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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 21

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 23
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p217  Chapter 22

Operations in the Western Carolines

The operations against the western Carolines — Peleliu, Anguar, Ngesebus, and Ulithi — covered the period of three months from August through October, 1944. Every major command in the Pacific area was involved, and operations extended over the entire central and western Pacific. Nearly 800 vessels, 1600 aircraft, and an estimated 250,000 navy, marine, and army personnel, exclusive of garrison forces, participated. Of the personnel, 202,000 were Navy, 28,400 were Marines and 19,000 were Army.

During the period from August, 1942, to the completion of the western Carolines campaign, Allied forces in the Pacific Ocean had been operating from two directions at once. One of these campaigns, the South Pacific-Southwest Pacific, had moved steadily westward and northwestward. The other, the central Pacific campaign, had moved westward through the Gilberts and Marshalls. In order to make an unbroken front between our two forces it was necessary to establish the Marianas-Palau line. Southwest Pacific forces concurrently were to establish a continuation of that line by the capture of Morotai. With this line firmly in our hands, further advances to the westward could be supported.

As early as May, 1944, Admiral Nimitz directed Admiral Halsey to initiate planning for the seizure of Palau, and on the fifteenth of June, Halsey's headquarters at Noumea were closed, to be reopened at Pearl Harbor. In late July, ships which had participated in the Marianas campaign and new ships began to pass to the control of Admiral Halsey as Commander, Western Pacific Task Forces. In the meantime the planning for the Marianas campaign was carefully scrutinized for any lessons of value which might be of use in Palau, and observers were sent to the operation itself. How many lessons had been learned is clearly evidenced when the Palau and Gilbert amphibious attacks are compared. Although the two landings took place only ten months apart,  p218 the contrast between them is striking. In spite of thorough planning and the assembly of a power­ful force, the attackers at Tarawa ran into considerable trouble. Conditions at Peleliu were, if anything, more difficult than at Tarawa. Despite this, however, fewer troops were killed at Peleliu than at Tarawa, and the issue was never in doubt for a moment. The bombardment, minesweeping, beach preparation, air support, ship-to‑shore movement, progress ashore, and supply of troops went almost entirely according to plan. Insofar as wise planning and painstaking preparation could make for success, the operation at Peleliu and Anguar showed gratifying improvement over the operations which preceded them.

In order to facilitate the completion of his mission, Admiral Halsey divided his forces into three principal parts: the first, the joint expeditionary force, under Vice Admiral T. S. Wilkinson, had as its main task the capture of the objective islands; the second, the Forward Area Force under Vice Admiral (later Admiral) J. H. Hoover had as its principal task support of Admiral Wilkinson's force and defense and development of captured islands; and third, the Covering Force, directly under Admiral Halsey, had tasks assigned which were bold in concept and require some elaboration.

The last named force consisted of all available fast battle­ships and carriers, plus escorts. Its job was "to utilize every opportunity which may be presented or created to destroy major portions of the enemy fleet." To create such an opportunity, the plan for use of the fast carrier force undertook a type of operation which had not been risked in the past, namely, a comparatively sustained attack on a substantial enemy deployed in depth over a system of many co‑ordinated airfields. Never had our force penetrated close to a large enemy land mass having up to 63 operational airfields dispersed over a wide area, upon which were based an estimated 650 planes which could be readily reinforced. Such an operation was deliberately undertaken in order to create an opportunity to engage the enemy fleet, and in order to gain and maintain control of the eastern sea approaches to the Philippine-Formosa-China coast areas.

Halsey's Covering Force, known as Task Force 30, contained various units of which the major was Vice Admiral Mitscher's Task Force 38. This was broken up into the usual four groups. Group 38.1, commanded by Vice Admiral J. S. McCain, contained the Wasp, Hornet, Cowpens, and Monterey. Group 38.2 under Rear Admiral G. F. Bogan, included the Bunker Hill, Intrepid, Cabot, and Independence. Group 38.3,  p219 headed by Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) F. C. Sherman,​a contained the Essex, Enterprise, Langley, and Princeton. Group 38.4, commanded by Rear Admiral R. E. Davison, was constituted around the Lexington, Franklin, San Jacinto, and later the Belleau Wood. In addition to these large and medium carriers, eight CVE's, Barnes, Nassau, Nehenta Bay, Sargent Bay,º Steamer Bay, Sitkoh Bay, Rudyerd Bay, and Hoggatt Bay were in Halsey's force, the first seven being attached to Group 30.8, the Oiler and Transport Carrier Group, and the last to Group 30.7.

