First Strike at Truk 1944

Almost two years underway, the war in the Pacific, the Navy’s war, was not yet total. Indeed, some were calling it a phony war. Such a term had been applied to the eight-month period of stasis in Europe between the declaration of war by the Allies and their first major operations on Germany’s Western Front in 1940. In the Pacific, the year 1943 had been, for the Navy, a year of rebuilding and waiting.

The invasion of Guadalcanal, the first Allied offensive of the war, launched in August 1942, had been carried out on a shoestring, using a back-of-the-envelope contingency plan. The six-month campaign of attrition ended in U.S. victory in February, but nine more months would pass before the Marine Corps attacked another Japanese-held island. While General Douglas MacArthur’s troops wore down the Japanese in New Guinea and the Army’s Kiska Task Force retook the Aleutians, the Navy endured an interval of gathering and adjustment, of preparation and planning, recruitment and training, construction and commissioning. Mostly the latter, and the shipyards would tell an epic tale.

The lead ship of the Essex class of aircraft carriers joined the fleet on New Year’s Eve 1942. The 34,000-tonner would emerge as the signature ship of the U.S. Navy’s combat task force. Four more would be launched before 1943 was out. A pair of Iowa-class battleships reached the Pacific that year, too, as four more of the 45,000-ton behemoths took shape in the yards. A horde of new destroyers and destroyer escorts—more than five hundred of them—were launched in the year’s second half alone. But the greatest economies of scale revealed themselves in the building of merchant ships. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had directed the Maritime Commission to produce twenty-four million tons of cargo shipping in 1943. The surge was so great that it might have strained the wine industry’s capacity to make bottles to smash against prows on launching day. Surprising shortages cascaded through the supply chain. When grease was rationed for the exclusive use of combat units, a shipyard in Beaumont, Texas, found a substitute to use in lubricating the skids of their ramps: ripe bananas. Personnel officers, short on applicants, hired women and minorities to work in the yards and looked inland from the traditional recruitment fields of the coasts on the hunch that farmers with wits enough to survive the Dust Bowl might be useful in building ships. Coming out of the Depression, no one missed the chance to earn a better wage.

It was this outpouring of manpower and industry that enabled the Navy’s long-envisioned drive through the Central Pacific to begin. Since 1909, the “Pacific problem” had been an important object of study, premised upon the Navy’s need to retake the Philippines after a Japanese attack. Since 1933, Ernest King had favored a path through the Marianas, which he considered the “key to the Western Pacific.” As commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, based in Washington, Admiral King had been pressing the Joint Chiefs to approve an invasion of the islands ever since the end stages of the Guadalcanal campaign. The size and difficulty of the island objectives seized to date—mere apostrophes of coral with little elevation or terrain—paled next to the Marianas, which lay within what Japan considered its inner defensive perimeter.

In November 1943, as Admiral William F. Halsey’s South Pacific forces attacked Bougainville, Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Central Pacific Force began its oceanic march, falling upon the tiniest and humblest of objectives: Tarawa, a coral atoll in the Gilberts. The sharp, bloody fight was won quickly by the men of the Second Marine Division. The Marshall Islands campaign was next. Spruance took the fleet there in January, delivering the Fourth Marine Division and elements of the Army’s Seventh Division to conquer Kwajalein, an infamous prison island that had been the site of many executions of captured Allied pilots and sailors.

When Nimitz, delighted, asked Spruance for his thoughts about what to do next, Spruance proposed jumping ahead immediately to capture Eniwetok, an anchorage in the western Marshalls. It would be the farthest advance by American forces in the whole war. Spruance said he could do it, but only if the carriers handled an important preliminary matter first. Any ships assaulting Eniwetok, he said, would come within aircraft striking range of the greatest Japanese base in the Central Pacific. Spruance proposed sending the fast carrier task force to strike it. Its name was Truk.

The stronghold had never before been glimpsed, much less attacked. Located in the Caroline Islands, Truk was a massive, multi-island lagoon. Its gigantic outer barrier of coral heads traced a triangle that held eighty-four coral and basaltic islands, most of which were substantial enough to mount antiaircraft artillery. Four of the inner islands had airfields. The lagoon’s harbors and anchorages were deep enough for major warships, and the base’s capacity to support such assets, and its location on the boundary of the Central and South Pacific areas, recommended it as a forward naval base, fleet headquarters, air base, radio communications hub, and supply base as well. From Truk, the Imperial Navy could muster in defense of almost any point on the perimeter of its so-called Southeast Area, all the way into the deep South Pacific.

