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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

Marshall Islands Raid
February 1, 1942

"It was one of those plans which are called 'brilliant' if they succeed and 'foolhardy' if they fail."
Vice Admiral William F. Halsey

For a moment, imagine being gifted with extraordinary vision, standing in the center of Tokyo, Japan, on January 1, 1942, and being lifted well above the surface of the earth. Gazing to the southeast, towards the central Pacific, one might first pick out the smudge of Marcus Island, not quite a thousand miles distant, a Japanese possession since 1898. Peering further into the distance, still directly southeast, a string of coral atolls appears some 3000 miles away. These are the Marshall Islands, which Japan seized from Germany in 1914 (Japan aligned itself with the Allies in World War I), and which were formally mandated to Japan's control by the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919.

Beyond the Marshalls are the Gilbert Islands - which Japan seized two days after Pearl Harbor - and, still further southeast, the Ellice Islands. South and east of the Ellice Islands lie Fiji and Samoa, which in turn straddle the critical shipping lanes between the United States and Australia. It was these shipping lanes, and the obvious possibility of Japan severing them, that occupied the minds of American military planners from Washington, DC to Hawaii during the first weeks of the war.

On 30 December 1941, Admiral Ernest J. King was appointed Commander In Chief, US Fleet; Admiral Chester Nimitz became Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, the next day. King immediately directed Nimitz to protect US shipping between the United States and Australia, as far south as Samoa. To that end, 5000 Marines had been embarked on transports at San Diego, to be escorted to Samoa by Enterprise's sistership Yorktown CV-5, recently arrived from the Atlantic.

SBDs Ready for Launch
1 February 1942: an Enterprise Dauntless dive bomber prepares for launch during the Marshall Islands raid.

On January 2, Nimitz's staff recommended strikes against the Gilberts and Marshall Islands, but Vice Admiral William S. Pye - former commander of the Battle Fleet - raised the possibility of Japan expecting Samoa to be reinforced. Pye suggested, and Nimitz concurred, that a second carrier cover the Marine's arrival in Samoa. Once the Marines were safely ashore, the two carriers would head towards the Gilberts to fend off any Japanese advance, or to strike at bases there should no opposition be met. A third carrier would strike Wake Island, while the fourth (including Yorktown, four U.S. carriers were available in the Pacific) guarded Hawaii. Though Nimitz himself approved of the plan, several members of his staff vocally opposed it: the battleships had already been lost, and they were not about to lose the carriers in a raid the Japanese could be anticipating. Nimitz needed support.

Support arrived the following day, January 7, when Enterprise - flagship of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey - returned to Pearl Harbor from an uneventful patrol. Halsey immediately approved of Pye's plan, and was first astounded and then outraged by the opposition against it. In the words of a biographer, Halsey "cleared the air", going so far as to volunteer to lead the operation. As perhaps no other man in Oahu at the time better appreciated the offensive power of the carrier, Halsey's opinion won the day, not to mention Nimitz's gratitude. On January 9, Nimitz gave Halsey his orders. Halsey, Enterprise, and Task Force 8 would escort the Yorktown group to Samoa. The sisterships would then raid Japanese bases in the Gilberts and Marshalls. Lexington CV-2, under Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, would strike Wake Island, while Saratoga CV-3 would watch over Hawaii.

Enterprise provisioned all day and into the night on January 10 - "Are loading for bear" noted one Enterprise Air Group pilot - and stood out of Pearl Harbor at noon, Sunday, January 11. As Halsey's flagship, she was screened by cruisers Northampton CA-26 (Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance's flagship), Salt Lake City CA-25, and Chester CA-27, and six destroyers, including Balch DD-363 and Blue DD-387.

