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Liveblogging World War II: February 18, 1944

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Operation Hailstone:

A massive naval air and surface attack launched on February 16–17, 1944, during World War II by the United States Navy against the Japanese naval and air base at Truk in the Caroline Islands, a pre-war Japanese territory.

Truk was a major Japanese logistical base as well as the operating "home" base for the Imperial Japanese Navy's Combined Fleet. Some have described it as the Japanese equivalent of the US Navy's Pearl Harbor. The atoll was the only major Japanese airbase within range of the Marshall Islands and was a significant source of support for Japanese garrisons located on islands and atolls throughout the central and south Pacific. The base was the key logistical and operational hub supporting Japan's perimeter defenses in the central and south Pacific....

Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's Task Force 58 had five fleet carriers (USS Enterprise (CV-6), USS Yorktown (CV-10), USS Essex (CV-9), USS Intrepid (CV-11), and USS Bunker Hill (CV-17)) and four light carriers (USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24), USS Cabot (CVL-28), USS Monterey (CVL-26), and USS Cowpens (CVL-25)), embarking more than 500 planes. Supporting the carriers was a large fleet of seven battleships, and numerous cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and other support ships.

Fearing that the base was becoming too vulnerable, the Japanese had relocated the aircraft carriers, battleships, and heavy cruisers of the Combined Fleet to Palau a week earlier. However, numerous smaller warships and merchant ships remained in and around the anchorage and several hundred aircraft were stationed at the atoll's airfields.

The U.S. attack involved a combination of airstrikes, surface ship actions, and submarine attacks over two days and appeared to take the Japanese completely by surprise. Several daylight, along with nighttime, airstrikes employed fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo aircraft in attacks on Japanese airfields, aircraft, shore installations, and ships in and around the Truk anchorage. A force of U.S. surface ships and submarines guarded possible exit routes from the island's anchorage to attack any Japanese ships that tried to escape from the airstrikes.

In total the attack sank three Japanese light cruisers (Agano, Katori, and Naka), four destroyers (Oite, Fumizuki, Maikaze, and Tachikaze), three auxiliary cruisers (Akagi Maru, Aikoku Maru, Kiyosumi Maru), two submarine tenders (Heian Maru, Rio de Janeiro Maru), three other smaller warships (including submarine chasers CH-24 and Shonan Maru 15), aircraft transport Fujikawa Maru, and 32 merchant ships. Some of the ships were destroyed in the anchorage and some in the area surrounding Truk lagoon. Many of the merchant ships were loaded with reinforcements and supplies for Japanese garrisons in the central Pacific area. Very few of the troops aboard the sunken ships survived and little of their cargoes were recovered.

Maikaze, along with several support ships, was sunk by U.S. surface ships while trying to escape from the Truk anchorage. The survivors of the sunken Japanese ships reportedly refused rescue efforts by the U.S. ships. The cruiser Agano, a veteran of the Raid on Rabaul and which was already en route to Japan when the attack began, was sunk by a U.S. submarine, the USS Skate (SS-305). Oite rescued 523 survivors from the Agano and returned to Truk lagoon to assist in its defense with her anti-aircraft guns. She was sunk soon after by air attack with the Agano survivors still on board, killing all of them and all but 20 of the Oite's crew.

Over 250 Japanese aircraft were destroyed, mostly on the ground. Many of the aircraft were in various states of assembly, having just arrived from Japan in disassembled form aboard cargo ships. Very few of the assembled aircraft were able to take off in response to the U.S. attack. Several Japanese aircraft that did take off were claimed destroyed by U.S. fighters or gunners on the U.S. bombers and torpedo planes.

The U.S. lost twenty-five aircraft, mainly due to the intense anti-aircraft fire from Truk's defenses. About 16 U.S. aircrew were rescued by submarine or amphibious aircraft (several Japanese, whose crew took them prisoner). A nighttime torpedo attack by a Japanese aircraft from either Rabaul or Saipan damaged the Intrepid and killed 11 of her crew, forcing her to return to Pearl Harbor and later, San Francisco for repairs. She returned to duty in June, 1944. Another Japanese air attack slightly damaged the battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) with a bomb hit.

