USS Wasp CV-18 (later CVA-18 and CVS-18)
The ninth Wasp (CV-18) was laid down as Oriskany on 18 March 1942 at Quincy, Mass., by the Bethlehem Steel Co.; renamed Wasp on 13 November 1942; launched on 17 August 1943; sponsored by Miss Julia M. Walsh, the sister of Senator David I. Walsh of Massachusetts; and commissioned on 24 November 1943, Capt. Clifton A. F. Sprague in command.
Following a shakedown cruise which lasted through the end of 1943, Wasp returned to Boston for a brief yard period to correct minor flaws which had been discovered during her time at sea. On 10 January 1944, the new aircraft carrier departed Boston; steamed to Hampton Roads, Va.; and remained there until the la;;t day of the month, when she sailed for Trinidad, her base of operations through 22 February. She returned to Boston five days later and prepared for service in the Pacific. Early in March, the ship sailed south; transited the Panama Canal; arrived at San Diego, Calif., on 21 March; and reached Pearl Harbor on 4 April.
Following training exercises in Hawaiian waters, Wasp steamed to the Marshall Islands and at Majuro Rear Admiral Alfred E. Montgomery's newly formed Task Group (TG) 58.6 of Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's Fast Carrier Task Force (TF 58). On 14 May, she and her sister carriers of TG 58.6, Essex (CV-9) and San Jacinto (CV-30), sortied for raids on Marcus and Wake Islands to give the new task group combat experience; to test a recently devised system of assigning—before takeoff—each pilot a specific target; and to neutralize those islands for the forthcoming Marianas campaign. As the force neared Marcus, it split, sending San Jacinto north to search for Japanese picket boats while Wasp and Essex launched strikes on the 19th and 20th, aimed at installations on the island. American planes encountered heavy antiaircraft fire but still managed to do enough damage to prevent Japanese forces on the island from interfering with the impending assault on Saipan.
When weather canceled launches planned for the 21st, the two carriers rejoined San Jacinto and steamed to Wake. Planes from all three carriers pounded that island on the 24th and were sufficiently effective to neutralize that base. However, the system of preselecting targets for each plane fell short of the Navy's expectations; and, thereafter, tactical air commanders resumed responsibility for directing the attacks of their planes.
After the strike on Wake, TG 58.6 returned to Majuro to prepare for the Mariana campaign. On 6 June, Wasp-—reassigned to TG 58.2 which was also commanded by Rear Admiral Montgomery—sortied for the invasion of Saipan. During the afternoon of the 11th, she and her sister carriers launched fighters for strikes against Japanese air bases on Saipan and Tinian. They were challenged by some 30 land-based fighters which they promptly shot down. Antiaircraft fire was heavy, but the American planes braved it as they went on to destroy many Japanese aircraft which were still on the ground.
During the next three days, the American fighters— now joined by bombers—pounded installations on Saipan to soften up Japanese defenses for American assault troops who would go ashore on the 15th. That day and thereafter until the morning of the 17th, planes from TG 58.2 and TG 58.3 provided close air support for marines fighting on the Saipan beachhead.
The fast carriers of those task groups then turned over to escort carriers responsibility for providing air support for the American ground forces, refueled, and steamed to rendezvous with TG 58.1 and 58.4 which were returning from strikes against Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima to prevent Japanese air bases on those islands from being used to launch attacks against American forces on or near Saipan.
Meanwhile, Japan—determined to defend Saipan, no matter how high the cost—was sending Admiral Jisa-buro Ozawa's powerful First Mobile Fleet from the Sulu Islands to the Marianas to sink the warships of Admiral Spruance's 5th Fleet and to annihilate the American troops who had fought their way ashore on Saipan. Soon after the Japanese task force sortied from Tawi Tawi on the morning of 13 June, American submarine Redfin (SS-272) spotted and reported it. Other submarines—which from time to time made contact with Ozawa's warships—kept Spruance posted on their progress as they wended their way through the Philippine Islands, transited San Bernardino Strait, and entered the Philippine Sea.
All day on the 18th, each force sent out scout planes in an effort to locate its adversary. Because of their greater range, the Japanese aircraft managed to obtain some knowledge of Spruance's ships, but American scout planes were unable to find Ozawa's force. Early the following morning, 19 June, aircraft from Mitscher's carriers headed for Guam to neutralize that island for the coming battle and, in a series of dogfights, destroyed many Japanese land-based planes.
