Belleau Wood I (CV-24)
Belleau Wood, near Chateau Thierry, France, was the scene of a battle between the 4th Marine Brigade and elements of three German divisions in June 1918. This was part of the larger Battle of the Aisne, launched on 27 May by Germany in the hopes of defeating French forces near Paris before significant American forces could arrive at the front. The German Southern Army Group broke through the British and French divisions defending Chemin des Dames ridge on the first day of the attack, forcing the defenders across the Aisne and Vesle Rivers. German forces continued their advance, reaching the Marne River on 1 June before the offensive slowed.
Meanwhile, the American Army's 2d Division, with the 4th Marine Brigade attached, was ordered from its training areas north of Paris to a position northwest of Chateau Thierry. Attached to the French XXI Corps, the American troops took up positions astride the Paris-Metz highway on 1 June. The following day, a limited German attack rolled back the French outposts and occupied the towns of Tourcy and Bouresches, including the woods called Bois de Belleau between them, in front of the Marine positions. As the French fell back through the Marines, an officer advised Marine Corps Capt. Lloyd Williams to withdraw his men. Williams alegedly replied: "Retreat, hell! We just got here."
On 3 June, the German infantry advanced toward the 4th Brigade but were driven back by heavy artillery and long-range rifle fire. By the 5th, when it became clear that the Germans had shifted to the tactical defensive, the French corps commander ordered the 4th Brigade to attack Bois de Belleau. The month-long action remembered as the Battle of Belleau Wood began on 6 June with a battalion-level attack on a hill near Torcy. Although the assault companies suffered devastating enfilade fire, Hill 142 was taken after bloody hand-to-hand combat.
The following day, three battalions attacked the woods and Boureches from the southwest. Short on artillery support and hobbled by poor maneuver tactics, the Marines again suffered heavy losses as they tried to clear the woods of machinegun nests. By evening, they held the edge of Belleau Wood and had cleared Boureches after desperate street fighting. Reinforced and resupplied, they held the town all night against repeated counterattacks. The day's fighting had cost the Marines over 1,000 casualties, more than the Corps had lost in its entire history.
The 4th Brigade continued assaults into Belleau Wood for the next twelve days, fighting an attrition-style battle of platoons and squads in the confined wooded terrain. The advance slowed to a crawl as units were decimated in close combat and the entire brigade was forced to pull out of the fighting to regroup on 18 June. Returning to Belleau Wood on 25 June, the Marines launched the final two-battalion assault that drove the last German battalion from its trenches. Early in the morning on the 26th, the tired Marines reported "Belleau Wood now U.S. Marine Corps entirely."
Although the operation had cost 4th Marine Brigade 4,719 casualties, and over 1,000 killed, the Marines had proved their courage to both the French and the AEF. Heartened by the American performance, the French awarded the division's infantry brigades, including 4th Marine Brigade, unit citations for "gallant action" and officially renamed the wood Bois de la Brigade Marine.
(CV-24: displacement 11,000; length 622'6"; beam 71'6"; extreme width 109'2"; draft 26'0"; speed 31.6 knots; complement 1,569; armament 26 40-millimeter, 10 20-millimeter; aircraft 45; class Independence)
The first Belleau Wood (CV-24), originally projected as the Cleveland-class light cruiser New Haven (CL-76), was laid down on 11 August 1941 at Camden, N.J., by the New York Shipbuilding Corp.; redesignated CV-24 on 16 February 1942; renamed Belleau Wood on 31 March 1942; launched on 6 December 1942; sponsored by Mrs. Thomas Holcomb, wife of the Commandant of the Marine Corps; and commissioned on 31 March 1943, Capt. Alfred M. Pride, in command.
