The term “amphibious warfare” refers to the use of naval vessels, weaponry and strategy to place infantry troops ashore. During World War II, the Korean War and the War in Vietnam, this was the chief way of putting troops on the ground in non-contiguous land held by the enemy. Amphibious operations are probably the most complicated of all military maneuvers, requiring precise coordination of naval transport and gunfire, air power, land warfare and extensive planning and training of personnel.
To conduct amphibious operations, the Navy relies on amphibious warfare ships (also called “amphibs”). The Navy began to use amphibious assault vessels during World War II. Before that, conventional boats had been used for amphibious assaults, but traditional means of operation became impossible after the invention of machine guns. After the slaughter that occurred during the Gallipoli landings of 1915, the U.S. Marine Corps began to work on the implementation of advanced amphibious assault strategies in Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s. Plans to build specialized amphibious assault vessels were underway by the 1930s.
Amphibs are generally one of two types – either ships or craft. Ships are used to transport troops from the port to the assault drop-off point. Craft move the troops during the final step from the ship to the shore. When there is not a great distance to cover, amphibious landing craft may carry the troops directly from the port to the shore, with no need for the amphibious assault ships.
Amphibious assault vessels in World War II
During World War II, the Navy converted many cargo vessels into amphibious warfare ships. One notable exception was the Landing Ship, Tank (LST). The LST is a large, specialized ship that can beach onto shore, allowing tanks and other large vehicles to be unloaded directly onto land. In addition to developing ships for carrying troops, tanks and other supplies, the Navy also ordered specialized flagships equipped with facilities that commonplace naval vessels could not provide. When it became apparent that destroyers, cruisers and battleships were unable to provide the necessary fire support for amphibious assault operations, the Navy developed dedicated vessels that used direct and indirect fire weapons, including rockets and guns that could be mounted on landing ships and landing craft. Right before the planned assault, all these vessels would be assembled in the landing area. Even with the specialized ships, craft and weaponry, however, amphibious assaults during the Second World War were limited to open beaches with a certain slope and precise tidal conditions.
The types of amphibious ships and craft used by the U.S. Navy during WWII included the following:
- Amphibious Force Flagship
- Attack Cargo Ship
- Landing Ship, Dock
- Landing Ship, Medium
- Landing Ship, Tank
- Landing Ship, Vehicle
- Attack Transport, and
- High Speed Transport.
Amphibious warfare vessels during the Vietnam War
After the Second World War, amphibious assaults changed dramatically with the invention of the helicopter. Helicopters began to be used by the U.S. Navy for amphibious assaults during the Vietnam War, when techniques were developed and refined. The Navy relied on five Iwo Jima class Landing Platform Helicopter vessels built during the 1950s and 1960s, along with converted escort and fleet carriers. In particular, three Essex-class aircraft carriers were converted into Boxer amphibious assault vessels: USS Boxer (CV-21/LPH-4); USS Princeton (CV-37/LPH-5); and, USS Valley Forge (CV-45/LPH-8). One Casablanca class escort carrier was converted to a Thetis Bay class amphibious assault vessel: USS Thetis Bay (CVE-90/CVHA-1/LPH-6).
The Iwo Jima class Landing Platform Helicopter vessels look similar to aircraft carriers, but their function is quite different. The aviation facilities of an amphibious assault ship are used to host helicopters for supporting troops ashore, not to support air defense or strike aircraft. With the support of these vessels and the helicopters they host, the U.S. Navy can now conduct amphibious assaults at almost any place along the coast.
Hull classifications for some classes of amphibious warfare vessels include the following:
- Amphibious Command Ship (LCC) (unrelated to the Landing Craft, Control (LCC))
- Attack Cargo Ship (AKA/LKA)
- Auxiliary Command Ship (AGF)
- Auxiliary Personnel Assault (AP/APA/LPA)
- Landing Platform Dock (LPD)
- Landing Ship Dock (LSD)
- Landing Ship Infantry (previously designated as Landing Craft, Infantry)( LSI)
- Landing Ship Logistics (LSL)
- Landing Ship Medium), and
- Landing Ship Tank (LST).
Nearly a third of the people diagnosed with mesothelioma in the United States were exposed to asbestos while serving their country; most of those folks served in the U.S. Navy. Just as with aircraft carriers and battleships, amphibious assault vessels also were heavily insulated with asbestos. It takes decades from the time of a person’s first exposure to asbestos before mesothelioma symptoms appear. If you served aboard one an amphibious vessel prior to 1980, you may have been exposed to toxic asbestos fibers during your military service.