The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
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In the summer of 1943, LCDR Bill Martin shifted from commanding officer of Scouting Squadron Ten to command Torpedo Squadron Ten. Martin was convinced that the carriers should do more in night attack. The TBF Avenger offered a platform to prove his ideas. He took his case to RADM Reeves, who recommended to Mitscher that VT-10 be scheduled for a night strike against Japanese shipping remaining in Truk lagoon on the night of 16-17 February.
At 0410, twelve TBF-1Cs catapulted from Enterprise for a night masthead-level bombing attack on shipping. LT Van Eason, VT-10's exec, led the strike. It was planned that individual runs would be accomplished by radar; the bomb release point would be determined by the pilot, assisted by radar.
Radar reception was hindered by the many coral islets in the lagoon. Also, many of the ships were anchored close to larger islands which caused merged radar echoes. Most pilots searched for 30 minutes before they identified their targets. The aircraft carried four 500-lb. bombs with a four second delay fusing and released their bombs at 250 feet.
Shore batteries put up heavy but inaccurate fire. Ships did not open fire until the attacking planes were within 400 yards. One aircraft, flown by LT(jg) J. Nicholas, did not return from the attack. The cause of his loss is unknown. Damage assessment indicated that 13 of the 48 bombs dropped sunk two oilers and six cargo ships, with six additional cargo ships damaged. This first night strike effort was certainly a success, and was a payoff to Martin for the special training he had insisted on giving VT-10 prior to its deployment. He states, "VT-10 specialized in night radar search and attack and specifically requested this mission. I believe that this was the first time our carrier forces launched a night, minimum-altitude bombing strike.
The following day, the schedule called for a pre-dawn fighter sweep in a repeat of the first day's action. Since the Japanese had lost almost all their aircraft on the first day, VF-10 strafed all remaining aircraft or hulks and facilities on Moen, Eten and Param airfields, and generally shot up anything that moved either in the lagoon or ashore. The first strike on 17 February was made up of 12 VF and 12 VB aircraft. The torpedo planes were not included, as they were being rearmed after their attack on the previous night.
I led the strike which circled outside the lagoon until it was light enough to attack the remaining shipping in the lagoon. The first division went on an oiler, the 10,000-ton Fujisan Maru, which surprisingly was underway. After one to three hits, the ship went dead in the water. The second division dived on the auxiliary Matsutan Maru, also underway, and hit her amidships. These two ships were the only sizable ships remaining afloat in the harbor. On the way out, we set a 44-ft. patrol boat afire and it blew up as a result of strafing.
Samuel Eliot Morison, in his History of US Naval Operations in World War II, Volume VII, says that out of 365 Japanese aircraft available on Truk, only 100 remained unscathed after the first day. My figures show that there were only 341 aircraft supposedly based on the fields at the outset. Perhaps some were flown in later from other islands. Morison notes that Japanese ships sunk totaled 220,000 tons and included two light cruisers, four destroyers, three auxiliary cruisers, two submarine tenders, two subchasers, an armed trawler, an aircraft ferry and 24 merchant ships, five of which were tankers. The Japanese lost 250-275 aircraft. Our losses were light: 25 aircraft, plus torpedo damage to Intrepid, with a loss of 11 men.
The myth of the impregnable Truk was shattered.
Task Force 58 was not finished with Truk. Following the Hollandia-New Guinea operation, Admiral Nimitz decided that the time was ripe to give the big base another heavy working over. Although everything that floated was by now on the bottom of the lagoon, there were still a major navy yard, aircraft service facilities and other military installations to be neutralized. Truk was to be bypassed, but it remained a potential major operating base. The fast carriers returned to finish the job some two months later, on 29-30 April 1944.
This time we had lots of information on targets. We were scheduled against installations mainly on the islands of Moen, Dublon and Fefan. There was no air opposition to speak of, although I did see a pinkish-brown Zero take off from Eten on the first day.
We wrecked the place! We started out the "treatment", as Mitscher called it, with usual fighter sweep on 29 April. Enterprise fighters were led by LT "Bud" Schumann, the VF-10 skipper. The Japanese had flown in a substantial number of fighters since the first Truk attacks, but they didn't last long. My first strike, 1B, was scheduled against warehouses east of the Moen strip. My second strike, taking off at 1630, was directed at revetments, aircraft and facilities on Moen air strip. By this time, it was clear that not much of value remained to be hit.
