In late March 1944, the Japanese launched the invasion of India from Burma. British Gen William Slim, the 14th Army commander, was poised to invade Burma but wished to kill as many Japanese as possible prior to it. The invasion of India was the perfect opportunity and Slim planned to concentrate his troops on the Imphal plain to do so. Unfortunately, the Japanese were more numerous than he thought, many of his troops were still too far from the battle, and “most distressingly”, the Japanese moved faster than Slim expected.
While Slim was sorting out the battle on the Imphal plain, Japanese Maj Gen Kotaku Sato’s 31st Division made a lightning fast forced march thru the jungle toward Kohima, the halfway point on the crucial Dimapur to Imphal supply route. (Dimapur was Slim’s railhead and main logistics area). Slim’s box tactics allowed his soldiers to be cut off temporarily, but the loss of Kohima would prevent all ground supply from reaching Imphal and there wasn’t enough air transport in Southeast Asia and India to supply his four divisions. The 31st Division’s advance was rapid, but they were opposed by a single battalion from the Assam Regiment and some Assam policemen over the last 60 miles. They heroically delayed Sato for four critical days before the Japanese could reach Kohima.
Those four days allowed Col. Hugh Richards to organize an ad hoc defense of Kohima centered on the ridge east of the road. Thousands of noncombatants were evacuated and any soldiers who knew how to handle a rifle were organized into units and dug in. Richards had only the 2500 soldiers, including 450 men of the 4th Bn of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kents, part of a heaven sent Rajput machine gun Bn, 400 men of the Shere Regt of the Royal Nepalese Army, the remains of the Assam Bn (when they arrived from delaying the Japanese) and 500 convalescents and transients from the hospital and way station in Kohima, to fight the 13,500 approaching Japanese. On 3 April 1944, the Japanese surrounded the town. The Battle for Kohima began the next day.
For the next 13 days, the besieged Allies faced suicidal but effective human wave assaults, and brutal hand to hand combat all along Kohima Ridge. Rajput machine guns and British artillery melted down because of their rapid and continuous fire in the 120 degree heat. The battle eventually focused on the Allies’ critical vulnerability: water. By 16 April, the Allies were down to one pint of water per man per day. Eventually, the thirsty remnants of Richard’s defenders were forced back into a 500m by 500m box on Garrison Hill which contained a small spring outside of the old district commissioner’s house. The only thing separating the spring from the Japanese was the commissioner’s garden and tennis court. On the night of 16/17 AprIl, the Japanese, who had suffered 8000 casualties by this point, tried one last banzai charge across the tennis court to capture the spring. The “Battle of the Tennis Court” raged all night, but by dawn it was obvious the Japanese would not succeed.
On the 19th, the Indian 161st Brigade of the British 2nd Division, attacking from Dimapur, broke through to Garrison Hill. The next day, the Japanese dug in and prepared for the inevitable Allied counterattack.
The British and Americans knew the destruction of the Abbey at Monte Cassino in February changed the calculus of the battle, though they did not realize its extent. The key to the Liri Valley and Route 6 to Rome was the town of Cassino; the key to Cassino was Castle Hill, the key to Castle Hill was Hangman’s Hill; and the key to Hangman’s Hill was the Abbey itself. Since the clumsy and brutish destruction of the Abbey allowed the Germans to fortify it, the Brits and Americans assumed that it needed to be the focus of the battle. But as the Germans suspected, and the Italians knew, that this was not the case: the key to the Abbey was actually Point 593, which was a small hillock just to the northwest on Snakeshead Ridge.
