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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 17

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 19
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p185  Chapter 18

The Task Force Shows its Strength

The Gilberts Campaign

After the victory at 1 Midway, as we have seen, the air war shifted to the South Pacific theater where the bloody battles of the 2 Solomon Islands were fought and won. In the meantime, new carriers were commissioned and readied for combat — Essex, Yorktown, Lexington, Independence, Princeton, Belleau Wood, and Cowpens. These ships assembled at 3 Pearl Harbor during the summer and autumn of 1943 and began the training exercises which were the necessary preliminaries to an offensive sweep across the central Pacific. On 31 August the first of the dress rehearsals took place at 4 Marcus Island where a task force built around the Essex, Yorktown, and Independence struck that Japanese outpost for the second time during the war. On 1 September, in a concurrent operation, the Princeton and Belleau Wood covered the unopposed landing on 5 Baker Island; and eighteen days later, with the new Lexington, they raided 6 Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. Finally, on 5‑6 October, the largest carrier task force yet assembled, composed of the seven new carriers then available, attacked 7 Wake Island in a test of revised air and surface tactics. The curtain was now ready to be raised on the first amphibious operation of the central Pacific offensive.

Our seizure of the Gilbert Islands was a logical development in the war against Japan. This group of coral atolls was the first step in the shortest and most direct route to the empire. A success­ful invasion would shorten our supply lines to the southwest Pacific, force the enemy to divide his strength in order to meet a new and ominous threat, and transfer the action to an area ideally suited for the operation of our new, fast carrier task force.

Task Force 50, commanded by Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) Pownall, was the first edition of the famed air‑surface striking force, later known alternately as Task Force 58 and Task Force 38, which swept the  p186 sea from the Gilberts to the Sea of Japan. All the experience of the South Pacific campaign, the early raids across the central Pacific, and the recent rehearsal strikes had gone into its development. The early hesitancy to operate more than one carrier in a single formation had been gradually overcome; by groping toward and eventually achieving the technique of maneuvering carriers together, navy men had forged a mobile air force of overwhelming strength.

Of no less importance than the appearance of this force was the introduction of escort carriers into the Pacific amphibious operations. These frankly makeshift, yet efficient ships had hitherto been employed only in transport and convoy activity, except for a single combat assignment in support of the North African landings. Their participation in the Gilberts campaign established their importance in support operations. Thereafter they became an integral part of the amphibious forces which neutralized and stormed the beaches of the central Pacific to the gates of the empire.

The combined carrier force, comprising 6 large carriers, 5 light carriers, 8 escort carriers, and about 900 planes, had an ambitious program: In addition to establishing and maintaining air superiority in the area, this force was to neutralize enemy defenses, support the assault, conduct medium searches ahead of the assault forces, provide fighter protection, maintain anti-submarine patrol, provide gunfire spotting, and maintain continuous observations and reports over the objectives, 1 Tarawa, 2 Makin, and 3 Apamama. These tasks not only reflect the importance of naval aircraft in amphibious operations; they suggest that air units were the principal factor in the control of sea areas.

In the effort to establish air and sea control of the Gilbert Islands the land-based aircraft of Task Force 57, flying from the Ellice, Phoenix, and Samoan islands, were directed to conduct photographic reconnaissance missions, attacks against enemy bases within range to the westward, and long-range searches. Commencing on 13 November this air force began nightly raids on Japanese installations in either the Gilbert Islands (Tarawa and Makin), the Marshall Islands (4 Maloelap, 5 Mili, 6 Jaluit, 7 Kwajalein, and 8 Wotje), or 9 Nauru Island. Although there was always the risk that this activity might alert the enemy, nevertheless it did provide information for planning officers, tested enemy defenses, and inflicted considerable damage.

D‑Day for the initial landings in the Gilberts was 20 November 1943. During the week before, the four groups of Task Force 50 began converging on the islands, two groups on a track from 10 Pearl Harbor and two  p187 from 11 Espiritu Santo. The interceptor group (Task Group 50.1), which was built around the Yorktown, Lexington, and Cowpens and commanded by Rear Admiral Pownall, operated in an area between the Marshalls and Gilberts in order to intercept attacks launched from the northern atolls against our assault troops. In the period between 19 and 26 November this group inflicted severe damage on the enemy, principally at Mili and Jaluit. For a loss of five pilots and two crew members, aircraft of the three carriers shot up Japanese airfields, sank a small cargo ship, and burned fifty enemy planes on the ground and in the air. Their efforts reduced enemy plane availability in the Marshalls and prepared the way for the amphibious forces to enter the Gilberts area unmolested by air attack.

Task Group 50.2, the northern group, was commanded by Rear Admiral (left Vice Admiral) A. W. Radford and included the Enterprise, Belleau Wood, and Monterey. This group was assigned the mission of gaining and maintaining control of the air at Makin and providing direct support to the Northern Assault Force, whose task was the conquering of that atoll. Operations were unspectacular until the night of 25 November when the task group came under a determined air attack which was repulsed by gunfire. The next night the Japanese snooped the group and Admiral Radford ordered night fighters launched against approaching torpedo bombers. Two Betty's were shot down but Lieutenant Commander E. H. "Butch" O'Hare, one of the Navy's first air heroes and an experimenter in night tactics, failed to return to the Enterprise.​a

Both the Interceptor Group and the Northern Group had sortied from 1 Pearl Harbor; the carriers of the Southern Group (Task Group 50.3) and the Relief Group (Task Group 50.4) had recently participated in the early November raids on 2 Rabaul and consequently approached from the south. The Southern Group was commanded by Rear Admiral A. E. Montgomery and included the carriers Essex, Bunker Hill, and Independence. Formed on 15 November near the 3 Ellice Islands it proceeded north to 4 Tarawa where it supported the Marines in their epic struggle on 5 Betio Island. Under sporadic attack throughout its operating period, the task group met a flight of sixteen to eighteen Betty's at dusk on D‑Day which succeeded in putting one torpedo in the Independence. The planes had come in low over the water and were not picked up by radar after they had been seen by an alert spotter. Excellent damage control enabled the Independence to steam, under its own power, to 6 Funafuti for temporary repairs.

