Marshall Islands Invasion

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Marshall Islands Invasion (By Walter J Drew)

The following is a story about World War II, written by my grandfather before his Alzheimer’s had advanced.

January 29 – February 4, 1944
By Walter J. (Deptula) Drew

This was Air Group Nine’s second invasion and occupation of Japanese-held islands. Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher boarded Yorktown (CV-10) on 13 January 1944 as the new commander of Task Force 58, which was composed of four task groups. Essex (CV-9) was in Task Force 58.2. The task force would soon put to sea with a total of twelve fleet carriers (six CV’s and six CVL’s) and eight escort carriers. Escorting this enormously powerful strike force were eight new battleships, six cruisers, 36 destroyers, plus associated service vessels. The carriers alone were capable of launching over 750 combat aircraft. Rear Admiral Alfred E. Montgomery, Commander TG58.2, had his flag in Essex.

On 21 February there began the usual horseplay and totally ridiculous and most degrading Navy antics associated with crossing the International Date Line and the equator. It was the initiation of the first-timers into King Neptune’s Realm and went on most of the day into the afternoon. But now the task force was approaching the Marshalls and play was over. Some very serious business was at hand.

This invasion was code-named “Operation Flintlock”. Kwajalein is the world’s largest atoll. It is a flattened ring of about 100 islets some 70 miles long and 15-20 miles wide, lying in a mostly east-west direction.

Landings of the Army (7th Infantry Division) and Marines (4th Marine Division) would be on two connected islets to the north — Kwajalein Island (Army) and Roi-Namur (Marines). The Japanese had built air strips on both. The atoll was defended by about 8700 enemy troops. Undefended Majuro, 250 miles southeast of Kwajalein, was occupied on 31 January and the Marines assaulted Roi-Namur on the same day. Pilot LTJG Richard B. Zentmeyer; Radioman Herbert C. (Andy) Anderson; and myself, Turret Gunner Walter J. Deptula, flew a number of flights to soften the island up prior to the Marines’ landing. Most of these flights were over Roi-Namur. We virtually destroyed everything on the islands and had trouble finding more targets to bomb.

At 0567 Essex launched her first strike of nineteen F6F Hellcats and six TBF Avengers. There would be no repeat of Tarawa at Kwajalein; the enemy and everything he owned on the atoll would be utterly destroyed and there was nothing he could do about it.

It took the Army four days to secure Kwajalein Island and neighboring islands. Of the 8700 enemy soldiers on the atoll, 90 percent were killed. The Marines and Army lost 372 of the 41,000 that landed.

During the five-day operation Essex lost two VF-9 pilots — Stephen Wright and John Benton, and Torpedo Squadron Nine lost LTJG Frederick H Fox, Joseph J. Karney ARM3/C, and Kenneth J. Lock AMM2/C. Their TBF was lost on take-off when embarking on an anti-submarine patrol. The depth bombs exploded upon hitting the water, killing all aboard.

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