The USS United States CVA-58 and the B-36 Peacemeker
by John Delach
After Japan surrendered, conventional wisdom concluded that the last thing the US Navy needed was another aircraft carrier. By 1945 the Navy had 17 Essex class fleet aircraft carriers in commission with seven more fitting out or under construction. In addition, the three larger Midway class carriers were also fitting out and would join the fleet late in 1945.
The United States Air Force (USAF) already had a bomber under development large enough to fly round trip from the United States to Europe and deliver an atomic bomb, but the Navy didn’t want to be shut out by not having the capability to deliver nuclear weapons. However, the sizes of the two bombs dropped on Japan were so large that neither the Essex class or Midway class could accommodate or operate a navy bomber big enough to compete with the B-36.
The National Security Act of 1947 became law in July. One aspect of this act created a new cabinet post of Secretary of Defense and President Harry Truman elevated James Forrestal, then Secretary of the Navy, to this new position. Bluntly put, Truman and Forrestal didn’t like each other and had major differences on policy and political views. They especially differed on the future roles of the Navy and Marine Corps. Truman, who was pro Army, wanted to make dramatic cuts that would eliminate the Marines. He also favored the USAF being solely responsible for delivering nukes.
Forrestal ignored his President’s desires and directed Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery, an advocate for naval aviation, to prepare a top-secret memorandum setting out how the Navy could participate in a conflict with the Soviet Union. Gallery maintained that every potential target in Russia was less than 1,500 miles from the sea. What the Navy needed was an even bigger aircraft carrier, a so-called supercarrier and a new bomber that had the needed range.
Forrestal began his quest by convening a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Key West on March 14, 1948 to formulate the roles of the USAF and the Navy when it came to nuclear weapons. The resultant Key West Agreement assigned primary responsibility to the Air Force, but the Navy was not prohibited from participating. Not exactly an overwhelming endorsement for the Navy, but Forrestal used it to move the approval process forward for the super carrier, now given the moniker, USS United States, CVA 58.
Unfortunately, the concept for this ship, its reason for being and planned use were all terribly flawed. If built as planned, CVA-58 would have become a white elephant. First off, the planners had designed a flush deck ship without any structures above the flight deck. There wouldn’t be an island structure to navigate the ship and command air operations, no proper smokestack, no radar, antennas, etc. The carrier would have to depend on other ships in its group for navigation, conducting operations and communications. What could possibly go wrong?
The rigid plans for the United States failed to consider improvements then under way that would alter the very reasons for building a ship like this in the first place. Granted, the atoms bombs available in 1947 were like the originals, but future devices were shrinking in size and weight while being made more powerful. The ship itself would have been obsolete even before completion. The British Navy were already developing the angled deck. Instead of landing aircraft down the center of the flight deck, this British innovation would angle the landing to one side. This would steer the aircraft away from the command island, the stack and all the needed instruments and communication aerials and antennas.
Deals were made between the Navy and Air Force and Congress approved the funding on June 24, 1948, Forrestal approved it on July 22nd and Truman followed the next day.
This is where the fun began. Truman was running for re-election in 1948 and Forrestal chose to support Truman’s opponent, Thomas Dewey, the Republican Governor of New York. Forrestal even met with Dewey to discuss the possibility of remaining as Secretary of Defense in Dewey’s cabinet.
Truman won. Mad as a hatter, of course he fired Forrestal on March 3, 1949 replacing him with Louis A. Johnson, a stalwart Democrat who raised $1.5 million for Truman’s campaign. Seven weeks later, construction commenced on the United States with the laying of the ships keel at Newport News Shipbuilding Co. on April 18th. Five days later, after conferring with Truman, Johnson cancelled the USS United States.
John L. Sullivan, Secretary of the Navy resigned on April 26. Forrestal committed suicide on May 12 by jumping from a window on the 16th floor of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He had been admitted for exhaustion following his firing. Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, Chief of Naval Operations was forced to resign, and a Congressional investigation found in favor of Truman and Johnson, no doubt, along party lines.
It seemed the Air Force and the Army had run the table. But, on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the south and Truman entered the war after the United Nations voted to stop the invasion. It fell to the Navy and Marine Corps to respond.
Our meager Army contingent was forced to retreat to the Pusan perimeter. It was the Navy’s Pacific Fleet carriers that first provided air cover to this beleaguered perimeter and MacArthur called on the Marines to rescue South Korea by their successful amphibious assault at Inchon.
Johnson was forced to resign on September 19, 1950. The aircraft carrier had reaffirmed its worth and before leaving office, Johnson was coerced into approving a new class of four super carriers. Ironically, or appropriately, the lead ship, CVA-59, was named the USS Forrestal.
Ultimately, the Navy also became a major player for delivering nukes once submarine launched ICBMs became a reality.