Prelude to the Battle of the Coral Sea: The Daring Wake and Marcus Island Raids

By Karig, Walter | Sea Classics, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Prelude to the Battle of the Coral Sea: The Daring Wake and Marcus Island Raids


Karig, Walter, Sea Classics


Still reeling from the disaster at Pearl Harbor, the US Navy's warships gave the Japanese a taste of their own medicine in a series of daring hit-and-run raids against Japaness-held islands

If there was one spot on the map, other than "home," for which the men on the Enterprise had particular interest, it was Wake Island.

Wake was the first place in their minds and hearts whenever there was talk of attacking the Japanese, because on the day that American outpost surrendered, 23 December 1941, the Enterprise was but a day's journey away, with supplies and replacements for Wake. Every man aboard had been taut with optimistic excitement at the prospect of raising the siege of Wake, for the men of the Big E remembered well that they had transported the last contingent of Marine fliers thither on the very eve of war.

To drive the Japanese from Wake would have been not only to thwart a most violently hated enemy in his attack on American territory. The mission transcended even that. It was a mission of rescue for friends, for shipmates, to bring succor to brave men who had eaten and slept and prayed with the Enterprises company. And then, with all hands poised to accomplish the rescue on that day late in December 1941, they had had to bear the bitter disappointment of seeing the task force reverse its course and abandon the errand of liberation. Wake had fallen before help could reach it.

When V/Adm. Halsey was ordered on 11 February - six-days after his triumphant return from the Marshall Islands raid - to attack the Japanese invaders now entrenched on the island, no more welcome assignment could have been received. The first plans called for the twin-carrier group, the Enterprise-Yorktown team, to attack Wake and Eniwetok, the latter island standing as a northern sentinel guarding the approaches to Japan's bastion of Truk.

The first group of the task force, that organized on Adm. Halse/s flagship, the Big E, left Pearl Harbor on 14 February 1942. It was substantially the same aggregation of ships which the admiral had led to the lee of Wotje two-weeks before, with the cruiser Chester missing because of repairs and the oiler Sabine replacing the Platte.

It was the day before Singapore fell. Australia's doom was freely prophesied.

The second group, under Adm. Fletcher's immediate command, followed out of Pearl on the 16th. It, too, was a familiar company of ships in the main. The cruiser Astoria had replaced the St. Louis; the oiler Sabine's place was taken by the Guadalupe, and the destroyer Manan was not with them. Two other destroyers had been added to the force - USS Anderson and Hammann.

Plans were for the Enterprise group to attack Wake, the Yorktown group to hit Eniwetok. But as Adm. Fletcher's ships put to sea, Adm. Halsey received orders to detach the Yorktown group, which was forthwith designated a task force in itself and sent southward on an important convoy mission. Ad^niral Halsey was ordered by CINCPAC to proceed with the attack on Wake. Eniwetok would have to be deferred. And nobody aboard the Enterprise or her supporting ships had any feelings about the change in plans, so long as their own were not again disturbed.

Admiral Halsey issued his orders for the Wake operation on 21 February, as the task force, which had been engaging in target practice and other setting-up exercises for battle, headed for the target in earnest. There was grumbling when the orders were heard to give the fliers the monopoly on killing Japs, but there was elation the following day aboard four ships when the admiral told the two cruisers and the destroyers Balch and Maury to bombard the island and its north satellite Peale. Halse/s strategy was to have the bombardment group come in against Wake from the west, or Japan, side, and hence probably the least suspected quarter of attack.

Late in the afternoon of the 23rd, the four ships broke off from the task force and veered off to the west, R/Adm. …

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