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Task Force 2 sortied from Pearl Harbor at 0700 on November 28. When we were clear of the channel, I split off Enterprise, three heavy cruisers, and nine destroyers, and designated them Task Force 8. I then directed the second senior in command in TF 2, Rear Adm. Milo F. Draemel, to take charge of our three battleships and remaining cruisers and destroyers and proceed to the drill grounds for normal work, while TF 8 stood to eastward as a feint. The decision to split TF 8 had been threshed out in conference the day before. Our reasoning was: (1) we had to sortie with the battleships to create an illusion that this was only a routine exercise, but (2) the planes had to reach Wake as soon as possible, and (3) the 17‑knot battleships not only would be a drag on the 30‑knot Enterprise, cruisers, and destroyers, but (4) could give us little protection if we met the Japanese fleet, in which event our greatest safety lay in speed.
When TF 8 was beyond signal distance of TF 2 and Pearl Harbor, I requested the captain of the Enterprise, Capt. George D. Murray, to issue Battle Order No. 1, which began
1. The Enterprise is now operating under war conditions.
2. At any time, day or night, we must be ready for instant action.
3. Hostile submarines may be encountered. . . .
At the same time I sent a general signal to TF 8, directing that war heads be placed on all torpedoes immediately, that all planes be armed with bombs or torpedoes, and that they carry their full allowance of ammunition. I ordered further that the pilots were to p76 sink any shipping sighted and shoot down any plane encountered. (I had been informed, of course, that no American or Allied shipping was in the waters I had to traverse.)
Miles Browning, Paul Putnam, and I were still the only men along who knew our destination, so my order burst on the task force like a thousand-pounder. My operations officer, Comdr. William H. Buracker, brought it to me and asked incredulously, "Admiral, did you authorize this thing?"
"Do you realize that this means war?"
Bill protested, "Goddammit, Admiral, you can't start a private war of your own! Who's going to take the responsibility?"
I replied, "I'll take it! If anything gets in my way, we'll shoot first and argue afterwards."
Since it was vital for delivery of these planes to be concealed from the enemy, I was prepared to destroy his snoopers, preferably before they could make a radio report of our presence. Accordingly, we maintained rigid radio silence, flew an antisubmarine patrol during daylight hours, and every morning and evening we searched the ocean for •300 miles around. I believed that war was a matter of days, possibly hours, and that if we had to fight, our only chance of survival — and even of getting off an alert to the Commander in Chief before our ships were annihilated — was to strike the first blow. I felt that I would be completely justified in striking it. We did not, in all honesty, expect to encounter any Japanese warships, since the war warning of the day before had indicated that they were probably bound south, not east; but if we had encountered them, I would have assumed at once that they were en route to launch one of the sneak attacks with which Japan's history abounds.
At 0700 on December , when we reached a position •about 200 miles from Wake, I launched the Marine F4F's and turned back toward Pearl. We had planned to enter the channel at 0730 on the seventh, but because head seas delayed the fueling of the destroyers, we were still 200 miles out at dawn that historic morning. At 0600, I sent eighteen of our planes ahead to land at Ford Island, the naval air station, then went below to relax in the flag quarters. (I had been using my emergency cabin in the island structure.) I p77 shaved, bathed, put on a clean uniform, and joined my flag secretary, Lt. H. Douglas Moulton, at breakfast. We were on our second cups of coffee when the phone rang. Doug answered it. I heard him say, "Moulton. . . . What? . . . Roger!" He turned to me: "Admiral, the staff duty officer says he has a message that there's an air raid on Pearl!"
I leaped up. "My God, they're shooting at my own boys! Tell Kimmel!"
We had not notified Pearl to expect our planes, which were due to arrive at this very time, so I jumped to the conclusion that some trigger-happy AA gunners had failed to recognize them. I was frantic. Just then my communications officer, Lt. Comdr. Leonard J. Dow, came in and handed me a dispatch:
|To:||All ships present|
|Air raid on Pearl Harbor × This is no drill.|
We notified all hands over the loud-speaker and sent the ship to general quarters. That was at 0812. At 0823 we received this:
|To:||All ships present|
|Alert × Japanese planes attacking Pearl and air fields on Oahu.|
|To:||All ships present|
|Hostilities with Japan commence with air raid on Pearl.|
And at 0921,
|To:||Task Forces 3‑8‑12|
|Rendezvous as CTF‑8 directs × Further instructions when enemy located.|
TF 3, consisting of the heavy cruiser Indianapolis and a few destroyers, was then in the vicinity of Johnston Island. TF 12, consisting of the Lexington, three cruisers, and some destroyers, was en route to garrison Midway with Marine fighting planes, just as p78 we had garrisoned Wake. In addition, all available ships at Pearl were ordered to sortie, form TF 2, and report to me, thus giving me operational command of every ship at sea. While we waited for the three task forces to join us, we maneuvered off Kaula Rock, •about 150 miles west of Pearl. Presently an old four-stack destroyer came over the eastern horizon at a tremendous rate of knots and ripped past us without a word. I signaled, "Where are you headed?"
She replied, "Don't know. My orders are to steam west at top speed."
"Join up," I said. I never learned who gave her her original orders, but if I hadn't intercepted her, and if her fuel had held out, she probably would have fetched up on the China coast.
I can best describe the rest of the day by quoting from my official war diary, as kept by my flag secretary:
So many false reports being received from unknown sources concerning presence of enemy ships, carriers, transports, and submarines that it is very difficult to glean the true from the false.
One of the first of these reports stated that a patrol plane had sunk an enemy sub off the entrance to Pearl. This proved true, but the others were false almost without exception. I have always suspected that many of them originated from the Jap force or from espionage centers on Oahu. It was not until several days later, when Intelligence examined charts found on the bodies of Japanese carrier pilots, that their launching point was located, •about 200 miles north of Oahu.
From best information available, some of our planes which were sent to Pearl this morning arrived just in the midst of the Japanese attack and were shot down by their planes and our own antiaircraft on Oahu.
My first assumption had been correct. We learned later that five of the eighteen planes from the Enterprise had been shot down. Those who have never experienced a surprise attack may find it hard to under how AA could shoot down friendly planes, but when you have seen your ships bombed and torpedoed and your comrades killed, no planes look friendly. As the war developed, we had better control and better identification, and such accidents were rare.
p79 At 1100, Admiral Halsey informed Admiral Kimmel that he was depending on him for scouting information.
I could provide little for myself. Half my scouting planes had already been flown into Pearl, and I needed the rest for offensive action if we discovered the enemy.
At 1105, hoisted battle flags and informed CINCPAC accordingly.
During normal cruising, the national ensign is flown from the gaff, but when action is about to be joined, it flies from the foremast and mainmast as well. I believe that this is the first time in its annals that the Pacific Fleet ever hoisted battle flags.
At 1320, changed course to 170 and increased speed, after report of presence of submarines by the [destroyer] Benham. Shortly thereafter Benham dropped eight depth charges and noted oil slick and debris in the area of the contact.
This was a new Benham, of course, not my veteran of World War I.