The first days steaming southwest were marred by mishaps and bad news. Saratoga was torpedoed by an enemy sub the first evening Enterprise was underway, and damaged badly enough to have to return to the West Coast for repair. A pilot broke radio silence on the thirteenth, putting the whole mission at risk; a man was washed overboard from destroyer Blue and lost the next day. On the sixteenth, one man was killed accidentally on Salt Lake City, a Dauntless crashed on landing, killing ACMM George F. Lawhon, and a Torpedo Six Devastator vanished altogether. (Its crew - Harold Dixon, Tony Pastula and Gene Aldrich - miraculously survived 34 days at sea, eventually washing ashore on Pukapuka island, 750 miles from where they'd ditched the plane.)

Despite the shaky start, Enterprise and Task Force 8 arrived off Samoa on schedule, and took up station 100 miles north of the islands. For five days, she steamed east to west and back again, her planes searching northwest for any sign of the Japanese, and south for Yorktown and the transports, which arrived on January 23. The 5000 Marines were all safely ashore the next day, and on January 25, the two carrier task forces set course to the northwest, toward the Marshall Islands, 1600 miles away.

In Enterprise, Halsey and his Chief of Staff, CDR Miles Browning, had developed a plan for the raid. The Yorktown force - commanded by Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher - would target Makin, in the Gilbert Islands, and Jaluit and Mili in the southern Marshalls. Halsey and Enterprise, accompanied by Spruance's cruisers, set their sights on Wotje and Taroa (in the Maloelap atoll) in the northern Marshalls. As the Marshalls were suspected of being well-defended, this seemed like a long enough list of targets. New intelligence received January 27, courtesy the submarine Dolphin SS-169, indicated they were not so heavily fortified as once thought, and reported significant enemy air and shipping activity at Kwajalein Atoll, 150 miles due west of Wotje. Browning - a brilliant and aggressive tactician at a time when the Navy desperately needed such men - convinced Halsey to add Kwajalein to his target list.

Doing so entailed considerable risk. In order to bring Kwajalein within range of her bombers, Enterprise would have to operate dangerously close to enemy bases on Wotje and Taroa. Now, though, it was apparent that not striking Kwajalein would be just as dangerous. No matter what, Enterprise would be in range of enemy land-based bombers from the atoll. It was imperative that enemy airfields on Kwajalein and the other islands be struck, and struck hard, before they had opportunity to launch possibly killing blows against the vulnerable carrier.

For two more days, the two task forces cruised northwest together, the most notable event being Enterprise refueling underway the night of January 28. Under the best conditions - in daylight - refueling underway is a dangerous, exacting task. On this day, the oiler Platte did not finish refueling the other ships in TF 8 until after sunset. Enterprise eased alongside Platte at 1600 that night and steamed at her side for the next five-and-half-hours, the first capital ship in history to refuel underway at night. In another two years, this capability - refined and repeated until it was a matter of course - would enable US Navy warships to operate far from friendly anchorages for a month or more at a time, but on this night minds were on more immediate concerns.

On January 29, Yorktown, Enterprise, and their respective task forces parted ways, and early the next morning swept across the International Date Line into January 31. With less than 24 hours remaining before their first offensive mission of the war, the men of Enterprise and her Air Group prepared. Fighting Six installed homemade armor - literally made of boilerplate - behind the seat of each Wildcat, a vital if weighty addition their Japanese counterparts would never consider. Halsey ordered each ship rigged for towing and for being towed, not wanting to waste a minute should any ship need help escaping after the raid. Navigators and airmen poured over aged maps, picking out reefs and targets. At 1830, Task Force 8 began its final run-in to the launching point, the ocean waves hissing past hulls at 30 knots, each of Enterprise's four 13-ton propellers revolving 275 times a minute.

The night passed uneventfully until, at 0220, the officer of the watch reported sand blowing in his face. Halsey ordered the ship's position checked: its course based on old maps of questionable accuracy, the ship could have been moments from running aground. The officer then thought to taste a few grains of the "sand". Finding they were suspiciously sweet, he soon traced their source to a sailor on watch, stirring sugar into his coffee. Forty minutes later, at 0300, the ship's crew was awakened, and the Big E - still underway - prepared to launch her first strikes of the war.

