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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

Iwo Jima
Feb 19 - March 12, 1945

"Victory was never in doubt. Its cost was."
Marine Major General Graves Erskine, March 14, 1945

If Enterprise and Task Group 58.5 had played a secondary role during the Tokyo Raids, they made up for it at Iwo Jima. Retiring south from Kyushu with Task Force 58, Enterprise's TG 58.5, accompanied by TG's 58.4 and 58.1, parted ways with the remainder of the Task Force the afternoon of February 18, and headed for a refueling rendezvous southwest of Iwo Jima. The next morning - D-Day for the Marines on Iwo Jima - Enterprise refueled, and then set course with TG 58.5 for point 60 miles northwest of the "Sulfur Island".

No other battle is as strongly associated with the United States Marines as is Iwo Jima. Between the time the assault began - precisely 0900, 19 February 1945 - and the time the island was declared secure on March 16, 4,189 Marines were killed and 19,938 wounded. The toll eventually reached nearly 26,000. Japanese defenders numbered about 21,000, but only 1083 survived. To this day, the debate continues: was Iwo Jima - eight square miles of foul-smelling volcanic ash and cinders, with three precious airfields - worth the price paid for it?

H-Hour at Iwo Jima
H-Hour at Iwo Jima: 0900, 19 February 1945. Mt. Suribachi looms in the south.

As early as July 1944, the Army Air Force had recommended taking Iwo Jima. The island is almost exactly halfway between Saipan, 625 miles to the south, and Tokyo, 660 miles to the north. Its airfields could serve as safe-haven for damaged Saipan-based B-29s returning from raids against Japan. Army P-51 fighters could be based on the same airfields, to protect the bombers beyond the range of Saipan-based fighter escorts. Moreover, in Japan's hands Iwo Jima and two neighboring islands - Haha Jima and Chichi Jima - were a thorn in the AAF's side. From these islands, enemy fighters harassed formations of B-29s on their long missions to Japan. And when bombing raids against Japan began in earnest in November 1944, Iwo-based bombers and fighters lashed out against Saipan's airfields, eventually destroying eleven of General "Hap" Arnold's precious bombers, and damaging nineteen others.

For the AAF, there was no question that Iwo Jima must be seized. "Without Iwo Jima I couldn't bomb Japan effectively," AAF Major General Curtis LeMay explained to Fifth Fleet commander Admiral Raymond Spruance. For Spruance, that settled any doubts in his mind. The Marines would go in, and the Navy would back them up.

Enterprise got into action at Iwo the afternoon of D-Day, February 19. Her mission was to protect the amphibious forces from air attack, so at 1630 she launched six Night Air Group 90 Hellcats to provide dusk CAP over the island. This mission proved uneventful, but the first night CAP, launched two hours later, had a busier time. Operating just north of the island, the four VF(N)-90 fighters were vectored on eight interceptions. Frequently the enemy planes would turn away as soon as contact was made; other times the American planes had to pull back when their pursuit took them in range of friendly anti-aircraft fire.

Persistence paid off, however. Shortly before 1930, VF(N)-90's LT James Wood made radar contact with an enemy "Helen" - a twin-engine heavy bomber - and thirty minutes later splashed it. A bogey at 2012 sent the Big E to General Quarters, but she secured an hour later and passed her first night off Iwo without further incident.

The next day marked the first day since February 10, when the Big E had sailed from Ulithi with TF 58, that Enterprise engaged in night air operations exclusively, providing dusk and night CAP for TF 58, as well as over Iwo Jima. Aside from a mine encountered in the morning, no contact was made with enemy.

Shortly after 0900 on February 21, TG 58.5 - Enterprise, Saratoga CV-3, and their escorts - dissolved. Saratoga and three destroyers departed to join TG 52.2: Rear Admiral Calvin Durgin's force of escort carriers, operating northeast of Iwo, providing direct air support for the Marines. Enterprise and the remainder of TG 58.5 operated with Lexington CV-16 and Hancock CV-19 in TG 58.2. Saratoga was now "Queen of the Jeeps" (escort carriers were known as "jeep" carriers), but her reign was short-lived.

