The Early Carrier Raids: February and March, 1942

Attacks in the Central Pacific
    In the war plans active in December 1941, known as Rainbow 5, the tasks of the Pacific Fleet in times of war were clearly described. However, the events of December 7th completely upset all pre-planned moves. With half the battlefleet destroyed and the rest disabled, CinCPac had to discard them.

     That although those plans had been Kimmel’s everything until the last moment. It was on Kimmel‘s pressure that, instead of following the advice of the commandant of the 14th Naval District, the Navy opted to retain Wake as a forward base. In arguing thus, the Admiral’s advisors omitted information that would clearly suggest the foolishness of such a move. The reason was simple: Wake, like no other U.S. possession, afforded the Pacific Fleet the chance for an early, decisive naval battle, such as the Orange Plan since its inception had propagated.
Much like Kimmel saw Wake did the Rainbow Five plan see the Mandate: an area which could be used to distract the Japanese from their Far Eastern conquests. It planned raids on the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands, hoping to draw attention and keep spirits in the fleet up by showing them the option of battle.

    However: the way in which the Pacific Fleet of Kimmel’s intended to act, it seemed obvious that little would be done to distract, yet much to lure into battle, the Combined Fleet.

    While positioning submarines in front of the exist from the Inland Sea of Japan, the major elements of the fleet, including three carriers and three battleships, would move against the Mandate. Following raids by aircraft and cruisers, the carrier task forces would retire on the three battleships, held in reserve north of the Marshalls. There, the remaining Pacific Fleet would link up and a six-week period of waiting would begin, in which duration it was hoped that the Combined Fleet would show up and be defeated.

    This, carefully said, stunning plan could be laid down on December 7th 1941. In formulating this plan, Kimmel’s artillery-focused mentality and, as the author of the Congressional Report on Pearl Harbor formulated it, his desire of “becoming himself the American Nelson”, may have had part.

    Alas, when on January 1 1942, Admiral Chester William Nimitz took command of the Pacific Fleet on board the submarine Grayling among the wreckage of the Pearl Harbor attack, the numerical strength of that fleet was dangerously small.

    Four carriers, Lexington, Saratoga, Enterprise and Yorktown (a recent arrival from the East Coast), nineteen cruisers and a number of destroyers were spread over West Coast harbors and Pearl Harbor itself. What remained of the battlefleet was on the west coast, clear indication of what was to be expected of the old battleships.

    For the available rest of the Pacific Fleet, there were to major tasks following the defeat of Wake: covering a Samoa convoy bearing reinforcements of a Marine Force, and attacking multiple targets to take pressure off the hard-pressed ABDA forces. Carriers Enterprise and Yorktown, under Admiral Halsey and Fletcher, respectively, did the covering work to Samoa between January 6 and 22. Even while they were heading south, Saratoga was torpedoed and seriously damaged on January 11 500nm off Oahu – she had to retire to Pearl and than for extended repairs and refits to Bremerton, Washington.

    In the aftermath of the Samoa operation, Admiral Nimitz ordered, with the okay of Admiral Ernest King in Washington, carrier raids on the Japanese-controlled Marshall and Gilbert Islands. 
The two carriers Enterprise and Yorktown, under the overall command of Vice-Admiral Halsey in Enterprise, hurried north to comply with Nimitz’ order. Halsey himself would take on the apparently difficult targets of Kwajalein, Maloelap and Wotje, while Fletcher would take Jaluit, Mili and Makin.

    The Marshalls were being defended by the Japanese 24. Air Flotilla, which, spread among various islands, sported 33 old fighters, nine bombers, and nine flying boats. The remaining units of the air flottila, especially its bombers, were located to the south at Truk and Rabaul.

    After a tanking rendezvous on January 29, the carriers parted and headed for their respective targets. Aboard Enterprise and the whole of Task Force 8, men and machines were readied for the first battle. Made-up armor, built from boiler plate, was installed in VF-6’s Wildcats; all vessels rigged themselves for towing or being towed.
Aboard Enterprise, the first strike was decided to hit all targets simultaneously: VB-6 and VS-6, accompanied by nine TBDs from VT-6, would attack Kwajalein, supposed to harbor the most important targets. VF-6 would send six fighters against Wotje, followed by cruisers Salt Lake City and Northampton with a destroyer as escort to do the real damage. Another six fighters would be send against Tarao in the Maloelap atoll, were the least resistance was expected. Cruiser Chester would be doing some shelling there. Enterprise finished her launchs at 0620 in the morning of February 1st.

    The Wotje attack saw no resistance except for sporadic flak fire, and the six attacking fighters retired without damage while the bombardment group under Admiral Spruance shelled the island.
Taroa, however, was a distinctly more difficult target. Instead of some dubious targets, a full-blown base was found, complete with a detachment of fighters. With only five fighters on the American side, one having been lost in a starting accident, the battle waging over the island was indecisive, and the heavy artillery of Chester could not help it either. The air combat, however, served to bring the Navy the first aerial victory in its history.
Last on the list, Kwajalein indeed proved the most fruitful target. Splitting up into individual squadrons over the atoll, the Enterprise attack hit the double-island of Roi-Namur and ships in the lagoon, incurring four lost SBDs in exchange for hits on transports in the lagoon.

