On the 19th March 1945 the carrier USS Franklin was 50 miles off the coast of Japan, participating in air strikes against the main island of Honshu by Task Force 58. On deck were 31 armed and fueled aircraft about to be launched, with more armed and fuelled aircraft were in the hangar deck below. Suddenly a Japanese bomber emerged from the clouds and dropped two 250kg bombs.
The first bomb penetrated into the hangar deck, setting off a devastating series of aviation fuel and ammunition explosions. The force of these explosions erupted onto the flight deck setting off further fires and explosions amongst the waiting aircraft. The ship soon began to list and for a time it seemed that the Franklin was doomed.
Pacific War Correspondent Alvin S. McCoy sent this account, which subsequently appeared in War Illustrated in Britain:
I was the only war correspondent aboard, a dazed survivor of the holocaust only because I was below decks at breakfast in the unhit area. The rescue of the crippled carrier, towed flaming and smoking from the very shores of Japan, and the saving of more than 800 men fished from the sea by protecting cruisers and destroyers, will be an epic of naval warfare.
Heads bobbed in the water for miles behind the carrier. Men floated on rafts or swam about in the bitterly cold water to seize lifelines from the rescue ships and be hauled aboard. The official loss of life will be announced by the Navy Department in Washington. Unofficial figures at the time showed 949 dead, more than 221 wounded.
Scenes of indescribable horror swept the ship. Men were blown off the flight deck into the sea. Some were burned to cinders in the searing white-hot flash of flame that swept the hangar deck. Others were trapped in the compartments below and suffocated by smoke. Scores were drowned, and others torn by exploding shells and bombs.
Countless deeds of heroism and superb seamanship saved the carrier and about two-thirds of the ship’s complement if more than 2,500. The tenacity of the Franklin’s skipper, Captain L. E. Gehres, who refused to abandon the ship and accept the aid of protecting ships and planes, virtually snatched the carrier from Japanese waters to be repaired so that she can fight again.
Fire and damage control parties who stuck with the ship performed valiantly. The carrier was all but abandoned, although the “abandon ship” order was never given. An air group and about 1,500 of the crew were sent to the U.S.S. Sante Fé. A skeleton crew of some 690 remained aboard to try to save the ship as it listed nearly twenty degrees. The Franklin’s aircraft which were airborne landed safely on other carriers.
The official casualty figures were 724 killed and 265 wounded but subsequent research, taking into the number of men first shown as missing, has placed the figure at between 807 and 924 killed.
Contemporary newsreel of the incident, without sound but has graphic footage of other Japanese planes, probably kamikazes, being shot down:
The Japanese military aim in attacking Pearl Harbor had been to neutralise the major components of the US Navy, enabling to them to win swift territorial victories relatively unopposed. In December 1941 they had failed to sink all the carriers they had hoped to hit. But just three year later they were facing an incomparably greater American Naval force, far stronger than the force that they had hoped to knock out.
The extraordinary expansion of the US Fleet now not only enabled them to deploy huge numbers of ships for their amphibious attacks on Japanese held territories – but also to deploy the roving Fast Carrier Task Force. Within this were four Task Groups each based on four aircraft carriers, defended by numerous support ships – each Task Group had up 24 destroyers screening it.
Operation Gratitude had begun with the conventional support of the landings on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. But the carriers had then moved into the South China Sea and their planes had successfully attacked a wide range of Japanese targets in French Indo-China (now Vietnam), crippling the Japanese mercantile fleet. Now they moved back for an attack on Formosa (Taiwan). The weather was good for flying – which meant it was also good for kamikazes.
Edgar Newlin was part of the aircraft maintenance crew on the USS Ticonderoga:
As I remember, it was a nice calm day, which influenced a later decision. I was a plane captain. For anyone that doesn’t know what that is. I took care of an airplane, a fighter to be exact. I was suppose to keep it fueled, tied down, cleaned etc. We were suppose to stay with the plane anytime we were at flight quarters if it wasn’t tied down.
At this time we were at flight quarters, but for some reason the lunch had been delayed so my plane was just sitting there. I would have been the third plane launched, one on each catapult, and then mine.
It was past noon and we hadn’t had chow when another plane captain came along and talked me into going. Remember, we were not suppose to leave our plane in that condition, but we did and it probably saved my life. We had just reached the mess hall when the fantail 40s started firing, maybe three or four rounds. Then they started General Quarters, maybe two or three boings, when a suicide plane hit and blew up on the hangar deck. It sounded like a bucket with rocks in it;more of a rattle than an explosion.
I dropped my tray and started back up the flight deck, but by then smoke was everywhere and some of the hatches had been closed so I had an awful time getting back to my battle station, which was my plane, and when I got there it was gone! Thats was where the jap had hit. He must have aimed for my plane; it went through the flight deck and blew up on the hangar deck. That was what I heard when I was in the mess hall.
I didn’t have a battle station so I just wandered around kind of in a daze. I had no idea what to do. I tried to help others, but I seemed to be in the road. I don’t know how much later it was, it seemed like hours but was probably not over 30 minutes, when I found myself standing on the flight deck, forward of the five-inch guns, watching a second Jap plane heading straight for the island. I just stood there watching because I was sure he would go down. I could see the tracer shells, going through the plane and the pilot.
