US Navy – Aircraft Carriers Available – Doolittle Raid

USS Enterprise (CV-6) was the seventh US Navy vessel to bear the name. Colloquially called ‘The Big E’, she was the sixth aircraft carrier of the USN. A Yorktown-class carrier, she was launched in 1936 and was one of only three American carriers commissioned before World War II to survive the war (the others being the Saratoga and the Ranger). She participated in more major actions of the war against Japan than any other United States ship. These actions included the Attack on Pearl Harbor (18 dive bombers of VS-6 were over the harbor; 6 were shot down with a loss of 11 men—she was the only American aircraft carrier with men at Pearl Harbor during the attack and the first to sustain casualties during the Pacific War), the Battle of Midway, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, various other air-sea engagements during the Guadalcanal Campaign, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Enterprise earned 20 battle stars, the most for any US warship in World War II, and was the most decorated US ship of World War II. She is also the first American ship to sink an enemy warship during the Pacific War when she sank Japanese submarine I-70 on 10 December 1941.

On three occasions during the Pacific War, the Japanese announced that she had been sunk in battle, inspiring her nickname ‘The Grey Ghost’.

USS Lexington (CV-2) nicknamed ‘Lady Lex’ was an early aircraft carrier built for the US Navy. She was the lead ship of the Lexington class; her only sister ship, Saratoga, was commissioned a month earlier. Originally designed as a battlecruiser, she was converted into one of the Navy’s first aircraft carriers during construction to comply with the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which essentially terminated all new battleship and battlecruiser construction. The ship entered service in 1928 and was assigned to the Pacific Fleet for her entire career. Lexington was at sea when the Pacific War began on Dec 7, 1941, ferrying fighter aircraft to Midway Island. Her mission was canceled and she returned to Pearl Harbor a week later. After a few days, she was sent to create a diversion from the force en route to relieve the besieged Wake Island garrison by attacking Japanese installations in the Marshall Islands. The island surrendered before the relief force got close enough, and the mission was canceled.

A planned attack on Wake Island in January 1942 had to be canceled when a submarine sank the oilier required to supply the fuel for the return trip. Lexington was sent to the Coral Sea the following month to block any Japanese advances into the area. The ship was spotted by Japanese search aircraft while approaching Rabaul, New Britain, but her aircraft shot down most of the Japanese bombers that attacked her. Together with the carrier Yorktown, she successfully attacked Japanese shipping off the east coast of New Guinea in early March. Lexington was briefly refitted in Pearl Harbor at the end of the month and rendezvoused with Yorktown in the Coral Sea in early May. A few days later the Japanese began Operation Mo, the invasion of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and the two American carriers attempted to stop the invasion forces. They sank the light aircraft carrier Shōhō on May 7 during the Battle of the Coral Sea but did not encounter the main Japanese force from the carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku until the next day. Aircraft from Lexington and Yorktown badly damaged the Shōkaku, but the Japanese aircraft crippled the Lexington. A mixture of air and aviation gasoline in her improperly drained aircraft fueling trunk lines (which ran from the keel tanks to her hangar deck) ignited, causing a series of explosions and fires that could not be controlled. Lexington was scuttled by an American destroyer during the evening of May 8 to prevent her capture. The wreck of Lexington was located in March 2018 by an expedition led by Paul Allen, who discovered the ship about 430 nautical miles (800 km) off the northeastern coast of Australia in the Coral Sea.

USS Yorktown (CV-5) was an aircraft carrier commissioned in the United States Navy from 1937 until she was sunk at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. She was named after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and the lead ship of the Yorktown class which was designed after lessons learned from operations with the large converted battlecruiser Lexington class and the smaller purpose-built USS Ranger. She was sunk by Japanese submarine I-68 on 6 June 1942 during the Battle of Midway.

USS Saratoga (CV-3) was a Lexington-class aircraft carrier built for the US Navy during the 1920s. Originally designed as a battlecruiser, she was converted into one of the Navy’s first aircraft carriers during construction to comply with the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. The ship entered service in 1928 and was assigned to the Pacific Fleet for her entire career. The Saratoga and her sister ship, the Lexington, were used to develop and refine carrier tactics in a series of annual exercises before World War II. On more than one occasion these exercises included successful surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. She was one of three prewar US fleet aircraft carriers, along with Enterprise and Ranger, to serve throughout World War II. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Saratoga was the centerpiece of the unsuccessful American effort to relieve Wake Island and was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine a few weeks later. After lengthy repairs, the ship supported forces participating in the Guadalcanal Campaign and her aircraft sank the light carrier Ryūjō during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in August 1942. She was again torpedoed the following month and returned to the Solomon Islands area after repairs were completed.