At 1330, received a message from the Department that Japan announced a state of war exists between herself and the United States-Great Britain.
Japan attacks, kills our citizens, shoots down our planes, sinks our ships; then bows and tells us, "Excuse, please, but have decided to declare war!"
Late in the afternoon, TF 1 joined up — four cruisers and a few destroyers. Milo Draemel, commanding, reported to me and add, "I fear that Anderson's force is incapacitated." Rear Adm. Walter S. Anderson commanded the battleships at Pearl. This was the first I heard of what had happened to them. "Incapacitated" seems mild.
A new dispatch located the enemy to the southwest, so I formed a scouting line of all ships in the combined task forces, except the Enterprise and her plane-guard destroyers, and ordered them to search and to open fire on contact. They found nothing. Now came another dispatch: an enemy carrier was south of Pearl. The only weapons I had left were twenty‑one planes of Torpedo Squadron 6. I launched them all, accompanied by six smoke planes and six fighters. Again they found nothing. The fighters continued to Pearl, p80 where four of them were shot down by our AA, despite our notification of their arrival. The torpedo planes and the smokers returned to the ship about 2100. That was one of the blackest nights I have ever seen, and not only was TORPRON 6 untrained in night landings, but these planes were carrying torpedoes armed with war heads. Somehow they all got back aboard safely — the first time, to my knowledge, that planes ever landed under such dangerous conditions.
The Enterprise and her destroyers proceeded independently that night, with plans to rendezvous with the rest of TF 8 at dawn. The confusing and conflicting reports that had poured in on us all day had succeeded only in enraging me. It is bad enough to be blindfolded, but it is worse to be led around the compass. I waited all night for the straight word, and all night I reviewed my situation. Suppose that the enemy was located, and suppose that I could intercept him: what then? A surface engagement was out of the question, since I had nothing but cruisers to oppose his heavy ships. In addition, we were perilously low on fuel; the Enterprise was down to 50 per cent of her capacity, the cruisers to 30 per cent, the destroyers to 20 per cent. On the other hand, my few remaining planes might inflict some damage, and by the next forenoon the Lexington's task force would reach a position from which her air group could support an attack. If only someone would give us the straight word!
Well, the milk was spilled, and the horse was stolen; there is nothing to be done about it now. I am sure I made mistakes in judgment during the four years that followed, but I have the consolation of knowing that, on the opening day of the war, I did everything in my power to find a fight.
The war diary continues next day:
At 1100, Enterprise with a screen of seven destroyers proceeding to Pearl for fuel. The remainder of the force ordered to operate •50 miles to the northward of the Oahu-Kauai line. Learned that 21‑P‑1 [a scout plane] had made an unsuccessful and unopposed attack on a Japanese carrier in the vicinity of Johnston Island.
The "Japanese carrier" turned out to be our heavy cruiser Portland.
p81 During the early forenoon, Brom Nichol, my former flight instructor at Pensacola and now my assistant operations officer, flew back aboard from Pearl and brought us our first eyewitness account of the disaster. Comdr. Howard L. Young, commanding the Enterprise air group, had flown him in the day before to give Admiral Kimmel a verbal report on Wake, which I didn't want to put on the air, and to arrange for the berthing and logistic requirements of TF 8. As they approached Oahu, Brom noticed a lot of AA fire and wondered why the Army was having flak practice on a Sunday. He paid no attention to the planes in the air until one of them dived on their SBD; even then it was a young Army pilot showing off. He glanced at his wings; pieces of metal were shredding away. He glanced at the other plane; there was a Rising Sun on its fuselage. He jumped to unlimber his guns, but by then "Cy" Young was letting down for a landing on Ford Island. Brom dashed to CINCPAC's headquarters. He was standing at the window there when the Arizona went up.
I asked him, "How was Admiral Kimmel?"
He answered in one word: "Splendid!"
It was dusk when we entered Pearl Harbor, but I could see enough to make me grit my teeth. The worst was the sight of the Utah, sunk at her berth — the berth that the Enterprise would have occupied if we had not been delayed.
We watched the entry from the bridge. The Admiral was silent for a while, then we heard him mutter, "Before we're through with 'em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell!"
I was in such a hurry to see Kimmel that I commandeered the first boat I found. Machine-gunners were firing at everything that moved, and bullets whizzed around us all the way to CINCPAC's landing, but the black‑out saved us from damage. In peacetime Pearl, the officers wore whites on Sundays. Kimmel and his staff were still wearing their Sunday uniforms, crumpled, and spotted with mud. Their faces were haggard and unshaven, but their chins were up. Kimmel himself was a marvel of cool efficiency, although the hysteria that surged around him mounted by the minute: eight Japanese transports had been seen rounding Barbers Point; Jap p82 gliders and paratroopers — their uniforms were described — had just landed at Kaneohe. I broke out laughing.
Kimmel wheeled on me. "What the hell is there to laugh at?"
I said, "I've heard a lot of wild reports in my life, but that's the wildest I ever heard! The Japs can't possibly tow gliders here from their nearest base, and certainly they're not going to waste their precious carrier decks on such nonsense. My God!"
Even then, I think everyone present knew that the disaster would be formally investigated, but I'll take my oath that not one of us would have guessed that the blame would fall on Kimmel, because not one of us thought he deserved it — any part of it. I want to emphasize my next statement. In all my experience, I have never known a Commander in Chief of any United States Fleet who worked harder, and under more adverse circumstances, to increase its efficiency and to prepare it for war; further, I know of no officer who might have been in command at that time who could have done more than Kimmel did. I also want to repeat and reemphasize the answer I made when the Roberts Commission asked me how I happened to be ready for the Japanese attack. I told them, "Because of one man: Admiral Kimmel."
Who, then, is to blame? Look at it logically: the attack succeeded because Admiral Kimmel and General Short could not give Pearl Harbor adequate protection. They could not give it because they did not have it to give. They did not have it because Congress would not authorize it. Congress is elected by the American people. And the blame for Pearl Harbor rests squarely on the American people and nowhere else. Instead of trying to dodge our responsibility by besmirching two splendid officers, we should be big enough to acknowledge our mistakes — and wise enough to profit by them.
We finished fueling the Enterprise at 0500 next morning, the ninth, and sortied at once, under orders to patrol northward of the islands in search of enemy submarines, which Intelligence believed were en route to take up raiding positions along the West Coast of the mainland. In fact, an enemy carrier was reported as already operating off California. I have said that Kimmel was cool, but this was far from true of the entire naval establishment. Some of its hysteria we carried to sea with us, as was natural with so many inexperienced youngsters aboard. Our lookouts were spying periscope p83 feathers in every whitecap and torpedoes in every porpoise. These jitters cost us time and fuel, because every time a contact was reported, we had to maneuver the task force away at high speed. However, the Benham made a contact that seemed meaty, and was working it out when one of my younger officers shouted, "Look! She's sinking! There she goes!"
I put my glasses on her; she was hull down in a trough but rode up on the next crest. My own nerves must have been a little raw. I told the officer, "If you ever make another report like that, sir, I'll throw you over the side!"