It soon became clear that he was going to hit us. About then I realized where I was standing. I looked around;all I could do was jump down to the catwalk and head for the port side under the flight deck. When I was about halfway across I heard the plane hit the island.
From then on I remembered only flashes of what happened. I remember wandering around, trying to find where I was needed but I don’t recall doing anything specific. I still feel the hopeless feeling of not being able to do anything for my friends. I don’t remember many names – Selbe walking around holding a big wad of cotton on what was left of his arm. blown off just above his elbow. He died about 2:00 the next morning – shock they said. There was a little boy named Menard, blown in half. He always wore his dog tags on his belt loop, so we could identify him from that. I don’t think he was much over fifteen at the time.
I remember they used our compartment as part of Sick Bay that night so we slept wherever we could. The next day the hospital ship took the wounded and we had burials at sea all afternoon. I have never had any doubt that I was saved by divine intervention. If I had been where I was supposed to be, I would surely have been killed. If we started two minutes later we would have been caught on the hangar deck where all the casualties of the first plne were. If we had gone sooner we might have been back to my plaane and I would have been killed then.
From the Deck Log of the USS Hancock, 21 January 1945:
1328: VT 124, Bu #23539 [a General Motors TBM-3 Avenger], pilot, LT(JG) C.R. Dean, 298954, and crewmen F.J. Blake, ARM3c, and D.E. Zima, AOM2c, made a normal landing and taxied forward. As the plane reached a point abreast the island a violent explosion occurred, believed to have been caused by the detonation of two (2) 500 lb. bombs adrift in the plane’s bomb bay. The immediate results of the explosion were: casualties: killed – 62; critically injured – 46; seriously injured – 25; slightly injured – 20. A 10×16 foot hole in the flight deck, gallery deck area in the vicinity demolished, inboard side signal bridge wrecked. Three airplanes demolished. Numerous shrapnel holes throughout the island structure. Fires broke out on the flight, gallery, and hangar decks. Hauled clear of the formation and commenced maneuvering at various courses and speeds in an attempt to control the winds over the deck, and with high speed turns, to wash flooding water out of the hangar deck.
As the US landings on the Philippines were consolidated the Japanese Navy became more desperate to halt the American advance across the Pacific. The organised use of Kamikaze suicide planes now became more frequent. Dramatic pictures of the engagement on the 25th November were to publicise the new danger. Two days later another battle group arriving off the Philippines came under a similar attack.
James J. Fahey was serving on the USS Montpelier, one of the busiest ships in the Pacific War, ending the war with 13 battle stars. He kept his diary throughout, written on loose sheets of paper kept in a tin. It was never intended for publication – but won wide acclaim when ‘discovered’ and then published in 1963. Much of the diary is worth reading simply because he covers so much of the routine life on board ship – but on the 27th the Montpelier was in the thick of a desperate fight against Japanese kamikaze planes:
27 November 1944
At 10.50 A.M. this morning General Quarters sounded, all hands went to their battle stations. At the same time a battleship and a destroyer were alongside the tanker getting fuel.
Out of the clouds I saw a big Jap bomber come crashing down into the water. It was not smoking and looked in good condition. It felt like I was in it as it hit the water not too far from the tanker, and the 2 ships that were refueling. One of our P-38 fighters hit it. He must have got the pilot.
At first I thought it was one of our bombers that had engine trouble. It was not long after that when a force of about 30 Jap planes attacked us. Dive bombers and torpedo planes. Our two ships were busy getting away from the tanker because one bomb-hit on the tanker and it would be all over for the 3 ships.
The 2 ships finally got away from the tanker and joined the circle. I think the destroyers were on the outside of the circle. It looked funny to see the tanker all by itself in the center of the ships as we circled it, with our guns blazing away as the planes tried to break through. It was quite a sight, better than the movies…
Jap planes were coming at us from all directions. Before the attack started we did not know that they were suicide planes, with no intention of returning to their base. They had one thing in mind and that was to crash into our ships, bombs and all. You have to blow them up, to damage them doesn’t mean much. Right off the bat a Jap plane made a suicide dive at the cruiser St. Louis, there was a big explosion and flames were seen shortly from the stern.
Another one tried to do the same thing but he was shot down. A Jap plane came in on a battleship with its guns blazing away. Other Jap planes came in strafing one ship, dropping their bombs on another and crashing into another ship. The Jap planes were falling all around us, the air was full of Jap machine gun bullets. Jap planes and bombs were hitting all around us. Some of our ships were being hit by suicide planes, bombs and machine gun fire…
While all this was taking place our ship had its hands full with Jap planes. We knocked our share of planes down but we also got hit by 3 suicide planes, but lucky for us they dropped their bombs before they crashed into us.
In the meantime exploding planes overhead were showering us with their parts. It looked like it was raining plane parts. They were falling all over the ship. Quite a few of the men were hit by big pieces of Jap planes.
We were supposed to have air coverage but all we had was 4 P-38 fighters, and when we opened up on the Jap planes they got out of the range of our exploding shells. They must have had a ring side seat of the show. The men on my mount were also showered with parts of Jap planes.
