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Chapter 19

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 21
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p194  Chapter 20

The Marshalls Campaign

The long period of training, building, and testing our naval aviation forces began to bear full results in 1944. For the next year and a half, a series of staggering blows from our combined forces was to beat back the Japanese from one strategic stronghold to another until the home islands themselves were reeling under the attack, and with the fleet destroyed and merchant shipping decimated, the Japanese chose surrender to the alternative of complete destruction.

A foretaste of events to come had been handed the Japanese in the Gilberts in 1943. The series of strikes started in earnest with the invasion and conquest of the Marshalls early in 1944.

The efficiency with which the Marshall Islands were neutralized from the air, bombarded from the sea, and captured by our soldiers and Marines made it a model amphibious operation. The air, sea, and land conditions of the Marshall and Gilbert groups were so closely parallel that the experience gained in the seizure of Makin, Tarawa, and Apamama could be applied directly to the campaign against the strategic atolls to the north. None of our amphibious attempts was made at such small cost and with such glittering results. And in no campaign did out naval air arm play a more dominating role in respect to air opposition by the enemy.

The operation plan as prepared by the Commander, Fifth Fleet, Vice Admiral (later Admiral) R. A. Spruance, involved the occupation and defense of the 1 Kwajalein Atoll, the largest of the Pacific atolls and a cornerstone in the Japanese outer defense system, of the lightly defended islands of 2 Majuro Atoll, 250 miles to the southwest, the establishment of airstrips and naval bases on the conquered islands from which the remainder of the Marshall atolls could be dominated, and, finally, the seizure of 3 Eniwetok, westernmost of the Marshall group and a steppingstone on the way to the Marianas. D‑Day for the landings on the Kwajalein and Majuro was 31 January 1944; in view of the initial success of the  p195 operation the date for the attempt on Eniwetok was moved up to 17 February.

Since the Japanese Fleet made no effort to interfere in the campaign, our air program was divided, in general, into three main phases: the neutralization of all enemy-held bases from which aircraft might operate against our forces; the direct support of the amphibious assaults; and the first carrier raids against 4 Truk and the Marianas. During the period required to execute these tasks, carrier planes flew 6,407 combat sorties, dropped 1,854 tons of bombs, and destroyed approximately 244 enemy planes in the air and on the ground. The scope of actions of our fast carrier task force exceeded those of any comparable period in the past.

The plan of neutralization began as soon as land-based naval aircraft and the heavy bombers of the Seventh Army Air Force, operating in Task Force 57 under Rear Admiral (later Admiral) J. H. Hoover, could take off from the newly won airfields on 5 Tarawa, 6 Makin, and 7 Apamama. During the weeks preceding the invasion, these planes flew reconnaissance missions on radial lines extending 850 miles from their Gilberts bases, and attacked, with ever-increasing intensity, the Japanese installations at 8 Mille, 9 Jaluit, 10 Wotje, 11 Maloelap, and Kwajalein. These raids destroyed an estimated 50 enemy aircraft in the air and an additional 24 on the ground, but they did not succeed in completely neutralizing any of the Japanese airfields with the exception of Mille. Their most successful functions were to keep the enemy off balance, provide photographic information, and protect, with offensive action, the expanding stock piles in the Gilberts. The complete neutralization of Japanese air power in the Marshall Islands awaited the arrival of the carrier planes of Task Force 58.

As in the Gilbert Islands campaign, the fast carrier task force, now under the command of Rear Admiral (later Admiral) M. A. Mitscher, operated, tactically, in four separate groups. And as before it was a formidable armada: 6 large carriers (Yorktown, Enterprise, Intrepid, Essex, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga), 6 light carriers (Belleau Wood, Cabot, Monterey, Cowpens, Princeton, and Langley), 8 fast battleships, 6 cruisers, and 36 destroyers. Three groups assembled in 12 Pearl Harbor and the fourth group (Task Group 58.3) formed at 13 Funafuti in the Ellice Islands. Shortly before D‑Day the force stood poised for its overwhelming assault on the enemy airfields.

With approximately seven hundred planes at his disposal, it became Admiral Mitscher's strategy to deal the Japanese air strength in the area an initial blow from which it could not recover. All four groups began launching aircraft at 0500 on 29 January. Task Group 58.1 (Rear Admiral  p196 J. W. Reeves) struck Maloelap; Task Groups 58.2 (Rear Admiral A. E. Montgomery) and 58.3 (Rear Admiral F. C. Sherman) attacked the Kwajalein fields and installations; and Task Group 58.4 (Rear Admiral S. P. Ginder) hit Wotje. Surprise was complete — in every instance enemy planes were caught on the ground. So successful were these tactics that by the end of the day not a single Japanese plane remained operational east of Eniwetok.