After some preliminary training in Chesapeake Bay in late May and a week of availability at Norfolk, Belleau Wood sailed for the West Indies on 8 June to carry out her shakedown cruise. Anchoring off Port of Spain on the 13th, the light carrier spent the next two weeks conducting battle problems, damage control drills, gunnery practice, and flight operations in the Gulf of Paria. Returning to the United States at Philadelphia on 3 July, the aircraft carrier underwent a series of post-shakedown repairs, inspections, and alterations at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. During these modifications, she was redesignated as a small aircraft carrier, CVL-24, on 15 July 1943. Belleau Wood got underway for Panama on the 21st, transited the canal on 26 July, and moored at Balboa that same day. Two days later, she sailed for Hawaii in company with Lexington (CV-16), Princeton (CVL-23), and six escorts. Arriving at Pearl Harbor on 9 August, the crew spent the next two weeks in hurried preparation for the reoccupation of Baker Island.
Assigned to Task Group (TG) 11.2, Belleau Wood departed Pearl Harbor on 25 August in company with Princeton and seven escorts. The warships crossed the equator on 1 September and arrived off Baker Island, some 400 miles east of the Japanese-held Gilbert Islands, that same day. The small carrier's combat air patrol (CAP) scored their first kill on the 1st as well, when her Grumman F6F "Hellcat" fighters splashed a Kawanishi H8K four-engine "Emily" flying boat that strayed too close to the task group. The two smaller carriers flew CAP and ASP missions in the area for the next two weeks, protecting Army troops and Navy construction battalions ("Seabees") as they built an airstrip on the island.
In mid-September, the two light carriers rendezvoused with Lexington and conducted air strikes against Japanese gunboats and air defense positions in the Gilbert Islands on the 18th and 19th. Belleau Wood's CAP was also busy, shooting down a patrolling Mitsubishi G4M1 "Betty" bomber that had ventured south from the Marshall Islands. After returning to Pearl Harbor on the 23d to refuel and rearm, the light carrier set out on the 29th for an air raid on Wake Island. This operation, like the earlier raid on Tarawa and Makin, was designed to train pilots and soften up the Japanese defenses in the central Pacific.
Belleau Wood, in company with five other carriers in TG 14.5, arrived off Wake on 5 October. Her pilots mainly flew CAP and ASP over the task group, and her fighters splashed three Mitsubishi A6M "Zeke" carrier fighters and three "Bettys" that day. Still, her air group's defensive focus did not keep the light carrier from launching two strikes of 10 "Avengers" and 14 "Hellcats" on Wake, losing two fighters in the process. Antiaircraft fire over Wake accounted for one fighter, while the second crashed on landing, killing four of the carrier's flight deck crew. Belleau Wood then returned to Pearl Harbor, arriving on 11 October.
After four weeks of replenishment and training, the light carrier sailed on 10 November for the Gilbert Islands to participate in Operation "Galvanic" --the seizure of Makin and Tarawa Atolls. Joining the Northern Carrier Group in TG 50.2, she supported Enterprise (CV-6) and Monterey (CVL-26) in strikes on Makin Island on the 19th. Fighter sweeps over the Gilberts, in conjunction with bombing raids by "Avengers," continued through 26 November when the islands were declared "secure."
On 27 November, the light carrier joined TG 50.3, built around Essex (CV-9) and Enterprise, for a fast carrier strike on the Marshall Islands. Ordered to neutralize Japanese air power in the region and obtain photographic reconnaissance of Kwajalein Atoll, the task group steamed north in company with the carriers of TG 50.1. On 4 December, Belleau Wood's CAP and ASP covered the task group while the larger carriers launched a series of raids on Kwajalein and Wotje. That night, several Japanese bombers approached Belleau Wood's task group and a "Betty" managed to drop a torpedo nearly on target. An emergency hard left turn helped Belleau Wood avoid the torpedo, which missed 10 yards to starboard. Lexington proved less fortunate and suffered damage from an aerial torpedo that evening that sent the task group home to Pearl Harbor, where it arrived on the 9th.
