The USS Enterprise (CV-6), commissioned in 1938, was a pivotal aircraft carrier that played an essential role in the Pacific theater during World War II.

Known as the “Big E,” it participated in numerous significant battles, including the Battle of Midway, showcasing the might and adaptability of U.S. naval power.

Despite being decommissioned in 1947, the legacy of the Enterprise endures, symbolizing valor, resilience, and the unparalleled contribution of naval aviation in modern warfare.

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Construction Of The USS Enterprise

The construction of the USS Enterprise (CV-6) began with its keel laying on July 16, 1934, at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginia. This significant undertaking marked the birth of what would become one of the most celebrated warships in naval history.

Launching the USS Enterprise, 3 October 1936.

The Enterprise was the fruit of extensive planning, adhering to both the limitations imposed by the Washington and London Naval Treaties and the evolving demands of naval warfare. With its launching on October 3, 1936, and commissioning on May 12, 1938, the USS Enterprise emerged as a testament to American naval architecture and engineering.

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Design Specifications of the USS Enterprise (CV-6)

The design of the USS Enterprise was a culmination of lessons learned from earlier carriers and a response to the rapidly changing landscape of naval warfare. As part of the Yorktown-class, it bore several defining characteristics:

Size and Displacement: Spanning a total length of 809 feet and a beam of 83 feet at the waterline, the Enterprise was a substantial vessel. With a standard displacement of about 19,900 tons and a full-load displacement nearing 25,500 tons, it was designed to be both formidable and agile.

USS Enterprise pictured in 1939.

Powerplant: The Enterprise was powered by nine Babcock & Wilcox boilers, driving four Parsons geared turbines. This powerplant setup allowed the carrier to reach speeds up to 32.5 knots, making it one of the fastest carriers of its time.

Armor and Armament: The ship boasted an armor belt that was up to 4 inches thick, with deck armor ranging between 1.5 to 4 inches. For defense against enemy aircraft and smaller ships, the Enterprise was initially armed with eight 5-inch/38 caliber dual-purpose guns, four quad 1.1-inch anti-aircraft guns, and an array of .50 caliber machine guns. Over time, as threats evolved, the ship’s anti-aircraft armament was augmented, most notably with the addition of 40mm Bofors and 20mm Oerlikon guns during World War II.

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Air Wing: The true power of the USS Enterprise lay in its air wing. With a complement of around 90 aircraft, including fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes, it could project significant firepower over long distances. The design incorporated features like an advanced arresting gear and an anti-torpedo blister, making it a formidable platform for naval aviation.

Dauntless dive bomber prepares for take off for a raid on the Marshall Islands, 1942.

Operational Range: With a fuel capacity designed for long deployments, the Enterprise boasted an operational range of over 12,000 nautical miles at 15 knots, allowing it to operate far from home ports and sustain prolonged operations.

The Early Years Of The USS Enterprise

In the late 1930s, as global tensions were escalating, the USS Enterprise began its journey as one of the principal assets of the United States Navy. Freshly commissioned in 1938, it was initially involved in a series of training exercises, maneuvers, and goodwill missions, as America sought to solidify its naval prowess and readiness.

The Enterprise’s operations were primarily in the Pacific, a region that was becoming a nexus of geopolitical contention. As it undertook its role, the vessel swiftly garnered a reputation for efficiency and operational excellence. Its maiden voyage, symbolizing its growing role in Pacific security, involved transporting the US Marine Corps Squadron to Hawaii.

This mission was not merely routine; it was a projection of naval air power and a demonstration of America’s commitment to safeguarding its interests in the Pacific.

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However, the true crucible for the USS Enterprise arrived with the outbreak of World War II. On December 7, 1941, as the Japanese mounted their infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Enterprise had a stroke of luck.

The carrier was returning from a mission to deliver aircraft to Wake Island and was, fortuitously, not anchored at Pearl Harbor. While it was not directly in the crosshairs of the Japanese strike, its aircraft and scout planes engaged incoming Japanese forces, with some losses.

In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States found its Pacific Fleet significantly weakened. Many battleships, which were traditionally viewed as the backbone of a navy, were either sunk or severely damaged.

The Big E docked at Pearl Harbor, May 1942.

This unexpected blow shifted the onus of naval warfare in the Pacific to aircraft carriers. With the Enterprise being one of the few operational carriers left in the aftermath, it suddenly found itself at the forefront of America’s war effort.