As the day passed, the lookouts' hitters became worse. Finally I sent this signal to the task force: If all the torpedo wakes reported are factual, Japanese submarines will soon have to return to base for a reload, and we will have nothing to fear × In addition, we are wasting too many depth charges on neutral fish × Take action accordingly.
This rebuke was not intended for our patrols, who were less excitable but equally alert. Next day, indeed, they spotted three enemy subs. One dived before she could be bombed, but the second was classed as "damaged," and the third sank vertically, leaving four of her deck crew struggling in the water.
This same day, the Enterprise's radar failed temporarily, just as our lookouts reported the approach of a large flight of planes. We were on the point of opening fire and repeating one of the most painful features of December 7 when the planes were recognized as part of our inner air patrol.
We stayed at sea six days more without incident. When we returned, we found that Admiral Kimmel had been relieved at his own request, and that acting CINCPAC was Vice Admiral Pye. In a conference with him on the eighteenth, I was informed that TF 11, with the Lexington, would make a bombing attack on Wotje, while TF 14, with the Saratoga, landed reinforcements of men and planes at Wake and attacked enemy ships expected to be found there. My instructions were to proceed with TF 8 to the vicinity of Midway and cover their northern flank.
Early Raids of the Enterprise
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TF 8 sortied at 1000 on the nineteenth. At 1545 next day, a dispatch ordered TF 11 to cancel its strike on Wotje and TF 14 to hold the Sara well away from Wake and to send in the aircraft carrier p84 Tangier instead, without air cover. Wake was our farthest atoll outpost; we had been following the fortunes of its heroic defenders almost hour by hour, and the whole Pacific Fleet was impatient to help them in their desperate fight. When the Sara's pilots learned that they were being kept on the deck, many of them sat down and cried. Two days later, they had real reason to cry. On the basis of Wake's famous dispatch, reporting that the enemy was landing and "situation in doubt," CINCPAC ordered TF 11 to return to Pearl, and TF 14, with TF 8 supporting, to deliver its reinforcements to Midway. TF 14 could have been at Wake by then, of course, raising hell with the Jap occupation. Why we were diverted I still don't know. All we knew was that the war was only fifteen days old, and we had already lost Wake and Guam.
Perhaps confusion is to blame. On the thirteenth, a Navy Department bulletin had announced, wrongly, that Jap task forces were operating in the eastern Pacific. Now we were informed that enemy vessels were firing star shells over Johnston Island, and we had steamed toward it for five hours at an expensive 25 knots before we received a correction — it was only a submarine.
We discharged our mission at Midway and reentered Pearl on the thirty-first. What a miserable cruise this was! When I look back on it, the only redeeming feature I can find is this trivial one — for the first and only time in my life, I celebrated a double Christmas. On the afternoon of December 24, we crossed the international date line, westbound, and the following day we recrossed it, eastbound. On the first Christmas I signaled "Merry Christmas" to the force; on the second, I hoisted the same signal with the "first repeater" pennant.
TF 8 sortied again on January 3, to cover the approach of a convoy from the States, but this was a quick job; we were back on the seventh and started fueling and reprovisioning at once. Meanwhile, two extremely important appointments had been made: on December 20, Ernie King became CINCUS (Commander in Chief United States Fleet), and on the thirty-first, Chester Nimitz became CINCPAC, with the rank of admiral. Chester sent for me on the ninth. We usually begin our conversations by swapping a yarn or two, but this time he didn't waste a minute. He said that the Japs had just snapped up the British-governed Gilbert Islands, and p85 if — as it appeared — this was in preparation for a jump to Samoa, •1,300 miles farther southeastward, they would soon be sitting astride our line of communications with New Zealand and Australia, unless we jolted them hard and fast. But how and where? Our amphibious forces were far from ready to seize any Jap territory or to recapture any of our own, so it was up to the fast carrier task forces. The mission chosen for them was half-defensive, half-offensive. The Marine garrison at Samoa was being reinforced, as insurance against the loss of the islands and to develop them as both a base and a possible springboard. These troops were being escorted out from San Diego by Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, commanding TF 17, which included the Yorktown, the heavy cruiser Louisville, the light cruiser St. Louis, and four destroyers. I would sail for Samoa with TF 8, and as soon as the landing was completed, I would lead both forces in a strike against the Marshalls and Gilberts.
"How does that sound?" Chester asked. "It's a rare opportunity!"
I agreed, but with something less than enthusiasm. We knew very little about the Marshalls except that the Treaty of Versailles had mandated them to Japan, with provisos against fortification. We suspected that Japan had regarded this pledge with contempt, as usual, and had built airfields and submarine bases at Kwajalein, but the whole area had been closed to aliens for so many years that Intelligence could brief us scarcely at all. However, I had a vivid recollection of an exercise on CINCPAC's big game-board, a few weeks before, in which the team attacking Kwajalein had been driven off with heavy losses.
I saw Chester again next day to get my last-minute instructions and to say what I hoped was au revoir. When I left, he walked down to my barge with me, and as I stepped aboard, he called, "All sorts of good luck to you, Bill!"
Good luck? I have never been on an operation cursed with worse luck! Every day brought a new sample, tolerable in itself for the most part, but cumulating to a demoralizing jinx. The day we sortied, January 11, our bon voyage present was the news that the Saratoga had been torpedoed and would be laid up for months, thereby reducing our carrier strength in the Pacific to three ships — the Enterprise, Yorktown, and Lexington. On the thirteenth, one p88 of our scout pilots singlehandedly jeopardized the whole expedition by losing his head and breaking radio silence to report engine trouble. On the fourteenth, the destroyer Blue lost a man overboard. On the sixteenth, a seaman was killed in a turret accident on the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City; an Enterprise scout plane crashed on deck, killing a machinist's mate; and one of her torpedo planes failed to return.
The crew of this plane, we learned weeks later, struggled into their rubber raft and drifted for thirty-four days under the tropical sun with virtually no food or water, before they finally fetched up on Pukapuka, •750 miles away. I had the pleasure of seeing the three men decorated, and after the ceremony I asked the captain of the plane, Aviation Chief Machinist's Mate Harold F. Dixon, "Are you still speaking to me, after the way I had to go off and leave you?"
He answered, "Yes, sir. I knew what you were up against."
On the seventeenth, we lost a scout plane, which crashed into the water, killing the radioman and crippling the pilot. On the twentieth, a torpedo plane scored a direct hit on an enemy submarine, but the bomb failed to explode. (Complaints about the inferiority of our bombs and torpedoes became familiar in the next two years.) Early on the morning of the twenty-second, the destroyers Fanning and Gridley collided in a heavy rain, with such damage to their bows that they had to return to Pearl. That afternoon, a scout plane from the heavy cruiser Northampton spotted a small schooner and exchanged messages by blinker, but because the schooner could not give the correct recognition signal, the pilot stupidly ordered her abandoned and then proceeded to bomb and strafe her. It turned out that she was a Britisher from Apia, engaged in searching for the crew of a plane which the Salt Lake City had lost on the twentieth but had recovered the next day.
