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USS Enterprise : America’s Greatest Warship?

USS Enterprise : America’s Greatest Warship?

The USS Enterprise (CV-6) was a York Town-class aircraft carrier built for the United States Navy during the 1930s. Known as “The Big E”, she was the sixth aircraft carrier of the United States Navy. Launched in 1936 she participated in more major actions of the war against Japan than any other United States ship.

These actions included the attack on Pearl Harbor, 18 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers of her Air Group arrived over the harbor during the attack, seven were shot down with eight airmen killed and two wounded, making her the only American aircraft carrier with men at Pearl Harbor during the attack and the first to sustain casualties during the Pacific War. She was also the first American ship to sink a full-sized enemy warship after the Pacific War had been declared when her aircraft sank the Japanese submarine I-70 on the 10th of December 1941.

Enterprise and the other ships of Task Force 8 departed Pearl Harbor on the 28th of November 1941 to deliver Marine Fighter Squadron 211 to Wake Island nearly 2,500 miles due west.

She was scheduled to return to Hawaii on the 6th of December 1941, but was delayed by the weather, and she was still at sea about 215 nautical miles west of Oahu at dawn on the 7th of December 1941.

Enterprise launched eighteen of her SBDs – the CAG’s aircraft, 13 aircraft from Scouting Squadron Six and four aircraft from Bombing Squadron Six at dawn on the 7th of December to scout an arc extending from the northeast to southeast of the ship, and to land at Ford Island at Pearl Harbor after completing their search routes. As these aircraft arrived in pairs over Pearl Harbor, they were caught between attacking Japanese aircraft and defensive anti-aircraft fire from the ships and shore installations below. Seven SBDs were shot down, either from enemy action or friendly fire, with the loss of eight airmen killed and two wounded. Enterprise received radio messages from Pearl Harbor reporting that the base was under attack, and she was later directed to launch an airstrike based on an inaccurate report of a Japanese carrier southwest of her location.

The strike was launched around 17:00, consisting of six Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter’s, 18 Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers and six SBDs.

Unable to locate any targets, the torpedo and dive bombers returned to Enterprise, but the six fighters were directed to divert to Hickam Field on Oahu. Although word of the planes’ expected arrival had been broadcast to all ships and anti-aircraft units in the area, the appearance of the Wildcats in the night sky over Oahu triggered panic firing, which shot down three of them, killing their pilots, while a fourth aircraft ran out of fuel, forcing the pilot to bail out.

Enterprise pulled into Pearl Harbor for fuel and supplies on the evening of the 8th of December. Vice-Admiral William Halsey Jr., commander of Carrier Division 2, ordered every able-bodied man on board to help rearm and refuel Enterprise, this process normally took 24 hours to complete, but was completed this time within seven hours. She and the other ships of TF 8 sailed early the next morning to patrol against possible additional attacks on the Hawaiian Islands.

Although the group encountered no Japanese surface ships, Enterprise aircraft sank Japanese submarine I-70 on the 10th of December 1941.

During the last two weeks of December 1941, Enterprise and her escorts steamed west of Hawaii to cover the islands while two other carrier groups made a belated attempt to relieve Wake Island. After a brief layover at Pearl Harbor, Enterprise and her group sailed on the 11th of January 1942, protecting convoys that were reinforcing Samoa.

On the 16th of January 1942, a TBD of VT-6, piloted by Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate and enlisted Naval Aviation Pilot Harold F. Dixon, got lost on patrol, ran out of fuel, and ditched. Dixon and his two crewmates, bombardier Anthony J. Pastula and gunner Gene Aldrich, survived for 34 days in a small rubber raft after their food and water were washed overboard, before drifting ashore on the atoll of Pukapuka, where the natives fed them and notified Allied authorities. The three men were then picked up by USS Swan. Dixon was awarded the Navy Cross for

“Extraordinary heroism, exceptional determination, resourcefulness, skilled seamanship, excellent judgment and highest quality of leadership.”

On the 1st of February 1942, Enterprise’s Task Force 8 raided Kwajalein, Wotje, and Maloelap in the Marshall Islands, sinking three Japanese ships, damaging eight, and destroying numerous airplanes and ground facilities. Enterprise received only minor damage in the Japanese counterattack, as TF 8 retired to Pearl Harbor.

The next month, Enterprise, now part of Task Force 16, swept the central Pacific, attacking enemy installations on Wake and Marcus Islands.

After minor alterations and repairs at Pearl Harbor, Enterprise and TF 16 departed on the 8th of April 1942 to rendezvous with her sister ship Hornet and sailed west, escorting Hornet on the mission to launch 16 Army B-25 Mitchells in the “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo. While fighters from Enterprise flew combat air patrol, the B-25s launched on 18 April, and flew undetected the remaining 600 miles to the target. The task force, its presence known to the enemy after a Japanese picket boat radioed a warning, reversed course and returned to Pearl Harbor on the 25th of April.

