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Our Ships Strike Back

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

The time is late September, 1948. A convoy of three large landing craft (LST’s) escorted by several destroyers and Army fighters off the coast of New Guinea is attacked by a Japanese force of ten torpedo planes and fourteen Zeros. Our fighters take on the Zeros and shoot them all down. But the torpedo planes keep on until they are within range of our destroyers’ guns. Seven are immediately shot down and the remaining three are damaged. The latter are shortly dispatched by our now unemployed fighters. The convoy is entirely undamaged and proceeds on its way.

About a month later one of our task forces of cruisers and destroyers under Rear Admiral A. S. Merrill is on its way home from a bombardment mission, during which it has encountered and defeated an enemy surface force. It is suddenly caught without air cover by sixty-seven Jap dive bombers—almost exactly the same number which succeeded in sinking the Prince of Wales and the Repulse two years earlier. But this time the results are different. The ships go into their whirling dervish act, and open fire with their antiaircraft batteries. Seventeen of the planes are shot down and the whole enemy force is held to one bomb hit, which does only moderate damage.

Thus the pattern of the year 1948, and even more so of 1944. During the twenty-one months between the sinking of the cruiser Chicago on January 30, 1943, and the loss of the light carrier Princeton on October 28, 1944, not a single American warship larger than a destroyer is lost as a result of enemy air attack—and very few destroyers are so lost for that matter. Those twenty-one months have seen our Navy engaged in constant offensive operations which included landing operations on a gigantic scale. We have landed huge bodies of troops on hostile shores in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific, including the Philippines. We have in each case continued to support the landed troops with the guns and planes of our Fleet for weeks on end. Our ships have penetrated again and again into areas where the enemy possessed, if not air superiority, at least a large enough number of aircraft to assure him of penetration of our fighter screens. Many of the enemy’s efforts have been night attacks, where the effectiveness of defensive fighter cover is at a minimum. But whether the enemy uses flares, or moonlight, or follows the track of the target ship’s white wake, the results are the same. Our warships succeed in knocking down planes even in the dark.

Subsequent to the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea, in which the Princeton is lost, we invade Mindoro. The approach involves a voyage of two days and three nights across the central Philippines, among the tight channels formed by the islands in Japanese hands. Heavy neutralizing attacks on Japanese airfields by American land and carrier-based planes reduce the scale of the enemy’s air offensive against our convoy, but he nevertheless makes repeated raids on it. All those raids are repulsed at heavy loss to the enemy, and repulsed almost exclusively by our ships’ guns.

Let us go back to December, 1941.

“The Navy is a gone gosling.”

“The surface warship is doomed.”

“Ships can never operate without an umbrella of aircraft overhead.”

Thus the prophets after Pearl Harbor. And before the diehards could even begin to argue that the story would have been quite different if our ships had been at sea, free to maneuver, with all their guns manned and ready and all  «

watertight doors and hatches closed, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, fighting under exactly those conditions, went down in the South China Sea. One of those ships was a new battleship, presumably equipped with the best defenses available against air attack, but those defenses availed her little. Not only did she fail to save her own life, but she downed only three planes before going under.

Something indeed happened during the next two years of time.

In December, 1941, many lessons were being read into the sinking of the two great ships off Malaya and the destruction of our own at Pearl Harbor, but the most fundamental one was almost completely ignored. These events did not prove that naval ships were obsolete, nor did they prove that such ships were incapable of operating save under a huge defensive “umbrella of aircraft.” They proved only that the British ships and our own, armed as they were during December, 1941, were not equal to defending themselves against attack by any substantial number of aircraft.

If the ascendancy of aircraft over surface ships had to be accepted as irrevocable, and if it were simply a question of out-building the enemy in aircraft, the United States with its gigantic industrial resources would have had little to lose in accepting the transition to a new and wholly different form of naval war. But those Americans who were so willing to scrap the surface naval vessels had no idea what they were advocating. The United States could have outbuilt the Japanese a hundred times in airplanes of the best designs now available and still have had no way to make those planes really effective in the western Pacific. For to wage an offensive at a distance of many thousands of miles from home, to win the air, land, and naval bases where they are needed, one must first have the cruising radius, the load-carrying capacity, the gigantic fire power, and pre-eminently the self-contained fighting and sea-keeping endurance which for the present can be combined only in surface ships of various types, including aircraft carriers.

