Operation Hailstone, the attack on Truk, was to cover the seizure of Eniwetok in the western Marshalls. Truk had a magnificent harbor and contained four airfields. Carrier aircraft alone would take on this large land-based air defense. The atoll was the major Japanese fleet base in the Pacific and was the anchorage of the Japanese Combined Fleet.
The striking force consisted of Task Group 58.1 (Rear Admiral J. W. “Black Jack” Reeves Jr.) with Enterprise, Yorktown CV-10 and Belleau Wood CVL-24; TG 58.2 (RADM A. E. Montgomery) with Essex CV-9, Intrepid CV-11 and Cabot CVL-28; and TG 58.3 (RADM F. C. Sherman) with Bunker Hill CV-17, MontereyCVL-26 and Cowpens CVL-25. There were 276 fighters, 167 bombers and 126 torpedo bombers in the force, totaling 569 aircraft. Task Group 58.4 (RADM Samuel P. Ginder) with Saratoga CV-3, Princeton CVL-23 and Langley CVL-27, was to cover the landings on Eniwetok for Operation Catchpole and thus did not participate in Hailstone.
The Japanese distribution of aircraft on 17 February 1944 was 68 planes on Moen, 27 on Dublon, 20 operational planes on Eten and 46 more on Param for a total of 161 aircraft up and ready, plus another 180 on Eten waiting for pilots or repairs. There is no estimate of how many of these flew.
There is always an apprehension of the unknown, and we knew so little about Truk. There were no current maps of the atoll. We were more at ease when LT Denius (“Denius the Genius”), the intelligence officer from RADM Reeve’s staff, gave us the estimated enemy order of battle. We could expect up to 200 enemy fighters plus other aircraft. I thought, “Hell, this wasn’t bad! We had almost 300 F6Fs in Task Force 58.” We did not know then that Admiral Koga, Admiral Yamato’s successor, felt uneasy when the Americans began the assault on Eniwetok and withdrew his fleet to the Palaus in the western Carolines. I went to bed on the night of 15 February thinking of the great carrier battle that would occur on the 16th.
The strike plan followed the “Mitscher Shampoo” which was so successful in Operation Flintlock, the Marshalls campaign. There would be a pre-dawn, 72-plane fighter sweep followed by deckload launches throughout the day. CAG Kane, of course, led the sweep; Dick Poor, VB-10 skipper, led the first Enterprise strike and, as exec of VB-10, I led the second deckload at about 0900. My strike consisted of 12 fighters, 12 dive bombers and eight torpedo planes. Designated targets were ships in the Dublon Anchorage.
“The morning of 16 February was clear, cool and beautiful as we launched from Enterprise. We approached from the east, and action started as we were at about 12,000 feet, nearly over the center of the lagoon. Our targets were in the anchorage adjacent to Dublon Island. Unlike most of the islands we had seen and attacked, which were low, flat atolls, the Truk Islands were volcanic with quite high peaks. Just before we reached the roll-in, we were in quite heavy AA, diving very close to a steep hill or peak on Dublon.”
Our launch point was only 80 miles from the outer cays of the atoll. The course to Dublon anchorage was 250 degrees magnetic. Prior to launch, we received the unwelcome news that most of the Japanese fleet had left but that there were plenty of ship targets that remained. Also, our F6Fs were having a field day with the Zeros. It was up to us to do our job. As we passed over the outer cay, a green-brown Zero zoomed by on a parallel course to starboard. No guts! I could see heavy AA coming up from the anchorage area and surrounding islands when “whoosh,” I saw a horrendous mushroom cloud rising from the roadstead. Someone had blown up an ammo ship. The fireball that resulted went up 300 feet. As I looked over the targets, I picked out the biggest ship of a group of about a dozen. She was a tanker at anchor.