Just before 1630, her radar picked up a large bogey, estimated at 20 to 25 planes, 75 miles distant. With CAP and anti-submarine patrols returning to the task force, these planes were first identified as friendly. At 1650, however, six Saratoga fighters vectored to investigate positively identified the planes as enemy, and moments later downed two Zeroes. At 1659, six planes emerged from the low cloud cover and dove on Saratoga. Despite the old carrier's deadly anti-aircraft fire, three bombs in three minutes plunged into her, two planes glanced off her starboard side, and two more planes slammed into her flight deck.

For ninety minutes, her crew fought fires blazing in the hangar deck, while the carrier built up speed to 25 knots, and her planes were directed to land on the nearby escort carriers. By 1842 her fires were under control, but four minutes later a second attack began. This time five suicide planes targeted her. Four were shot down but one dropped a bomb which exploded over her flight deck, before the plane itself bounced over the side. Though Saratoga was able to begin recovering planes later in the evening, her war was over. Her losses that night were 192 wounded, 123 killed or missing.

USS Bismarck Sea Explodes
The aft end of USS Bismarck Sea CVE-95 explodes, minutes after she was struck by a Kamikaze, 21 February 1945.

Saratoga was spared further assaults, but the raids continued into the night. On Enterprise, every available fighter was manned at 1700, but none were launched for forty-eight minutes, when she launched her first night CAP. The two Hellcats, operating with planes from Essex CV-9 and Randolph CV-15, were vectored on numerous intercepts until an hour after sun down, but as on the nineteenth, the enemy planes seemed reluctant to engage.

To judge from Enterprise's Action Report, dusk must have reminded any Midwesterner top-side of summer lightening storms, as anti-aircraft fire flared up and faded around her:

1912: Screen firing on port quarter.
1915: Screen firing on starboard beam.
1934: Screen firing.
2001: Firing on horizon.

The Big E's task group made it through the night unscathed, but Durgin's escort carriers, which Saratoga had just joined when the attacks began, continued to draw the enemy's wrath. At 1845, Bismarck Sea CVE-95 was struck by a suicide plane; two minutes later an explosion devastated the ship and she was ordered abandoned just 20 minutes after the attack. After burning fiercely for three hours, she rolled over and sank, with a loss of 218 men and officers. Lunga Point CVE-94, cargo ship Keokuk and a landing ship (LST-477) also came under attack, but escaped with relatively light damage.

Early the next afternoon, Enterprise launched eight VT(N)-90 Avengers, led by VT(N)-90's commander LT C. B. Collins, to search for eight Saratoga planes missing since the raids the night before. Flying under a low ceiling and hampered by generally poor visibility, the planes searched a 60° sector due south of Iwo Jima out to 150 miles, before returning to a rendezvous point five miles east of the island. Four of the planes - piloted by Collins, LT(jg) Gordon Hinrichs, LT(jg) Ernie Lawton and LT(jg) Joe Jewell - arrived first at the rendezvous, and circled lazily waiting for the remaining four planes. Emerging from the overcast at just 400 feet, they found themselves astern of Seventh Fleet battleship. Turning hard away to port, the four planes came abeam of a second battleship. The Seventh Fleet's gunners - alert and on edge from ongoing Kamikaze attacks - opened fire: first an LST, then every ship that could bring guns to bear.

Lawton and Jewell clawed back to safety in the clouds, but Collins and Hinrichs dove for the surface, only to find themselves flying at masthead height between two lines of friendly ships, all firing furiously at the "enemy" planes. Under continuous, heavy, accurate fire, Hinrichs managed to ditch his shattered plane, only to be nearly run down by a sub-chaser. The sub-chaser, its crew lined up at the rail with pistols and sub-machine guns, circled back towards the downed "enemy" plane. An enraged Hinrichs "cussed them out in considerable detail and length," informing one deckhand that "if he was as handy with a line as he was with those God damn guns, they'd have been aboard five minutes earlier." Hinrichs and his crew were then promptly rescued. Collins and his crew were never seen again: he was the second VT(N)-90 commander lost in as many months.

The next morning, February 23, Marines reached the summit of Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi, and raised a small American flag, which was replaced two hours later by a flag nearly twice the size. The battle for Iwo Jima was still raging, but this moment raised the spirits of every man on the island.

In the afternoon, Enterprise refueled, then reformed TG 58.5, operating independently of TG 58.2. At 1850, Task Force 58, less Enterprise's TG 58.5, began a high-speed run to the north, returning to the Japanese Home Islands, to strike at the airfields supplying the suicide planes harassing the forces at Iwo Jima.

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