Cawley continues his recollections:
"Mr. Ramage, my pilot, was scheduled to lead the third strike on 30 April. As normal before an attack, we all prepared to test our machine guns by firing two or three rounds from each gun. I aimed the guns into a clear area, released the safety and fired. Each gun fired a couple of rounds when there was an extra-loud 'whack,' and I stopped firing. I felt as if someone has hit me across the front of my thighs as hard as you could swing a baseball bat. I cut my flight suit and there was a hole in my leg about two inches deep. It hadn't started to bleed, so I got my first aid kit and filled the wound with sulfa powder and put a bandage over it. I decided to say nothing of my problem, which was caused by the breech exploding.
"There was little or no shipping around, but (there were) lots of major installations and full tank farms. The AA was very heavy and the weather was poor and deteriorating. When we landed, I went to sick bay. Later, a young LT(jg) doctor on reading an x-ray showed me where the ejector claw from my left machine gun lay against the thigh bone of my left leg. The doctor probed and dug for half an hour, which started some heavy bleeding, but he couldn't get the object out of my leg. The next morning they said I had two choices: leave the metal in my leg, or schedule a full-blown operation to surgically remove it. The latter would take me off the flight schedule indefinitely. I chose the former. I still carry the chunk and it has not bothered me."
I tried to get Dave Cawley a Purple Heart for his wound but was not successful. He was back on the flight schedule within three days.
By the second day, a large tropical front had set in and the ceiling over the Dublon Navy Yard was about 1,000 feet. I led my SBDs in straight and level and, at our maximum speed of about 180 knots, dropped on the installations. Since the shipping had all been sunk on the previous raids, the AA was concentrated around the remaining obvious targets. It was intense. Dublon has a 1,100-ft. peak and they were firing straight at us during our run. We were all holed, but I think Lou Bangs' division got the worst of it from our own bomb fragments. The drop altitude was logged at 700 feet.
As we passed out of the atoll to the south, I could see numerous aircraft in the water, several within the atoll. There were several SOCs and OS2Us from the cruisers and battleships on the water rescuing downed airmen.
We were fortunate not to have losses in VB-10. After landing aboard the Big E, I went to the bridge and told the exec, CDR Tom Hamilton, and skipper Captain Matt Gardner about the strike, emphasizing the number of aircraft in the water. They took me up to the flag bridge where RADM Reeves said, "I think we have run into the law of diminishing returns." He called Vice Admiral Mitscher on TBS (Talk Between Ships) to recommend that further operations be cancelled, as the benefits in continuing the raids were not worth the risk. Within 15 minutes, Mitscher cancelled the remaining strike, though rescue operations, including fighter CAP, continued throughout the rest of the day.
I mention this incident as an example of why we loved Marc Mitscher.
In addition to destroying or heavily damaging all installations in the second of the raids on Truk that had not been moved underground, the force shot down 59 aircraft and destroyed another 34 on the ground. Only 12 Japanese aircraft were serviceable when the task force left on 1 May. Our losses were 26 aircraft lost in combat. More than half of the 46 airmen shot down were rescued, some inside the lagoon.
That was the end of Truk. Its large garrison that survived the raids was left to starve as we took the war farther west to the Marianas.
If RADM Reeves had his way, there would have been another Truk raid, despite the decision to bypass the now-useless base. On 18 May, VB-10's Intelligence Officer, LT John Curtis, showed me a purloined dispatch, from Reeves to Mitscher, which I quote from memory:
"WOULD I BE STRETCHING MY GLIDE TOO FAR TO RECOMMEND YOU DETACH TASK GROUP 58.3 TO STRIKE TRUK?"
This struck me as not being very wise, as there were no targets afloat or ashore worth the probable losses. Also, we knew that Truk was to be bypassed. I asked Curtis to find out Mitscher's response. It was not long in coming.
Mitscher replied, "I WILL NOT BE BADGERED INTO AN UNWISE DECISION."
That was vintage Mitscher.