In the previous three battles, a supporting attack was always launched against Pt 593, but only to prevent enfilading fire on the main attack or tie down counterattack forces, not to capture it. When the Polish II Corps received the mission to take the Abbey, the corps’s staff naturally started its mission analysis. During their initial intelligence preparation of the battlefield, a young analyst did his research on the area and noticed the ruins of a small 17th century Papal star fort on Pt 593. But why was that star fort in such an inaccessible location? Digging into the history of the area for the answer, he found that the star fort (and presumably the earlier medieval keep ruins beneath it) provided a last desperate refuge for the monks during Italy’s turbulent past. Control of the star fort by the monks ensured that if it wasn’t also captured, the Abbey was untenable. The analyst studied the terrain further and found that the Allies could reverse engineer the battle: If Pt 593 fell, the Abbey would fall; if the Abbey fell, Hangman’s Hill would fall; if Hangman’s Hill fell, Castle Hill would fall; if the Castle fell, Cassino would fall. And if Cassino fell, the Road to Rome through the Liri Valley was open.
So think of the Abbey as a typical suburban American house. The star fort on Point 593 was (and still is) a sort of combination storage shed and fortified zombie apocalypse safehouse in the back corner of the monastery backyard. Also, it butt’s up against the back fence (Snakeshead ridge), so unless you climb over the back fence, you can’t approach the shed (Pt 593) except through the house (the Abbey).
In that context, think of the Liri Valley as the street the house is on. Throughout the Monastery’s 1500 year history, any army wishing to drive down the street, i.e. exit or enter the Liri Valley to capture Naples or Rome, had to secure the Monstaery because it dominated traffic on the street. To do this some secured Papal approval because the Monastery was property of the Papal States, governed directly by the Roman Catholic Church. But most chose to capture the Abbey.
These historic encounters usually followed a similar pattern. The attackers would initially try storming the hill, and inevitably fail. There would then be a siege. Shortly thereafter, the attackers would get restless because they were wasting time and resources on the Monastery that would be required for use on Rome or Naples. So they would get impatient and launch multiple costly assaults, which would wear down the monks and their defenders. When capture was imminent, the monks would then retire to the small fortress on Pt 593 and the attackers would flood victoriously into the Monastery. That was, until they got into the backyard and were stopped cold by the defenders on Pt 593. The star fort on Pt 593 made the northwest corner of the abbey untenable and the space between the monastery and the fort a killing ground, i.e. the backyard in our house simile.
Now here’s the true genius of Pt 593: Occupying it could only tangentially affected the Liri Valley. Attackers that captured the monastery but not Pt. 593 could enter and exit the Liri Valley at will, even with the monks still occupying the back corner of the backyard. However, it was to the backyard of the Monastery what the Monastery was to the Liri Valley: As the Monastery made passage in the Valley difficult, Pt 593 made the northwest portion of the Monastery grounds untenable. So naturally, the attackers looked at Pt 593, then looked at the valley, then looked back at Pt 593 and said, “Screw this, I’m not attacking that, I’m done with this place. We need to move onto Rome (or Naples).” And the invaders would invariably move on to Rome or Naples, and leave a token force to keep the monks isolated in the star fort. This was the signal for the monks to make the attackers lives miserable until they either left, or were weakened sufficiently that the monks could burst forth from Pt 593 and slaughter them. In either case, the monks would then reclaim the Abbey, clean up the debris, restock the library, and resume the Rule of St Benedict, at least until someone else wanted to enter or exit the Liri Valley without the Pope’s permission.
In the mid twentieth century, this all changed. Modern engineering, improved and efficient aerial and ground logistics, proper reconnaissance and modern firepower lessened the formidability of the terrain. Snakehead Ridge was still impassable to vehicles and even to mules in some places, but the French in January proved that that was no barrier to a successful assault, if you had prepared properly, conducted a sufficient recce, surprised your enemy, had a touch of élan, and most importantly, threw a ton of soldiers at it.
To deceive the Germans, the Polish II Corps planned to execute the same plan as the Indians and Kiwis before them. But since they had a larger force along the same frontage, they would weigh the attack on Pt 593 from over Snakeshead Ridge, thereby breaking the historic cycle, by taking Pt 593 before the Abbey. As the monks knew, this would make the backyard and NW side of the Abbey untenable, but this time not for the attackers, but for the defenders, the Germans.
