THE BACKBONE OF THE FLEET – The United States Navy in 1940
Navy Day is a holiday that is no longer really celebrated in the United States. While President Truman surely helped to bring about its demise, the American public was probably ready for a break from too much emphasis on the military by the late 1950’s. But before World War 2, the day was an opportunity to reignite a public passion about all things Navy.
The interwar years were spent planning on peace. The various naval treaties had destroyed ships and limited the growth of others in the vain hope that giving up our weapons of war would give up our desire to have war. The folly of that movement came to the front in 1940 as the world was disintegrating into many regional conflicts. Former enemies had long since rearmed themselves and even a few former friends like Japan saw the opportunity to expand their control in the Pacific.
America was still trying to shake off its isolationism in the lead up to 1940. Many famous and infamous citizens wanted us to stay isolated behind the walls of the oceans on either side of the mainland. Alaska was a territory and Hawaii was still nearly two decades away from becoming a state. But technology and advances in manufacturing had changed the face of warfare once more. Flying machines were gaining in size and range. Battlefields were becoming mechanized at a lightning fast past. Ships were faster and larger and better armed. America had been asleep for decades and was now waking up to the fact that the fleet they possessed was designed for the past war, not the future one.
But Navy Day was still pre-Pearl Harbor. On paper, the large battleships were the backbone of the fleet – the big bruisers. Like the French Maginot Line, they provided a certain level of comfort for a country that was watching the world begin to spin out of control. The massive construction plan put in place by Roosevelt were still geared towards updating and replacing the mighty battleships with newer and sleeker versions.
At the end of this article, the planners give a nod to the submarines and aircraft carriers that would support the battleships. This is the way things looked on Navy Day in 1940:
WASHINGTON EVENING STAR. (Washington, D.C.) 1854-1972, October 27, 1940
Navy Day Finds Nation Building Defenses and Training Reserve Force
Long-Range Policy Holds Dominant Place Among Sea-Power Objectives
Birthday Anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt Takes Rank With Day’s Observance
By Herbert Hollander.
“Navy Day is marked today not only with the United States embarked upon the greatest ship and base construction program in its history, but, of equal importance, building on the basis of a long-range policy taking into account the continuing indispensability of sea power in the protection of American lives, liberties and economic interests.
Ever since October 27, the birthday of Theodore Roosevelt, stanch advocate of sea power, first was set aside as Navy Day, that has been the avowed objective of far-seeing Americans. They have endeavored for many years to drive home the fact that the United States not only needs ample ships and bases but, as well, a long-term program of construction, maintenance and development. In some quarters it was the fashion to criticize such a policy as “navalism.” Realists, however, called it common sense.
Navy Day, 1940 finds that stern necessity has opened the eyes of all to the basic truths enunciated by “T. R.” more than 30 years ago.
Provision for an adequate navy and adoption of a far-visioned naval policy call attention to the fact that failure of the United States to follow a considered plan has been immensely costly to the country in the past. Since the early days of our country, the Navy’s progress has been uneven. In critical days it has been built up at great expense; as soon as the crisis passed the Navy was allowed to dwindle to the danger point in ships, men and guns.
Today, in the most difficult of all times, the Navy is just emerging from such a period. The folly of permitting the Navy to reach so low an ebb can be seen in the present need for haste in construction, the vast sums which must be expended in so short a time.
During each critical period, from Revolutionary days to the present, the United States has been forced to build quickly; after each such period, during which the Navy performed deathless feats, interest invariably lagged and there was, almost literally, no naval policy. Throughout these years there have been those who strove to remedy that lack, but to little avail.
There is reason to believe, however, that finally there has been an awakening, and that today America is not only building the largest navy in the world but has laid the foundation for a permanent naval policy fully geared to the needs of this country and hemisphere.
Therefore, the current building program, important though it is in itself, means more than simply the long-delayed construction of a so-called two-ocean Navy. It means that the Nation is acting upon its recognition of the continuing need for an integrated naval policy based upon world realities, and not wishful thinking.
Events of the present war are declared by competent observers to be demonstrating anew the vital character of sea power and its immense weight in the reaching of final decisions. And by sea power is meant the whole maritime arm, including the vitally important naval aviation.
