RAID ON JAPAN’S “GIBRALTAR OF THE PACIFIC”
As the sun rose over Pearl Harbor on New Year’s Day 1944, few who saw that spectacular sunrise could have known that it was the harbinger of the war’s decisive year. Roger Bond, who served as a quartermaster on USS Saratoga (CV-3) for most of the war, recalled afterward that there was a dividing line in the experience of the Pacific war. “I think that, for anyone who participated in the war, there were actually two wars. If you went out to the Pacific—say, after January 1944—you had a completely different experience and viewpoint than those before, because it really was two different operations.”
A New War in the Pacific
With the arrival in Pearl Harbor on January 10, 1944, of the brand-new USS Intrepid (CV-11), the Central Pacific Force had five fleet carriers— Enterprise, Yorktown, Essex, Intrepid, and Bunker Hill— and four light carriers— Belleau Wood, Cabot, Monterey, and Cowpens— embarking more than 500 Hellcats, Dauntlesses, Helldivers, and Avengers. Supporting them were seven battleships with numerous cruisers and destroyers, 217 ships in all, the greatest armada that had yet been seen in U.S. Navy history. The new navy was far stronger than the navy that had fought Japan to a stop in 1942, and almost twice the size of the fleet that led the invasion of the Gilberts less than 60 days earlier. The fleet was now so strong that the earlier carrier strategy used as recently as the Rabaul strikes of “hit and run” no longer made strategic sense. The fleet could take position off any enemy location and maintain air and naval superiority for as long as it was needed. The aspirations of naval aviators over the 20 years preceding the war were now reality.
Following the successful invasion of Kwajalein Atoll, the Navy looked beyond the Marshalls. A thousand miles to the west lay the unknown, mysterious main Japanese naval and air base in the Pacific: Truk Atoll, which, in the 20 years since Japan had taken control, had taken on the name “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” an indication of its
THE FLEET WAS NOW SO STRONG THAT THE EARLIER CARRIER STRATEGY USED AS RECENTLY AS THE RABAUL STRIKES OF “HIT AND RUN” NO LONGER MADE STRATEGIC SENSE.
importance to Japanese ambitions. Although the name was correctly pronounced “Trook,” it would be universally known by Americans as “Truck.”
To the U.S. Navy, seeing Truk as the Gibraltar of the Pacific was no exaggeration. It appeared impregnable, and sailors spoke the name in awestruck tones. Dangerous long-range reconnais- sance flights by B-24s from bases in the Gilberts in December 1943 had brought back photos that allowed intelligence officers to map out the air bases and the various anchorages in the lagoon. Analysts began to realize that there was not as much there as expected.
Navy planners were not aware of the Japanese
decision to sacrifice the Marshalls, and they expected a possible naval response from Imperial Japanese Navy units at Truk. Thus, it was imperative that the Gibraltar of the Pacific be neutralized. The attack was set for February 16–17, 1944. In terms of audacity, the strike demonstrated how far the fast carrier task force had come since the Rabaul attack only 97 days earlier.
A Battle a Long Time in the Making
When the fliers of Task Force 58 got the word of the proposed attack on Truk, aptly code-named “Operation Hailstone,” they were eager but apprehensive. As VB-10’s executive officer, Lt. James D. Ramage recalled, “For the previous two years of the war, the very thought of approaching Truk seemed fatal.” VF-9’s Lt. j.g. Hamilton “Mac” McWhorter remembered that when he was informed of the coming operation, “My first instinct was to jump overboard.” The Buccaneer, the Essex’s shipboard newspaper, published a cartoon of the captain announcing the attack, followed by a panel in which the entire crew abandoned ship.
Truk Atoll is composed of dozens of islands surrounded by a great barrier reef—although only seven islands, each marked by a volcanic peak (the tallest of which is nearly 1,500 feet above sea level), were of any size. The triangular barrier reef is roughly 140 miles around, forming a vast deep-water lagoon of more than 800 square miles. With abundant rainfall and sunshine and an average year-round temperature of 81°F, the islands are green and lush, making Truk a Pacific paradise.
As a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States assumed control of Micronesia, including the Caroline Islands and Truk. American ambitions, however, focused on the Philippines. Micronesia—with the exception of Guam, the site of the one good harbor in the Marianas—was sold by Spain to Germany in 1899 for $4.2 million. German rule was little remarked and short-lived.
The Imperial Navy arrived in Truk in September 1914, following Japan’s declaration of war with Germany on August 23, 1914, as per a secret treaty with Great Britain that July, allowing Japan to take control of German territories in China and the Pacific in return for Tokyo
At the time of the Truk raids, the post-1944 Pacific “new” Navy included nine carriers, including USS Yorktown (CV-10). The TBM proved to be everything Grumman and the Navy hoped it would be. At Truk, its torpedoes proved lethal to anchored shipping. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
VF-9 Hellcats land aboard USS Essex, with aircraft touching down every 20 seconds, in a choreography of catching the wire, taxiing forward, and folding the wings, each step caught in this photograph. (Photo courtesy of Thomas McKelvey Cleaver)
The Phantom was pre-glass cockpit and relied on steam gauges and the pilot to do its job. There were no computers to help the pilot. (Photo by Ted Carlson) Overhead aerial view of beleaguered Eten Island shows the pockmarked 3500-foot runway and built-up massive cut-stone seawall. Beginning in 1934, half the island was leveled to fill the seawall and construct the 260-foot-wide runway. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
F4U-2s, of VF(N)-101, take off from USS Enterprise against Truk. (Photo courtesy of Thomas McKelvey Cleaver)