The young Polish analyst presented his findings, and the Corps operations officer issued initial reconnaissance guidance to confirm it. Unfortunately, the Poles were not yet in the line at Cassino and moreover, Operation Nunton forbade any patrolling to minimize the risk of capture. But MajGen Wladyslaw Anders, the Polish II Corps’ Commander, was so intrigued with the information that on 5 April 1944, he personally undertook a dangerous low level aerial reconnaissance of the area. Though he was nearly killed for his efforts, he confirmed the analyst’s assessment and issued his commander’s planning guidance accordingly. Disconcertingly, he found that the Germans turned the area around the ruins of the star fort in a hellish maze of mines, wire, interlocking fields of fire, and preregistered artillery. On the other hand, he also saw it was possible, if improbable, to capture Pt 593 from the north and northeast, but only if the attack was properly planned and coordinated. Unlike the Americans, the British, the Indians, and the Kiwis; the Poles’ main objective during the Battle for Monte Cassino would be Point 593, not the Monastery itself.
Gen Harold Alexander, the Allied commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, was exasperated with Gen Mark Clark’s unimaginative and uncoordinated attacks on Monte Cassino, and his failure to capture it despite three attempts and the priority of support in the theatre. Moreover, the landing at Anzio was at a stalemate. It was obvious that the forces at Anzio were not going to come to the rescue of those at Monte Cassino, but those at Monte Cassino needed to break through to come to the aid of those at Anzio. Finally and most importantly, Alexander knew that he would only have one more “go” at Monte Cassino before the priority of men and material went to Operation Overlord, the upcoming invasion of France in May. The fourth battle for Monte Cassino had to succeed or any chance of capturing Rome before autumn, or even winter, would be nonexistent and Germany would be able to shift troops from Italy to resist the invasion of France.
Alexander’s staff produced Operation Diadem, a massive coordinated attack involving all Allied troops in Italy. To gain the necessary mass and concentration, Alexander stopped all operations along the Adriatic coast, and to Clark’s relief, had the British Eighth Army take over the area around Monte Cassino. Alexander then shifted the American 5th Army south west and told Clark to focus on Anzio. The 5th Army units still in the south would nominally be Clark’s but would actually support the Eighth Army whose boundary was extended to the Liri Valley.
Alexander, ever a fan of Lord Horatio Nelson, took to heart Nelson’s quip prior to the Battle of Trafalgar, “Only numbers can annihilate”. He had to do just that in order to prevent the Germans from falling back to the next mountain defensive line and repeating the bloodbath of the last four months. Alexander planned to use entire Allied corps to seize areas that were division objectives in Clark’s operations. The US Second Corps would attack up the Tyrrhenian coast road. French Gen Alphonso Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps would attack over the impassable Aurunnci Mountains that formed the southern shoulder of the Liri Valley. While the British XIII Corps would attack over the northern shoulder. The Canadian I Corps would be in reserve to exploit the breach, and it fell to the 75,000 men and women of the Polish II Corps to seize the Monastery.
An ambitious plan of this size and scope took a month to prepare and required the movement of hundreds of thousands of troops, all of which had to be in secret. On 2 April, 1944, the Allies launched Operation Nunton to deceive the Germans as to the Allies’ preparations over the next five weeks for Diadem. Nunton consisted of thousands of fake radio messages, and dummy vehicle parks and supply depots around Naples in order to convince the Germans that the Allies were planning another amphibious invasion north of Rome. Additionally, Nunton encouraged the Germans to believe that the units to their front were not being reinforced or replaced.
Operation Nunton was wildly successful. The Germans didn’t suspect another assault to open the Liri Valley and had no idea the Allied troops to their front had shifted and were reinforced. For example, Juin’s, 50,000 strong French Expeditionary Corps with their diverse colonial troops and distinctive uniforms had to move from vic Monte Cairo to below the Liri Valley, a distance of 15 miles, and the Germans never suspected a thing. Alexander tripled the number of soldiers in the attack zones for Operation Diadem, set to launch concurrently with Operation Overlord in May.
After the destruction and fortification of the Abbey, the uncoordinated attacks by the 4th Indian Division failed to dislodge the Germans on the Cassino front in mid February. For the next month, cold and rainy weather prohibited any further Allied attempt.