In answer to my signal, wingmen LT(jg) Bill Schaefer and LT(jg) Oliver Hubbard began to fall back. We did not roll in from an echelon because we liked to keep our defensive “V” as long as possible. I split my dive flaps and settled my pipper on a position just forward of the bridge. I manually released my 1,000-lb. GP bomb at 2,000 feet and turned left on pullout to see the results. The tanker was covered with smoke and water splashes. I could not count the hits; one had detached the stern from the ship and she was definitely going down by the stern. The tanker was empty and hence hard to sink.
Author Dan E. Bailey, in his book World War Two Wrecks of the Kwajalein and Truk Lagoons, indicates that the ship was the aft-engined cargo shipSeiko Maru. A second ship hit amidships by Lou Bangs’ second division was Akitsushima, identified initially as a CVL, but was in fact a seaplane tender.
“We dropped low over the water and were taken under fire by a rusty hulk of an old cargo ship or tanker. It was covered with anti-aircraft and machine guns, and they were all firing at us. We were very close. I strafed it as best I could as we turned north to the open area of the lagoon. Only then did I have a chance to look back at our target and the planes following us. I spotted one of our SBDs about a half mile behind us, still in his vertical dive. At the pullout point, his dive varied about 10 degrees and he dove almost vertically into the water. I saw more of our planes diving and bombs exploding, and more AA.”As our planes joined up we soon figured out that it was LT(jg) Donald Dean and ARM 2/c J. J. McGorry. I have always thought that they were hit by AA just before pullout. During the strike debriefing, it was arranged to have some fighters strafe hell out of that derelict ship that was a real flak-trap.”
After pullout, the second division was attacked by four Zeros and a Rufe seaplane fighter. ARM 2/c Honea, gunner for ENS Bob Wilson, shot down one Zero and damaged a second.
We had a second strike that afternoon. By that time, the shipping was pretty well beaten up. We found the 13,000-ton Hoyo Maru, hit her on the centerline just forward of the stern and set her afire. Bangs division scored two hits on the aviation stores ship Kiyozumi Maru, likewise leaving her on fire and sinking.
In pulling out, we continued to search out smaller craft to strafe with both the twin .50s firing forward and the gunners’ twin .30s aft. We chanced on two patrol craft about 100 feet long and chewed them up, leaving them on fire. Since we had fired all our ammo in our forward guns, I put the squadron in a circle and our gunners took care of what was left with their twin .30s. Bailey identifies these craft as 420-ton, No. 28-class submarine chasers.
“I remember a Japanese cruiser (Katori) up to the north of Truk lagoon,” states Cawley. “I’m sure I watched it on the clear calm sea as a TBF attacked with four 500-lb. bombs. They were dropped in a row with two missing, one hit and one (exploding) close aboard. There was considerable smoke from AA, fires and bombs.”
When I sighted the cruiser, she was low in the water and barely moving. Since we were without bombs and ammo, I opened up on guard channel, saying “Any strike leader from 51-Bobcat, there is a damaged Japanese cruiser just to the north of the lagoon. Come sink it.”
Immediately on guard channel came back, “Bobcat leader, this is Bald Eagle (Mitscher). Cancel your last. Do not, repeat do not, sink that ship. Acknowledge.”
I was stunned! I later found out that ADM Spruance wanted to move his surface ships up for target practice on the cripple. I guess the battleships had to participate in some way!
Night Strikes on Truk
In the summer of 1943, LCDR Bill Martin shifted from commanding officer of Scouting Squadron Ten to command Torpedo Squadron Ten. Martin was convinced that the carriers should do more in night attack. The TBF Avenger offered a platform to prove his ideas. He took his case to RADM Reeves, who recommended to Mitscher that VT-10 be scheduled for a night strike against Japanese shipping remaining in Truk lagoon on the night of 16-17 February.
At 0410, twelve TBF-1Cs catapulted from Enterprise for a night masthead-level bombing attack on shipping. LT Van Eason, VT-10’s exec, led the strike. It was planned that individual runs would be accomplished by radar; the bomb release point would be determined by the pilot, assisted by radar.