In the Joint Expeditionary Force, known as Task Force 31, were eleven CVE's, attached to Rear Admiral R. A. Ofstie's Task Group 31.2. These were the Marcus Island, Kadashan Bay, Savo Island, Ommaney Bay, Sargent Bay,º Petrof Bay, Kalinin Bay, Saginaw Bay, Gambier Bay, Kitkun Bay, and White Plains.

The movement from the embarkation area in the Solomons to the objective was made in echelons and was uneventful. As far as is known, all task forces and task groups arrived undetected by the Japs, and, it is believed, gained complete strategical surprise. Task Groups 38.1, 38.2, and 38.3 sortied from Eniwetok on 29 August, and by 6 September were off Palau ready to attack aircraft installations and defenses. Meanwhile, in order to deceive, divert, and destroy the Japs, Group 38.4 struck Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima, 31 August to 2 September.

On the afternoon of the sixth the three task groups launched a preliminary fighter sweep against Palau. No airborne opposition was encountered, and many of the targets were found already badly damaged by the attacks of southwest Pacific B‑24's which had been pounding the area since June. On the seventh and eighth, other air attacks were carried out. All told, during the three days 1,470 sorties were flown over Palau. Our losses were six planes to antiaircraft fire.

On 10 September, Group 38.4, which had struck Yap and Ulithi after its diversionary attacks on the Bonins and Volcano islands, took over the neutralization of Palau, and the other three groups of Task Force 38 withdrew to undertake operations against the Philippines.

Prior to the landings on Peleliu and Anguar the islands were given the usual air and surface bombardment. In addition to the carriers of Group 32.4 (Lexington, Franklin, Belleau Wood, and San Jacinto), four CVE's aided in this work. In these operations, and those which followed, Napalm fire bombs were used for the first time in quantity in carrier operations. For the support of the actual Peleliu landings, 15 September, there were available four CV's and four CVL's of Groups 38.2 and 38.4 and ten CVE's of Group 31.2. Landings went according  p220 to plan, and on D plus 1 Day the Peleliu airfield, one of our main objectives, was captured. The fighting ashore, however, was extremely bitter, and it was not until the end of November that all Peleliu was in our hands. Air support after the landings was provided by the CVE's and Group 38.4 until the eighteenth of September, and thereafter the CVE's carried on alone until the end of the month. One of the notable features of the air support was the fact that this was the first occasion in which CVE's were employed throughout as a group and in such strength (ten carriers). As a result of these operations, it was evident that escort carriers could completely handle the full support of a major operation once the beachhead was established. From 6 September to 1 October, 6,021 sorties were flown and only eighteen aircraft (.3 per cent) were lost to antiaircraft fire. There was almost complete lack of enemy air opposition.

The next move was the occupation of other islands in the group. Two days after the initial landings on Peleliu came the assault on Anguar, southernmost of the Palau group. No large concentration of the enemy was reported, and on the twentieth it was announced that island was secured. With the occupation of the northern portions of Peleliu completed by the twenty-seventh, it was decided to move on to the occupation of Ngesebus. On the twenty-eighth this was accomplished by a shore-to‑shore operation from Peleliu. At the same time, two other small islands were taken. Our casualties in the southern Palaus as of 14 October were 1,069 killed as compared with 11,586 of the enemy.

According to our original plans in the western Carolines, Ulithi Atoll (midway between Palau and Guam) and Yap were to be occupied in early October. As our campaign progressed, however, it was decided to abandon the attack on Yap and to undertake the Ulithi operation sooner than planned. Ulithi could be of real value to us since it possessed one of the best anchorages for large ships in the central western Pacific, a lagoon 19 miles long and 5 to 10 miles wide.

