Monday, April 19, 2010

Doolittle Raid 68th Anniversary

It was 68 years ago today, April 18, 1942 that the improbable, unlikely and remotely even physically possible occurred. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his 16 B25 Mitchell bombers and crews barely launched from the violently pitching flight deck of the USS Hornet and to the absolute and embarrassing astonishment of the Japanese, bombed their home islands.

The USS Nashville played an important role in the raid, sinking the two Japanese picket vessels and taking aboard prisoners. An excerpt from “Humble Heroes”;

The morning of April 18, 1942 dawned with an overcast gray sky and heavy foreboding seas for Task Force 16. Intermittent rain squalls and thirty-foot swells sent waves crashing over the bow of Nashville with spray reaching the bridge, and even so the larger ships Hornet and Enterprise, with decks sixty feet above the waterline. At 5:58 AM one of the Enterprise’s scout planes, patrolling forty miles out, spotted a Japanese patrol vessel. The scout plane immediately banked hard left and flew back to the Enterprise to warn the task force, still under strict orders to maintain radio silence in order to maintain the critical element of surprise. Pilot Lt. Osborne B. Wiseman hastily wrote that he had spotted an enemy patrol vessel at latitude thirty-six degrees, four minutes north, and longitude 153 degrees, ten minutes east, placed it into the canvas message bag, flew low and steady over the Enterprise, and his radioman tossed it onto the deck at 0715. Ominously, Lt. Wiseman also noted he thought he may have been sighted. Again the task force adjusted course and again luck apparently held. But it was a temporary hold.

At 0738 Hornet spotted yet another enemy patrol vessel barely and intermittently visible approximately ten miles distance. Japanese patrol vessel NO. 23, of the 5th Fleet, the Nitto Maru, was about to be introduced to the US Navy courtesy of the Nashville. There was no longer any doubt now that the Japanese knew the exact location of Task Force 16 and their destination. Luck had finally deserted the Navy.
The radioman on the Nitto Maru had sighted the task force and went below to advise his captain that two beautiful Imperial Navy carriers were in sight. The captain rushed on deck to see for himself and responded, “Yes, they are beautiful, but they are not ours.” He promptly returned to his cabin below and shot himself in the head. The search was on for the Americans. Akagi Maru and Awata Maru immediately searched for the task force but could not locate the ships, and the same held for the Kisarazu Air Group of the 26th Air Flotilla.
Nashville had her own ears alert and picked up the trail also. Ron Neff, ARM2c who was not flying due to the impending launch of Doolittle’s bombers said, “I was sitting down in the transmitter room fiddling around with the receivers and I got this code and it didn’t make sense to me. I buzzed the Lieutenant up in the radio shack and he said to switch it over. It was that sampan out there.” Later, after all the shooting was over, Ron received a call back from the Lieutenant. “He called me down later and said, ‘I guess you heard the results of that,’ and I did.” Ron summed up the entire experience of the raid succinctly and accurately. “It was rather thrilling. A lot of it we did not understand until after it was done.” Later, during his Nashville service Ron would down a Japanese Betty bomber and sink a Japanese submarine.

Admiral Halsey instructed the Nashville to sink the Japanese ship immediately. The Nitto Maru was 9,000 yards off the port bow of the Nashville. The seas were rough with fifteen-foot swells from the northwest. Nashville was already in Condition of Readiness II as general quarters sounded and the order to “commence firing” was given at 0750. Fire Control ordered Director I to train on target, still at approximately 9,000 yards. A ten-second salvo was ordered and commenced for spotting purposes. About this time Shipfitter William Smith heard someone in the aircraft hanger start singing, “Good-bye Mama, I’m off to Yokohama.” Fire Control ordered “continuous fire” after spotting, but targeting was extremely difficult as the Nashville was rolling in the heavy seas and the Nitto Maru was either literally riding the crest of the waves like a fishing float or was totally obscured from view by those same waves. Joe Fales’ battle station was in magazine Turret Five, “that’s where the ammunition is in the canisters, and there was a strong aroma of the ether that preserves it. You’d pull the shell out of the shell casing, out of the canister.” For a while, only Turret Two had the unobstructed firing opportunity and they were ordered by Chief Turret Captain Bob Zuck to “pour it on,” and so they did.

A more difficult target that needed to be sunk quickly could not be imagined. At times it was impossible to see the target at all due to the swells, combined with the splashes of the six-inch projectiles. Nashville quickly swung to port to enable starboard firing on the target, reopening firing at a range of approximately 4,500 yards. Despite the difficulties presented by the rough seas, poor visibility, the size of the target, and the fact that some shells were believed to have passed completely through the vessel (only armor piercing shells were available at the time as opposed to high explosive bombardment shells which would have been more immediately effective against a thin-hulled vessel), Nashville sunk the Nitto Maru shortly after closing range with sinking occurring at 0823. “The sea was so rough it was only visible part of the time. We went into rapid fire and fired several hundred rounds before it sank. My battle station was shellman and I tried to remain calm as I loaded the 108 pound projectile. I weighed just thirty pounds more than it did,” said Alan D. Ensor BM1c. It was believed that the Nitto Maru was equipped with a radio and both machine guns and a small cannon. Nashville reported two survivors in the water but circumstances prevented a rescue with at least one wounded survivor witnessed sinking beneath the surface by the commanding officer.

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