HISTORY OF THE USS BELLEAU WOOD
Edited by: R.D. Fread
With the ending of World War II, one mightiest fighting aircraft carriers of all-time, USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24) took her last curtain call in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater, leaving the stage proudly with a grim task well done and her mission accomplished.
The words of Rear Admiral Sprague, in a Naval communique to USS Belleau Wood, gave her crew just credit when he stated . 'Your performance of duty has been outstanding on all oc-casions and you leave behind you a distinguished chapter in war history. You have contributed more than your share to the final victory."
Originally slated to be the light cruiser USS NEW HAVEN (C~ 76), Belleau Wood's keel was laid on 11 August 1941 at the New York Ship-building Corporation, Camden, New Jersey, but due to the pressing need for carriers the cruiser hull was converted to that of a light aircraft carrier type.
The vessel was launched on 6 December 1941 at the Camden yards and christened by its sponsor, Mrs. Thomas Holcomb, wife of the Marine Corps Commandant, as USS Belleau Wood, in honor of the World War I battle of Bois de Bellau. In this battle, fought in the area near Soissons, France, in June 1918, the U.S. Marines of the 4th Marine Brigade distinguished themselves in some of the most desperate fighting of the entire war. In days to come, Belleau Wood was to live up to her proud name which holds its place in history, even as she was to make history herself.
Belleau Wood (CVI~24) was commissioned on March 31, 1943 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with Captain Alfred M. Pride, USN as first commanding officer. Captain Pride, a veteran pilot who won his wings in World War I, was well-qualified for command, having come up through the ranks from machinist mate, third class, to captain.
Following her commissioning, the vessel was thoroughly tested in the Chesapeake Bay and nearby waters and then underwent final alterations at Norfolk, Virginia, where she was also loaded. Before making her first shakedown cruise, a trip was made to Annapolis for inspection by a delegation of Naval authorities from Washington who came aboard and put their final stamp of approval on this third of the class of light, fast carriers. Here also, hundreds of Midshipmen came aboard for their first look at a CVL.
In June the squadron planes were hoisted aboard at Norfolk and then followed a shake-down cruise for the new ship and crew in the Caribbean area near Trinidad.
After the war-harried shakedown, when a trial speed of 31.6 knots was logged, Belleau Wood wasted no time in getting underway for her ultimate objective - - the Pacific and Western Sea Frontier. Passing through the Panama Canal on 26 July, she reached Pearl Harbor on the 9th of August 1943 ready to accept the responsibilities of war and to fill her allotted place in the mightiest naval machine of the world.
On 25 August in company with USS Princeton (CVL~23) and supporting vessels, Belleau Wood set course for her initial assignment of covering the amphibious forces occupying Baker Island, southwest of Pearl Harbor and lying almost on the equator. This small island was needed as a fighter base to disrupt Japanese raids and patrols out of Tarawa and Makin Islands.
The operation opened on 1 September and, though there was no known garrison on the island, airborne opposition was expected to prevent our occupation. It was a total surprise when the operation opened without incident and, throughout the entire time of the establishment of the Army's squadron of P405 on the island base, no action of consequence was encountered. During this period, while in a protective status and continually circling the island, Belleau Wood crossed the equator 32 times.
While there were no Japs on Baker, there were plenty in the nearby Gilbert group and during the invasion of Tarawa Belleau Wood did her share toward turning back the "Yellow Tide." Tarawa marked the farthest eastward advance of the Japanese and it was here, on this stepping-stone toward the Marshalls, that Air Group 24 received their initial indoctrination of striking Japanese bases and facilities, machine gun nests, fuel dumps, anti-aircraft emplacements and shore defenses as a prelude to establishment of beach-heads by the U.S. Marines. Accompanying Belleau Wood on this mission were the aircraft carriers USS LEXINGTON and PRINCETON. It was in this operation that Belleau Wood crossed the International Date Line for the first time in her fighting career.
With the retirement of the task group from Tarawa, in the late afternoon of September 18th, the ship returned to Pearl Harbor with a crew having the confidence of those who had gone into battle, had done a tough job - and had come out on top.