Radar reception was hindered by the many coral islets in the lagoon. Also, many of the ships were anchored close to larger islands which caused merged radar echoes. Most pilots searched for 30 minutes before they identified their targets. The aircraft carried four 500-lb. bombs with a four second delay fusing and released their bombs at 250 feet.
Shore batteries put up heavy but inaccurate fire. Ships did not open fire until the attacking planes were within 400 yards. One aircraft, flown by LT(jg) J. Nicholas, did not return from the attack. The cause of his loss is unknown. Damage assessment indicated that 13 of the 48 bombs dropped sunk two oilers and six cargo ships, with six additional cargo ships damaged. This first night strike effort was certainly a success, and was a payoff to Martin for the special training he had insisted on giving VT-10 prior to its deployment. He states, “VT-10 specialized in night radar search and attack and specifically requested this mission. I believe that this was the first time our carrier forces launched a night, minimum-altitude bombing strike.
Strikes of 17 February
The following day, the schedule called for a pre-dawn fighter sweep in a repeat of the first day’s action. Since the Japanese had lost almost all their aircraft on the first day, VF-10 strafed all remaining aircraft or hulks and facilities on Moen, Eten and Param airfields, and generally shot up anything that moved either in the lagoon or ashore. The first strike on 17 February was made up of 12 VF and 12 VB aircraft. The torpedo planes were not included, as they were being rearmed after their attack on the previous night.
I led the strike which circled outside the lagoon until it was light enough to attack the remaining shipping in the lagoon. The first division went on an oiler, the 10,000-ton Fujisan Maru, which surprisingly was underway. After one to three hits, the ship went dead in the water. The second division dived on the auxiliary Matsutan Maru, also underway, and hit her amidships. These two ships were the only sizable ships remaining afloat in the harbor. On the way out, we set a 44-ft. patrol boat afire and it blew up as a result of strafing.
Samuel Eliot Morison, in his History of US Naval Operations in World War II, Volume VII, says that out of 365 Japanese aircraft available on Truk, only 100 remained unscathed after the first day. My figures show that there were only 341 aircraft supposedly based on the fields at the outset. Perhaps some were flown in later from other islands. Morison notes that Japanese ships sunk totaled 220,000 tons and included two light cruisers, four destroyers, three auxiliary cruisers, two submarine tenders, two subchasers, an armed trawler, an aircraft ferry and 24 merchant ships, five of which were tankers. The Japanese lost 250-275 aircraft. Our losses were light: 25 aircraft, plus torpedo damage to Intrepid, with a loss of 11 men.
The myth of the impregnable Truk was shattered.
The Second Strike on Truk
Task Force 58 was not finished with Truk. Following the Hollandia-New Guinea operation, Admiral Nimitz decided that the time was ripe to give the big base another heavy working over. Although everything that floated was by now on the bottom of the lagoon, there were still a major navy yard, aircraft service facilities and other military installations to be neutralized. Truk was to be bypassed, but it remained a potential major operating base. The fast carriers returned to finish the job some two months later, on 29-30 April 1944.
This time we had lots of information on targets. We were scheduled against installations mainly on the islands of Moen, Dublon and Fefan. There was no air opposition to speak of, although I did see a pinkish-brown Zero take off from Eten on the first day.
We wrecked the place! We started out the “treatment”, as Mitscher called it, with usual fighter sweep on 29 April. Enterprise fighters were led by LT “Bud” Schumann, the VF-10 skipper. The Japanese had flown in a substantial number of fighters since the first Truk attacks, but they didn’t last long. My first strike, 1B, was scheduled against warehouses east of the Moen strip. My second strike, taking off at 1630, was directed at revetments, aircraft and facilities on Moen air strip. By this time, it was clear that not much of value remained to be hit.