In 1943, the Saratoga supported Allied forces involved in the New Georgia Campaign and invasion of Bougainville in the northern Solomon Islands, and her aircraft twice attacked the Japanese base at Rabaul in November. Early in 1944, her aircraft provided air support during the Gilbert and Marshall Islands Campaign before she was transferred to the Indian Ocean for several months to support the British Eastern Fleet as it attacked targets in Java and Sumatra. After a brief refit in mid-1944, the ship became a training ship for the rest of the year. In early 1945, the Saratoga participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima as a dedicated night fighter carrier. Several days into the battle, she was badly damaged by kamikaze hits and was forced to return to the United States for repairs. While under repair, the ship, now increasingly obsolete, was permanently modified as a training carrier with some of her hangar deck converted into classrooms. The Saratoga remained in this role for the rest of the war and was then used to ferry troops back to the United States after the Japanese surrender in August. In mid-1946, the ship was a target for nuclear weapon tests during Operation Crossroads. She survived the first test with little damage but was sunk by the second test.

USS Hornet (CV-8) the seventh ship to carry the name Hornet was a Yorktown-class aircraft carrier of the US Navy. During World War II in the Pacific Theater, she launched the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and participated in the Battle of Midway and the Buin-Faisi-Tonolai Raid. In the Solomon Islands campaign, she was involved in the capture and defense of Guadalcanal and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands where she was irreparably damaged by an enemy torpedo and dive bombers. Faced with an approaching Japanese surface force, the Hornet was abandoned and later torpedoed and sunk by approaching Japanese destroyers. The Hornet was in service for a year and six days and was the last US fleet carrier ever sunk by enemy fire. For these actions, she was awarded four service stars, a citation for the Doolittle Raid in 1942. Her Torpedo Squadron 8 received a Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism for the Battle of Midway.

Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold jumped at the idea, assigning his staff troubleshooter, Doolittle, to oversee the AAF’s role in the raid, including the modification of the bombers to include three added fuel tanks. Doolittle and Duncan both agreed that the B-25 was the only suitable bomber, but the question remained whether one could, in fact, take off from a carrier. To find that out, on the frigid Sunday afternoon of Feb 1, 1942, Duncan reported to the Hornet, moored alongside Pier 7 at Norfolk Naval Operating Base. Arnold’s staff had ordered three B-25s with the ‘best combat crews available’ to report to Norfolk no later than Jan 20; ‘Airplanes will have combat equipment installed, less bombs’.

The plan called for the first B-25 to take off carrying only a full load of gas. The second bomber would then roar down the flight deck with a medium load, followed lastly by a fully loaded plane: ‘Successive takeoffs will, of course, be gauged by the preceding ones’. A burned-out engine on the eve of the test had sidelined one of the bombers. In following Adm King’s order for secrecy, the Hornet’s deck log contains no record of the bombers being hoisted aboard. The following morning, as light snow began to fall, the Hornet slipped out of port escorted by the destroyers USS-Ludlow (DD-438) and the USS-Hilary P. Jones (DD-427).
First up was Army Lt John Fitzgerald, who released the brakes and charged down the flight deck at 1327. Duncan watched nervously as the B-25 stubbornly remained on deck. Just a few feet before the edge of the deck the bomber finally climbed into the skies. The experience felt much different for Fitzgerald in the cockpit as he told: when I got the signal to go, I let the brakes off and was airborne almost immediately, he later recalled, the wing of my plane rose so fast I was afraid I’d strike the ship’s ‘island’ over the flight deck, but I missed it. Lt James McCarthy went next. He throttled up the B-25’s engines, released the brakes, and roared into the skies, this time in just 275 feet. The Hornet returned to port and Duncan hurried back to Washington, thrilled his calculations were correct. There was a six-foot clearance between the wingtip and the island, he wrote in a two-page memo to Adm King. This did not seem to bother the pilots, as both airplanes maintained perfectly straight courses on the take-off run and appeared to be under excellent control.

Duncan reported that the Hornet could carry between 15 and 20 bombers, depending on whether the Navy wanted to leave enough deck space to operate a possible squadron of fighters. King reviewed the memo, scrawling a single word of approval across the bottom in pencil: Excellent. Doolittle meanwhile had arranged for his volunteer airmen—drawn from several squadrons with the 17-BG in Pendleton, Oregon to train at Eglin Field in the Florida Panhandle. In advance of the airmen’s arrival, the Army had likewise reached out to the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics: It is requested that a Naval aviator, experienced in the art of taking heavily loaded airplanes off from the deck of a carrier, be available at Eglin Field, Valparaiso, Florida, from Mar 1 to Mar 15, for the purpose of instructing Army pilots in this art.

The Navy had answered that request with Lt Henry Miller, a former Saratoga pilot who worked as a flight instructor and personnel officer at Naval Air Station Ellyson Field near Pensacola. Over several weeks, Miller drilled Doolittle’s men. It became an intense competition to see who could take off in the shortest distance with the greatest load, recalled Lt Bower, one of the raid’s pilots. The only weight we had for the airplane was .50 Cal ammunition in boxes, and people, so one man would make his attempt and record the distance, and then we’d all climb in the next airplane and load it up a little more, and see whether we could best that distance.


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