The light carrier's crew spent the next five weeks either repairing and replenishing the warship or conducting brief flight and gunnery training exercises out of Pearl Harbor. On 16 January 1944, Belleau Wood departed Hawaii in company with Enterprise and Yorktown (CV-10) in TG 58.1 to participate in Operation "Flintlock" --the seizure of Majuro, Kwajalein, and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. On 29 January, TG 58.1, along with nine more carriers in three other task groups, began launching raids against the Japanese airfields on Kwajalein, Wotje, and Maloelap Atolls. Although Belleau Wood's planes mainly flew CAP and ASP sorties, she did launch one fighter sweep over Taroa airfield, losing two fighters to ground fire. For the next five days, the light carrier's planes flew raids against Kwajalein and Ebeye islands in support of Marine Corps and Army troops ashore, losing another three aircraft to antiaircraft fire.
After refuelling and reprovisioning at Majuro on 4 February, the task group returned to Kwajalein for a week of CAP and ASP over the ships supporting the conquest of the atoll. On 12 February, TG 58.1 and two of the other carrier task groups sailed for a raid on the Japanese base at Truk in the central Pacific. Intended to cover the landings on Eniwetok and to distract the Japanese from Allied operations in New Guinea, Operation "Hailstone" began on 16 February when the big carriers struck at enemy airfields on Truk. Belleau Wood's planes flew CAP and ASP over her task group, shooting down a Nakajima B5N "Kate" carrier bomber at 1432 that afternoon. After a morning strike on the 17th by planes from Enterprise and Yorktown, the task group retired east to refuel.
Ordered west for a raid on Tinian and Saipan, Belleau Wood flew her usual CAP and ASP missions while the big carriers attacked shore targets. At 0830 on 22 February, two "Bettys" surprised the task group and closed Belleau Wood. The first, taken under fire by the light carrier's starboard automatic weapons, passed over the flight deck and splashed about 200 feet away on the port beam. The second bomber, also fired on by the light carrier's 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter guns, hit the water about 500 yards ahead of the ship. Her 20-millimeter batteries also claimed a Kawasaki Ki. 61 "Tony" fighter which had just attacked Essex. Meanwhile, Belleau Wood's CAP caught and downed two Kawasaki Ki. 48 "Lily" light bombers that wandered into range.
After arriving at Majuro on the 26th, the light carrier's crew spent the next two weeks replenishing the ship and loading new aircraft. Then, in company with Enterprise in TG 58.1, Belleau Wood got underway for Espiritu Santo on 7 March, arriving there on the 12th. Three days later, the carriers helped cover the uncontested landings on Emirau before beginning a series of air strikes in the Western Carolines and on New Guinea. These raids were intended to support planned American amphibious operations in the Humboldt Bay-Tanahmerah region of New Guinea.
On 30 March, fighter sweeps and bombing raids hit Palau, striking at airfields and shipping. The next day, Belleau Wood's bombers struck Yap while her fighters strafed Ngulu and Ulithi. Her CAP also continued their run of success, splashing two "Bettys" on the 31st. On 1 April, as the task group retired toward Majuro, the light carrier launched fighter sweeps over Woleai, claiming seven enemy planes destroyed on the ground.
After a week of upkeep at Majuro, Belleau Wood stood out on 13 April with TG 58.1 for the Hollandia operation. On 21 April, she launched CAP and ASP flights while the other carriers struck at enemy aircraft and installations at Sawar, Wakde, and Sarmi in New Guinea. Following underway replenishment on the 23d, the light carrier's fighters returned to Sawar and Sarmi the next day, hoping to catch any Japanese reinforcements by surprise. After its planes strafed buildings, barracks, and runways there, the task group left the New Guinea area for Seeadler Harbor on Manus in the Admiralty Islands to refuel.