Five days later, Enterprise sortied toward the South Pacific to reinforce U.S. carriers operating in the Coral Sea. However, the Battle of the Coral Sea was over before Enterprise arrived. With Hornet, she performed a feint towards Nauru and Banaba islands which caused the Japanese to delay Operation RY to seize the two islands, Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor on the 26th of May 1942, and began intensive preparation to meet the expected Japanese thrust at Midway Island.

On the 28th of May, Enterprise departed Pearl Harbor as Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s flagship with orders

A photo taken from the battleship Washington shows an explosion on Enterprise from a bomb-laden kamikaze. The ship’s forward elevator was blown approximately 400 feet (120 m) into the air from the force of the explosion six decks below.
“To hold Midway and inflict maximum damage on the enemy by strong attrition tactics”.

With Enterprise in TF 16 were Hornet, six cruisers, ten destroyers and four oilers. On the 30th of May, Task Force 17 (TF 17), with Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher in Yorktown, left Pearl with two cruisers and six destroyers and rendezvoused with TF 16, as senior officer present, Rear Admiral Fletcher became “Officer in Tactical Command.” Vice Admiral Halsey, the usual commander of TF 16 and senior to both Fletcher and Spruance, was medically ordered to remain in a naval hospital at Pearl Harbor due to stress-induced severe weight loss and severe psoriasis.

The Battle of Midway began on the morning of the 4th of June 1942, when four Japanese carriers, unaware of the presence of U.S. naval forces, launched attacks on Midway Island. Shortly after the first bomb fell on Midway, the first wave of planes 4 B-26B Marauders, 6 TBF-1 Avengers,11 SB2U-3s, 16 SBDs and 15 B-17s from Midway Island attacked unsuccessfully. Several more groups attacked, again failing to damage their targets. Planes from the U.S. carriers attacked next. Enterprise torpedo bombers attacked first, scoring no hits and suffering heavy losses. Soon after, Enterprise dive bombers attacked and disabled the Japanese carriers Kaga and Akagi, leaving them ablaze, while Yorktown aircraft also bombed the Japanese aircraft carrier Sōryū, leaving her burning and dead in the water.

Within an hour, the remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, launched air strikes that crippled Yorktown with three bombs and two torpedoes striking home during two separate attacks. In late afternoon, a mixed squadron of Enterprise and Yorktown bombers, flying from Enterprise, disabled Hiryu, leaving her burning. The following day Enterprise dive bombers alone sank the cruiser Mikuma. While Yorktown and Hammann were the only American ships sunk, TF 16 and TF 17 lost a total of 113 planes. Japanese losses were much higher, four carriers all scuttled, one cruiser and 272 carrier aircraft with many of their highly experienced aircrews.

Despite losses to her aircraft squadrons, Enterprise came through undamaged and returned to Pearl Harbor on the 13th of June 1942.Captain Arthur C. Davis relieved Murray on the 30th of June 1942. After a month of rest and overhaul, Enterprise sailed on the 15th of July 1942 for the South Pacific, where she joined TF 61 to support the amphibious landings in the Solomon Islands on the 8th of August. For the next two weeks, the carrier and her planes guarded seaborne communication lines southwest of the Solomons.

On the 24th of August, a strong Japanese force was discovered some 200 miles north of Guadalcanal, and TF 61 sent planes to the attack.

In the ensuing Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the light carrier Ryūjō was sunk, and the Japanese troops intended for Guadalcanal were forced back. Enterprise suffered most heavily of the American ships with three direct bomb hits and four near misses and 74 dead, 95 wounded, and inflicted serious damage on the carrier. Quick, hard work by damage control parties patched her up so that she was able to return to Hawaii under her own power. See our piece: Battle of the Eastern Solomons : 23–25 August 1942

She was repaired at Pearl Harbor from the 10th of September–16th of October 1942, Enterprise embarked Air Group 10 in early October. She departed once more for the South Pacific, where with USS Hornet she formed TF 61. Five days later, Enterprise scout planes located a Japanese carrier force and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands was under way. Enterprise aircraft struck carriers and cruisers during the struggle, while the ship herself underwent intensive attack. Hit twice by bombs, Enterprise lost 44 men and had 75 wounded.

Near hit during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942

Despite serious damage, she remained in action and took on board a large number of planes and crewmen from Hornet when that carrier was sunk.

VT-6 TBDs on USS Enterprise during the Battle of Midway

Though the American losses of a carrier and a destroyer were more severe than the Japanese loss of one light cruiser, the battle gave the Americans time to reinforce Guadalcanal against the next enemy onslaught, and nearby Henderson Field was therefore secure from the Japanese bombardment. The loss of Hornet meant Enterprise was now the only functioning U.S. carrier in the Pacific Theater although damaged. On one of the decks, the crew posted a sign:

“Enterprise vs Japan.”

