DE­STROY TRUK!

RAID ON JA­PAN’S “GI­BRAL­TAR OF THE PA­CIFIC”

Flight Journal - - DESTROY TRUK! - BY THOMAS MCKELVEY CLEAVER

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)

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