Operation Turnover

This was the US occupation of Baker island in the Phoenix islands group (11 August 1943).

Part of the Ellice islands group, Baker and Howland islands lie some 400 miles (645 km) to the north-east of the main group. Both are thus some 480 miles (770 km) due east of the Gilbert islands group. With an area of 0.81 sq mile (2.1 km˛), Baker island is smaller than Howland island, which has an area of 1.7 sq miles (4.5 km˛), but in World War II was more important in military terms, and lies some 30 miles (48 km) to the south-east of the latter.

Baker island is round and flat, with a maximum height of 26 ft (8 m) at its western end, and is surrounded by a reef. The island is shaped somewhat like a shallow saucer, and is only sparsely vegetated.

The Japanese believed that there was an operational airfield on Baker island and planned to attack it during the ‘Ai’ operation against Pearl Harbor, but did not do so. Baker island in fact possessed the area for an airstrip, but in 1941 the island’s only facility was a lighthouse and a small radio repeater station. After the Japanese seizure of the Gilbert islands group early in 1942, the station was judged to be very exposed and was evacuated.

Baker island was later bombed by US aircraft to prevent its possible use by the Japanese, and the Japanese later did exactly the same thing to deny its use to the US forces.

On 1 September 1943 Baker island was occupied by a US engineer battalion and other base forces, including anti-aircraft units, in conjunction with the ‘Philistine’ and ‘Picaroon’ occupations of Nanomea and Nukufetau atolls in the Ellice islands group. The island is surrounded by deep water, has no anchorage worthy of the name, and the current runs parallel to the lee shore, making a landing very difficult. Ashland, the US Navy’s first dock landing ship, was used in this operation, and had a disappointing start to its operational career debut as the mechanised landing craft it was carrying had to be hoisted out by crane and not via the floodable docking well. More than half of the LCMs were then lost in the heavy seas.

The airfield had been completed by 11 September, but by January 1944, the central Pacific offensive of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s Pacific Ocean Areas had moved forward and the airfield was abandoned.

A small island, little more than a sandbar 2 miles (3.2 km) long, Howland island is located just to the north of Baker island, and is also shaped like a shallow saucer, with its highest point, only 10 ft (3 m) above the sea, on the western rim. The island is heavily vegetated.

An airstrip some 2,400 ft (730 m) long had been built on this tiny island during 1937 to provide a refuelling stop between New Guinea and the Hawaiian islands group for the aeroplane in which Amelia Earhart and Frederick Noonan were attempting a round-the-world flight but, on 2 July and en route to Howland island, the aeroplane and its two occupants disappeared.

The island also had a lighthouse on its western rim, and was heavily bombed by the Japanese on 8 December 1941 and subsequently shelled by Japanese warships, destroying its meagre facilities. The island was evacuated in January 1941, then reoccupied by a small force of US Marines on 11 August 1943. By September the airstrip had been put in good repair, but saw little operational use.