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

Truk Atoll
February 16-17, 1944

"The Pacific Fleet has returned at Truk the visit made by the Japanese Fleet at Pearl Harbor..."
Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz

The February 1944 attack on Truk was one of the few engagements my father, James Shepherd, ever mentioned by name, recalling the apprehension that filled him and his shipmates upon learning they'd be attacking Japan's major South Pacific fleet anchorage.

Some fifty years after the attack, Rear Admiral James D. Ramage (USN, ret.), composed the article below. At the time of the February strikes, then-Lieutenant Ramage was Executive Officer of Big E's Bombing Squadron 10, then commanded by LCDR Richard Poor. At 0858 on 16 February 1944, Ramage led off Enterprise's second bomber strike against Truk, followed by another strike that afternoon, and a third attack on 17 February. The assault even continued at night, as Torpedo 10 executed the first night radar-assisted carrier attack in history, accounting for nearly a third of the tonnage of enemy shipping destroyed during the raids! By the end of the attacks, the myth of the "Gibraltar of the Pacific" had been shattered.

I'm grateful to RADM Ramage for allowing this article to be presented on the CV6.ORG site, as the history of the Fifth Fleet attacks on Truk.

Admiral Raymond Spruance's big drive through the Central Pacific started on 29 January 1944 with carrier air attacks on the Marshall Islands. His Fifth Fleet seized the key island of Kwajalein, and by early February his powerful force was at anchor in its new base at Majuro in the eastern Marshalls.

On 11 February, LT Lou Bangs and I were tossing a medicine ball with a circle of naval aviators on the flight deck of Enterprise. It was clear that something was up because ships' boats were churning around the lagoon. We obviously were getting underway fairly soon. Powerful Task Force 58, with six heavy and six light carriers, was impressive, particularly when compared to a scant year before when the Big E had been the only fleet carrier in the South Pacific.

LCDR James D. Ramage
James D. Ramage, Executive Officer of Bombing 10 during the February 1944 Truk attack.

Our air group commander, CDR William R. "Killer" Kane, came up to our circle and beckoned to Lou and me to join him on the bow of the flight deck.

"We're going to hit Truk," he said.

All I could say was, "Wow!"

My gunner, ARM 1/c Dave Cawley, says that he specifically remembered how tense and concerned we all were as we contemplated hitting Truk: the Japanese "Pearl Harbor" of the Pacific. He fully expected a significant portion of their fleet to tangle with us. "For the previous two years of the war, the very thought of approaching Truk seemed fatal."

Operation Hailstone, the attack on Truk, was to cover the seizure of Eniwetok in the western Marshalls. Truk had a magnificent harbor and contained four airfields. Carrier aircraft alone would take on this large land-based air defense. The atoll was the major Japanese fleet base in the Pacific and was the anchorage of the Japanese Combined Fleet.

The striking force consisted of Task Group 58.1 (Rear Admiral J. W. "Black Jack" Reeves Jr.) with Enterprise, Yorktown CV-10 and Belleau Wood CVL-24; TG 58.2 (RADM A. E. Montgomery) with Essex CV-9, Intrepid CV-11 and Cabot CVL-28; and TG 58.3 (RADM F. C. Sherman) with Bunker Hill CV-17, Monterey CVL-26 and Cowpens CVL-25. There were 276 fighters, 167 bombers and 126 torpedo bombers in the force, totaling 569 aircraft. Task Group 58.4 (RADM Samuel P. Ginder) with Saratoga CV-3, Princeton CVL-23 and Langley CVL-27, was to cover the landings on Eniwetok for Operation Catchpole and thus did not participate in Hailstone.

The Japanese distribution of aircraft on 17 February 1944 was 68 planes on Moen, 27 on Dublon, 20 operational planes on Eten and 46 more on Param for a total of 161 aircraft up and ready, plus another 180 on Eten waiting for pilots or repairs. There is no estimate of how many of these flew.

There is always an apprehension of the unknown, and we knew so little about Truk. There were no current maps of the atoll. We were more at ease when LT Denius ("Denius the Genius"), the intelligence officer from RADM Reeve's staff, gave us the estimated enemy order of battle. We could expect up to 200 enemy fighters plus other aircraft. I thought, "Hell, this wasn't bad! We had almost 300 F6Fs in Task Force 58." We did not know then that Admiral Koga, Admiral Yamato's successor, felt uneasy when the Americans began the assault on Eniwetok and withdrew his fleet to the Palaus in the western Carolines. I went to bed on the night of 15 February thinking of the great carrier battle that would occur on the 16th.

Not so!

The strike plan followed the "Mitscher Shampoo" which was so successful in Operation Flintlock, the Marshalls campaign. There would be a pre-dawn, 72-plane fighter sweep followed by deckload launches throughout the day. CAG Kane, of course, led the sweep; Dick Poor, VB-10 skipper, led the first Enterprise strike and, as exec of VB-10, I led the second deckload at about 0900. My strike consisted of 12 fighters, 12 dive bombers and eight torpedo planes. Designated targets were ships in the Dublon Anchorage.

