On January 2, Nimitz's staff recommended strikes against the Gilberts and Marshall Islands, but Vice Admiral William S. Pye - former commander of the Battle Fleet - raised the possibility of Japan expecting Samoa to be reinforced. Pye suggested, and Nimitz concurred, that a second carrier cover the Marine's arrival in Samoa. Once the Marines were safely ashore, the two carriers would head towards the Gilberts to fend off any Japanese advance, or to strike at bases there should no opposition be met. A third carrier would strike Wake Island, while the fourth (including Yorktown, four U.S. carriers were available in the Pacific) guarded Hawaii. Though Nimitz himself approved of the plan, several members of his staff vocally opposed it: the battleships had already been lost, and they were not about to lose the carriers in a raid the Japanese could be anticipating. Nimitz needed support.
Support arrived the following day, January 7, when Enterprise - flagship of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey - returned to Pearl Harbor from an uneventful patrol. Halsey immediately approved of Pye's plan, and was first astounded and then outraged by the opposition against it. In the words of a biographer, Halsey "cleared the air", going so far as to volunteer to lead the operation. As perhaps no other man in Oahu at the time better appreciated the offensive power of the carrier, Halsey's opinion won the day, not to mention Nimitz's gratitude. On January 9, Nimitz gave Halsey his orders. Halsey, Enterprise, and Task Force 8 would escort the Yorktown group to Samoa. The sister ships would then raid Japanese bases in the Gilberts and Marshalls…. Enterprise provisioned all day and into the night on January 10 - "Are loading for bear" noted one Enterprise Air Group pilot - and stood out of Pearl Harbor at noon, Sunday, January 11…. The first days steaming southwest were marred by mishaps and bad news. Saratoga was torpedoed by an enemy sub the first evening Enterprise was underway, and damaged badly enough to have to return to the West Coast for repair….
Enterprise and Task Force 8 arrived off Samoa on schedule, and took up station 100 miles north of the islands. For five days, she steamed east to west and back again, her planes searching northwest for any sign of the Japanese, and south for Yorktown and the transports, which arrived on January 23. The 5000 Marines were all safely ashore the next day, and on January 25, the two carrier task forces set course to the northwest, toward the Marshall Islands, 1600 miles away….
On January 29, Yorktown, Enterprise, and their respective task forces parted ways, and early the next morning swept across the International Date Line into January 31. With less than 24 hours remaining before their first offensive mission of the war, the men of Enterprise and her Air Group prepared. Fighting Six installed homemade armor - literally made of boilerplate - behind the seat of each Wildcat, a vital if weighty addition their Japanese counterparts would never consider. Halsey ordered each ship rigged for towing and for being towed, not wanting to waste a minute should any ship need help escaping after the raid. Navigators and airmen poured over aged maps, picking out reefs and targets. At 1830, Task Force 8 began its final run-in to the launching point, the ocean waves hissing past hulls at 30 knots, each of Enterprise's four 13-ton propellers revolving 275 times a minute….
The first missions were timed to reach their targets throughout the northern Marshall Islands simultaneously, just before 0700: the same time that Spruance's cruiser force was to commence bombardment of Wotje and Taroa. At 0430, Enterprise turned into the wind. Thirteen minutes later, six F4F Wildcats roared into the black night for Combat Air Patrol, followed immediately 36 Scouting Six and Bombing Six SBDs…. Just after 0500, a second strike of nine TBD Devastators from Torpedo Six, and an SBD delayed by engine trouble…. These 46 planes formed up in the dark - no easy task - and headed for Kwajalein Atoll, 155 miles away. At 0610, still nearly an hour before sunrise, twelve Fighting Six Wildcats were launched for Wotje and Taroa. One Wildcat pilot, ENS David W. Criswell, apparently became disoriented in the dark. His plane stalled shortly after takeoff and plunged into the sea: Criswell was never found. Considering the limited training given pilots in night operations before the war, it's remarkable there weren't further mishaps….
[I]t fell to LT James S. Gray and his flight of five Wildcats to stir up the Marshall's real hotspot: Taroa. Shortly before 0700, Gray and his wingman, LT(jg) Wilmer Rawie, mistakenly bombed the unoccupied island of Tjan, which Gray had misidentified as Taroa. Somewhat chagrined, Gray roared away to the southeast, stringing out the other Wildcats in a long, thin line, as they scrambled to keep up. Fifteen miles from Tjan, they found their target. Expecting to find a lightly-defended seaplane base, as intelligence reports had suggested, Gray and his flight were thrilled and alarmed to behold a fully operational airfield, two new mile-long runways and an ample complement of warplanes. Barely 100 miles southeast of the Big E, Taroa was a genuine threat, and its defenders were wide awake. Streaking in from 8,000 feet, the Wildcats targeted the island's small navy yard and airfield with their remaining 100 lb bombs, then swung back around to deliberately strafe the neat rows of planes parked on the airfield, including an estimated 30-40 twin-engine bombers. With no incendiary shells, the fighters were able to set only one parked plane on fire, but rendered many others inoperable, an accomplishment that would prove of vital importance later in the day….
