From 1923 to 1940, the US Navy conducted 21 “Fleet Problems” as it sought to understand, exploit and incorporate new technologies and capabilities while developing the tactics, training and procedures to employ the same should war present itself – which by the 1930s was beginning to look more and more likely to the discerning observer. Conducted in all the major waters adjacent to the US, these problems covered the gamut of naval warfare from convoy duty, ASW, strike warfare and sea control. Most important, at least to this observer, was that this was the laboratory that tested the emerging idea of putting tactical aircraft at sea on board aircraft carriers. In doing so, the inherent flexibility of aviation across a broad span of warfare areas became apparent as more people in leadership looked at naval aviation as something more than just a scouting force for the main battery of the fleet extant — the battleline. It was in this laboratory that the Navy developed the techniques and identified the requirements for carrier-based dive bombers, so different form the big, lumbering land-based bombers that the Air Corps’ advocates were saying would make ships obsolete by high altitude, “precision” bombing. Proof would come at Midway when both forces were employed — the B-17’s dropping their bombs from on high hit nothing but water. But dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown struck at the heart of the Kido Butai. And as the thousand-pounder from Lt Dick Best’s SBD Dauntless smashed through the Akagi’s flight deck, a battle was turned and the course to winning a war was set. But it took visionaries to set the wheels in motion. Here then is the story – fittingly from the perspective of one of the few WWII dive bomber pilots still with us, LCDR George Walsh, who flew that great beast of an aircraft, the SB2C Helldiver in the Pacific theater. – SJS
As we enter the second half of the Centennial of Naval Aviation, I have found no reference to the “Fleet Problems” of the 1930s that were of great importance to the progress of naval aviation. These exercises were conducted at sea by hundreds of ships and aircraft of the peacetime Navy to prepare our nation for possible war.Â The Fleet Problems were vital, providing realistic training for the generation of professional naval officers, mostly Annapolis graduates, who were responsible for leading America to victory in WW II despite enduring the hardships and sacrifices of the 1930’s. The exercises were well planned and intense, demanding all the devotion and talents of the men who participated under conditions that simulated wartime and called for extended tours of sea duty.
As you look back on these Fleet Problems you will find it mystifying that we were so unprepared for the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and that the Battle of Midway was badly mismanaged.
“The “Fleet Problems” should not be confused with the “War Games” conducted at the Naval War College in Newport. The fleet and not the college developed the strategy and tactics for air warfare in the Pacific.1 It was in the conduct of these exercises that our Navy perfected the techniques of aircraft carrier operation and proved the usefulness of carrier task forces as an offensive weapon.
It is interesting to trace the progress of naval aviation from the earliest introduction of a carrier, the Langley (1922), into the 1926 Fleet Program VI as an auxiliary to Fleet Problem XXI in 1940 when the carrier Task Forces acted as a long distance striking force independent of the main battleship forces.
USS Langley sunk at the Battle of Java Sea 1942
USS Wasp sunk in Solomons 1942
As aircraft increased in speed, range and bomb loadings, the Fleet Problems reflected the value of the new capabilities. New carriers were built to take advantage of the new and more powerful aircraft, first the Saratoga and Lexington in 1927, then the Ranger (1934), Yorktown (1937), Enterprise (1938), and Wasp (1940).
Fleet Exercise IX
It was not until 1929 that a major aviation breakthrough occurred. Rear Admiral Joseph Reeves, commander of the aircraft squadrons of a simulated enemy force, dispatched the carrier Saratoga and its escorts away from the main battleship fleet, and made a daring high speed run in for a mock attack on the Panama Canal; this exploit received extensive press coverage.
“Writing many years later, (Cmdr.) Eugene E. Wilson, who had been one of Reeves staff officers in 1929, would rightly state that Saratoga’s exploits during Fleet Problem IX marked the first step in the development of the Carrier Task Forces which were so effective in the Pacific. This operation convinced naval aviators “and some surface warriors, such as (Admiral) Pratt ” that task forces built around carriers would be of importance in the future of naval warfare.” 2
“The most important conclusion drawn from the Saratoga’s raid was the impossibility of stopping a determined air attack once it was launched. Unfortunately, in the years to come, this lesson would be forgotten, by certain members of the so-called Gun Club—the battleship men who were unwavering in their faith in the supremacy of the big gun. Their preoccupation with refighting the Battle of Jutland instead of ensuring the security of the fleet contributed greatly to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Evident to Reeves and to the carrier commanders who followed in his footsteps, was the reality that in any future engagement involving aircraft carriers at sea, the first carrier to locate and bomb the other would determine the outcome.”
