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The Pacific Air War

When Japanese carrier aircraft, in one swift stroke, devastated America’s principal military base in the Pacific, the world was made acutely aware of the power of aviation forces and the value of mid-oceanic airfields (mobile or land type). This was emphasized even more nine hours later, when Philippine targets were also attacked.  The Philippines, however, had some advance warning.  At Clark Field, north of Manila, two squadrons of B-17s were lifted into the air, thereby avoiding destruction and retaining an air strike capability for subsequent application  At 12:33 p.m., more than 50 Japanese bombers and 50 pursuits completely destroyed the airfields at Ilba with bombs and machine-gun fire.  Minutes afterwards, Clark Field was attacked.  Other targets were hit hard, too.  Thus, virtually one-half of the United States’ total bombardment force was destroyed on the ground.  Four P-40s managed to score their first kills in the Philippines.

Strikingly displayed by Japan was the fact that planes dispatched from landing “fields” far out at sea could bring about favorable results for an attacking force. Therefore, victory over Japan required the development of forward air bases and increased use of aircraft carriers. These would permit much of the total attack upon the heart of the enemy’s homeland to be carried out.

The Pacific War, therefore, was to see water-bound airfields, both islands and aircraft carriers, play a significant role in the drama of a deadly world war in and above the world’s largest ocean.  A principal base was to be Hawaii, which the Japanese felt had been permanently crippled on December 7, 1941.

Preparing islands for greater military use was not new to the War Department or to Hawaii.  Because the key to the Pacific defense lay in the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Air Corps units were charged with defending this and other military installations on Oahu. From 1939 on, the Air Corps made efforts at increasing its range therefore effectiveness.  Two years later, auxiliary fields were established on other major islands of the group.  Further, landing strips were prepared on the islands of Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, Canton and Christmas.  These were to become of inestimable value to Allied forces during the Pacific War.

What followed the attacks upon Hawaii and the Philippines, therefore the entire nation, symbolized with typical effectiveness the United States’ ability to respond, mobilize and pursue its objectives for an eventual victory. Air power, both from use of carriers and islands, was to be a decisive factor in bringing about a successful conclusion to hostilities.

Absent from Pearl Harbor during the attack, carrier aircraft soon began to pursue the enemy. On December 10, aircraft from the ENTERPRISE sank Japanese submarine L-170 north of Hawaii.  The submarine had scouted the Hawaiian area prior to the attack.  She became one of the first Japanese combat ships sunk by U.S. forces during World War II.

Two-plane detachments from Patrol Wings 1 and 2 based in Hawaii began scouting patrols from Johnston Island on December 18.  A week later, two-plane detachments from squadrons at Pearl Harbor and Kaneohe began patrols from Palmyra Island.

Australia was selected as the major base for Allied resistance in the Pacific. First, however, islands on the ferry route leading to Australia had to be garrisoned.  On January 12, the Combined Chiefs of Staff approved a plan to this effect.  It was also agreed that the U.S. should arrange local defense of Palmyra, Christmas Island, Canton Island, American Samoa, and Bora Bora, and that New Zealand should be responsible for local defense of the Fiji Islands (with the help of U.S. forces and materiel).

By February, sufficient air units were stationed across the Pacific to offer some resistance to enemy attack.  One-half of the troops and a third of the cargo sent overseas from the U.S. during the first three months of 1942 went to Australia.  Hawaii was both an air and sea tunnel in these efforts.

Then the carriers began to show large-scale effectiveness. Early in March, the ENTERPRISE moved to within 1,000 miles of Japan to launch air attacks on Marcus Island.  A carrier air strike was launched from the LEXINGTON and YORKTOWN in the Gulf of Papua.  Planes flew over the 15,000-foot Owen Stanley Mountains on the tip of New Guinea to hit Japanese shipping engaged in landing troops and supplies at Lae and Salamaua. One converted light cruiser, a large minesweeper, and a cargo ship were sunk and other ships damaged.

From a position at sea 668 miles from Tokyo, the carrier HORNET launched 16 medium bombers, B-25s, led by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle for the first attack on the Japanese homeland (April 18, 1942).  The B-25s made a spectacular low level attack against Tokyo and other Japanese targets.  All 16 planes were lost in bad weather over China.  The HORNET, later that month, rendezvoused with the ENTERPRISE and other ships of Task Force 16, commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, north of the Hawaiian Islands, and proceeded across the Pacific.