As a first line of defense, as the means of preventing essential materials from reaching the enemy, as the savior of entrapped armies— witness Dunkirk and Somaliland— ships of war continue to accomplish tasks of the first magnitude.
Yesterday’s controversy of battleships versus airplane, the popular belief that surface craft are wholly at the mercy of planes, is giving way to recognition that each service arm performs certain tasks superlatively well, and that no service can be neglected without hazard.
And in this connection it is more than ever realized that national security requires a strong Navy— with ample bases strategically located—and that to be strong a navy not only must be large but well balanced. For each type of ship and each kind of airplane is best suited for special and particular duties.
Just as the need for a broad, well balanced Navy is recognized, so it is clear that the huge, heavily-armored battleship with a vast cruising range and mounting 14 or 16 inch guns, remains the backbone of the fleet. Nothing which has occurred thus far in this war has changed the authoritative view that these great vessels, built to take as well as give an enormous volume of punishment, form the core around which an adequate Navy must be built.
Made Fortress Afloat
With its cruising range of many thousands of miles, its thick armor plate and powerful guns, it is literally a floating fortress which can attack or defend itself from any vessel on the high seas. The battleship today does need protection against submarine and air attack, but the mere fact that such protection is required has not reduced the usefulness of the capital ship, the Navy’s “big bruiser.”
It is noteworthy that all first rank nations are building large ships. And that goes for Germany too, arch apostle of air power though she is. As a purely defensive measure against submarine attack, special bulges or blisters have been used with success on many British capital ships. Obviously, however, no vessel can be made completely invulnerable to severe and accurately placed torpedo attack, as evidenced by the loss of the Royal Oak, which was protected by the special anti-submarine armor.
The aircraft menace can be met in several ways. All surface craft now carry larger and much more effective anti-aircraft batteries. Also, it is understood that in new ships every effort is to be made to reduce the amount of what seamen call “topside furniture.” This is to be done not so much to make the vessel less of a target as to decrease the number of casualties resulting from splintering.
About a year ago, designs of so called “streamlined” battleships were published. In the form presented, with all upper works concealed, such ships are not considered by authoritative naval opinion to be practicable, at least at this time.
At present the United States Navy has 15 battleships organized in four divisions, each commanded by a rear admiral. These ships can do more than 30 knots.
Under construction as this Navy Day is celebrated are four new 45,000-ton battleships. These ships, so far as is known, will be the largest afloat. They are the Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri and Wisconsin. Some consideration has been given to mounting 18-inch guns on these vessels, but final plans call for 16-inch weapons, which can deliver devastating blows.
The only ship in service which will compare with these American craft now building is the H. M. S. Hood, 42,100-ton pride of the British navy. There have been rumors that Japan is building ships as large as ours, but these reports are unconfirmed. In addition to these battleships, the Navy has six craft of 35,000 tons under construction, and contracts have been let for seven more vessels of battleship class. Tonnage details of the last seven are not known at this writing.
Submarines and Aircraft Carriers
The submarine, in the public view, has one function, namely, to unleash a deadly torpedo. And that certainly is its most important single duty. But it has many other uses, such as in scouting enemy fleets, observing his ports and coasts, patrolling home coasts and laying mine fields. Our Navy’s submarines range from about 1.000 to 3,000 tons, and the larger craft have substantial cruising capacity. These ships mount guns as well as torpedo tubes. To the Navy’s fleet of 103 submarines in service will be added the 39 more already building and the 43 additional ships planned under the most recent legislation.
Operating with the fleet is the increasingly important aviation arm. Essential to aircraft at sea is the airplane carrier, a completely equipped floating base which has great cruising range and is remarkably fast. The Navy now has six carriers in service, four are building and eight more have just been contracted for.
That was all that was written about the boats and aircraft carriers. Almost a postscript in nature. By sunset on December 7th, 1941, the Navy’s fortunes would reflect an entire new vision. The need to pivot strategy to the air and submarines would be forever carved into the tombstones of the men who were lost that day on ships like the Arizona and Utah.
Even today, the Navy’s influence is mostly felt by the giant aircraft carriers and mighty submarine forces. I wonder what will be written eighty years from today?