USS Yorktown fights off Japanese ‘Kates’


4th December 1943: USS Yorktown fights off Japanese ‘Kates’

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.

U.S. Navy Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat fighters of fighter squadron VF-5, Carrier Air Group Five (CVG-5), are readied for a strike against Marcus Island aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10) on 31 August 1943.
U.S. Navy Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat fighters of fighter squadron VF-5, Carrier Air Group Five (CVG-5), are readied for a strike against Marcus Island aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10) on 31 August 1943.

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:

The Yorktown picture seen around the world, the famous "Flaming Kate",
The Yorktown picture seen around the world, the famous “Flaming Kate”, made from aft end of Yorktown’s flight deck, 4th December 1943, photographed by Chief Petty Officer Photographer’s Mate Alfred N. Cooperman. Life Magazine featured this picture in full page color.

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.

A burning Japanese torpedo-bomber falls after being knocked down by artillery from American warships. Date	ca. 4 December 1943.
A burning Japanese torpedo-bomber falls after being knocked down by artillery from American warships.
Date ca. 4 December 1943.

USS Saratoga planes attack Japanese ships in Rabaul


5th November 1943: USS Saratoga planes attack Japanese ships in Rabaul

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.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in 1943/44. The photo was taken from one of her planes of Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12), of which many aircraft are visible on deck, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers (aft), Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters (mostly forward), and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.
US Navy pilots Ensign Charles Miller, Lieutenant (jg) Henry Dearing, and Lieutenant (jg) Bus Alber walking toward their aircraft aboard USS Saratoga, 5 Nov 1943; note F6F fighter.

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.

Japanese warships attempt to get under way while under attack from US Navy aircraft. Date	5 November 1943
Japanese warships attempt to get under way while under attack from US Navy aircraft.
Date 5 November 1943

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.

The Japanese cruiser Chikuma under attack on 5th November 1943.
The Japanese cruiser Chikuma under attack on 5th November 1943

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:

Haniotis-10.

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.

SBD Dauntless crewman Alva Parker, having suffered neck and shoulder shrapnel wounds over Rabaul, New Britain, being helped from the aircraft after landing on USS Saratoga, 5 Nov 1943
Aircrewman, wounded during raid on Rabaul, on board the USS Saratoga (CV-3). Alva Parker (ARM1) who suffered shrapnel wounds in neck and shoulders, rests in litter, 11/05/1943.

Pitched battles all around Pedestal convoy

12th August 1942: Pitched battles all around Pedestal convoy

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.

12 August: Air attacks: An Italian aerial reconnaissance photograph of the convoy.
An Italian torpedo bomber comes under fire as it begins its run to attack the British fleet.
16-inch guns on the battleship HMS RODNEY open fire whilst she is steaming in the Western Mediterranean. In the foreground can be seen one of the battleship’s 4.7 inch guns in an open turret. Note how the barrels of the 16 inch guns are of uneven length, due to the recoil of the gun after firing.

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.

Read more of Myers’ story on BBC People’s War

12 August: The sinking of the Italian submarine COBALTO: HMS ITHURIEL coming in to ram the COBALTO.

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.

12 August: The sinking of the Italian submarine COBALTO: A photograph taken from HMS ITHURIEL showing the COBALTO passing down the destroyer’s port side after she had been rammed.
12 August: The bombing of HMS INDOMITABLE: HMS INDOMITABLE on fire after being bombed. A Dido class cruiser, HMS CHARYBDIS, is screening the carrier.
12 August: The bombing of HMS INDOMITABLE: Detailed photograph of the damage to HMS INDOMITABLE’s flight deck.
12 August: The bombing of HMS INDOMITABLE: The score-board for the successes of HMS INDOMITABLE’s air group painted on the island. INDOMITABLE’s fighters claimed to have shot down 38 Axis aircraft.
12 August: Evening Air and Submarine Attacks: The Italian submarine AXUM’s torpedo strikes the tanker OHIO on her port side.

