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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: They Served

article number 184
article date 11-20-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Central Pacific Carrier Offensive Begins, Marcus Island, Fall 1943
by Lieutenant Oliver Jensen, USNR
   

From the 1945 book, Carrier War. Author’s dedication: To the Navy Fliers.

It was after five in the morning but still pitch dark, and lights were burning cheerfully on tiny Japanese Minamitori Shima. Here and there they marked scattered buildings, while others clearly outlined the airfield. Before the last war the Germans had owned this lonely Pacific atoll and most of the world’s cartographers still call it by their name, Marcus.

The date was September 1, 1943.

The Japanese garrison had reason to feel secure. It had suffered only one small (and surely nothing more than spiteful) raid at the hands of Admiral Halsey, and that back in February 1942. Since then the Americans had admitted losing four of their great carriers, and back in Tokyo, only 1,000 miles away, everyone knew they had lost a lot more.

Radio Tokyo left no doubt about it. There had been no action in the Central Pacific since Midway, fifteen months before. It was 2,720 long miles to battered, faraway Pearl Harbor. Neither Nippon nor America had the ships or the desire to start anything in this vast area now, as every wise Japanese knew, and it was simply a question of waiting it out until the soft, battle-weary Americans won a few more islands down in the Solomons as a matter of “face” and then negotiated a peace.

   

And so there was no excitement in the control tower when, a little after 5:00 AM., a few planes with their running lights on started coming in as if to land. Only friendly planes would carry running lights. There was still no stir as they suddenly switched the lights off and pulled up. But there was plenty when 2,000-pound bombs, fragmentation “daisy-cutters” and incendiaries suddenly rocked all of the little island with a series of tremendous explosions. Yorktown fliers, followed in a few minutes by planes from two other carriers, had held a deadly reveille for Marcus.

The Navy’s Central Pacific offensive had begun.

   
Charts of Marcus Island received close attention from the torpedo pilots as the Yorktown drew near the target.

Ten days before these events the Yorktown, with her destroyer escort in the van, had sailed out of the narrow Pearl Harbor channel. The weather had been calm; most of the crew were on deck, busy stowing cargo for the trip to come even though the destination was still a secret. Orders were sealed and presumably only Admiral Pownall, the task-force commander, knew where they were going. But everyone knew that at last the training phase was over. This was a combat cruise. The Ford Island tower blinked a last message and everybody laughed:

“You look good out there, honey.”

Next morning the rest of the force appeared over the horizon, the Essex and Independence, a battleship, two cruisers, some destroyers and a tanker. Three new carriers! The only three so far—this must be big stuff. The force headed west.

Captain J. J. (no one called him anything but “Jocko,” except to his face, when he was “Captain”) Clark, then commanding the Yorktown, was a carrier skipper whom the whole Pacific Fleet will not soon forget. Traces of his influence can still be found all over his old ship. She is still a pace-setter, bettering even the records he left with her. There is little emphasis on formality and a lot on results. The Yorktown works smoothly. She is generally so clean you could eat off the decks, although it is more conventional to take meals elsewhere.

Jocko set the pace in a year-long explosive process which was often tough, backbreaking work. But in hindsight, surveying the proud results, her crew look back on the “old slave driver” with extravagant affection. The skipper used to claim that a certain, unannounced fraction of his blood was Cherokee Indian and he was immensely proud of it. He invited the Chief of the Cherokees to his ship’s commissioning. Later, in ship’s paper cartoons, Jocko always appeared as a Cherokee brave. His bullet head was close-cropped, his nose hooked. His lower lip protruded aggressively and hence suffered recurrent sunburn. This required its owner to rub it periodically with a mysterious white compound which only heightened an already unusual appearance.

   
Captain J. J. (Jocko) Clark, hard driving, popular Yorktown skipper, was known for his claims to Indian blood. On the right is a ship’s paper cartoon showing him scalping Premier Tojo.

