Part II-a: The Wartime Navy - Fighting Strength



The world diplomatic situation had been deteriorating for some years, and Europe had been at war since September 1939. For those reasons, we have been adding to our fleet from time to time, beginning in 1933.

Still, our decision to prepare ourselves fully for the inevitable conflict may be considered to have been made when the so-called Two-Ocean Navy Bill became law on 19 July 1940.

At that time, we had to consider the possible disappearance of British sea power. England was threatened, and its capture by the Germans would have meant the loss of the Royal Navy's home bases and industrial establishments. We could readily see that these would become tangible assets if we were drawn into the war.

In round numbers, provision for a "two-ocean Navy" meant an expansion of about 70 percent in our combat tonnage—the most extensive single-building program ever undertaken by the United States or any other country.


Plate IV: Shipyard Employees Building and Repairing US Navy Vessels in January 1942, January 1943, and July 1943.

Plate IV: Shipyard Employees Building and Repairing US Navy Vessels in January 1942, January 1943, and July 1943. Official US Navy Plate. Our Navy at War, 1944. GGA Image ID # 1d69744b9c


Upon the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, the Navy Department began expanding naval shipbuilding facilities in private and Navy yards. In many instances, particularly in Navy yards, the expansion provided facilities that were to be available for repairs as well as new construction.

By 19 July 1940, when the two-ocean Navy was authorized, the program for expanding facilities was well started. It continued after that at an accelerating rate until the early part of 1943.

Early in the shipyard expansion, it was apparent that as the new programs for cargo ships, tanks, planes, and Army and Navy equipment started to pyramid, the country's latent manufacturing capacity would soon be overloaded. (See Plate 4.)

Thus the problem became not merely one of expanding shipyards but of developing the industry's manufacturing capacity to meet the needs of the Navy shipbuilding program.

The expansion of general industry to meet the requirements of this shipbuilding program began with plants producing basic raw materials. Next to be enlarged were plants capable of manufacturing the parts of a modern man-of-war ranging from jewel bearings to giant turbines.

So comprehensive was the building program that nearly every branch of American industry was affected directly or indirectly. Manufacturers were encouraged to submit their work to subcontractors, particularly plants producing non-essential materials.

An automobile manufacturer, for example, was tasked with creating incredibly intricate gyroscopic compasses. A stone finishing concern undertook the manufacture of towing machines and deck winches.

Early in the building program, an acute situation in turboelectric propulsion machinery was solved by constructing an enormous new plant in a 50-acre com field.

As an illustration of the speed with which the whole program was undertaken, the construction of that particular plant began in May 1942. By the end of the year, the first unit had been produced, completed, and shipped.

The rapidity of this naval expansion has profoundly affected our military strategy. As a result, we were enabled to seize and hold the initiative sooner than we had initially anticipated and to deal successfully with the submarine situation in the Atlantic.

The former has, of course, meant a vast improvement in our military situation everywhere. The latter was incredibly beneficial to the shipping situation, which was very serious in the early months of the war and threatened to become more so with the future increases in overseas troop movements and their support. (See Plate 5.)

Immediately after the passage of the Two-Ocean Navy Bill, corresponding contracts for new construction were made. Soon, more warships and auxiliaries were on the way than had ever been under construction anywhere in the world at any one time.

Simultaneously with this new construction, the conversion of merchant ships was being accomplished, one of the most important of these being the escort carriers which later proved so effective in combatting the German submarine campaign in the Atlantic.

The conversion of these ships was superimposed upon the shipbuilding effort following the enactment of the Two-Ocean Navy Bill. It has been long appreciated that sea-borne aircraft would play a dominant role in overseas campaigns if and when war came.


Plate V: Months Required for US Navy Construction Before and After Pearl Harbor.

Plate V: Months Required for US Navy Construction Before and After Pearl Harbor. The chart includes Battleships, Aircraft Carriers, Submarines, and Destroyers. Our Navy at War, 1944. GGA Image ID # 1d698288d8


With a construction program well underway, it was most important to keep alterations in design at a minimum to avoid delays. Nevertheless, changes that would increase military effectiveness or give crews greater protection were not sacrificed to speed up construction.

Another consideration the industry had to take in its stride was the evolution of strategic plans and changes in the type of operations which made it necessary, from time to time, to shift the emphasis in construction from one kind of ship to another.

