Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Enterprise--Nov-Dec. 1943--The Gilbert Islands

The Enterprise arrived on the scene in November and we went aboard her to join Task Force 58. Thanksgiving Day of 1943 was observed on the Enterprise as we were en route to the Gilbert Islands. Task Force 58 and Task Force 38 were exactly the same ships. When Admirals Mitcher and McCain were in, command it was task force 58, and when Admirals Halsey and Spruance were in command it was task force 38, Since they were alternating commands monthly, I'm sure the Japanese thought that we had two separate Task Forces.
[note from Merlin Dorfman: TF 58, TF 38 etc.: As he says, they were the same ships and crews. They were part of the Fifth Fleet and the Third Fleet respectively. When Spruance was Fleet commander, it was the Fifth Fleet; Halsey, the Third Fleet. Spruance had it from its formation, 4/26/44 (previously Central Pacific Force) through the invasions of the Gilberts, Marshalls, and Marianas, until about 10/1/44 before the invasion of the Philippines when Halsey took over. Spruance got it back before Iwo Jima (January 1945) and Halsey again about 5/15/44 during the battle for Okinawa and for the restof the war. The Fast Carrier force was Task Force 58 or 38 depending on the fleet number; the invasion fleet was TF 51. (Halsey never actually commanded an invasion during this period; for the Philippines, MacArthur had the invasion force and Halsey had only the combat force, so there was never a TF 31.) Mitscher was the commander of TF 58 and of TF 38 during Halsey's first command of the Third Fleet; during the second, McCain (grandfather of the Senator) commanded TF 38. (Subdivisions of Task Forces were called Task Groups, e.g., TG 58.1 would usually be four carriers and their escorts.) The Seventh Fleet was MacArthur's navy; the USS Pennsylvania during the period of the Gilberts and Marshalls invasions was the flagship of TF 51 (commanded by Kelly Turner), part of the Fifth Fleet.]

We started bombing and strafing the Gilberts in the last week of November, at least a week before the invasion. Air Group Six flew most of its missions on Makin Island and the air group records showed that I flew four bombing missions on that island. our bombing attacks would start at 16 or 18 thousand feet and our bombs were released at about 3000 feet. I should explain that the TBF was used as both a torpedo plane and as a bomber. When we were hitting shore installations, we used bombs and when we hit shipping, we carried torpedoes. The bomb bay had 12 bomb shackles and we could carry either a two thousand pound torpedo or a two thousand pound bomb or four 500 pound bombs or 2 one thousand pound bombs or 12 one hundred pound bombs. Of course, our loads varied with the targets that we were striking. After we would pound the islands by air for four or five days, the battleships and cruisers and destroyers would move in close enough to shell the shore with the big shipboard guns. I flew two missions with our skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Phillips. They were not considered combat missions because we flew over our own 7th fleet. The 7th fleet was composed of the older men of war of the US Navy and the transports and landing craft carrying the invasion forces. Since we had pounded the Gilberts for a week or longer before the invasion, all of the aerial photos that were taken by the Fifth Fleet ( Task Force 58) to assess the results of our bombing and shelling were bundled up for delivery to the 7th fleet, in order to assist the ground forces in the invasion of the islands. I guess the skipper asked me to assist him in the delivery of these photos, because I had had a lot of experience in pulling target sleeves for gunnery training while we were in training and the principal of delivery was essentially the same. We placed the photos in a section of fire hose five to ten feet long and used 200 feet of half inch rope and tied the fire hose in the center of the line. By tying a small sand bag to the leading end of the rope, we could dispense the rope out of the tail cone of the plane through a flare tube so that release could be made, in order to drop the pictures on another ship. of course, the pictures in the fire hose were sealed in by corking the ends of the fire hose. When we flew over the bow of the USS Pennsylvania, the flagship of the 7th fleet, we released the rope and the sailors aboard the Pensy retrieved the photos as we had made a perfect drop.

The skipper's turret gunner was Richard Boone (AOM 2c), who later became the actor of "Paladin" [Have Gun Will Travel] fame.

From the way we had pounded the islands, you would have thought that our landing forces could have walked ashore without any resistance. Not so, because the First Marine Division and one of our Carrier Aircraft Service Units that was making the landing, both sustained extremely heavy losses on D Day. The only mishap that our squadron suffered was the fact that one of our most seasoned pilots made the error of dropping his bombs on the wrong target one day while supporting the landing forces. He dropped into a tank trap that had already been occupied by our own forces and killed several of our own soldiers. I can't remember the pilot's name but the radioman was Gentzkow and the gunner's name was J. A. Green. The entire squadron felt bad about the loss of our own men and that pilot hurt more than anyone else. Oh yes, we did have one other mishap. James B Steck ARM 2 from Sibley, Iowa flew with Lt. McEnernie, an old SBD pilot who had previously flown with Lt. Buchanan. The tatk force would keep one torpedo plane in the air at all times during the daylight hours, flying anti-submarine patrol. These planes would be loaded with depth charges to be dropped on any enemy submarine that might be spotted. Lt. McEnernie and Steck and the gunner ( I can't recall his name) took off at daylight one morning and had flown the four hour anti-sub patrol and when they started to land back aboard, the LSO (landing signal officer) gave them a wave off and when the pilot hit the throttle, the engine died and they were forced to make a water landing. They all three cleared the plane and had inflated their lifejackets and were awaiting a destroyer to pick them up when the depth charges on the sinking torpedo plane exploded. The explosion did not hurt Lt. McEnernie or the gunner but it perforated Steck's lower intestinal tract. The destroyer picked up all of them and McEnernie and the gunner came back aboard the Enterprise but Steck was sent back to Pearl Harbor to the Navy Hospital. The Enterprise and Air Group Six returned to Pearl Harbor after the Gilberts had been secured in early December. I visited Steck at the Naval Hospital and the doctor's had already operated on him twice and he had lost half his body weight. For a two hundred pound football player that was a lot.

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