Operation Pedestal gets under way

10th August 1942: Operation Pedestal gets under way

Sooner or later the peace would be shattered; jumping at every pipe, at every change in course or revs, screamed out for it to happen and be done with. All morning the ships steamed on in undisturbed calm. Then, suddenly, in the afternoon watch, two Wildcats from Victorious went tearing into the air. We moved nearer the island, hoping for tit-bits of news. The Tannoy crackled. It was the Commander: “Victorious has scrambled two fighters after a suspected shadower. That’s all for the moment.”

Photograph taken from the after end of VICTORIOUS’ flight deck showing HMS INDOMITABLE and EAGLE. A Hawker Sea Hurricane and a Fairey Albacore are ranged on VICTORIOUS’ flight deck.

The business of trying to get a [permalink id=20162 text=”convoy through to Malta”] continued. The Mediterranean island was standing up to the daily assault by Italian and German bombers, and now that [permalink id=21147 text=”Spitfires”] formed part of its defence, giving a very good account of itself. But without fuel, ammunition and food the island could not hold out for ever.

The Royal Navy now mounted its most ambitious convoy escort operation ever. Fifteen merchant ships were escorted by five aircraft carriers; INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS, EAGLE, FURIOUS and ARGUS, two battleships; NELSON and RODNEY, seven cruisers and thirty destroyers.

Arming a Hawker Sea Hurricane fighter on board HMS INDOMITABLE.

Hugh Popham was flying a Sea Hurricane from HMS Indomitable. He describes the first day as the fleet crept into the Mediterranean hoping to avoid detection until the last possible moment:

During the night of August 9th, the convoy and its escorts entered the Mediterranean.

From first light the following morning four fighters were kept at immediate readiness; engines warmed up, pilots strapped in. The day broke fine and clear; all round us the ships moved easily over the sea in a profound and tranquil dream.

From time to time, Albacores took off on A/S patrol, others landed – on, and hardly disturbed the serenity. The aerials of the radar sets turned steadily through their 360 degrees, sweeping the empty skies. Submerged beneath the surface inaction, men pored over their sets, listened intently to the crackle of their headphones, peered through their binoculars in the look-out positions, with unblinking, rapt vigilance. and nerves.

Sooner or later the peace would be shattered; jumping at every pipe, at every change in course or revs, screamed out for it to happen and be done with. All morning the ships steamed on in undisturbed calm.

Then, suddenly, in the afternoon watch, two Wildcats from Victorious went tearing into the air. We moved nearer the island, hoping for tit-bits of news. The Tannoy crackled. It was the Commander: “Victorious has scrambled two fighters after a suspected shadower. That’s all for the moment.”

We waited, nerves prickling. That was how it would start, with a shadower picked up on the radar, lurking low down on the horizon or at a great height, and sending sighting reports back to base. But not yet.

This was not a shadower but a Vichy French flying-boat, probably about its lawful business, a routine trip from Toulon to Morocco. But Admiral Syfret was taking no chances. Without enthusiasm, it was shot into the sea. When it sighted our fighters, it would know that there was a fleet in the vicinity; its course would have taken it within sight of us; if it was left in peace, the news would be out.

One day’s less grace might make all the difference, to us, to the convoy, to Malta at the far end of the line, already on starvation rations and almost out of petrol for her lighters and ammunition for her guns.

That was the key. What happened to us, the forty fighting ships deployed on this smooth sea, was unimportant so long as the little knot of merchantmen in the centre reached their destination. To ensure that, we were, if need be expendable.

See Hugh Popham: Sea Flight: Fleet Air Arm Pilot’s Story

The convoy to Malta, with its huge escort, about to enter the Mediterranean. Fifteen merchant ships were escorted by five aircraft carriers; INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS, EAGLE, FURIOUS and ARGUS, two battleships; NELSON and RODNEY, seven cruisers and thirty destroyers.

Japanese cruiser Mikuma sunk, USS Yorktown torpedoed

6th June 1942: Japanese cruiser Mikuma sunk, USS Yorktown torpedoed

He led the second division of his squadron in a coordinated glide-bombing and dive-bombing assault upon a Japanese battleship. Undeterred by a fateful approach glide, during which his ship was struck and set afire, he grimly pressed home his attack to an altitude of five hundred feet, released his bomb to score a near-miss on the stern of his target, then crashed to the sea in flames.