The carriers then headed north and struck the Japanese base at Truk on 29 April. Belleau Wood covered strikes launched by other carriers with her usual CAP and ASP flights. The next day, her task group turned toward Ponape in the Caroline Islands, and she launched fighter sweeps in conjunction with a bombardment of the island by American battleships on 1 May. The warships then steamed to the Marshalls, arriving in Kwajalein lagoon on 4 May. Two "Avengers," one "Hellcat," and their crews were lost during these operations.
The light carrier moved to Majuro on the 13th where her crew began preparations for Operation "Forager," the planned liberation of the Mariana Islands. Tasked with eliminating Japanese air power in the Marianas, the 15 fleet carriers of TF 58 planned to attack airfields on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. They also prepared for a major fleet battle if the Japanese carriers attempted to interfere. Belleau Wood joined Hornet (CV-12), Yorktown, and Bataan (CVL-29) and put to sea with TG 58.1 on 6 June. Five days later, as part of the task group attacking Guam, Belleau Wood launched a fighter sweep against Japanese airfields. These planes shot down four "Zekes" over Agana airfield without loss. On the 12th, the light carrier launched fighter sweeps over Guam and Rota that claimed another "Zeke" and a Kawasaki Ki. 45 "Nick" fighter at a cost of one "Hellcat." After retiring and refueling on the 14th, the task group sailed for the Bonin Islands that evening.
Ordered to strike Haha and Chichi Jima in the hope of catching the airfields full of Japanese planes staging to the Marianas, fighter and bomber raids hit the islands on the 15th. Belleau Wood's aircraft, in addition to flying CAP and ASP as usual, also bombed and sank a large cargo ship in Futami Bay. That evening, a returning "Hellcat" crashed through the barrier, struck the carrier's island, and burst into flames. Although it took 23 minutes for damage-control parties to put out the fire, no one was injured, and the carrier resumed flight operations the following morning.
On 16 June, after a morning fighter sweep over Iwo Jima, the task group heard reports that a large Japanese force was closing the Marianas from the Philippines. Rather than carry out the planned afternoon strikes on Iwo Jima, Belleau Wood's task group hurried south to rejoin TF 58. After rendezvousing with the other three carrier groups around noon on 18 June, the carriers took up a patrol station some 150 miles west of Saipan.
From that position, on the northern flank of the carrier forces, Belleau Wood participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Although American search aircraft could not find the approaching Japanese carriers, the presence of land-based enemy "snoopers" around the American task force indicated that the Japanese had found them. On the morning of the 19th, Belleau Wood, along with Bataan, launched CAP and ASP aircraft to guard TG 58.1. Despite the appearance of 14 enemy raids on radar, none closed the task group. American fighters broke up all the enemy formations and disrupted those attacks that the Japanese managed to develop. Not only did the light carrier help to parry enemy carrier-based air, but she also put a fighter sweep in the air over Guam to neutralize Japanese land-based aircraft. During the first day of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Belleau Wood aircraft claimed 10 "Zekes" destroyed over Guam's Orote field, a portion of the 300 or so Japanese aircraft lost in the battle dubbed the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot."
On the morning of the 20th, Belleau Wood launched her usual CAP and ASP missions and steamed west as the task force prepared for a second day of battle. However, the Japanese carriers had begun retiring west the previous evening, and American search planes could not find them. Late in the day, after hearing a sighting report at 1613, the light carrier launched six fighters and four torpedo bombers to accompany a last-ditch 206-plane strike. The raid caught the retreating Japanese at dusk, sank light carrier Hiyo, and damaged another. Belleau Wood's fighters also claimed three "Zekes" in air combat. The American planes then flew east for a difficult night landing, made possible only when the task force turned on its deck and search lights.