Enterprise reached Nouméa, New Caledonia on the 30th of October for repairs, but a new Japanese thrust at the Solomons demanded her presence and she sailed on the 11th of November, with repair crews from Vestal still working on board. Part of the repair crew were 75 Seabees from Company B of the 3rd Construction Battalion. This was due to a shortage of fleet repair resources. Underway with orders to engage the enemy, the Seabees focused on effecting repairs even during the forthcoming battle. The work was under the round-the-clock supervision of Enterprise’s damage control officer Lt. Cmdr. Herschel Albert Smith.

The commanding officer of Enterprise, Captain Osborne Bennett “Ozzie B” “Oby” Hardison notified the Navy Department that

“the emergency repairs accomplished by this skillful, well-trained, and enthusiastically energetic force have placed this vessel in condition for further action against the enemy.”

This remarkable job later won the praise of Vice Admiral William Halsey, Jr., Commander South Pacific Area and the South Pacific Force, who sent a dispatch to the OIC of the Seabee detachment stating,

“Your commander wishes to express to you and the men of the Construction Battalion serving under you his appreciation for the services rendered by you in effecting emergency repairs during action against the enemy. The repairs were completed by these men with speed and efficiency. I hereby commend them for their willingness, zeal, and capability.”

On the 13th of November, aviators from Enterprise helped to sink the Hiei, the first Japanese battleship lost during the war.

When the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal ended on the 15th of November 1942, Enterprise had shared in sinking sixteen ships and damaging eight more.

The carrier returned to Nouméa on the 16th of November to complete her repairs.On the 28th of January 1943 she departed for the Solomons area. On the 30th of January, her fighters flew combat air patrol for a cruiser, destroyer group during the Battle of Rennell Island. Despite the destruction of most of the attacking Japanese bombers by Enterprise planes, the heavy cruiser Chicago was sunk by aerial torpedoes.Detached after the battle, the carrier arrived at Espiritu Santo on the 1st of February, and for the next three months operated out of that base, covering U.S. surface forces up to the Solomons. Enterprise then steamed to Pearl Harbor where, on the 27th of May 1943, Admiral Chester Nimitz presented the ship with the first Presidential Unit citation awarded to an aircraft carrier.

In the summer of 1943, with the new Essex-class and Independence-class carriers joining the American Pacific Fleet, Enterprise was temporarily relieved of duty, and on the 20th of July, she entered Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for a much-needed overhaul. Over the course of several months, Enterprise received an extensive refit, which included, among other upgrades, new anti-aircraft weapons and an anti-torpedo blister that significantly improved her underwater protection. This mid-war refit is where she would receive her two iconic “6”s on her flight decks.

She was back at Pearl Harbor on the 6th of November, Enterprise left four days later to provide close air support to the 27th Infantry Division landing on Makin Atoll, during the Battle of Makin, from the 19–21st of November 1943. On the night of the 26th of November, Enterprise introduced carrier-based night fighters to the Pacific when a three-plane team from the ship broke up a large group of land-based bombers attacking TG 50.2. Two of the three planes returned to the ship, with only one casualty. After a heavy strike by aircraft of TF 50 against Kwajalein on the 4th of December, Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor five days later.

En route to attack Makin Island on 10 November 1943, this Grumman F6F Hellcat (VF-2) crash landed on Enterprise‘s flight deck.

The carrier’s next operation was with the Fast Carrier Task Force in softening up the Marshall Islands and supporting the landings on Kwajalein, from the 29th of January-3rd of February 1944. Then, Enterprise sailed, still with TF 58, to strike the Japanese naval base at Truk Lagoon in the Caroline Islands, on the 17th of February.

Again, Enterprise made aviation history, when she launched the first night radar bombing attack from a U.S. carrier. The twelve torpedo bombers in this strike achieved excellent results, accounting for nearly one-third of the 200,000 tons of shipping destroyed by aircraft.

Enterprise on the right with the Fifth Fleet at Majuro, 1944.

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Detached from TF 58 with escorts, Enterprise launched raids on Jaluit Atoll on the 20th of February, then steamed to Majuro and Espiritu Santo. Sailing on the 15th of March in TG 36.1, she provided air cover and close support for the landings on Emirau Island on the 19–25 March. The carrier rejoined TF 58 on 26 March, and for the next 12 days, joined in a series of strikes against the islands of Yap, Ulithi, Woleai, and Palau. After a week’s rest and replenishment at Majuro, Enterprise sailed on the 14th of April to support landings in the Hollandia area of New Guinea, and then hit Truk again from the 29–30 April.

