On return from supporting the Lingayen Bay landings on Luzon, Philippines, and operations in the South China Sea, Enterprise and the other units of Task Force 38 entered Ulithi Atoll on January 25-26, 1945. All hands were ready to let off steam, following several months of operations in support of MacArthur's liberation of the Philippines. While the fleet replenished and underwent repair, men were given leave for a few hours at a time. For enlisted men, much of this time was spent on Mog Mog, drinking beer, swimming and idling on the beach - an uncommon luxury in a war often fought on beaches.
Mog Mog, however, generally didn't make a favorable impression on its visitors. Though it was 'a great change in routine' (Arnold Olson), John MacGlashing, in his history of Enterprise's Night Air Group 90, notes 'During the beach parties on Ulithi the enlisted personnel voted unanimously that the trip to the beach was not worth the limit of three (3) beers.' E. Rex Mitchell was underwhelmed as well: 'The beer was only cool the day I went ashore but I drank my ration of three bottles, up from the previous two olive drab cans.' (The Big E and Me)
It's debatable whether officers had it much better. A four plane detachment from Enterprise's VF(N)-90 helped maintain Combat Air Patrol over the Ulithi anchorage. Six Avengers from the torpedo plane squadron, VT(N)-90, were stationed on Falalop, and the airmen put on rotation to fly anti-submarine patrols and assist the Marines stationed there. Impressed by the primitive living conditions the Marines tolerated, men returned to Enterprise with renewed appreciation for her sparse conveniences.
At midnight, January 26, the fleet quietly underwent a change of name and command. Halsey's Third Fleet and Admiral John S. McCain's Task Force 38, became the Fifth Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, and Task Force 58, under Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher. Task Force 58 - also called the Fast Carrier Task Force - consisted of five Task Groups, designated 58.1 through 58.5. The two veterans of the first year of war - the Big E and Saratoga - formed TG 58.5, the fleet's night group. Enterprise flew the Flag of TG 58.5's commander, former Enterprise skipper and now Rear Admiral Matt Gardner, and along with Saratoga enjoyed the escort provided by Alaska CB-1, Baltimore CA-68, Flint CL-97 and nine destroyers.
After two weeks at anchor, TF 58 slipped away from Ulithi on February 10, and set a course to the northeast. Passing east of Guam, the force slowed near Tinian on February 12, to rehearse the upcoming Iwo Jima landings with the Marine's 3rd Division, and then set a more northerly course. The next day found TF 58 passing well east of Iwo, the weather growing increasingly cool.
'It's amazing how clear the atmosphere is this evening - a result, in part of our northerly position. It seems as though the ship is in the exact center of an immense disk of deep blue-gray. The horizon, clear around the compass, is a sharp circle contrasting the deep blue of the cloudless sky. It seems hard to believe that this scene of serenity can be the overture to death and destruction.' VT(N)-90 Squadron History
By February 15, it was decidedly chilly above decks, and the men working the flight deck and manning the guns and lookouts bundled up against the cold wind, breaking out heavy clothing that had sat practically unused until now, and wondering where the fleet was heading.
The answer came a few hours later. At 1900 hours, TF 58 abruptly changed course to the northwest and leapt forward, and its mission announced. Over the next two days, TF 58 would launch the first carrier plane attacks against Tokyo and the Japanese home islands.
If Enterprise had a soul - and many who sailed with her believe she did - the touch of the cold north Pacific waters against her hull must have brought back memories. A little more than a thousand days before - April 18, 1942 - Enterprise and her now-sunken sister ship Hornet CV-8, had carried Jimmy Doolittle's 16 B-25 bombers within 650 miles of Tokyo, and launched the first American bombing raid against Japan of the war. No carrier had closed so close before or since. Now, the Big E found herself not with one other carrier, but with fifteen, steaming to a position just 60 miles off the main Japanese home island of Honshu, not to launch one strike and turn tail, but to stay and attack for two full days.
Unlike the Doolittle Raid, which was intended to be a morale booster for the home front and partial retribution for Pearl Harbor, the February 1945 Tokyo raids had a more concrete purpose. On February 19, just three days away, Marines of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions would be assaulting Iwo Jima. TF 58's mission was to draw Japan's attention away from the impending landings, and hinder Japan's ability to throw air attacks against the landing forces. Though Major General Curtis LeMay's Marianas-based B-29s had been regularly bombing the Home Islands since late November, they'd had little effect on Japan's ground-based air forces. These would be the primary target for Spruance and Mitscher's airmen.
The night before the first strikes, few if any men in the Task Force got any sleep. Excitement over approaching so close to the enemy's home mixed with apprehension due to knowledge that for more than half of TF 58's air groups, this was their first mission. Mitscher was sensitive to this, telling the airmen, 'He [the enemy] is probably more afraid of you than you are of him', but warning them to use teamwork and maintain discipline.