After a futile stern chase the following day, the American task force gave up the pursuit and turned back toward the Marianas. Belleau Wood's CAP partially salvaged the day by splashing a "Betty" during a routine sweep. The light carrier then refueled, recovered planes that had landed on other carriers, and helped search for pilots still in the water. On the 23d, TG 58.1 steamed northwest toward the Bonin Islands, attempting to finish off the attacks canceled on the 16th. Belleau Wood launched CAP while the other three carriers struck at Iwo Jima at dawn on the 24th, and the ensuing air battles destroyed most of the remaining Japanese aircraft in the Bonins. The task group then retired to the Marshalls, anchoring at Eniwetok on the 27th.
The light carrier stayed at Eniwetok only briefly, having been ordered to Hawaii for improvements to her aircraft ordnance capability. Departing the Marshalls on the 27th, Belleau Wood arrived in Pearl Harbor on 2 July. She entered the navy yard the next day and, over the next week, received modifications to stow aircraft rocket ammunition. After some brief training off Hawaii, she headed back to the Marshalls on 22 July and arrived at Eniwetok on the 30th. The next day, she sailed for the Marianas, making rendezvous with TG 58.4 on 2 August.
Arriving two weeks into the campaign for Guam, Belleau Wood's aircraft flew ground support strikes against Japanese positions around Mount Santa Rosa during the final push to secure the island. On 13 August, she returned to Eniwetok and began preparations for "softening up" raids against the Palau Islands, Yap Island, Mindanao in the Philippines, and the Bonin Islands. The object of these strikes was to destroy any enemy air forces that might challenge the upcoming landings at Morotai and in the Palaus.
The light carrier, led by Wasp (CV-18) and two other carriers in TG 38.1, stood out from Eniwetok on 29 August for strikes against the Palaus. During routine flight operations the next day, a "Hellcat" crashed on Belleau Wood's deck, killing the assistant air operations commander for TG 38.1, Cmdr. G. D. Cady, and two flight deck crewmen. Despite that bad omen, the attack went forward on the 7th. Though some Belleau Wood aircraft hit the phosphate plant on Angaur, her planes primarily flew CAP and ASP for the task group. The carriers then steamed north to strike Japanese installations on Mindanao. On the 9th, the light carrier's CAP shot down a Yokosuka P1Y "Frances" land bomber and a "Nick" near Mindanao, although it cost Fighter Squadron (VF) 24 a "Hellcat" and its pilot.
On 10 September, Belleau Wood launched fighter sweeps over Buayan and Digos airfields while an "Avenger" strike hit Cotabato airfield. Targets proved scarce on Mindanao, however; and the task group shifted emphasis to the Visayas in the central Philippines. On the 12th, fighter sweeps over Negros and Cebu shot down two "Zekes," a Nakajima Ki.43 "Oscar" fighter, and a Nakajima B6N "Jill" torpedo bomber. Rocket attacks on airfields, barracks, and coastal shipping rounded out the day. On the 13th, Belleau Wood's CAP splashed a last pair of aircraft, a "Frances" and an "Oscar," before she finally turned south for New Guinea. The next day, while enroute to support the Morotai landings, she sent a fighter sweep over Zamboanga which claimed five "Bettys" and a "Nick" destroyed on the ground. After that successful operation, TG 38.1 took a break and flew "routine" air cover and ASP missions near Morotai during the landings made there between 15 and 17 September. The next day, Belleau Wood shifted to TG 38.4 and sailed to Seeadler Harbor on Manus to replenish ordnance and provisions.
She remained at Manus for three days, departing Seeadler Harbor on 24 September in company with Enterprise, Franklin (CV-13), and San Jacinto (CVL-30) for patrol operations off Palau. The task group loitered in those waters until 5 October, waiting for a typhoon to clear, before steaming to a rendezvous west of the Marianas. On the 7th, TG 38.4 rejoined the rest of the fast carriers, and the entire task force refueled before starting a high-speed run toward the Ryukyu Islands.
In an effort to destroy Japanese air power in support of the planned liberation of Leyte later that month, carrier aircraft struck at Okinawa and two smaller islands on 10 October. They claimed dozens of planes and scores of small coastal cargo ships. The next day, while Belleau Wood's task group moved southwest, she launched air strikes against Japanese airfields on Luzon before concentrating with the rest of TF 38 for a blow against Formosa.