One suicide dive bomber was heading right for us while we were firing at other attacking planes and if the 40 mm. mount behind us on the port side did not blow the Jap wing off it would have killed all of us. When the wing was blown off it, the plane turned some and bounced off into the water and the bombs blew part of the plane onto our ship.
Another suicide plane crashed into one of the 5 inch mounts, pushing the side of the mount in and injuring some of the men inside. A lot of 5 inch shells were damaged. It was a miracle they did not explode. If that happened the powder and shells would have blown up the ship.
Our 40 mm mount is not too far away. The men threw the 5 inch shells over the side. They expected them to go off at any time. A Jap dive bomber crashed into one of the 40 mm mounts but lucky for them it dropped its bombs on another ship before crashing. Parts of the plane flew everywhere when it crashed into the mount.
Part of the motor hit Tomlinson, he had chunks of it all over him, his stomach, back, legs etc. The rest of the crew were wounded, most of them were sprayed with gasoline from the plane. Tomlinson was thrown a great distance and at first they thought he was knocked over the side. They finally found him in a corner in bad shape.
One of the mt. Captains had the wires cut on his phones and kept talking into the phone, because he did not know they were cut by shrapnel until one of the fellows told him. The explosions were terrific as the suicide planes exploded in the water not too far away from our ship. The water was covered with black smoke that rose high into the air. The water looked like it was on fire. It would have been curtains for us if they had crashed into us.
In what some regard as the largest Naval engagement in history, certainly in World War II, the US 3rd and 7th Fleets clashed with the Imperial Japanese Navy off the Philippines between 23rd and 26th October in the Battle of the Leyte Gulf. The US Navy was there to provide support for the invasion of the Philippines.
Leyte Gulf consisted of a series of engagements, each one of which would be considered a significant naval battle. The 24th October saw the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, during which US planes bombed and sunk the Musashi, one of the largest battleships ever built.
US carrier based planes were largely successful in preventing the Japanese planes getting through to their own ships. However, it would only took one plane to get through the screen to cause serious damage.
Henry Popham was on the USS Birmingham and had a full view of events after he had completed his shift in the engine room:
October 24 dawned with broken clouds and occasional squalls, but there was good visibility, allowing continuing airstrikes in support of land operations on the island of Leyte. The day began before sunrise, with general quarters sounded for all the ships in Task Force 38.
To start the day, Princeton contributed 20 fighter planes to the air battle over Leyte Gulf. The first wave of 40 to 50 Japanese planes was intercepted and their attack broken up with many enemy losses. A second group of about 30 enemy aircraft quickly took to the air.
Out of the two waves, Princeton’s planes alone shot down 34 enemy aircraft with a loss of only one. Pilots became aces in a matter of minutes. The planes returned to the carrier for refueling and arming in preparation for an airstrike against a Japanese force of four battleships, eight cruisers and 13 destroyers southeast of the island of Mindoro.
At 9:12 a.m., USS Essex reported a possible bandit plus a friendly aircraft about six miles away. No other unidentifieds were within a radius of 25 miles.
At 9:38 a.m., a single Judy was sighted by Princeton’s lookouts, diving on their vessel from out of the low cloud cover ahead of the ship. The plane immediately came under fire from the forward 20mm and 40mm batteries, and the helm was put over to port in an evasion attempt. The Judy dropped two bombs. One missed Princeton and fell harmlessly into the sea. The other 550-pound bomb fell almost in the center of Princeton’s deck, causing jarring on the bridge and a dull thud in central station. Black smoke issued from the hole in the flight deck, the forward elevator and every access trunk to the hangar aft of the island. Ed Butler, a radarman, said, “I saw him [the Japanese pilot] high-tailing it away from our stern, trailing smoke.”
Pete Callan, one of the crew who had refueled and armed the torpedo planes, says he heard machine-gun fire at a more rapid rate than any of the guns aboard Princeton were capable of. He heard bullets striking the wooden planking of the flight deck.
Fifty years later, Pete told me, “The Japanese pilot utilized the striking bullets to guide his aim by stitching the deck and the surrounding water, then making the appropriate corrections to his bombing run.” The bomb passed through the flight deck, leaving a small jagged hole about 15 inches in diameter, continuing downward and severing the main gasoline line used to fuel the planes. The bomb then passed through an auxiliary drop tank under one wing of Lieutenant Tom Mooney’s torpedo plane parked in the hangar. The bomb continued on its path, piercing the hangar deck and detonating in the crew’s galley on the second deck. The bomb blew a hole through the second deck into the third, above the after engine room.
Structural damage was relatively minor, but a raging gasoline fire flared up in the wreckage of Mooney’s plane and spread rapidly to the other five planes parked there. The quantity of gasoline dumped onto the hangar deck from the severed gasoline main is unknown, but those six fully fueled planes had held more than 2,500 gallons of high-test aviation gasoline. The bomb had created a 5-foot indentation around the small 15-inch hole, which acted as a funnel for the gasoline spilling onto the hangar deck, directing it into the lower decks where the fire raged. Within seconds of the explosion there were fires on the third deck over the after engine room, on the second deck, and in the hangar. Billowing black smoke from burning gasoline poured from every opening in the lower decks.