American pilots did not have a monopoly on stupidity. On the twenty-fifth, one of our dive bombers encountered a strange four-engine flying boat which refused to answer any signals. We knew that Jap planes of this type were in the vicinity, so when the stranger ignored a warning burst across his bows, our pilot put a shot through the fuselage. That brought results; the crew belatedly broke out an Australian flag. They were lucky to be alive to do so, because this incident occurred at a time when we were particularly touchy: p89 the landings at Samoa had been completed the day before, and our two task forces were running northwest for the attack.
The original plan called from Frank Jack to hit Makin in the Gilberts, and Jaluit and Mili in the southern Marshalls, while I, with the stronger force, took on Wotje and Maloelap in the northeastern Marshalls. On the twenty-seventh, however, a reconnaissance submarine reported that the whole Marshall group was lightly defended, and Miles Browning urged me to drive straight in and hit Kwajalein too. He argued that although the Enterprise would have to be exposed almost within rifle shot of Wotje, the risk was justified by the probability of a rich concentration of ships and planes. It was one of those plans which are called "brilliant" if they succeed and "foolhardy" if they fail. Against my better judgment, I let myself be persuaded to adopt it and I notified Frank Jack that I was adding Kwajalein to my list.
Specifically, I divided TF 8 into three task groups — Rear Adm. Ray Spruance's TG 8.1, the Northampton and Salt Lake City and the destroyer Dunlap, would bombard Wotje; Capt. Thomas M. Shock's TG 8.3, the heavy cruiser Chester and the destroyers Balch and Maury, would bombard Maloelap; and my TG 8.5, the Enterprise and the destroyers Ralph Talbot, Blue, and McCall, would hit both Wotje and Maloelap but would focus on Kwajalein.
Feb. 1, 1942: Raid on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands
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The attack was set for February 1.1 Before I describe it, there are three small things I want to mention. First, we had to fuel the force. The Enterprise's turn at the tanker did not come until 2000 and she did not finish until 0130 next day — the first time that a heavy ship ever fueled at night in the open sea. Second, I ordered all ships to rig for towing and for being towed, so that we could pass a hawser to a cripple and tow her away without wasting time. Lastly, on the afternoon of the thirty-first, our radar picked up a Jap patrol plane. We crouched over the screen, watching him close our formation and waiting for his radio to broadcast the alarm. Although he came within •34 miles, the haze evidently hid us, because he serenely continued his patrol. When he had disappeared, I sent for my Japanese language officer and gave him a message:
p90 From the American admiral in charge of the striking force, to the Japanese admiral on the Marshall Islands:
It is a pleasure to thank you for having your patrol plane not sight my force.
This was translated into Japanese, and our planes dropped copies next morning, in the hope that the pilot would be shot or would have to commit hara-kiri.
At 1830 on the thirty-first, the task groups split up for the run‑in to their different stations. The night was clear and calm, and I was the exact opposite. As a commanding officer on the eve of his first action, I felt that I should set an example of composure, but I was so nervous that I took myself to my emergency cabin, out of sight. I couldn't sleep. I tossed and twisted, drank coffee, read mystery stories, and smoked cigarettes. Finally I gave up and went back to flag plot. There, at about 0300, less than 2 hours before we were due to launch, I received a terrifying report. The staff duty officer, Lt. Comdr. S. Everett Burroughs, Jr., came in from the bridge and announced, "Sir, sand has just blown in my face!"
I have already said that the Marshalls area had long been kapu (tabu, forbidden, keep out). We knew that our charts were old and we were afraid that they were incomplete and inaccurate as well. (Of course, even the best navigation charts don't show mine fields.) When sand blows onto a ship, there is a strong suggestion that land is close aboard; and when the ship is making 25 knots, there is a further suggestion that the situation will clarify quickly and violently.
I could do nothing but tell Evvie to go out and investigate. He returned in a moment, grinning. Suddenly inspired, he had licked his fingers, pressed them against the sand on the deck, and licked them again. The "sand" tasted sweet. On the range-finder platform forward of the bridge, he could dimly make out a sailor stirring a cup.
We began to launch at 0443, under a full moon. Nine torpedo planes, each loaded with three 500‑pound bombs, took off for Kwajalein; and thirty-seven dive bombers, each loaded with one 500‑pounder and two 100‑pounders, took off for Roi, one of the chief islands in the big Kwajalein atoll. At the same time we launched six fighters as a CAP (combat air patrol). The course to p92 the target and the retirement course were not crowflight, but roundabout, via certain landmarks. This gave us two advantages: enemy planes would be deceived as to the exact position of our task group, and recognition of our own planes would be facilitated by their return on a fixed bearing.
The strike on Roi was timed for 0658, fifteen minutes before sunrise. Although the bombers were in sight of it at 0653, the mist, the darkness, and their inadequate maps, which were no more than photostats of old charts, prevented them from identifying the target until 0705, and the defenders were thus given thirteen minutes' warning. This was ample for them to alert their AA crews and get their fighters in the air, and the war's first bomb to fall on Japanese territory had barely been released by Lt. Comdr. Hallsted L. Hopping, when he was shot down by a burst of AA. Three other bombers were lost, but our planes succeeded in destroying three fighters and seven bombers, an ammunition dump, two big hangars, a fuel depot, and the radio building.
The pickings at Kwajalein were fatter and softer. The AA was intense, but there was no fighter interception, and shipping was so abundant — a light cruiser, two big merchantmen, five submarines, three tankers, and dozens of smaller vessels — that the strike leader radioed for additional planes to come down and help him flatten them. Accordingly, at 0705 eighteen bombers were dispatched from the squadron over Roi, •some 40 miles away, and at 0731, nine more torpedo planes, armed with torpedoes this time, were launched from the Enterprise, now •180 miles away. These torpedo planes, TBD's, were not only slow and unwieldy, but were flying without fighter protection into an area which had been thoroughly aroused, yet they pressed home their attack with a vigor that reached my earphones: "Get away from that cruiser, Jack! She's mine!" and, "Bingo!" and, "Look at that big bastard burn!"
I learned later that the masthead level of the attack had panicked the Japs into firing on their own ships and shore batteries. This makes it difficult to assign credit for the destruction, but our estimate was two submarines sunk; the light cruiser, a small carrier, and four auxiliaries either sunk or severely damaged; two four-engine patrol planes destroyed on the water, and a large compound shattered by three direct hits. All our planes returned.
p93 After those three quick strikes on Kwajalein, we let it alone for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, we had sent eleven fighters against Taroa Island, in the Maloelap atoll, and Wotje. Bunch these fighter sweeps were geared to a bombardment by the other two task groups. Over Wotje, we had control of the air, and Ray Spruance's group was not threatened except by ineffective shore batteries. But Tommy Shock, at Taroa, was bombed three times, one small bomb striking the Chester's well deck and killing eight men.