His dauntless perseverance and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

SBD "Dauntless" dive bombers from USS Hornet (CV-8) approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the early afternoon of 6 June 1942. Mikuma had been hit earlier by strikes from Hornet and USS Enterprise (CV-6), leaving her dead in the water and fatally damaged. Photo was enlarged from a 16mm color motion picture film. Note bombs hung beneath these planes.

The Battle of Midway had yet to be fully played out. The toll on the pilots and airmen of the bombers and torpedo planes had been heavy, only a minority would live to see the victory they had won.

The Japanese cruiser Mikuma had been attacked the previous day, during that fearless assault Captain Richard E. Fleming had won the Medal of Honor :

Captain Richard E. Fleming, Medal of Honor recipient

For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as Flight Officer, Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron TWO FORTY-ONE during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Battle of Midway on June 4 and 5, 1942.

When his squadron Commander was shot down during the initial attack upon an enemy aircraft carrier, Captain Fleming led the remainder of the division with such fearless determination that he dived his own plane to the perilously low altitude of four hundred feet before releasing his bomb. Although his craft was riddled by 179 hits in the blistering hail of fire that burst upon him from Japanese fighter guns and antiaircraft batteries, he pulled out with only two minor wounds inflicted upon himself.

On the night of June 4, when the Squadron Commander lost his way and became separated from the others, Captain Fleming brought his own plane in for a safe landing at its base despite hazardous weather conditions and total darkness.

The following day, after less than four hours’ sleep, he led the second division of his squadron in a coordinated glide-bombing and dive-bombing assault upon a Japanese battleship. Undeterred by a fateful approach glide, during which his ship was struck and set afire, he grimly pressed home his attack to an altitude of five hundred feet, released his bomb to score a near-miss on the stern of his target, then crashed to the sea in flames.

His dauntless perseverance and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma, photographed from a USS Enterprise (CV-6) SBD aircraft during the afternoon of 6 June 1942, after she had been bombed by planes from Enterprise and USS Hornet (CV-8). Note her shattered midships structure, torpedo dangling from the after port side tubes and wreckage atop her number four eight-inch gun turret.
A diagrammatic representation of the damage sustained by USS Yorktown on the 4th June.

The USS Yorktown had been abandoned on the 4th June. When it became apparent that she was not going to sink she was re-boarded and attempts made to bring her under control. The destroyer the USS Hammann came alongside to assist in these operations. It was at this point, with the carrier lying dead in the water that Japanese submarine I-168 struck. One torpedo was to hit the Hammann causing catastrophic damage that quickly sunk her. Two others passed under the Hamman and proved to be the fatal blow for the Yorktown.

USS Hammann (DD-412) sinking with stern high, after being torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-168 in the afternoon of 6 June 1942. Photographed from the starboard forecastle deck of USS Yorktown (CV-5) by Photographer 2nd Class William G. Roy. Angular structure in right foreground is the front of Yorktown's forward starboard 5-inch gun gallery. Note knotted lines hanging down from the carrier's flight deck, remaining from her initial abandonment on 4 June.
A diagrammatic representation of the damage sustained by USS Yorktown on 6th June 1942 when the destroyer USS Hamman was alongside her

Carrier planes clash in Battle of the Coral Sea

8th May 1942: Carrier planes clash in Battle of the Coral Sea

He led his section of dive bombers down to the target from an altitude of 18,000 feet, through a wall of bursting antiaircraft shells and into the face of enemy fighter planes. Again, completely disregarding the safety altitude and without fear or concern for his safety, Lt. Powers courageously pressed home his attack, almost to the very deck of an enemy carrier and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit.

USS Yorktown (CV-5) operating in the vicinity of the Coral Sea, April 1942. Photographed from a TBD-1 torpedo plane that has just taken off from her deck. Other TBD and SBD aircraft are also ready to be launched.

After many months of apparently unstoppable Japanese advances a joint American-Australian naval force finally hit back decisively. In the first naval engagement in which the two sides never saw each others ships the carrier based aircraft from USS Lexington and USS Yorktown engaged the Japanese invasion force heading for Port Moresby on New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Bombs burst near the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku as she was attacked by USS Yorktown (CV-5) planes in the morning of 8 May 1942. Note anti-aircraft shell burst in left center, with fragments splashing below and further left.
Lieutenant Powers won the Medal of Honor for his determined attacks on Japanese ships.