On the 6th of June 1944, she and her companions of TG 58.3 sortied from Majuro to join the rest of TF 58 in attacking the Marianas Islands. Striking Saipan, Rota, and Guam from 11–14 June, Enterprise pilots gave direct support to the landings on Saipan on the 15th of June and covered the troops ashore for the next two days. Aware of a major Japanese attempt to break up the invasion of Saipan, Admiral Spruance, now Commander 5th Fleet, positioned TF 58 to meet the threat.

USS Enterprise in 1939

On the 19th of June 1944, Enterprise was one of four carriers of Task Group 58.3 under the command of Rear Admiral John W. Reeves’ during the largest carrier aircraft battle in history, the Battle of the Philippine Sea. For over eight hours, airmen of the United States and Imperial Japanese navies fought in the skies over TF 58 and the Marianas. Over the course of two days, a total of six American ships were damaged, and 130 planes and a total of 76 pilots and aircrew were lost. In sharp contrast, American carrier aircraft, with a major assist from U.S. submarines, sank three Japanese carriers the Hiyō, Shōkaku, and Taihō, and destroyed 426 carrier aircraft, losses from which Japanese Navy would never recover.Enterprise participated both in the defense of the fleet and in the subsequent early evening strike against the Japanese task forces.

During the chaotic after-dark recovery of the air strike, a fighter and a bomber came aboard simultaneously, but fortunately did not cause an accident. A planned midnight strike against the Japanese fleet by night-flying Enterprise pilots was cancelled because of the recovery and rescue operations required after the dusk attack. After the battle, Enterprise and her Task Group continued to provide air support for the invasion of Saipan through the 5th of July. She then sailed for Pearl Harbor and a month of rest and overhaul, during which she was painted in Measure 33/4Ab Dazzle camouflage.

Enterprise and Washington pass through the Panama Canal en route to New York in October 1945

She was back in action on the 24th of August, the carrier sailed with TF 38 in that force’s aerial assault on the Volcano and Bonin Islands from the 31st August – 2nd of September, and Yap, Ulithi, and the Palaus from 6–8 September. After operating west of the Palau Islands, Enterprise joined other units of TF 38 on the 7th of October and set course to the north. From the 10–20 October, her aviators flew over Okinawa, Formosa, and the Philippines, destroying enemy airfields, shore installations, and shipping in preparation for the assault on Leyte.

After supporting the Leyte landings on 20 October, Enterprise headed for Ulithi to replenish, but the approach of the Japanese fleet on 23 October called her back to action. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf on the 23–26 October, Enterprise planes struck all three groups of enemy forces, battering battleships and destroyers before the action ended.

The carrier remained on patrol east of Samar and Leyte until the end of October, then retired to Ulithi for supplies. During November, her aircraft struck targets in the Manila area, and at the island of Yap. She returned to Pearl Harbor on the 6th of December 1944. Sailing on the 24th of December for the Philippines, Enterprise carried an air group specially trained in night carrier operations; as the only carrier capable of night operations, she left Oahu with her hull code changed from CV to CV(N) with the “N” representing “Night”. She joined TG 38.5 and swept the waters north of Luzon and of the South China Sea during January 1945, striking shore targets and shipping from Formosa to Indo-China including an attack on Macau.

GIs in the hangar bay of Enterprise in 1945

After a brief visit to Ulithi, Enterprise joined TG 58.5 on the 10th of February 1945, and provided day and night combat air patrol for TF 58 as it struck Tokyo on the 16–17 February.She then supported the Marines in the Battle of Iwo Jima from the 19 February – 9 March, when she sailed for Ulithi. During one part of that period, Enterprise kept aircraft aloft continuously over Iwo Jima for 174 hours.

Departing Ulithi on the 15th of March, the carrier continued her night work in raids against Kyūshū, Honshū, and shipping in the Inland Sea of Japan.

Damaged lightly by an enemy bomb on the 18th of March, Enterprise entered Ulithi six days later for repairs. Back in action on the 5th of April, she supported the Okinawa operation until she was damaged on the 11th of April by a kamikaze and was forced back to Ulithi. Off Okinawa once more on 6 May, Enterprise flew patrols around the clock as kamikaze attacks increased. On the 14th of May 1945, she suffered her last wound of World War II when a kamikaze Zero, piloted by Lt. J.G. Shunsuke Tomiyasu, destroyed her forward elevator, killing 13 and wounding 68.

The carrier sailed for and was fully repaired at the Puget Sound Navy she was off the Strait of Juan de Fuca when the Nagasaki bombing ended the war on 9 August 1945. She would go on to be decommissioned in 1947 and scrapped in 1958.

Enterprise awaiting disposal at the New York Naval Shipyard on 22 June 1958; the recently launched Independence is fitting-out on the opposite pier face

USS Enterprise : America’s Greatest Warship? by Harry Gillespie

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The stern plate of USS Enterprise located in River Vale, New Jersey.

USS Enterprise : America’s Greatest Warship?