A Brief History
On June 7, 1942, the Battle of Midway ended, changing the balance of power in the Pacific. Afterwards, the Japanese were on the defensive and the allies (mostly Americans) were on the offensive for the rest of the war. The US Navy has won many great victories, and here we list 10 that we think are among the greatest. (Note: Army-Navy football games do not count!)
10. Navy 24- Army 0, 1890.
Okay, we lied. The first Army-Navy football game does count, at least it does to the US Navy! Winning the first game in a shutout has set the stage for overall dominance by Navy teams, Navy winning 58 times and Army winning 49 times (7 games were ties). Lately, Navy has ruled with 12 consecutive wins.
9. Battle of Hampton Roads, 1862.
Although many historians call this battle a draw, the objective of the US Navy, containing the CSS Virginia, was achieved. In the historic first battle of ironclad armored ships, the USS Monitor shrugged off dozens and dozens of hits from Virginia’s heavy guns with little damage, and continued to fight after the captain was blinded. Virginia failed to break the Union blockade of Norfolk and was damaged to the point of being sent to dry-dock. The inability to break the Union blockade meant the mighty Virginia was now useless, and she was scuttled to avoid capture by the Union forces.
8. Battle of the Atlantic, 1941-1945.
The longest campaign considered here, this ongoing battle between German U-Boats and allied anti-submarine ships and airplanes was pivotal in deciding the war in Europe. At first, the U-Boats had the upper hand and were sinking cargo ships faster than they could be built. Britain was on the brink of being knocked out of the war due to a lack of food, fuel, and other supplies. As US Navy anti-submarine ships, planes, and tactics improved (including British participation) the tide turned and the U-Boats were defeated (mostly, but not completely, during 1943). The Germans had sunk 3500 allied cargo ships and 175 warships, but lost 783 submarines, or 75% of their total. This victory enabled the massive amphibious landings in the Mediterranean and at Normandy, as well as safe passage of millions of men and millions of tons of cargo.
7. Okinawa, 1945.
This battle was possible only because of the overwhelming superiority of the US Navy over Japanese naval and air forces. With 183,000 US troops landed in the initial assault (compared to 160,000 on D-Day at Normandy) under heavy attack from everything the desperate Japanese could throw at them, the Navy managed to pull off this massive assault. During the battle the Japanese flew about 1900 kamikaze missions against our ships, sinking 28 (by all means) and losing 7800 aircraft total in the titanic battle. The Japanese also sent their largest battleship, Yamato, on a one way mission to disrupt the landing, but the world’s largest battleship in history was pounded under the waves by massive US Naval aviation attacks.
6. Battle of Mobile Bay, 1864.
The greatest Union naval victory of the Civil War, Admiral Farragut uttered the immortal “Damn the torpedoes” line, setting a gold standard for audacity in naval warfare. The Union lost an ironclad to a torpedo (mine) and captured the Confederate ironclad (CSS Tennessee) guarding the harbor. The naval victory allowed Union forces to take the forts and secure the harbor.
5. Battle of Lake Erie, 1813.
At the outset of the War of 1812 the British Navy took immediate control over the waters of Lake Erie. Led by Oliver Hazard Perry the US Navy soundly defeated the British Navy near Put-in-Bay (South Bass Island) at the western end of the lake. This gave control of Lake Erie to the US for the rest of the war and enabled the retaking of Detroit. Perry’s dispatch, “We have met the enemy and they are ours” has become a cornerstone of US Navy lore. A monument to Perry is located at Put-in-Bay.
4. Philippine Sea, 1944.
Considered by some to be the largest naval battle in history, this battle pitted 15 US Navy aircraft carriers against 9 Japanese carriers. Other ships involved include 7 US battleships, 21 US cruisers, 5 Japanese battleships and 19 Japanese cruisers. Scores of destroyers and hundreds of other types of vessels were also involved, with almost a thousand US carrier aircraft and about 750 total Japanese planes (carrier and land based). The US Navy inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese, sinking 3 carriers and 2 tankers, as well as destroying as many as 645 aircraft. US losses were only 1 damaged battleship and the loss of 123 aircraft. This battle, also known as The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, ended the ability of Japan to conduct carrier operations in any meaningful way.
3. Battle of Flamborough Head, 1779.
Asserting the future of naval power projection, John Paul Jones sailed all the way to the British Isles to take the fight right to the British. With the famous “I have not yet begun to fight” line, Jones established the fighting spirit for which the US Navy would prove time and again. This defeat of the world’s most powerful navy in their own backyard was an enormous leap forward in US naval credibility.
2. Manila Bay, 1898.
In one of history’s most decisive naval battles the US Asiatic Squadron led by Commodore George Dewey pitted 4 American cruisers and 2 gunboats against a Spanish force that included 7 cruisers, 5 gunboats, and shore batteries. The American force suffered damage to a cruiser while sinking all 7 Spanish cruisers and a transport. US casualties included only 1 fatality, and that was from heatstroke. Dewey was promoted to the rank of “Admiral of the Navy,” a unique rank that no other officer has ever held.
1. Midway, 1942.
This battle occurred at a time when Japan was sweeping all enemies from her path. At Midway, Japanese offensive action was finally and decisively stopped with the US Navy sinking 4 Japanese aircraft carriers to the loss of only the USS Yorktown. With the Japanese carriers were lost the best of Japanese naval aviators, men that could not be replaced by the cumbersome Japanese training system.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which victories would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hone, Thomas C. The Battle of Midway: The Naval Institute Guide to the U.S. Navy’s Greatest Victory. Naval Institute Press, 2013.