There would be no leave for the tired crews of Task Force 58. On 17
February 1944, part of the force headed west and north to the Eniwetok area,
then on to the Mariana Islands, a 700 mile distance, and toward what was
believed to be major Japanese installations on Saipan, Rota, Tinian, and
Guam. The Yorktown and Belleau Wood were with Essex in TG58.2, and the big-gun
escorts of the Essex group were the battle ships Alabama and South Dakota.
The Marines were scheduled to assault these islands beginning in June and
very little was known about their defenses - no American plane had flown
over Saipan or Tinian since Guam fell to the Japanese on 10 December 1941.
This raid would test those defenses.
On the evening of 21 February, the two task forces were spotted by an
enemy patrol plane and the group's position was reported. By midnight, enemy
Betty Bombers had reached the force from their Mariana bases some 200 miles
away and launched an attack that would last three hours. Not a single bomber
was able to penetrate the screen surrounding the carriers; about a dozen
met a fiery end. At 0530 on 22 February the enemy attacks began again but
only by a few planes. A major attack was expected when the February sun rose,
about 0830. The enemy attack was right on schedule as Essex sent off its
first bombing strike toward Saipan, 120 miles westward - 11 fighters, 14
dive bombers, and 8 torpedo planes.
Then enemy Bettys, Vals, Nicks, and Tonys started their runs on the
task groups as more Essex Hellcats, Dauntlesses, and Avengers were raised
to the flight deck -- engines running and warm -- for the second launch to
Saipan. All other carriers were launching at the same time. As the second
launch was awaiting the take-off signal, a few enemy bombers and torpedo-laden
planes penetrated the screen and headed for the carriers. The Essex's deck
was now jammed with planes, fully loaded with crews, fuel, and bombs. It
was a situation of potential disaster but by 1000 hours, the attacks ended
with all of these attackers flamed and splashed.
The weather was murky and rainy over Saipan as the fighters of the first
strike mauled some small boats west of the island. Other planes hit airfields
on Saipan and adjacent Tinian, leaving flaming rows of neatly parked airplanes
on both islands. The Japanese had not yet learned to drain the fuel from
parked planes. A second strike in the afternoon finished off more parked
planes and ground facilities.
During the attack of Saipan, Essex lost one fighter pilot and one VT-9
TBF Avenger. LTJG Clark R Williams of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Paul T. Garrison
ARM 2/C, and Eugene L. Keller, AMM 1/C were shot down. The crew was seen
getting into the life raft and, to keep them from being captured, the VF-9
pilots kept strafing the Japanese until they were low on ammunition and fuel
and had to return to the Essex. While they were gone, the Japanese captured
all three crewmen. We later learned that LTJG Williams had been taken prisoner
and returned to Japan. His ultimate fate is unknown. Garrison and Keller
were captured and executed.
The stay at Majuro was brief -- only 48 hours -- just enough time to
refuel and replenish the Essex food stores, then set a course for Hawaii
and the United States. Essex was going home in need of repairs and equipment
upgrades. Her crew, of course, was delirious with joy. The veteran carrier
arrived in San Francisco on 10 March after a two-day stop at Pearl
The Three Amigos
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