The tension created by prolonged naval build-ups during the first part of the 20th century finally ignited into all-out naval conflict in the Pacific in 1941. The Japanese struck first at Pearl Harbor, with their carrier-based aircraft heavily damaging the anchored US battleships of the Pacific Fleet, and thus bringing the aircraft carrier to the front lines of the conflict.
Many factors combined to end the 300 year reign of the battleship, and most of them occurred during and just after World War I, from the development of aviation, to the Washington Naval Conference, and eventually the destruction of much of the US surface fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Today we take a closer look at how the aircraft carrier replaced the battleship as the pre-eminent ship in the US Navy.
Over the coming decade, the US Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships will be fully operational, and as we examine their designs and technological innovation, today’s episode takes us back in time to visit the newest ships of the 1750s and 1890s, some of them littoral in nature. We also head into the restoration and modeling shop of the Naval Academy museum for an up-close look at the efforts to preserve and expand the Naval Academy’s precious collection of model ships, and thus document our naval heritage.
From the 1890s until World War II, the Navy witnessed tremendous technological development. Wooden ships ceased to exist. The airplane was invented and became mainstream, and submarines entered broad use world-wide. During this same period and with the same rapidity, the Navy (and the rest of the world’s navies like Japan) adopted wireless communication, completely changing the way navies fought battles and coordinated movements. Wireless technology directly impacted the course of all future conflicts, particularly WWII, with interceptions of German and Japanese communications leading to key Allied victories. To this day, wireless communication technology continues to develop and change at incredible speed.
Commander Robert Peary made eight polar excursions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On each one of these, he was accompanied by Matthew Henson. However, whereas Perry received wide-spread acclaim, Henson spent most of his life in relative anonymity because he was African-American. Nevertheless, Henson’s contributions to polar exploration were tremendous, and he is now remembered as one of the great American polar explorers.
In 1927, young Army Air Corps reservist Charles Lindbergh was catapulted to international fame when he won the $25,000 Orteig prize for the first solo New York to Paris flight. Months later, he published a book on his life, exploits, and his views on aviation. Today we feature one of two authors copies that were signed by Lindbergh himself, one which was presented to his friend and benefactor, Harry Guggenheim. Although not a Navy pilot, Lindbergh nevertheless had a tremendous impact on both naval aviation and the U.S. space program.
Even though submarines entered mainstream use during World War I, they nevertheless were dangerous, and accidents were usually fatal. A series of mishaps on US submarines finally inspired one man to develop the tools that would help sailors escape from a sunken submarine. Charles Momsen was a pioneer in underwater rescue, and developed the rescue device that bears his name.
The recent 72nd anniversary of the attack at Pearl Harbor allows for a pause in our chronological narrative of naval history. Fifteen Medals of Honor were awarded to Navy sailors for heroism during that attack, and our object today is one of those medals.
World War I spurred naval aviation development into high gear, and helped set in motion the development of the aircraft and the training of aviators that would go on to make the first trans-Atlantic crossing. In a tremendous logistical undertaking that in many way’s eclipsed that of the Great White Fleet, the US Navy set up an unbroken line of warships across the Atlantic Ocean. These ships held position in stormy seas with their spotlights illuminating the sky to help guide the Glenn Curtis-built flying boat NC-4 during its historic crossing.
While the Navy was building its new steel battleships, and airplanes were in their earliest stages of development, polar exploration, long a hallmark of the Navy, was in its heyday. Two of the Navy’s great polar explorers, Admirals Byrd and Perry continued to push north and south from the late 19th century through World War I and beyond. Today’s object, a bronze bust of Admiral Byrd, helps take us back to the days of the first explorers to reach the poles.