Shoot First, Ask Questions Later…

Today in History, November 28: 1941 –

Ten days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Task Force built around the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) sailed from Pearl Harbor bound for Wake Island.

In response to a “war warning” the Enterprise had taken aboard a squadron of US Marine F4F Wildcat fighter planes and their pilots, with orders to deliver them to Wake to bolster the island’s defenses.

Once they were at sea, the TF commander, Admiral William F. (Bull) Halsey signed off on Battle Order #1, which put the Enterprise and her supporting Cruisers and Destroyers on a war footing.

The crew began adding armor behind the pilot’s position’s in the ship’s fighters, painting them in combat colors, and arming them for combat.

More than a week before the Japanese attacked, the Enterprise TF had orders to shoot first and ask questions later should they encounter any foreign ships or planes. The CAP (Combat Air Patrol) kept watch overhead.

The Big E would deliver the Marines and return to Pearl on Sunday, December 7. Her scout plane pilots would fly ahead, ending up right in the middle of the air raid. But that’s another story.

But on this date, Admiral Halsey and Captain Murray closed by telling their sailors “Steady nerves and stout hearts are needed now.”

The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

Today in History, June 19, 1944:

Reversal of Fortunes, exhibited by “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”, or the First Battle of the Philippine Sea.

US Marines, supported by their parent service, the US Navy, are invading Saipan and other islands in the Marianas Islands, which is such a threat to Japan that the Imperial Japanese Navy finally comes out to fight a definitive battle.

When the war began the Japanese had the most advanced aircraft available, while the US Navy lagged sorely behind. The Japanese Zero, for example, was much faster and more maneuverable than the American Wildcat fighter. But by 1944 the American industrial complex had engaged fully. As late as 1943 the USS Enterprise stood alone in the Pacific against numerous IJN Carriers.

But by June of 1944 the Americans put to sea 15 Aircraft Carriers in 4 Task Groups equipped with modern aircraft that far out matched Japan’s aircraft, which had not been updated since the war began. In addition, Japan’s air service had lost nearly all of it’s experienced pilots, while the Americans had thousands of combat hardened, well-trained pilots and crews.

When the IJN sent it’s carriers and their crews against TF 58, they were massacred. In two days the Japanese lost over 400 aircraft and their crews, 3 aircraft carriers they could not spare, and the Americans lost 29 aircraft (some of the crews were rescued) and no ships. So many Japanese aircraft fell from the skies that a Lexington pilot referred to it as an old time turkey shoot, and the name stuck.

The air crews of the task force had been launched late in the day on the 20th to attack the Japanese fleet. When they returned, it was well after dark and they began landing their planes in the sea, unable to see the carriers well enough for landings aboard.

With the threat from enemy submarines and aircraft during the war, blackout conditions were the rule. Admiral Marc Mitscher wasn’t going to lose his boys and their planes, however. With his order the fleet lit up, and the planes began landing on fumes.

The Birth of Naval Aviation. Samuel Langley and Theodore Roosevelt Together Again…

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Today in History, March 25: 1898 – Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt (that crazy cowboy) proposes that the Navy investigate the use of a flying machine being researched by Samuel Langley. As a result, congress authorized $50,000 to support Langley’s design. This was nearly a decade before the Wright Brothers accomplished the first manned, powered flight, but many people had been working on the challenge for years. Langley’s, and Roosevelt’s insight was the beginning of US Naval Aviation. Check out this print by R.G. Smith, which portrays the 1st US aircraft carrier, the USS Langley (CV 1), and the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) cruising together. Of course this is inspired imagination…Langley, converted to a sea plane tender, was lost in WWII.

The Langley was converted from the Collier USS Jupiter in 1920. By WWII she had been converted to a seaplane tender, her larger subsequent sisters taking on the aircraft carrier role. Attempting to deliver p-40 fighter planes to Java, on February 27, 1942 she was attacked by Japanese aircraft and damaged so badly she had to be scuttled.

“Before We’re Through With ‘em, the Japanese Language Will be Spoken Only in Hell!” -Adm. William F. Halsey

Today in History, December 8: 1941 –

The US Navy Task Force focused around the USS Enterprise (CV-6) aircraft carrier, short on supplies and fuel, enters Pearl Harbor in the dark of night to re-provision as quickly as possible. Uncertainty reigns; nobody knows if the surprise attack by Japanese aircraft was the precursor to an invasion…

The men of the Task Force are horrified by the destruction they are witnessing; mighty ships they had seen just days before lay smoldering and efforts to rescue untold numbers of their friends trapped in the ships were ongoing. The stench of burning oil and bodies permeates the night air.

The commander of the Task Force, Vice Admiral William Halsey observes the carnage from the bridge of the Enterprise and angrily utters one of what will be many memorable quotes from him during the war, “Before we’re through with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell!”

Today, of course, Japan is one of our closest and most faithful allies. But on December 8, 1941, and for years to come, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and other allied basis left no room for anything but battle.

Moments Which Changed Naval History

Today in History, November 11: 1940 – A History changing event. The British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious launches several obsolete aircraft, “Fairey Swordfish” torpedo aircraft…flying kites, really, in an attack on the Italian Naval Base at Taranto, Italy.

The Harbor was shallow, so the Italians thought they were safe. In this, the first attack by aircraft from a carrier, the Italian navy was devastated, by what many naval officers considered a gimmick…the airplane. On the other side of the world, someone took notice of the successful attack. The Imperial Japanese Navy was encouraged in their plans against Pearl Harbor…also a shallow anchorage considered safe. Naval History was changed…tactics forever adapted by those few British pilots.

Project Habakkuk


Today in History, August 17: 1943 – Project Habakkuk, The First Quebec Conference and Pykrete. During WWII Geoffrey Pyke presented an idea to his superiors in the British military of building an enormous aircraft carrier out of a material he called pykrete, ice mixed with wood pulp, which turned out to be very strong. The ship, had it been built, would weigh in at 2.2 million tons and have space for 150 twin engine aircraft, and would be practically impervious to bombs and torpedoes. Experiments were underway in Canada. On today’s date, the First Quebec Conference (Codename Quadrant) began, involving FDR, Churchill and their military staff. Reportedly, during the conference, Lord Louis Mountbatten brought an ordinary block of ice and a block of pykrete into a meeting room filled with generals and admirals. Without warning he drew his pistol, aimed at the block of ice, and fired. The block shattered. He then aimed at the block of pykrete and fired at it. The bullet did not penetrate, but rather ricocheted, zinging around the room and going through the leg of Admiral Ernest J. King’s trousers. The ships, of course, were never built; not due to the shooting incident, but because other alternatives were more easily available.

The Big E Joins the Navy


Today in History, May 12: 1938 – The USS Enterprise (CV-6) is commissioned into the US Navy. “The Big E” was the second of the Yorktown class of aircraft carriers; both of her sisters would be sunk during WWII. Enterprise won the title of the fightingest ship in the US Navy. Some of her air group flew into the middle of the battle at Pearl Harbor on Dec 7; had she not been delayed by bad weather, she would have been at her moorings there. By the war’s end the Enterprise had 20 Battle Stars, more than any other ship. She was everywhere…