The keel laying of the first “supercarrier” Forrestal (CV-59) on 14 July 1952 represented a significant step forward in the evolution of naval aviation. In the post-war period, the Navy wrestled with the role naval aviation would play in the atomic age and James Vincent Forrestal, the man for whom the aircraft carrier was named, stood at the center of many of the controversies of this period. After serving as Secretary of the Navy from May 1944 to September 1947, he became the nation’s first Secretary of Defense. The intense strain that stemmed, in part, from inter-service strife over issues ranging from the strategic use of atomic weapons and the unification of the armed services eventually took their toll on his mental health and President Truman asked for his resignation in March 1949.
After Forrestal’s departure, the new Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson canceled the aircraft carrier United States (CV-58) on April 23, 1949. Had the opposition of Secretary Johnson and the Air Force to construction of larger, flush-deck aircraft carriers been successful, the Navy would have been forced to modernize existing Essex and Midway class carriers instead. However, the October 1949 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee of leaders such as Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Louis Denfeld and Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet Admiral Arthur W. Radford, forcefully made the case that the Navy’s power projection responsibilities necessitated larger, more technologically advanced carriers. In March 1951, Congress authorized CVB-59 and Representative Carl Vinson, perhaps the Navy’s most significant ally in Congress, suggested a limit of 60,000 tons. As built, Forrestal displaced 59,900 tons compared to the 27,100 ton Essex-class and the 45,000 ton Midway-class.
Although smaller than the United States, the Forrestal-class relied heavily upon that ship’s proposed design. Among the most significant design changes was the shift from a flush deck to an angled deck and Forrestal became the first aircraft carrier built with that feature. The angled flight deck, originally designed by the Royal Navy, made simultaneous landings and catapult launchings more practical, even allowing for the presence of a significantly larger flight deck. The angled deck also significantly decreased the chance that landing aircraft would collide with planes parked on the flight deck. On May 4, 1953, the Chief of Naval Operations directed that the entire Forrestal-class be built with an angled flight deck.
The Navy eventually built three more Forrestal-class carriers: Saratoga (CV-60), Ranger (CV-61), and Independence (CV-62). Later non-nuclear carriers Kitty Hawk (CV-63), Constellation (CV-64), America (CV-66), and John F. Kennedy (CV-67) also relied heavily on the Forrestal-class design. Forrestal (CV-59) was commissioned 1 October 1955 and served the nation for nearly four decades before being decommissioned on 11 September 1993. That ship’s long career and important service vindicates not only her design, but also those who argued for a significant role for naval aviation during a period of considerable evolution in our thinking with regard to national defense strategy.