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Chapter 24

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

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

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London
1946

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 26
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p270  Chapter 25

Iwo Jima

The pattern of amphibious operation was familiar by the time the American forces set out to capture Iwo Jima. It had been tried at Tarawa, perfected in the Marshall invasions and had reached maturity in the operations which brought about the fall of the Marianas and the Philippines. The vast fleet of troop transports, supply ships, escorts, land bombardment units and carrier task forces would sortie from their respective bases, set sail for their objective and move through the now familiar sequence: air strikes and shelling of shore installations, carrier plane attacks on subsidiary Japanese airfields to obviate the possibilities of Jap counteraction by air, destruction by surface ships and aircraft of any Jap fleets barring the way, assault of the beaches, and ultimate capture of the island by land action.

Preliminary air bombardment of Iwo Jima was delivered by heavy horizontal bombers operating from Marianas' bases. A long series of area bombing missions was flown during the months preceding the landing with an eye toward the neutralization of airfields and installations, destruction of gun positions and fixed defenses, and the unmasking of additional targets. Although the tonnage of bombs was large, apparently no permanent results were obtained. The southern portion of the island is soft volcanic sand which easily craters but is just as easily smoothed out again. On the north Iwo Jima is rocky and has many steep ravines. The Japs were well dug in and only those bombs which hit the few exposed targets did any lasting damage. Furthermore, as far as can be determined, the psychological gain from the prolonged bombardment could not be measured in terms of reduced efficiency on the part of the Japs on the day of the landing.

The immediate air support of the Iwo landings was entrusted to two units: Vice Admiral M. A. Mitscher's by now world-famous Task Force 58 and Task Group 52.2, commanded by Rear Admiral C. T. Durgin. The two forces supplemented each other. Task Force 58 was to steam  p271 northward and lie off the Japanese coast while its planes attacked the Tokyo area. During the initial phases of the assault on Iwo it would return to give direct aerial support to the invasion before turning its attention once more to Tokyo. Finally it would make photo reconnaissance runs over Okinawa, Kerama Retto, and Amami Gunto — a presage of things to come. Task Group 52.2, on the other hand, was primarily concerned with direct support of the landings. En route to Iwo it would provide submarine and combat air patrols and once the objective was reached it would bomb positions and spot targets for fire support ships and land artillery.

Task Force 58 consisted of 11 fleet carriers, 5 light carriers, battleships, 6 heavy cruisers, 11 light cruisers, 81 destroyers and some 1200 planes when it sortied from Ulithi on February 10, 1945. Assuming a generally northward course, it arrived off the coast of Japan in the Tokyo area early on February 16. The operations for the first day's strike, which occurred exactly one year after the first raid on Truk, involved continuous fighter sweeps against airfields in the assigned target areas, with the planes taking off at dawn on the sixteenth. About 1130 the torpedo and bomber units were launched for raids on the Nakajima Ota and Koizumi aircraft plants. The strikes were only partially successful because weather conditions were poor. Many planes could not get through to their assigned targets and had to be content with dropping their bombs on airfields and smaller industrial plants. During the day the fighter sweeps continued, but by sunset all planes, and night groups were taking off. Night operations were seriously limited by weather which forced the planes to restrict their activities merely to defensive searches where offensive operations had been originally planned. This bad weather was not without recompense, however, for the poor conditions kept Japanese planes from making attacks on the task force. On the morning of 17 February, the fighters again took up the burden of neutralizing the Tokyo airfields while the bombers turned their attention to aircraft engine plants in the area. In addition, shipping in Tokyo Bay was bombed, and a light carrier and several smaller units were sunk. By noon, since the weather had become much worse the planes were called back, and the task force retired toward Iwo Jima.

Between 19 and 23 February, Task Force 58 was occupied with rendering air support to the Iwo landings. During that period, constant strikes were conducted on ground installations, while morning and afternoon raids hit Chichi Jima and Haha Jima in the Bonin group to  p272 the north for the purpose of neutralizing enemy air operations. When these tasks were successfully completed, the task force steamed northward to deal once more with its primary target.

The second Tokyo strike was made on 25 February and attained a fair measure of tactical surprise in that the task force was not discovered on the run‑in until about 0230 that day. This gave the Japanese about five hours to prepare for the first attack, and apparently this preparation consisted of flying as many planes as possible out of the Tokyo area. Fields which had based large forces of planes during the previous attacks were practically deserted. Some nonaggressive fighters were encountered, but all these avoided combat and no attacks were launched against the task force. Weather conditions were extremely unsatisfactory, but the bomber strikes were able to break through and severely damage the Koizumi aircraft plant. At noon the weather forced the planes back to their carriers, and shortly thereafter retirement from the Tokyo area was effected. The next day an attack on Nagoya was planned, but since the planes could not be launched the force retired to the south.

On 1 March the squadrons were busy again, this time over Okinawa. Task Force 58 had cruised to Iwo after the second Tokyo strike and then had moved westward towards the Ryukyu chain. The approach to Okinawa attained complete tactical surprise, and the task force was not attacked during the operations, while fighter sweeps and photographic missions scoured the islands, gaining 80 per cent coverage of the required area. Following the first day's operations, the action was broken off and the force turned toward Ulithi, where it anchored on 5 March.

