Amphibious Assault and Naval Air Power: Part 1 by Dan Linton
Writer: Dan Linton - Museum Quality Custom Airctaft Profile Prints

Amphibious Assault and Naval Air Power: Pt. 1



Attacking the land from the sea -- an activity that no doubt is as old as seafaring itself.  The Trojan War; the invasions of England by Angles and Saxons, Danes and Normans; the repeated over-running of Cyprus and Crete; the failed Mongol invasions of Japan -- not a century has gone by in the last three millennia without one society attacking another from the sea.  But it has only been since the early days of WWII that specialized ships were producd for amphibious operations, and only since the 1950's that naval air power has been integrated into specially-designed amphibious assault warships.

Each article in this series will focus on a particular class of ship, and where possible include a section on models available for each class.  In two cases, a class of ship designed in one country has been adopted by another; and the building of an air-capable amphibious assault ship by one country has also spurred the development of a comparable ship in another.  There is in the first decades of the 21st century a minor 'arms race' involving these ships.  We will look at these 'arms races' with two thoughts in mind: first, and particularly in Asia, the building frenzy has been caused mostly by uninhabited or sparsely habited rocky islands which in themselves are close to valueless, but are important in terms of 'face' (the Spratley Islands, a likely source for oil, are an exception to this 'valueless' lable).  And second, while there have been a few amphibious operations in the last half-century, most have been small-scale with little active opposition (the British re-taking of the Falklands been the largest of these operations).  The last truly large-scale assault from the sea against opposition was the brilliant Inchon operation in September, 1950 (picture 1) Nonetheless, major nations have, or will soon have, the means to carry out sizeable amphibious operations and none of this comes cheaply.  We begin these articles by looking first at the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps, whose numbers of specialized amphibious assault ships are presently equal in number, with twice as much tonnage, as the rest of the world combined.  But this will change as the 21st century moves on.

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The 20th Century Marine Corps Mission:

Seizing and Holding Advanced Bases:

For the entire 19th centry, U.S. Marines were found on U.S. Navy vessels.  If any were landed ashore, it would be at a port, rather than a beach.  Incursions were of short duration and objectives usually limited to punishing transgressors, such as pirates in North Africa ('the shores of Tripoli' in the Marine Corps hymn).  But taking Hawaii officially in 1898, and in the same year seizing the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, a problem was created for the United States.  How could one effectively operate naval forces so far from home and protect these newly-won possessions?  Cuban independence in the same Spanish-American War led to the ceding of Guantanamo Bay to the United States and from here the US could effectively police the Caribbean (picture 2, above).  Distances were short and supplies and manpower could easily be delivered.  But the Philippines were a special case.  They lacked the infrastructure to support a major fleet base -- any such base would need men and material shipped in from the continental US.  In the event of war, this long supply chain could easily be interrupted.  Even before WWI, the United States was wary of Japan, a Japan that had beaten China in a brief conflict in 1894-95; annexed Okinawa and Korea; and then crushed the Russian navy at Tsushima and mauled the Russian army at Mukden, both in 1905.  In 1910 the U.S. Marines set up an Advanced Base School and although the Marine Corps did most of its WWI fighting in Europe as ground troops, the Àdvanced Bases` mission did not pass away.  Indeed, studying how to capture islands in the Pacific which Japan might have already occupied (Japan declared itself allied with Britain and France and seized all German-held territory in the Pacific) became the prime Marine mission, confirmed by Major-General John A Lejeune in 1920 (picture 3) and re-inforced by Major Earl Ellis (picture 4) who in 1921 produced Àdvanced Base Operations in Micronesia`-- a plan, classified, to seize Japanese-occupied islands and provided useful anchorages and bases for the U.S. Navy (1).  In 1919 the new League of Nations had `mandated`Pacific islands (ex-German possessions) to Japan.  In a war, these islands would be valuable not only for anchorages, but also for airfields.  And then in 1922, in exchange for accepting the 5:5:3 tonnage ratio (U.S., Britain, Japan) in the Washington Naval Treaty, Japan demanded and had put into the Treaty a prohibition against fortifying U.S.- held Guam and the Philippines.  No such prohibitions applied to Japanese-held possessions.  In the event of war, it was believed (accurately as it turned out) that Guam and the Philippines would be taken by Japan and then would have to be reconquered.

By the early 1930`s the Marine Corps was creating manuals for landing operations and beginning to develop new equipment to bring Marines from ship to shore.  Planners at first assumed that during war merchant vesssels would be commandeered by the government and converted -- and that many of these would be used as troop transports for amphibious assault. It was soon realized that this would not provide the numbers of ships necessary -- specialized ships large and small would be needed, and quickly.  A massive wartime building program was begun before the US entered WWII.  By mid-1942 it was agreed that all `continental amphibious landings`would be made by soldiers of the US Army, leaving ìsland hopping` in the Pacific to the Marines (2).  The successes which amphibious operations had in WWII (landings in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy and southern France for the European theatre; and the island-hopping in the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Okinawa) appeared in the immediate post-war years to count for nothing -- atomic weapons had arrived and so many thought, and the newly-created (1947) United States Air Force argued, that only long-raged air power would be needed in the future.  Armies and navies could be dispensed with (3).  The atomic bomb tests at Bikini in 1946 demonstrated that major portions of a fleet could survive and be effective after an air burst or underwater blast, but the necessary dispersal would mean that attacking a defended shore would require far too long for the landing boats to come ashore -- defenders would be well-armed and in place.  Only helicopters could move men quickly enough in such a situation and they were a new technology, limited in lifting power.  The United States Air Force had won the argument by April 23, 1949 when the new supercarrier USS United States was cancelled in favour of a fleet of B-36`s --- but it was a short-lived victory.  Fourteen months later came the Korean War.