On 15 March 1944, the skies cleared briefly and for three hours, thousands of Allied bombers and artillery pieces turned the area around Monte Cassino into a roiling mass of smoke, dust, fire and debris. The Allies thought that surely no one could have survived. But if there was one lesson the Allies would refuse to learn during the Second World War it was that no matter how devastating and intense the bombardment, there was always some stubborn fool who refused to die, and emerged from the rubble to defend with a vengeance against dumbfounded attackers. As it was at Tarawa, so it would be at Monte Cassino.
Unlike the Second Battle, the Fifth Air Force properly coordinated with Gen Freyburg’s New Zealand Corps. As soon as the bombing ended, Freyburg’s troops hurled themselves toward the monastery and against the dazed German paratroops, with some success. They were assisted by tanks that arrived over a road laboriously cut over the mountain. The Indians captured Castle Hill. The Gurkhas secured Hangman’s Hill (named for the broken cable car cable that hung from a pole on the hill which made it look like a gibbet). The Kiwis captured most of Cassino town, although the center was still in German hands including the railway station, which dominated the entrance to the Liri Valley.
The air bombing however, destroyed any roads and trails and made resupply and further armor support difficult. Furthermore, fire from the abbey and incessant German counterattacks prevented any further gains. The Allied attacks ground to a halt, they were within 250m of the monastery.
After the initial two days, the Third Battle of Monte Cassino could be likened to two punch drunk fighters wearily flailing away at each other. Unfortunately, the Germans landed the last punch before the bell rang. Heavy rains on 23 March convinced both exhausted sides to stop fighting. But the writing was on the wall: the Green Devils of the German 1st Fallschirmjaeger (Parachute) Division were now horribly under strength and there was very little prospect of replacement or relief.
In 1943, the colorful and eccentric British general, Orde Wingate, created his famous “Chindits” for long range deep penetration raids behind Japanese lines in Burma support of Slim’s 14th Army. Not to be outdone, Joseph Stillwell wanted a similar American formation for long range deep penetration raids behind Japanese lines in Burma in support of his Chinese American Army along the Burma/Ledo Road. A call went up throughout the US military for volunteers for a long and dangerous mission in some of the most unhospitable and unforgiving terrain imaginable. 3000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines from across the Pacific and continental US headed to India to train. They were formed into the 5307th Composite unit (Provisional), codename “Galahad”, and were commanded by BG Frank D. Merrill.
They quickly took the nickname,”Merrill’s Marauders”. On 26 February 1944, 2700 marauders departed Ledo on the 1000 mile march through the Himalayan foothills and Burmese jungle to destroy the Japanese logistics hub at Walabum. Like the Chindits, they were to be supplied completely by air. Due to the Japanese counteroffensive into India in March, the two month operation turned into a four month operation. In those four months of living in the jungle, they had five major and dozens of minor engagements with the Japanese, marched over 2000 miles, fought through the height of the monsoon season, and made Japanese operation in northern Burma a living Hell until they finally seized the vital Myitkyina airfield in late May, 1944. But they wouldn’t be pulled off the line until June.
Malaria, typhus, jungle rot, and particularly dysentery took its toll (Because of this, they all had flaps sewn into their pants so they didn’t have to drop their drawers when they needed to defecate). BG Merrill even had to be evacuated for malaria (and a second heart attack) in April. By the time the Marauders returned to Ledo, they had a staggering 95% casualty rate: only 149 of the original 2997 were not killed, wounded, captured, missing or stricken with disease.
Those 149 would go on to form the nucleus of the 475th Infantry Regiment, which of course would be redesignated after the war to the 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger).
