World War II

As the 1930s drew to a close, war seemed increasingly inevitable. Germany extended its reach into Eastern Europe, and Japan moved westward and southward into Manchuria and the South China Sea. As the navies readied for war, admirals held to the idea that big guns on big ships decided naval battles. Aircraft carriers were to act as auxiliaries to the battle line, providing air cover for those big guns. In 1940 Germany commissioned the Bismarck, a ship that could throw its largest shells almost 20 miles. The primary objective of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor was to sink the eight battleships moored there.

In each case, however, old tactics failed - the Bismarck was sunk by aircraft launched from two British carriers; Japan did not devastate Pearl Harbor from battleships but with torpedo bombers and fighters launched from Japanese aircraft carriers. The rules had changed; the "capital" ship was no longer the battleship but the aircraft carrier.

When the United States entered the war, the Navy sailed seven fleet aircraft carriers and one escort carrier. Most served in the Pacific, and by the end of 1942 the Japanese navy had sunk four of those. However by the war's end, American industry would send the Navy 110 aircraft carriers of different designs, configurations, and missions.

Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, carrier aircraft proved one of the most effective weapons against German U-boats, sending airplanes aloft to find and sink Nazi submarines. Carriers helped turn the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic, the war's longest engagement. The carrier-centered fleet was crucial to Allied victory in World War II.

Technology was pivotal in the outcome of World War II. Nowhere did the dramatic changes become more visible than on the open seas and in the skies. Sophisticated systems were developed for detection, navigation, communication, flight, and weaponry. As the fighting potential of America's ships and aircraft grew exponentially, enemy efforts grew more desperate.

The equipment used aboard ship before and after the war differed considerably. High-frequency radar extended detection capabilities and gave U.S. ships "eyes" at night. Radio communication extended greater distances. The large anti-aircraft guns and gyroscopic sights found on all major naval vessels by the end of the war were nonexistent prior to 1940. The rapid innovations even extended to supplying naval ships with fleet oilers that replaced scattered coal stations.


Fuchida Map of Pearl Harbor

This hand drawn map of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor illustrates the destruction caused to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Commander Mitsuo Fuchida drew the detailed map for presentation to Emperor Hirohito. Keys on the map differentiate the types of bombs and torpedoes used, and the amount of damage inflicted. This meticulous rendering also clearly illustrates the positions of all the American ships. The devastating attack left 21 ships severely damaged or sunk, with over 2,400 dead. This event not only drew America into the war, but it clearly demonstrated the destructive potential of aircraft carriers. Loan Courtesy of the Kislak Foundation.


"Battleship Row in Flames - December 7, 1941"

Artwork by John Hamilton. Image Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington Navy Yards


Doolittle's Medal of Honor

Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt pressed his military commanders to conduct a bombing mission on Japan. The operation was commanded by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle. In what became known as the "Doolittle Raid," 16 modified B-25 bombers launched off the USS Hornet in April 1942. They successfully bombed targets in and around Tokyo. Doolittle subsequently received the Medal of Honor for his leadership. Loan Courtesy of the McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas.


Mark 14 Gunsight

The Mark 14 Gunsight revolutionized anti-aircraft weaponry for U.S. Naval ships and was one of the main reasons Imperial Japan shifted to desperate, kamikaze tactics in the Pacific. This Mark 14 Mod 8 Gunsight was used on 40mm Bofor anti-aircraft guns that populated the decks of American aircraft carriers. The revolutionary gunsight could function on several different gun platforms with a devastating effect that changed the course of the war. Loan Courtesy of the Computer History Museum.


Bofors Anti-Aircraft Gun

The Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun was one of the deadliest weapons platforms of its day. The U.S. Navy deployed it to most of their ships during World War II and they dropped enemy planes from the sky with astonishing accuracy. This diorama shows a Bofors gun crew in action. Loan Courtesy of the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia.


Admiral King's WW II Uniform

Admiral Ernest J. King's dress blue uniform from World War II. Loan Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Naval Yards.


Admiral Halsey's WW II Uniform

Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, Jr.'s World War II khaki uniform. Loan Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Naval Yards.

Dive Deeper: Related Items

Click on a category below to find out more on carriers or people associated with this era.


USS Essex
USS Independence
USS Escort
USS Midway


All Admirals


Leroy Grumman


James Holloway
Gerald Ford