Operation Raid on the Marshall and Gilbert Island Groups

The 'Raid on the Marshall and Gilbert Island Group' took the form of tactical air attacks and naval artillery attacks by US Navy aircraft carrier and other warship forces against the Imperial Japanese navy’s garrisons in the Marshall and Gilbert islands group (1 February 1942).

This was the first of six US raids on Japanese-held territories undertaken during the first half of 1942 as part of the strategy of launching small-scaleattacks to keep the Japanese off balance and to train US carrierborne forces to the required technical and tactical levels.

The Japanese island garrisons were under the overall command of Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, commander of the 4th Fleet, and the Japanese aircraft in the islands belonged to the Imperial Japanese navy’s 24th Air Flotilla under the command of Rear Admiral Eiji Goto. The US warship forces were under the overall command of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey.

The operation was the brainchild of Admiral Ernest J. King, the chief of naval operations, who from 2 January 1942 put strong pressure on Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, to take the initiative rather than use his carrier task forces defensively to cover his main base at Hawaii and the sea lanes to Australia. Captain Charles H. McMorris, the Pacific Fleet’s war plans officer, developed plans for an attack on the Marshall islands group by Vice Admiral Wilson Brown with Task Force 11 (fleet carrier Lexington) on 14 January and on the Gilbert islands group by Halsey with Task Force 8 (fleet carrier Enterprise) on 17 January while Vice Admiral Herbert F. Leary’s Task Force 14 (fleet carrier Saratoga) covered Oahu and Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher’s Task Force 17 (fleet carrier Yorktown) covered a reinforcement convoy to Pago Pago. Still wary of running such risks, Nimitz had McMorris’s plan examined by Vice Admiral William S. Pye, commander of the Battle Force, who recommended that the raids be undertaken after Fletcher had completed his convoy escort task. The plan had to be further reshuffled after Saratoga had been torpedoed and heavily damaged on 11 January 1942.

The plan that was finally adopted called for Halsey to make a daring penetration of the Marshall islands group and launch his aircraft from a point practically within visual range of the north part of Wotje. The bulk of Halsey’s aircraft would strike Kwajalein while Spruance led a cruiser bombardment of Wotje and a third cruiser struck at Maloelap. Farther to the south, Fletcher would simultaneously launch strikes against Jaluit, Mili and Makin in the northern part of the Gilbert islands group. Because intelligence showed the Japanese carriers were moving to the south of Truk island, Brown was assigned to make a preliminary raid on Wake island while the door was ajar. King was anxious for the raids to take place as soon as possible, to be driven home, and the carriers to then rapidly withdraw so that they could prepare to counter the Japanese move south.

Brown’s raid had to be cancelled when his oiler, Neches, was sunk by a submarine on 23 January and no other oiler could be made available on time. However, the other raids went forward. Enterprise and Yorktown both refuelled at 00.00 on 29 January and then made their final approaches during the next day and night, crossing the international date line to reach their launch points early in the morning of 1 February. Halsey’s force was very neatly detected on 31 January when a Japanese snooper was spotted on radar only 30 miles (48 km) distant, but this flying boat failed to detect the force. Thus complete surprise was achieved by both task forces.

Fletcher’s force ran into very poor weather, with overcast and squalls, but he was able to launch 17 Douglas SBD Dauntless single-engined dive-bombers and 11 Douglas TBD Devastator single-engined torpedo bombers against Jaluit and 14 SBD warplanes against Makin and Mili. The Makin attack damaged the 2,900-ton gunboat Nagata Maru and destroyed two seaplanes, while the Mili attack found no worthwhile targets. The Jaluit attack force met very adverse weather and several of the aircraft did not find a target, and the remainder inflicted only light damage on the 8,900-ton transport vessel Kanto Maru. Eight aircraft were lost, but Fletcher’s destroyer screen was able to rescue four men of their crews. Japanese search aircraft soon located Fletcher’s force, although one was shot down within sight of Yorktown, despite the weather, but there was no counterattack. Fletcher was considering lingering another day in hopes that the weather would improve sufficently to make possible another strike against Jaluit when he received a recall order from Halsey.

Halsey had encountered better weather and had accordingly had greater success. Some 15 ships were claimed sunk at Kwajalein and there was extensive damage to shore facilities at Wojte and Maloelap, but the actual tally was three small auxiliar vessels sunk and two old warships and four transports, and 15 destroyed, at the cost of six of Halsey’s fighters, light damage from a bomb hit on the heavy cruiser Chester, and very slight damage to Enterprise from a bomber that barely missed crashing into her flightdeck. Additionally, a floatplane from the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City was damaged during recovery and was abandoned and sunk. Task Forces 8 and 17 retired from the area immediately after completing their raids.

Impressed with the ferocity of the Japanese counter-effort, Halsey decided a speedy withdrawal was in order.

Thus the raids inflicted only moderate damage. However, the raid provided valuable combat experience to the US air groups, bolstered Allied morale, and badly shocked the Japanese. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, quietly pulled the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku to Japan, but the remaining four Japanese fleet carriers continued operations to the south. Nimitz decided that the raids had given him sufficient breathing space to send Saratoga to the US west coast for repairs, and to recall Yorktown and Enterprise to Pearl Harbor to refit and reprovision, both much needed.

The raids had little long-term strategic impact. The Imperial Japanese navy briefly despatched two aircraft carriers to chase Task forces 8 and 17, but quickly abandoned the pursuit and continued their support for the ongoing successful conquests of the Philippines and Netherlands East Indies. On the other side of the balance, however, the raids helped to raise the morale of the US Navy and the US public, both still reeling from the Japanese 'Ai' carrierborne air attack on Pearl Harbor and loss of Wake island. The raids also provided valuable experience in carrier air operations, which bore dividends for the US carrier groups for future combat against the Japanese forces. For their part, the Japanese apparently did not realise that their concept of a perimeter defence, based on dispersed island garrisons, were riven with serious flaws in that the garrisons were too far apart to provide each other with mutual support in the prevention of penetration by US carrier forces. Nevertheless the raids, along with the 'Doolittle Raid' of April 1942, helped convince the Imperial Japanese navy’s most senior officer afloat, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, that he needed to draw the US carriers into battle as soon as possible in order to destroy them. Yamamoto’s plan to do so resulted in 'Mi', otherwise the 'Battle of Midway'.