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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p20  Chapter 3

Naval Air Organization

For twenty years before Pearl Harbor, there had been much discussion of the best organization of the Navy for war. As generally stated, the problem had two parts. In the first place, there was the question of actual combat operations, which required a flexible system that could be readily adapted to the constantly changing needs of the strategical situation. In the second, there existed a need for a relatively permanent administrative organization to provide logistical and material support, to handle personnel, to insure the combat readiness of men and equipment, and to furnish repair and maintenance facilities. Although it might at first sight appear difficult to reconcile these two, and much discussion was devoted to the subject, in practice it turned out to be relatively easy and even before hostilities began, the Navy had achieved the essentials of the system it was to follow. War conditions brought surprisingly few changes.

Operational control was based on the task force principle, the basis of which was that composition of forces and the nature of command should be determined by the mission assigned. For example, a convoy was in essence a task force to which certain naval vessels and even an escort carrier might be assigned. Obviously when the convoy reached its destination, the escorting ships were available for reassignment and the task force was automatically dissolved. Other tasks might be more complex. A carrier raid on the coast of Norway would require the presence not only of carriers but also a protective screen of destroyers, cruisers, and, perhaps even battleships. The invasion of the Marianas called not only for air and surface units, including carriers, but also for amphibious forces and ground troops, while for the invasion of Normandy carriers were unnecessary because of the proximity of flying fields in England. A task force, then, was simply an assemblage of military power for the accomplishment of a specific objective; it was, further, a method by  p21 which units drawn from the several services and even from different nations could be combined under a single command.

Before considering how naval aviation was fitted into the task force pattern, it is necessary to look briefly at the United States Fleet. During the war its commander-in‑chief, Fleet Admiral E. J. King, maintained his headquarters in Washington where he represented the Navy on the Combined, and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These two bodies, the first of which included British as well as American officers, planned the global strategy of the western allies. Once a campaign had been decided upon, the assignment of naval vessels and aircraft and the necessary over‑all planning of the Navy's share in the operation was the responsibility of the Commander-in‑Chief, United States Fleet. There were two principal subordinate fleets — the Atlantic and the Pacific — and also a number of smaller fleets that were in reality permanent task forces. Such were the Eighth Fleet in the Mediterranean, the Twelfth Fleet with headquarters in the United Kingdom, and the Seventh Fleet in the southwest Pacific area. The commanders of the subordinate fleets might create such task forces within their commands as they deemed desirable. Under the Pacific and Atlantic fleets, these subordinate forces sometimes reached such size and importance in themselves as to be recognized as independent fleets. This was the case with the Third and Fifth fleets in the Pacific and with the Fourth Fleet in the Atlantic, to all of which considerable space will be devoted in the narrative of operations that follows.

When a specific operation was contemplated, air units were assigned as needed. For example when the Fifth Fleet went into the Marshall Islands, it was assigned fast carriers of the Essex and Independence classes, which were organized with their supporting destroyers, cruisers, and battleships as Task Force 58, and the whole was placed under the command of a senior naval aviator, Vice Admiral (later Admiral) Marc A. Mitscher. This was regarded as a striking force whose first function was to destroy enemy air power by wide-ranging raids over a vast area; second, if an attempt were made by surface vessels to interfere with our landing forces, the fast carrier force was to engage, and, if possible, destroy the Japanese Fleet, or at least drive it off; and third, it was to assist the landings by close support if required. Such a force was self-contained and could be used either in co‑operation with other Fifth Fleet elements or operated independently. Usually, close air support was the function of escort carriers assigned to the amphibious force and organized into task groups  p22 within that force. This was true in all major landings. Again the conduct of air operations was under a senior naval aviator who carried out orders received from the commander of the amphibious forces. In the Marshalls, still a third form of naval air power played its part. For weeks before the assault, navy search and photographic planes, based in the neighboring Gilberts, had reconnoitered enemy shipping, carefully noting ship movements, checking on the condition of beach defenses and airfields, and generally serving as the eyes of the fleet. In this they had co‑operated with marine dive-bomber squadrons and army heavy and medium bombardment groups. The units of three services had been placed under a single command and given the designation of Task Force 57 to indicate their connection with the Fifth Fleet.

With functions similar to those of Task Force 57 but of a more permanent nature, were the sea frontiers. These were coastal defense areas set up in such a way that they were coterminous with similar zones created by the Army and permitted a co‑ordinated defense of the United States and its possessions. There were the Eastern, Gulf, Caribbean, and Panama sea frontiers in the Atlantic and the Western, Northwestern, Hawaiian, and Philippine, in the Pacific. Each was organized as a task force with air units fitted into the structure as subordinate task groups. Because the sea frontiers early proved their value in anti-submarine warfare, additional ones were set up in Morocco and Alaska, and the Philippine Frontier was revived in November, 1944.

