The Carrier War Leyte Gulf to The End. II


Aircraft carrier “Franklin” after Kamikaze attack. Battle of Okinawa.

Fifth Fleet also controlled two Amphibious Forces that were under orders to secure island bases for a final assault on Japan. Their first objective was Iwo Jima in the Volcano Group. Mention has already been made of the Superfortress raids on Japan. Their long journey to and from Tinian compelled them to reduce their bomb load to less than a third of its maximum weight; in addition, they could not be given a fighter escort and any damaged aircraft would probably run out of fuel before they could reach safety. But the capture of Iwo Jima, midway between the Marianas and Tokyo, would solve all these problems as well as depriving the Japanese of a base from which warning of the approach of the Superfortresses could be given and fighters sent up to attack them as they passed overhead.

Iwo Jima was known to be held by a strong garrison, headed by Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. An officer whose professional ability was rightly admired even by his enemies, he had designed an impressive system of interlocking fortifications, connected by tunnels and with the surface positions splendidly camouflaged. A few basic facts will show how grim a proposition was ‘Bloody Iwo’. Though the island is only 4½ miles long by 2½ miles wide, the United States Marines took over a month to capture it. They lost 6,000 dead, 17,000 wounded and over 1,600 ‘combat fatigue casualties’ – and they earned twenty-four Congressional Medals of Honour.

Fifth Fleet did all it could to assist them both prior to and during the fighting on the island. On 16 February, Vice Admiral Mitscher’s fast carriers became the first ones to strike at Tokyo since the Doolittle raid in April 1942. Their targets on this and the following day were airfields and aircraft plants; their aim was to distract Japanese attention from and prevent Japanese reinforcements to Iwo Jima. Bad weather and large numbers of enemy fighters handicapped their efforts and although the Hellcats proved their worth as usual, the Corsairs, admittedly flown by less experienced pilots, were again disappointing, claiming eleven ‘kills’ but losing ten of their own number in action or operationally.

Also on 16 February, the eight battleships and five heavy cruisers of Fifth Fleet’s Support Force began a preliminary bombardment of Iwo Jima that lasted for three days but achieved minimal results against Kuribayashi’s underground defences. The aircraft of Fifth Fleet’s escort carriers were more successful, dropping incendiary bombs that burned away vegetation and camouflage to reveal many hidden positions and then making precision strikes on them with rockets. The little carriers also conducted anti-submarine patrols and two of them, Anzio and Tulagi, formed the centres of Hunter-Killer groups similar to those that did such good work in the Atlantic.

Finally on 19 February, a tremendous barrage from the heavy gunnery units and constant attacks from all Fifth Fleet’s aircraft, including those from Mitscher’s carriers, heralded the landings and the start of the Marines’ ordeals. Mitscher then moved away to provide distant cover by attacking enemy bases from which help might come. The escort carriers remained to provide close support and fighter protection, and since it was not until March that aircrews experienced in night operations were received by them, specifically by Sangamon, Mitscher sent Saratoga to join them and attend to any requirements after dark.

Saratoga’s service was to be brief. Because of the distance from enemy air bases, there was never the same scale of attacks as at Leyte Gulf or Lingayan Gulf; but on 21 February, a series of raids took place with Saratoga inevitably as the prime target. The first, by Zero fighter-bombers in the late afternoon, hit her with three bombs, while one Kamikaze struck her on the flight deck and another on the waterline, opening a huge hole in her side. As the sky darkened, a mixed formation of Zeros and Bettys, led by Lieutenant Hiroshi Murakawa, chosen for his experience in more orthodox forms of attack, selected several targets. Another Kamikaze crashed into Saratoga’s flight deck, starting raging fires. These were eventually mastered but Saratoga was so damaged that she had to withdraw, ultimately to the United States, her place with the escort carriers being taken by Enterprise. Of her crew, 123 were killed and 192 wounded, forty-two of her aircraft were destroyed, and she took no further part in the war.2

Her accompanying escort carriers did not escape either. A Betty struck the flight deck of Lunga Point a glancing blow, skidded along it and plunged into the sea, causing only minor damage. Two others crashed into Bismarck Sea only a few seconds apart. Both exploded, causing fires that spread rapidly. A series of explosions followed as ammunition began to detonate. Finally the flames reached the after magazine that blew up, tearing off her stern. ‘Abandon Ship’ was ordered and two hours after the attack, she capsized and sank, taking some 350 men down with her.

