THE FIRST STRIKE BACK
BY JAKE JAEKEL
After refueling from a tanker and a briefing by Captain Zacharias on tomorrow’s, February 1st 1942, Marshall and Gilbert Islands Raid, the crew set about checking and fine-tuning all systems to make sure everything was ready for our first attack from the sea of the war on Japanese territory.
Seven island targets were hit simultaneously by two Task Forces under the command of Admiral Halsey, the Yorktown and the Enterprise operating separately in a time-coordinated attack. This mission was characterized as like sailing up the muzzle of a gun pointed at the American-Australian lifeline and blast that threat away. Our orders were to block the enemy’s harbors with the wreckage of enemy’s ships, destroy their aircraft, render useless their airfields, and destroy their radio installations, fuel storage tanks and storehouses
The seven island targets were divided between the two carrier groups. The Carrier Yorktown attacked Jaluit, Mili and Makin. The Enterprise Task Force attacked Roi, Kwajalein, Wotje and Tarawa islands. All were bombed from the air and in addition, due to their heavy installations Tarawa and Wotje were bombarded from the sea. Cruiser Division 5 was given the mission to handle the attack from the sea. The Chester along with the destroyers Maury and Balch handled the destruction of Tarawa. The Salt Lake City and Northampton along with the destroyer Dunlap obliterated the most fully developed and heavily fortified Wotje Island.
The Task Force cruised at high speed into the night to be in position to start the coordinated attack 15 minutes before daylight. The destroyer Dunlap, cruisers Salt Lake City and Northampton left the Enterprise during the night and early in the morning hours reduced our speed so we wouldn’t arrive at our target early. Reveille was at 0330 HRS with a hardy breakfast of steak and eggs, which became the norm on the day of combat action. The crew was at battle stations quarters one hour before daylight.
The Salt Lake City and the Northampton launched spotter planes to scout the area 40 minutes before sunrise. The thundering explosion of the catapults’ propelling charges awoke unexpected life in the darkness ahead. A bright red rocket from a previously unseen Japanese patrol boat suddenly arched into the sky in an attempt to give warning to those on shore. Luckily the patrol boat turned all their efforts to getting home fast away from those black-bulky mysterious objects that startled them. The destroyer Dunlap went after them in hot pursuit but the low profile fast little boat was a difficult target in the darkness. We went on about our business while the Dunlap concentrated on the patrol boat.
As it became daylight about six fighter planes from the Enterprise attacked and the islands anti aircraft fire quickly marked its location; unfortunately one of our fighter planes strafing at a very low-level altitude was shot down. This was quickly followed by columns of black smoke rising from a silhouette of the island off the starboard bow. However it was soon learned the columns of black smoke were not bomb hits but ships firing up their boilers to make a run for it. The initial report from our spotter planes indicated no shore batteries could be seen and three ships were in the harbor. This was soon corrected as well camouflaged shore batteries opened up on us with shells coming dangerously close putting a nice round hole in our forward smoke stack and the Northampton was straddled by a salvo. We quickly pulled back out of their range, as the aerial spotters couldn’t locate their well-camouflaged position until after sun up when their telltale shadows gave them away. Also after sun up the Dunlap was able to get the low profile patrol boat squarely in her sights and blast her out of the water just as it was going into the harbor entrance.
All of the Enterprise bombers were attacking other island targets as only fighters were used on Wotje to strafe and distract the enemy’s attention to the air while the surface ships got into position to do the real business of demolition. One Japanese plane got into the air before we laid several eight inch salvos down the concrete runway and spoiled their day from trying to make any more takeoffs or landings. Four of the Japanese planes that did get into the air were quickly shot down and our fighters returned to the Enterprise to reload for another mission.
We switched to armor piercing shells to go after the convoy trying to hide in the harbor. The Japanese vessels were armed merchantmen or auxiliaries and they tried in vain to hit us with their deck guns. The Salt Lake City laid one 10-gun salvo along side of a big auxiliary ship with its deck gun firing at us but her shells were landing short. Our next 10-gun salvo ripped into the Japanese ship: it looked like the smoke stack and the whole center section just lifted up above the rest of the ship and it sank fast with the gun on the fantail still blazing away.
Thus, not only did the Salt Lake City fire the first shells to land on Japanese soil, but also sank by surface ship gunfire the first enemy ship of the war. We also rendered useless for the rest of the war the airfield at Wotje Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
For about two hours we cruised back and forth past Wotje firing nearly 30,000 yards over the island at ships in the lagoon to about 10,000 yards knocking out shore batteries before given the order to withdraw. The Northampton, Salt Lake City and Dunlop left to join up with the Enterprise and three destroyers leaving behind a patrol boat and nine enemy ships sunk, one beached, one damaged and dead in the water. On the island all barracks, shops, warehouses, fuel oil storage tanks, aviation gasoline dump, shops and two hangars were destroyed. All the coastal defense batteries silenced. Later in the day the attacking Enterprise aircraft assigned to cleanup found nothing to mop up.
Shortly after we rejoined the rest of the Task Force, Japanese bombers from other islands began attacking with vengeance. Our anti-aircraft crews put up a curtain of fire at the attackers as the ships zigzagged to avoid the falling bombs. If you looked up at them it looked like the bombs were going to hit you between the eyes with the closest one landing less than 100 yards away. However, none of the ships were hit, but we did find shrapnel from near misses around our gun shield and some minor damage on other parts of the ship.
One suicidal Japanese plane hit the Enterprise, cutting across the carrier’s stern shearing off its own wing and the tail of a dive-bomber parked on the flight deck. It landed in the water in pieces and one crewman manning a near by anti-aircraft gun on the carrier was killed. The Japanese planes continued to attack us the rest of the day as we sped out of the area at 30 knots. The heavy cruiser Chester was hit by a bomb on the well deck causing nine casualties.
The two-carrier Task Force coordinated attack was a tremendous success. A new offensive arrangement with a combination of a fast moving cruisers, destroyers and carriers utilized the best in aerial and surface combat power. This was the humble beginning and pattern of future and much larger fast carrier groups to be molded together.
Enemy harbors and air bases were obliterated; one light cruiser was heavily damaged, two enemy submarines and 73,000 tons of enemy ships sunk; we also blasted two airfields and 35 enemy aircraft were destroyed. The Salt Lake City was credited for sinking nine ships, shooting down one twin engine bomber and damaging another. It was good news and a great morale builder for all Americans to know that our warships had taken the offensive.
The next day we crossed back over the International Date Line experiencing large ground swells and heavy rain making our escape from enemy aircraft much easier. The Task Force entered Pearl Harbor February 5th, 1942. The Salt Lake City hoisted the broom, (indicating a clean sweep). Because of the broom and a big round enemy shell hole along with other shrapnel scars in the stacks, we received salutes and cheers as we passed by their ship or station to our assigned moorage. It was a victory badly needed.