By early 1944, US forces in the Pacific had secured the Solomon Islands, as well as the Gilberts, and were preparing to assault the Marshall islands. The Marshall islands would be within relatively easy range for Japanese forces in the Carolines to attack the invading US forces.
The Caroline islands were ceded to Japan at the end of World War I, and Japan quickly fortified the lagoon at Truk (pronounced “trook” and now known as Chuuk). Truk became the major forward operating and logistical base of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and was home to a major airfield complex with hundreds of aircraft. And for 20 years, no Western eyes so much as glimpsed the defenses of the lagoon.
To preempt any Japanese interference with the coming US assault on the Marshalls, the decision was made to have Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s 5th Fleet raid Truk to suppress it, and destroy the Japanese Combined Fleet at its anchorage before it could sortie. The heart of the 5th Fleet force would be Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force, Task Force 58, with five fleet carriers, and four light carriers, with a combined strength of almost 600 planes. The raid was dubbed Operation Hailstone.
Seven fast battleships, and forty-five other cruisers and destroyers supported the attack, both providing anti-aircraft and anti-submarine escort to the carriers, and surface task forces to intercept any Japanese ships sortieing from Truk, either to attack or escape. Ten US fleet submarines took up positions to sink fleeing Japanese ships, provide early warning, and to rescue downed American aircrews.
Before dawn on the morning of February 16, 1944, the US carriers began launching what would become a familiar pattern of American carrier raids. A large fighter sweep of F6F Hellcats arrived over the Japanese airfields just as it was light enough to spot targets. The sweep both engaged the few Japanese aircraft that managed to get airborne, and also strafed plane on the ground. Importantly, they also strafed enemy anti-aircraft positions to suppress them. And just as the Hellcats were wrapping up their sweep, the first of a series of deckload strikes arrived overhead. A typical strike from each carrier would be from 24 to 30 aircraft, roughly evenly distributed between dive bombers, TBM torpedo bombers, and Hellcat fighters. Each carrier would manage to launch a strike every two hours or so, with four or five strikes launched per day. Some strikes were focused on shipping in the lagoon, while others struck at the airfields or logistical facilities ashore.
The Japanese had apparently begun to worry that Truk might be vulnerable to attack, and had moved the heavy units of the Combined Fleet to Palau just days beforehand. And yet, the US raid seemed to catch the Japanese completely off guard. The results of the two day raid were incredibly lopsided.
The Japanese lost three light cruisers, four destroyers, eight other warships, and thirty-two merchant ships and auxiliaries. About 270 Japanese aircraft were destroyed, most on the ground.
In return, the US lost twenty-five aircraft . One battleship was very slightly damaged. The worst damage was a nighttime torpedo attack that badly damaged USS Intrepid, sending her stateside for repairs.
Truk was clearly no longer a viable post for Japan, and aside from a minor mopping up strike in April 1944, the US never had to pay much attention to it again, as its large garrison was cut off from resupply and reinforcement.
With Truk suppressed, the 5th Fleet was free to launch its assault upon the Marshall islands with minimal interference, which in turn provided the US fleet with a forward operating base that would prove very useful in the coming months.
This newsreel video obviously features considerable footage that is not from Operation Hailstone (the P-47s are definitely not Hellcats, and the plexiglass nose isn’t a TBF) but does show a good bit of the mayhem Task Force 58 unleashed upon Truk.
WASHINGTON — In yet another incident in what is turning out to be a bad year for the US Navy’s littoral combat ship program, the LCS Coronado is reported to have suffered a propulsion problem in the mid-Pacific and has turned back to return to Hawaii. The latest issue, this time with an Independence-class LCS variant, follows a series of problems striking ships of the Freedom class.
Sources said the Coronado is about 800 nautical miles west of Hawaii, proceeding at about 10 knots. The Military Sealift Command oiler Henry J. Kaiser is accompanying the ship. About 70 sailors are aboard the LCS.
The Coronado left Pearl Harbor on Friday for the western Pacific, where it was to operate for at least 16 months based from Singapore. The ship recently completed several weeks of operations with the Rim of the Pacific exercises, operating from Pearl Harbor.
Most folks know that Chicago’s O’Hare Airport (KORD) is named for US Navy Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare, holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in defending the USS Lexington from an attack by nine Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers on 20 February, 1942.
O’Hare would later be killed during a night interception in 1943. And eventually Chicago’s Orchard Depot Airport would be renamed in his honor.
A couple weeks ago, friend of the blog Craig Swain posted an interesting question- what was the first airfield named after O’Hare? I had to admit, I didn’t know off the top of my head, and had to cheat a little and use Google.
By the closing months of 1943, the brutal campaign for Guadalcanal had been completed, and sufficient Army and Marine forces for the remainder of the Solomons campaign meant that the 2nd Marine Division would be available to begin a campaign in the Central Pacific. It was this campaign the USS Enterprise was supporting when CDR O’Hare was killed, on 26 November, 1943.
Most people know of the prime thrust of the Gilberts campaign, the bloody Battle of Tarawa. But another island in the chain was seized against only token resistance. Marines landed on Abemama on 24 November, 1943, and by the 26th, construction of an airfield began. The airfield would be needed to support operations against the next chain in the Central Pacific, the Marshalls. The US Army Air Forces 7th Air Force would use the base at Abemama for B-25 Mitchell and B-24 Liberator bombers. So, the Marines seized the island. And the airfield would be Army. But it was the US Navy Seabees who were building the field. And since they were building it, they got to name it. And upon learning of the loss of CDR O’Hare, the field was, indeed, christened O’Hare Field.
By mid December, 1943, the field was ready, and the field became home to the 30th Bomb Group. Improvements to the field continued, with the runway being lengthened, In those days before environmentalism was even a word, runways were made by the simple expedient of crushing coral, grading it, and rolling it smooth. Unlike sand or dirt, crushed corral runways needed no Marston matting, and were firm and drained well. Taxiways and hardstands were similarly constructed for the 100 or so aircraft based there.
The pace of operations in 1944 meant that by May, 1944, O’Hare Field was a backwater, used for maintenance mostly. The 30th Bomb Group moved on to new airfields closer to the heart of the Japanese Empire. By the fall of 1944, the formerly bustling O’Hare field was decommissioned.
Today, Abemama, part of the Republic of Kiribati, still uses the wartime expedient airfield, with three Air Kiribati flights a week to Tarawa.