Our surface bombardments were followed by a series of dive-bombing attacks. That day the Enterprise launched and landed twenty‑one times. The pilots and crewmen would fly off and fight, fly back and take a breather while their planes were being refueled and rearmed, and then fly off and fight again. Three of these strikes were led by Lt. Comdr. William R. Hollingsworth, the skipper of Bombing 6. When he returned from the third, around 1300, he made his usual report to the bridge, then added, "Admiral, don't you think it's about time we got the hell out of here?"
For nine hours we had been maneuvering the Enterprise in a rectangle only •5 miles by 20, so close to Wotje that my naked eye could see its AA bursting around our planes and — a more cordial sight — a column of smoke from the burning installations. We had been riding our luck hard enough; we had already dodged a periscope, and enemy planes were bound to pick up our trail soon.
I told Hollingsworth, "My boy, I've been thinking the same thing myself!" And right there we formed a club that later achieved some notoriety. It was called "Haul Out with Halsey."
The club was a little slow in getting organized. At 1340, five twin-engine Jap bombers, of the type subsequently dubbed "Betty," broke through the overcast and glided down on our starboard bow. Our AA guns might as well have been water pistols. We could see the bomb bays open and distinguish each separate bomb as it dropped. Miles Browning yelled, "Down!" but I was already on the deck, "the fustest and the flattest." In fact, the footprints of most of the other men on the bridge were printed on my back. The fifteen bombs fell into the water, but the nearest one was close enough to kill a man in the port after gun‑gallery, riddle the side of the ship, and cut a gasoline riser, causing a small fire.
The Admiral was wearing an old white sun helmet. We had begged him to swap it for one less conspicuous, but all we could get out of him was a grunt: "Gives 'em something better to shoot at!"
This was the very first time I had ever been under attack, so I reviewed my reactions. I was scared, yes, but I think I am honest in stating that my dominant emotion was rage. I didn't have much time to consider the question. One Betty slid out of the formation and turned back toward us. Although both its engines were afire, the pilot made a perfect approach up the groove, with the evident intention of crashing among the planes parked on the forward en of our flight deck.
Now occurred one of those things that make you doubly proud to be an American. A young aviation mechanic named Bruno Peter Gaida jumped into the rear seat of the rearmost plane, an SBD, grabbed its gun, and opened up. I saw it myself, and everything that followed. It had been my turn to trample, and I had rushed to the inboard bridge rail over the backs of my prostrate staff. The Betty staggered on, straight for us, but the Enterprise's skipper, George Murray, threw his helm hard over at the right instant. The Jap couldn't correct his course. His wing dropped and slashed the tail off the SBD, not •3 feet from where Gaida was crouched, then the whole plane struck the port edge of the flight deck and toppled over the side — the first kamikaze of the war.
I took a deep breath and stepped into flag plot for a steadying cup of coffee. While I was drinking it, I happened to look up and catch the yeoman of the day grinning at me.
"What are you laughing at?" I asked.
The man was embarrassed. He mumbled "Nothing, sir."
I asked Miles, "Who is this man?"
Miles must have thought I was daffy. "Why, Admiral," he said, "that's Bowman. He's on your staff."
I said, "I didn't mean that. What's his rate?"
"Yeoman first class, sir."
"That's where you're wrong," I said. "He's a chief yeoman. Any man who can grin like that while my knees are cracking together deserves to be promoted." It gives me pleasure to add that Ira N. Bowman is now a lieutenant.
The consensus of Admiral Halsey's staff is that he has caricatured himself under fire here and hereafter. They say, "We always had to watch him before an action to keep him from worrying too much. We'd have to send him out of the chart room and see that he got some sleep. But as soon as the shooting started, he was as cool and quiet as you please."
We had reformed the task force and were retiring at 30 knots when, at 1555, we were attacked by two more Bettys. The first five had glided down to •1,500 feet; these two stayed up at •14,000, and the nearest of their bombs landed well out on our starboard quarter. The skipper of our fighting squadron, Lt. Comdr. Clarence W. McClusky, was Flying CAP at the time. The repeated failures of his .50‑caliber guns and the Wildcats' inability to overtake the fast Bettys had reduced him to directing the ship's AA fire by radio, which he did well enough for one bomber to be shot down. The other fled for a huge cumulus cloud, with McClusky's section on its tail. We couldn't see them, but we could hear McClusky on our earphones: "Get out of my way, and let me knock that oriental son of a bitch out of the sky!" Presently Betty fragments sprinkled about us.
We were snooped all afternoon, and the night promised no relief. As before, it was clear and cloudless, with a brilliant moon that blazoned our 30‑knot wakes as far astern as the horizon. Moreover, the Nips knew we had to follow a groove for a considerable distance, as there were outlying obstacles to be cleared before we had sea room to take a direct course to Pearl. With trailing sure and attack probable, and no night fighters to protect us, our only hope was trickery; when we reached the turning point, instead of taking the direct course of 075, we took a course of 335. It worked. We picked up the Nips on our radar, tracked them to the turning point, and watched them head out on 075. Better yet, my bright-eyed flag lieutenant and signal officer, Lt. William H. Ashford, Jr., spotted a wisp of a cloud which, as we fled toward it, developed into a beautiful overcast and eventually became a front that sheltered us all the way home. The Nips didn't abandon the hunt. We tracked them for two days more, but except for this and occasional submarine threats, the return to Pearl was uneventful.
When we reentered on February 5, flying our largest colors, p96 such a roar went up that Kailua must have heard it, across the island. The ships in the harbor blew their sirens, the crews yelled, and the troops at Hickam Field cheered us all the way to our mooring. (Cheering a ship in is a custom of the Royal Navy; I had never heard it in ours before.) The men of the task force tried to cheer back but choked up. I myself cried and was not ashamed.
Chester Nimitz was down on the dock. He didn't wait for the Enterprise to lower a gangway; he came over the side in a bo's'n's chair and, pumping my hand, told me, "Nice going!"
After him came COMDESPAC, Rear Adm. Robert A. Theobald, who shook his finger in my face and shouted, "Damn you, Bill, you've got no business getting home from that one! No business at all!"
(The reason we brought off these early raids is that we violated all the rules and traditions of naval warfare. We did the exact opposite of what the enemy expected. We did not keep our carriers behind the battle; we deliberately exposed them to shore-based planes. Most important, whatever we did, we did fast. I have heard that there was a popular saying on the Enterprise at this time, "The Admiral will get us in, and the Captain will get us out.")
Frank Jack Fletcher's TF 17 stood in next day, and we were able to round out the story of the operation. The jinx that had dogged us on our way to the Marshalls had transferred to them during the attack. Not only were their targets unproductive, but bad weather had aborted many of their strikes and had contributed to the loss of seven planes. However, they destroyed three four-engine seaplanes and two auxiliary ships, and damaged another auxiliary and a number of shore installations.