Cawley remembers:

"The morning of 16 February was clear, cool and beautiful as we launched from Enterprise. We approached from the east, and action started as we were at about 12,000 feet, nearly over the center of the lagoon. Our targets were in the anchorage adjacent to Dublon Island. Unlike most of the islands we had seen and attacked, which were low, flat atolls, the Truk Islands were volcanic with quite high peaks. Just before we reached the roll-in, we were in quite heavy AA, diving very close to a steep hill or peak on Dublon."
Map of Truk Bases
Map showing the main features of the Japanese base at Truk Atoll, based on US Navy intelligence at the time of the attack.

Our launch point was only 80 miles from the outer cays of the atoll. The course to Dublon anchorage was 250 degrees magnetic. Prior to launch, we received the unwelcome news that most of the Japanese fleet had left but that there were plenty of ship targets that remained. Also, our F6Fs were having a field day with the Zeros. It was up to us to do our job. As we passed over the outer cay, a green-brown Zero zoomed by on a parallel course to starboard. No guts! I could see heavy AA coming up from the anchorage area and surrounding islands when "whoosh," I saw a horrendous mushroom cloud rising from the roadstead. Someone had blown up an ammo ship. The fireball that resulted went up 300 feet. As I looked over the targets, I picked out the biggest ship of a group of about a dozen. She was a tanker at anchor.

In answer to my signal, wingmen LT(jg) Bill Schaefer and LT(jg) Oliver Hubbard began to fall back. We did not roll in from an echelon because we liked to keep our defensive "V" as long as possible. I split my dive flaps and settled my pipper on a position just forward of the bridge. I manually released my 1,000-lb. GP bomb at 2,000 feet and turned left on pullout to see the results. The tanker was covered with smoke and water splashes. I could not count the hits; one had detached the stern from the ship and she was definitely going down by the stern. The tanker was empty and hence hard to sink.

Author Dan E. Bailey, in his book World War Two Wrecks of the Kwajalein and Truk Lagoons, indicates that the ship was the aft-engined cargo ship Seiko Maru. A second ship hit amidships by Lou Bangs' second division was Akitsushima, identified initially as a CVL, but was in fact a seaplane tender.

Cawley said:

"We dropped low over the water and were taken under fire by a rusty hulk of an old cargo ship or tanker. It was covered with anti-aircraft and machine guns, and they were all firing at us. We were very close. I strafed it as best I could as we turned north to the open area of the lagoon. Only then did I have a chance to look back at our target and the planes following us. I spotted one of our SBDs about a half mile behind us, still in his vertical dive. At the pullout point, his dive varied about 10 degrees and he dove almost vertically into the water. I saw more of our planes diving and bombs exploding, and more AA.
"As our planes joined up we soon figured out that it was LT(jg) Donald Dean and ARM 2/c J. J. McGorry. I have always thought that they were hit by AA just before pullout. During the strike debriefing, it was arranged to have some fighters strafe hell out of that derelict ship that was a real flak-trap."

After pullout, the second division was attacked by four Zeros and a Rufe seaplane fighter. ARM 2/c Honea, gunner for ENS Bob Wilson, shot down one Zero and damaged a second.

We had a second strike that afternoon. By that time, the shipping was pretty well beaten up. We found the 13,000-ton Hoyo Maru, hit her on the centerline just forward of the stern and set her afire. Bangs division scored two hits on the aviation stores ship Kiyozumi Maru, likewise leaving her on fire and sinking.

In pulling out, we continued to search out smaller craft to strafe with both the twin .50s firing forward and the gunners' twin .30s aft. We chanced on two patrol craft about 100 feet long and chewed them up, leaving them on fire. Since we had fired all our ammo in our forward guns, I put the squadron in a circle and our gunners took care of what was left with their twin .30s. Bailey identifies these craft as 420-ton, No. 28-class submarine chasers.

"I remember a Japanese cruiser (Katori) up to the north of Truk lagoon," states Cawley. "I'm sure I watched it on the clear calm sea as a TBF attacked with four 500-lb. bombs. They were dropped in a row with two missing, one hit and one (exploding) close aboard. There was considerable smoke from AA, fires and bombs."

When I sighted the cruiser, she was low in the water and barely moving. Since we were without bombs and ammo, I opened up on guard channel, saying "Any strike leader from 51-Bobcat, there is a damaged Japanese cruiser just to the north of the lagoon. Come sink it."

Immediately on guard channel came back, "Bobcat leader, this is Bald Eagle (Mitscher). Cancel your last. Do not, repeat do not, sink that ship. Acknowledge."

I was stunned! I later found out that ADM Spruance wanted to move his surface ships up for target practice on the cripple. I guess the battleships had to participate in some way!

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