Cawley continues his recollections:
“Mr. Ramage, my pilot, was scheduled to lead the third strike on 30 April. As normal before an attack, we all prepared to test our machine guns by firing two or three rounds from each gun. I aimed the guns into a clear area, released the safety and fired. Each gun fired a couple of rounds when there was an extra-loud ‘whack,’ and I stopped firing. I felt as if someone has hit me across the front of my thighs as hard as you could swing a baseball bat. I cut my flight suit and there was a hole in my leg about two inches deep. It hadn’t started to bleed, so I got my first aid kit and filled the wound with sulfa powder and put a bandage over it. I decided to say nothing of my problem, which was caused by the breech exploding.”There was little or no shipping around, but (there were) lots of major installations and full tank farms. The AA was very heavy and the weather was poor and deteriorating. When we landed, I went to sick bay. Later, a young LT(jg) doctor on reading an x-ray showed me where the ejector claw from my left machine gun lay against the thigh bone of my left leg. The doctor probed and dug for half an hour, which started some heavy bleeding, but he couldn’t get the object out of my leg. The next morning they said I had two choices: leave the metal in my leg, or schedule a full-blown operation to surgically remove it. The latter would take me off the flight schedule indefinitely. I chose the former. I still carry the chunk and it has not bothered me.”
I tried to get Dave Cawley a Purple Heart for his wound but was not successful. He was back on the flight schedule within three days.By the second day, a large tropical front had set in and the ceiling over the Dublon Navy Yard was about 1,000 feet. I led my SBDs in straight and level and, at our maximum speed of about 180 knots, dropped on the installations. Since the shipping had all been sunk on the previous raids, the AA was concentrated around the remaining obvious targets. It was intense. Dublon has a 1,100-ft. peak and they were firing straight at us during our run. We were all holed, but I think Lou Bangs’ division got the worst of it from our own bomb fragments. The drop altitude was logged at 700 feet.
As we passed out of the atoll to the south, I could see numerous aircraft in the water, several within the atoll. There were several SOCs and OS2Us from the cruisers and battleships on the water rescuing downed airmen. We were fortunate not to have losses in VB-10. After landing aboard the Big E, I went to the bridge and told the exec, CDR Tom Hamilton, and skipper Captain Matt Gardner about the strike, emphasizing the number of aircraft in the water. They took me up to the flag bridge where RADM Reeves said, “I think we have run into the law of diminishing returns.” He called Vice Admiral Mitscher on TBS (Talk Between Ships) to recommend that further operations be cancelled, as the benefits in continuing the raids were not worth the risk. Within 15 minutes, Mitscher cancelled the remaining strike, though rescue operations, including fighter CAP, continued throughout the rest of the day.
I mention this incident as an example of why we loved Marc Mitscher.
In addition to destroying or heavily damaging all installations in the second of the raids on Truk that had not been moved underground, the force shot down 59 aircraft and destroyed another 34 on the ground. Only 12 Japanese aircraft were serviceable when the task force left on 1 May. Our losses were 26 aircraft lost in combat. More than half of the 46 airmen shot down were rescued, some inside the lagoon.
That was the end of Truk. Its large garrison that survived the raids was left to starve as we took the war farther west to the Marianas.
If RADM Reeves had his way, there would have been another Truk raid, despite the decision to bypass the now-useless base. On 18 May, VB-10’s Intelligence Officer, LT John Curtis, showed me a purloined dispatch, from Reeves to Mitscher, which I quote from memory:
“WOULD I BE STRETCHING MY GLIDE TOO FAR TO RECOMMEND YOU DETACH TASK GROUP 58.3 TO STRIKE TRUK?”This struck me as not being very wise, as there were no targets afloat or ashore worth the probable losses. Also, we knew that Truk was to be bypassed. I asked Curtis to find out Mitscher’s response. It was not long in coming.
Mitscher replied, “I WILL NOT BE BADGERED INTO AN UNWISE DECISION.”
That was vintage Mitscher.