We know we can destroy from the air a large part of the enemy’s armament production capacity, and no one can gainsay the importance of that. But we know also that a good part of that production capacity is bound to survive, that the huge amount of well-dispersed armaments already existing in reserve are not even touched by strategic bombing, and that the enemy’s will to resist does not always deteriorate under repeated blasting. We know also that the closer we get to our target with our air bases, the more effective our strategic bombing is going to be.

The war must be carried to our enemy’s waters. His seaborne commerce must be destroyed, his naval vessels sunk, landings effected on his shores, and finally his territory taken and held by foot-soldiers. Such work calls for ships as well as planes, ships of all types—carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, transports, and landing craft. These and their auxiliaries we have built in greater number than the world has ever before seen. And we have kept them afloat and in action against all comers—from enemies of the air as well as of the surface and sub-surface.

The “gone gosling” has turned out to be a bird of quite another feather. It now appears to have been a phoenix, which, the ancients tell us, perished periodically in flames but rose renewed from the ashes. The alchemy by which our Fleet was renewed—after passing through the flames of enemy air power and being badly burned in the process—was simply the addition of more and better planes and more and better antiaircraft guns.

So far as protection to ships is concerned, the fighter plane is and will probably always remain the best single defense against enemy aircraft. It is the primary defense both in terms of air space around our ships and in terms of importance, but as a sole defense it is bound to fail. The sky is simply too big to be shut off entirely to enemy aircraft, even when our own fighters are superior in numbers. And in the give and take of offensive action, situations are bound to occur in which interception fails or in which our fighter cover is temporarily inferior or absent entirely. The magnificent performance of our fighter planes over our naval task forces and convoys has been responsible for far the greater number of enemy attacking planes downed. But the fact that our ships have had occasion to dodge enemy bombs and torpedoes and to bring down hundreds of planes on their own indicates that our fighter screens have not been impenetrable and cannot be expected to become so.

It is therefore clear that if our ships had not found some way of defending themselves from the skies with their own resources, their day would have been done.

Though the events of December, 1941, and the months following gave added impetus to the Navy’s program for modernizing the antiaircraft armament of the Fleet, that program was already well under way at the time we were plunged into the war.

Taking June, 1940, as a starting point, our situation at least in heavy antiaircraft guns was definitely good. Our superb “five-inch-thirty-eight” (5-inch bore or caliber, 88 calibers long), developed in the early thirties and now standard for all new combatant ships big enough to take it, had a rate of fire at any angle of elevation which has since caused the Japanese to call it a machine gun. Its incomparable computer system left little to be desired, It had a power drive smooth as silk, for rotating the guns in train and elevation, and it could be actuated remotely from a central director, which pointed the entire battery at the target, set the fuzes for proper timing, and fixed the guns. All the gun crews had to do was load—and a power rammer helped them do that.

But good as they were against high-flying aircraft, 5-inch guns with elaborate computer systems and time-fuze shells were not the answer to planes diving out of a low overcast or through broken clouds and dropping their bombs in a few seconds after being sighted. Our older battleships had nothing to back up their eight 5”/25’s (predecessor to the 5”/38, and much less effective) except eight .50 caliber machine guns! This gun, which has done such marvelous execution against enemy aircraft when mounted in our planes, was practically useless for protecting a large ship. A fighter plane can always close the range to point-blank and score a very high percentage of hits, which is one of the chief reasons for the value of the fighter plane as a bomber killer. Caliber .50 solid bullets in sufficient quantity can saw off a wing, or tear an engine to pieces, A few, scored at the longer ranges at which ships must fight before bombs or torpedoes are released, can do nothing, unless by luck they hit a vital spot. Scattered half-inch holes in wings, fuselage, or even control surfaces, do not bring planes down. So we needed a machine gun which could fire bullets large enough to contain a bursting charge.