The first phase of the air campaign — the neutralization of bases from which the enemy might send planes against our amphibious forces — was completed during the following three days when Rear Admiral Sherman led his task group against Eniwetok. At 0450 on 30 January the Bunker Hill, Monterey, and Cowpens launched a bombing and strafing attack which burned fifteen Betty's and four float planes and removed any immediate threat from that isolated atoll. Thereafter, the task group concentrated on buildings, gun positions, and small shipping; when it was relieved on 3 February by Task Group 58.4 (the Saratoga, Princeton, and Langley) it left the principal islands smoking and helpless to resist aerial bombardment. Rear Admiral Ginder's carriers continued the program of destruction.

In the meantime, at Kwajalein, the air campaign had entered its second phase — the support of landing troops. On the morning of D‑Day, while Task Groups 58.3 and 58.4 continued the neutralization of Eniwetok, Wotje, and Maloelap, Task Groups 58.1 and 58.2 operated in direct support of the ground assaults on Roi and Kwajalein, the principal islands of the Kwajalein Atoll. In addition, the CVE's of Task Group 52.9 (Coral Sea, Corregidor, and Manila Bay under Rear Admiral R. E. Davison) and of Task Group 53.6 (Sangamon, Suwannee, and Chenango under Rear Admiral V. H. Ragsdale) were stationed off the northern and southern ends of the atoll, their planes under the tactical command of co‑ordinators who were present at the scene of action. The experience gained in the Gilberts was applied with the most satisfying results; from an airman's standpoint the support phase, in which air attacks were "carefully and successfully timed to accord with ships' gunfire and the actual assault on the beaches," was ideally conducted. On 4 February, having been unmercifully beaten by an overwhelming combination of air, sea, and land power, the enemy ceased all organized resistance.

With the fall of Kwajalein there followed a lull in air operations. Task Group 58.4, however, continued the interdiction program at Eniwetok, and a neutralization group of four cruisers, two escort carriers (Nassau and Natoma Bay), and screening destroyers, under the command of  p197 Rear Admiral Small, was assigned the task of denying to the enemy his airfields at Wotje and Maloelap. The rest of Task Force 58 and various of the amphibious support units entered Majuro lagoon, used by the Germans as a fleet anchorage during their period of control (1899‑1919), and captured by our forces on D‑Day without opposition. There followed a week of replenishment and planning. The very encouraging success of the operation to this point permitted D‑Day for Eniwetok to be moved up from 10 May to 17 February; and as a powerful corollary to this attack, the fast carrier task force planned a great raid on the enemy stronghold of Truk.

Truk had always been a symbol of Japanese strength, and it was not without anxiety that Vice Admiral Mitscher led his three groups in the sortie from Majuro on 12 February. Intelligence information concerning the target was limited, a fact which heightened its reputation as a formidable bastion, difficult and dangerous to attack. For those who participated in the raid, and for those who study it in relation to the development of our carrier tactics, it is a climax in the central Pacific campaign.

At 0650 on 16 February, having completed an uneventful approach, the task force stood ninety miles off Truk, its presence apparently unknown to the enemy. A fighter sweep of 70 planes took off at this time and completed a very successful action in which, for a loss of 4 planes, our pilots shot 56 Japanese planes out of the air and destroyed an estimated 72 on the ground. This upset the balance of air power in our favor, and thereafter the enemy antiaircraft batteries provided the only serious opposition. In subsequent attacks the air facilities on 14 Moen, 15 Eten, 16 Param, and 17 Dublon islands were so well covered with fragmentation clusters, incendiaries and delayed-action bombs that no Japanese plane was seen airborne on the second day of the raid.

After the initial sweep, launches were staggered between carriers to provide a continuous flow into the target area. With the neutralization of enemy air power, shipping became the primary objective. Contrary to expectation, few Japanese men-of‑war were found, but the anchorage was particularly productive of auxiliaries. The Commander, Fifth Fleet's final report listed 41 of 55 enemy ships sunk or damaged — an impressive total and one which fulfilled the mission of the striking force. Our losses were 25 aircraft and the carrier Intrepid damaged by aerial torpedo during a brief enemy action on the night of 16‑17 February.

The first carrier attack on Truk, when viewed in retrospect, was a psychological as well as a tactical victory. The myth of Truk's impregnability exploded with the four hundred tons of bombs which were  p198 dropped over the target; the Japanese battle force which had been spotted in the Truk lagoon some days before the attack retreated in the face of a threat; and our naval airmen gained new confidence in their weapons and in their ability to wield them. In its effect on over‑all strategy, the raid was equally important. It proved that Truk could be eliminated as a menace to our advance by air neutralization alone, a fact which saved lives, time, and trouble. And, when considered in conjunction with the first raid on the Marianas a few days before, it helped secure the new bases at Kwajalein and Majuro from the possibility of an enemy counterthrust.