For the next two days, Belleau Wood's group launched fighter sweeps and bombing raids against airfields, harbors, and installations on that island. Her pilots claimed five planes downed during fighter sweeps and her CAP splashed five "Bettys," three "Zekes," and an "Oscar" during a Japanese counterattack on the 13th. That evening, six "Bettys" broke through the antiaircraft screen, and Belleau Wood's 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter guns helped splash four of the attackers.
On 14 October, TG 38.4 began strikes against the Philippines in support of the upcoming Leyte landings. The Aparri airfields were hit first; and, over the next six days, Belleau Wood's planes helped work over the Manila Bay area and Leyte, claiming 11 enemy planes, two cargo ships, and a tanker. Her CAP also helped fend off a pair of weak Japanese counterattacks launched from the damaged Manila airfields. The light carrier then provided CAP and ASP missions for the Leyte landings between 20 and 23 October.
The Japanese responded to the San Pedro Bay invasion by sending four task groups to intercept the American invasion. This began a series of actions later called collectively the Battle for Leyte Gulf. On the 24th, Belleau Wood's task group took station off Samar and launched planes over the western Visayas to find the Japanese. Having spotted one of the enemy groups that morning, TG 38.4 launched a strike of 26 fighters and 39 bombers against the Japanese. In the ensuing attack, part of a number of strikes later called the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, Belleau Wood's planes claimed torpedo hits on at least one battleship. That evening, her task group received orders to intercept and sink four Japanese carriers spotted north of the Philippines.
Although Belleau Wood's planes only played a supporting role in the Battle off Cape Engaño on the 25th, during which all four Japanese carriers were sunk, her "Avengers" did help sink light cruiser Tana. In the meantime, two other Japanese task groups were destroyed far to the south by American surface ships in the Battle of Surigao Strait, while the third retreated under heavy air attack following a desperate struggle by American escort carriers, destroyers and destroyer escorts in the Battle off Samar.
After refueling on the 26th, TG 38.4 spent the next four days providing air cover for ground operations on Leyte and launching air strikes against enemy shipping. Raids also hit airfields around Manila to destroy Japanese reinforcements being flown in from the north. In response, Japanese pilots began flying suicide missions, kamikaze attacks, against the American ships in the Philippines. On the 29th, a kamikaze hit TG 38.2 and damaged Intrepid (CV-11). At around 1400 the next day, as Belleau Wood's task group operated near Leyte, five kamikazes eluded CAP by closing the warships at an altitude of 18,000 feet. Antiaircraft fire splashed three, but one crashed Franklin, killing 56 men and seriously wounding 14 others. The fifth plane, identified as a Mitsubishi A6M3 "Hamp" carrier fighter, first dropped a bomb on Franklin and then, at 1427, pulled up and dove on Belleau Wood. The Japanese fighter plunged into the light carrier's flight deck, striking among 11 fully loaded "Hellcats." Several explosions started extensive fires that took three hours for damage-control teams to get under control. With her flight deck holed and casualties numbering 92 men killed and 97 wounded, Belleau Wood retired to the Carolines.
Franklin (CV-13), at right, and Belleau Wood (CVL-24) afire after being hit by Japanese Kamikaze suicide planes, while operating off the Philippines on 30 October 1944. Photographed from Brush (DD-745). Note flak bursts over the ships. Official U.S. Navy photograph now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog#: 80-G-326798.
The light carrier's crew made minor repairs at Ulithi between 3 and 10 November before sailing for San Francisco, arriving there via Pearl Harbor on the 29th. Entering the drydock at Hunters Point the next day, Belleau Wood began a six-week overhaul during which she received battle damage repairs and added 40-millimeter guns to her armament. In mid-January 1945, she completed repairs and headed back into combat, arriving in Ulithi on 7 February.