In his autobiography Baa Baa Black Sheep, U.S. Marine Corps ace pilot Gregory "Pappy" Boyington describes his experience as a prisoner of war on the ground at Truk during the raid.

The attacks for the most part ended Truk as a major threat to Allied operations in the central Pacific; the Japanese garrison on Eniwetok was denied any realistic hope of reinforcement and support during the invasion that began on February 18, 1944, greatly assisting U.S. forces in their conquest of that island.

The Japanese later relocated about 100 of their remaining aircraft from Rabaul to Truk. These aircraft were attacked by U.S. carrier forces in another attack on April 29–30, 1944 which destroyed most of them. The U.S. aircraft dropped 92 bombs over a 29 minute period to destroy the Japanese planes. The April 1944 strikes found no shipping in Truk lagoon and were the last major attacks on Truk during the war.

Truk was isolated by Allied (primarily U.S.) forces as they continued their advance towards Japan by invading other Pacific islands such as Guam, Saipan, Palau, and Iwo Jima. Cut off, the Japanese forces on Truk, like on other central Pacific islands, ran low on food and faced starvation before Japan surrendered in August 1945.


Gregory Boyington: Baa Baa Black Sheep:

But I want you to forget it as I have, and get on with my arrival in Truk, which I experienced in February 1944, and again and again on television in later years. It is not that I am necessarily camera-shy, because I doubt that I am, but these days I almost convince myself when, as I watch television, somebody once again happens to show that excellent Navy carrier picture The Fighting Lady. The sequence in this film that always interests me the most (because I am in it, though on the ground) is that big raid by our carrier planes on Truk. And during the showing there is just enough ham in me to want to point out “where I am.” But the pit in which I am trying to seek cover shows up much better than I do. It is far more photogenic. But just the same, should my wife be sitting next to me, I can always point to the contents of that pit and say: “Honey, there’s daddy-oh. Give him a hand. What an actor.”

It seemed that this bomber in which the Japanese were carrying us prisoners just could not keep out of trouble. After being flown from Rabaul to Truk we landed on a field at Truk but did not merely come to a stop. It happened to be the roughest, shortest of landings, intentionally I know now, I have ever experienced or ever hope to. Immediately we were all thrown out of the plane, practically on our heads. We thought it was just some more rough stuff but, because we had edged our blindfolds, we could see that down the runway came a Navy F6F, spraying .50-calibers all through the Nip aircraft standing there in front of us. The piece of transportation we had just crawled out of went up before our eyes in flame and smoke, and so did nearly every other plane we could see around there. It was one of the best Navy Day programs I ever expect to see, the first task-force raid on the island of Truk.

Suyako and the Nips in the plane with us booted us along the ground down the airstrip until we came to this shallow pit I mentioned, and there they threw us into it. I had been stumbling all over everything because of my blindfold, which, owing to the low bridge on my nose, pressed right against my eyeballs, and until I wiggled the blindfold free a little I couldn’t see a thing. I envied those boys with the big hooknoses. They could walk right along and see about two feet in front of themselves when they were blindfolded. At this time, though, I must say that Suyako used some of what he must have learned while being educated in the Hawaiian Islands. If we had arrived at Truk before the raid, and the raid had happened a few minutes later, we would have had to stand out in this field blindfolded and tied up during the whole thing, which lasted the better part of two days. But during the confusion (he told us all about this later) he was able to throw us into this pit without being hampered by the Japanese on the field. In other words, Suyako saved our lives.

From this small pit, after wiggling our bandages so we could see, we got a worm’s-eye view of a real air show. I could not keep my eyes below the pit level. I just had to look and see what was going on. There was so much excitement I couldn’t do any differently. I just had to see those Nip planes, some of the light planes like the Zeroes, jump off the ground from the explosion of our bombs and come down “cl-l-l-l-ang,” just like a sack of bolts and nuts. The planes caught on fire and the ammunition in them began going off. There were twenty-millimeter cannon shells and 7.7s bouncing and ricocheting all around this pit. Some of these hot pieces we tossed back out of the pit with our hands.