On 29 September 1943, "the greatest task force (TF-14) ever assembled," composed of LEXINGTON, YORKTOWN, ESSEX, INDEPENDENCE, COWPENS and BELLEAU WOOD, stood out of Pearl Harbor for a strike against Wake Island.
During this attack, feelings were intense and determined for Americans were attacking an enemy entrenched in American soil where our Marines had paid tribute, in blood, to the invader.
For two days, 5-6 October, Wake Island took a beating almost double that given to Tarawa just a short time previously. For this operation, Com-mander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, sent the task group the following mes-sage:" The thorough job done on Wake by planes and ships of your task force will have results reach-ing far beyond the heavy damage inflicted."
After returning for a short stay, at Pearl Harbor on October 11 to take on supplies and refuel, Belleau Wood, as an integral part of Task Force 50, steamed on 10 November 1943 for Makin Is-land and Kwajalein, again with the purpose of destroying Japanese land defenses and clearing the air of planes, to pave the way for the forthcom-ing Marine landings.
This Naval task force was larger than any of its predecessors, in anticipation of heavy resistance from the well- defended islands where the enemy had had a year and a half to entrench themselves. The general appearance of the islands, planes, pill-boxes, radio stations and ammunition and fuel dumps indicated the Japs were dug in for keeps.
One group of ships struck Tarawa in advance of the Marine landings while Belleau Wood and her task group, 50.2 steamed through the waters of the Gilberts, raiding Makin, Tarawa and the is-lands of the southern Marshalls. On 23 November the last organized resistance disappeared on Tarawa, after the outcome had hung in balance for four days. During these operations Belleau Wood narrowly missed being torpedoed by a Japanese torpedo bomber in one of the many enemy attacks. By the end of November the Japs were success-fully erased from the heart of the Gilberts and our forces were ready for the drive against the Mar-shalls which promised to be as heavy an operation as that of the Gilberts.
After another return to Pearl Harbor on 10 December, the battle for Kwajalein began on 29 January 1944, with Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitschner, USN, commanding Task Force 58. Belleau Wood was now in company with the large carriers of the fleet, one of which was USS ENTERPRISE.
Belleau Wood planes were assigned to Tarawa (Maloelap) on the opening day of the engagements and then moved on to Kwajalein where the battle progressed from 30 January through 3 February. Kwajalein was safe in U.S. hands on 4 February and the task group anchored in Majuro Atoll for a brief rest before continuing on to other operations.
As a part of Task Force 58, Belleau Wood participated in the February raids on Truk, Saipan and Tinian the Truk engagements the air bat-tles began at dawn on 16 February and by mid-afternoon over 204 enemy planes had been destroyed which was the finish of Japanese air power over "Japan's Pearl Harbor." Though Truk was finally bypassed, it was necessary to knock out her air power preparatory to assaults scheduled against Eniwetok on 17 February.
After refueling at sea following the highly successful Truk raid, the task group headed straight for the next objective, Saipan and Tinian. In addition to inflicting the maximum damage against Tinian, Rota and Guam, of the Marianas chain, it was necessary to test the enemy's strength on Saipan where landings were scheduled for June. Again, much heavy action was encountered and on 22 February, despite discouraging weather, the strikes still managed to destroy over 200 Jap planes with a loss of only 45 to the task group. A few days later Belleau Wood returned to Majuro, concluding the two most exciting and successful weeks of her young life.
Preparatory to operations scheduled for the Western Carolines, Belleau Wood moved south on 7 March 1944 to Espiritu Santo where the force was assembling for the strike. Here, for the first time, task groups were featuring four carriers each. On 15 March the armada steamed to the northwest, bound for Palau, pausing at Emirau in the Bismarck group which our troops occupied without opposition on 20 March.
Then, ten days later on 30 March, the first carrier forces lashed Palau, sinking 31 ships, damaging 18 others and destroying over 200 planes. Belleau Wood's contribution to this score was three enemy planes shot down, two damaged, a medium freighter and a mine layer sunk and one hangar destroyed.