BATTLE OF THE CORAL SEA

Then followed the first naval engagement in history fought without opposing ships making contact, the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942).  On May 4, an Army Air Force B-25, spotted a Japanese carrier and two heavy cruisers east of Port Moresby, but was driven off by fighters. They were part of a Japanese task force intent on landing at Port Moresby.  Task Force 17, commanded by Rear Admiral F. J. Fletcher, with the carrier YORKTOWN, bombed Japanese transports engaged in landing troops in Tulagi Harbor, damaging several and sinking one; joined other Allied naval units including Task Force 11, under Rear Admiral A. W. Fitch, with the carrier LEXINGTON south of the Louisiades; and after stationing an attack group in the probable track of the enemy transports, moved northward in search of the enemy covering force.

Carrier aircraft located and sank the light carrier SHOHO covering a convoy, while Japanese aircraft hit the separately operating attack group and sank one destroyer and one fleet tanker. The next day, the Japanese covering force was located and taken under air attack, which damaged the carrier SHOKAKU.  Almost simultaneously, enemy carrier aircraft attacked Task Force 17, scoring hits which damaged the YORKTOWN and set off uncontrollable fires on the LEXINGTON, as a result of which she was abandoned and was sunk.  Although the score favored the Japanese, they retired from action and their occupation of Port Moresby by sea was deferred and finally abandoned.

A VR-2 flight from Alameda to Honolulu, the first transoceanic flight by Naval Air Transport Service aircraft, initiated air transport service in the Pacific on May 15, 1942.  On May 20, Rear Admiral J. S. McCain reported for duty as Commander Aircraft, South Pacific, a new command established to direct the operations of tender and shore-based aviation in the South Pacific area.  The transfer, on May 25th of Patrol Wing 4 from Seattle to the North Pacific began with the arrival of its commander at Kodiak, Alaska.

THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY

In an attempt to divert forces from the Midway area, a Japanese carrier force launched small raids on Dutch Harbor.  The famous Battle of Midway started on June 3.  A strong Japanese thrust in the Central Pacific to occupy Midway Island was led by a four-carrier Mobile Force supported by heavy units of the Main Body (First Fleet).  This attack was met by a greatly outnumbered U.S. carrier force.  It was composed of Task Force 17, commanded by Rear Admiral Fletcher, with the YORKTOWN, and Task Force 16 with the HORNET and ENTERPRISE (commanded by Rear Admiral R. A. Spruance), and by Navy, Marine Corps, and Army air units based on Midway.

Nine B-17Es from Midway, led by Lieutenant Colonel Walter C. Sweeney Jr., surprised the Japanese Occupation Force 570 miles west of Midway. They dropped demolition bombs and scored direct hits on the transports.

On the 4th, the real battle was on. PBYs searched for the Mobile Force.  In the air, also, were B-17s, B-26s, TBFs and Marine Air Group 22’s planes.  Sighting the carriers with their supporting heavy ships were the B-26s and the TBFs, as Japanese aircraft were hurtled against Midway targets.  Concentrating on the destruction of Midway air forces and diverted by torpedo, horizontal, and dive bombing attacks, the Japanese carriers were caught unprepared for the air attack.  It began at 0930, with the heroic but unsuccessful effort of Torpedo Squadron 8.  They were hit full force at 10:30 by dive bombers. B-17s hammered the carriers, as well.

Heavily hit, the carrier SORYU was subsequently torpedoed by the submarine NAUTILUS and sunk, the KAGA went to the bottom of the sea shortly afterwards.  A Japanese counter-attack at noon and another two hours later damaged the YORKTOWN so severely that she was abandoned.  In the late afternoon, dive bombers from the ENTERPRISE and HORNET struck the Mobile Force again, sinking the AKAGA. The HIRYU, fourth and last of the Japanese aircraft carriers in action, was also bombed by six B-17s en route from Oahu to Midway before it sank.  With control of the air lost, the Japanese retired under the attack of Midway-based aircraft (June 5) and of carrier air (June 6) in which the heavy cruiser MIKUMA was sunk and the MOGAMI severely damaged.  Japanese losses totaled two heavy and two light carriers, one heavy cruiser, and 258 aircraft.  United States losses were 40 shore-based and 92 carrier aircraft, the destroyer HAMMANN and the carrier YORKTOWN, which sank on June 6 and 7 respectively from a single submarine attack. Thus ended a series of successful offensives by the Japanese, turning the tide of the Pacific War. Water-bound airfields, stationary and motioned, played a primary role in the entire war effort which followed.  Navy and Marine aircraft alone destroyed 15,401 enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground (3/5ths of Japan’s aircraft), sank 161 Japanese warships and 447 Japanese merchant ships.  They lost only 897 in aerial combat, a 10-to-one advantage.  Hawaii, first stopping-off place west of the mainland, contributed significantly to these successes.  Bases were used for training, staging, repair, modification, and as a supply center, involving scores of thousands of people, civilian and military.

Excerpted from the book Above the Pacific by William J. Horvat, 1966                       


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