Less than 10 minutes after the bomb was dropped, the firefighting sprinkler system was completely disabled. Within the same short timespan, the main engines lost almost all power, which first slowed Princeton, then brought her to a halt and turned her into a drifting, burning hulk.
Nearly 90 minutes after the bomb hit, Birmingham was ordered to fall out of formation and assume command of the firefighting operations.
To be effective, Birmingham had to stay in direct contact so firefighters could move from ship to ship. To stay in physical contact, Birmingham deliberately crowded Princeton. Princeton’s anti-torpedo blisters on both sides below her waterline amidships effectively limited the approach of any supporting ships to the bow or stern areas.
After an extended all-night shift belowdecks making repairs in the after engine room of Birmingham, I was relieved from duty. I went above with Vernon Trevethan and George Thompson. No longer serving under general quarters, we were off duty and sightseeing.
George, Vernon and I headed for the open bridge above the starboard flying bridge. We wanted to observe the firefighting efforts on Princeton but still stay out of the way. Clearly, Birmingham’s starboard side and Princeton’s port side were severely damaged by the grinding impacts that ensued during Birmingham’s attempt to maneuver to the advantage of the firefighters aboard both ships.
Damaged by the constant collisions between the two vessels, a hatch door was ripped from Princeton’s hull, exposing the interior of what appeared to be a companionway. Today the memory of what I saw scares me. Then, however, I was only 23 and not easily intimidated by potential danger. What I saw was a row of bombs standing upright. If memory has not failed me, those bombs were in the neighborhood of 5 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter.
Firefighters on Birmingham were directing streams of water onto those bombs, causing them to sizzle like a hot frying pan when water is sprinkled onto its surface. This effort by Birmingham’s crew to cool down the bombs with fire hoses was desperately hampered because of the narrow quarters and the constant rolling of the ships. The bombs were hissing and generating clouds of steam. My buddies and I watched this activity from our vantage point less than 20 feet away from the nearest bomb. Birmingham’s skipper, Captain Thomas Inglis, was just below us on the flying bridge, directing the entire operation. The grim expression on his face indicated his deep concern at the stress of the situation.
At around 1:32 p.m., Birmingham sounded general quarters as she pulled clear of Princeton due to threats of air and submarine attacks.
About 90 minutes later, general quarters ended with the all clear. Again Birmingham moved alongside Princeton. My little group reconvened. Now we perched on the after mushroom ventilator, between the No. 3 and No. 4 turrets, intently watching the activities on Princeton. Birmingham prepared to rig for towing.
From an estimated distance of 50 to 75 yards, absolutely no smoke or fires were observed, only patches of foglike vapors coming from the numerous openings in Princeton’s flight deck. Princeton appeared to be serenely drifting with the current. It appeared as if the fires had gone out on their own. Our little group on Birmingham figured the excitement was all over. The fires aboard Princeton had been extinguished.
The ships were still separated by about 50 feet when sailors shot their messenger lines across in order to secure a spring line between the two ships. George, on my right, suddenly exclaimed, “Look at that flame!” We saw a single tongue of flame shoot out from the area of the after elevator, followed by an enormous puff of white smoke like a billowy cumulus cloud. To our horror, a slender column of pale orange-colored smoke shot several hundred feet straight up. All hell broke loose with an enormous eruption. One hundred and thirty feet of Princeton’s stern blew off, as well as 180 feet of her flight deck.
As a high-speed shock wave headed my way, my reflexes took over. I threw myself backward before the concussion could hit me head on. This reflex action undoubtedly saved my life. Still, the force of the shock wave tumbled me backward 30 or 40 feet and about 10 feet into the air before dropping me on the deck. The shock wave hit me a split second before the thunder of the explosion reached my ears.
While I was tumbling, I was aware that Vernon, my best friend, was also somersaulting. I saw him land on his feet andrun around the barbett of No. 3 turret to disappear from my sight. Some time later, I learned he had dropped dead on the other side of the turret.
I was stunned momentarily, yet at the same time my senses were heightened. When the roar of the explosion abated, I became aware of an ear-splitting silence that seemed to last for an eternity and was almost painful to my ears. The deafening hush was finally brought to an end by the sound of burning hot shrapnel raining down all around me. The shrapnel was burning through my clothes in what seemed to be hundreds of places.
I had to get out from under that shower of hot steel. When I glanced down I saw that my right knee was mangled, so I thought I would get up on my left leg and hop to the overhanging No. 4 turret. But my left leg would not support me because it was broken. I tried to crawl on my belly, but the pea-sized, gravel-like bits of Princeton on the deck painfully burned my hands and forearms as well as the nape of my neck. All I could do was roll around on the deck, trying to escape the searing pain.
Finally, the shrapnel stopped falling and the pieces of steel cooled. I collected myself enough to look around at hundreds of dead or unconscious bodies. Out of maybe 300 crew members on the after starboard deck of Birmingham, there was only one person other than myself who was conscious. There was no moaning, only an eerie quiet.
108 men died on the Princeton but casualties were ben heavier on the Birmingham, 233 dead and 426 wounded. Read the whole account at History Net
Contemporary British newsreel of the battle including footage of the plane that bombed the USS Princeton being shot down:
On 2nd September 1944 Lieutenant George W. H. Bush, an Avenger pilot with VT-51 on the USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), was ordered to lead an attack on a Japanese radio station on the island of ChiChi Jima. He continued with the dive bomb attack after his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and then managed to get his aircraft over the sea before baling out.