When the profit of the two forces is added, the total is not spectacular; but before I am accused of squandering too much space on what was at best a nuisance raid, it should be borne in mind that although it was barren in physical spoils, it was rich in Intelligence material — we had discovered operational airfields on Roi, Taroa, and Wotje — and richer still in morale. We had been whipped in the attack that opened the war and had been on the defensive ever since. When our task forces sortied for the Marshalls raid, you could almost smell the defeatism around Pearl. Now the p97 offensive spirit was reestablished; officers and men were bushy-tailed again. So, presently, was the American public. At last we had been able to answer their roweling question, "Where is the Navy?"
Let me make quite certain that I am not misunderstood. Adm. Thomas C. Hart's Asiatic Fleet, based on Manila, had been fighting offensive actions and fighting them gloriously. But the Asiatic Fleet consisted of only one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, and thirteen destroyers, plus submarines, PT boats, and some patrol planes. It was the Pacific Fleet, the big fleet, the fleet maimed at Pearl Harbor, that had now paid the first installment on its bill.
Miles Browning's strategy won him a promotion to captain, and he and I were each given a Distinguished Service Medal.
Admiral Halsey's citation follows:
"For distinguished service in a duty of great responsibility as Commander of the Marshall Raiding Force, United States Pacific Fleet, and especially for his brilliant and audacious attack against the Marshall and Gilbert Islands on January 31, 1942 [west longitude date]. By his great skill and determination this drive inflicted heavy damage to enemy ships and planes."
When I received it, I called in my staff and told them, "This is as much for you as it is for me. You made it possible."
Official USN Photo
Official USN Photo
Amos Carr Photo
Official USN Photo
Official USN Photo
Official USN Photo
Official USN Photo
Official USN Photo
Official USN Photo
Some Members of my Staff
A few nights later, I went to a movie on the Enterprise. Before it started, I told the audience, the ship's company, "I want to make a little speech. I just want to say that I've never been so damn proud of anyone as I am of you!"
When we received orders for our next operation, we were appalled to find that not only had we been designated Task Force 13, but our sortie had been set for February 13, a Friday! Miles Browning and my Intelligence officer, Col. Julian P. Brown of the Marines, immediately went to CINCPAC's headquarters and asked his chief of staff, Capt. Charles H. McMorris, "What goes on here? Have you got it in for us, or what?"
"Sock" Morris agreed that no sane sailorman would dare buck such a combination of ill auspices, and changed our designation to TF 16 and our sortie to the fourteenth.
(Woodrow Wilson considered thirteen his lucky number, p98 curiously enough. When we escorted him to Brest in 1918, the General Washington would have made port on December 12 if he hadn't ordered her slowed down to arrive a day later. I have also been told that he believed there was something prophetic in the coincidence of thirteen letters in his name and thirteen states in the original union.)
My new command and my new mission were both substantially the same as before; TF 16 was the former TF 8, with the destroyer Craven substituted for the heavy cruiser Chester; and once again we were ordered to raid a Jap island base — Wake instead of the Marshalls — in the hope of slowing the enemy's advance, diverting his strength, and gaining information about his dispositions.
This raid was a minor milestone in that, preparing for it, we had the benefit of aerial photography for the first time. Pictures of Wake, taken by a Marine plane from Midway, were flown to Pearl for developing and interpretation, then flown out to us at sea. With the help of what we learned from them, we were able to plan our attacks. The bombardment group, TG 16.7, consisting of the two heavy cruisers Northampton and Salt Lake City, and a pair of destroyers, the Maury and Balch, would approach from the west; and TG 16.8, the Enterprise and the remaining four destroyers — Dunlap, Blue, Ralph Talbot, and Craven — would launch from •about 100 miles north.
Our aerologists warned us that a tropical front hung close to our launching point, but they did not lead us to believe that the front would be as bad as it proved. The first plane was scheduled to take off at 0530 on February 24, for the strike to coincide with the bombardment at 0708, ten minutes before sunrise. When 0530 came, however, the wind and the rain were so violent that we postponed the launch until 0544, and even then one SBD crashed into the sea. The thick, low overcast caused a further delay; the planes could not find one another to rendezvous. The result was that the whole timetable was disjointed, and the strike did not arrive over the target until nearly 0800.
Meanwhile, TG 16.7 was waiting a scant •15 miles from Wake. We could not radio them about our difficulties, for fear of disclosing our position. For the same reason, the cruisers, not seeing our planes, postponed launching their scouts, knowing that the flash p99 of the catapult charges would be easily visible at so short a distance. As it turned out, they were spotted anyway, and if Wake had been able to put into the air anything more than three ineffective seaplanes, whose bombs fell wide, TG 16.7 might have had an ugly half hour before we could cover them.
The strike and the bombardment were finally executed. Together they destroyed three four-engine flying boats and three small craft, and damaged hangars, shore batteries, and fuel and ammunition dumps. Our losses were three planes, one to AA and the other two to the foul weather. The real profits from this raid were long range. Thanks in part to recommendations based on our experience, the strength of our carrier fighter squadrons was increased, incendiary ammunition was issued to our planes, and the installation of leakproof tanks was rushed.
We were retiring to the northeast to pick up TG 16.7 and our tanker, the Sabine, with her escort, the destroyer McCall, for the return to Pearl when, the following evening, a dispatch from CINCPAC caught us: Desirable to strike Marcus if you think it feasible.
Three mileages have always stuck in my head — Wellington, New Zealand, is •1,234 miles from Sydney; Espiritu Santo is •555 miles from Guadalcanal; and Marcus Island is •999 miles from Tokyo. That figure comprised our knowledge of Marcus, except that it was within easy range of planes from Iwo Jima and was supposed to be well-defended. This would be another morale raid. By venturing so near the home islands of the Empire, we would presumably disconcert the Japs and stimulate the Allies more than ever.
We reformed the task force next morning, the twenty-sixth, fueled the destroyers, and headed out on a course of 275. I remember the exact course because my staff officers made a point of glancing at the compass from time to time and muttering, "Two‑seven-five. . . . Two‑seven-five. . . . Why do we always seem to retire to the westward?"
We had intended to complete fueling by the twenty-seventh, but fueling is not a foul-weather operation, and here is the entry for that date in my war diary:
Overcast, low visibility, high wind, and heavy seas. As forecast indicates the continuation of these conditions in this area, course was changed p100 to the southward to find conditions favorable to fueling heavy ships tomorrow.
The situation was more anxious than it may sound. The Sabine could supply enough fuel to take us to Marcus and back only if we shoved off by March 1. Here is the entry for the twenty-eighth:
Weather and sea conditions this morning preclude possibility of fueling.
We steamed at our most economical speed all night, watching the skies. Just before daybreak we saw the stars; the wind moderated, and that night the war diary read,
Completed fueling about 1700. Enterprise, Northampton, and Salt Lake City commencing run‑in for air attack.
The destroyers were too light to match our speed through the heavy seas, and I was afraid they might delay both the attack and the retirement, so I ordered them to stay behind with the tanker.