    Following the return of his planes, Admiral Halsey prepared a second, then a third attack against Taroa, and a second attack on Wotje; on conclusion of these operations and after fending off an air attack during which Enterprise suffered a close near-miss igniting fires of neglectable intensity, Halsey turned his carrier for Pearl Harbor. Both sides could reflect on the results of the first U.S. carrier strike.

    While Enterprise attacked her targets, Yorktown with two cruisers rushed for her point of attack, followed by her destroyers which kept a slowly 16 knots to the heavier ships’ 25. Just as Enterprise did, Yorktown would attack all her targets simultaneously and then retire.

    The attacks on Jaluit, Mili and Makin (in the Gilberts), however, remained ineffective despite high American losses, for few targets were found and bad weather hampered attacks on Jaluit. The same bad weather, however, also prevented Japanese attacks on Fletcher when, upon receipt of Halsey’s order to retire on the evening of February 1st, Fletcher moved out of the Mandate.

    On the return to Pearl Harbor on the 5th and 6th of February respectively, the reception was phenomenal. From the ships in the harbor and the docks around it came jubilant shouts and waving hats. “It made little difference that post-war evidence would show far less damage done in the Marshalls than [the Enterprise pilots] thought: [Bill Halsey] and Enterprise had brought the war’s first victory back to Pearl.”
 Attack on Rabaul 
    While Halsey and Fletcher dealt blows to the Japanese in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, Admiral Nimitz sent Lexington with two cruisers and seven destroyers on a far-reaching mission. Under the command of Vice-Admiral Wilson E. Brown Lexington would first escort the tanker Neosho to a rendezvous with Admiral Halsey’s returning force, then head south to escort a convoy to Canton Island. Leaving port on January 31, Lexington’s orders were changed only two days later, when her part in the Neosho escort was terminated upon determining that Halsey would go back to Pearl non-stop. Brown would head for Canton and establish offensive patrols there. Then, on February 6, new orders arrived on Lexington. From this day on Brown was to be part of the South Pacific force under Vice-Admiral Leary, under the direct control of Washington’s Admiral Ernest King. Brown, the senior Vice-Admiral, would command Lexington’s force at sea; Leary the remaining forces.

     Brown’s plan was it to solve his take of covering the connection San Francisco – Australia by attacking the newly-captured Rabaul on New Britain, off the east coast of New Guinea. The only forces that Leary could add to Brown’s Task Force 11 were the four cruisers and two destroyers of the ANZAC Squadron under Rear-Admiral Sir John Crace RN, which however lacked the fuel oil to head north with Brown. The Admiral took off alone for his launching point north-east of Rabaul.

    The forces defending the town were part of the Fourth Japanese Fleet, the South Seas Forces, possessed eighteen G4M Betty bombers and twenty-six fighters, as well as a search group of four Mavis flying boats.
Brown hat set his time of attack for February 21, but on February 20, Lexington still being on course north, the ship’s radar detected a single airborne contact. The Mavis, as it was identified, was quickly blown from the sky by combat air patrol fighters. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a good sign. Certainly, the Japanese would now send out their own forces to attack Lexington and her task force.

    Indeed, at Fourth Fleet Headquarters in Truk, Vice-Admiral Inoue was less than pleased with the new situation. Readying his available units, prominently four heavy cruisers of the 6th Division, he ordered a strike conducted from Rabaul. Seventeen unescorted, bomb-laden Bettys launched.

    When these attackers reached Brown at 1542, the Admiral had already decided to break off his attack. Now, his fighters led by radar intercepted the Japanese. Lieutenant  Butch O’Hare shot down five of the attackers, others took down another ten; no hit was scored on Lexington, and O’Hare was awarded the Medal of Honor. 
Not by a fair margin was this mission a Japanese success: Rabaul, at least in the South Pacific, was the most powerful base, and if Rabaul could not defend itself, little could be expected from other bases. The Bettys, shields of the defensive strategies against the American fleet, had been shot down with all too great ease. The lightning quick concentrations of aerial firepower, primary pillar of the perimeter defense, had not materialized. At the same time, losses incurred could only be replaced, and Rabaul not be brought up to its determined full strength. All of this were obvious signs for the coming months.