Taking remarkable risks, the Taroa's ground crews and airmen scrambled six more fighters into the air despite Fighting Six's repeated strafing runs. As these fighters came to grips with Gray's Wildcats, a flaw which had plagued the F4F's guns for months came into play. One by one, the .50-caliber guns jammed: all four of Rawie's guns jammed on his second pass over the airfield, ENS Ralph Rich's failed him as well, and both pilots soon turned for home, along with two other VF-6 airmen in similar straits. Unintentionally, they left LT Gray behind, who soon found himself the center of attention for Taroa's angry fighters. Outmatched by the more maneuverable Japanese planes, Gray struggled to break free, turning into and firing his one operating gun at each Claude as it streaked by. By 0720, Gray was finally in the clear and on his way home, his plane sporting over thirty holes and numerous dents in the seat armor installed just a day earlier.
With Fighting Six's retirement from Wotje and Taroa, Spruance's bombardment force - which had been observing the aerial action over the atolls - went to work….
Aboard Enterprise, Halsey and his staff interrogated the returning pilots, beginning with Rawie who returned at about 0800, and quickly singled out Taroa as deserving of additional strikes. By this time, LCDR Lance Massey was well on his way to Kwajalein with nine torpedo-laden Devastators, to follow up on the earlier attacks on shipping there. With most of VF-6 now needed for Combat Air Patrol, Bombing and Scouting Six were called on to continue the attack.
As she did twenty-one other times during the raid, Enterprise turned into the easterly wind at about 0930 to launch planes….
At 1030, a third strike against the beleaguered atoll rumbled down Enterprise's flight deck. Led by Bombing Six's Richard Best, the SBDs finished the job Hollingsworth's had started, wrecking a radio tower, fuel tanks, and airfield installations. Taroa's fighters lashed out, engaging two of Best's SBDs in sustained aerial combat, and finally cornering the last SBD in formation, flown by ENS John Doherty. The Dauntlesses could claim two Claudes, but Doherty and his gunner AOM 3/c Will Hunt failed to return. Taroa, it was believed, was in ruins.
With the return of Best's strike, and a second strike against Wotje led by Air Group Commander Young, the Big E began retiring from the Marshalls, or, as it was colorfully referred to in some quarters, "hauling ass with Halsey". Having operated for nearly ten hours in a narrow rectangle of ocean in range of several enemy airfields, sometimes even in sight of Wotje itself, Halsey had stretched his luck as far as he dared, which was far indeed. Enterprise left the area much as she had arrived, racing north at 30 knots….
A little past 1330, there was again confusion when a bogey appeared on Enterprise's radar, closing range rapidly. This time, however, the planes were not friendly: from Taroa's battered airfield, five big twin-engined Type 96 "Nell" bombers bore down on the island's tormentor.
Four VF-6 Wildcats made contact with the bombers 15 miles from the Big E, but jammed guns and cloud cover allowed the Nells to elude the CAP. Approaching in a shallow dive, the bombers burst from the clouds 3500 yards off Enterprise's starboard bow, hurtling towards their target at 250 knots. Every five inch gun that could be brought to bear opened fire, but the gunners' inexperience, the stress of battle and the high speed of the approaching planes led to the shells trailing their target, where they were of more danger to the CAP than to the enemy…. Recovering from their dive a scant 1500 feet above the Big E's flight deck, four of the five bombers sped away, but the fifth plane - piloted by the flight leader LT Kazuo Nakai - turned sharply to the left and circled back towards the carrier as if to land. Despite the combined fire of every gun that could bear, the plane kept coming on, clearly intending to crash into the ship. At the last moment, Enterprise veered hard to the right, and the plane - whether due to mechanical damage or an incapacitated pilot - failed to match her turn….
A little scuffed up from the attack, Enterprise and her escorts returned to their course and made away from Taroa at high speed, under the protection of a wary CAP….
Enterprise and Task Force 8 returned to Pearl Harbor on February 5, receiving a far different welcome than they'd been given in the wake of the December 7 attack….
[I]t became evident that the damage inflicted during the raid fell short of initial estimates, not to mention newspaper reports which trumpeted the raid as a Japanese Pearl Harbor. Nonetheless, Enterprise's Air Group packed a punch. At Kwajalein, one transport and two smaller vessels were sunk, and another eight ships damaged, roughly half the number originally reported sunk. Nine planes were destroyed on the ground at Taroa and Roi, and three Claudes shot down over the atolls, at the cost of one VF-6 Wildcat and five SBDs. Numerous installations were destroyed throughout the northern Marshalls.
The real significance of the raid was not found on the balance sheet of damage inflicted and suffered, but in the lessons learned. Halsey's action report repeatedly notes the poor performance of the ship's anti-aircraft batteries, stating:
The inability of the 5" AA battery to knock down the formation of enemy twin-engine bombers ... is a matter of grave concern. ... AA Gunnery Practices [should] be scheduled when opportunity offers, with ship steaming at not less than 25 knots. If adequate safeguards can be introduced, ship should be required to make radical changes of course.
In their first encounter with their Japanese counterparts, the Air Group came away less than impressed, noting the Japanese fighters seemed easily discouraged when faced with two or three SBDs working together defensively. Both the Air Group and the ship's company gained valuable combat experience, making them much better prepared for the carrier-vs-carrier brawls that would mark the late spring and fall of 1942. And though hardly enough to stall the Japanese offensive, the raid served notice to both sides that the striking arm of the U.S. Navy was not lying broken on Pearl Harbor's muddy bottom.