Titans of the Seas: Chapter 19
- Tarawa and Makin.
The Marshalls held a stratigic position that meant that there was no
way that they could be ignored. Close to the supply lines that ran
between Pearl Harbor and New Zealand. Not all of the islands were
equally important though. Most weren't large enough to support coral
runways, and many of the ones that were, weren't facing in the right
direction to allow the building of a runnway. Thus, the CinCPac
planners decided that the best way to get airfields quickly was to
take them from the enemy. Interestingly enough, wise as this strategy
seems, it appears in a footnote that Nimitz when speaking to the
authors stated that if he had realized just how fast the SeeBees could
build coral runways he probably would have bypassed many of the
islands that were taken.
In preperation for the comming offensive, Nimitz had reorganized the
Pacific Fleet. The Fifth Fleet now included all the ships in the
Pacific save for thos that belonged to Halsey in the Soutwest adn
Frank Jack Fletcher's in the North and those that were under the
command of General MacArthur. Command of the Fifth Fleet had gone to
Ray Spruance. The amphibious component was placed in the experienced
hands of Kelly Turner. Save for major operations Spruance was found
ashore in the midst of planning. Nimitz designated all of the Fifth
Fleet Carriers as Task Force 50, this was then broken up int for Task
Groups, 50.1 under Pownall, 50.2 under Radford, 50.3 under Mongomery
and 50.4 under Ted Sherman. These task groups had six large and five
light carriers divided amongst them. The role these carriers would
play in the upcoming campaign was two fold as far as Nimitz was
concerned. They would bomb and plaster the two islands slated for
invasion, Makin and Betio. They would also stand ready to deal with
Koga's Combined Fleet in case it decided to put in an appearance.
For this first operation the Fast Carrier groups weren't kept together
but were spread across the compass points around the target islands.
This might be viewed as an arrogance, but it should be considered that
the groups were fairly close to each other and were in a decent
position to be mutually supporting if the need arose. Also considering
the time it might be thought that the Americans with their descent
access to Japanese planning would have been able to project their
force in a manner of their choosing based on the knowledge of the need
of the moment.
Previously off Guadalcanal Fletcher had pulled out his fleet carriers
almost as soon as the landings had started. Kelly Turner saw to it
that such a thing could not happen during the Gilbert invasion. Even
though the amphibious forces had five Jeep Carriers these were to
provide air support and antisubmarine patrols. The big flattops would
stay close until Betio and Makin had fallen and the transports had
unloaded. Although I find it somewhat difficult to invision Spruance
acting in such a fashion with the forces in hand. Considering his
later actions it is hard to think that he would have done so.
Had it not been for the raid on Wake the Japanese might have been able
to easily predict that the next blow would land on the islands of
Makin and Betio. The problem was that the Wake island raid had
convinced many on the Japanese staff that the Americans were going to
attack the Marshalls from the north instead of the south. The Combined
Fleet HQ had sent out warnings to the various parimiter islands
warning them that more attacks could be forthcoming in the future.
Unfortunetly they were strapped for aircraft they could send.
Stripping the remote islands to send planes to Rabaul had turned out
to be a bad mistake.
Because of the fact that Koga choose not to come out and fight the
Gilberts operation proved to be something of an anticlimax for the
antagonists. At least as far as the Navy was concerned. The Marines
and the Army had a different thought on the subject. The Makee Learn
raids had given the Navy a tactical control that was admirable, but it
hadn't really impoved the pilots ability to damage fixed positions
that had been improved. This was the case here. Pillboxes and dugout
and corvered positions seemed to have been little affected by the
plastering the islands recieved before the landings. This led to some
heavy fighting on the islands.
The Japanese reaction to the landings in the Gilberts was pitifully
weak. A plan to rush reinforcements in by cruiser and destroyer was
abandoned, leaving hte only response air attacks from outlying
islands. Most of these attacks were night based attacks, but they
failed to score any hits. Other attacks also failed.
On the fourth day of the fighting on the land the area was declared
secure and all but Pownall's group were withdrawn. It was decided that
pictures were needed of Roi and Kwajalein and he was the one that drew
the short stick for the task. Although to be fair it was more likely
that being farther north then the rest of the groups his was probably
the most rested. In this endeavour Pownall once again showed his
cautious and defensive minded nature. With six carriers in hand, he
assigned two of them to purely defensive roles. He also witheld nearly
a third of the Hellcats of the Big Carriers to perform Cap missions.
Pownall was asked if they could launch a strike that would come in
before dawn, but Pownall decided against it, saying that with surprise
not an option they should plan for the worst and hope for this best.
Which in his mind, meant pleanty of covering protection and having the
fighters escorting the attacking aircraft sticking close to their
charges. At least he desired flexibility in the attack, so he assigned
local tactical command to an airborne skipper. Commander Snowden.
Pownall was right about one thing, surprise wasn't obtained. Zeros
were launched and attacked as the strike aircraft were coming in. This
was the start of something less then spectacular results on the part
of the American pilots. When the pilots returned to their carriers the
results were assessed. One good thing about the raid was that if the
American bombing was off, the Japanese AA was off as well. There were
few hits on the shipping in the area, and the aircraft of the enemy on
Roi were intact. Pownall weighed what this might mean and decided to
retire. Although he was abandoning a second planned strike on
Kwajalein, he would instead attack Wotje the northernmost of the
Marshall atolls on the way by.
As the strike on Wotje was forming up, six inbound boogies were
detected. These turned out to be Kate torpedo bombers. They came in
and tried to focus their attention on the Lexington, Pownall's
flagship. The planes forming up for the raid ignored the shooting
below and headed off on their assigned task. The attack on the
Lexington was exciting, but ended with no results other then the loss
of more Japanese aircraft. The Wotje raid itself was somewhat more
impressive, it destroyed a Betty that was taking off and for planes on
the ground as well.
After taking in the planes from the raid Pownall attempted to get out
of the area. He didn't make it before suffering another attack, this
one nearly failed like all the rest. It was a group of night flying
Betty's this time, all of them either getting shot down or missing the
wildly manuevering ships. All that is save one, that planted a torpedo
into the stern of the Lexington.
This series of raids removed Pownall from command of the Task Force
comprising the Carrier forces. He was in the words of Nimitz, "All
defensive!" The officer chosen to replace him was Marc "Pete"
Mitscher. Mitscher had commanded the Hornet during hte riad on Tokyo
by Doolittle and during the battle of Midway. It was a fateful choice.