We launched our strike — thirty‑two bombers and six fighters — from •125 miles northeast of the target at 0447 on March 4 and guided it in by radar. The Japs were sound asleep. Their radio had just begun to yell when a direct hit knocked it off the air. This brought a plane over from Iwo to investigate, and during our withdrawal we had the satisfaction of hearing it make a report that caused an alert and a black‑out in Tokyo. Our strike met no air opposition, but a bomber was lost to AA. On the credit side, we set fire to a fuel tank and destroyed several buildings flanking the airfield. If we accomplished nothing else, it was because there was little else to accomplish, either tactically or strategically. CINCPAC summed it up, "The raid against Marcus caused some concern as to the defenses of the Japanese homeland, but the exact amount of diversion from Japanese effort in the southwest cannot be measured at this time."
When the Balch had moored at Pearl on our return, she sent for a Marine guard to take custody of four prisoners salvaged from a gunboat she had sunk at Wake. Just as the first prisoner was brought topside, a pneumatic riveter cut loose on an adjacent ship, and I am told that the three Japs still below decks tried to scream the bulkheads down: they thought their comrade was being welcomed with a machine gun.
p101 A few days later, Miles Browning and I were called to for a conference with Rear Adm. Donald B. Duncan, from CINCUS. (Ernie King, not liking the implication of "CINCUS," may have changed his title to "COMINCH" by then; I'm not sure.) "Wu" Duncan told us that something big was in the air, something top‑secret: Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, with Navy cooperation, had trained sixteen Army crews to take B‑25's off a carrier's deck, and the Navy had promised to launch them for Tokyo. They might not inflict much damage, Wu said, but they would certainly give Hirohito plenty to think about.
Chester Nimitz asked me, "Do you believe it would work, Bill?"
I said, "They'll need a lot of luck."
"Are you willing to take them out there?"
"Yes, I am."
"Good!" he said. "It's all yours!"
I suggested that the operation would run more smoothly if Miles and I could discuss it man-to‑man with Doolittle, whom I had never met. Chester agreed and gave us orders to proceed to San Francisco. Our conference took place on March 31, and our talks boiled down to this: we would carry Jimmy within •400 miles of Tokyo, if we could sneak in that close; but if we were discovered sooner, we would have to launch him anyway, provided he was in reach of either Tokyo or Midway.
That suited Jimmy. We shook hands, and I wished him luck. The next time I saw him, he was Lieutenant General Doolittle, wearing the Medal of Honor.
The sixteen B‑25's landed at the Alameda Air Base, near San Francisco, on April 1, taxied down to the dock, and were hoisted onto the flight deck of our newest carrier, the Hornet, Capt. Marc A. Mitscher commanding. To accommodate them, the Hornet's own planes had to be packed into her hangar deck. Her handling crews worked fast. In company with the rest of TF 18 — the heavy cruiser Vincennes, the light cruiser Nashville, the destroyers Gwin, Grayson, Meredith, and Monssen, and the tanker Cimarron — she stood out of San Francisco next morning, under orders to take a circuitous route to the rendezvous with my ships on the twelfth.
Miles and I had expected to be back in Pearl on the second, p102 in ample time to polish our plans for the mission, but strong westerly winds grounded all westbound planes. We telephoned the air operations officers at Alameda and Pan American every day, and every day we were given the same report. On the fifth, we had to notify the Hornet to postpone our rendezvous for twenty-four hours. On the sixth, already sore and sour, I added a touch of flu to my other worries and took to my bed, loaded with dynamite pills. Naturally this was the afternoon that the winds died and our flight was scheduled. When I boarded the plane, I was so full of pills that I rattled, but I slept until a nosebleed woke me as we lost altitude for our landing, and I stepped off at Honolulu with the flue licked.
We sortied at noon the next day, the eighth. Again my task force was substantially the same — the Enterprise, Northampton, and Salt Lake City, the destroyers Balch, Benham, Fanning, and Ellet, and the tanker Sabine. But this time it kept the same designation, TF 16, whereas mine was changed; I became Commander Carriers Pacific Fleet, with additional duty as COMCARDIV 2. We made our appointed rendezvous with TF 18, at a point as close to Kamchatka as it was to Pearl, and as soon as I felt that no word could leak back through a disabled ship, I announced our destination: "This force is bound for Tokyo."
Never have I heard such a shout as burst from the Enterprise's company! Part of their eagerness came, I think, from the fact that Bataan had fallen four days before.
We fueled the heavy ships on the seventeenth, •1,000 miles east of Tokyo, and at 1400 they commenced their run‑in at 23 knots, with the destroyers and tanker left behind, as at Marcus. Everything went smoothly until 0300 on the eighteenth, when our radars began getting blips from what we assumed were picket vessels. These outliers we managed to dodge, but at 0745 another was sighted, 12,000 yards on our port bow. I directed the Nashville to sink it. Before she succeeded, we intercepted a radio transmission which showed, by its strength, that it was originating close aboard, and our inference was that the picket had given the alarm. Although we were then •650 miles from Tokyo, instead of the 400 we had hoped for, the fact that our force had been reported left me no choice. At 0800 I sent "Pete" Mitscher a signal: Launch planes × to Col Doolittle and his gallant command good luck and God bless you.
p103 Jimmy's original plan had been to take off alone at 1400 on the eighteenth, carrying incendiaries to light up the target area for the rest of his squadron, which would follow a few hours later. He believed that this would help them slip through the gantlet, since the Japs' AA was not radar-controlled, so far as our Intelligence knew, and therefore was less accurate at night. I disagreed. Jimmy's hopes of pushing on to the nearest friendly airfield, at Yu‑Shan, China, •some 1,400 miles beyond Tokyo, struck me as fragile at best, and I felt that the added safety factor of crossing the target at night did not compensate for the comparative haphazardness that night bombing then entailed. However, the whole argument was a dead donkey now, killed by the necessity for this premature launch.
The wind and sea were so strong that morning that green water was breaking over the carriers' ramps. Jimmy led his squadron off. When his plane buzzed down the Hornet's deck at 0825, there wasn't a man topside in the task force who didn't help sweat him into the air. One pilot hung on the brink of a stall until we nearly catalogued his effects, but the last of the sixteen was airborne by 0924, and a minute later my staff duty officer was writing in the flag log, "Changed fleet course and axis to 090, commencing retirement from the area at 25 knots."
During the next three hours, our patrol planes attacked a total of sixteen enemy vessels, including a submarine. The Nashville again assisted in sinking one and picked up four prisoners. The youngest talked volubly, despite a bullet wound in his cheek. He said he had roused his skipper just after dawn to look at some planes. The skipper wasn't interested; he stayed in his bunk. Presently the sailor roused him again and reported, "Two of our beautiful carriers ahead, sir!"
The skipper came on deck and studied them through his glass. "They're beautiful," he said, "but they're not ours." He went below and put a bullet through his head.
Meanwhile we had our radios tuned to Tokyo. One of their glibbest liars came on and began describing, in English, the wonders of life in Japan. Of all the warring countries in the world, he said, Japan alone was free from enemy attack. Moreover it would continue so, as its indomitable navy would demolish any foe that dared approach its shores. With that conviction, the happy inhabitants p104 today were enjoying not only the Festival of the Cherry Blossoms, but two splendid baseball games as well. Indeed Japan was blessed among nations! — And right there we heard the air‑raid sirens. Jimmy's boys had arrived.