Jocko was a prowling captain, as opposed to the sedentary order. He would march about his bridge constantly. When he was aroused, no one could misunderstand his profane displeasure. He delighted junior officers by his audacious tactics. He liked to put the tiller over hard and turn his ship on a dime, nimbly speeding through a formation of ships in situations which would turn more timid colleagues gray for fear of collision. Collisions are hard on the careers of regular Navy officers, but Clark (now a rear admiral and too senior to have command of a single ship) never had one.

Although most of the aviators were green, there were a few well-known veterans. Head of the Yorktown’s Air Group Five was then Jimmy Flatley, many times decorated hero of the early part of this war, now a commander. He was scheduled to be relieved for a big job back home after this raid by Lieutenant Cornmander Charles L. Crommelin, who was skipper of the fighting squadron.

Tall, square-jawed, cigar-smoking Charlie Crommelin was one of the famous five brothers—Henry, John, Dick, Quentin, and Charles. All except Henry, whose eyes weren’t quite up to scratch, became naval aviators, and Henry covered himself with glory as a destroyer captain. Crommelin had been one of the handful of Navy test pilots; he and one of his hand-picked lieutenants, Ed Owen, also a test pilot, had flown about every existing type of fighter plane. Another Melvin C. (“Boogie”) Hoffman, a famous “mustang” (that is, ex-enlisted pilot), had flown a captured Zero in tests. All three agreed that the new F6F was the plane they wanted to take into battle. Now they were to be the first to fly that fighter against the enemy.

   
Commandeer Charles L. Crommelin, Second Fighter Skipper Ed Owen and Lieutenant Melvin “Boogie” Hoffman.

Crommelin was an acknowledged leader. His squadron worshipped him. “That Crommelin,” said one of his pilots, “is all man. I’d cut off my right arm for him.” When he was made commander and took over the air group, the boys held a little party at which they presented him with a commander’s cap. There being no regulation caps or gold braid aboard, the gift was a baseball cap with yellow cotton scrambled eggs pasted on top of the long brim and a real stuffed bird pinned onto the spot customarily occupied by the Navy eagle.

The Essex had Air Group Nine, which soon became famous in the Pacific under the leadership of Commander John Raby a veteran of the fighting at Casablanca where he had been skipper of Fighting Nine. Raby knew the Japanese better than most Americans. He had done duty before the war in China and often showed his men movies he had taken there of strutting Japanese shoving the Chinese around. A hatred of Japs is most easily acquired by those who know them best, and this feeling Raby communicated to his fliers.

The Essex fighter skipper was thirty-year-old Lieutenant Commander Phillip H. Torrey, Jr., wisecracking son of a Marine major general, who joined the Navy, he said, “Because I knew so much about the Marines. If I’d known as much about the Navy, I’d have joined the Marines.” Compact, muscular Torrey, whom the air group at once christened “Tarzan” was an excellent flier who could come home with 155 bullet holes in his plane and complain that “The worst thing that ever happened to me was in San Francisco. A crate dropped on my bag and broke four bottles of bourbon.”

   
Lieutenant Commander Phillip H. Torrey, Jr., headed Essex fighters.

After several days at sea the executive officer called the Yorktown’s air personnel together in the wardroom, turned out the lights, threw a lantern-slide map on the wall, and explained that the target was to be Marcus Island. Afterward there was a rush for large-scale maps of the Pacific to establish the island’s relative position. It was certainly deep in enemy territory. Circling around in their approach, the ships went so far north that men wore sweaters and jackets at morning general quarters.

For the first time in most of their lives these pilots began going over real, live targets, impressing them in their memories. Conversation was excited and a little high-pitched. Some men got their equipment together in case they went into the water. Pistols were wrapped in scotch tape, then soaked in wax with strings imbedded underneath. The string could be pulled out to uncover a dry pistol after hours in the ocean. The idea was catching, and everybody did
it. Today few of these same pilots would bother.