His two crew members, Radioman Second Class John Delaney, and substitute gunner Lieutenant Junior Grade William White were killed – one of them parachuted out but the parachute failed to open, the other went down with the plane.
Leo W. Nadeau flew as Bush’s gunner on all but two of his attack missions:
I was replaced by Ltjg. White at the last minute. As intelligence officer, White wanted to go along to observe the island.
[Nadeau had flown with Bush for an attack on Japanese gun emplacements on ChiChi Jima the day before] The antiaircraft (AA) fire on that island was the worst we had seen, I don’t think the AA fire in the Philippines was as bad as that.
No one ever knew which one bailed out with Mr. Bush, I would assume it was Delaney, because as the radioman, he would go out first to leave room for the gunner to climb down out of the turret and put his chute on.
There wasn’t room in the turret for the gunner to wear a parachute. As a gunner, my parachute hung on the bulkhead of the plane near Delaney. We set up an escape procedure where he was supposed to hand me my chute and jump, and then I was to follow him. The procedure took a couple of seconds
I felt bad that Delaney and Mr. White had died, I just had the feeling that had I been there, Delaney and I might have both made it out alive … that is, unless one of us got hit by AA.
Delaney and I had practiced our escape procedure constantly. He might have stayed to help White get out of the turret and delayed too long. it’s one of those things that never leaves your mind. Why didn’t I go that day?
In the water about seven miles off ChiChi Jima, Bush inflated his yellow lifeboat and crawled in – but his troubles were far from over. A Japanese boat was sent out to capture him – but this was beaten off when Lieutenant Doug West, one of his fellow pilots from VT-51, strafed it as it approached.
His position was reported by radio and the submarine USS Finback set off to search for him. He was eventually spotted through the periscope by Captain Robert R.Williams Jr a few hours later. Bush then saw the submarine surfacing:
I saw this thing coming out of the water and I said to myself, ‘Jeez, I hope it’s one of ours.
Ensign Bill Edwards, the sub’s first lieutenant and photographic officer, recorded the rescue on 8mm film:
I thought being rescued by the submarine was the end of my problem. I didn’t realize that I would have to spend the duration of the sub’s 30 remaining days on board.
I’ll never forget the beauty of the Pacific … the flying fish, the stark wonder of the sea, the waves breaking across the bow.
I thought I was scared at times flying into combat, but in a submarine you couldn’t do anything, except sit there. The submariners were saying that it must be scary to be shot at by antiaircraft fire and I was saying to myself, ‘Listen brother, it is not really as bad as what you go through.’ The tension, adrenaline and the fear factor were about the same (getting shot at by antiaircraft fire as opposed to being depth charged).
When we were getting depth charged, the submariners did not seem overly concerned, but the other pilots and I didn’t like it a bit. There was a certain helpless feeling when the depth charges went off that I didn’t experience when flying my plane against AA.
The incident was remembered when Bush was appointed Vice President, when he said the experience of combat had given him “a sobering understanding of war and peace”:
The cause was clear and there was a great feeling of camaraderie. There was a gung-ho feeling about the combat missions. But I must confess that there were twinges of fear.
There is no question that having been involved in combat has affected my way of looking at problems. The overall experience was the most maturing in my life.
Even now, I look back and think about the dramatic ways in which the three years in the Navy shaped my life … the friendships, the common purpose, my first experience with seeing friends die …
There’s no question that it broadened my horizons. And there’s no question that today it has a real impact on me as I give advice to the President.
The citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to Bush for this action:
For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron FIFTY ONE, attached to the U.S.S. San Jacinto, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Bonin Islands, on September 2, 1944.
Leading one section of a four-plane division in a strike against a radio station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Bush pressed home an attack in the face of intense antiaircraft fire. Although his plane was hit and set afire at the beginning of his dive, he continued his plunge toward the target and succeeded in scoring damaging bomb hits before bailing out of the craft.
His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Reserve.
This was one of three medals awarded to Bush during the war, when he made 126 carrier landings and completed 1,228 flight hours. More of his experiences can be read at Naval History and Heritage.
Bush was especially lucky to escape, others shot down on this day were to suffer a terrible fate. Their story is told by James Bradley in ‘Flyboys’, published in 2003:
In the Pacific war the huge disparity in the resources that US could put into battle as compared with the Japanese was now clearly evident. In a short space of time the US Navy had not only recovered from Pearl Harbour but had expanded dramatically. The superiority of their ships and planes was now much in evidence. The clash of the two battle fleets off the Marianas, where the US were engaged in the invasion of Saipan demonstrated this only too clearly.
On the 19th Japanese planes had attacked the US fleet and had come off worse. They suffered such huge losses that what was officially known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea became more widely known as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’. The Japanese were misled in believing that their carrier borne aircraft had landed at the nearby airfields on Tinian and Guam – in fact they had suffered devastating losses and most had been shot down.
There were further Japanese losses on the 20th. This time the US fleet were trying to locate the Japanese fleet – and it took almost all day before it was located. In a risky manoeuvre the US planes were launched late in the day to attack the Japanese ships, knowing that the mass of US planes would return to their own fleet in darkness.