The question of how finally to deal with Truk would be decided only after Spruance’s raid was over. Two options were on the table. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved two offensive paths across the Central Pacific: Either the Navy would assault Truk directly and seize it by June 15, to be followed by landings in the Marianas on September 1; or the Navy would bypass it, leaping straight to the Marianas, with D Day on Saipan set for June 15.

Nimitz thought Truk would have to be taken, but his amphibious planners considered it beyond their means. Truk’s barrier reef was a dangerous obstacle to assault, and its enormous radius kept the inner harbor out of range of naval gunfire from outside. The atoll’s principal islands themselves, Eten, Moen, Param, Fefan, and Dublon, were within mutually supporting range of each other and thus formidable objectives. The more Nimitz and his people looked at it, the less they liked the odds.

On February 12, Spruance and Mitscher led nine aircraft carriers to sea from Majuro, an anchorage in the Marshalls. Their mission was to stick an arm into the hornet’s nest that was Truk and rate the potency of its sting. If the raid, code-named Operational Hailstone, went well, no Japanese planes would remain on Truk to interfere with the landings on Eniwetok. The results would bear, too, on the choice of the next strategic objective.

Though Spruance had a reputation as a battleship man, he had won his greatest fame leading carriers. In June 1942, in the Battle of Midway, he exercised tactical control over the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown while their aviators destroyed four Japanese carriers. For the loss of the Yorktown, the United States won a victory that would resound in history. Elevated thereafter to serve as Admiral Chester Nimitz’s chief of staff, Spruance commanded a desk at Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t until August 1943 that he returned to sea to command the Central Pacific Force. Its fast carrier element acquired its muscular size nearly coincidentally with Spruance’s rise. It dwarfed in every dimension the carrier group he had led at Midway. The Essex-class carriers were made mighty by their association with an air group of ninety planes, made up of a fighter squadron, a dive-bomber squadron, and a torpedo bomber squadron. By 1944 these squadrons used best-in-class aircraft, the F6F-3 Hellcat, the SB2C-1 Helldiver (or the older SBD-5 Dauntless), and the TBF-1c Avenger, respectively.

The argument about how to employ the Navy’s multiplying roster of carriers—singly, as in the past, or in groups—was settled not so much by persuasion or battle experience as by the surging output of the yards. As far as combat tactics went, the standard assumption that they had to hit, then run, because they were impossible to save against a determined air attack, was yielding to a new reality. Quantity was not merely a luxury but a revolution. By concentrating their aircraft and flak defenses, the carrier task force could hold an air attack at bay. Their planes had radio transponders that enabled specially trained fighter direction teams to recognize them and direct them using long-range search radars. New shipboard combat information centers collated and communicated this critical information. With common doctrine governing the use of combat air patrols, ship formations, and air defense tactics, the carrier task force acquired a flexibility that multiplied its reach and staying power. Several groups of three or four carriers, operating together, could quite well take care of themselves. Approaching Truk, Spruance and Mitscher were about to prove it.

They had arranged their nine carriers in three task groups, each steaming just over the horizon from the next. Spruance flew his three-star flag in the battleship New Jersey, riding in a great circle with the carrier Bunker Hill and the light carriers Monterey and Cowpens. Over the horizon to his north was the group built around the Enterprise, the Yorktown,* and the light carrier Belleau Wood. To his south came the Essex, with the Intrepid and the light carrier Cabot. Deployment in groups allowed concentration or dispersion as a mission might require. Typically the force could be seen in its totality only in an anchorage. At sea, such a spectacle required a few thousand feet of altitude.

Ninety minutes before sunrise on February 16, the fleet closed to within ninety miles of Truk and, on order from Mitscher, as tactical commander of the carriers under Spruance, turned into a force-five wind and began launching planes. One by one, with the release of chocks and the roar of Wright radial engines, a swarm of F6F-3 Hellcats took wing over the spray of onrushing whitecaps.