“The Sunday before the raid,” reported Lieutenant Seymour Thompson, a Navy combat artist who had gone along to observe the raid, “there was a great deal of religious activity. I might say more than there had been on any other Sunday up to that time. I went to both the Catholic and Protestant services just to be sure that all fronts were covered.”

   
Catholic church services on the Yorktown’s hangar deck close with a brisk, nautical command to “unrig church!”

The force was undetected all the way in, and north of Midway, by great good fortune, a weather front was picked up moving south. Under cover of this protective overcast the carriers worked their way down to the launching point. The aerologist, of course, indignantly denied that it was good fortune at all and stoutly insisted that he “knew this front was coming down from Alaska all along.”

Several days before, the Yorktown personnel had gotten their tetanus boosters, the shots that prevent lockjaw. Pilots were exempted because sore arms would have prevented them from manipulating their controls easily. All officers who were to be above decks were supplied with first-aid kits containing sulfa drugs and morphine shots. In case of a hit any officer might have to serve ex officio as a doctor. Everybody had his tin helmet and “flash clothing,” consisting of a cloth helmet, celluloid goggles, face mask and long gloves. The material was thin, almost like cheesecloth. “Flash,” the sudden brief flare which follows an explosion, is one of the worst hazards of bombing. It seems to swish all over a ship, extending in all directions. It runs up your pants legs, down your shirt, and up your arms. Most injuries are from flash rather than bomb and shrapnel fragments.

On D-Day morning it was pitch dark at take-off, the only lights at first being the phosphorescent wakes of ships getting up speed to launch planes into an almost windless air. Then there were a few stars, the brightest of them being Mars, which hung significantly, like a beacon, in the direction of Marcus. With angry exhausts spitting, the Yorktown launched first. Every plane got off safely, last of all Commander Flatley in a fighter equipped with two belly tanks of extra gas to allow him to stay over the target during most of the raid and direct the fighting. Next came the Essex’s planes, and fighter skipper Torrey made no bones about his feelings:

“The first time the Commander slapped me on the back in the dead of night and said ‘It’s all yours, buddy’ I was all for going home. I’m scared of the dark anyway.”

   
Commander Jimmy Flatley led Air Group Five against Marcus Island.

It was Lieutenant Commander Richard Upson in his TBF torpedo plane who spotted Marcus first and fired the opening shot of the Central Pacific offensive. Back at the Yorktown’s voice radio, listeners could hear him exulting, “There it is, boys! There it is!”

Upson started to turn and dive in at his target. Drawing closer he noticed the lights on the island and conceived the sudden idea which fooled the Japs. When he turned on his running lights his division followed suit. The only trouble was that the leader of Upson’s next division didn’t know the plot and, when he saw the running lights up ahead, decided that Jap planes were landing. Only by a hairbreadth did the first division escape being shot down by the rest of its own squadron.

The TBF’s and the SBD’s soon had Marcus well ablaze. This was the first time carrier-based planes had ever carried the heavy 2,000-pound bombs. There was a big fire on the runway. An oil tank exploded. Hellcats worked over the anti-aircraft positions, which had awakened tardily in a mass of frenzied, inaccurate fire.

Other reports poured in as dawn came on. Not a single Jap aircraft had been able to get into the skies. Commander Crommelin had strafed some thirty individual Japs trying to man planes, then, with other fighters, made sixteen runs on seven grounded Betties until all had been set afire. While it was still dark, their seven bright pyres of flame could be seen burning on the ground, and the oncoming light of day revealed columns of smoke pouring from these first victims of the new carriers.

At 7:00 a.m. Commander Flatley reported that so far, 35 per cent of the island was damaged. So seriously did he concentrate on picking out his targets that one group of flattened buildings was nicknamed “Flatley Square.”

   
The seven fires, from seven planes strafed and set afire by Commander Crommelin, still smoke. Marcus is burning elsewhere too.