The 1.1-inch, which we had developed also in the thirties, was, in its four-barreled mount, a wicked weapon when it worked well, but was full of bugs which caused jams; and its 1-pound shell was a bit light for stopping planes before they got too close. Also, we had it only on the latest ships, though plans had been started to mount a few on each large fighting ship. Meanwhile, its need was being filled after a fashion with the 3”/50, a good weapon with a rapid rate of fire for its size but not capable of the torrent of fire of a fully automatic gun.

A directive from Admiral Stark, then Chief of Naval Operations, based on fleet recommendations, had therefore been issued to the Bureau of Ordnance to develop or procure a 40-millimeter multiple-mount gun and a 20-millimeter gun.

The development of a new gun at that state of the world crisis was out of the question. The process of working out kinks in a new design by manufacture of pilot models, of conducting firing trials, of redesigning this part and that, is a most laborious one, usually taking several years. So we had to go shopping. There were no guns of the proper calibers on the market in this country. Castigation by ill-informed pacifists had driven our private munitions makers into other businesses. But in Europe there were available to us a number of automatic or machine guns which had been through the test of war. The problem was to find the ones best suited to our needs.

One was the British two-pounder “pompom.” We knew we could get complete information on its manufacture, operation, and maintenance. But it couldn’t use our smokeless powder, and besides had a decidedly low muzzle velocity. Our own Army had a 37 mm. automatic, but it fired a shell only slightly heavier than our 1.1-inch, and was not adaptable to multiple mounts. That point was quite important, for we all knew that just as air power succeeds only in great masses, so gun defense against it must use great masses. Hence we wanted to cover our ships with as many guns as they could take, and that meant multi-barreled mounts, for the number of gun positions on a ship is obviously limited. In August, 1940, Captain (now Rear Admiral) W. H. P. Blandy, who was then co-ordinator of antiaircraft activities for the Bureau of Ordnance, was informed by the Dutch naval attache in Washington, Captain (now Rear Admiral) Ranneft, that the Dutch Navy had developed an excellent system of antiaircraft fire control for the Bofors. It was primarily a Dutch design, but used some German optical and electrical parts. Captain Blandy could see it if fee wished on H. N. M. S. Van Kinsbergen, a gunnery training ship then in the Dutch West Indies. Blandy was anxious to see both the gun and the fire control. Admiral Furlong, then Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, had ordered a twin-mounted Bofors, but it had not arrived from Sweden at this time.

The Van Kinsbergen would soon be in Trinidad, but there were no aerial targets available there to test the new system. The Chief of Naval Operations arranged for the cruiser Tuscaloosa to come down from Guantanamo, Cuba, 1,500 miles away, to launch planes which would tow the necessary targets, Captain Blandy flew to Trinidad with another officer, Captain France. The demonstration was about as international an affair as it could well be. American planes towed targets for a Dutch ship firing Swedish guns with a combined Dutch-German fire control system, the whole taking place in the Caribbean Sea off a British port.

Captain Blandy at once formed an attachment for the Bofors gun. Simple, rugged, and reliable, it fired an explosive projectile twice as big as our 1.1-inch at a greater range and at almost the same rate of fire. He decided at once that our Navy wanted that gun.

The fire control system was also good, but not so impressive as the gun. It utilized parts and principles quite different from our own, making its adoption dubious. Nevertheless, one could, tell better if one had the drawings and specifications. On arriving back in Washington, Blandy iisked Captain Ranneft where we could get drawings of the gun, the mount, and the fire control mechanism in a hurry. Holland had been overrun by the Germans three months before, and the Dutch Admiralty had had no time to take drawings to London. But they might have prints in Surabaya, Java; Ranneft said that he would inquire. The drawings were microfilmed in Surabaya and arrived at Captain Blandy’s desk in Washington within a few weeks. The legend that they were flown out of Java by stealth as the Japanese were descending upon that island is a good yarn, but happens to be anachronistic by about a year.

Our interpreters, designers, and draftsmen went to work immediately on these prints, translating from Swedish and Dutch to English and converting dimensions, screw threads, et cetera, to American standards.

