On 7 December 1941, the U.S. Navy counts seven aircraft carriers active in commission, three in the Pacific and four in the Atlantic, the latter deemed the primary theater given the undeclared war with Germany that has essentially been underway since the spring of 1941. The Japanese Navy deploys six carriers to the surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at its Pearl Harbor, T.H., base, and the surrounding naval and military airfields and installations.
The Japanese use of six carriers to strike one target was a bold step. Heretofore, the U.S. Navy has only operated, at most, two at one time in fleet exercises since carriers entered the fleet in the late 1920's. Providentially, none of the three American flattops in the Pacific are at Pearl when the blow falls “like a thunderclap from a clear sky.” Enterprise (CV-6) is on her way back from Wake,Lexington (CV-2) is on her way to Midway, and Saratoga (CV-3) is at San Diego, preparing to return to Hawaiian waters.
What only the perceptive realize, however, is that the Japanese have, at Pearl Harbor, seriously damaged the tools of a past war. The battleship, heavily gunned but relatively slow, is ill-suited to the new war that the enemy has shown with brutal clarity must be undertaken. Aircraft carriers, supported by cruisers and destroyers, supported by a growing number of fast fleet oilers, is the weapon of the new war. The task of blasting enemy fortifications with heavy guns, however, will be provided by those same battleships whose old role has been rendered largely obsolete. With the exception of the Battle of Surigao Strait (October 1944), the "old" battleships do not take part in a battle line action for the rest of the conflict.
ADM Chester W. Nimitz, the new CinCPAC, believes that the carriers, now the capital ship of the fleet, have to be operated in a carefully calculated manner. Such operations prior to Nimitz’s taking command have not begun well. The Japanese capture of Wake Island on 23 December 1941 rendered moot the attempt to deploy the Pacific Fleet’s carriers in support of operations to relieve the embattled atoll. On 11 January 1942, shortly after the admiral assumed command, a submarine torpedo damaged Saratoga, putting her out of the war temporarily.
Marshalls and Gilberts Raids, 1 February 1942
Enterprise and Yorktown (CV-5), the latter recently arrived from the Atlantic, cover a reinforcement convoy of Marines to Samoa in late January 1942, then steam for the Marshalls and the Gilberts to carry out the first of the carrier raids of early 1942.
On 1 February 1942, TF 8 (VADM William F. Halsey Jr.), formed around Enterprise, and TF 17 (RADM Frank Jack Fletcher), formed around Yorktown, raid the Marshalls and Gilberts. A third task force, TF 11 (VADM Wilson Brown, Jr.), formed around carrierLexington, supports the operations from the vicinity of Christmas Island.
At Kwajalein, Enterprise’s planes sink one ship and damage nine, while in the bombing of shore installations, RADM Yatsushiro Sukeyoshi (Commander Sixth Base Force) becomes the first Imperial Navy flag officer to die in combat when an Enterprise dive bomber scores a direct hit on his headquarters. Off Wotje, gunfire from heavy cruisers Northampton (CA-26) and Salt Lake City (CA-25) sink a gunboat, while destroyer Dunlap (DD-384) sinks an auxiliary submarine chaser. Japanese retaliatory air attacks on TF 8, however, damage Enterprise and heavy cruiser Chester (CA-27).
Planes from Yorktown, battling squalls en route, cause less damage, due to a paucity of targets at the objective, damaging a gunboat at Makin and a cargo ship at Jaluit. Five planes (three Dauntlesses and two Devastators) are lost to the weather; two Devastators ditch off Jaluit.
The U.S. Navy has operated two carriers, but each against separate objectives, and each with their respective screens of cruisers and destroyers.
Battle off Bougainville, 20 February 1942
On 20 February 1942, TF 11 (VADM Brown), en route to attack Rabaul, New Britain, is spotted by Japanese reconnaissance flying boats. Although the American attack is aborted, Japanese naval land-based bombers attack TF 11, centering their efforts uponLexington. In the ensuing battle off Bougainville, combat air patrol Wildcat fighters and Dauntless scout bombers, the latter utilized in the anti-torpedo plane role, together with ships’ antiaircraft fire, annihilates the enemy formations. LT Edward H. O’Hare, in a Wildcat, shoots down five bombers in six minutes, a phenomenal performance for which he receives the Medal of Honor. In one battle, the Japanese land-based bomber strength in the immediate theater is wiped out.
Wake Island Raid, 24 February 1942 and Marcus Island Raid, 4 March 1942
Four days later, on 24 February 1942, TF 16 (VADM Halsey) raids Wake Island to destroy Japanese installations there. Planes fromEnterprise and heavy cruisers Northampton and Salt Lake City bomb installations on Wake. Bombardment unit consisting ofNorthampton and Salt Lake City and destroyers Balch (DD-363) and Maury (DD-401) (RADM Raymond A. Spruance) shells the atoll. Combined efforts of Enterprise’s planes (bombing and strafing) and ships’ gunfire sink two guardboats. Fortunately, the bombing and shelling of Wake harms none of the American marines, sailors and construction workers too badly wounded to have been evacuated in the initial increment of POWs, and the civilian workmen (Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases) retained on the island to continue work on defenses. One Dauntless is lost, however, and its crew taken prisoner. The two men are later lost on 13 March 1942 when submarine Gar (SS-206) sinks the Japanese victualling stores ship in which they are being transported to Japan.
TG 16.5 (VADM Halsey) goes on to raid Marcus Island on 4 March 1942, planes from Enterprise bombing Japanese installations there. One Dauntless is lost and its two-man crew taken prisoner. Unlike their shipmates shot down at Wake, however, they will survive the war.
Lae and Salamaua Raid, 10 March 1942
Planes from TF 11 (VADM Brown), which includes ships of TF 17 (RADM Fletcher), on the heels of initial nuisance raids by RAAFHudson bombers, flew through the only pass in the Owen Stanley Mountains clear of clouds for a short period of time each day, and surprised a Japanese invasion fleet (RADM Kajioka Sadamichi) off Lae and Salamaua, New Guinea. Dauntlesses (VB 2, VS 2, VB 5, VS 5) and Devastators (VT 2, VT 5), supported by Wildcats (VF 3 and VF 42) from carriers Lexington and Yorktown sank armed merchant cruiser Kongo Maru, auxiliary minelayer Ten’yo Maru, and transport Yokohama Maru; and damage light cruiser Yubari; destroyers Yunagi, Asanagi, Oite, Asakaze, and Yakaze; minelayer Tsugaru; seaplane carrier Kiyokawa Maru; transport Kokai Maru; and minesweeper No.2 Tama Maru. One Dauntless, of the 104 planes that carry out the raid, is lost to antiaircraft fire and its crew killed. USAAF B-17s and RAAF Hudsons conducted follow up strikes but inflicted no appreciable additional damage.
The Lae-Salamaua Raid marks the first time that the U.S. Navy has operated two carriers against a common objective. The success of the U.S. carrier strike convinces Japanese war planners that continued operations in the New Guinea area will require carrier support, thus setting the stage for confrontation in the Coral Sea. In a message to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt hails the raid as “the best day’s work we’ve had.”