Here let me say that, in my opinion, their flight was one of the most courageous deeds in all military history. For those crews to make that dangerous take‑off, fly •650 miles over stormy water in land planes, fight their way across an alerted and viciously defended area, and fly 1,400 miles more to an inadequate landing field in a strange country — all that took guts and a hell of a lot of 'em! My cap is off to Jimmy and his brave squadron!
I happened to be with the Admiral when he got word that three of General Doolittle's men had been executed. It was the first time I ever noticed that he has a birthmark on his neck. I noticed it because it turned purple. He stuck out that ram‑bow jaw and he ground his teeth. Those eyebrows of his began to flail up and down. I wouldn't swear that St. Elmo's fire didn't play about his ears. All he could choke out was, "We'll make the bastards pay! We'll make 'em pay!"
The Japs chased us all the way home, of course. Whenever we tracked their search planes with our radar, I was tempted to unleash our fighters, but I knew it was more important not to reveal our position than to shoot down a couple of scouts. They sent a task force after us; their submarines tried to intercept us; and since the war, I have seen statements by Japanese officers that even some of their carriers joined the hunt; but with the help of foul weather and a devious course, we eluded them and reentered Pearl on the morning of April twenty-fifth.
Eluding the Japs was nothing to the difficulty of eluding the insistent queries of our associates ashore. The raid was on every tongue, but nobody had any facts to chew. President Roosevelt announced that the jump‑off had been from "Shangri‑La," and let it go at that. Many of my civilian friends in Honolulu charged me with being implicated, as they knew I had been at sea then. I took the "Who, me?" line. Every man jack of us realized the necessity of preserving absolute secrecy, in order to deceive the Japanese into believing that our B‑25's were superplanes, capable of flying p105 •3,600 miles nonstop — 2,200 miles from Midway, our nearest land base, to Tokyo, and from Tokyo on to Yu‑Shan. Considering the number of men involved, the secret was kept better than any other in my experience. When the truth was disclosed many months later, a great many high-ranking officers were as surprised as was the public.
I reported to Chester Nimitz immediately on my return. The South Pacific theater, he said, was warming up; the Japs were renewing their threats against New Guinea and the Solomons. The Lexington's task force was already on guard there; so was the Yorktown's. We were to go down and reinforce them, and at the same time put a squadron of Marine fighters on the island of Efate, in the New Hebrides.
TF 16 sortied on April 30 — the Enterprise and the Hornet, four heavy cruisers, eight destroyers, and two tankers. On May 7, when we were still •1,000 miles away, the Battle of the Coral Sea was fought, and the Lexington was sunk, reducing our Pacific carrier strength to four, one of which, the Saratoga, was still under repair on the West Coast. (In the Atlantic, we had the Wasp and the Ranger.) By May 11, we were close enough to send two planes ahead, to see if the Efate field was ready to receive the squadron. It was not, so we flew them off to Nouméa instead, then turned north along the 170th meridian, scouting for •200 miles on each side as we cruised. The Jap forces that had been engaged in the Coral Sea Battle had disappeared immediately afterwards, and I wanted to make sure that they weren't reforming to break through between the New Hebrides and Fijis, as I would have done in their place. Under the date-time of May 14 at 2000, this entry appears in my war diary:
Dispatch has been received from CINCPAC quoting COMINCH which states it is inadvisable for Task Force 16 to operate beyond the coverage of our shore-based air or within range of enemy shore-based air. This greatly restricts the operations of this force.
It did indeed! I was mad as the devil! At that moment, our position was almost exactly •600 miles from each of three air bases: ours at Nouméa to south, and Nandi in the Fijis to the southeast, and the Japs' at Tulagi, off Guadalcanal, to the northwest. I could see nothing from where I was, yet if I ran farther north for p106 a better view, I would violate both of COMINCH's orders; I would lose our air cover and be well under the Japs'. I was hamstrung and hobbled.
Back in World War I, Adm. Sir Louis Bayly had always given his destroyer skippers full discretion at sea, on the theory that the man on the spot knows the local situation better than the man back at headquarters. I thought of this now, and I deemed it a lot more important to scout a potential breakthrough area than to risk the surprise and loss of our bases. I headed north.
Next day another significant entry was made in my war diary:
1015. From this time on throughout the morning and most of the afternoon, had radar contacts with enemy planes to the westward, thought to be patrol planes operating from Tulagi [then •about 450 miles due west of us]. These planes approached only to •60 miles, and whenever our VF [fighters] were sent to intercept, they turned and ran. Although visibility was excellent, our forces being visible from the air from a distance of •70 miles, the accuracy of the enemy pilots' reports, and their success of evasion, indicated the possibility that their VP [patrol planes] carry aircraft radar.
The events of this day are important for three reasons: (1) The fact that our scouts sighted no enemy ships made me almost certain that a breakthrough was not imminent; (2) the fact that the enemy sighted our ships might discourage the attempt permanently; and (3) from now on our operations would have to recognize that the enemy shared the benefits of radar.
That afternoon we steamed eastward at 20 knots, to open the range from Tulagi, and that night we turned southeastward, to retire under air cover from Nandi and to occupy the Samoa-Fijis‑New Caledonia line. The following afternoon, however, brought us another dispatch from CINCPAC, directing us to return to Pearl. Before we could do so, we had to collect our tankers and other scattered ships in the area, and while we were waiting for the last of them to join up, we received a third dispatch: expedite return.
That could mean only one thing: trouble was brewing somewhere else in the Pacific. My speed to Pearl was limited by the speed of my tankers, but we reentered on May 26, for me to face the most grievous disappointment in my career. The trouble brewing p107 was the Battle of Midway. Instead of being allowed to fight it — and I would have been senior officer present — I was sent to the hospital.
The doctors diagnosed my affliction as "general dermatitis." To me it was simply a skin eruption that itched until I nearly went out of my mind. I'm sure that scratching was kapu, but not to scratch took more will power than I seemed to possess, and giving in made me even more irritable. It had begun in March, when I went Stateside to meet Jimmy Doolittle. What brought it on I don't know. Possibly the combination of nervous tension and tropical sun was to blame, since I had been on the bridge for six straight months, except for a few short stays in port. I tried every remedy in the pharmacopoeia, including oatmeal-water baths, but nothing gave me relief. I lost •20 pounds and had reached the stage where I was lucky to get two hours' sleep in twenty-four.
When they told me I had to go on the sick list, I stalled them long enough for a quick conference with Chester Nimitz, in which I recommended that command of the fleet be turned over to Ray Spruance. Bill Ashford stayed with me; the rest of my staff went with Ray. And from the Naval hospital at Pearl, "itching" — as Chester put it — "to get into the fight," I watched them sortie on May 28 to win the crucial carrier duel of the war.
1 Editor's note: This is the local, east longitude date. Navy communiques and official records generally use Washington, or west longitude, dates. All dates in Admiral Halsey's narrative are as of his whereabouts at the time.
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