Meanwhile, the Bofors gun which Admiral Furlong had ordered arrived in October, 1940, and was sent at once to the Naval Proving Ground at Dahlgren, Virginia. It immediately made a fine impression on all hands. But there was one hitch. The Bofors company had only single and twin designs, and unless we could get a quadruple mount, the volume of steel and explosive delivered by any one unit would not exceed that of our own 1.1-inch, which was always mounted in quads. The 40-mm had certain design features which prevented mounting four of them side by side in the manner of the 1,1-inch. But our Ordnance engineers solved the problem by putting two twins on the same mount with a space between them.

The Bureau was now ready to go ahead four bells, having made much progress meanwhile on the drawings. Negotiations were opened with the firm of Aktiebolaget-Bofors, who held the patent, for the right to manufacture the gun in the United States for both the Army and the Navy. The contract provided for two Swedish engineers to come to the United States if possible, but they were never able to make it, probably because of German interference. We did get some additional drawings from the Bofors company, however, and these travelled by rail across Germany, right under the Nazis’ noses.

The Oerlikon 20-mm gun came to us in rather less spectacular fashion but not a moment too soon. In the early autumn of 1940 Commander S. S. C. Mitchell, R. N., of the British Purchasing Commission, asked Captain Blandy if he cared to look over one of the Oerlikon guns they were hoping to have made in this country. Blandy’s answer was “No, thanks.” He knew that the Bureau of Ordnance had tried out an Oerlikon in 1935 and had turned it down. That gun, a 1934 model, for use in aircraft, was a low velocity weapon with a rate of fire of only 265 shots per minute, much too slow for a gun of that size. The Japanese, incidentally, thought themselves very clever to adopt the 1934 model, which is the one they have until recently been using both in their aircraft and as an antiaircraft gun.

But Commander Mitchell pointed out that the new Oerlikon was a powerful, high-velocity gun shooting a one-quarter pound explosive projectile at the rate of well over 400 rounds per minute. That was indeed something else again. He said that these guns had done some fine work at Narvik bringing down German planes with as few as five or six hits; that the British had had pitifully few on that occasion and were eager to get production started here.

But the Army had already started production for both services on a powerful 20-mm machine gun, the Hispano-Suiza, for use in our aircraft. The Navy had thought of using it on ships, to avoid having two different 20-mm guns and thus complicating the problem of spare parts and ammunition production and issue. The Hispano-Suiza had the advantage of a greater rate of fire even than the new Oerlikon. But Commander Mitchell pointed out that it had several limitations as an antiaircraft gun. An airplane gun fires only very short bursts, and being mounted in the wings of a plane moving through the air at over 300 miles an hour it does not present much of a cooling problem. The Hispano-Suiza was therefore designed without any thought of permitting a change of barrels during action—hardly possible in an airplane—but the Oerlikon permitted the barrel to be replaced in about thirty seconds without taking down the gun. Moreover, the Oerlikon was a simpler and more rugged weapon. It is one thing to mount a gun in an airplane and another to put it on the deck of a destroyer in the North Atlantic where it would be washed by heavy seas for days on end.

As Commander Mitchell put it, one gun was a race horse, the other a truck horse. What we needed was the truck horse. He said he had an Oerlikon gun in Providence, Rhode Island. At Blandy’s request, he telephoned to have it shipped down by truck that night to the Dahlgren Proving Ground, along with a good supply of ammunition. When Captain Blandy saw it fire and learned in one easy lesson to operate it himself, no further arguments were necessary. It joined the family of United States naval guns then and there.

Our Navy attempted to purchase the drawings and manufactoring rights, and to obtain some engineering assistance from the Swiss parent company, the Oerlikon Machine Tool Works in Zurich. We never succeeded, presumably because the Swiss neutrality laws forbade the export of arms and their designs to belligerent nations, and our negotiation was to be a joint Anglo-American affair. But the British had drawings, which, like those of the Bofors gun, we had to convert to American standards by changing dimensions from millimeters to thousandths of an inch. We got along without the engineering assistance, finding plenty in Providence and Detroit.

