The disparity in resources between the United States and Japan had now become quite incredible. It was hard to believe that the Japanese had calculated, just over three years before, that a single knockout blow at Pearl Harbour could overcome the Americans. While one fleet of hundreds of U.S. Navy ships was still besieging the island of Iwo Jima, another fleet was gathering at the remote base at Ulithi, preparing for the invasion of Okinawa. The U.S. Navy had occupied the islands, unopposed, in September 1944.
The supply situation for many Japanese bases was now imperilled by their lack of shipping, with their transports now constantly threatened by Allied submarines. Many Japanese troops had their food strictly rationed. On Iwo Jima their men had been on a very restricted diet for a long time and they struggled to find enough drinking water. By contrast the Americans were able to provide their men with ice cream.
Within a month of the occupation of Ulithi, a complete floating base was in operation. Six thousand ship fitters, artificers, welders, carpenters, and electricians arrived aboard repair ships, destroyer tenders, and floating dry docks. The USS Ajax had an air-conditioned optical shop and a metal fabrication shop with a supply of base metals from which she could make any alloy to form any part needed. The USS Abatan, which looked like a big tanker, distilled fresh water and baked bread and pies. The ice cream barge made 500 gallons a shift. The dry docks towed to Ulithi were large enough to lift dry a 45,000 ton battleship. The small island of Mog Mog became a rest and recreation site for sailors.
Fleet oilers sortied from Ulithi to meet the task forces at sea, refueling the warships a short distance from their combat operational areas. The result was something never seen before: a vast floating service station enabling the entire Pacific fleet to operate indefinitely at unprecedented distances from its mainland bases. Ulithi was as far away from the US Naval base at San Francisco as San Francisco was from London, England. The Japanese had considered that the vastness of the Pacific Ocean would make it very difficult for the US to sustain operations in the western Pacific. With the Ulithi naval base to refit, repair and resupply, many ships were able to deploy and operate in the western Pacific for a year or more without returning to the Naval base at Pearl Harbor.
On the island itself was a young Marine Corps pilot, still training with his squadron, in preparation for combat with an enemy they had yet to meet. Samuel Hynes was to go on to write a reflective memoir of his time in the Marines, as befits a man who is now Professor of Literature at Princeton University:
Out in the lagoon the warships gathered and waited, but as we flew over them, coming and going on our solitary patrols, they did not look like menacing machines designed to burn and drown men, but like delicate abstractions – slender, tapered shapes at rest on the smooth bright water, part of the static pattern of our lives.
And so when the air-raid sirens began to howl one evening in the early dark, we took it for a drill. After all, the nearest Japanese planes were away off in the Philippines, and there weren’t many of them left even there.
As the island lights went out, we left the club and gathered curiously at the lagoon-end of the landing strip, and watched the fleet black out – a ship here, a ship there, one or two of the big ones delaying, and then suddenly blinking out, until at last the whole lagoon was dark. Not a very successful drill, I thought; it had been far too slow.
And then, astonishingly, anti-aircraft guns began to fire, and tracers sprayed up into the darkness, as though the lights that had burned across the waters of the lagoon were being hurled into the sky. I began to feel exposed, standing there on the runway while the guns fired; but no one else moved, so I didn’t.
Across the lagoon a plane screamed into a dive, higher and higher pitched, and there was a flash and an explosion, and an instant later another explosion in what seemed the center of the moored ships. Then darkness and silence, until the all- clear sounded, and lights began to come on in the harbor again.
It had been a kamikaze raid. The Japanese planes had flown all the way from the main islands, touching at the Philippines. They had planned to refuel at Yap, and then fly on to attack the fleet at Ulithi; but bad navigation, bad weather, bad luck, whatever it was, had delayed them, and sent some planes back.
Others had crash-landed on the Yap beach. Only three reached Ulithi. One was shot down; one crashed into the deck of the carrier Randolph, where the crew was crowded into the hangar deck watching a movie; and one, taking an island for a large ship, dove on Mogmog and blew up a kitchen.
The whole lasted perhaps fifteen minutes. We were excited by it – perhaps entertained is a more precise word – it was a spectacle, like a son et lumiére, with noise, light, explosions.
We didn’t know what was happening to human lives while we watched, but even if we had, I wonder if it would have mattered. We were a mile or so from the Randolph, and perhaps a mile is too far to project the imagination to another man’s death. We took it as a sign that the war was still with us, that we still had an enemy, and went to bed heartened by the incident.