Rear Admiral Joseph Reeves, center
Fleet Problem X
Next year the first long distance aircraft carrier vs. aircraft carrier battle was simulated in 1930:
“Then at 0810 the three Lexington scout bombers made a dive bombing attack on the Saratoga, “damaging” the forward edge of her flight deck. At 0829, just 14 minutes after the scout bomber strike, the first waves of Lexington dive bombers, 45 aircraft in all, began a series of attacks that rendered Saratoga’s flight deck useless, wrecked half her aircraft, and destroyed a number of anti-aircraft guns, Then, 4 minutes later, at 0833 15 Lexington fighter bombers made a pass at Saratoga, and then hit Langley. Within two minutes a dozen more Lexington fighter bombers hit Langley. The umpires ruled that both carriers had been destroyed as well as all their aircraft. In twenty minutes both Blue carriers had been put out of action, in an incident eerily resembling the fate of three Japanese carriers at Midway in1942.”
“Virtually all observers commented on the importance in carrier warfare of getting in the first blow.” 2
Fleet Problem XI
This comment is repeated in the analysis of the 1931 exercise:
“Of even greater consequence was that the lesson of Fleet Problem X as to the importance of “getting in the first blow” against enemy carriers was clearly reaffirmed in Fleet Problem XI.” 2
Boeing F2B-2, 1931 Fighter
Fleet Problem XIII
1932 was an interesting year following the invasion of China by Japan. The scenario proposed that Hawaii had been taken over by an enemy and the U.S. Navy was dispatched to take it back. In a joint exercise the Army played the part of the Black occupying power and our Navy the Blue attacking force.
Captain John Towers, Chief of Staff, planned to use the carriers Lexington and Saratoga to launch a sneak attack on the Army in Hawaii prior to covering landings by the marines. On Saturday, February 5th, the two carriers and destroyers formed a separate Task Force and left the main battle fleet, making high speed runs in to a launch position 100 miles north of Oahu during the night. At dawn Sunday morning a surprised Army woke to the roar of fleets of aircraft attacking their installations. Captain Towers had timed the attack perfectly.
“The fact that Japan nearly duplicated this attack on Pearl on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, was no accident. Early in the 1950s Towers dined in Tokyo with a Japanese vice admiral who had participated in the planning. “He told me they had simply taken a page out of our own book!” 4
In 1942, shortly after the Battle of Midway, Towers was appointed ComAirPac and supervised the employment of our carriers for the balance of WW II. No longer did black shoe officers captain aircraft carriers.4
Admiral John Towers, Time Magazine June 23, 1941
Fleet Problem XIV
“The 1933 problem was designed to simulate a war in the Pacific, one initiated by carrier operations. Anticipating that Japan would attack before formally declaring war (as she had done against Russia in 1904), the scenario envisioned the sortie of the Japanese fleet eastward across the Pacific. This fleet, its sinister designation Black, had ominously prescient orders: “To inflict maximum damage on the PEARL HARBOR NAVAL BASE in order to destroy or reduce its effectiveness.”
“The Army, (defending Blue force) had put their forces on full alert January 27th, and 24 hour air patrols were initiated out to 150 miles. Avoiding Blue air patrols, the Black carriers and their escorts arrived at a position north of Molakai around midnight on January 30th. The strike force arrived over Pearl Harbor around dawn and was ruled to have inflicted serious damage.” 4
Fleet Problem XVI
Held in 1935 it was the largest mock battle ever staged, conducted over an area of the sea covering five million square miles of the North Central Pacific between Midway, Hawaii, and the Aleutian Islands and involving 321 vessels and 70,000 men. Although four aircraft carriers participated, the major contribution to aviation was the experimentation with underway refueling of carriers that enabled carrier task forces to operate independently.Â Debate over the role of aircraft carriers continued, and reached its nadir in 1938 when Admiral Claude C. Bloch was appointed CINCUS. It came as a shock to the naval aviation contingent for Admiral Bloch regarded carriers as just another ship to serve as an auxiliary tied to the battle line.2
Fleet Problem XIX
However, in 1938 the Black Fleet again simulated an attack on Hawaii. Saratoga was commanded by Captain John Towers, who had earned his wings in 1911, and was the first of the Navy’s pioneer airmen to command a fleet carrier.Â Admiral Ernest King “decided to affect a surprise air raid on Pearl Harbor. He directed Saratoga to the northwest of Hawaii. Using a convenient weather front, at 0450 on March 29th King launched an attack from 100 miles that hit the Army’s Hickam and Wheeler airfields and Pearl Harbor Naval Air Station with “devastating effect.” 2
Douglas TBD-1, 1937 Torpedo Plane
Fleet Problem XX
As war loomed in Europe in 1939 this Fleet Problem was witnessed at sea by President Roosevelt while he was embarked on the cruiser Houston and the battleship, Pennsylvania. From the time he had served as Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920, FDR took a lively interest in all matters pertaining to the Navy.