We had thus procured two excellent foreign guns, but a most substantial American contribution was in order, While any explosive projectiles are likely to bring down a plane if they hit, the problem is to make them hit. Solution of that problem requires the provision not only of effective directors and other fire-control instruments, but also of suitable mounts and power drives for the guns themselves. The same is of course true of the larger caliber antiaircraft weapons. The gun itself is only a small part of the whole antiaircraft system, and hardly the most important. Fire control is the crux of modern naval gunnery.

In firing against aircraft the ordinary problems of fire control are so much augmented as to appear to the uninitiated hopeless of solution, which perhaps explains the popular tendency in the past to belittle the whole antiaircraft effort. But with modern refinements of control the problem is far from hopeless. In firing at airplanes one must “lead the target,” that is, fire well ahead of it, and the fire control problem is mainly one of computing the proper lead angle, which because of the swift three-dimensional movement of the target may be a large angle and in any case must be computed quickly. If that computation depended upon mental calculations, the problem would indeed be hopeless; but today sights and directors which compute proper lead angle automatically nnd speedily and which require the operator merely to track the target are in common use in our Navy. The marvels of the Navy-sponsored Norden bombsight, now relatively well known to the public, are easily matched by a dozen different antiaircraft fire control instruments. The problem of providing suitable power drives and directors for our new 40-mm twin and “quad” mounts was attacked with gusto and acumen by the research division of the Bureau of Ordnance.

By this time Captain Blandy had become Chief of Bureau with the rank of Rear Admiral and had been relieved of the specific job of co-ordinating our antiaircraft program by Captain E. E. Hermann, USN. The latter took hold with great energy and skill, both in his assigned activities and in pressing for ever greater numbers of antiaircraft guns on our ships. He was ably seconded in the latter movement by Captain (now Rear Admiral) W. A. Lee, Jr., USN, then Director of Fleet Training in the Office of Naval Operations, and later commander of the battleship-destroyer task force which destroyed a Japanese battleship and other vessels off Guadalcanal on the night of November 14-15, 1942.

One of Captain Herrmann’s most fortunate decisions was to conduct firing trials with an automatic lead computing sight which came to his notice on a trip to Boston. This sight had been designed by Dr. C. S. Draper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Being light, compact, and easy to produce in great numbers, it was just what we needed for direct mounting on the 20-mm gun.

The same sight, incidentally, proved adaptable to a small and light director for the control of the 40-mm mounts. With those instruments, together with the continuing improvements on the 5”/38 mounts and directors, we were assured ;it least of an enormous qualitative superiority in antiaircraft defense to any foreign navies in the world, and particularly to those of our enemies.

But we needed these guns, mounts, and directors in volume—huge volume. We had to get them mounted on ships as soon as new ones were built and as existing ones became available at the navy yards. We had everything but time, and the emergency would not wait. We had to institute and accelerate production on unprecedented levels.

The degree to which this was accomplished exceeded in magnitude the fondest hopes of all concerned. American private industry responded magnificently to the need. Unlike the situation prevailing among the larger caliber guns, where the relatively limited requirements called for only moderate expansion of existing facilities which were mostly government owned, the tremendous quantities of antiaircraft weapons needed obliged us to entrust their manufacture to firms which had never made guns before and which had had little experience with such fine and exacting tolerances as 4ire necessary in guns and their mounts. New facilities both in buildings and machine tools had in many cases to be provided, and unskilled labor had to be trained to operate these machines efficiently. Yet in most instances the firms to which contracts were given were producing guns within a matter of months of their receiving the drawings, and were even beginning to advance suggestions for design improvements which would further facilitate production. Guns of foreign design are often developed under a custom-built system of manufacture, where parts are fitted individually; and to adapt such guns to American methods of mass production with complete interchangeability of parts requires a wholesale redesign of the equipment, which the engineers of the producing companies carried out under Navy supervision.

Throughout 1941 the Navy’s antiaircraft guns shared the top position with guns for aircraft on the priority list for new machine tools. It is really phenomenal that in an instance of assignment of priorities, where disagreement is the rule, everyone concerned was agreed that antiaircraft guns for our ships was of the first order of necessity. It reflects, incidentally, how defense-minded the nation was in those days. The Bureau of Ordnance had a very difficult time getting a sufficient priority on machine tools for torpedo production, which it was also attempting to expand.