Building a task force was a game played with pre‑fabricated units. If the air support plan called for half a dozen carriers, they were assigned from the units available, it being assumed that all carriers were alike. Although individual differences did exist, of course, actually there was great uniformity among units of a like type and they could be substituted for one another with a minimum of difficulty. Task forces in operation had to be supplied and their equipment maintained. The commander wanted to be certain that when he gave the order, planes would rise into the air and would not just sit idle while someone looked around for a few spare parts, or sent an urgent dispatch for the gasoline that hadn't arrived. Should some scientist develop a gadget to destroy parked planes more effectively, it was important that it be installed in the fleet right away, not next year. As men and machines began to show signs of combat fatigue, they had to be replaced.

Meeting the needs of the operating forces was the work of administrative commands all the way from Washington to Guam or Morocco. To attempt a complete description of what they were and all they did  p23 would take a volume in itself, but some knowledge of their structure and function is necessary to an understanding of naval aviation. In the Navy Department were the bureaus — essentially procurement agencies — that supervised the development and manufacture of equipment. Especially important to aviation, of course, was the Bureau of Aeronautics. All the others also supplied equipment and services that were needed by the air organization. The work of the bureaus was co‑ordinated by the Chief of Naval Operations upon whom fell the main burden of logistical planning. As of August, 1943, there exists a Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air) who performs CNO's aviation functions.

Within the various fleets, organization was by types, i.e., there were commands for battleships, cruisers, destroyers, etc. Type commanders performed numerous functions including the very important one of seeing that all vessels under their command exhibited uniformity of equipment, training, and doctrine. Before the war, aviation was not concentrated into a single command in either the Atlantic or Pacific Fleet, a distinction being made between carrier and patrol planes. This situation caused some confusion in the early part of the war, and on 1 September 1942 Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) A. W. Fitch became Commander, Aircraft, Pacific Fleet. Summarized briefly, his functions included the allocation and distribution of all planes, material, and aviation personnel through the Pacific area, the making of recommendations concerning types, numbers, and characteristics of aircraft required for current and projected operations, the advanced training and combat readiness of squadrons, and the preparation of tactical instructions and doctrine for all Pacific Fleet aircraft. He also had cognizance of all carriers, tenders, and other vessels assigned to the aeronautical organization and served as aviation adviser to the Commander-in‑Chief, Pacific Fleet.

The success of ComAirPac in carrying out his numerous duties led to the formation, on 1 January 1943, of a similar command in the Atlantic. Because new carriers of the Essex and Independence classes were built and commissioned on the east coast, ComAirLant trained their air groups and gave the ships their initial shakedown. The very great success of our carrier aviation in 1944 was in real measure the result of what the boys had learned along the Atlantic coast.

Obviously, there existed numerous commands subordinate to ComAirPac and ComAirLant. The basic unit of naval aviation was the squadron, which exercised both operational and administrative control of its members. Although the majority of escort carriers (CVE's) had  p24 only a single squadron, a few of the larger ones and all fast carriers had two or more squadrons organized into air groups. All land-based squadrons, however, were assigned to fleet air wings. Originally patrol wings, their designation was changed on 1 November 1942, when the wings' functions were extended from patrol planes to include all naval aircraft habitually flown from shore bases or tenders. Beginning in September of the same year there was established in each wing a headquarters squadron whose function was to take over routine maintenance from the individual squadrons. This was done because the early months of the war had placed a great premium on mobility and it was desired to streamline squadrons so that they could move all their personnel and gear in their own aircraft.

Maintenance was another responsibility of ComAirPac and ComAirLant. The same principle that was applied in wing headquarters squadrons was widely used elsewhere. There was a tendency to deprive operative squadrons of routine maintenance and to turn it over to specially created units. The most widespread were the carrier air service divisions (CASDiv's), which provided for the upkeep of planes on carriers, and the carrier aircraft service units (CASU's) which performed the same functions at shore bases. Ultimately, CASU's in the forward areas had their responsibility enlarged to cover repair of all types of navy planes and were consequently renamed Combat Aircraft Service Units (F). Since present‑day planes possess not only many thousands of parts but also a lot of highly technical gadgets, special mobile maintenance units were created to take care of certain instruments and other special items. Cursed when something went wrong, rarely thanked when everything functioned as it should, never sharing the glory of the headlines, members of these units struggled along frequently with inadequate equipment, improvising solutions to the most serious problems, fighting jungle heat and arctic cold and occasionally, on recently captured islands, enemy survivors. It was a hard, dull way to make war, but it contributed mightily to victory.

Marine Corps aviation had a parallel organization closely integrated with that of the Navy. The Director of Marine Aviation was a subordinate of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air), and elsewhere various marine commanders reported to their navy counterpart. For example, the Commanding General, Marine Aircraft Wings Pacific — later renamed Commander, Aircraft, Fleet Marine Force, — was under ComAirPac for logistical and material support. The internal organization of the marine air was based upon squadrons, two or more of  p25 which formed a group. Two or more groups were then put together to form a wing.

The above description of the aeronautical organization necessarily leaves out much. No mention is made of utility squadrons that provided target tow and pilotless drones for antiaircraft practice and performed other miscellaneous services as well. Nor does it consider the battleship and cruiser planes that were under the control of their respective ship commands. Since the Coast Guard in peacetime operates under the Treasury, it continued to be organized separately. All of these various units, however, had one thing in common — they depended for logistics on ComAirPac and ComAirLant.

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