The nature of the fighting can be understood from the citation for the Medal of Honor won by Lieutenant John Powers. The determination of the carrier based bombers to press home their attack in the face of sustained anti-aircraft fire was to be crucial to this type of battle:

For distinguished and conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, while pilot of an airplane of Bombing Squadron 5, Lt. Powers participated, with his squadron, in 5 engagements with Japanese forces in the Coral Sea area and adjacent waters during the period 4 to 8 May 1942.

Three attacks were made on enemy objectives at or near Tulagi on 4 May. In these attacks he scored a direct hit which instantly demolished a large enemy gunboat or destroyer and is credited with 2 close misses, 1 of which severely damaged a large aircraft tender, the other damaging a 20,000-ton transport.

He fearlessly strafed a gunboat, firing all his ammunition into it amid intense antiaircraft fire. This gunboat was then observed to be leaving a heavy oil slick in its wake and later was seen beached on a nearby island.

On 7 May, an attack was launched against an enemy airplane carrier and other units of the enemy’s invasion force. He fearlessly led his attack section of 3 Douglas Dauntless dive bombers, to attack the carrier. On this occasion he dived in the face of heavy antiaircraft fire, to an altitude well below the safety altitude, at the risk of his life and almost certain damage to his own plane, in order that he might positively obtain a hit in a vital part of the ship, which would insure her complete destruction. This bomb hit was noted by many pilots and observers to cause a tremendous explosion engulfing the ship in a mass of flame, smoke, and debris. The ship sank soon after.

That evening, in his capacity as Squadron Gunnery Officer, Lt. Powers gave a lecture to the squadron on point-of-aim and diving technique. During this discourse he advocated low release point in order to insure greater accuracy; yet he stressed the danger not only from enemy fire and the resultant low pull-out, but from own bomb blast and bomb fragments.

Thus his low-dive bombing attacks were deliberate and premeditated, since he well knew and realized the dangers of such tactics, but went far beyond the call of duty in order to further the cause which he knew to be right. The next morning, 8 May, as the pilots of the attack group left the ready room to man planes, his indomitable spirit and leadership were well expressed in his own words, “Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it on their flight deck.”

He led his section of dive bombers down to the target from an altitude of 18,000 feet, through a wall of bursting antiaircraft shells and into the face of enemy fighter planes. Again, completely disregarding the safety altitude and without fear or concern for his safety, Lt. Powers courageously pressed home his attack, almost to the very deck of an enemy carrier and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit.

He was last seen attempting recovery from his dive at the extremely low altitude of 200 feet, and amid a terrific barrage of shell and bomb fragments, smoke, flame and debris from the stricken vessel.

The crew of USS Lexington abandon ship. The destroyer alongside is taking off the sick and wounded while the able-bodied are sliding down ropes and being picked up by small boats. Not a man was lost in abandoning the ship. U. S. Navy.

Although the USS Lexington was sunk by bombs and torpedoes, and the USS Yorktown seriously damaged, the engagement is regarded as a victory for the Allied forces, leaving them with a strategic advantage. The invasion of Port Moresby was prevented and the Japanese position for future operations was significantly weakened by the loss of the Shokaku and the loss of most of the planes from the carrier Zuikaku .

For battle summary and more images see Naval History.

Doolittle raiders bomb Japan

18th April 1942: Doolittle raiders bomb Japan

Final instructions were to avoid non-military targets, particularly the Temple of Heaven, and even though we were put off so far at sea that it would be impossible to reach the China Coast, not to go to Siberia but to proceed as far West as possible, land on the water, launch the rubber boat and sail in.

A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bomber, one of sixteen involved in the mission, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Hornet for an air raid on the Japanese Home Islands, on April 18, 1942.

On 18th April 1942 sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and headed for Japan. The unprecedented use of medium bombers from an aircraft carrier enabled the surprise attack on the Japanese homeland. Even with modifications and extra fuel the bombers were at the limit of their range and would not be able to return to the carrier. Instead, after bombing, they were to continue their flight over Japan and attempt to land in China or Russia.