Flight Deck Activity
Enterprise's flight deck bustles with activity during the Marshall Islands raid.

The first missions were timed to reach their targets throughout the northern Marshall Islands simultaneously, just before 0700: the same time that Spruance's cruiser force was to commence bombardment of Wotje and Taroa. At 0430, Enterprise turned into the wind. Thirteen minutes later, six F4F Wildcats roared into the black night for Combat Air Patrol, followed immediately 36 Scouting Six and Bombing Six SBDs led by Enterprise Air Group commander CDR Howard L. Young. Just after 0500, a second strike of nine TBD Devastators from Torpedo Six, and an SBD delayed by engine trouble, rumbled down the Big E's flight deck. These 46 planes formed up in the dark - no easy task - and headed for Kwajalein Atoll, 155 miles away. At 0610, still nearly an hour before sunrise, twelve Fighting Six Wildcats were launched for Wotje and Taroa. One Wildcat pilot, ENS David W. Criswell, apparently became disoriented in the dark. His plane stalled shortly after takeoff and plunged into the sea: Criswell was never found. Considering the limited training given pilots in night operations before the war, it's remarkable there weren't further mishaps.

On this first strike, each Devastator torpedo plane was armed with three 500 lb instantaneous-fused bombs - rather than the usual torpedo - while the Dauntlesses each lugged a single 500 lb bomb as well as two 200 lb bombs. The Wildcats carried two 100 lb bombs each.

As the planes droned through the pre-dawn darkness, Spruance's cruisers closed range with Wotje and Taroa: Northampton and Salt Lake City would take Wotje, while Chester and several destroyers sidled up to Taroa.

Shortly before 0700, Gene Lindsey's torpedo planes broke off from the main body of Dauntlesses and headed for Kwajalein anchorage, some 44 miles south of Roi at the northern end of the atoll. "Brigham" Young's SBDs, meanwhile, grappled with darkness, low-lying fog, and decades-old maps, trying to identify Roi itself. At 0705, seven minutes after the strikes were scheduled to begin, and - more importantly - after the defenders on the ground had been alerted to their approach, they succeeded.

In a steep, gliding run, LCDR Halstead L. Hopping led his division of six SBDs through increasing anti-aircraft fire, releasing his bombs over the enemy's airfield, where even as the attack begin, fighters were scrambling into the air. As the lead plane, Hopping's SBD drew much of the defenders' fire and plunged into the sea after releasing its bomb: Hopping and his gunner, RM 1/c Harold Thomas, were lost. Scouting Six continued the attack, with Earl Gallaher and C. E. Dickinson each leading six SBDs into the fray. The bombers pummeled the airfield - destroying an ammunition dump, two hangars, and a radio station - and swung back around to strafe the base and parked planes on the ground. Enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire claimed three more SBDs, but Enterprise's airmen put on a spirited defense and claimed three "Claudes" in exchange.

With Roi in a shambles, seven marauding VS-6 SBDs - their big 500 lb bombs still slung under their bellies - made off for Kwajalein anchorage, where more substantial targets had been reported by Torpedo Six commander Gene Lindsey. Discovering several merchant ships, submarines, and the cruiser Katori in the anchorage, Lindsey had immediately called for more planes. Over Roi, Young picked up and repeated Lindsey's alert - "Targets suitable for heavy bombs at Kwajalein anchorage" - before detaching Bombing Six with the seven accompanying Scouting Six planes. Young's broadcast was heard aboard Enterprise, where the remaining nine VT-6 Devastators were armed with torpedoes and readied for launch.

Lindsey's Devastators had surprised the anchorage, damaging several of the ships there while encountering only poorly-directed defensive fire. Bombing Six, led by LCDR William R. Hollingsworth, and the remaining planes of VS-6, followed up with a dive-bombing attack from 14,000 feet. On their departure, the transport Bordeaux Maru and subchaser Shonan Maru appeared to be sinking, a half dozen other ships were damaged, and 90 men including the area commander lay dead.

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