The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
Page 2 of 2 < Previous 1 | 2
In close coordination with the strikes against Roi and Kwajalein, Fighting Six had swept over Taroa and Wotje - the latter occasionally in sight of Enterprise - just before 0700. At Wotje, VF-6 commander LT C. Wade McClusky, had led six planes in two high-speed bombing runs over the slumbering island, targeting the airfield (still under construction), before returning once more to strafe buildings and suspected gun placements.
However, it fell to LT James S. Gray and his flight of five Wildcats to stir up the Marshall's real hotspot: Taroa. Shortly before 0700, Gray and his wingman, LT(jg) Wilmer Rawie, mistakenly bombed the unoccupied island of Tjan, which Gray had misidentified as Taroa. Somewhat chagrined, Gray roared away to the southeast, stringing out the other Wildcats in a long, thin line, as they scrambled to keep up. Fifteen miles from Tjan, they found their target.
Expecting to find a lightly-defended seaplane base, as intelligence reports had suggested, Gray and his flight were thrilled and alarmed to behold a fully operational airfield, two new mile-long runways and an ample complement of warplanes. Barely 100 miles southeast of the Big E, Taroa was a genuine threat, and its defenders were wide awake.
Streaking in from 8,000 feet, the Wildcats targeted the island's small navy yard and airfield with their remaining 100 lb bombs, then swung back around to deliberately strafe the neat rows of planes parked on the airfield, including an estimated 30-40 twin-engine bombers. With no incendiary shells, the fighters were able to set only one parked plane on fire, but rendered many others inoperable, an accomplishment that would prove of vital importance later in the day.
Recovering from his first pass over the island, Rawie identified a pair of enemy planes - Type 96 "Claude" fixed-gear fighters - about a mile ahead. Undetected, Rawie approached from below and crippled one fighter with a long burst of .50-caliber shells, before hurtling past the second plane and abruptly reversing course to approach it head-on. Neither airman gave way until the last possible moment, and even then the Wildcat's belly clipped the Claude's wing, barely perturbing the Wildcat but forcing the enemy plane to stagger in retreat.
Taking remarkable risks, the Taroa's ground crews and airmen scrambled six more fighters into the air despite Fighting Six's repeated strafing runs. As these fighters came to grips with Gray's Wildcats, a flaw which had plagued the F4F's guns for months came into play. One by one, the .50-caliber guns jammed: all four of Rawie's guns jammed on his second pass over the airfield, ENS Ralph Rich's failed him as well, and both pilots soon turned for home, along with two other VF-6 airmen in similar straits. Unintentionally, they left LT Gray behind, who soon found himself the center of attention for Taroa's angry fighters. Outmatched by the more maneuverable Japanese planes, Gray struggled to break free, turning into and firing his one operating gun at each Claude as it streaked by. By 0720, Gray was finally in the clear and on his way home, his plane sporting over thirty holes and numerous dents in the seat armor installed just a day earlier.
With Fighting Six's retirement from Wotje and Taroa, Spruance's bombardment force - which had been observing the aerial action over the atolls - went to work. Off Wotje, Northampton and Salt Lake City sent their first salvos hurtling towards the island at 0715, before turning their attention to several slow-moving merchant ships slipping out of the anchorage. Off Taroa, the cruiser Chester and two destroyers picked up where the Wildcats had left off, targeting the airfield and planes on the ground. Like Gray's fighters, Chester received a warm welcome from Taroa's airmen, suffering some casualties from a small bomb which struck her deck aft, and getting a real scare from a formation of eight planes which made a level bombing run on the cruiser at 0830. The latter attack scored no hits, but was enough to convince Chester and her escorts to back away from the swarming enemy base.
Aboard Enterprise, Halsey and his staff interrogated the returning pilots, beginning with Rawie who returned at about 0800, and quickly singled out Taroa as deserving of additional strikes. By this time, LCDR Lance Massey was well on his way to Kwajalein with nine torpedo-laden Devastators, to follow up on the earlier attacks on shipping there. With most of VF-6 now needed for Combat Air Patrol, Bombing and Scouting Six were called on to continue the attack.
As she did twenty-one other times during the raid, Enterprise turned into the easterly wind at about 0930 to launch planes. This strike was led by Bombing Six's commander, LCDR Hollingsworth, who had just returned from the Roi strike. The nine SBDs - two from VS-6, the rest from Hollingsworth's VB-6 - arrived over Taroa to find the most of the enemy's fighters on the ground, being refueled and rearmed. Attacking from out of the sun, the heavily laden bombers devastated two hangars, as many as nine planes on the ground, and a number of smaller buildings. Five Claudes engaged the SBDs but without success, and all nine in Hollingsworth's flight returned safely to the Big E.
At 1030, a third strike against the beleaguered atoll rumbled down Enterprise's flight deck. Led by Bombing Six's Richard Best, the SBDs finished the job Hollingsworth's had started, wrecking a radio tower, fuel tanks, and airfield installations. Taroa's fighters lashed out, engaging two of Best's SBDs in sustained aerial combat, and finally cornering the last SBD in formation, flown by ENS John Doherty. The Dauntlesses could claim two Claudes, but Doherty and his gunner AOM 3/c Will Hunt failed to return. Taroa, it was believed, was in ruins.
With the return of Best's strike, and a second strike against Wotje led by Air Group Commander Young, the Big E began retiring from the Marshalls, or, as it was colorfully referred to in some quarters, "hauling ass with Halsey". Having operated for nearly ten hours in a narrow rectangle of ocean in range of several enemy airfields, sometimes even in sight of Wotje itself, Halsey had stretched his luck as far as he dared, which was far indeed. Enterprise left the area much as she had arrived, racing north at 30 knots.
