Most everyone is familiar with the might of the United States Navy. During times of crises and even natural disasters of grand scales, it is common to see images of a U.S. aircraft carrier pulling in to offer support, the carrier itself carrying enough supplies to help thousands of people and enough munitions to carry out a small war by itself if needed. In most modern military operations that the United States has performed, the first air-strikes have been carried out with aircraft from these "floating cities." The aircraft carrier is just one piece in a larger puzzle that makes the United States Navy one of the best military organizations in the world.
This is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the history of our nation, the Navy has been an important part of our national defense and has garnered a high reputation throughout the world. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise when you consider the origins of our nation. European naval power was extensively to help colonize the new world and then at the time of the Revolution the colonies were under control of what was considered the greatest naval power on Earth. Naval tradition had been engrained in our people before we were even a nation.
The British had put the city of Boston under martial law and was using its ports to send supplies to the colonies. George Washington realized this was a problem and commandeered several smaller vessels to harass British shipping if military action became unavoidable. In addition to this many of the individual colonies had armed small vessels. With this in mind, the Continental Congress decided it was time to create a larger, unified force to represent the colonies as a whole. So on October 13, 1775 the Continental Congress authorized the outfitting of four ships for this purpose.
On December 3 of that year, those vessels were transferred to control of the Continental Navy and were commissioned the Alfred (220 men, 20 nine-pounder guns and 10 sin-pounder guns) , Andrew Doria (112 men, 14 four-pounder guns), Cabot (120 men, 14 sin-pounder guns), and Columbus (220 men, 18 nine-pounder guns and 10 sin-pounder guns) with Esek Hopkins named as Commander-in-Chief of the new Continental Navy. In March 1776 this small force first saw action at Nassau, Bahamas when they raided gunpowder supplies.
Shortly Congress authorized a further 13 ships, this time frigates to be actually constructed as warships rather then refitted merchant ships as before. Many of these ships along with smaller vessels that had been fitted for war saw their first real naval action at the Battle of Valcour Island. This battle was a tactical defeat for the American forces, but a strategic victory (tactical victory refers to the immediate results whereas strategic refers to long-term effects). In the battle, the American forces, led by General Benedict Arnold started out with 16 ships and 750 sailors and went up against a superior British force of 30 ships and 1,670 sailors. Call it courage or insanity, the end of the battle saw 11 American ships lost with only 3 small British gunboats lost. Tactically it was a horrendous defeat. But the ensuing action delayed the British to the point that winter forced the British ships to return to port in Canada. If left unattended, the British ships were on a mission designed to cut the colonies in two. But this crucial delay instead allowed the Continental Army time to prepare and ultimately allowed for a Continental victory at Saratoga the next year. The long-term effects of this victory more then erased the hard losses suffered at Valcour Island.
By the end of the war, Congress was authorizing much larger ships. In fact, one such ship, the America, was authorized as a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, but this ship when completed was given to the French instead to compensate them for the loss of one of their ships, the Magnifique. But large ships such as this would become the face of the new United States Navy. By the time of the War of 1812 the Navy had several ships-of-the-line and large frigates. These ships would perform fairly well against British forces, particularly in the Great Lakes region. One ship to see action was the USS Constitution (nicknamed "old ironsides"). In the war she participated in a few naval engagements and emerged victorious. One engagement was against the HSM Guerriere. The Guerriere fired the first shop of the engagement but in 20 minutes, the Guerieere had been reduced to a flaming wreck. British survivors were astounded to see their shots bounce off the Constitution's hull and the "Old Ironsides" nickname was born. In December she engaged the HMS Java and defeated her. Over the course of the war she captured another eight ships, including a frigate and a sloop that she fought simultaneously. To this day, the USS Constitution is in commission and is the oldest floating commissioned warship in the world today (The HMS Victory is older and still commissioned, but she is drydocked).
When the Civil War came, the American navies (both the Union and Confederate) tried to maintain their edge and reputation seeing several naval innovations in the course of the war. One such innovation was the CSS Hunley. The Hunley was a Confederate submarine that was built to break the blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. There was at least one submarine built during the American Revolution (by the Colonists), but even though it did work, it never had the opportunity to be used against an enemy naval vessel. With the Hunley however, it was used in combat. In its first real mission it was used to sink the USS Housatonic, a task that it proved successful at. However, the Hunley didn't survive the attack. The most common belief is that the shockwave from the explosion of the Housatonic ruptured the Hunley and it sank with all hands aboard. In recent times, the Hunley has been found and recovered, so with any luck, the exact cause of its fate may be conclusively determined.