The first twin-mount of the 40-mm gun was available for testing in February, 1942, and the first quad a month later. Though Admiral Blandy knew these superior 40-mm guns were coming, he could not foretell what snags and pitfalls we might encounter in their manufacture. Hence he had given orders to continue in production the 1.1-inch—certain design corrections had much improved its performance—until the newer guns were being produced in volume. But by the middle of 1942, production of the twenties and forties was well under way, and by the middle of 1943 had mounted to figures far exceeding our first estimates of possibilities. By July, 1943, over 66,000 new antiaircraft guns of the 5738, 3”/50, 40-mm, and 20-mm types had been produced, as well as 418,000,000 rounds of ammunition for those guns.

Our new guns were mounted aboard our combatant ships in such quantities »that ultimately only weight and space considerations became limiting factors. And when those limits were reached, boats, boat cranes, mainmasts, and other top hamper were removed to make more topweight carrying capacity available for more antiaircraft guns. Our larger fighting ships—battleships, aircraft carriers, and cruisers— which were already bristling with antiaircraft armament by the beginning of 1943, had by the end of the year increased even further the number of guns carried. One of our newer battleships, mounting 148 antiaircraft guns of 5-inch, 40-mm, and 20-mm caliber, was capable of hurling into the sky from its antiaircraft battery alone over 10,000 pounds of explosive projectiles in fifteen seconds of fire. And this volume of fire is not, as it is commonly pictured, a “barrage” or “curtain of fire” but one directed at specific targets with precision. Those battleships existing in December, 1941, had by the end of 1943 increased the weight-throwing capacity of their close-in antiaircraft batteries by ratios varying between 600 and 1200 percent. Because of the greater effectiveness of the new guns and fire control devices, it is a conservative estimate that the close-in antiaircraft effectiveness of our battleships was some one hundred times greater than it had been before Pearl Harbor.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, it was clear that the Japanese attack had been an enormous political error, regardless of its immediate strategic results. Now it appears that it was a major strategic error as well. The Japanese obligingly demonstrated, to those still unwilling to believe, the relative nakedness of our ships, and sank them in thin water where they could be retrieved. Hud they not been so eager to anticipate our moves, they might have had a chance to sink our ships in the deepest waters of the Pacific. As it was, events made it convenient for us to modernize our ships completely and proved the necessity for doing so.

The vast improvement in the quantity and quality of our defensive armament, coupled with a growing proficiency and confidence of personnel in its use, began by the middle of 1.942 to make itself felt on the battlefields of the sea. In the battle of August 24, 1942, in the Eastern Solomons, the antiaircraft guns were responsible for repulsing without the loss of a ship those strong enemy air squadrons which had penetrated our fighter screens. The Enterprise suffered moderate damage from three bomb hits and the North Carolina suffered no damage at all, but those two ships were between them credited with twenty-two planes shot down and several others probable.

Two months later, in the Battle of Santa Cruz (October 26), our antiaircraft power took another great stride forward. The Hornet was lost, to be sure, but the enemy’s large-scale air effort against the Enterprise-South Dakota group, during which over eighty planes arrived within striking range of those two ships, had wasted into nothingness under the withering fire of our guns. The damage to the Enterprise was moderate and that to the South Dakota was wholly insignificant. The South Dakota, incidentally, did much of her excellent work with the much-abused 1.1-inch guns, which now have long since disappeared from her decks. Her present antiaircraft armament is much superior to that which she enjoyed on that day.

In the same battle our own aircraft, largely released from defensive duties by the power of our ships’ guns, succeeded in inflicting heavy damage upon the enemy. The battle furnished also very gratifying proof that our own antiaircraft armament was immensely superior to that of our enemy, a conclusion which was confirmed and reconfirmed in all the battles which followed. This superiority was to prove one of the most decisive single tactical factors of the Pacific war. For while Japanese planes have for the most part failed in their task of destroying our ships, our own planes have continued to impose a deadly execution upon their ships.