The forces involved in the occupation of Ulithi were under the direct command of Rear Admiral W. H. P. Blandy. Included in his task organization was an escort carrier unit, Task Unit 33.12.2, consisting of the Kitkun Bay, Gambier Bay, and White Plains and four destroyers. Preliminary minesweeping, reconnaissance, and fire support commenced on the twenty-first of September and continued for two days. On the twenty-third, landings were made successively on Sorlen, Falalop, Osor, Mogmog, and Potengeras. No Japs were found and the natives were friendly. The carrier force, during its support of the operation, maintained  p221 CAP and anti-submarine patrols. Since opposition was lacking, aircraft were for the most part in a stand‑by status.

While the occupation of southern Palau and Ulithi was being undertaken, carrier strikes were directed at the Philippines in order to neutralize the many air bases there capable of hitting our landings in the western Carolines, as well as to obtain photographic coverage of enemy installations and of possible landing areas. Mindanao, roughly as large as the British Isles, was selected as the first target. The basic plan was similar to prior operations. To effect surprise, the approach was to be made at night; to establish air superiority, the attack was to open with a dawn fighter sweep, and thereafter repeated attacks were to be launched at successive intervals while the task groups remained in the area. Group 38.3 (Essex, Enterprise, Langley, and Princeton) was assigned the central and northern airfields, while Davao and the southern fields, where the greatest opposition was expected, were assigned to Groups 38.1 (Wasp, Hornet, Cowpens, Monterey) and 38.2 (Bunker Hill Intrepid, Cabot, Independence).

In accordance with the plan, a fighter sweep was sent out on the morning of the ninth of September. Everywhere opposition was negligible, and it became apparent that Mindanao was a sparse target for three carrier air groups. Hence, after sweeps on the tenth, the groups withdrew. Total Jap plane losses during the two days were 44 on the ground and 14 in the air. In addition, the enemy lost 83 ships destroyed, 80 others probably destroyed, and 34 damaged by our air and surface attacks. Our combat losses were 6 aircraft and 4 crews.

The most important feature of the carrier air attacks on Mindanao was the lack of opposition. The failure of the enemy to attack our carriers in force, the lack of air opposition at the targets, and the limited nature of the facilities at airfields indicated Jap weakness. The threat to our amphibious operations at Palau and Morotai from aircraft based at Mindanao, Palmas, or Talaud islands ceased to be important.

Upon retirement of the three task groups, Admiral Mitscher announced his decision to attack Leyte, Samar, Cebu, Negros, Panay, and Bohol, as well as airfields at Bulan on the southern tip of Luzon. Some two hundred Jap aircraft and substantial shipping were believed to be in this area.

After refueling and receiving replacement aircraft the groups set course for the initial launching point about forty to sixty miles east of the southern tip of Samar. No enemy attacks developed during the approach. At 0800 on the twelfth the fighter sweep took off. Over  p222 Leyte, Samar, and Bulan no airborne opposition was encountered, while on the islands fewer airstrips were found than had been anticipated. The sweep over Cebu met with more success; about 38 Jap planes were destroyed in the air and 40 on the ground, at a cost of 2 planes to us. Subsequent attacks were made by our forces on the thirteenth and fourteenth. During all these attacks, 12 Sept. to 14 Sept., over 2,000 combat sorties were flown. We lost 22 planes, 12 pilots, and 14 crewmen, but the Japs lost 174 airborne planes and at least 200 on the ground, besides 71 vessels of various types sunk and 37 more probably sunk or damaged.

One result of these attacks, discovery of the Jap weakness, caused the abandonment of the plan to attack Yap and the recommendation by Admiral Halsey that the contemplated landings on Leyte and Samar be staged at an early date.