The Relief Group (Task Group 50.4) left 7 Espiritu Santo on 15 November  p188 under the command of Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) F. C. Sherman.​b On 19 November the Saratoga and Princeton launched strikes against 8 Nauru Island and, with air opposition negligible, neutralized the airfield and removed any threat of its planes to the success of the Gilberts operation. Following this action the group escorted the Makin and Tarawa garrison forces to the combat area, thereafter operating to the southeast of Tarawa in its capacity as a relief carrier group, subject to call in support of ground troops.

By 26 November the air battles had been won, the strategic islands stormed and taken, and the success of the operation assured. The Commander-in‑Chief, Pacific Fleet, therefore, effected a reorganization of the fast carrier force in anticipation of interim operations before the invasion of the Marshall Islands. A striking force composed of the Yorktown, Lexington, Essex, Enterprise, Cowpens, Belleau Wood, and screening ships under the command of Rear Admiral Pownall, hit 9 Wotje and 10 Kwajalein on 4 December, destroying an estimated seventy-eight planes and sinking and damaging several ships. After recovery of the air groups the task force commenced retirement. The Japanese made two small, sneak torpedo attacks in the early afternoon and sent continuous but hesitant attacks from dusk until after midnight. During the night the Lexington was discovered by flares and struck by one torpedo, but withdrew successfully without further injury.

Four days later a force of six fast battle­ships under the tactical command of Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) W. A. Lee, Jr., Commander, Battleships, Pacific Fleet, bombarded Nauru Island. Task Group 50.4, led by Rear Admiral F. C. Sherman in the Bunker Hill with the light carrier Monterey, provided air support. A total of 150 sorties was sent against that shattered outpost and the target areas were quickly enveloped in smoke, flames, and dust. Retirement was made toward New Hebrides bases where the force reported to the Commander, South Pacific Force, for duty.

The story of the escort carriers during the Gilbert Islands campaign is one of experiment mixed with tragedy. On D‑Day, Rear Admiral H. M. Mullinix and his group of three carriers, the Liscombe Bay, Coral Sea, and Corregidor, began operations in support of the Makin landings as part of Rear Admiral R. M. Griffin's Air and Surface Support Group (Task Group 52.13). The success of the landings can be attributed, in part, to the bombing and strafing missions of the CVE planes and to the air coverage which they provided for the amphibious units in the Makin area; but aircraft losses were high and the experimental nature of  p189 the operation was evident. On the morning of 24 November, while sixteen miles off Makin Island, the Liscombe Bay was struck by a submarine torpedo. The ship exploded amid­ships, burst into flames, and showered a destroyer, five thousand yards away, with sparks and burning debris. An observer reported that "a few seconds after the first explosion, a second explosion which appeared to come from inside the Liscombe Bay burst upwards, hurling fragments and clearly-discernible planes two hundred feet or more into the air. The entire ship seemed to explode and almost at the same instant the interior of the ships . . . glowed with flame like a furnace." At 0535, twenty minutes after being hit, the carrier sank by the stern with the loss of Rear Admiral Mullinix and seven hundred officers and men.

To the south, Rear Admiral V. H. Ragsdale led his division of three carriers, the Sangamon, Suwannee, and Chenango, plus the Barnes and Nassau, in support operations against Tarawa. This group (Task Group 53.6) maintained combat, intermediate and anti-submarine patrols, made searches, conducted hunter-killer operations, and provided bombing-strafing support for forces ashore. Upon the annihilation of the Japanese garrison at Tarawa, the group moved eastward and provided routine air coverage for our units at Apamama.

The work of the escort carriers at Makin, Tarawa, and Apamama can best be judged by what was learned and later applied in support operations across the Pacific to Okinawa. The Gilberts campaign was the medium of their formative experience. In it they learned the technique of support for ground troops and of tactical maneuvering with amphibious forces. The loss of the Liscombe Bay emphasized the vulnerability and limitations of the type but did not change the previous concept of its use. After their experience in the Gilbert Islands the CVE's became efficient and necessary components of each succeeding invasion.

The campaign was more than a proving ground for the escort carriers. The four-group carrier task force appeared for the first time and learned the lessons of amphibious support. Experiments with night fighters uncovered their defects but established their future in combat operations. And new planes, the Hellcat and the Helldiver, revealed a superiority over Japanese types. Here, then, was a rehearsal on a ground scale for the events of the future.

The role of naval air power in the Gilbert Islands campaign demonstrated the ancient but fundamental principle of warfare that overwhelming force is the key to victory. From the beginning the carrier planes of  p190 Task Force 50 were able to deny the adjacent seas to the enemy fleet; in a matter of hours they reduced Japanese air opposition to scattered nuisance raids from the Marshalls. The defenders of Tarawa, fighting grimly from their battered forts, called in vain for help which might have changed the fortunes of war. In a real sense, therefore, our carrier planes insured the victory. For the fate of the enemy was sealed even before the Marines struggled ashore to go about the bloody work of conquest.

Thayer's Note:

a In 1949, Chicago's airport was named for him; millions today know the busy hub as O'Hare International Airport. For the flight on which then Lt. O'Hare earned the Medal of Honor, see Chapter 14.

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b And eventually, after the publication of this book, full Admiral and Chief of Naval Operations.

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Page updated: 14 Jul 21