Max Strean was in command of Fighter Squadron 1 based on the USS Yorktown:
We sat all day long waiting for information about where the Japanese ships came from. There had to be a fleet out there.
It was on the afternoon of the twentieth when the word came. The report turned out to be in error one degree, which was sixtv miles out of position. They launched us all — everybody they could — and sent us out to attack the fleet. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and the enemy was about two to three hundred miles distant. After we got in the air they corrected the position.
It was going to be well after dark when we got back to the carriers, but we were night qualified and so they sent us out anyway knowing we would arrive over the enemy before the end of daylight.
I was leading the fighter sweep for the whole of Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58. We had several squadrons of fighters, and we went out first to sweep the area of their defending aircraft.
We got there and we saw the fleet. There was nobody to defend them, for there was nothing in the air that we could find. So we continued sweeping the area until our bombers came in.
The Japs had several task groups deployed with destroyers in a perfect circle around their carriers. They had a cruiser or a battleship supporting the carriers with antiaircraft fire. As our bombers came down on them they did a tight circle turn and fired all kinds of colored ammunition. It was quite a sight.
It was about dark when our people finished bombing. Then we fighters made an attack on their ships because we were carrying bombs in case we didn’t have to fight their cover. I was credited with a bomb hit on the Taka, an aircraft carrier, a large converted carrier, one of their important ones.
Then we started back to our carriers. The weather was pretty bad, with towering cumulus. It was dark and difficult to get in formation. I think 1 could only find about four people to lead back to the carrier, which was about 350 miles away. When we got back there it was drizzling rain.
That was the greatest fiasco the navy ever had. The lights had been turned off on the carriers. Japanese pilots in Zeros were supposedly in the landing circle. When I first got back I found my own carrier with our direction finder (we called it a Hay rake), but then it was so dark that in making a turn I apparently found another carrier. (It was not possible to recognize a carrier when you got close to it except by its wake and shape.)
There must have been about thirty people circling her, when only six were supposed to be there at one time. I got down in the circle nevertheless, for I thought thai if they couldn’t get aboard I could. But every time I came around to land it was a foul deck and they gave me the wave off.
That carrier turned out to be a light carrier, a small one. They turned off the lights and told us to get away. I thought that was damned unfeeling of them, for here we were about to get our feet wet.
I still had some fuel; I had about thirty gallons. The fighters did all right, but the bombers were going in the water one after the other. This was all part of the confusion. People were saying they were going in the water and the carriers were throwing in float lights as a result. After telling the light carrier what I thought about them, I pulled up and got on the Hayrake again and started searching for the Yorktown.
Every carrier was surrounded. You couldn’t get lined up unless you were close to the carrier. You could see the deck then and could try to come around and get in position by seeing the wake aft.
In looking for my carrier I must have made approaches on perhaps four or five ships. One turned out to be a battleship. I was frustrated and didn’t know where to go from there. I was trying to figure out what I would do. so I just continued my approach. Gee, that battleship! They turned on the lights. They fired Very pistols and yelled. “”Pilot trying to land on the battleship — get away, get away!” Well. I pulled up and got again on the Hayrake and found my own carrier.
I kept telling them to turn on the lights because too many people were going in the water. Finally they did turn on the lights. Authorities claim that Admiral Mitscher was responsible for this, but I claim I was the one they could hear bitching and asking them to do it. They not only turned on the lights but they turned On vertical searchlight beams. So it was like a carnival out there.
I circled my home carrier and finally got aboard. The first question we all asked that night was. “What ship is this?” because you could not tell one ship from the other.
Around 80 aircraft were forced to crash into the sea during the end of this episode, although three quarters of the crew were saved. This brought US aircraft losses to 123 – compared with Japanese losses of 550-645 over the two day battle.
The British Far Eastern Fleet, with USS Saratoga, sailed from Trincomalee, on 16 April 1944, and on 19 April 1944 attacked the port of Sabang, on the northwestern tip of Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese were caught completely by surprise and the combined effort destroyed oil refineries, huge storage tanks and transportation facilities. In addition the minelayer Hatsutaka, and the transports Kunitsu Maru and Haruno Maru were sunk.
This was a truly multinational force including aircraft the carriers HMS Illustrious and the USS Saratoga, the French battleship Richelieu as well as Dutch and New Zealand ships.
Reuters correspondent Alan Humphrey was there to give this dramatic account for the worlds’ press:
At the rate of ten tons a minute, 350 tons of steel and high explosive struck Sabang in the 35 minutes the bombardment lasted. Battleships; cruisers and destroyers poured shells varying from 4-in. to 15-in. into the base at close range. When the flagship turned away after completing her ﬁring she was only two miles from the green, jungle-covered hills which rise steeply from the sea around Sabang.
It was the ﬁrst time that any Allied naval surface force had been in sight of Sumatra since the dark days of the Japanese onrush in 1942.
The ﬂeet reached its objective unobserved and the ‘ﬁrst thing the Japanese knew was intensive straﬁng by carrier-based Corsair fighters. Among the Corsairs’ targets were three airﬁelds, including one at Kota Raja on the Sumatra mainland. Conﬁrming suspicions that Japan’s air strength was’weak,’ only four aircraft were found and all destroyed. Disturbing as was the air raid to serene Japanese slumbers, the ﬁrst reaction of the defenders when they saw the powerful battle ﬂeet closing in must have been one of extreme dismay.