As each of the bombardment groups returned from the island, it would pass a little Jap picket boat evidently returning to Marcus. Smack in between the carriers and their target, she had picked a bad spot for a quiet peaceful morning. Almost every plane would swoop down and strafe the luckless ship. So many fliers, in fact, wanted to expend their remaining ammunition on her that they had to circle around waiting their turn while others attacked. But the little craft, only eighty to one hundred feet long, was hardy and sank only when an Essex torpedo plane dropped a leftover bomb on her.

The U.S. loss at Marcus was one torpedo plane and two fighters, all from the Yorktown. Planes from the Essex sighted three of the men in a rubber boat. When the word came in, Jocko went to the Admiral to ask permission to send planes out to search for the missing pilots. The Admiral, naturally worrying about the safety of the whole force (everyone thought the Japs were stronger then), and getting ready to retire, suggested that the mission might be hazardous. The story may be apocryphal and has many versions, but it goes that Jocko, a man of determination, blew up, stuck out his jaw, and said something to this effect:

“Those are my men and this is my ship and we’re going out for a search! I don’t care if, when I get back to Pearl Harbor I don’t have a ship and I don’t have any rank. We’re going out after those boys on a raft.”

Then the Admiral smiled and said, “All right. Send them out seventy-five miles.”

Jocko, still excited, barked, “They’re going out 125 miles!”

Then when he gave the order he was still so worked up that he sent them out 200 miles. But the sad, true part of the story is that the men were never found and are now perhaps prisoners of war.

Over on the Essex in this first raid, fighter-pilot Lieutenant Mayo Addison Hadden, Jr., had an alarming experience. Hadden, a boyish six-footer from Holland, Michigan, was forced to make a water landing on his return.

“I kept remembering the last line they had given us in briefing us for the attack,” he said. “The waters around Marcus Island are infested with sharks.” Funny how that line stuck in my mind. It was the first time I had landed in water with a land plane. Luckily it was fairly calm. I hit right near a U.S. destroyer, got out of the cockpit, and threw my whole chute in the water. As the plane started going down I walked out on the wing and stepped off. The destroyer was so close that I just sat there in my life jacket. All the while I kept thinking of that last sentence: “The waters around Marcus Island are infested with sharks!”

“Suddenly a black shape bobbed up in the water next to me. I kicked wildly, beating the water with my hands and thrashing about to scare the shark away. I whipped my knife out of its holster and started stabbing around in the water. Then I swam away from it. I swam smack into another black shape, swung my arms at it, and swam off in the opposite direction. There was a third. They were all around me. I kept thinking just one thing: ‘Sharks, sharks, sharks’. . . .”

“Just then the destroyer came by, let down a cargo net, and I climbed up. The boys on deck looked at me with strange expressions. Finally one said: You looked pretty active out there. What were you thrashing around for?”

“’There were sharks all around me!’ I told him, ‘just getting ready for the kill.’“

“They looked at me with that same queer expression, then at each other. I stood there dripping. Then the same man said, ‘That’s the first time I ever saw anybody swim away from a life preserver.’”

“Those life preservers, you see, are grayish black. When they get wet they look blacker. The destroyer had tossed eight of them to me, and I had been trying to evade them all.”

Before the end of the day a smoke cloud over 8,000 feet high towered above flaming Marcus. Returning to Pearl Harbor, the force estimated that this key Jap air base had been 80 per cent destroyed. Infinitely more successful than had ever been hoped, the raid had taught the new carriers invaluable lessons, not the least of which was succinctly expressed by one ensign in a torpedo squadron: “I knew I wasn’t scared anymore.”

   
Torpedo Five’s joking pilots could not know that Luitenant J. W. Condit (second from right) would soon be first loss at Marcus.