Three days later, the light carrier joined TG 58.1, built around Hornet, Wasp, and Bennington (CV-20), for a raid on the Japanese home islands. This strike was designed to prevent enemy aircraft from interfering with operations against the Bonin and Ryukyu Islands. These groups, including the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, were the targets of American invasions planned for February and April 1945. The former was to provide emergency airfields for B-29s bombing Japan from the Marianas and to serve as a base for their fighter escorts, while the latter was needed to support any future invasion of the Japanese home islands.
Task Group 58.1 steamed to a position roughly 125 miles southeast of Tokyo on 16 February. From there, the carriers launched repeated strikes against airfields in the region, claiming the destruction of several hundred enemy planes. Belleau Wood's CAP splashed one of these, shooting down a Mitsubishi Ki.46 "Dinah" reconnaissance plane near the task group that morning. After bad weather canceled the remaining strikes the following afternoon, the carriers then steamed south to support the planned 19 February amphibious landings on Iwo Jima.
Over the next five days, Belleau Wood's planes flew CAP over the island and bombed Susaki airfield on Chichi Jima to deny its use to the enemy. Then, in an effort to stop the incessant kamikaze attacks, which had just damaged Saratoga (CV-3) and sunk Bismarck Sea (CVE-95), the group steamed north for another raid on Tokyo. Bad weather hampered their attacks on 25 February, however, and the carriers turned southwest for a strike on Okinawa. Although the light carrier's planes primarily flew CAP and ASP over the next few days, her "Avengers" conducted numerous rocket attacks on Okinawa on 1 March. Following these strikes, the carriers retired to Ulithi on the 4th to prepare for the next operation, the capture of Okinawa Gunto.
Following 10 days of upkeep and replenishment, Belleau Wood joined TG 58.1, also comprising Hornet, Wasp, Bennington, and supporting destroyers, and sailed on 14 March for the last major amphibious operation of the war. Tasked with suppressing Japanese aircraft on Kyushu, the southern-most Japanese home island, the task group launched fighter sweeps and bomber strikes against airfields and the Japanese naval bases at Kure and Kobe on the 18th. Over the next three days, the light carrier's fighters remained busy, breaking up numerous counterattacks by Japanese aircraft. Eight fighters on CAP, along with eight from Hornet, claimed 21 kills during one such attack on the 21st.
Between 23 and 28 March, Belleau Wood's planes struck at Okinawa Jima and conducted fighter sweeps over the Nansei Shoto. Then, in conjunction with Boeing B-29 four-engine "Superfortress" bombers flying out of the Marianas, she launched a single day's raid on the Kyushu airfields on the 29th before returning to Okinawa operations. After the amphibious landings there on 1 April, the light carrier flew CAP over the amphibious forces and began intensive air strikes in support of Marine Corps operations ashore. On 6 April, a "Zeke" closed in an attempted suicide attack, but Belleau Wood's antiaircraft battery splashed the plane about 30 yards away on the starboard beam. One enlisted man was lost overboard in the ensuing underwater explosion.
On 7 April, Belleau Wood's planes took part in the Battle of the East China Sea, when American search aircraft spotted a Japanese task force built around battleship Yamato. Hundreds of American carrier planes attacked the Japanese force as it steamed south from Kyushu. Belleau Wood's pilots claimed hits on several enemy destroyers, helping to sink most of the task force and driving off the rest.
The light carrier then spent a grueling three weeks alternating between CAP sweeps over Okinawa and air strikes on nearby Japanese airfields, claiming two Aichi D3A "Val" carrier bombers and an "Oscar" in air combat. During two major enemy attacks on the task group, on 12 and 16 April, her fighter pilots took credit for another 11 Japanese planes. The light carrier then retired toward Ulithi to replenish, arriving there on 30 April.