The immediate purpose of the Truk attack, of course, was to cover our landings on the main islands of Eniwetok Atoll. From 30 January to 6 February these islands had been subjected to daily poundings by Task Groups 58.3 and 58.4 in an effort to prevent their being used as forward staging bases against our operations to the east. Task Group 58.4 struck them again on 10, 11, 12, and 16 February, concentrating on gun positions, supply areas, and bivouacs. The enemy was never able to offer air opposition, his planes having been destroyed and the airfield cratered in the strikes of 30 January. When the landings began on 17 February the Japanese could resist only with fanaticism and the careless sacrifice of their lives.

Air support of the ground fighting followed previously conceived tactics. The Saratoga, Princeton, and Langley (Task Group 58.4) operated to the north of the atoll until 28 February, launching air strikes, searches, and patrols. Task Group 51.18 (the Sangamon, Suwannee, and Chenango) was stationed to the east and conducted call strikes and most of the anti-submarine patrols until relieved on 25 February by the Manila Bay. This air support work was as tedious as it was unspectacular; but because it was vital to the success of the landings, it deserves the commendation of naval historians.

The final aerial blow delivered in support of the Marshalls operation was aimed at the Marianas on 21 and 22 February 1944. The torpedoing of the Intrepid at Truk had caused a regrouping of the fast carrier task force and only two groups — 58.2 (Essex, Yorktown, and Belleau Wood) and 58.3 (Bunker Hill, Monterey, and Cowpens) — participated in the raid. The purpose of the attack was twofold: to cover the campaign in progress on Eniwetok by destroying enemy shipping, air facilities, and installations at 1 Saipan and 2 Tinian; and to make photographic reconnaissance of those islands, and of 3 Rota and 4 Guam, for use in the contemplated seizure of the Marianas. These purposes were not accomplished without opposition. The Japanese responded with the first large-scale  p199 and determined air assault on our carriers since their dusk attacks off Makin and Tarawa.

During its refueling and approach periods the task force was spotted on two occasions by enemy search planes — incidents which removed the advantage of surprise at the same time that they added the factor of counterattack. The situation was not promising, especially when the unknown character of the target and its apparent security within an inner circle of Japanese-controlled sea were considered. Admiral Mitscher determined not to be diverted, however, and sent word to his group commanders, Rear Admirals Montgomery and F. C. Sherman, to "prepare for a fight" during the run‑in.

The Japanese assault was spectacular both in its execution and in its failure. Beginning at 2100 on 21 February, "bogies" were present near the disposition for thirteen hours; and during that period three distinct attacks were pressed to within gunfire range. Of a total of approximately forty raiders, fourteen to seventeen were knocked down and the rest driven off by the intense volume of our antiaircraft barrage. This successful defense can be attributed to the Japanese propensity to replace co‑ordination with individual tactics, to the expert maneuvering of the two task groups, to excellent gunnery, and finally, to a proportionate share of good fortune. And despite the necessity of radical course changes, the task force continued westward to the launching point.

Strangely enough, in view of the advance warning which the enemy had, our morning and afternoon strikes on the twenty-second found the target areas poorly defended. Although thirty-seven airborne planes were reported shot down, air opposition was sporadic and ineffective. Most of the Japanese bombers and fighters were surprised on the ground, where Hellcats, in repeated strafing runs, burned or damaged almost a hundred of them. The alarm, however, had caused a hasty dispersion of shipping units, and only a few freighters and patrol craft were damaged. The scarcity of this type of target, the early destruction of enemy aircraft, and the excellent photographic coverage already procured, influenced Admiral Mitscher's decision to retire after a third strike. The force therefore set an eastward course after sending 281 sorties over the islands. Our loss of six aircraft is an accurate gauge of the air superiority obtained.

The strikes at Saipan, Tinian, and Guam marked the end of the operation to occupy and defend the Marshall Islands. The conquest of the key atolls in that group was a victory of air, sea, and land co‑ordination  p200 which extended our control of the sea to the Japanese secondary line of defense. The campaign proved to the enemy that our fast carrier task force could be delayed only by the hazard of a fleet engagement, and, conversely, it revealed that Task Force 58 could roam at will in the central Pacific, subject only to logistic limitations. During almost a month of supporting operations, carrier aircraft destroyed the remnants of Japanese air power east of the Marianas, discovered the vulnerability of those islands, and reduced Truk to the status of a minor outpost. The air weapon which had been forged in the Gilberts was tempered in the Marshalls; it was ready for greater tests to the westward.

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Page updated: 22 Aug 14