Even before Iwo Jima was secured, preparations were being made to gain the Americans’ last objective prior to the invasion of the Japanese home islands. This was Okinawa, about 350 miles south-east of Japan that would provide a springboard for that final invasion and landing fields from which it could be supported. On the other hand, it was well within range of air bases in Japan, Formosa and neighbouring islands and it was guarded by 100,000 enemy soldiers, led by Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima.

The American carriers detailed to cover the Okinawa invasion, scheduled for 1 April, had come a long way from their original base at Pearl Harbour. Their base now was Ulithi Atoll in the northern Carolines that had been occupied without resistance on 23 September 1944. Even here they were not immune from attack and on the night of 11/12 March 1945, a dozen land-based long-range Yokosuka Frances bombers made a suicide raid on the anchorage, one of them striking the flight deck of fleet carrier Randolph, putting her out of action for a fortnight. On 27 March, the Americans secured an advance base by seizing the lightly held Kerama Islands, 15 miles west of southern Okinawa. Yet providing fuel, ammunition and spare parts for the carriers’ aircraft was still a colossal task that probably only the United States had the capacity to perform.

British carriers were operating even farther from home. The Indian Ocean was sufficiently distant but in October 1943, escort carrier Battler joined the British Eastern Fleet there to assist in operations against German and Japanese submarines. On 12 March 1944, her aircraft sighted the German tanker Brake refuelling a pair of U-boats and she was subsequently sunk by destroyer Roebuck, thus greatly hampering the enemy’s operations. Also in March 1944, escort carriers Shah and Begum arrived in the Indian Ocean, and gradually the submarine menace was mastered here as it had been in the Atlantic and the Arctic.

At the same time, the British were building up a force of fleet carriers. When Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, the officer who had commanded the forces that sank the Scharnhorst, took command of the Eastern Fleet on 22 August 1944, it already contained Illustrious, Indomitable and Victorious and in December, they were joined by Indefatigable. They could have presented a powerful threat to the Japanese position in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies but, understandably if probably mistakenly, Churchill was determined that the Royal Navy should fight alongside the US Navy in the final campaigns against the Japanese.

Accordingly in January 1945, the carriers of the British Pacific Fleet, as it had been renamed, prepared to leave the Indian Ocean. The work of the escort carriers in that ocean and particularly in the Bay of Bengal was far from over, however. Eventually built up to sixteen in number, they carried out anti-submarine patrols, photo-reconnaissance missions over Burma and Malaya, and searches for enemy warships. It was as the result of the sighting reports sent by Avengers from Emperor and Shah that a destroyer flotilla was able to intercept and sink the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro in the early hours of 16 May.

As in the Mediterranean and the Pacific, escort carriers provided cover for amphibious landings. Ameer performed this duty at Akyab and Ramree Islands off the Burmese coast in January, and on 2 May, a landing at the mouth of the Rangoon River was protected by Emperor, Khedive, Hunter and Stalker, while Shah and Empress were included in a covering force that guarded against interference by Japanese surface warships. The Burmese capital was duly occupied next day, but it must be conceded that there was an element of farce in this operation since the Japanese had in fact abandoned Rangoon ten days earlier.

Much more successful were the final missions flown by the British fleet carriers before their departures from the Indian Ocean. These were strikes at Palembang in Sumatra, where the Japanese possessed the two largest oil refineries in South-East Asia, capable of supplying three-quarters of all their aviation fuel; they were attacked separately, one on 24 January, the other on the 29th.

For the first raid, it was intended to use forty-seven Avengers armed with bombs, sixteen Hellcats, thirty-two Corsairs and twelve Fireflies. The last-named were two-seater fighters designed as replacements for the Fulmars. They had a top speed of under 320 mph and a poor rate of climb but were surprisingly manoeuvrable and had a long range, making them very useful bomber-escorts. They also did well as night-fighters and on this and other occasions they carried eight rocket projectiles.

Despite problems that prevented two Avengers and a Firefly from taking off and caused five Avengers and one Corsair to return prematurely, and despite flak, fighters and – much to the annoyance of the airmen who had been assured there would be none such – barrage balloons, the attackers shot down eleven enemy aircraft, destroyed several more on their airfields and, best of all, hit the refinery so badly that its output was halved. The British lost two Avengers, one Hellcat and six Corsairs, with a further Corsair forced to ‘ditch’.