During the morning, carriers from Ozawa's fleet launched four massive raids against their American counterparts; but all were thwarted almost completely. Nearly all of the Japanese warplanes were shot down while failing to sink a single American ship. They did manage to score a single bomb hit on South Dakota (BB-57), but that solitary success did not even put the tough Yankee battleship out of action.
That day, Mitscher's planes did not find the Japanese ships, but American submarines succeeded in sending two enemy carriers to the bottom. In the evening, three of Mitscher's four carrier task groups headed west in search of Ozawa's retiring fleet, leaving only TG 58.4 and a gun line of old battleships in the immediate vicinity of the Marianas to cover ground forces on Saipan. Planes from the American carriers failed to find the Japanese force until mid-afternoon on the 20th when an Avenger pilot reported spotting Ozawa almost 300 miles from the American carriers. Mitscher daringly ordered an all-out strike even though he knew that night would descend before his planes could return.
Over two hours later, the American aviators caught up with their quarry. They damaged two oilers so severely that they had to be scuttled; sank carrier Hiyo; and scored damaging but non-lethal hits on carriers Ryuho, Junyo, and Zuikaku and several other Japanese ships. However, during the sunset attack, the fuel gauges in many of the American planes registered half empty or more, presaging an anxious flight back to their now distant carriers.
When the carriers spotted the first returning plane at 2030 that night, Rear Admiral J. J. Clark bravely defied the menace of Japanese submarines by ordering all lights to be turned on to guide the weary fliers home.
After a plane from Hornet landed on Lexington, Mitscher gave pilots permission to land on any available deck. Despite these unusual efforts to help the Navy's airmen, a good many planes ran out of gasoline before they reached the carriers and dropped into the water.
When fuel calculations indicated that no aircraft which had not returned could still be aloft, Mitscher ordered the carriers to reverse course and resume the stern chase of Ozawa's surviving ships—more in the hope of finding any downed fliers who might still be alive and pulling them from the sea than in the expectation of overtaking Japan's First Mobile Fleet before it reached the protection of the Emperor's land-based planes. During the chase, Mitcher's ships picked up 36 pilots and 26 crewmen.
At mid-morning of the 21st, Admiral Spruance detached Wasp and Bunker Hill from their task group and sent them with Admiral Lee's battleships in Ozawa's wake to locate and destroy any crippled enemy ships. The ensuing two-day hunt failed to flush out any game, so this ad hoc force headed toward Eniwetok for replenishment and well-earned rest.
The respite was brief; for, on 30 June, Wasp sortied in TG 58.2—with TG 58.1—for strikes at Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima. Planes from the carriers pounded those islands on 3 and 4 July and, during the raids, destroyed 75 enemy aircraft, for the most part in the air. Then, as a grand finale, cruisers from the force's screen shelled Iwo Jima for two and one-half hours. The next day, 5 July, the two task groups returned to the Marianas and attacked Guam and Rota to begin more than a fortnight's effort to soften the Japanese defenses there in preparation for landings on Guam. Planes from Wasp and her sister carriers provided close air support for the marines and soldiers who stormed ashore on the 21st.
The next day, Wasp's task group, TG 58.2, sortied with two other groups of Mitscher's carriers, headed southwest toward the Western Carolines, and launched raids against the Palaus on the 25th. The force then parted, with TG 58.1 and TG 58.3 steaming back north for further raids to keep the Benin and Volcano Islands neutralized while Wasp in TG 58.2 was retiring toward the Marshalls for replenishment at Eniwetok which she reached on 2 August.
Toward the end of Wasp's stay at that base, Admiral Halsey relieved Admiral Spruance on 26 August and the 5th Fleet became the 3d Fleet. Two days later, the Fast Carrier Task Force—redesignated TF 38—sortied for the Palaus. On 6 September, Wasp—now assigned to Vice Admiral John S. McCain's TG 38.1—began three days of raids on the Palaus. On the 9th, she headed—with her task group, TG 38.2, and TG 38.3—for the southern Philippines to neutralize air power there during the American conquest of Morotai, Peleliu, and Ulithi—three islands needed as advanced bases during the impending campaign to liberate the Philippines. Planes from these carriers encountered little resistance as they lashed Mindanao airfields that day and on the 10th. Raids against the Visayan Islands on the 12th and 13th were carried out with impunity and were equally successful. Learning of the lack of Japanese air defenses in the southern Philippines enabled Allied strategists to cancel an invasion of Mindanao which had been scheduled to begin on 15 November. Instead, Allied forces could go straight to Leyte and advance the recapture of Philippine soil by almost a month.
