When you think about the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that the United States Navy operates, it’s natural to immediately think of them launching fighters to carry out strikes against the enemy. Over the years, history has proven that carriers are very good at that. However, instead of orchestrating combat in the sky, one Nimitz-class carrier ended up carrying American troops into battle.
Now, the use of American carriers to carry troops isn’t entirely outlandish. At the end of World War II, some carriers, including USS Enterprise (CV 6), took part in Operation Magic Carpet, the returning of GIs en masse from overseas. It’s easy to see why – a carrier transports up to 5,000 sailors and Marines, only about 3,200 of which are crew. The remaining 1,800 are in the air wing. If you were to eliminate some of that air wing, you’d quickly create capacity for other personnel.
In 1994, the United States was preparing to invade Haiti to remove a military junta that had taken power in 1991. The plan involved getting special operations and light infantry troops into Haiti. The problem was, there weren’t many good bases on the island of Hispaniola, of which Haiti accounts for half. The other half of the island, owned by the Dominican Republic, didn’t have much in the way of usable bases, either – after all, P-51 Mustangs were still that country’s front-line fighter at the time.
That left the U.S. with one option: a floating base. Meanwhile, the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) was preparing for a deployment. These ships can usually haul up to 90 aircraft. It didn’t take long for someone to get the idea to load elements of the 10th Mountain Division, along with special ops unit, like Delta Force and the Nightstalkers, onto the carrier.
The Eisenhower sailed from Norfolk, hauling 56 helicopters and 2,000 troops. Army UH-60 Blackhawks and other choppers were very quickly parked on the ship’s flight deck. The good news was that this arrangement never had to be tested in combat – a delegation that included retired general Colin Powell and Jimmy Carter convinced the Haitian regime to vacate peacefully. The 10th Mountain Division entered without a fight via helicopters launched from the carrier’s deck.
Even without facing combat, the Eisenhower had proven that carriers can be very versatile instruments of national policy.