By early 1944, Allied submarines, particularly American submarines, were doing to the Japanese what German U Boat captains could only dream of. No cargo ship flying the Rising Sun was safe anywhere in the Pacific. Moreover, American industry was pumping out new ships faster than crews could be trained to man them. There were enough aircraft carriers that fast carrier “strike groups” were raiding islands and shipping all throughout the Central and South Pacific. Inefficiencies in Japanese industry meant they simply could not keep up with the losses, much less innovate and upgrade their current ship types. Finally, their “Outer Defensive Ring” was under siege and penetrated in a few places: The “Japanese Pearl Harbor”, the Truk lagoon in the Caroline Islands, was a beacon for submarines. And most of its ships and port facilities were destroyed in Operation Hailstone, a concerted air and naval attack to destroy shipping there on 16 February. Heeding the lessons of Tarawa, Nimitz made short work of the Japanese garrisons in the Marshall Islands. The Japanese 28th Army was in process of being destroyed in Burma. Australian, Kiwi and American troops under MacArthur were steadily marching across New Guinea. Landings and land based airpower on New Britain, Bougainville and New Georgia had already isolated and neutralized Rabaul, unbeknownst to the soldiers and Marines fighting toward it from Cape Gloucester. And MacArthur wasn’t even attempting to hide preparations for landings along the north coast of New Guinea and in the Admiralty Islands to its northeast. The Japanese had to fall back; Bushido be damned.
As early as September, 1943, the Japanese Imperial Headquarters considered the withdrawal to a smaller perimeter in the Pacific but the admirals did not want to lose face in front of their bitter rivals, the generals of the Imperial Japanese Army. Their new perimeter would start in Burma, where they would hold the line against Slim’s 14th Army, then attack into India and cut the Ledo/Burma road that supplied the Chinese. The rest of the perimeter would extend to Singapore, the strategically and economically important Dutch East Indies, Dutch New Guinea, the Philippines, and finally the Palau, Marianna, and Bonin Islands. There the Allies were to be stopped.
For a few months they discretely “redeployed” capital ships under the guise of preparing for a massive counterattack. By January 1944, they had no choice but to strip the forward bases of anything that could be used. Everything to the south and east of this line was to be abandoned. But the submarine threat and the lack of industrial output meant that there was only room for irreplaceable equipment, not troops. The remaining garrisons were told they would receive no more support and they were on their own. On 22 February 1944, the last convoy left Rabaul, once the most important Japanese base in the South Pacific, taking with it the last of its vital equipment, and never to return.
300,000 isolated Japanese soldiers, sailors and marines were abandoned to their fate, and left to fight or starve to death
In July 1932, Chancellor Franz von Papen dissolved the German parliament, or Reichstag, and called for new elections in November, hoping to reduce the National Socialist majority. As Papen predicted, at the polls on 6 November 1932, Adolf’s Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party lost seats to the Nationalists, and the Social Democrats lost seats to the Communists. The Nazi’s voting bloc of Nationalists, National Socialists, Social Fascists, and Anti-Comintern Social Democrat defectors that elected the Nazi Party to the most seats in the Reichstag in 1931 and 32 was breaking down and had seemingly culminated. However, the Communists, on orders from Moscow, refused to work with the Social Democrats who in turn refused to work with Nazi’s. The National Socialists had by far the most seats, but not enough to form a government. Since no one party in the German parliament could form a majority government President Hindenburg was urged to continue governing through emergency decrees until a new electoral system that included an upper house was devised.
Franz von Papen, the most historically important person you’ve never heard of, had other ideas.
At the end of January, von Papen, formerly of the Catholic Center Party but opportunistically turned Nationalist after they picked up Center Party seats, co-opted the National Socialists to form a government. For seven months Germany lacked a government at the height of the Depression. This alliance gave the Nationalists and National Socialists a slim majority in parliament, but just enough to form a government exclusive of the other parties, and with von Papen the puppetmaster of the upstart Nazis.
Hindenburg, a monarchist, would still be president and Von Papen, as the minority member would be Vice Chancellor. Papen, a nobleman, convinced Hindenburg that the Nazis could be controlled if the low born Hitler was made part of the government. Hitler, a former laborer, starving artist and corporal in the Great War, was thought to be susceptible to manipulation when confronted daily with the problems of governance, and would seek assistance from his political and administrative betters. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor. But Hitler wasn’t interested in sharing power with the Nationalists. One of his first acts was to dissolve the Reichstag and announce a new election in March, an election he was sure would bring majority power to his National Socialists.