Belleau Wood resumed Okinawa operations on 12 May and replaced Bunker Hill (CV-17), heavily damaged in a kamikaze attack the previous day, in TG 58.3. Along with those of Essex, Hancock (CV-19), and Cabot (CVL-28), her aircraft commenced several more weeks of grueling air attacks on Okinawa and Kyushu. During these operations, the light carrier's pilots claimed a Nakajima Ki.84 "Frank" fighter and a "Betty," at a cost of one torpedo bomber lost to antiaircraft fire. Although the start of the summer typhoon season canceled flight operations in early June, one strike slipped through to hit Okinawa on the 7th. Nevertheless, continued heavy weather finally drove the carriers off station and, on 10 June, they steamed south to the Philippines, anchoring in San Pedro Bay on the 13th.
Following two weeks of repairs and training, Belleau Wood got underway on 1 July for the Japanese home islands. There, the light carrier's planes struck airfields in the Tokyo Bay area on the 10th and launched rockets at targets of opportunity on Hokkaido on 14 and 15 July. After more strikes around Tokyo on the 17th, and a refueling retirement between 19 and 23 July, she sent her planes to strike the naval base at Kure on the 24th. There they found and helped to sink battleship-carrier Hyuga and 15 small craft in the harbor. The next day, while Belleau Wood's planes hit Kilone and Yokaichi airfields, they were "bounced" by Japanese fighters. In the ensuing melee, her fighters claimed five "Franks" and two "Tonys" at a cost of two of their own.
Heavy storms canceled most air strikes late in the month, limiting her attacks to airfield raids on 28 and 30 July. Then a refueling retirement, combined with a passing typhoon, delayed attacks until 9 August. On that day, her planes hit airfields on northern Honshu and broke up a planned long-range Japanese bomber strike against the Marianas. She returned to the Tokyo area on the 13th to hunt for Japanese planes hidden in camouflaged airfields. On 15 August, four "Hellcats" encountered Japanese aircraft attacking British-manned "Avengers;" and, in what proved to be their last combat action of the war, Belleau Wood's fighters then shot down five "Zekes" and an "Oscar" without loss. All further combat missions were canceled shortly thereafter, following news that the Japanese intended to surrender.
From 16 to 21 August, Belleau Wood cruised off the east coast of Japan awaiting instructions on surrender arrangements. On the 22d, she began flying search missions over Shikoku and southern Honshu, dropping supplies to Allied prisoners of war. These missions continued until 10 September when the light carrier steamed into Tokyo Bay for upkeep. Five days later, she sailed for Eniwetok via Saipan, arriving there on the 23d. After loading cargo, she sailed back to Japan on 7 October, anchoring in Tokyo Bay on the 12th. There, she embarked several hundred passengers and then sailed east on 20 September, arriving in Pearl Harbor on 28 October.
Assigned to "Magic-Carpet" duty, Belleau Wood's crew first installed 600 bunks on the hangar deck and then embarked 1,248 Army troops and Navy casualties for transportation home. The warship got underway on 1 November and moored at San Pedro, Calif., on 6 November. She then made a round-trip voyage to Guam starting on 11 November, returning 2,053 passenger to the west coast on 10 December. The light carrier made a third "Magic Carpet" voyage to Guam, between 18 December 1945 and 31 January 1946, before reporting for inactivation at San Francisco.
For the next year, Belleau Wood remained moored at various locations in the San Francisco area undergoing conversion and inactivation until placed out of commission, in reserve, at the Alameda Naval Air Station on 13 January 1947. She remained in "mothballs" until transferred to France on 5 September 1953 under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. After serving in the French Navy as Bois Belleau, the carrier was returned to Navy custody in early September 1960 at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Her name was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 1 October 1960 and she was sold to the Boston Metals Co., on 21 November 1960 for scrapping.
Belleau Wood received 12 battle stars for her World War II service.
Timothy L. Francis
24 February 2006