Ironclads also came into fruition in the Civil War. Though like with the submarine, they weren't first developed in the war, but they were first used in combat in the war. The CSS Virginia (formally the Merrimack) and the USS Monitor engaged each other March 8, 1862. The engagement lasted for a few hours into the next morning. In the end, the ships broke off the engagement, both sailing away claiming victory though neither side suffered much damage and both ships were still operational. The Virginia was converted from an existing ship as most ironclads of the day were. The Monitor on the other hand was designed from the onset as an iron ship, the first one conceived and built as an iron ship from the initial development stage. It has steam engine and a rotating turret, two items that would soon become standard fare on new warships. In the late 1800's, a new type of ship was developed by the British, the dreadnought. The dreadnought was the precursor of the modern battleship and soon all modern navies were clamoring for their own, the first of which were the USS Maine and USS Texas, commissioned on September 17 and August 15, 1895 respectively. By 1898 the U.S. had six battleships. Then on February 15, 1898 the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor. At first it was believed to have been an attack by Spanish forces and led quickly to the Spanish-American War (though now it is believed that the explosion was more likely an accident due to igniting coal-dust, a phenomenon that sunk several ships in the mid to late 1800's due to the technology of the time). The Spanish-American War demonstrated the importance of a good navy as it was fought entirely on Spanish controlled islands in the Gulf region and the Pacific. At the end of the war, the U.S. had gained several territories from the Spanish including the Philippines and Cuba among others. The Navy would be crucial in maintaining these and even today use some of these locations as naval ports.
In the 20th century the battleship became the "sex symbol" of the modern world militaries. So in 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt called for a demonstration of American naval power. On December 16, 1907 this fleet of battleships, called the Great White Fleet, sailed from Norfolk, Virginia and traveled around the world making numerous stops and visits at foreign ports. This tour of strength continued until returning on February 22, 1909. The power of the U.S. Navy was well known, but when World War One came along, it wasn't used much due to the late entry of the U.S. into that war.
Even though the U.S. came along at such a late date as to never see any real naval action, the U.S. Navy did have a strong impact in the war. When the U.S. entered, Allied shipping was being constantly harassed by German submarines. The U.S. coordinated a new convoy system that allowed protection of merchant and troop ships and minimized the German submarine threat. This convoy style was so successful that when the next world war came, it was used again to protect shipping from enemy submarines.
In that next world war, World War Two, the U.S. did see extensive naval action. In fact, it was a strike against our naval forces located at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii that caused the U.S. to finally enter the war. Though several battleships were sunk or badly damaged in that attack, the U.S. production capacity quickly began to churn out new battleships and support ships. At this time aircraft carriers did exist, but like all other vessels, they were there to support the battleships which many still considered the darling of naval warfare. The aircraft carriers were not at Pearl Harbor the morning of the attack so none were lost and so they went into action immediately.
Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise for the U.S. Navy. It was soon realized the potential of the aircraft carrier. For instance, the first strike into Japan was carried out by Jimmy Doolittle and his squadron in small B-25 bombers launched from an aircraft carrier. When this attack occurred, there was no other direct way that the U.S. could attack Japan itself. Though the damage inflicted by Doolittle wasn't that great, it was a huge morale booster to the U.S. and a blow to the Japanese who now realized that they weren't invincible with their very capital being struck.
There were several large naval engagements in the war. One such engagement was the Battle of Midway. In this battle, U.S. naval forces struck a critical blow to Japanese forces, largely due to the superb ability and use of aircraft carriers and their compliments. Before the war was over, dozens of aircraft carriers in varying form were built and it was now known that the true king of naval activity was the aircraft carrier. The battleship was still important and as late as the Gulf War they were active with the first cruise missiles being fired from battleships. But still, battleships were huge and expensive to maintain and developing missile technology was rendering the battleship as being unnecessary. As such, shortly after the Gulf War the Navy's remaining battleships were retired from service.
But the aircraft carrier remains and its role has become even more important. In recent military operations such as Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom, most of the first strikes were from naval aircraft. The strength of the aircraft carrier is that it can move around. With the Air Force, the planes have to be kept someplace within striking distance. Deals have to be worked out with foreign nations to allow the planes to land and operate from there and permission to fly over foreign territory has to be granted. However, if the nation has access from the sea, an aircraft carrier can sail close by and launch its planes without having to worry about foreign permissions. As such, it is the usually the first sign of American forces when troubles arise.
Beyond military operations the aircraft carrier has also been used in humanitarian relief efforts. Their size allows for literally tons of relief supplies to be carried and their helicopters can deliver the supplies to land. The aircraft carrier also has a system to convert salt water to fresh water, able to create several thousand gallons a day. Because of this, the aircraft carrier has become not only our first line of defense but also our first line of relief when called upon.
The United States Navy has long been a source of pride for our nation. From our very beginnings it has been recognized as a top-notch force and to date has continually proven this fact. It is always evolving and is arguably the most technologically superior force in the world. The men and women who live on these ships do so in cramped spaces and spend months away from home at a time. And though our Navy has superior equipment, I would like to believe that it is made much greater by the dedication of those men and women. October 13 is the birthday of the United States Navy. Take time to reflect on the service that the sailors of the Navy have performed.
Anchors Aweigh, my boys, Anchors Aweigh.
Farewell to college joys, we sail at break of day-ay-ay-ay.
Through our last night on shore, drink to the foam,
Until we meet once more:
Here's wishing you a happy voyage home.