At the break of morning light, the leaders of each of the five participating fighter squadrons led their flights in a wide turn to the west and circled, allowing the others to join up. After the seventy Hellcats had gathered, they turned out on a heading that would take them west, harbingers of a two-day operation to neutralize Truk as a threat to U.S. ambitions in the Pacific.

The swarm had droned along for less than an hour when their target appeared before them. Illuminated by the sun just above the eastern horizon, it resembled a cluster of mountains contained in a huge coral-fringed tub. Truk’s barrier reef, a round-cornered triangle, encompassed a lagoon. As they came nearer, twelve planes from the Bunker Hill flew high cover at twenty thousand feet, while two divisions of four ranged more widely as scouts. Two dozen Hellcats from the Enterprise and the Yorktown, Mitscher’s flagship, formed the low-attack group. Like-sized contingents from the Intrepid and Essex came in at medium altitude. The boss of the Bunker Hill air group, Commander Roland H. “Brute” Dale, flew separately as the strike coordinator. His job was to make sure the remaining forty-eight planes, his strikers, found the right targets to strafe, assisted by three other air group commanders who served as target observers.

Twelve planes from the Intrepid’s Fighter Squadron Six circled the atoll at a distance, waiting for their high cover to reach its station. A pilot from this group, Lieutenant (j.g.) Alex Vraciu, was mystified to find no Japanese planes in the air to intercept. Little did the U.S. pilots know that the base’s naval commander had just relaxed his guard, a decision that was almost coincident with the arrival of enemy carriers off his shores. For the previous two weeks, Truk had been on high alert, ever since American search planes reconnoitered it on February 4.

Knowing that his pilots were exhausted, Vice Admiral Masami Kobayashi, commander of the Fourth Fleet, had ordered most of them to shore leave in the barracks district located across a causeway from the main airfield at Dublon. The subsequent lapse in air search allowed Spruance to approach Truk undetected and left a sizable portion of the available fighters on the ground when the American swarm arrived overhead before sunrise.

On a fighter sweep, U.S. Navy tactical doctrine boiled down to this: Keep your Hellcats high. Concentrate them in force. Clear out the enemy fighters first. Then get after the airfields. Don’t circle and tarry; it only gives the enemy a chance to scramble. Save for the initial five or so minutes of circling necessary to allow the Hellcats assigned to high cover to take station, this was exactly what Dale and his pilots did, if not necessarily in that order. It wasn’t until Fighting Six was pushing over to strafe that they discovered that some enemy fighters were airborne after all. Pacific Fleet intelligence had estimated that not fewer than seventy-five fighters would be on hand to defend Truk, along with twenty-eight scout bombers, twelve torpedo planes, twelve medium bombers, five large patrol planes, and fifty-eight floatplanes, a total of 190 aircraft. “Not fewer than” proved to be the operative words. The Japanese pilots indeed did in the end get to their planes. U.S. fliers would count more than three hundred of them in the air and on the ground during the day.

As flak puffed the sky around him, Alex Vraciu, with his wingman, Lou Little, found himself in the tail of a spiral of Hellcats bearing down on Moen Island, the site of one of Truk’s principal airfields. Ten Hellcats ahead of him were into their dives when, to be safe, Vraciu looked back over his shoulder. No rookie, he knew the clouds offered nooks and crannies for enemy pilots to use as cover for ambush. His caution likely saved his life. There he saw it at last, the dim form of a Mitsubishi A6M Model Zero, known as a Zeke, diving, its cowling and wings twinkling with gunfire.

Vraciu pulled back his stick, and Little followed him into a climb. Turning sharply toward the enemy plane, Vraciu maneuvered to bring the plane into his gunsight, then fired a burst that forced the pilot to break off and dive. That’s when he noticed the enemy planes above him—a gaggle of dozens that included every model the Japanese flew. The fight was on.

Alex Vraciu was just one among many similarly situated young pilots, full of ambition, in thrall of their tribe, in the grip of their squadron’s logo and mojo and full of stories about the wise old hands who had forged them. He entered pilot training while he was still a senior at Depauw University in Muncie, Indiana. Joining his first squadron at North Island, San Diego, Vraciu was singled out as a talent by the commander, Butch O’Hare, who made the rookie his wingman. The skipper proceeded to hand down the lessons of air combat as they had been taught to him—via the “humiliation squad.”