When the USS Hornet was spotted by a Japanese patrol vessel the mission was brought forward, and the margin of error in the range was reduced even further. The crews all took off in the knowledge that they were very likely to have to crash land or ditch in the sea.

A crew member checks the lashings on his bomber aboard the USS Hornet, while behind him other crews check their planes in preparation for the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942.
American B-25B bombers rest on the flight deck of the USS Hornet, approaching the spot where the planes were launched on their raid on Tokyo, April 13, 1942. Escort ship in left background.
A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B bomber leaves the deck of the USS Hornet, for the historic raid on Tokyo under Maj. Gen. James Doolittle, on April 18, 1942. Each aircraft carried three 500-pound high-explosive bombs and one incendiary bomb.

The raid was led by Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, his post action report was completed in May 1942, by which time he had been promoted:

The first enemy patrol vessel was detected and avoided at 3:10 a.m. on the morning of April 18. The Navy task force was endeavoring to avoid a second one some time after daylight when they were picked up by a third. Although this patrol was sunk it understood that it got at least one radio message off to shore and it was consequently necessary for us to take off immediately. The take-off was made at Latitude 35° 43’N Longitude 153° 25’E approximately 824 statue miles East of the center of Tokyo. The Navy task force immediately retreated and in the afternoon was obliged to sink two more Japanese surface craft. It is of interest to note that even at this distance from Japan the ocean was apparently studded with Japanese craft.

Final instructions were to avoid non-military targets, particularly the Temple of Heaven, and even though we were put off so far at sea that it would be impossible to reach the China Coast, not to go to Siberia but to proceed as far West as possible, land on the water, launch the rubber boat and sail in.

Upon take-off each airplane circled to the right and flew over the Hornet lining the axis of the ship up with the drift sight. The course of the Hornet was displayed in large figures from the gun turret abaft the island. This, through the use of the airplane compass and directional gyro permitted the establishment of one accurate navigational course and enabled us to swing off on to the proper course for Tokyo. This was considered necessary and desirable due to the possibility of change in compass calibration, particularly on those ships that were located close to the island.

All pilots were given selected objectives, consisting of steel works, oil refineries, oil tank farms, ammunition dumps, dock yards, munitions plants, airplane factories, etc. They were also given secondary targets in case it was impossible to reach the primary target. In almost every case primary targets were bombed. The damage done far exceeded our most optimistic expectations. The high degree of damage resulted from the highly inflammable nature of Japanese construction, the low altitude from which the bombing was carried out, and the perfectly clear weather over Tokyo, and the careful and continuous study of charts and target areas.

The best information available from Army and Navy intelligence sources indicates that there were some 500 combat planes in Japan and that most of them were concentrated in the Tokyo Bay area. The comparatively few fighters encountered indicated that home defense had been reduced in the interest of making the maximum of planes available in active theaters. The pilots of such planes as remained appeared inexperienced. In some cases they actually did not attack, and in many cases failed to drive the attack home to the maximum extent possible.

The anti-aircraft defense was active but inaccurate. All anti-aircraft bursts were black and apparently small guns of about 37 or 40 mm size. It is presumed that the high speed and low altitude at which we were flying made it impossible for them to train their larger caliber guns on us if such existed. Several of the airplanes were struck by anti-aircraft fragments but none of them was damaged to an extent that impaired their utility of impeded their progress.

The successful bombing of Tokyo indicated that, provided the element of surprise is possible, an extremely successful raid can be carried out at low altitudes with great damage and high security to equipment and personnel.

J.H. DOOLITTLE
Brigadier General, U.S. Army

The full report, detailing the experiences of each of the aircraft taking part can be found at Doolittle Raiders.