Despite consistently poor weather, the operations of Task Force 58 were a complete success. Over 5500 sorties were flown in dropping almost 1200 tons of bombs and firing 10,000 rockets. Jap losses included 393 planes destroyed in the air and 266 on the ground. Another 141 were probably destroyed and 354 were damaged. Our losses were 143 planes and 95 pilots and air crewmen. Pickings were slim on the fast disappearing Jap Fleet and merchant marine. One carrier and about seventeen small combat ships were destroyed, while seventy-nine merchant ships and small craft went to the bottom. About 126 assorted ships, including two destroyers, were damaged.

Ground targets in the Tokyo area received a heavy mauling. Two aircraft plants were rendered at least temporarily inoperative and two plane engine plants were hard hit. Twenty-three airfields around Tokyo received attention which left them in various stages of ruin; runways were pitted, planes destroyed, hangars burning, shops demolished, barracks  p273 damaged, and fuel dumps fired. The net result, in addition to the actual damage, was that the Japanese were unable to funnel planes to the Iwo area where they might well have presented serious opposition to our landings. For that reason alone if for no other, the activities of the task force may be considered highly successful.

Meanwhile, Task Group 52.2 was carrying out its operations off Iwo Jima. This force, although dwarfed by the giant strength of Task Force 58, was a powerful striking unit in its own right. Its main power lay with the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise and 12 escort carriers with their force of over 400 fighters and bombers. These were protected by 2 heavy cruisers, 1 antiaircraft cruiser, 12 destroyers, and 14 destroyer escorts. The group left Ulithi on 10 February following Task Force 58 and preceding the bombardment and fire support ships. By 12 February the ships had arrived in the Saipan-Tinian area for scheduled rehearsal and then they proceeded north to Iwo, which was reached on the fifteenth and sixteenth. Attacks were first launched 16 February on Iwo Jima installations and on the airstrips of Chichi Jima and Haha Jima and continued without abatement until 8 March when the situation on Iwo no longer required air support. By 11 March most of the units had returned to Ulithi and the rest were underway.

The strikes at Iwo were, in the main, direct support to land operations. The three days preceding D‑Day (19 February) were used to bomb out as many emplacements as possible: gun, mortar, antiaircraft sites, rocket launchers, pillboxes, supply dumps, troop concentrations and coastal defense guns. After the landings the support became extremely specific as planes were used to eliminate individual pillboxes or to strafe cave entrances. The planes were also called on to direct artillery fire, an extremely hazardous mission because of their vulnerability to antiaircraft fire. The blows at Chichi Jima and Haha Jima were aimed primarily at enemy air power, for the Japs made some attempts to gather squadrons at those points for attacks on our amphibious forces.

Such attacks were not without success. During twilight and dusk on 21 February the Japanese pressed home a determined torpedo and suicide attack on the task group's carrier units. It was made at a time when many planes were returning from operations over Iwo and with the resultant chattering of radar screens, tracking of the Jap planes was very difficult. The Saratoga was the first to be hit, a suicide plunging into her flight deck about 1700. This started fires and made the landing of planes difficult, but the situation was in no way critical. The attack continued, however, and three more Jap fighters succeeded in crashing the huge ship, starting fires on the forward part of her flight deck and  p274 making it impossible for her to land her planes. She was badly damaged, although by no means fatally, and was forced to leave the action at once.

Planes had been sent aloft, meanwhile, to intercept the Japanese, but darkness, weather, and the cluttered radar scopes hampered their efforts and the attackers continued to come in. About 1945 the Lunga Point was hit a glancing blow by a torpedo bomber. The plane exploded just before impact with the ship and then skidded across the flight deck and plunged into the sea on the opposite side. Fire broke out but was quickly extinguished, and operations were resumed on schedule the following morning. Not five minutes later the Bismarck Sea took a suicide plane near the after elevator, and this was almost immediately followed by another plane which hit just forward of the elevator. Fires were started and spread forward rapidly. Many small explosions followed as if from her antiaircraft ammunition, and then two large explosions occurred, coming from deep inside the ship. It was soon evident that the vessel could not be saved, and she was ordered abandoned and sank two hours later.

Planes of Task Group 52.2 flew over 8800 sorties from 16 February to 11 March. Most of these flights were against land installations on Iwo, and it has been difficult to appraise accurately the number of ground targets damaged or the extent of such damage. Known damage or destruction, however, included enemy coast defense, antiaircraft, machine‑gun positions, mortars, rocket launchers, tanks, trucks, pillboxes, trenches, buildings, supplies and troop concentrations. Very few Jap surface craft were encountered, as the Japanese Fleet did not choose to oppose our landings. Three merchantmen were sunk, however, and 7 more probably sunk while 35 small craft were damaged. Seventeen planes were destroyed in the air and on the ground, with 6 more probably destroyed and 15 others damaged. Hunter-killer attacks on enemy submarines achieved a score of one possible sinking and damage to three others.

In comparison with the record set up by Task Force 58, the task group's losses seem excessively high. Sixty planes were shot down, most of them victims of antiaircraft fire. Eight pilots and 12 air crewmen were reported dead or missing. The Lunga Point received minor damage, the Saratoga was badly mauled and the Bismarck Sea was sunk with about 350 of her men and officers. These losses, however, had to be accepted as did the heavy casualties suffered by the Marine Corps landing forces in the capture of this bloody but vital bastion, Iwo Jima.


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