This powerful pedagogy threw new pilots fresh from training into mock dogfights against a cadre of experienced veterans. As O’Hare had learned from fighter ace legends such as John S. “Jimmie” Thach and Jimmy Flatley, now Vraciu faced his own learning curve. Flying against O’Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient, Vraciu performed well enough to raise eyebrows. And so O’Hare brought him into a new program to develop night fighting tactics. In a “bat team,” a pair of Hellcats flew with a radar-equipped Avenger to hunt enemy planes flying at night. And it was on just such a mission, one night off the Marshalls in November 1943, that O’Hare was killed while defending the Enterprise task group against a night air attack. His loss stoked Vraciu’s Pearl Harbor fever. The desire for revenge became the driving force of his life wearing wings. He was already an ace by the time the carriers reached Truk.

Sizing up the enemy formation, Vraciu knew that he had enough airspeed, about 250 knots, to lose any enemy fighter that latched onto his tail. The fast and sturdy Grumman fighter could outturn a Zeke at high speed. By diving down to gain speed, he could execute a chandelle, pulling up in a steep climbing turn that would cause his pursuer to shoot past him. By making a barrel roll, Vraciu could pounce down on the Zeke as it flew by. Vraciu had him right where he wanted him, this pilot who settled in on his tail.

As Vraciu’s opponent tried to follow him through the chandelle, the Zeke lost its grip on the air and spun out at the top of the turn. Vraciu was lining up a killing deflection shot when he noticed more enemy fighters turning down on him from above. His zeal gave way to prudence. He declined the shot, letting the enemy pilot dive out and escape while he figured out a better way to win.

Vraciu was pleased to find Lou Little faithfully holding on his wing. By scissoring back and forth in opposite interweaving S patterns, he and his wingman made the enemy think better of getting on their tails. Known as the Thach Weave after its creator, Jimmie Thach, the skipper of Fighting Three, the tactic allowed two fighter pilots to cover each other’s vulnerable six o’clock position against more maneuverable aircraft such as the Zeke. In this way Vraciu gradually coaxed the enemy to descend. Once the Japanese yielded the advantage of altitude, Vraciu noted, they seemed to lose their resolve. Gaining the tail of three Zekes in succession, he set them on fire and watched the brown-and-green-mottled aircraft splash into the lagoon. The morning belonged to the Americans. After a sharp ten-minute engagement, Vraciu noticed more than a few Japanese pilots swinging down slowly, suspended from silk. Some of them were still wearing pajamas.

The fighter sweep swarmed over the great atoll, devouring Japanese planes in the air and on the ground. Led by Fighting Six’s exec, Lieutenant G. C. Bullard, Vraciu’s squadron made twelve passes over the strip, burning row upon row of planes. Firing on a Zeke and setting it afire, Teddy Schofield of Fighting Five followed the enemy pilot in a descent toward the airfield on Eten Island. The Japanese flier was probably wounded, for he didn’t square his wheels on touchdown. His plane rolled enough to catch a wingtip on the runway, then started cartwheeling. Turning over and over, the Zeke rolled across a hangar apron, igniting three parked torpedo planes, and as Schofield watched, rooting hard for a few more turns, the Zeke came to rest, a wreck, just short of a big four-engine plane parked at the end of the flight line.

Lieutenant Bullard of the Intrepid was not among the pilots who joined up at the rendezvous area. En route to it, he had spotted a Japanese light cruiser hustling toward the atoll’s northern exit, North Pass. Rallying his division, he led a low-altitude strafing run. A burst of flak from the ship hit his Hellcat, and his engine lost power. Turning out to sea, the pilot descended and slowed, finally easing his fighter into the wave tops and jerking to a halt in an explosion of white spray. As it began to sink, he struggled free of the cockpit. Another pilot dropped a life raft and winged over to occupy the attention of the cruiser and its gunners. Strafing the ship, he set fire to its floatplane as it sat on a catapult. That excitement gave Bullard enough of a diversion to paddle toward a small islet about five and a half miles west of North Pass. He eventually made it, and he spent his considerable free time there spelling his name in rocks for the benefit of his eventual rescuers. Just a few miles away, several Japanese destroyers could be seen, apparently waiting to rendezvous with the light cruiser fleeing the harbor. These ships meant to make a break for it.

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