The ﬂeet was divided into ﬁve forces for the operation. The carriers with their escort stayed a considerable way out at sea. The aircraft went straﬁng, were ready to deal with any Japanese aircraft coming up, provided an umbrella over the warships and acted as spotters for the guns. Battleships made up another force. A third force which included Dutch warships penetrated the harbour and dealt with installations at Sabang. Two other forces were devoted to attacks on coastal targets east and west of Sabang.
Just before 6.55 a.m. — zero hour — the loudspeakers announced: “Two minutes to go !” An unusual silence developed, so that sounds normally unnoticed became insistent, the remote slap of spray, the faint hiss from the funnel, the bubbling whistle, of wind in the wires just overhead. Then with a great belch of ﬂame, a greater belch of orange-brown smoke, a blast of hot air and a jolt back on to the heels, the first salvo was ﬁred from the big guns at a range of 17,000 yards.
A rating ﬁred his own shot. “Share that lot amongst you!” he said, as the guns roared. One by one resonant booms told that the other battleships had joined in the bombardment. Then began the process described beforehand by a gunnery ofﬁcer; of “inflicting the maximum damage in the minimum time”. The particular target of the ﬂagship was the military barracks area, and in the words of the same gunnery oﬂicer, the Japanese garrison there was given “a new type of reveille in the form of a 15-in. ‘brick’”.
For the next quarter of an hour it was a rapid succession of jarring explosions. The force going into the harbour was firing furiously, one destroyer depressing a multiple pom-pom and spraying the defences with that also.
Three Japanese batteries inside the harbour engaged these warships, a number of bursts throwing up grey gouts of water all round and close to them. On the run in one battery was silenced, the workshops and wharves were attacked, and a large crane was seen to topple over.
Two batteries were silenced on the run back. The report on the operations concluded with the words “quite a skylark!”.
The remainder of the ﬂeet carried out the bombardment unmolested; it appeared there were no coastal batteries. All the time a great cloud of smoke was steadily thickening over Sabang, a testimony to the weight and accuracy of the bombardment.
The Japanese defenders, who made only the slightest reaction to the air attack, apparently nettled at last, whistled up their aircraft, possibly from Sumatra, possibly from Malaya.
Two hours after the ﬂeet withdrew, a Japanese two-engined bomber was reported approaching. It was shot down by Corsairs. Shortly afterwards a Zero ﬁghter found the ﬂeet. He came in as close as ten miles, then started to run home. He reported from 14 miles away, then 25, then 28. At this point‘ the ﬁghters‘ cried “Tallyho!” and a moment later the Zero went into the sea 30 miles away.
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.
After the attack on Rabaul harbour on the 2nd November a new threat developed for the landings on Bougainville. The Japanese had been careful to avoid exposing their ships to undue risk but they now felt compelled to bring in a force of seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and three destroyers. They were spotted refuelling in Rabaul and it was obvious they were set for an attack on the ships off Bougainville. The U.S. had no capital ships near enough that would be able to challenge a force of this strength. For Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey it was:
the most desperate emergency that confronted me in my entire term as ComSoPac
He did have two carriers available, even though the only other previous comparable attack by carrier planes had been at Pearl Harbour itself. On that occasion the attackers had enjoyed complete surprise.
The USS Saratoga and USS Princetown steamed through the night to get within range and then launched all 97 available planes for an early attack, followed by a bombing attack by land based planes. Not only were the planes at risk but also the carriers.
The following account of the action comes from an interview with one of the pilots on the raid, Robert Lee Cropper:
What aircraft were you flying at that point?
Cropper: [The] TBF which preceded the TBM. [The TBF was a carrier-based bomber which carried a 2000 pound bomb or torpedo. It was called the Avenger.] We operated around Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. We had just bombed [Japanese ] bases on Bougainville Island, and were pulling back to refuel when we got rush orders [concerning] the proposed Marine invasion in Empress Augusta Bay on the south side of Bougainville. We had to steam all the way around the Solomon Islands, back around Guadalcanal and up because a [Japanese battle fleet] of cruisers had just come into Rabaul [harbor] and were going to sail down to wipe out the landing of the Marines. The Marines had no sea support other than a couple of destroyers, I think. So we launched [all our planes], and it was the longest launching way from the target the Navy had ever done at the time. After the launch, the SARATOGA was supposed to turn and run for her life. If we got out of Rabaul, we were supposed to try to land in the water at Empress August Bay, where the Marines were just making a landing and there was no airstrip yet. So we went [behind a weather front which helped to surprise the Japanese], into Rabaul to the [Japanese] fleet. That was our first strike on Rabaul. I got … a heavy cruiser.
Harrison: What class was that?
