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Famous Fleets: Notable US Navy Battles

By Sid Nair

The first naval force in the United States, the Continental Navy, was established in 1775. In April 1798, the Department of the Navy was formed, which led to the current United States Navy, one of the most formidable naval forces in the world. It has grown from a fleet of wooden warships with sails to cruisers, destroyers, and carriers that use GPS tracking, nuclear power, and other advanced technology. Over the course of its history, the Navy has been part of many conflicts and wars. A number of the Navy's battles have been so significant that they've changed the course of a war and, as a result, the course of history.

Battle of Lake Erie

The Battle of Lake Erie was fought during the War of 1812 between the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy. In August of 1812, the British captured Detroit and gained control of Lake Erie. After amassing supplies, more men, and a fleet, Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry of the U.S. Navy engaged the Royal Navy under the command of Commander Robert Barclay. Perry's fleet included the USS Lawrence, the USS Niagara, the USS Ariel, the USS Caledonia, the USS Scorpion, the USS Somers, the USS Porcupine, the USS Tigress, and the USS Trippe. The Royal Army's fleet included the HMS Detroit, the HMS Queen Charlotte, the HMS Hunter, the HMS Lady Prevost, the HMS Little Belt, and the HMS Chippawa. The two clashed at Put-in-Bay on Sept. 10, 1813. By the end of the battle, Perry had defeated the British squadron and regained control of Lake Erie. In reporting his victory, Perry wrote, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

The Battle of Hampton Roads, 1862

The Battle of Hampton Roads was the first battle of armored ironclad ships, pitting the CSS Virginia against the USS Monitor. In an effort to test out the new ironclad vessel, the Virginia was sailed to Hampton Roads and a blockade of Union warships near Fort Monroe. The initial attack proved that the ironclad ship was effective, destroying the USS Congress and doing significant damage to the other wooden Union ships it encountered. The fighting came to an end when darkness descended, and temporary repairs were made. The Virginia returned the following morning only to find that the Union ironclad USS Monitor had arrived overnight to help protect the remaining ships. The battle continued for up to four hours, during which the Monitor was able to damage the armor of the Virginia. The Virginia, although unable to damage the Monitor, temporarily blinded its captain. But ultimately, the Monitor was able to hold the blockade.

Battle of Mobile Bay, 1864

In 1862, Mobile, Alabama, was a primary port for the Confederacy in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. It was heavily defended by a torpedo minefield, one ironclad ship, and three gunboats. Admiral David G. Farragut and his Union force, which consisted of more than 5,000 men, four ironclad vessels, and 14 wooden ships, embarked on an assault against Mobile. Despite one of his ironclads, the Tecumseh, sinking after it hit a torpedo, Farragut ordered his fleet to cross over the torpedo minefield as he issued the now-famous order, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" The fleet followed orders with success. By the end of the battle, Farragut had damaged and captured the ironclad Tennessee and made the port unusable to Confederates. Although he did not capture Mobile, it was a victory that helped the re-election efforts of President Abraham Lincoln.

The H.L. Hunley Sinks the USS Housatonic, 1864

The H.L. Hunley was an eight-man Confederate submarine that was built to attack the Union blockade. After several disastrous training exercises, the ship and its third crew attempted a nighttime attack on the USS Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864. The Union ship failed to recognize the enemy vessel until it was too close to fire upon with anything other than muskets. This allowed the Hunley to attach and detonate a torpedo that blew a hole in the Housatonic, causing it to sink and resulting in the death of three crewmen and two officers. This was the first time that a submerged ship sunk another vessel. But despite its successful attack, the ship never returned home. Its wreckage was found in 1995.

Battle of the Atlantic, 1941-1945

Although the Battle of Atlantic took place from 1939 to 1945, U.S. involvement did not begin until 1941. Prior to the arrival of the U.S. Navy, Allied forces faced great losses at the hands of Germany's Kriegsmarine. Wolf packs, or groups of U-boats, were spreading across the Atlantic and striking British ships. These strikes along with bombing from German aircraft were very successful and resulted in heavy losses to Allied shipping, which caused Allied forces to lose needed supplies. Even after the initial arrival of the U.S. Navy, Germany continued its successful campaign against Allied supplies. Improvements in technology and tactics, however, would soon allow for better detection and tracking of U-boats courtesy of enhanced radar, anti-submarine mortars, and the improving ability to intercept and read radio traffic from German forces. This turned the tide in favor of Allied forces. The success in the Atlantic was crucial to Allied forces eventually winning the war. By the end of the war, Germany had lost up to 75 percent of its submarines in battle.

Midway, 1942

In 1942, following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Navy had become a powerful invasion force attacking the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. A small yet successful attack by U.S. bombers, however, led Japan to plan to attack and capture Midway Island, which they believed was the launch point for the raid. These plans were intercepted by decoders and a counterattack was devised; three carriers, the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, were deployed. Although the ensuing battle seemed to favor Japan, the American Navy ultimately won the battle. Japan, which by the end of the day had lost four aircraft carriers, more than 300 aircraft, and 3,000 men, withdrew their surviving fleet. This loss made it difficult for Japan to replace their aviators with properly trained pilots.

Okinawa, 1945

The Battle of Okinawa was the last of the Pacific War battles. It began prior to the official invasion with a week of U.S. artillery fire on planned beach landing sites. On April 1, 1945, before dawn, Chatan and Hagushi beaches were hit with nearly 45,000 shells, more than 22,000 mortars, aircraft-launched napalm attacks, and 33,000 rockets followed by the U.S. landing troops, which numbered 183,000 Army soldiers and Marines supported by the Navy's Fifth Fleet. The battle would become one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. During the lengthy battle, Japan's largest battleship, called the Yamato was dispatched on April 7 to attack the Fifth Fleet. The Navy, warned of the impending attack, launched massive air and torpedo attacks that would sink the Yamato. As the battle on land continued, the Fifth Fleet was attacked by as many as 1,900 kamikaze attacks. These suicide pilots had a significant impact on the Allied fleet, as their actions resulted in 36 ships being sunk and 386 damaged. Roughly 55,000 American soldiers were wounded as a result of these attacks, and the death toll reached over 12,500. The U.S. Navy countered with anti-aircraft fire and Navy planes. The Battle of Okinawa ended on June 22, with the ritual suicides of the Japanese forces' commanding officers.