 Attacks on Wake and Marcus
    While Wilson Brown and Lexington tested the defense of New Britain, Admiral Nimitz and his Commander, Aircraft Carriers, Pacific Fleet, discussed the next steps for the two carriers left in Pearl Harbor. After some thinking Nimitz decided on Wake Island and Eniwetok Atoll, another island of the Marshall Group. Enterprise and Yorktown would join together for these attacks.
Enterprise left Pearl Harbor on February 14, but two days later, the carrier received news that the rendezvous with Yorktown and the attack on Eniwetok would be terminated; Yorktown would take on different tasks, Enterprise would only conduct the morally important attack on Wake.
The attack on Wake followed on February 24. Again, Rear-Admiral Raymond Spruance led a bombardment group (cruisers Northampton and Salt Lake City, destroyers Benham and Maury), but this time, bad weather hampered cooperation between air and naval forces. 18 nautical miles off Wake, Spruance was jumped by fighters, which however did no damage. At ten to eight, three minutes after Spruance had commenced firing, the 49-plane airstrike reached its target. Damage to the island done was slight for a lack of targets.
Halsey, under the covering umbrella of a timely rainstorm, escaped possible followers during February 25. That same day, Halsey received another message from Nimitz allowing a strike to be executed against Marcus Island, 1000 nautical miles from Tokyo, to the west of Wake. Halsey led his Task Force through covering rain squalls until, on February 28, he started his plan. Taking Spruance’s two cruisers and Enterprise, he would conduct a hit-and-run raid with only one air attack.

    Halsey reached Marcus on March 4 and launched his planes so as to strike the island in the first light of the day. Alas, his planes were almost thirty minutes early. Nevertheless, they hit their targets in the diffuse light of a pending sunrise and so surprised the enemy that only one SBD was lost. His planes back on board Halsey rushed back to his rendezvous with his destroyers, meeting with them on March 5th, and headed for Pearl were he arrived five days later.

 Attacks on Lae and Salamaua
Compared to Enterprise’s, the three weeks that Yorktown spent between February 16th and March 4th, were completely boring. Task Force 17, as the Yorktown formation was known, left Pearl Harbor on February 16 bound for Canton, to serve as a reserve for either Brown or Halsey.
There it remained until, on February 27, Fletcher received news that he was to meet with Task Force 11 and Vice-Admiral Brown north of New Caledonia. A second carrier was urgently needed in the South Pacific.

    The originator of this deployment was Admiral Brown himself, who, after his aborted raid against Rabaul, cabled Nimitz that he advised against any further raids unless two carriers were available. Now, with two carriers, Brown amplified his message: two carriers were necessary, but he did not consider it wise to strike Rabaul at this time.

    But Admirals Leary, King, and Nimitz prevailed: Brown would attack Rabaul at any rate, on March 10. An attack in the early hours of the day, before and during dawn, a specialty of the Pacific Fleet, would hit Rabaul and the airfield at Gasmata. Brown would approach from the South, hoping for better chances there.
However, as the combined fleet of Task Force 11 headed north through the Coral Sea, Brown received news of a Japanese landing on the Gulf of Huon near the cities of Lae and Salamaua. Those were dangerously close to the Allied New Guinean foothold at Port Moresby, though separated from it by the Owen-Stanley-Mountains. 
Brown decided to hit this new target of opportunity, trusting the Japanese not to expect any sort of attack least of all a carrier attack across the precluding Owen Stanley ranges. He hoped to catch the Japanese flatfooted – and he was right.

    From out of the restricted waters of the Gulf of Papua, off Port Moresby, the two carriers launched 104 planes at around 0800 on March 10. Heading through a pass through the almost impassable Owen Stanleys towards Lae and Salamaua, the air groups split into their squadrons. The Scouts would take Lae; Bombers and Torpedo Squadrons would take Salamaua, were the larger shipping concentrations were expected. 

    The Japanese were caught in the most complete surprise imaginable. Except for a few seaplanes, there was no CAP overhead. The two air groups, coming in at 15 minutes difference, sent three transports to the bottom and damaged most of the rest of the enemy fleet, at negligible losses. As Brown hurried out of the Gulf of Papua, he had won the materially most important victory of the Pacific Fleet to date.

    Following these operations, the two carriers parted. Lexington, after two months at sea, headed for Pearl Harbor. Yorktown stayed in the South Pacific, there to cover the vital link between the U.S. and Australia. 
As Lexington returned to Pearl Harbor, however, there was a rude surprise waiting for Brown: on the orders of Admiral King in Washington, now CNO besides COMINCH, he was relieved effective immediately of command of the Lexington group. Apparently, reasons of health were the prime consideration of King’s.

 The Early Carrier Raids: Lections
    The returning commanders of the carriers brought with them the truly important successes of the operations of February and March: experience that could only be gained in combat. Several times, the need for self-sealing fuel tanks and factory-made armor for the planes had been shown: their presence would make the U.S. planes much more damage resistant than anything the Japanese had.

    An increase in fighter complements was also due: the eighteen fighters carried as a standard were not capable of covering the task force and possibly escorting air strikes. Especially when other naval forces needed cover, eighteen fighters were a painfully small number. IFF “Identify, Friend or Foe”, was considered the most important addition to the fleet’s radar systems, so as to be able to decide the identity of approaching planes quicker. 

But the primary gain from the first raids was the necessary combat experience that allowed the Americans to fight successfully in the Coral Sea and at Midway.