Cropper: [The one I hit was a Tone class, heavy cruiser.] I came around and my wing tip was almost lying on a volcanic mountain at the entrance to the Harbor. [The Japanese] fleet was steaming out, trying to get to sea so that they could maneuver. When I hit [the cruiser] and came over him, I passed over the bow of this cruiser after dropping my torpedo. Now this [Japanese] cruiser had four mounts of eight inch cannons going off, but I was right at bridge level off my wing tip. I could see the officers on the bridge as I passed over. I was being chewed up by a [Japanese fighter] sea plane, of all things, because they couldn’t go fast. A torpedo plane had no great speed [either], but…I managed to outrun him. But he chewed me up pretty bad, but we got back to the ship. Our captain had kept steaming ahead instead of obeying orders and turning to flee. So we came back and landed aboard, [and] went around the Solomons.
Harrison: Did you ever find the name of the cruiser that you sank?
Cropper: [Post war naval archive research shows it was the CHIKUMA. The Navy thought she sank, and, though severely damaged, the Japanese kept her afloat and later repaired her. She was sunk a year later with the loss of her entire crew in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.]
The full interview and account of Cropper’s service was originally available at Worcester County Veterans Memorial- http://www.opvets.com/opvets/article/3472. It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.
In all the U.S. planes managed to damage nearly all of the Japanese ships, forcing them to retire the force to Truk for repairs. It was a stunning victory.
However the US forces also had their casualties and several families would subsequently receive letters like this:
The full tribute to Lt. George C. Haniotis, pilot of P-38 Lightning from the fighter escort, missing in action 5 November 1943 following a dogfight with Japanese Zero fighters, can be read at Purple Hearts.
Inevitably as the Pedestal convoy got closer to Italy, and the air bases on Sicily and Sardinia, the air attacks on it intensified. Enemy aircraft now had much longer time to spend over their targets and time to co-ordinate their attacks. The U-boat threat had not diminished and for a period the destroyers were firing depth charges merely asa deterrent.
L. Myers was on board the battleship HMS Rodney. He recalls that they were in almost continuous action for three days starting with the sinking of HMS Eagle. It was the following day that things started to get really busy for them:
The action, when it started, was a fairly gentlemanly affair with a few high level bombing and submarine attacks. But on the second day things got really hectic with combined high level bombing, torpedo bombing, dive bombing and submarine attacks. The action diary for this day as recorded by Kenneth Thompson, the ship’s Chaplain in his book ‘HMS Rodney at war’ lists some 80 plus entries between 0745 and 2015.
A short extract
1236 Mine, bomb or torpedo explodes astern
1239 Manchester opens fire
1241 Destroyers open fire port side
1242 Nine torpedo bombers coming in outside screen
1243 16″ open fire to port
1245 Torpedoes dropped port bow
1248 Six torpedo bombers on port beam
1248 Torpedo bomber shot down by fighter red 10
(Note use of 16″ in ack ack role)
Whenever possible I made my way to the upper deck to observe the operation of our two remaining carriers, ‘Indomitable’ and ‘Victorious’. With the convoy under constant air attack from dawn to dusk there was continual flight deck activity. It must be remembered that fresh aircrew manned each succeeding wave of enemy aircraft whereas our small band of pilots were continuously in action. I watched the aircraft land on and taxi to the forward lift where it was lowered into the hangar, I could imagine the action as it was moved back through the hangar being refuelled, rearmed and repaired while the pilot was debriefed, having a cup of coffee and a pee (not necessarily in that order) and by the time the aircraft reached the after lift he was ready to go again.
It was possibly the most concentrated period of action in the annals of the Fleet Air Arm. Very comparable to the Battle of Britain but with the added hazards of a moving airfield, having to fly through ‘friendly’ flak to reach it and flying aircraft inferior in performance to those of the enemy.
Regretfully I have no statistics to cover this period but the performance of those young Naval aviators is deserving of the highest praise.
I had many friends in both ships and was well aware of the intense activity that was taking place both on the deck and in the crowded hangar below.
Must admit to some embarrassment at the comparatively easy passage I was having but at the same time must admit to being very grateful for the security provided by the Rodney’s 14″ of armour plating.
Elsewhere HMS Ithuriel had spotted a U-boat, the Italian Cobalto’s periscope had left a trail in the water, just visible to a lookout on the destroyer. Even though the periscope was withdrawn an attack was made where it was last spotted :
‘Stand by depth-charges. Depth-charges, fire’ The able seaman standing by the firing levers pulls them, and after a few seconds the ship shudders as they explode violently astern of us. ‘Quite a good attack I think, Sir,’ says the RNVR Sub Lieutenant, and everybody looks astern, hoping for some signs of wreckage to appear.
I decide to carry out a second depth-charge attack and the ship is just turning when a roar goes up, ‘There she is.’ It was a successful attack, and the U-boat has come to the surface, but the job is not yet finished. Perhaps she will crash-dive and try to escape. We can take no chances. So, ‘Full ahead both engines; prepare to ram.’ The guns need no orders. They have already opened fire and the U-boat is getting seven bells knocked out of her.
Some of the Italians start shouting and jumping overboard. I give the order ‘Full speed astern’ to take some speed off the ship and avoid damaging ourselves unnecessarily. After all, you don’t need to use a hammer on a boiled egg, so to speak. We hit her abaft the conning tower and heel her right over. It is a delightful crunch.
Lieutenant-Commander D. H. Maitland-Makgill-Crichton DSO RN, Captain of HMS Ithuriel – first published in the Listener, 22nd October, 1942.