In the subsequent months, the Enterprise participated in a series of raids against Japanese-held islands, helping to halt the rapid Japanese advance across the Pacific. Its active engagements in these early battles, including raids on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, helped the U.S. to retaliate and showcase its intent to reclaim the Pacific.

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Perhaps the most significant of the Enterprise’s early engagements was the Battle of Midway in June 1942. This battle, a turning point in the Pacific war, saw the Enterprise play a pivotal role.

Alongside the USS Hornet and the damaged USS Yorktown, the Enterprise’s air wing launched relentless attacks on the Japanese fleet, culminating in the sinking of four enemy carriers. This monumental victory was not without sacrifices, as the USS Yorktown succumbed to damage and had to be abandoned.

Continued Service

As World War II raged on, the importance of the USS Enterprise to the U.S. naval effort in the Pacific grew exponentially. With each engagement, the “Big E” and its crew showcased remarkable tenacity, adaptability, and valor, setting standards in naval warfare and leaving an indelible mark on history.

After the pivotal victory at Midway, the Enterprise was engaged in operations throughout the Solomon Islands, a strategic area in the South Pacific. The Guadalcanal Campaign, commencing in August 1942, became a protracted and fierce series of battles on both land and sea. The Enterprise played a crucial role in supporting U.S. Marines’ efforts on the islands and thwarting Japanese naval and aerial forces. On several occasions, it came under heavy enemy fire.

Most notably, during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and later the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, the Enterprise faced a barrage of enemy aircraft and torpedoes. While the ship endured significant damage, its crew showcased exemplary courage and ingenuity in making on-the-spot repairs, ensuring the carrier remained operational.

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The subsequent years of the war saw the Enterprise at the heart of almost every major naval engagement in the Pacific. From the Gilbert and Marshall Islands Campaigns to operations in the Mariana Islands and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the ship was relentless in its assault on Axis forces.

A stunning shot of the Enterprise in 1941.

The Enterprise’s aircraft bombed enemy installations, engaged in aerial dogfights, and provided crucial reconnaissance, making the carrier an invaluable asset in the Pacific theater.

However, these successes were not without their trials. The Enterprise faced constant threats from Japanese kamikaze attacks, a desperate and destructive tactic where pilots carried out intentional suicide crashes into enemy ships.

On multiple occasions, the Enterprise was struck by these kamikaze pilots, causing fires and significant damage. Yet, in testament to the resilience of the ship and its crew, after each of these encounters, the Enterprise, often with makeshift repairs, returned to action in a relatively short span of time.

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The heroism of the Enterprise’s crew was not limited to battles. The ship also served as a beacon of hope for other vessels in distress. In one instance, after the USS Franklin was heavily damaged by an air attack, the Enterprise provided cover, dispatching aircraft to protect the wounded ship from further enemy strikes.

Legacy

The end of World War II did not diminish the stature of the USS Enterprise; rather, it solidified its legendary status in naval history. However, the very advancements in naval aviation and ship design that the war accelerated meant that the Enterprise, like many warships of its era, would soon find itself eclipsed by newer, more advanced carriers. These realities, combined with the extensive wear and tear the vessel had endured during its numerous engagements, signaled that the “Big E’s” days as an active combat vessel were numbered.

In the immediate post-war years, the Enterprise returned to the United States and undertook a series of operations, including the crucial role of ferrying American troops back home. This mission, dubbed “Magic Carpet,” was in many ways a poetic reflection of the ship’s service—after playing a pivotal role in securing victory in the Pacific, it now bore the honorable task of reuniting soldiers with their loved ones.

GI’s in the hangar deck of the Enterprise during Operation Magic Carpet.

However, by 1947, the decision was made to decommission the USS Enterprise. On February 17 of that year, in a solemn ceremony, the storied carrier was officially retired from active service.

While many veterans and naval enthusiasts hoped that the ship would be preserved as a museum or a memorial, the vast financial and logistical challenges of such an endeavor proved prohibitive. In 1958, with a decision that pained many who recognized the ship’s historical significance, the USS Enterprise was sold for scrap.

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Yet, the physical dismantling of the Enterprise did not mean the erasure of its legacy. The ship’s memory was preserved through the tales of its surviving crew, historical accounts, and naval records.

The valor displayed by its sailors, the tactical innovations it introduced, and its pivotal role in many of the Pacific’s crucial battles have ensured that the USS Enterprise (CV-6) remains an emblematic figure in naval lore. In recognition of its unparalleled service, the name “Enterprise” has been bestowed upon subsequent naval vessels, a tradition that acknowledges the enduring spirit and legacy of the “Big E.”