The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
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Enterprise was now the only fleet carrier operating at Iwo Jima. Her mission, as it had been since the 19th, was to provide dusk and night CAP for the amphibious forces and her own screen, but now she was assigned additional tasks. The Kamikazes which had mauled Saratoga, sunk Bismarck Sea and regularly harassed the amphibious forces, were being staged through airfields in the northern Bonin Islands. So, it fell to the Big E to eliminate that threat by suppressing those airfields. And, starting on February 24, Enterprise provided daytime CAP for the escort carriers of Admiral Durgin's TG 52.2, which she formally joined at 0600, February 24.
Taken together, these missions required the Big E to have planes in the air 24 hours a day, day in and day out. At 1625 on February 23, eight VF(N)-90 Hellcats roared off Big E's deck. For the next seven days and seven hours, Enterprise kept at least two and as many as twenty-two Night Air Group 90 planes in the air without interruption: an unprecedented achievement in naval air operations.
While the flights launched from Enterprise were small - generally four to eight planes, unlike the entire deck-loads day carriers launched in a single strike - round-the-clock operations meant continual flight deck activity. By February 25, the Big E had settled into a grueling routine. Beginning at 0630, flights of four VF(N)-90 Hellcats were launched every three hours to provide CAP for the force. At 1645, six to twelve fighters would be launched for dusk patrol over Iwo. These would be relieved by the first of six nightly flights of two Hellcats launched at 1815, and every two hours afterward until 0415 the next morning. The last day CAP mission, launched at 1530, would be relieved by the first night CAP at 1815, which in turn would be relieved every three hours, until the last mission at 0315 the next morning.
During the day, VT(N)-90 Avengers would fly anti-submarine patrols for the task group, conduct search missions, or tow targets for anti-aircraft practice. Most evenings, two Hellcats and four Avengers would take off on schedule to arrive at dusk over Chichi Jima to the north, to neutralize airfields there. Beginning at 1815, a single Hellcat or Avenger would be launched to "heckle" the enemy on Chichi Jima, slowing their efforts to repair the airfield damage caused by the dusk strike. Four heckler missions were launched each night, the last at 0145, and were required to be over target for two-and-a-half hours each. And beginning on March 6, predawn strikes at Chichi Jima were added to the rotation.
The effort weighed heaviest on the Air Group 90's Hellcat pilots and the flight deck officers, but all hands had to adapt to new routines and procedures demanded by round-the-clock flight operations. The air department divisions were split into day- and night-shifts, each with only half the number of men normally available for flight operations. Ordinarily, seven crews of plane handlers managed planes on the flight deck, but for continuous operation, only three crews were available in the day and four at night. Accordingly, flight deck operations were organized to require as little "spotting", or movement, of the planes as possible. Planes were spotted forward, leaving the aft portion of the flight deck free for landing operations, and most flights were launched by the two forward catapults, minimizing the amount of deck required for takeoffs. Similarly, hangar deck operations were rearranged to reduce the number of plane handler crews needed by half.
With only three landing signal officers on board, the LSO's were sometimes required to work 13 hour shifts, more than twice as long as believed to be reasonable for the position. And Enterprise's single qualified catapult officer was required to work 18 hour shifts, and be present for all catapult-assisted launches. Round-the-clock operations put an immense strain on the entire crew, but if any crew could carry it off, it was the Big E's.
Apart from long hours, another challenge faced by Enterprise's crew was a lack of tangible results for their efforts. Enterprise herself never came under attack during her Iwo Jima operations, and her planes destroyed or damaged only three enemy planes and eight freighters and barges, between February 23 and March 9. But there was more to this record than meets the eye. As Captain Grover B. Hall's Action Report for February 10-22 notes: "One does not employ a night watchman and determine his worth in terms of the number of bandits he kills. His value is determined by the number of bandits which his presence discourages from approaching...".
Also, one unfortunate aspect of early night air operations was that it was difficult to impossible to determine exactly what damage had been inflicted on the enemy. Daytime photo reconnaissance helped, but could not identify all damage done, and introduced additional operational problems that a day-and-night carrier like Enterprise could ill afford.
None-the-less, Enterprise did inflict damage on the enemy, primarily on the airfields and harbor at Chichi Jima. At 1416 PM February 24 - the day the Marines reached Airfield Number 2 at the Iwo Jima's center - Enterprise launched six Avengers and four Hellcats for a strike against Chichi Jima and neighboring island Haha Jima. At Susaki airfield on Chichi Jima, LT(jg) Charles Gerbron and LT(jg) George McLaughlin unleashed rockets and fragmentation bombs, destroying one "Betty" bomber, and possibly three other planes. LT(jg) Bill Balden and LT(jg) Robert Heid strafed and rocketed a grounded freighter in Sakay Inlet, while LT Charles Henderson bombed the town of Omura. The attack continued, as the airmen turned their attention to a radio station on Chichi Jima and the town of Okimura on Haha Jima. Anti-aircraft fire damaged one Hellcat, but the pilot was able to ditch some 45 miles off Chichi Jima, and was picked up later by a destroyer.
In the evening, Enterprise launched a single VF(N)-90 Hellcat flown by LT K. D. Smith, to fly a heckler mission over Chichi Jima. Over target for two hours, he rocketed the town of Omura, and strafed Susaki airfield, a seaplane base and other installations. Shortly before his scheduled return, Smith caught a "Helen" heavy bomber unawares as it was preparing to land, and shot it down with a single long burst of .50-caliber machine gun fire.