The great pay-off was to be the First Battle of the Philippine Sea of almost two years later, when the Japanese task force lost over three hundred and fifty carrier planes in direct attack upon our ships without inflicting any noteworthy damage, while we lost only forty-nine planes in the process of exacting a toll of ships which for the Japanese fleet was catastrophic. And in the second and greater battle of the Philippine Sea in October, 1944, the disparity in accomplishment between the opposing air fleets was even more striking —despite the loss of the Princeton, which, incidentally, was abandoned and sunk by our own forces not so much because of the extent of the damage done by the enemy but because of the fact that the submarine-infested waters in which the damage occurred made it too risky to provide adequate fire-fighting or towing assistance to the injured ship.

Less spectacular in battle results but by no means less important has been the improved antiaircraft performance of our auxiliaries and merchant ships. For the first six months of our participation in the war, there was little these vessels could do in their own defense. But with increase in the production of 3”/50 dual-purpose and 20 mm machine guns, it was possible during the second half of 1042 to begin giving them really effective armament. Later the 5788, on a somewhat simplified mount but still power-operated, was also installed on many merchant ships. As vessels were properly gunned, as confidence in weapons increased, and as experience and training improved, the cost in enemy aircraft, pilots, torpedoes, and bombs necessary to sink an alerted merchant vessel at sea rose steadily and rapidly, tending in many instances to become prohibitive.

On August 8, 1942, the Japanese were given to understand that the days of happy hunting against our transports and merchantmen were over. On that day a force of thirty-six Japanese bombers and torpedo planes attacked one of our convoys engaged in landing the first troops and supplies on Guadalcanal. Our fighters got to work on them first and downed a number, but the majority pushed through our interceptor screen only to be torn to shreds by the furious and apparently wholly unexpected gale of fire from our transports and their escorts. Only six of the planes which made the attack lived to get away, and only one torpedo found its target—a destroyer. No bomb hits were scored.

A similar but even more spectacular action occurred in the same waters three months later, on November 12, 1942. In this case out of more than twenty torpedo planes and eight fighters which attacked, only one plane—a fighter—got away. The few American fighters in the air could not prevent the torpedo planes from reaching our ships. In their violent maneuvers to avoid our ships’ fire, the torpedo planes dropped their torpedoes haphazardly, as though the missiles were being forced out of the planes by centrifugal force alone. There were no bomb or torpedo hits at all on our ships, though one doomed Jap plane managed to crash into the San Francisco, taking some lives but doing insignificant damage to the cruiser. Within a few hours the San Francisco was to play the leading role in the night action against a Japanese battleship task force.

What the action of November 12 meant to the morale of the transport crews is revealed in the comments of some of the transport commanders. One of them said simply but eloquently, “The attack was beautifully frustrated!” Another observed that “The fire power was terrific, and must have amazed the Japanese pilots who evidently thought that they were attacking a defenseless-looking AK [cargo vessel] and that they would have easy pickings.” The latter regretted that he could not isolate the performance of individual guns aboard his ship in order to compliment the workers who made those guns, but added: “When you back into a buzz saw, you can’t tell which tooth hits you first. All guns fired, all got hits, and to date have contributed to the destruction of seven Japanese planes.” Another commander remarked, “Morale was excellent, but particularly bloodthirsty.”

Enough instances of like attacks with like results have since occurred to indicate that the events off Guadalcanal were only the beginning of a trend. The commander of a transport in reporting an action which took place about the middle of 1943 stated: “Heavy accurate antiaircraft fire . . . resulted in what I believe was a complete slaughter of the twelve or more bombers which penetrated our fighter interception . . . After participating in three determined attacks, I am convinced that it was the heavy A A fire from transports which not only saved the ship but in each case resulted in a creditable destruction of enemy aircraft.” Still another ship, in conveying its regrets that some of the hits scored on Japanese planes had been made with a captured Japanese gun, thus depriving American workers of a share in the triumph, casually added that twenty-one planes had, however, been downed by the American-made guns on the same ship. The twenty-one may or may not have been a record for noncombatant ships, and it may even have been an over-optimistic estimate for that ship, but it certainly shows that times had changed since our merchantmen were being knocked about with impunity.

