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Home > February 2014 > This Month in <em>Intrepid</em>'s History.<br/><em>Intrepid</em> at War: February 1944
This Month in Intrepid's History.
Intrepid at War: February 1944
Posted: 2/7/2014 9:35:44 AM

Intrepid at War: February 1944

USS Intrepid was commissioned seventy years ago this past August 16, joining the U.S. Navy in the middle of World War II. For the next two years this ship and crew trained, fitted out and then fought their way across the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, the contributions the ship and crew made to victory were vital and the price they paid heavy. Travel with our Museum Tour Guides here each month as they follow Intrepid’s journey and its crew’s experience throughout World War II.

Intrepid at War

Intrepid's aircraft attack targets on the islands of Roi and Namur, part of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. These air strikes were intended to knock out enemy air power in preparation for an amphibious assault. (National Archives)

February 1944: Combat and Consequences

For USS Intrepid, February 1944 was a month defined by action. Between January 29 and February 17, after five months of testing, training, and transit, Intrepid fought in and helped to win its first two battles: the invasion of the Marshall Islands and the carrier raid on Truk Atoll. Along the way, the warship and most of its crew had their first taste of combat. While they gained valuable experience and made major contributions to two important victories, both the ship and its crew suffered inevitable consequences.

In early February 1944, USS Intrepid patrolled the Marshall Islands, clearing the skies of enemy planes and softening ground defenses. On the morning of February 1, the carrier's mission shifted to close air support. Intrepid's planes acted as flying artillery, providing strikes by request to the U.S. Marines as they invaded and occupied Wotje Atoll. During the U.S. Navy's offensive across the Central Pacific, a key tenet of Allied strategy was a concept called "island hopping." While advancing west, the U.S. Navy encountered numerous Japanese-held islands. Many of these islands were insignificant enough to be bypassed and "hopped" over. Others, however, were simply too important strategically to ignore and had to be seized or neutralized. The attack on the Marshalls was an example of an amphibious assault. U.S. forces invaded and seized the Marshalls so they could be used as a staging area from which to continue the drive across the Central Pacific. In particular, the U.S. Navy wanted to use the lagoon at Majuro as a forward base. Rather than return to Pearl Harbor, Intrepid anchored at Majuro to prepare for the next major operation: an attack on Truk Atoll.

Instead of an invasion, the attack on Truk was a fast carrier raid. In function, Truk was something of a Japanese Pearl Harbor, serving as the forward headquarters for their fleet. From the atoll, Japanese warships and aircraft dominated much of the Central Pacific. While the U.S. did not need Truk as a base, if left unchecked, it could threaten the Allied advance and had to be neutralized. Therefore, on February 12, Intrepid and 11 other carriers of the 5th Fleet sailed from Majuro to raid Truk. Their mission was to bombard the atoll destroying ships, aircraft and installations, weakening it until it could be safely "hopped" over.

Intrepid at War

An ammunition ship explodes in Truk Lagoon under heavy assault by Intrepid’s aircraft. (National Archives)

On the morning of February 16, Intrepid began its second battle by launching a fighter sweep over Truk. Though the strategic goal was different, tactically speaking the engagement started out for Intrepid much like the invasion of the Marshalls. Fighters went in first to eliminate Japanese aircraft. Next, torpedo and dive bombers concentrated on airfields and defenses. Once the 5th Fleet gained air superiority, carrier strikes shifted to other targets. While some Intrepid pilots moved in against Japanese installations and supplies, others took on ships trapped in the lagoon. U.S. Navy planners had hoped to take Truk by surprise and catch a large number of Japanese warships in port. Though the Japanese pulled much of their fleet out of Truk before the attack, a great number of auxiliaries were left behind. These freighters, tankers and transports were the first ships ever engaged or sunk by Intrepid’s planes. In total, the 5th Fleet sunk nearly 200,000 tons of Japanese shipping at Truk.

While Intrepid made a significant contribution to neutralizing Truk, it came at the price of several pilots. During an attack on a Japanese cruiser, Lt. George C. Bullard was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He managed to keep his F6F Hellcat in the air long enough to go down outside the lagoon. Although fellow pilots saw Bullard swim to a nearby island and spell out his name on the beach, he was too close to Truk for rescue. Instead, Bullard spent the rest of the war as a POW. Another Intrepid pilot, Lt. James E. Bridges, managed to avoid enemy fire during a successful bombing run on a Japanese ammunition ship. He managed to drop his bomb on the vessel causing it to explode and sink. Bridges may well have been the first Intrepid pilot to ever sink an enemy ship but he never found out. The explosion engulfed his TBM Avenger, killing everyone aboard.

By this stage in the war, U.S. technological and material superiority was overwhelming, but the Japanese remained a skilled and dangerous enemy, particularly during night operations. Following the previous day’s attack on Truk, in the early morning of February 17, just moments after Intrepid’s anti-aircraft gunners were released from their posts, a lone Japanese bomber put a torpedo into the aft starboard quarter of Intrepid.

Intrepid at War

An Intrepid crew member gives perspective of the hull damage after the torpedo hit at Truk. (National Archives)

The ensuing blast killed 11 men, breached the hull and disabled the ship's rudder. Damage control teams leapt into action and quickly made the ship watertight. However, the damage to the rudder could not be repaired at sea, and the wounded carrier was forced to withdraw. For Intrepid, the battle of Truk was over.

Intrepid at War

Two men survey Intrepid's damaged rudder at dry dock in Pearl Harbor after only two months in the combat zone. (National Archives)

During Intrepid's first foray into the Pacific War, the ship fought in two major engagements, taking part in both an amphibious operation and a carrier raid. Its pilots faced enemy aircraft in the sky, attacked naval and ground targets and provided close air support to men on the ground. Along the way its aircraft shot down 12 enemy planes, destroyed 43 on the ground, and sunk or damaged 12 ships. The Marshalls belonged to the United States and Truk was in ruins, yet Intrepid paid a high price, with nine planes lost and 24 men dead or missing. Intrepid was out of action for the foreseeable future and on a long, dangerous journey home.

Read the previous installments of "This Month in Intrepid's History":

October 1943
November 1943
December 1943
January 1944