However, on the night of 27 February 1933, just a month after Hitler became Chancellor, the German Reichstag building, where the parliament met, caught fire in an obvious arson attempt. Before the Berlin Fire Department could put out the fire, the building was gutted. A member of the Dutch Communist Party, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught at the scene. Hitler, Josef Goebbels his propaganda minister, and Herman Goering, a cabinet minister charged with forming the secret police (the eventual Gestapo) immediately denounced the Communists and declared the attack the first act of a Communist revolution. The next day, President Hindenburg issued the Reichstag Fire Decree to preempt the suspected Communist putsch.
With no parliament, the President had emergency dictatorial powers according to the Weimar Constitution and the Reichstag Fire Decree suspended virtually all civil liberties in Germany. The freedoms of speech, assembly, press, privacy, association and habeas corpus were all suspended indefinitely. The National Socialists immediately mobilized and shut down any newspaper and radio station not friendly to the Nazis. Tens of thousands of Communists and political adversaries were arrested and the Communist party banned in the March election.
After mass voter fraud, suppression, and intimidation stemming from the provisos in Reichstag Fire Decree, the National Socialists won a majority in Reichstag that March. The first act of the new democratically elected majority in the German parliament was to pass the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act was an amendment to the Weimar Constitution which allowed the German cabinet, in effect Hitler himself, to enact laws without consent of the Reichstag. On 23 March 1933, the elderly President Hindenburg signed the Enabling Act into law which made Chancellor Adolf Hitler a legal dictator.
In the space of just two months, the National Socialists, with just a simple majority, went from a powerful, but still minority party, to the majority party with sole lawmaking and executive powers. The Nationalists were intimidated into dissolving their party in June 1933, and all other political parties were banned that November. By the end of 1933, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists had complete control of Germany.
While Hitler and the National Socialists consolidated power, Marinus van der Lubbe and several other Communists were put on trial for the Reichstag Fire. A court in Leipzig determined that van der Lubbe acted alone and he was executed in 1934 for his role in the Reichstag Fire.
Though no definitive “smoking gun” was ever found implicating the National Socialists in the Reichstag fire, a mountain of circumstantial evidence did, most of which was found from captured German documents in the Soviet Archive after the fall of Soviet Communism in 1990. Though we will probably never know exactly what happened, the generally accepted theory is that van der Lubbe, a lifelong unstable pyromaniac who had recently firebombed several buildings, did plan, and maybe even attempted to destroy the Reichstag building. Goering through his spies learned of the plan and Goebbels ordered Ernst Rahm of the SA to carry out a parallel plan. After Rahm’s SA team started the fire and escaped, van der Lubbe was arranged to be in the area (or was even possibly setting his own arson) and picked up as the culprit. His own planning was used as evidence against him. The SA team, and Rahm himself, were killed in The Night of the Long Knives in 1934, erasing any future witnesses of Nazi complicity in the fire.
The invasion of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands finally exposed the Japanese shortfalls in naval and land based aviation to American intelligence officials. Additionally, the increasingly one sided air battles over Rabaul after the invasion of Bougainville proved that the quality of Japanese airpower was in serious decline. To ensure adequate numbers to face the American fighter sweeps over Rabaul, the Japanese were required to “rob Peter to pay Paul” to feed the defense of the South Pacific. Squadrons were transferred from far flung Japanese possessions, including the Gilberts and Marshalls, and sent to Rabaul. The nearly nonexistent Japanese air response to the invasion of Kwajalein convinced Admiral Nimitz to push up the timetable in the Central Pacific, and more specifically the invasion of Eniwetok. However, Eniwetok was within striking distance of the Japanese main naval base in Central Pacific: the Truk Atoll in the Caroline Islands. The “Gibraltar of the Pacific” was essentially a sunken mountain range surrounded by coral reefs and has, by far, the best natural lagoon in the Central Pacific. Its 50 by 30 mile sheltered anchorage has so far in the war allowed the Japanese to strike Pearl Harbor and conduct continuous operations in the South Pacific.