The layman may wonder why antiaircraft defense of ships shoulcf be so much more effective than antiaircraft defense of land installations. The answer is partly in the vastly different sizes of the respective target areas, partly in the fact that targets on the seas are usually in motion, and finally in the fact that the ship which is the target carries on its own decks the concentration, or a good part of it, of all the antiaircraft armament locally available. The city of Berlin covers a huge area, and the guns mounted for its defense are necessarily scattered. Neither the city itself nor any factory in it can indulge in “evasive maneuvers” when our aircraft are overhead. There is therefore no limit, other than weather conditions and the flying ceiling of the loaded plane, to the altitude from which it can be accurately bombed. But effective bombing of moving ships, where a miss of more than a few yards is literally as good as a mile, has to be done from very much lower altitudes. The attacking planes cannot avoid coming well within range of whatever defenses the ships may have.

As compared to the mobile antiaircraft guns used by an army in the field, the advantage enjoyed by naval antiaircraft guns is even greater. A ship can mount much larger and more powerful defensive weapons than those which must be dragged about in mud ashore. While the Army’s field artillery is to a certain degree “dual-purpose” and capable of being used against aircraft, there is no counterpart on land to the quadruple mount 40-mm piece, which may he regarded as the mainstay of our major combatant ships and which is even mounted on some of our destroyers (our other destroyers have plenty of twin-mount 40 mm). For that matter, there is no army counterpart in antiaircraft effectiveness to our 5”/38, even in the field artillery. Certainly it would be difficult to imagine twenty such guns gathered in as narrow a compass in the field as they are on the deck of a battleship.

To be sure, the whole situation may be changed in the future. The Germans have tried using radio-controlled glider bombs against our ships to enable them while attacking to stay outside the range at least of our numerous smaller guns. Thus far these and various Japanese expedients have seemed to be of limited value and potentiality, though we must always be ready for a reversal, temporary or otherwise, of the trend which thus far has so greatly favored us. But research and development in antiaircraft ordnance are certainly not static. The present Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, Admiral George F. Hussey, Jr., has not contented himself with applauding the accomplishments of his predecessor, and there have been created many marvels which this paper cannot touch upon.

Meanwhile, of course, our huge aircraft carrier fleet guarantees that lavish use of fighters which is the indispensable complement to the ship’s own armament. Defense of ships is a defense in depth. The system is like that of a soccer team. Our planes, offensive and defensive, are the field players; the ships’ guns are the goal keepers.

The necessity for effective antiaircraft defense of ships will last as long as the ship remains indispensable in wartime. When, and if, the airplane becomes as militarily economical a means of conveying large armies and huge quantities of strategic commodities across the seas as the surface ship now is, we shall need neither surface warships nor cargo vessels nor any means of defending them. Until then we cannot afford to become defeatist about any new menace to surface craft. The airplane has not presented the first such menace, nor will it be the last. The principle that “there is always an answer” has been confirmed over and over again by a century and a half of constant revolutionary change in naval armament.

If but one per cent of the brains and money expended over the last twenty years on the development of aircraft had been devoted to developing weapons against them, our antiaircraft defenses would have been enormously ahead not only of where they were when the war began but probably also of where they are now. The same is, of course, true of all fields of military ordnance. The best scientific brains of the country can and should be encouraged in peace time to devote to the tools of our security at least some reasonable proportion of that research effort that now goes into implements for our convenience.

The airplane has the advantage of being a highly useful peace-time vehicle, which means that its progress is bound in any case to receive more attention and effort than that of weapons which might be used against it. But even the armed services were largely paralyzed by the twin shibboleths that only the airplane can defeat the airplane and that one should not become too engrossed in defensive armaments. The tactical defense is an integral part of the strategic offensive. We arm our bombers defensively against fighters to enable them to carry out their offensive missions. Similarly, the ship, being our primary means of initiating the overwhelming offensives by which alone our enemies can be defeated, deserves all the talent and effort we can devote to its protection. When one thinks what a handful of naval officers and civilian engineers, working on a shoe string, were able to accomplish in a few brief years, our vision of the limits of possibility in antiaircraft defense expands indefinitely.


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