All of this, or a lot of this, is shown in the motion picture, too, but obviously from an angle much different from ours. The picture also shows how one of the two-thousand-pound bombs had its center of impact only fifteen feet from the pit we were in, and shows the crater there after the explosion. But what The Fighting Lady cannot include, unfortunately, is the close-up dialogue of which we were participants there in the pit. Things happened that would have gone well on the sound track, I think, little scenes that seemed to have no specific rhyme or reason and yet were all a part of it—the raid on Truk—as seen from the ground.

During a momentary lull, for instance, a Japanese pilot came down and landed his Zero, jumped out and started running over to the edge of the field where the Nips had a lot of caves. On the way across he happened to glance in this pit the six of us were in, and he stopped and looked in at us. He was wearing one of those fuzzy helmets with the ear flaps turned up, and he looked in at us, as surprised as we were, then composed himself and said in English: “I am a Japanese pilot.” During this time we stayed huddled down in the pit because we were not supposed to be able to see him through our blindfolds. “Buck” Arbuckle whispered: “Who does he think he’s kiddin’?” Then he repeated himself: “I am a Japanese pilot. You bomb here, you die,” and patted the leather of the case containing his Nambu automatic pistol.

I couldn’t take any more; it all seemed both so funny and hysterical at the same time that I could contain myself no longer. I stuck my elbow into the rugged chap next to me. Don Boyle, of New York City, who was in the same predicament I was. I said something to him that later he laughed about and repeated to me. While glancing back up at the Nip pilot I had said: “With all the God damn trouble we got, ain't you the cheerful son of a bitch, though.” Whether this lug was serious we never knew, for he didn’t even get another chance to talk to us. The last we saw of him his short legs were busy hopping over obstructions, the ear flaps of his fur helmet wobbling up and down so that he gave the appearance of a jack rabbit getting off the highway. His conversation and threats had been rudely interrupted by the death rattle caused by another Navy F6F’s .50-calibers, crackling down the runway as it came just a matter of a few feet from our pit.

Meanwhile something else happened that was not quite so funny, and I figured it was up to me to do something about it. One of the boys in the pit was praying out loud: “Oh, dear God, oh, dear God, I know we’ll never get out of this …” and so on. I couldn’t take any more of that, either, so I shook the boy and said: “Jesus Christ, Brownie, won’t you shut up? I know we’re all praying, but you don’t need to do it so God damn loud in that direction, do you?” And then, remembering how lucky I had always been, I added in a quieter voice: “Brownie, crawl over to me, and stay next to me. I know I’m still lucky enough to get out of this mess.”

Around late afternoon Suyako and the guard who had accompanied us in the plane came over and looked in the pit. I guess they were as amazed as at anything they ever had seen. They expected to see six mangled bodies in the pit, yet there were six people in there without a scratch on them other than the wounds they already carried up from Rabaul. They took us out of the pit and said that we would have to stay over in a wrecked building at the edge of the field until darkness. Suyako said: “Don’t pay any attention to anybody who comes near you or kicks you or throws anything at you. We’ll get you through this all right.” It was a great feeling to hear him say that. After darkness they led us, all six of us tied together, across the field. They told us they would have to take the blindfolds off because, with the place so torn up, they couldn’t drag us through. There were huge pieces of concrete upended, plane parts scattered all over, and the place was a shambles.

They put us in little boats to take us across to another, small island. They told us not to look around or we’d be struck. We were struck, because it was too hard to resist the sight of four ships still burning out in the harbor. When we landed we were put in some kind of a bus and taken to a navy camp, and there all six of us were put in a tiny cell about the size of a small half bathroom. We could not lie down.

We stayed in there all hunched up, which was the best we could do. But the main point of all this, anyhow, was the raid on Truk and the part we “played” in it. In the film we are, I suppose, what would be called extras.

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