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Air Power and Amphibious Assault:

The Korean War (1950-53) demonstrated that modern, intense warfare could take place without resort to nuclear weapons (the Vietnam War and Soviet involvement in Afghanistan re-inforced this idea).  By the late 1950`s nuclear weapons had become smaller, `battlefield sized`rather than city destroyers and that complicated planning even more.  Effectively, not much could be done if the defenders of a coast or beach had small nuclear weapons but thankfully, at least by the time of this writing, nuclear weapons have not been used by state or non-state belligerents.  If amphibious assaults were to take place without the issue of nuclear weapons, then close air support using conventional weapons would be necessary, just as it had in WWII.  But by the 1950`s jets replaced most piston-engined aircraft (picture 5) and they had almost no loiter time over a beach head (thus the venerable AD-1 Skyraider lasted through the Vietnam War (picture 6)).  If close air support was to be a problem, then fire support from ships was even more of a headache for planners.  The vast number of battleships and cruisers available in WWII were taken out of service, being very expensive to maintain. Many of the cruisers that were retained lost part of their main batteries to anti-aircraft missiles and the largest guns on new ships were only 5-inch barrels.  Without adequate fire support, landing craft could have to begin their run to the beach from beyond artillery range, and unless these craft could some be far faster than the hulls used in WWII, they would be highly vulnerable if the landing were actively opposed. (4)  As well, the US Marine Corps had an `instiutional memory`of the 1942 Guadalcanal campaign when USN carriers had to for a time retreat while severe fighting was taking place around Henderson Field.  This `betrayal`led to a determination on the part of the Marine Corps to have its own dedicated air power resources on ships that were not fleet aircraft carriers.  Their own aircraft on ships specialized for amphibious assault -- this became the goal of the US Marine Corps after WWII.  And the process of achieving this goal began by investing in a new type of air power -- one that showed its potential for the first time during the Korean War -- the helicopter (see Main Picture above).

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The Idea of the Helicopter Carrier:

On Christmas Day, 1946, a Sikorsky S-51 (H03S-1 in USN service) lifted off a temporary landing pad on the USS Pine Islandm, a seaplane tender, and landed in Antarctica. Orders were placed for 90 of these machines (and a further 42 machines were ordered in 1948) and they were to serve aboard aircraft carriers, seaplane tenders, ice breakers, battleships, and heavy cruisers. In February 1948 six H03S-1 (called `Horse`) were assigned to Marine Corps squadron HMX-1 as utility aircraft (picture 7, above) and in May a number of these helos flew from the escort carrier USS Palau (CVE-122) in an exercise (5). In August, this unit received the first of its Piasecki HRP-1 `Flying Bananas`, each of which could carry 8 troops (picture 8).  This capability would be sufficient for a raid against a point target such as a power plant, and might be useful against artillery that naval gunfire could not reach; but helicopters at this time could only be a minor supplement to and not replace the direct assault on a beach head.  The idea of the `helicopter carrier`was born in the late 1940`s but restricted budgets and `turf wars`between the services meant the idea could not become a reality. Then came the Korean War, the landings at Inchon, and the acknowledgement that the helicopter was useful in both combat and support roles.  The idea of the helicopter carrie was re-born.

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The USN`s first helicopter carrier: the Thetis Bay

A World War II escort carrier Thetis Bay (CVE-90) was selected in May, 1954 to be converted into a helicopter carrier. Originally it was to be designated CVHE but was commissioned as CVHA-1 (later in its career it was redesignated as LPH-6). The forward part of the hangar deck would now house 38 officers and 900 enlisted men. The flight deck was strengthened to handle large helicopters (the HR2S weighed 32,000 lbs) and a new 32`x 45`elevator was installed at the after end of the flight deck. The ship would have 15 HR2S helos and these would be supported by 40 officers and 483 enlisted men. In practice, HRS-2 (Sikorsky S-55) and later UH-34 (Sikorsky S-58) were normally carried as can be seen in various pictures below.  When the ship`s crew was added, accomodation was tight but in theory these ships were not meant to go on `cruises`but straight to an assault, thus support was needed for only weeks rather than months (picture 9 above, 10-20).  As the Thetis Bay began to practice many operations, such as rapid loading and sending off of troops and some assault equipment (never enough from the Marine Corps point of view, but early helicopters were limited in their lifting capacity) discussions continued as to what characteristics a helicopter should have (6).