Above Tokyo, smoke rises from strikes on the Japanese mainland as the bombs dropped by Doolittle's raiders hit their targets on April 18, 1942. Unable to land the huge aircraft back on the USS Hornet, and running low on fuel, the bombers continued westward attempting to land in a friendly area in China.
Four unidentified Doolittle Raid crewmen, who bailed out over China from Aircraft #14, are escorted in a Chinese village before being reunited with other airmen in April of 1942. Most of the crew members made it to China, either crash landing, or bailing out over land. The assistance given by the Chinese to the airmen spurred the Japanese Imperial Army to carry out a retaliatory action called the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign -- over the course of four months, entire villages were destroyed, and an estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians were killed.

‘Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships’

19th March 1942: ‘Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships’

In an annex to the weekly Naval Military and Air Reports on the progress of the war, there was was a brief summary of the huge serviceability issues that arose from from warships being at sea for extended periods of time:

A heavy sea breaking over the bows of the battleship HMS RENOWN.

In an annex to the weekly Naval Military and Air Reports on the progress of the war, there was was a brief summary of the huge serviceability issues that arose from from warships being at sea for extended periods of time:

Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships.

Capital Ships.

Between the outbreak of war and 31st December, 1941, H.M.S. Renown was at sea 390 days and during this time she steamed 137,000 miles.

HMS RENOWN at anchor in Hvalfjord, Iceland (Photograph taken from the aircraft carrier HMS VICTORIOUS) during the search for the TIRPITZ. The battleship aft of RENOWN is possibly USS TEXAS, which arrived in Iceland in late January to escort a convoy back to British waters.

Aircraft Carriers.

H.M.S. Victorious. Steamed 41,378 miles in the first 8 months of her service. 13,000 miles of this distance were steamed in the first 5 weeks of her service.

An aerial view of HMS VICTORIOUS at sea. Steam can be seen venting from the catapult towards the front of the flight deck.

Cruisers.

H.M.S. Cumberland. Steamed 195,876 miles from the outbreak of war to 31st December, 1941. From 18th November, 1940, to 18th May, 1941, H.M.S. Cumberland was at sea for 206 days out of a total of 213.

HMS CUMBERLAND in Grand Harbour, Malta.

Destroyers.

H.M.S. Forester. Steamed 172,000 miles during the war up to 31st December, 1941, and was at sea for 601 days during that period. One destroyer flotilla consisting of eight ships passed the million mile mark steaming during the war in June 1941.

The destroyer HMS Forester had a very busy war, she participated in sinking U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic and would soon move to escort duties with Arctic convoys.

Submarines.

One of our submarines covered a distance of 25,800 miles in five months, of which only 40 days were spent in harbour, and these mostly without a depot ship. During that time this submarine went from 660 N. latitude to 260 S. latitude. Another of our submarines spent 251 days at sea in one year of war.

The crew of HM Submarine THUNDERBOLT display their 'Jolly Roger' on the Submarine Depot Ship HMS FORTH in Holy Loch, Scotland, after a successful patrol in the Mediterranean, 27 March 1942.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet 19th March 1942, see TNA CAB66/23/9.

U.S. Navy dive bombers strike the Marshall Islands

1st February 1942: U.S. Navy’s first strike – the Japanese bases on the Marshall Islands hit by dive bombers

In several cases individual pilots, not satisfied with their dive, or observing previous hits on target selected pulled up and chose another target. As radical evasive action was required to escape the great volume of machine gun fire planes became separated and each pilot made his subsequent attacks individually. In the subsequent attacks 100 lb glide bombing and strafing were employed against smaller ships, large sea planes and shore installations. No enemy aircraft was encountered in the air.

A SBD-2 Dauntless dive bomber of either VB-6 or VS-6 on the carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) prepares for takeoff during the 1 February 1942 Marshall Islands Raid.

The U.S.S. Enterprise had been [permalink id=15118 text=”prepared for war”] even before Pearl Harbour. Now she was in at the start of offensive operations against the Japanese. Now two Task Forces mounted assaults on the Japanese naval garrisons in the Marshall Islands. The raids were a huge boost to U.S. morale and played a part in provoking the Japanese into seeking a major naval confrontation with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

Planes from the U.S.S. Enterprise took off before dawn and hit the Japanese bases after 0700. One of the official Action Reports summarises one of the attacks:

As Scouting Squadron Six commenced its attack on Roi, Bombing Squadron Six proceeded southward down the center of the lagoon searching for ships. At 0705 Enterprise Air Group Commander ordered Bombing Squadron Six to attack enemy carrier at Kwajalein Island. At 0725 the squadron arrived Kwajalein Area at 14,000 feet altitude. No carrier was present, but several large ships among the many that were present could easily have been mistaken for carriers in the early morning twilight.