Two days later, on February 26, six VT(N)-90 Avengers escorted by four Hellcats took off at 0510 for a predawn strike against Chichi Jima. Again, the airfield at Susaki drew the most attention - bombs, rockets and strafing - but three cargo ships in Futami Ko harbor were damaged or sunk by rockets and strafing, and an oil storage installation erupted in flames after being struck by six rockets.
The Japanese gunners on the ground, however, were not sleeping, and caught the Avenger piloted by LT James Moore. Moore managed to ditch northeast of the island, where he and his crewmen, LT(jg) Robert Hadley and ARM 1/c Thomas Watts, crawled into their raft and awaited rescue.
Rescue eventually came, but not without difficulty. During the morning, Enterprise launched three separate search missions for the downed Avenger, with no success. The destroyer USS Gregory DD-802 was ordered to the scene, and she didn't waste a minute getting there. Nearly two hundred miles from the stranded airmen, she built up steam to 38 knots and raced northwards, the ship shaking so much one crewman fretted she was "bound to pop a few bolts."
Shortly before 1230, Gregory drew within sight of Chichi Jima, and set about finding the raft and its crew. When her search began, she was approximately 4000 yards offshore, but successive turns brought her as close as 3500 yards. For long minutes she searched, but still there was no sign of the airmen or their raft. The Japanese on Chichi Jima, however, knew just where the destroyer was, and soon opened fire, the first salvo falling distressingly close to Gregory's port side. The destroyer immediately made smoke and scooted out of range of the Japanese battery, though not before being rattled by several more salvoes.
Finally, at 1402, Enterprise's fourth search mission located the raft, reported its position, and circled overhead protectively. Minutes later, Gregory arrived on the scene and promptly pulled Moore, Hadley and Watts from the water, where they'd been anxiously waiting for nearly eight hours.
Strikes against Chichi Jima were repeated nearly every day, targeting the Susaki airfield, a seaplane base in Futami, and shipping as it was found. Despite the tiring routine and near-continuous flight deck activity, only three serious accidents took place on the Big E. On the evening of the 27th, a returning Hellcat plowed into the aft end of the island: the pilot escaped without injury but the plane was destroyed. On March 1 and again March 5, a Hellcat lost its tail hook on landing and crashed into the barriers protecting the planes spotted forward.
Late March 2, the Big E's flight deck grew quiet for the first time in 174 hours, as a thick warm front passed over the task group, bringing heavy rain and zero visibility. In continuous operation since the afternoon of February 23, Enterprise had launched 406 flights, averaging fifty every twenty-four hours. Flying against targets in the northern Bonins - Chichi Jima primarily, as well as Haha Jima, Imoto Jima and Ani Jima - Air Group 90 had pummeled the enemy with 261 100lb bombs, 154 3-1/2" rockets, 94 5" rockets, and tens of thousands of rounds of .50-caliber ammunition. In addition to trail-blazing the all-weather carrier operations common today, she'd also demonstrated how to neutralize enemy airfields through continuous small-scale heckler missions, a less expensive alternative to periodic, large-scale heavy bombing raids.
The heavy weather brought operations to halt for a brief forty-five minutes; then round-the-clock operations resumed. On March 3, a daylight strike by six VT(N)-90 Avengers struck at Chichi Jima, and torpedoed a small freighter in Higashi Harbor on Haha Jima. Aside from a few interruptions due to continuing poor weather, the Big E maintained the same aggressive operating schedule she had for the previous week.
On March 4, the first B-29 made an emergency landing on Iwo Jima's Airfield Number 1, and by March 6, the Marines on Iwo Jima had progressed far enough that Army fighters could begin operating from that island's airfields, relieving the Big E of her Iwo CAP duties. The same day, however, bright moonlight before dawn necessitated NAG-90 adding predawn strikes against Chichi Jima's airfield to its agenda.
Enterprise remained off Iwo Jima until March 9. By that time, enough Army fighters and bombers were operating from the captured airfields on Iwo Jima to relieve her Air Group. At 2120, March 9, the last plane from the last strike against Chichi Jima banged down on the Big E's deck. The next minute, literally, Enterprise set course due south, and left Iwo Jima behind, putting twenty miles between herself and the island every hour.
Just before 0700, March 12, Enterprise and her screen formed a column and slipped into Ulithi Atoll. Task Force 58, after striking Tokyo on February 25 and Okinawa on March 1, had returned to Ulithi on March 4, and was still there when Enterprise returned over a week later. There was no rest for the Big E's fatigued crew, however. Less than 48 hours after entering the lagoon - during which time she hurriedly refueled and replenished - she was underway again, sortieing at 0610 with Yorktown CV-10 and Intrepid CV-13, as Task Group 58.4.
Once again part of Marc Mitscher's Fast Carrier Force, Enterprise steamed northwest at 18 knots. Task Force 58 was returning to Japan, but this time the target was Kyushu, the southernmost Home Island. In preparation for the Okinawa landings, scheduled for April 1, Mitscher was determined to suppress the formidable Kamikaze threat based on Kyushu's airfields. It was a mission, and a threat, the Big E was to become very familiar with.