Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Carrier Raids, U.S. (January–March 1942)

The series of offensive strikes initiated by U.S. naval forces of the Pacific Fleet almost immediately after the Japanese surprise attack on its base at Pearl Harbor. Despite the slim resources available following the Pearl Harbor attack, the newly appointed commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, and the commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, Admiral Ernest J. King, agreed that a passive defense was out of the question. King directed Nimitz to guard the important Hawaii–Midway–Johnston Island triangle in the eastern Pacific and to protect the vital sea line of communications from Hawaii via Line Islands, Samoa, and Fiji to New Zealand and Australia.

Almost immediately, Nimitz began to plan for carrier raids against Japanese holdings in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands in an effort to take some pressure off the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM, more commonly known as ABDA), whose area included Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, western New Guinea, northern Australia, and, nominally, the Philippines. In planning the raids, Admiral Nimitz found his thinking in opposition to that of many of his senior subordinates in the Pacific Fleet, who considered the use of carrier forces against heavily defended land bases much too risky unless complete surprise could be assured. Siding with Nimitz, however, was Vice Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey, the fleet's senior carrier admiral, who offered to lead the attacks.

The first offensive raid was planned against the Japanese outpost on Wake Island at the end of January 1942. Vice Admiral Wilson E. Brown's Task Force 11, formed around the carrier Lexington, was assigned the mission until the Japanese torpedoed the oiler attached to his group and the mission was scrubbed. On 25 January, Admiral Halsey's Task Force 8, centered on the carrier Enterprise, raided Japanese bases at Kwajalein, Wotje, and Taroa in the northern Marshall Islands while Task Force 17, formed around the carrier Yorktown and commanded by Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, struck at bases in the southern Marshalls. Although they were mere pinpricks in terms of the damage and delay they caused the Japanese offensive, the raids raised morale in the fleet and provided the carrier air groups with valuable practice.

On 24 February 1942, Halsey's task force, now redesignated Task Force 16, sailed back into the fight with a raid on Wake Island. From there, he moved on to strike Marcus Island, barely 1,000 miles from the Japanese home islands. At the same time, Admiral Brown's Task Force 11 was sent south to attack the recently captured Japanese base at Rabaul on the island of New Britain, northeast of New Guinea. While still at a considerable distance from Rabaul, Brown's task force was spotted by Japanese air patrols and subsequently attacked by Japanese bombers without fighter protection. In the ensuing fight, the Lexington's fighters nearly wiped out the attacking bombers, while only sustaining light losses themselves.

Brown withdrew temporarily and requested support in the attack on Rabaul from Nimitz and was quickly joined by Fletcher's task force. By the time it arrived, however, more lucrative targets appeared nearer at hand when, on 8 March, the Japanese landed forces at Lae and Salamaua on the eastern peninsula of New Guinea. Sailing into the Gulf of Papua on the opposite side of the peninsula on 10 March, Brown and Fletcher launched 104 aircraft and sent them over the rugged Owen Stanley Mountains. The aircraft emerged undetected to find unprotected Japanese ships unloading troops and supplies at the two locations. The attacking Americans sank a large minesweeper, a transport, and a converted light cruiser. Nine other ships were damaged before they could escape to the open sea. Only one U.S. plane and one aviator were lost. This attack was the greatest U.S. naval success in the war to that point, but even more important, it convinced the Japanese that successful operations against New Guinea would require the protection of aircraft carriers.

Although the actual destruction of Japanese assets was minimal, these carrier raids led the Japanese High Command to make several momentous decisions. The Naval General Staff feared that Australia would become a major base from which Allied counteroffensives could be launched and decided that it should be attacked and seized. The Army General Staff, staggered by the great distances involved in the attack, countered with a proposal to capture Port Moresby in southeastern New Guinea and use it for attacks on northern Australia to check Allied advances from that direction. This decision led to the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.

The most dramatic American carrier operation early in the war came on 18 April 1942, when 16 U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) B-25 bombers lifted off the deck of the carrier Hornet, part of Halsey's Task Force 16, and attacked Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. Known as the Doolittle raid for the commander of the B-25s, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, the attack did little physical damage but caused psychological shock among the Japanese leadership.

Jarred by these raids, members of the Imperial Naval Staff concluded that something had to be done about the American carrier threat. As a result, they suspended operations in the southeastern region (the Bismarcks, Solomons, eastern New Guinea, Papua, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa), pulled air assets back to defend the Japanese home islands, and threw their support to the Combined Fleet's Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku's previously unpopular plan to seize the island of Midway.

Arthur T. Frame


Further Reading
Bradley, John H. The Second World War: Asia and the Pacific. Wayne, NJ: Avery, 1984.; Lundstrom, John B. The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984.; Morison, Samuel E. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vols. 2, 4, 5, 9, 10, and 11. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947–1952.; Prange, Gordon W. Miracle at Midway. New York: Penguin, 1983.; Spector, Ronald H. Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.
 

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