When attacking the Pearl Harbor, Japanese focused all their attention on the battleships. It is unknown why the Japanese command, which had spearheaded the usage of carriers as a main tool of attack, had essentially ignored the US carriers. In fact, this ignorance could well have had devastating consequences for the Japanese, as two US carrier groups – Enterprise and Lexington – were nearby. Only American confusion saved the Japanese squadron from destruction.
During this difficult time, command of the US forces was taken over by Admiral Nimitz. His task was to hold the Hawaii islands as well as the open path from the US to Australia. While both of these tasks were fundamentally defensive, Nimitz decided to solve them with attack so as not to allow the Japanese to choose the time and place of battle. Nimitz clearly recognized that if he remained on the defense, there was no chance he could stave off the Japanese with the forces he had available.
Nimitz’s appointment immediately lifted sprits of the crews and officers. Yet his decision was risky. He had only three carriers – Enterprise and Lexington from the Pacific fleet, as well as a slightly smaller Yorktown that had been transferred from the Atlantic. He will have had Saratoga as well, but the large carrier had been torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on 11th February 1942., and so she had to limp back to a drydock where she was repaired and heavily modernized.
Available escort forces were also very limited, as surface ships were needed to protect convoys bringing reinforcements to various areas of Pacific. Most important of these convoys had to be escorted by aircraft carriers and their battlegroups, and so Nimitz had not a single ship he could send to an offensive action.
As soon as the most important convoys had arrived to their destination, Nimitz reorganized his forces. With this, he gained two carrier battle groups. First one consisted of Enterprise, 3 heavy cruisers and 6 destroyers, while second one consisted of Yorktown, 2 light cruisers and 4 destroyers. Third carrier group, consisting of Lexington, 4 heavy cruisers and 10 destroyers, was left for convoy escort.
Intelligence reports were indicating increased submarine activity among the islands in the southern Pacific. From this, it could be concluded that the Japanese were preparing a new offensive with base at Marshall islands. Nimitz thus decided to direct his attack there, and disrupt the Japanese preparations. Surprise was the key, and thus both squadrons had to carry out attacks against different areas of Marshall Islands completely independently from each other. US submarine reconneittering the islands had sent detailed reports on numerous ships and aircraft gathered in the Marshall Islands, and so the US Navy launched its first offensive action of the war.
Both squadrons that were designated for the attack sailed out, each in its own direction. Enterprise squadron was commanded by an energetic admiral Halsey, who was located with his staff on the carrier itself. Halsey had wide education: he had finished not only the Naval Academy, but with 52 years he had passed the exam for an airborne scout and with 53 also a pilot’s exam, expanding his knowledge with study of aviation as he noticed the aircraft’s increasing role in naval operations. From then on, he was consistently on command roles in the naval aviation and on the aircraft carriers. Halsey was also popular outside the military, as well as among the naval aviators. Task of the attack on the Marshall Islands was almost as if custom made for Halsey. Ships had to get in unnoticed deep into the Japanese waters, launch a surprise strike against multiple targets, and then disappear.
Squadron sailed westwards, with Enterprise surrounded by her protective screen. These were heavy cruisers Northampton and Chester, each displacing 9 300 tons with nine 203 mm cannons, and heavy cruiser Salt Lake City displacing 9 100 tons and armed with ten 203 mm cannons. Also present were six destroyers. US squadron did everything possible to avoid detection. Just as the Japanese fleet two months earlier sailed far North to avoid detection, so now the US ships took southern detour.
Second squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Fletcher, was sailling in paralel but outside the visual range. This squadron consisted of an aircraft carrier Yorktown, heavy cruiser Louisville of the same type as Chester, and Saint Louis which displaced 10 000 tons with 15 152 mm cannons. Also present were four destroyers. This squadron also fell under Halsey’s overall command.
Ships sailed deeper into the Japanese waters while maintaining the speed of 25 knots. Double air patrol was maintained, against potential air attack, and at distance of 50 – 60 kilometers flew aircraft whose task was to find any enemy ship or submarine potentially threatening the formation. In the late afternoon the patrol noticed a Japanese bomber. It could not have missed the squadron, yet Halsey gave no order to pursue: the aircraft flew on calmly. While fighters could have shot it down, US force was 215 miles from Japanese base at Wotje Atoll, and doing so would have given the Japanese ten hours of advance warning. Halsey did nothing, and the Japanese aircraft continued on calmly. As it turned out, no alarm had been rased.
Night fell, and squadron continued onwards towards its target, sailing at constant speed of 25 knots. In deep night, the operation began as planned. Cruiser Chester with two destroyers separated and sailed towards the island of Tarao. Other two cruisers with a single destroyer sailed towards the Wotje island, aiming to circle it and approach from the direction of Japan so as to maximize the potential of surprise. Enterprise was left alone with three destroyers.