Like Rabaul for Allied planners, Truk was The Lair of the Boogeyman from which All Bad Things Emerged.
Nimitz needed to neutralize Truk. His plan for the Central Pacific involved a future invasion, but the operation to secure the Marshalls meant something had to be done immediately.
By the beginning of 1944, American industry produced enough new aircraft carriers to allow the formation of fast carrier “strike groups”. These strike groups raided Japanese held airfields, anchorages and shipping all throughout the Central and South Pacific. Nimitz formed the largest such strike group so far in the war, Task Force 58 under Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher of five fleet carriers, six light carriers, and seven new fast battleships with accompanying cruisers and destroyers as escorts.
Task Force 58 was a massive force, nearly double the Japanese strength against Pearl Harbor just two years before, but it was still headed for Truk. The idea of willingly sailing aircraft carriers into range of major land based airpower was still alien and unthinkable to most carrier admirals. (The only reason the Japanese did it at Pearl Harbor was because they hadn’t declared war yet. Even at Midway, the main threat was still the island, all the way up until four of their carriers were sunk.) And Truk was the biggest Japanese base outside of Japan. On 15 February when Mitscher announced over the loudspeaker their destination for Operation Hailstone, one of his pilots said, “I nearly jumped overboard.”
However, as early as October 1943, the Japanese recognized they could no longer hold the outer perimeter of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and settled on a smaller more easily defensible perimeter to gather strength for a counter attack. They withdrew most of the capital ships from Truk back to the Palaus, so few of the juicy targets remained. The mighty Yamato and Musashi had spent almost 18 months at Truk and had only recently departed. Nevertheless, the withdrawal to the inner perimeter meant that much of the shipping form the outer bases went to Truk first, a major transit point, before heading west. Mitscher’s raid caught the lagoon without capital ships, but filled with arguably more important transport and cargo ships that the Japanese could ill afford to spare.
On the morning of 17 February 1944, Task Force 58 approached Truk behind a storm front and struck the airfields first just as the Japanese did on the morning of the 7th of December 1941. American surprise was complete. Japanese pilots were mostly on shore leave, but the 90 or so Mitsubishi “Zeros” that went up were promptly shot down. By 1944, the Zero was outclassed in almost every category by the new American Hellfighters and Corsairs, and due to fuel and training shortfalls, American pilots had hundreds of more hours in the air than their Japanese counterparts. By the afternoon, any Japanese air response was non-existent, and the Mitscher’s dive and torpedo bombers attacked Truk’s lagoon and shore facilities with impunity. They only had to worry about a few manually controlled anti-aircraft guns and these were quickly dispatched once they revealed their positions.
Unlike Nagumo’s raid at Pearl Harbor, Mitscher didn’t withdraw after two strikes, but launched 13 separate strikes against Truk. Even Mitscher’s boss, Adm Ray Spruance, wanted to get in on the action. He took tactical command of the battleships New Jersey and Iowa and some escorts to chase down fleeing Japanese ships that managed to escape the lagoon. Only darkness ceased Operation Hailstone.
And it was in the darkness that the Japanese managed to strike back: a single torpedo from a “Kate” night bomber penetrated the screen and struck the carrier Intrepid.
For the loss of about 25 planes, most whose pilots were rescued and about 40 personnel, mostly from the Intrepid, Mitscher sunk five cruisers, four destroyers, and almost forty support, transport and cargo ships, including the all-important fleet oilers, and damaged many more. His fliers either shot down or destroyed on the ground almost 250 planes, and over 4500 Japanese personnel were killed, and twice that number wounded, most of whom could not be evacuated.
The destruction of the Truk anchorage convinced Nimitz that it could be bypassed and that an invasion was unnecessary. In the space of just 12 hours, the mightiest Japanese naval base outside of the home islands went from being the focus of all American operations in the Pacific to a tiny and obscure footnote in most Pacific War history books.