“Although short, Fleet Program XX demonstrated a high degree of sophistication in the development of the American naval force. The navy’s use of air power had clearly matured. Both commanders, Kalbfus and Andrews, had managed their air forces rather well, each concentrating his efforts at destroying his enemy’s air power before going after his battle fleet. Each had made carriers the center piece of independent task forces.” 2
Grumman F2F-1, 1939 Fighter
Fleet Problem XXI
The opening of the war in Europe caused stringent controls of the press in 1940, and dispensed with the traditional diplomatic attempts to disguise the identity of the simulated enemy force, Japan. Among the objectives was to study various fleet and carrier task force defensive formations. Lexington and Saratoga with four heavy cruisers and 4 destroyers made up the Strike Force operating independent of the Attack Force of cruisers and destroyers, and the Main Body of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers.Â For this exercise one division of Omaha class cruisers was commanded by Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher who was later chosen to lead our carrier task forces at the beginning of WW II despite the fact that he had no prior experience with aviation or aircraft carriers.5 At the conclusion of this exercise President Roosevelt ordered the fleet to remain in Hawaiian waters in the hope of sending a message to Japan.
Fleet Problem XXII
In December1940 this problem was cancelled as the Navy concentrated all effort on preparing for the eventuality of entering a shooting war. As a nation we need to appreciate the dedication of our professional Annapolis trained corps of officers who endured the hardships of the thirties and worked intently on these Fleet Problems to keep our Navy in fighting shape. It can only be compared to athletes training for a future Olympics, constantly working out to stay in shape with exercises that were challenging both mentally and physically. There were probably less than 37,000 regular naval officers at the start of the war with skills honed during the Fleet Problems.6
In addition to this key contingent, the exercises trained the warrant officers, chiefs and ratings who reenlisted year after year during the hard times of the ’30s. These experienced men were available when needed to provide a manpower framework to enable the huge wartime expansions of the 1940s as they were distributed among the new ships to mold the raw recruits.
Douglas SBD-3, 1941 Dive Bomber
The Fleet Problems had also trained pilots like Lt. Cmdrs. Wade McClusky, Max Leslie and John Waldron of Midway fame as they searched the Pacific for the Japanese carriers on June 4th, 1942. Having served as the cutting edge during the fleet exercises, they were well aware of the importance of disabling the flight decks of the Japanese carriers before they could launch a strike against our carriers. Our carriers and the lives of their shipmates depended on it. It was this awareness that prompted John Waldron to lead his squadron in a quixotic foray into the “Valley of Death”. It was this awareness that drove Wade McClusky to search beyond the “point of no return.”
During the Fleet Problems each year the pilots faced danger every time they climbed into the cockpit. They faced casualties from carrier operational accidents, mechanical failures and pilot error. They also had to fly missions that tested the limits of aircraft and pilot capabilities. Admirals experimented with night and bad weather flight operations as well as the limits of aircraft range, and the speed of carrier launchings and recoveries. Admiral King, later Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and CNO, was not popular with the pilots he put at risk in his drive for efficiency.
Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King
Finally, the Fleet Problems perfected more than aircraft carrier operations. At the same time the Navy was working out problems in logistics, intelligence, staff structure, communications, cryptology, and radar.Â It is to be hoped that the budget crisis shaping up now in Washington does not hamper our nation’s ability to support our Navy’s continuing preparedness for threats unknown.Â We still need to support our professional Annapolis trained officer corps even when there is no apparent threat in view.
Lt. Cmdr. George J. Walsh USNR
July 17, 2011
1. The Quiet Warrior, by Thomas B. Buell
2. To Train the Fleet for War, by Albert A. Nofi
3. All the Factors of Victory, by Thomas Wildenberg
4. The Struggle for Naval Air Supremacy, by Clark G. Reynolds
5. Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, by John Lundstrom
6. Battle Report by Walter Karig, From Author’s Foreword