Since well before dawn, the Big E's company had been at battle stations, awaiting the Japanese response, which to this point had been practically nil. In mid-morning, radar had indicated a bogey northwest of the Task Force, but fighters sent to investigate returned empty-handed. On several occasions, friendly planes returning from strikes had caused some alarm, but all were correctly identified before any mishaps could occur. A little past 1330, there was again confusion when a bogey appeared on Enterprise's radar, closing range rapidly. This time, however, the planes were not friendly: from Taroa's battered airfield, five big twin-engined Type 96 "Nell" bombers bore down on the island's tormentor.
Four VF-6 Wildcats made contact with the bombers 15 miles from the Big E, but jammed guns and cloud cover allowed the Nells to elude the CAP. Approaching in a shallow dive, the bombers burst from the clouds 3500 yards off Enterprise's starboard bow, hurtling towards their target at 250 knots. Every five inch gun that could be brought to bear opened fire, but the gunners' inexperience, the stress of battle and the high speed of the approaching planes led to the shells trailing their target, where they were of more danger to the CAP than to the enemy. Captain George Murray ordered hard left rudder quickly followed by hard right; the ship responded with reassuring nimbleness and neatly "stepped aside" from the approaching bombers. As the 1.1" gun mounts began their deafening fire, the five planes let fall a loose "stick" of three 60 kg bombs each. Most fell harmlessly to port, the concussions pounding the ship's hull and lifting her in the water. One bomb exploded close enough to severe a gasoline line, starting a small fire and mortally wounding BM 2/c George Smith.
Recovering from their dive a scant 1500 feet above the Big E's flight deck, four of the five bombers sped away, but the fifth plane - piloted by the flight leader LT Kazuo Nakai - turned sharply to the left and circled back towards the carrier as if to land. Despite the combined fire of every gun that could bear, the plane kept coming on, clearly intending to crash into the ship. At the last moment, Enterprise veered hard to the right, and the plane - whether due to mechanical damage or an incapacitated pilot - failed to match her turn. Hurtling mere feet over the aft flight deck, the bomber's right wing clipped the tail of parked Scouting Six Dauntless (whose rear gun had been manned by AMM 2/c Bruno Gaido), and snapped off, drenching the island and flight deck forward with gasoline, before coming to rest in a port catwalk. The Nell, Nakai, and his crew plunged into the sea off Enterprise's port quarter and were quickly left behind.
A little scuffed up from the attack, Enterprise and her escorts returned to their course and made away from Taroa at high speed, under the protection of a wary CAP. A little more than an hour after the bombers' appearance, two Wildcats played cat-and-mouse with an enemy seaplane, eventually forcing it down. Additional contacts kept the CAP busy through the afternoon, including two bombers which made a level-bombing run at 1600. With some spotting assistance from Fighting Six commander McClusky, the ship's gunners damaged one of the planes. Like their predecessors, the two Nells could manage only near misses. As they retired, McClusky and his men sent the undamaged bomber down in flames; the other bomber evaded the CAP and got away, still trailing smoke from a damaged engine.
As dusk drew near, the wary CAP also became the weary CAP. By sunset at 1835, all fourteen Fighting Six Grummans were on patrol, the fifth mission of the day for some of the pilots. By 1902, the last of the CAP had landed, aided by a full moon which illuminated the ships' wakes as well. To throw any enemy snoopers off, Halsey briefly set the Task Force on a northwest course - away from home - and gratefully found shelter under a damp cold front. Under the cover of what would become known as "Enterprise weather", the Big E turned northeast and headed for home.
Enterprise and Task Force 8 returned to Pearl Harbor on February 5, receiving a far different welcome than they'd been given in the wake of the December 7 attack. Daring and, more importantly, successful, the raid was the Navy's first significant victory in the Pacific War. Enterprise, her men, and the ships accompanying her were hailed as heroes upon their return, saluted by cheers from men on ships in the anchorage and personnel on shore.
Particularly after the war, it became evident that the damage inflicted during the raid fell short of initial estimates, not to mention newspaper reports which trumpeted the raid as a Japanese Pearl Harbor. Nonetheless, Enterprise's Air Group packed a punch. At Kwajalein, one transport and two smaller vessels were sunk, and another eight ships damaged, roughly half the number originally reported sunk. Nine planes were destroyed on the ground at Taroa and Roi, and three Claudes shot down over the atolls, at the cost of one VF-6 Wildcat and five SBDs. Numerous installations were destroyed throughout the northern Marshalls.
The real significance of the raid was not found on the balance sheet of damage inflicted and suffered, but in the lessons learned. Halsey's action report repeatedly notes the poor performance of the ship's anti-aircraft batteries, stating:
"The inability of the 5" AA battery to knock down the formation of enemy twin-engine bombers ... is a matter of grave concern. ... AA Gunnery Practices [should] be scheduled when opportunity offers, with ship steaming at not less than 25 knots. If adequate safeguards can be introduced, ship should be required to make radical changes of course."
In their first encounter with their Japanese counterparts, the Air Group came away less than impressed, noting the Japanese fighters seemed easily discouraged when faced with two or three SBDs working together defensively. Both the Air Group and the ship's company gained valuable combat experience, making them much better prepared for the carrier-vs-carrier brawls that would mark the late spring and fall of 1942. And though hardly enough to stall the Japanese offensive, the raid served notice to both sides that the striking arm of the U.S. Navy was not lying broken on Pearl Harbor's muddy bottom.