Soon before the dawn, strike aircraft were launched. Enterprise had to push its engines to the limit as there was no wind to help the aircraft take off. First to take off was a group of 36 Douglas-Dauntless dive bombers, followed by 9 Devastator torpedo bombers which now carried three bombs each instead of torpedoes. These aircraft set out for the Kwajalein Atoll. They were followed by 6 Wildcat fighters, which were to attack Tarao. It also saw the first loss of the operation as one of fighters, instead of taking off, fell into the sea. The aircraft sank quickly, taking its pilot with it. Another six fighters followed, with no bombs. Around this time wisps of smoke appeared on the horizon followed by muted explosions: cruisers that had left the squadron had started their bombardment.
On the Enterprise herself, crew was listening to the news that were broadcast via the PA system. This system allowed the crews to be constantly notified of what was happening, what tasks were ships doing, and in general what is going on. As a result, they were better motivated and had no time to get demoralized by waiting. It proved to be so successful that it wasn’t long before the PA system was directly connected to ship’s radio stations, allowing the crew to directly listen to air crews’ chatter.
Six fighters without bombs that had flown from the Enterprise early in the morning were tasked with bringing attention to themselves. In this they succeeded, criss-crossing the entire island while machinegunning any target of opportunity. This meant that nobody was watching the sea, where cruisers managed to sneak up to the island and open fire with no warning. When the cannonade had stopped, Wotje had been devastated: all ships in the harbor had been sunk, most land-based installations destroyed or heavily damaged, and a large number of aircraft destroyed on the ground. Fighters had also shot down four Japanese Zero fighters which had managed to take off. Lastly, a group of five fighters armed with bombs had arrived over Tarao, managing to bomb the air strip by surprise. Several Zeroes were destroyed in the air combat, but majority of aircraft had been caught on the ground. By 7:13, fighters had turned to return to Enterprise, and by 7:15 heavy cruiser Chester had opened fire on the island. Barrage kept up until 7:40, after which the cruiser and her destroyers retreated.
Most serious events happened around the Kwajalein Atoll. This was the place where most powerful Japanese forces had been stationed, and thus also where the US attack was the most powerful. The atoll consisted of a series of coral reefs which enclosed a ring about 150 kilometers in length and 50 kilometers in width. Its characteristics made it very important to the Japanese, which consequently equipped it well. At 6:58, a group of 45 American aircraft appeared. 36 dive bombers attacked the island of Roi, while 9 torpedo bombers attacked Kwajalein, the main island of the group.
The bay here was already full of ships. Anchored there were 2 cruisers, 1 destroyer, 3 tankers, 5 submarines, 1 large passenger ships converted to troop transport, and several cargo ships. Seeing this, US commander Howard Young ordered lieutenant Halingworth from Roi group to take 18 dive bombers and join him in the attack. Afterwards, he also contacted the Enterprise.
Torpedo bombers dropped their bombs onto the anchorage, destroying 9 transport ships and 2 large four-engined seaplanes within 13 minutes. Only eight minutes later the 18 requested dive bombers arrived, doing even more damage, and an hour later also arrived 9 torpedo bombers sent by Halsey. Other half of dive bombers continued onto Roi. There too the surprise was successful, and dive bombers caused widespread devastation. Among other things, they destroyed an ammunition storage, radio transmitter and oil reservoirs. Soon after, two large groups of US aircraft again attacked Tarao.
The cost of this extremely successful action was very light. US forces had lost only 5 aircraft, and cruiser Chester got hit by a bomb that killed eight men and wounded 34.
While all of this was happening, Admiral Halsey spent nine hours sailing almost in place, only 36 miles from the nearest major Japanese base, so as to ease the job of his squadrons. This was even more dangerous since Enterprise only had three destroyers for protection.
Second squadron under rear admiral Fletcher, on Yorktown, had less luck. Yorktown’s aircraft came across a massive storm midway on their trip to targets, and an even bigger storm soon after. Squadrons became completely disorganized and disoriented, with some aircraft dropping below the clouds almost to the level of the raging sea, some continuing through the clouds and some climbing above. Six torpedo aircraft were lost in the storm, and one squadron overflew the target and had to double back. As a result, attacks on Jaluit and Mille did not cause much damage as the Japanese had time enough to prepare for the attack and launch their fighters.
Still, both operations did achieve their purpose, creating an impression that the Pacific Fleet was much stronger than it really was. This made the Japanese much more cautious, thus slowing down their advance as they came to believe that greater forces and more preparation were required for future operations. And time was precisely what Americans needed.
Enterprise was attacked by Japanese aircraft on the way back, but this caused only minor damage. Four days later, both squadrons had returned to Pearl Harbor, where they had radar sets installed. These successes convinced admiral Nimitz to continue the raids. Lexington under command of Vice Admiral Brown attacked the Bismarck Archipelago. Halsey with Enterprise attacked Wake on 24th of February, and on 4th March he attacked island of Markus, only 1 000 nautical miles from Tokyo. Soon after, Lexington and Yorktown groups joined near the New Hebrides before proceeding to the Coral Sea in order to protect Australia from Japanese advance.
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