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The Wish List

One area of universal agreement was that the ship be able to make 20 kts. By the mid-1950`s what was seen as necessary was an ability to accomodate 2000 troops and aviation personnel; carry 2000 tons of cargo; and operate 20 HR2S (or equivalent) helicopters plus three utility and two ship`s cargo helicopters. Converting battleships,cruisers, and the light carriers (CVL) built during WWII were all considered and rejected. The Marine Corps wanted 16 helicopter carriers (now to be designated LPH) and only escort carriers of the Casablanca class (CVE-55) and the slightly larger Commencement Bay class (CVE-105) were available in such numbers. Thetis Bay (ex-CVE-90) was a Casablanca class ship and in 1956 it was proposed that a Commencement Bay class carrier, USS Block Island CVE-106) be converted into a helicopter carrier (picture 21, above). It was designated LPH-1 but the conversion was never carried out. Despite their numbers, the CVE`s had too many shortfalls -- converting them would be expensive and the hulls could only be expected to last another ten to fifteen years. New construction was decided upon and would result in the world`s first purposely-built helicopter carrier. (7)

Modeling the Thetis Bay as CVHA-1/LPH-6

Considering that the USS Thetis Bay was the United States Navy`s very first helicopter carrier, one might have expected a dedicated kit for this ship.  However, the only way to make a model is either to scratch-build or to convert a Casablanca-class kit into Thetis Bay.  Loose Cannon Productions kit no.76 is a 1:700 kit in resin (picture 22, above).  There is a 1:350 kit by Hasegawa of USS Gambier Bay CVE-73, a member of the Casablaca class (picture 23).  A 1:350 kit in card is offered by Papercraft of the USS Anzio (CVE-57) but repainting all the deck after it has been modified appears to be more work than it is worth (picture 24).  And Military Models produces a Gambier Bay in 1:200 (picture 25).  Not only will there be a problem modifying any of these kits, it is also likely that one would have to scratch-build all the helicopters, no matter what scale is chosen.  The remaining pictures (26-33) are presented in case any one does want to make a model of Thetis Bay as a helicopter-carrier: hopefully they will be useful.

Next: Part 2: the Iwo Jima class LPH

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Endnotes and Picture Credits


1. Norman Friedman. U.S.Amphibious Ships and Craft: an Illustrated Design History, Naval Institute Press, 2002, p.5

2. Friedman, pp.7-9

3. Thus the cancelling of USS United States CVA-58 four days after its keel was laid

4. Friedman, pp.257-58.  IFS-1 USS Carronade was developed in the early 1950`s as an answer to the problem of fire support but served only util 1960.  She was re-commissioned for service in Vietnam and then decommissioned again.  The central problem was that a ship optimized for inshore fire support (IFS) could fulfill no other role adequately and thus became an expensive luxury and was not repeated.  History almost repeated itself in the 1990`s with the Àrsenal Ship`concept.  It would have supplied fire support plus ordinance replenishment to amphibious groups.

5. Friedman, p.348

6. Friedman, p.350

7. Friedman, pp.348-355

Picture Credits:

Main Picture: An HRP-1: the first real tests of the idea of airbone amphibious assault began with these helicopters in 1951.  USN photo

Last Picture: USS Iwo Jima LPH-2, first of the new class of helicopter carriers. USN photo

1. U.S. Defence Imagery HD-SN-98-07598

2. U.S. Fleet at anchor, Guantanamo Bay, 1927.  USN Museum of Naval Aviation photo no. 2003.001.323

3. Commandant John A. Lejeune, portrait, Virginia Military Institute

4. USMC picture

5. F9F-2 Panther, VF-111 from USS Valley Forge CV-45, USN Naval Aviation News, Sept. 1952

6. A-1H Skyraider, VA-152 USS Oriskany CV-34, 1966  Museum of Aviation photo no.1996.253.2810

7. USN H03S-1 in 1953.  USN photo 80-G-K-16320

8. Eight HRP-1 aboard USS Palau CVE-122 in 1951.  Naval Aviation News, August 1951

9. NARA MSR-10573-L-8-56

10. NARA MSR-10573-L-8-56

11. NARA 15 August 1956

12. NARA 15 August 1956

13. NARA MSR-10575-L-8-56

14. USN  NH 106713

15. Jane`s Fighting Ships 1961-62; photo Hajime Fukaya

16. USN photo

17. USN photo

18. Credited to Gerd Matthes

19. Museum of Naval Aviation 1996.488.0343.012

20. Credited to Gerd Matthes

21. USN  NS 0310605 12 Aug. 1953

22. Loose Cannon Productions

23. Hasegawa

24. Papercraft

25. Military Models

26. CVHA-1 1955-56 Photo from All Hands magazine, Dec. 1959

27. USN photo from Aircraft Carriers by Norman Polmar

28. USN photo #80-G-697976

29. 17 Nov. 1956  Credited to Gerd Matthes

30. July, 1956  NARA photo: flight deck tests

31. as above

32.  NH 85100

33. USN photo



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  Photos and text © 2015 by Dan Linton

January 29, 2015