D day in the Palaus, 15 September, found Wasp's TG 38.1 some 50 miles off Morotai, launching air strikes. It then returned to the Philippines for revisits to Mindanao and the Visayas before retiring to the Admiralties on 29 September for replenishment at Manus in preparation for the liberation of the Philippines.
Ready to resume battle, she got underway again on 4 October and steamed to the Philippine Sea where TF 38 reassembled at twilight on the evening of 7 October, some 375 miles west of the Marianas. Its mission was to neutralize airbases within operational air distance of the Philippines to keep Japanese warplanes out of the air during the American landings on Leyte scheduled to begin on 20 October. The carriers steamed north to rendezvous with a group of nine oilers and spent the next day, 8 October, refueling. They then followed a generally northwesterly course toward the Ryukyus until the 10th when their planes raided Okinawa, Amami, and Miyaki. That day, TF 38 planes destroyed a Japanese submarine tender, 12 sampans, and over 100 planes. But for Lt. Col. Doolittle's Tokyo raid from Hornet (CV-8) on 18 April 1942 and the daring war patrols of Pacific Fleet submarines, this carrier foray was the United States Navy's closest approach to the Japanese home islands up to that point in the war.
Beginning on the 12th, Formosa—next on the agenda —received three days of unwelcome attention from TF 38 planes. In response, the Japanese Navy made an all-out effort to protect that strategic island, even though doing so meant denuding its remaining carriers of aircraft. Yet, the attempt to thwart the ever advancing American Pacific Fleet was futile. At the end of a three-day air battle, Japan had lost more than 500 planes and 20-odd freighters. Many other merchant ships were damaged as were hangars, barracks, warehouses, industrial plants, and ammunition dumps. However, the victory was costly to the United States Navy, for TF 38 lost 79 planes and 64 pilots and air crewmen, while cruisers Canberra and Houston and carrier Franklin received damaging, but non-lethal, bomb hits.
From Formosa, TF 38 shifted its attention to the Philippines. After steaming to waters east of Luzon, Wasp's TG 58.1 began to launch strikes against that island on the 18th and continued the attack the following day, hitting Manila for the first time since it was occupied by the Japanese early in the war.
On the 20th, the day the first American troops waded ashore on Leyte, Wasp had moved south to the station off that island whence she and her sister carriers launched some planes for close air support missions to assist MacArthur's soldiers, while sending other aircraft to destroy airfields on Mindanao, Cebu, Negros, Panay, and Leyte. Task Group 38.1 refueled the following day and, on the 22d, set a course for Ulithi to rearm and provision.
While McCain's carriers were steaming away from the Philippines, great events were taking place in the waters of that archipelago. Admiral Soemu Toyoda, the Commander in Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, activated plan Sho-Go-1, a scheme for bringing about a decisive naval action off Leyte. The Japanese strategy called for Ozawa's carriers to act as a decoy to lure TF 38 north of Luzon and away from the Leyte beachhead. Then—with the American fast carriers out of the way—heavy Japanese surface ships were to debouch into Leyte Gulf from two directions: from the south through Surigao Strait and from the north through San Bernardino Strait. During much of the 24th, planes from Halsey's carrier task groups still in Philippine waters pounded Admiral Kurita's powerful Force "A," or Center Force, as it steamed across the Sibuyan Sea toward San Bernardino Strait. When darkness stopped their attack, the American aircraft had sunk superbattleship Musashi and had damaged several other Japanese warships. Moreover, Halsey's pilots reported that Kurita's force had reversed course and was moving away from San Bernardino Strait.
That night, Admiral Nishimura's Force "C", or Sourthern Force, attempted to transit Surigao Strait but met a line of old battleships commanded by Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf. The venerable American men-of-war crossed Nishimura's "T" and all but annihilated his force. Admiral Shima—who was following in Nishimura's wake to lend support—realized that disaster had struck and wisely withdrew.
Meanwhile, late in the afternoon of the 24th—after Kurita's Center Force had turned away from San Bernardino Strait in apparent retreat—Halsey's scout planes finally located Ozawa's carriers a bit under 200 miles north of TF 38. This intelligence prompted Halsey to head north toward Ozawa with his Fast Carrier Task Force. However, at this point, he did not recall McCain's TG 58.1 but allowed it to continue steaming toward Ulithi.
