By Walter J. (Deptula) Drew
This was Air Group Nine's second invasion and occupation of Japanese-held
islands. Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher boarded Yorktown (CV-10) on 13 January
1944 as the new commander of Task Force 58, which was composed of four task
groups. Essex (CV-9) was in Task Force 58.2. The task force would soon put
to sea with a total of twelve fleet carriers (six CV's and six CVL's) and
eight escort carriers. Escorting this enormously powerful strike force were
eight new battleships, six cruisers, 36 destroyers, plus associated service
vessels. The carriers alone were capable of launching over 750 combat aircraft.
Rear Admiral Alfred E. Montgomery, Commander TG58.2, had his flag in Essex.
On 21 February there began the usual horseplay and totally ridiculous and
most degrading Navy antics associated with crossing the International Date
Line and the equator. It was the initiation of the first-timers into King
Neptune's Realm and went on most of the day into the afternoon. But now the
task force was approaching the Marshalls and play was over. Some very serious
business was at hand.
This invasion was code-named "Operation Flintlock". Kwajalein is the world's
largest atoll. It is a flattened ring of about 100 islets some 70 miles long
and 15-20 miles wide, lying in a mostly east-west direction.
Landings of the Army (7th Infantry Division) and Marines (4th Marine Division)
would be on two connected islets to the north -- Kwajalein Island (Army)
and Roi-Namur (Marines). The Japanese had built air strips on both. The atoll
was defended by about 8700 enemy troops. Undefended Majuro, 250 miles southeast
of Kwajalein, was occupied on 31 January and the Marines assaulted Roi-Namur
on the same day. Pilot LTJG Richard B. Zentmeyer; Radioman Herbert C. (Andy)
Anderson; and myself, Turret Gunner Walter J. Deptula, flew a number of flights
to soften the island up prior to the Marines' landing. Most of these flights
were over Roi-Namur. We virtually destroyed everything on the islands and
had trouble finding more targets to bomb.
At 0567 Essex launched her first strike of nineteen F6F Hellcats and six
TBF Avengers. There would be no repeat of Tarawa at Kwajalein; the enemy
and everything he owned on the atoll would be utterly destroyed and there
was nothing he could do about it.
It took the Army four days to secure Kwajalein Island and neighboring islands.
Of the 8700 enemy soldiers on the atoll, 90 percent were killed. The Marines
and Army lost 372 of the 41,000 that landed.
During the five-day operation Essex lost two VF-9 pilots -- Stephen Wright
and John Benton, and Torpedo Squadron Nine lost LTJG Frederick H Fox, Joseph
J. Karney ARM3/C, and Kenneth J. Lock AMM2/C. Their TBF was lost on take-off
when embarking on an anti-submarine patrol. The depth bombs exploded upon
hitting the water, killing all aboard.