For example, when the war began, our carrier strength was such that we could not stand much attrition. When, therefore, we suffered the loss of four of our largest aircraft carriers in the Coral Sea engagement, at Midway, and in the South Pacific, the construction of vessels of this category needed to be pushed ahead at all possible speeds.

Shortly after we suffered the heavy loss in battleship strength at Pearl Harbor, shipyards gave our battleships under construction at the time top priority. At another stage of the war, when the submarine situation in the Atlantic was a matter of great concern, emphasis was placed on escort carriers and destroyer escort vessels.

Currently, the primary focus rests on the construction of landing craft because we intend to use them in large numbers in future operations.

The production of aircraft quite naturally assumed proportions commensurate with the building program.

Thanks to the research and experimentation that had been done in improving and perfecting the various types of airplanes, and thanks also to the genius of United States industry in the field of mass production, our air power increased with almost incredible rapidity as soon as our airplane factories were expanded and retooled for the various models of planes we needed.

Because of the delays to be expected from changes in design when on a mass production basis, it was apparent that excellent timing in design changes would be necessary so that the performance of our aircraft would always be more than a match for anything produced by the enemy. A notable example is a changeover from the Grumman Wildcat to the Grumman Hellcat.

To obtain an adequately balanced navy, the construction of combatant ships was supplemented by building patrol vessels, mine craft, landing craft, and auxiliary vessels of all types.

Some 55 building yards and yacht basins, located in practically all areas of the United States, served by navigable waters, have participated in the patrol craft construction program.

No maritime nation has ever been able to fight a war successfully without an adequate merchant marine— something we did not have when the two-ocean Navy was authorized.

Therefore, the Maritime Commission began a vast program of merchant ship construction while we were expanding the Navy, and the merchant shipbuilding industry also faced an enormous expansion.

Furthermore, the supply of materials necessary to complete the vast program had to be carefully allocated, given the country's other needs that had to be met.

The Navy needed material to build ships and manufacture planes and equipment, the Army required the material for military purposes, and civilian needs could not be neglected.

The President established the War Production Board to control the allocation of material. That agency has since made decisions as to priorities.

Naturally, such a significant undertaking involved thousands of business transactions on the part of the Navy Department with the contracting builders and manufacturers.

These transactions have been continuous and entered into based on statutes that limit the permitted profits and provide for the negotiation and renegotiation of all contracts. This part of the program has, in itself, been a colossal job.


The health of the personnel in our naval forces has been uniformly excellent. In addition, the treatment and prevention of battle casualties have improved progressively.

The Medical Corps of the Navy has kept up with scientific developments everywhere and has taken the lead in many fields. The use of sulfa drugs, blood plasma, and penicillin, plus the treatment of war neuroses, represent the outstanding medical accomplishments of the war. Still, all activities requiring medical attention have been under continuous study.

For example, the conditions under which submarines must operate have been found to require a special diet, air conditioning, sun lamps, special attention to heat fatigue, and careful selection of personnel.

Similarly, in aviation medicine, such matters as the supply of oxygen, decompression treatment, acceleration stresses, air sickness, and fatigue require the closest attention.

In the case of aviation medicine, flight surgeons, who are themselves qualified naval aviators and therefore familiar with all aviation problems, have been instrumental in keeping our aviation personnel at the peak of their efficiency.

Naval mobile hospitals were developed shortly before the war. These are complete units capable of handling any situation requiring medical attention.

Each unit contains officers of the Medical Corps, the Dental Corps, the Hospital Corps, the Nurse Corps, the Supply Corps, the Civil Engineer Corps, and the Chaplain Corps, and in addition, enlisted personnel of a wide variety of non-medical ratings such as electricians, cooks, and bakers.

Mobile hospitals are organized and commissioned, and being mobile, as the name implies, are placed under the orders of the Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, for such duty as may be deemed desirable, the same as a ship. These mobile hospitals have proved invaluable in all theaters.

While it is hardly possible to single out any one activity as outstanding, evacuating sick and wounded personnel from forward areas by plane to be treated elsewhere has been estimated to have increased treatment efficiency by about one-third. The beneficial effects of this practice on our ability to carry on a prolonged campaign, such as in the Solomon Islands, are apparent.

There have been many more contributions to our military efficiency concerning medicine and health. The question of malaria control in the Solomon Islands, protective clothing, the survival of personnel in lifeboats, the purification of drinking water, the treatment of flash burns, the recording by a tag of first aid treatment received in the field, and periodic thorough physical examinations are a few of the progressive measures which, collectively, have been responsible for marked increases in our military efficiency.


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