A pattern had been established. When three new carriers, the new Lexington, the Princeton and Belleau Wood, arrived, Admiral Nimitz sent them down to raid Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts, again under Admiral Pownall. Here, on September 19, almost exactly a month before the landings, three new air groups —Sixteen, Twenty-Three and Twenty-Four—- received their indoctrination in fighting laps. Tarawa got a three-day pasting which presumably would go far toward softening it up for the planned attack later.

On the night of September 17—18, twenty-five planes of the Seventh Air Force opened the bombing attack. On the eighteenth the carriers approached and, beginning before sun-up the next morning, sent 190 planes over Tarawa, bombing and strafing from low level. Four carrier planes were lost against twelve Jap planes destroyed, plus three more sitting ducks destroyed at Makin where four Princeton planes made a side raid. On the nineteenth, the Seventh Air Force came back to drop more bombs and take reconnaissance pictures. Tarawa’s camouflage was expert and it was difficult to tell how much damage had been done. We were to learn by bitter experience about that camouflage. Meanwhile it was embarrassing to discover that Tarawa’s airstrip was operating the day after the raid. Plainly our bombing techniques left room for improvement.

Next, on October 5 and 6, 1943, what was announced at the time as “the greatest carrier task force ever assembled”, attacked Wake Island and bombed it twice as hard as Tarawa. In this raid of retaliation we had six carriers—three Essex class, including the Essex, Yorktown and Lexington, and three cruiser-class, the Independence, Belleau Wood and Cowpens. The attack continued for two days. It began so early in the morning that several U.S. planes were lost in the hazardous job of effecting rendezvous.

“It was not only black dark. There was also a hell of a storm,” one pilot exclaimed. “Every time I thought of a couple of hundred planes rendezvousing in that mess, my teeth chattered. I had to kick myself in the pants to get going—and I was fighter skipper!”

The Wake raid was a lot tougher than the preceding two. There was heavy anti-aircraft fire, and the Japs had their trenches manned as though they expected an invasion. For the first time, our carrier planes met the enemy in aerial combat. There were twenty-seven enemy fighters and seven bombers in the air waiting for them, and the results were surprising. For example, Lieutenant (jg) Hamilton McWhorter, III, of Athens, Georgia, began to display the tactics which bestowed the nickname of “One Slug” on him for the rest of his naval career.

“Suddenly,” he said, “I was aware of Zekes all around me. There must have been twenty. I didn’t see any of my gang around so I headed to join up with three planes from another carrier. Just then it happened: there he was, sitting in my sights. So I let go. Just one burst. That was all. And I had my first Zeke. It was almost funny … You just sat back, pressed the button and he blew up and wasn’t there anymore.”

Young Lieutenant (jg) Duncan of Fighting Five got two. Flying wing on experienced Boogie Hoffman, Duncan accounted for the first in orthodox fashion with a burst of slugs in the cockpit. The second Jap was intercepted in an attack on another U.S. fighter ahead. Turning his attention to Duncan the Jap pulled up sharply as only the Zero can, winged over, and started boring in on Duncan upside down. As he drew close, Duncan could hear the lap bullets raining into his plane, but he was too busy to be scared.

“Maybe it’s the old adrenalin,” he said. “Maybe it’s the instinct of self-preservation. Anyway the Zero turned and pulled up into a loop—like this. You hang a second in the top of a loop. Well, just there he turned—I turned—I followed—I fired. He went spinning in on fire. The pilot didn’t bail out.”

   

Not all of our planes were so lucky, for ten fighters and two bombers were lost in combat. But in the air and on the ground, the Navy had destroyed sixty-five Japanese aircraft, and the F6F the Navy had developed with such loving care had proved its worth the way that really counts.

Meanwhile a gasoline-loaded tanker had been blown up in the lagoon, Wake’s fuel, water and ammunition storage had been wrecked, and some sixty to seventy buildings had been destroyed. Cruiser fire and a force of Navy Liberators also contributed to the destruction.

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