As the squadron approached the target area an umbrella barrage of 3″-5″ A.A. fire was sent up, fuze setting 10,000. This barrage was directly over the anchorage and was not directed at the approaching planes. At the same time heavy machine gun fire was noticed which, of course, was an utter waste of ammunition. Although there was some large caliber A.A. fire from shore guns the greatest volume of fire came from an anti-aircraft cruiser in a central anchorage position. This cruiser was armed with twelve or more large caliber and numerous small caliber A.A. guns, and at least one multiple pom-pom was observed.

As the squadron was cruising in a three division attack formation and squadron doctrine thoroughly covered the situation, a single signal was all that was necessary to launch the attack. This signal was given at 0727, divisions separated, and each section choose a target. Normal dive bombing approaches were used and 500 lb bombs were dropped.

In several cases individual pilots, not satisfied with their dive, or observing previous hits on target selected pulled up and chose another target. As radical evasive action was required to escape the great volume of machine gun fire planes became separated and each pilot made his subsequent attacks individually. In the subsequent attacks 100 lb glide bombing and strafing were employed against smaller ships, large sea planes and shore installations. No enemy aircraft was encountered in the air.

The damage inflicted upon the enemy as observed by pilots and gunners of the squadron are as tabulated herewith.

One 2500 ton submarine sunk.
Large cargo ship fired.
Large cargo ship damaged.
A.A. cruiser damaged.
Two four-engine patrol seaplanes sunk.
Four buildings on Gugegwe Island destroyed.
Two small store houses on Kwajalein Island destroyed.
Three submarines, several ships, radio installation and shore facilities were strafed. A motor launch full of men was strafed. All hands jumped into the water leaving the motor launch running about in circles.

The full Action Report and much, much more can be read at USS ENTERPRISE CV-6.

Crewmen wheel bombs to planes on the Big E's flight deck, during the 1 February 1942 Marshall Islands Raid: the first U.S. offensive of the Pacific War. Courtesy: William T. Barr CV6 org

USS Enterprise prepares for war

The importance of every officer and man being specially alert and vigilant while on watch at his battle station must be fully realized by all hands. The failure of one man to carry out his assigned task promptly, particularly the lookouts, those manning the batteries, and all those on watch on the deck, might result in great loss of life and even loss of the ship.

The USS Enterprise, sometime known as 'the Big E', pictured in 1939, put to sea on the 28th November, prepared for war.

A confidential memo sent to US military commanders on the 27th November had warned them that Japanese hostile intentions were suspected. Prompted by alarming decoded Japanese signal intercepts, the following war warning was sent by the US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, to all commands:

Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot be avoided, the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not, be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense….Should hostilities occur you will carry out the tasks assigned in Rainbow Five so far as they pertain to Japan

Some commanders took this warning more seriously than others.

When Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey took his carrier group to sea on the 28th, some of his fellow officers thought he was ready to start a war. Many of the men were only prepared for routine overnight operation and a quick return to base. They were quickly advised otherwise:

U.S.S. ENTERPRISE

At Sea

November 28, 1941

BATTLE ORDER NUMBER ONE

1. The ENTERPRISE is now operating under war conditions.

2. At any time, day or night, we must be ready for instant action.

3. Hostile submarines may be encountered.

4. The importance of every officer and man being specially alert and vigilant while on watch at his battle station must be fully realized by all hands.

5. The failure of one man to carry out his assigned task promptly, particularly the lookouts, those manning the batteries, and all those on watch on the deck, might result in great loss of life and even loss of the ship.

6. The Captain is confident all hands will prove equal to any emergency that may develop.

7. It is part of the tradition of our Navy that, when put to the test, all hands keep cool, keep their heads, and FIGHT.

8. Steady nerves and stout hearts are needed now.

G. D. MURRAY, Captain,
U.S. Navy Commanding