After the successful assaults on the Marshall and the Gilbert Islands – including the bloody battles at Tarawa – many of the escorting ships returned to the U.S. Pacific base at Pearl harbour. En route, on 4th December, the planes from the carriers made attacks on the Japanese occupied Kwajalein Atoll and Wotje Atoll.
Later in the day they came under attack from Japanese planes. A fairly routine day of operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time.
The 4th December is probably most notable for the dramatic photograph taken just after one of the Japanese attackers was hit:
It was a busy day for the Task Group as this report from the War Diary of the U.S.S. Yorktown makes clear:
December 4th 1943 – Saturday
Steaming as before in formation 5 – R.
At 0515 Flight Quarters were sounded and at 0550 General Quarters were sounded in preparation for attacks against Kwajalein Atoll and Wotje Atoll.
At 0629 this vessel commenced launching planes of strike one of operation plan A3-43.
At 0843 changed disposition to 5-V as the threat of air attack is greater than one of submarine or surface vessels.
By 1100 planes of strike one has returned aboard. The Air Group Commander reported that the enemy had been caught by surprise and damage had been inflicted on enemy shipping, aircraft and installations.
At 1200, strike number two was launched as ordered against Wotje Atoll.
At 1205, low-flying enemy planes were reported in the vicinity.
1208 alert, starboard bow.
1209 U.S.S.Lexington reported shooting down three torpedo planes, all torpedoes passing astern.
At 12:40 this vessel commenced landing a combat air patrol.
1247 U.S.S. San Francisco and U.S.S.Yorktown opened fire on low flying planes off port bow. Three planes were shot down, one falling close astern of this vessel. These planes were identified as KATES.
1445 This vessel landed strike number two aboard. The Air Group Commander reported damage inflicted upon enemy installations, aircraft and one enemy cargo ship at Wotje.
1847 Planes were reported by radar at 130°(T), 66 miles and 166°(T), 47 miles. The Task Force manoeuvred to avoid these planes. These planes seem to be flying in “expanding squares”.
1947 One group of planes closed to 21 miles and the U.S.S.Oakland left the disposition for a position”Downmoon” of the task group.
1959 Task Group 50.3 was seen to open fire.
2100 Planes at 250°(T), 21 miles and 23° (T), 17 miles closing (10– 15) planes. Task group manoeuvring to avoid planes.
2107 Ships astern open fire.
2131 Plane reported at 080°(T), 8 miles and many others over the U.S.S.Oakland.
2200 All planes opened distance.
2230 U.S.S. Enterprise reported loss of power on one screw. Speed reduced to 23 knots.
2253 Planes began closing again. Task Force manoeuvred to avoid planes.
2300 Ships astern open fire and planes opened the distance.
2315 Planes closed again and other ships open fire.
2320 Task group 50.3 was seen to open fire.
2323 Flare dropped on port bow. Task group changed course to starboard. Commenced firing at two planes to starboard.
2332 U.S.S.Lexington reported being hit by torpedo and losing steering control.
C.T.G. 50.1 reported his intention of standing by the USS Lexington and told C.T.G. 50.1 to remain in the vicinity to give assistance.
The U.S.S.Oakland, U.S.S.New Orleans and U.S.S.Chauncey were told to stand by the U.S.S.Lexington to render assistance.
2400 U.S.S.Lexington reported being able to make 20 knots but unable to use steering engine.