After dark, Kurita's Center Force again reversed course and once more headed for San Bernardino Strait. About half an hour past midnight, it transited that narrow passage; turned to starboard; and steamed south, down the east coast of Samar. Since Halsey had dashed north in pursuit of Ozawa's carriers, only three 7th Fleet escort carrier groups and their destroyer and destoyer escort screens were available to challenge Kurita's mighty battleships and heavy cruisers and to protect the American amphibious ships which were supporting the troops fighting on Leyte.
Remembered by their call names, "Taffy 1," "Taffy 2," and "Taffy 3," these three American escort-carrier groups were deployed along Samar's east coast with "Taffy 3"—commanded by Wasp's first captain, Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague—in the northernmost position, about 40 miles off Paninihian Point. "Taffy 2" was covering Leyte Gulf, and "Taffy 1" was still farther south watching Surigao Strait.
At 0645, lookouts on "Taffy 3" ships spotted bursts of antiaircraft fire blossoming in the northern sky, as Center Force gunners opened fire on an American antisubmarine patrol plane. Moments later, "Taffy 3" made both radar and visual contact with the approaching Japanese warships. Shortly before 0700, Kurita's guns opened fire on the hapless "baby flattops" and their comparatively tiny but incredibly courageous escorts. For more than two hours, "Taffy 3's" ships and planes—aided by aircraft from sister escort-carrier groups to the south—fought back with torpedoes, guns, bombs, and consummate seamanship. Then, at 0911, Kurita—shaken by the loss of three heavy cruisers and thinking that he had been fighting TF 38—ordered his remaining warships to break off the action.
Meanwhile, at 0848, Admiral Halsey had radioed McCain's TG 58.1—then refueling en route to Ulithi— calling that carrier group back to Philippine waters to help "Taffy 3" in its fight for survival. Wasp and her consorts raced toward Samar at flank speed until 1030 when they began launching planes for strikes at Kurita's ships which were still some 330 miles away. While these raids did little damage to the Japanese Center Force, they did strengthen Kurita's decision to retire from Leyte.
While his planes were in the air, McCain's carriers continued to speed westward to lessen the distance of his pilots' return flight and to be in optimum position at dawn to launch more warplanes at the fleeing enemy force. With the first light of the 26th, TG 38.1 and Rear Admiral Bogan's TG 38.2—which finally had been sent south by Halsey—launched the first of their strikes that day against Kurita. The second left the carriers a little over two hours later. These fliers sank light cruiser Noshiro and damaged, but did not sink, heavy cruiser Kumano. The two task groups launched a third strike in the early afternoon, but it did not add to their score.
Following the Battle for Leyte Gulf, which ended the Japanese Fleet as a serious challenge to American supremacy at sea in the Far East, TG 38.1 operated in the Philippines for two more days providing close air support before again heading for Ulithi on the 28th. However, the respite—during which Rear Admiral Montgomery took command of TG 38.1 when McCain fleeted up to relieve Mitscher as CTF 38— was brief since Japanese land-based planes attacked troops on the Leyte beachhead on 1 November. Wasp participated in raids against Luzon air bases on the 5th and 6th, destroying over 400 Japanese aircraft, for the most part on the ground. After a kamikaze hit Lexington during the operation, McCain shifted his flag from that carrier to Wasp and, a short time later, returned in her to Guam to exchange air groups.
Wasp returned to the Philippines a little before mid-month and continued to send strikes against targets in the Philippines—mostly on Luzon—until the 25th when the Army Air Force assumed responsibility for providing air support for troops on Leyte. TF 38 then retired to Ulithi. There, the carriers received greater complements of fighter planes and, in late November and early December, conducted training exercises to prepare them better to deal with Japan's new threat to the American warships, kamikazes or suicide planes.
Task Force 38 sortied from Ulithi on 10 and 11 December and proceeded to a position east of Luzon for round-the-clock strikes against air bases on that island from the 14th through the 16th to prevent Japanese fighter planes from endangering landings on the southwest coast of Mindoro scheduled for the 15th. Then, while withdrawing to a fueling rendezvous point east of the Philippines, TF 38 was caught in a terribly destructive typhoon which battered its ships and sank three American destroyers. The carriers spent most of the ensuing week repairing storm damage and returned to Ulithi on Christmas Eve.
But the accelerating tempo of the war ruled out long repose in the shelter of the lagoon. Before the year ended, the carriers were back in action against airfields in the Philippines, on Sakishima Gunto, and on Okinawa. These raids were intended to smooth the way for General MacArthur's invasion of Luzon through the Lingayen Gulf. While the carrier planes were unable to knock out all Japanese air resistance to the Luzon landings, they did succeed in destroying many enemy planes and thus reduced the air threat to manageable proportions.
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