The second raid followed a course very similar to that of the first one. Forty-eight Avengers, sixteen Hellcats, thirty-six Corsairs and two Fireflies (for armed reconnaissance) took off. One Avenger had to ‘ditch’ almost immediately, three Avengers and four Corsairs turned back early; but again numerous enemy aircraft were destroyed on the ground or in combat and the second refinery was damaged so severely that it ceased production for two months. Four Avengers, two Corsairs and a Firefly were shot down; six damaged Avengers had to ‘ditch’.

After these undoubted if costly achievements, the British carriers proceeded to Australia. Here Admiral Fraser followed the example of Admiral Nimitz and remained in Sydney to co-ordinate all aspects of his Fleet’s administration, of which the most difficult was keeping it supplied with all its requirements by means of a Fleet Train, formed in great haste from the limited number of ships available, regardless of their suitability for the purpose. The Fleet at sea was entrusted to Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings, who took it first to the appropriately-named Admiralty Islands and then, on 19 March, to Ulithi.

By that time, the Americans had already made their preliminary moves. On 18 March, Vice Admiral Mitscher’s sixteen fast carriers attacked the Japanese islands, their warplanes being directed against airfields on which they inflicted considerable damage. The Japanese counter-attacked; Enterprise and Yorktown being struck by bombs, and Intrepid by a Kamikaze. In all cases the damage was slight and Mitscher’s men were back on the following day, this time concentrating mainly on the ports of Kure and Kobe, at both of which they wrecked dockyards and at the former of which they also damaged light carrier Ryuho.

Later raids had been planned but before any could be delivered, five Judys hurtled down on Wasp and Franklin. It has been said they were suicide attackers but it seems they were orthodox bombers, though their reckless courage made the mistake easily understandable. One bomb hit Wasp’s flight deck and though she was able to continue operations, she suffered 370 casualties, 101 of them fatal. Two bombs landed on Franklin’s flight deck just as she was launching her aircraft. Both burst through into the hangar where they set off raging fires and explosions that killed 724 of her crew and wounded 265 more. Yet so high was the standard of American damage control parties and so efficient was their latest fire-fighting equipment that Franklin, though listing badly, was able to withdraw – ultimately to the United States for repairs.

The remainder of the Fast Carrier Force retired with her, successfully repulsing other small raids as they did so. On the 21st, Hellcats from Hornet and light carrier Belleau Wood made a particularly important interception of eighteen Bettys. These were led by Lieutenant Commander Goro Nonaka, a veteran torpedo-bomber pilot, but his aircraft on this occasion were carrying not torpedoes but Okas.

An Oka – the word means ‘cherry blossom’, a symbol of purity in Japan – was in essence a manned flying bomb with 2,645lb of explosive in the nose, specifically designed for suicide attacks. It was a fraction under 20 feet long with a wingspan of almost 16½ feet. It could neither take off nor land on its own, so was carried under a modified Betty, with which the suicide pilot could communicate by means of a telephone circuit. The Betty would take it to within about 20 miles of its objective before releasing it, after which its pilot would glide towards his chosen target, increasing speed if required by using five rockets fitted in the tail section. These enabled the Oka to reach the then enormous speed of 650 mph and this, together with its lack of size, made it almost impossible to stop by AA fire.

Theoretically therefore, the Oka presented a terrible threat and if the Americans gave it the mocking name of ‘Baka bomb’ – ‘baka’ being Japanese for ‘mad’ – this was in part at least to disguise the apprehension it inspired. Yet in practice the Oka/Baka never fulfilled anything like its true potential, partly because it was extremely difficult to control after leaving its Betty, but mainly because American radar, fighters and interception techniques were now so good that the lumbering Betty rarely had a chance to launch it in the first place. This was demonstrated dramatically on 21 March 1945, when all the Bettys carrying Okas were shot down at a safe distance. Twenty of their thirty escorting Zeros were destroyed as well. In all during the course of the US carriers’ sortie into Japanese home waters, their flak or fighters downed 161 enemy warplanes and though they lost 116 of their own aircraft, they had ensured that it would be some time before their enemies could mount really sizeable raids against the forces closing in on Okinawa.

These included an impressive number of carriers. On 23 March, Mitscher’s remaining ‘flat-tops’ began preliminary strikes on Okinawa. Fifth Fleet’s eighteen escort carriers joined in next day, and two days after that, the four British carriers arrived. They and their supporting warships were placed under Spruance’s command, designated Task Force 57 and given the responsibility for neutralizing airfields in Formosa and the Sakishima Islands, between it and Okinawa, and for intercepting any aircraft attempting to intervene in the Okinawa fighting.

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