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The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

Ronald W. Graetz: Attack on Wake Island

Aviation Radioman Second Class Ronald W. Graetz joined Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6) in August 1941, and served with Enterprise Air Group through July 1942. Graetz flew as the radioman/gunner for VT-6's Communications Officer, Ensign Severin Rombach, through the first months of the war, and later flew with Aviation Pilot Harry A. Mueller. In this article, he recalls Enterprise's strike against Wake Island on 24 February 1942, and squadron life in the first months of the war.

An Enterprise CV-6 torpedo bomber over Wake Island, 24 February 1942.

The photo of a TBD over Wake Island brought back many memories.

Firstly, I can't imagine who took the photograph because this was a "high altitude" bombing run. The middle seat in each plane would be occupied by a bombardier, not a Navy Photographer's Mate.

Up to the time of this attack, there was no proven history of the use of airplanes in naval warfare. We members of the Aviation Divisions aboard the aircraft carrier were not fully accepted by the ship's crew as "necessary". We were often referred to as "Airdales"; we were served at a different chow line in the Mess Hall. Thus, on that morning, when we were served breakfast prior to flight quarters, at an hour somewhere around 0400, it came as no surprise that our breakfast consisted of baked beans and an orange. I believe it was two ladles of beans. I never could eat the pulp of an orange without setting my teeth on edge so I just dumped it when I dumped my tray.

There was nothing different about manning the planes and the launch of aircraft that dwells in my memory bank, but the flight from the ship to the island sure stands out. The old TBD had been obsolete since some time before the war. I believe the cruising speed was something like 110 or 115 knots. We were carrying twelve 100-pound bombs under the wings and had to attain the altitude of 12,000 feet before we got to the island. I can't imagine what our actual forward speed was, but, since all planes were to arrive over the target at the same time, the fighters and bombers had to wait for us. I remember looking up at the formations of SBD aircraft over us, flying a big zig-zag pattern to maintain the same forward speed as us. The Grumman fighters were all over the sky, overhead, for the same reason.

We made our first run over the island at 12,000 feet then turned and climbed about 500 feet for the next run. Each pass we made, we adjusted our altitude by about 500 feet. I had always been under the impression that we made twelve runs and dropped only one bomb each run but have learned in recent years that was not the case. I know the bursts of anti-aircraft fire were close enough - many, many times - to make the plane bounce around like we were in turbulent air.

Down there, on the island, those Japs were shooting at us with our own American guns, for they had not occupied the island for very long before that. One of the batteries down there had twin guns. Every time it fired, I would see two flashes of fire, side by side. At some point during the attack, I realized that someone's bombs had obviously hit the battery because I no longer saw the twin flashes.

Off to what seems the north-east, and way below us, I was fascinated by a biplane off one of our cruisers, flying around in a fairly tight "figure eight" and changing altitude in the process. He was obviously spotting targets for the guns on the ships which were shelling targets down there. The smoke from the anti-aircraft guns was so heavy all around him that I couldn't imagine how he kept from being hit. I would estimate he was somewhere around 3000 feet of altitude just flitting around like a big butterfly, completely ignoring all the smoke.

We never saw an enemy aircraft in the air: we had obviously caught them with all planes on the ground.

As we turned away from the island and started back toward the Enterprise, our bombardier, named McDowell (can't remember his first name), climbed back up from the bombsight position -below the pilot's feet - to the middle seat. Into the intercom, he said, "Boy, the air was sure rough up there this morning!" When Mr. Rombach and I both chimed in and told him that was because of the exploding anti-aircraft shells nearby, he said, "Damn, if I had know that, I would have got out and walked back!" That brought a laugh.

Back aboard ship, many of us aircrewmen were sitting around in the passageway, just outside the Officer's Ready Room. I began to break out in a cold sweat and with the chills. I lay down on the cold steel deck, hoping the cool deck would help but it did not. I felt that I needed to get some food into my stomach but no early chow had been arranged for us: we would eat at noon like everyone else. I went to Mr. Rombach and asked him if there was not an Officer's Pantry in the area where they could get snacks and drinks. He told me there was, so I asked if he would, please, get me something to eat. In no time at all, he was back with a sandwich and that snapped me out of it. From that day, forward, I always kept a box of Snickers candy bars in my locker for such occasions. It was not until about four years later, during a lecture from a Flight Surgeon, at N.A.S Opa-Locka, Florida, during my F6F training, that I learned that this condition is called hypoglycemia. The Snickers bars did the job though. I never had a problem with it the rest of my time in the Navy.

Article courtesy Ronald Graetz, and presented here with his kind permission.

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