited a dangerous tendency to forget about its own history. Just as the Navy of the 1930s was overly focused on technology and tactics at the expense of mundane maintenance and supply considerations, so too is today’s Navy too often blinded by the bells and whistles of fancy tech. If the carrier fleet must once again sail into harm’s way, the ability to provide sustainable air power at sea might well make the difference between winning a longer conflict and losing a shorter one.
Our Reviewer: Dr. Perla, for many yeas a defense analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, is a veteran game designer and the author of Peter Perla's The Art of Wargaming A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists. He previously reviewed Futile Exercise?.
Note: Sustaining the Carrier War is also available in e-editions.
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