Following the second day's attack on the Visayans (central Philippines) Group 38.1 (Wasp, Hornet, Cowpens, Belleau Wood) was temporarily detached from Task Force 38 to furnish air support for the Morotai landings, on 15 September. While en route to Morotai, strikes were carried out against Mindanao. One of these, against Zamboanga, meant a flight of three hundred miles to the target, yet the thirty‑two F6F's making the strike completed the mission successfully. Very little enemy activity was discovered on any of these sweeps. Early on the fifteenth the group was about fifty miles south of Morotai. In accordance with plans, a fighter sweep was launched which destroyed twenty-eight grounded aircraft at Langoan without any loss to us. The landings at Morotai were unopposed, so 38.1 was relieved on the sixteenth. The next day Monterey reported to the group, relieving Belleau Wood, which reported to 38.4.

With the favorable termination of the Mindanao strikes, 9‑10 September, preliminary plans were made to conduct a carrier air attacks on Luzon, the first one in the war. Luzon was a vital base and shipping center for the Japs, and hence formidable opposition was expected.

Following the operations in support of the landings at Morotai and Peleliu, and in preparation for the attack on Luzon, Task Groups 38.1, 38.2, and 38.3, on 19‑20 September, effected a rendezvous and completed refueling and replenishment. By midnight of the twentieth, the three groups had reached a position somewhat north of the latitude of Manila, and three hundred miles east of it. From that point, a high-speed run was made to the launching position, some seventy miles east of central Luzon. The approach was made in absolute radio silence  p223 under cover of a severe equatorial front. This front, although it screened our approach, held up the launching of planes by two hours and hindered their rendezvous when they were in the air.

At 0800 on the twenty-first, a fighter sweep of ninety‑six F6F's was launched against Nichols and Clark fields. When the planes arrived over the fields, as many as fifty Jap planes were in the air. Once again, the score of planes destroyed was lopsided, with the Japs losing 66 in the air and others on the ground, while we lost only 6.

Throughout the day other strikes were launched at frequent intervals. The first strike by Group 38.1 arrived over Manila Bay at 0930 and found at least fifty worthwhile ship targets, but the Jap warships were not present. One notable feature of this strike was the effectiveness of our torpedo attacks, seven out of eight torpedoes dropped running hot, straight, and normal. By the end of the day the group had sunk 16 freighters, 1 large oiler, and 2 destroyers. Group 38.2, during the same period, sank 1 medium freighter ninety miles north of Manila, 2 medium freighters and a large transport off the Luzon west coast, and a medium freighter in Subic Bay. Group 38.3 sank 5 merchant ships and a destroyer. Numerous other craft were damaged. The toll of Jap vessels alone reached proportions which well justified the risk taken in approaching the strong enemy base.

On the twenty-second, a fighter sweep and two strikes were all that were launched as there was indication of the approach of a typhoon from the north. After withdrawal, fueling was completed on the twenty-third and the three groups proceeded to their next assignment.

Information had been received by Vice Admiral Mitscher indicating that some of the Jap shipping which had been withdrawn from the Luzon area had proceeded south to Coron Bay in the Calamian group, north of Palawan. In view of the targets presented, Admiral Mitscher directed that strikes be made on shipping in Coron Bay on the twenty-fourth, and that three additional strikes be made on other Visayans targets. The strike against Coron Bay was launched at 0600 on the twenty-fourth from a point fifty miles northwest of Samar Island. From the launching point to Coron Bay was a distance of nearly 350 miles, yet no one was lost operationally during the flight. Following the Coron Bay strike, others were launched against suspected troop concentrations on Leyte, against aircraft and ground installationº on Cebu, Negros, Masbate, and Panay, and against numerous Jap vessels. There was almost complete lack of enemy airborne opposition, clear evidence of the effectiveness of prior strikes. The most important result of the strike  p224 was the sinking of 16 large ships and 10 smaller craft and the damaging of numerous others. Following the second Visayans attack, the three groups retired, 38.2 to Saipan, 38.3 to Palau, and 38.1 to Manus.

Damage inflicted on the Japs by the groups (9 September to 24 September) was estimated at 880 planes destroyed and 241 vessels of various types sunk. We lost 54 aircraft in combat and 59 pilots and air crewmen. In addition to the extensive damage inflicted on the enemy, an interesting feature of the operation was the use, for the first time with the fast carrier task force, of a fully equipped night carrier, the Independence. Its complement of planes was 16 night fighters and 9 night torpedo planes.

Thayer's Note:

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

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