Belleau Wood and Enterprise planes celebrated the ship's first birthday on 31 March by destroying a weather station on Ngulu Island, sinking a cargo ship at Ulithi, and shooting down two enemy planes twenty-two miles from the ship.
Concluding the successful smash against the Western Carolines, the carriers hit Woleai on the first of April. Here, Belleau Wood's planes were first over the target, destroying seven grounded planes, damaging five others and strafing barracks, anti-aircraft batteries, wharves, and storage buildings.
On 12 April 1944 Belleau Wood closed out a week's rest at Majuro and Captain Pride turned over command of the ship to Captain John Perry, USN.
To soften up enemy bases on New Guinea and pave the way for General MacArthur's Armies, the carriers next moved against Hollandia New Guinea. As the Army swept into Hollandia, Bel-leau Wood's planes swept the skies over Sawar airfield and Wake Island and the combined ener-gies of the various US Fighting teams successful-ly secured them. Shortly after the Army had a firm grip on northern New Guinea, the force steamed back to Kwajalein Atoll, pausing enroute to deliver a second raid on Truk which completely erased enemy air threats in that area. A raid was also made on Ponape in the Carolines on May 1st and thirteen days later Bellean Wood dropped anchor at Kwajalein, having logged up 83,477 miles since commissioning.
The Marianas were the sentinels of the Philip-pine Sea, guarding the Philippines, the Ryukyus and Japan itself. In June 1944 the Fifth Fleet, under the command of Admiral Spruance, built around 15 carriers of Mitscher's Task Force 58, weighed anchor in the Marshalls and headed west for one of the boldest strikes of the Pacific war.
On the afternoon of 11 June, Belleau Wood launched her first strike to help clear the Marianas of Japanese air power. In a dogfight over Guam four enemy planes were shot down and the next day assaults were continued there and over Rota to soften up Jap defenses for the imminent in-vasion The armada then moved farther north for raids in the Bonins, attacking Haha Jima, Chichi Jima, and Iwa Jima.
During the Marianas assault, the task force repulsed a major air attack by an enemy carrier force, with the combined efforts of the ship's anti-aircraft guns and the carrier planes, downing 360 Japanese planes.
Participating in a strike against the Japanese Fleet, Air Groups of Belleau Wood sank an enemy aircraft carrier of the HAYATAKA class. Few carriers, including the large ESSEX class with air groups three times the size of those of CVLs, have received full credit for sinking a major enemy warship. Belleau Wood had "paid for itself" in single-handed destruction of the larger enemy carrier.
The remainder of June was spent in covering the occupation of Saipan and Tinian as well as taking part in additional strikes against Iwo Jima, Haha Jima and Chichi Jima. In the later part of June, Bellean Wood received orders to proceed to Pearl Harbor for overhaul, her first since leaving the States one year previously.
During the summer of 1944 the vessel rejoined the fleet in the western area and attended the occupation of Guam. This was a brief sally, but it gave her a part in raising the United States flag over that famous island again. Shortly thereafter, the task force rendezvoused at Eniwetok preparatory to the action against Palau and the further securing of the Marianas.
Admiral William F. Halsey had relieved Ad-miral Spruance as commander of the FIFTH Fleet, and Task Force 58 was then re-designated as Task Force 38. The arrival of USS FRANKLIN brought the number of carriers in the force to sixteen.
After hammering Palau, the group turned its attention toward Mindanao in the Philippines to prevent air opposition against the landings on Palau. Strikes were also made on Cebu, Negros, and a long range sweep was made on Zamboanga. Then, for two days, air support was provided for the U.S. invading forces in the struggle for Peleliu, the southern island of the Palau string, after which the ship churned toward Manus in the Admiralties for re-provisioning.
After a short rest at Manus, the task group steamed into the Philippine Sea to patrol the Palau area while waiting for other ships of the fleet to take their turn at re-provisioning. With the force completely re-provisioned, the ships turned to strike at Okinawa, another link in the chain of invasion. While participating in raids on Formosa and the Nansei Shoto, on the night of 12-13 Oc-tober Belleau Wood withstood forty-seven separate Jap bombing, strafing and torpedo attacks. The ship then turned southward and par-ticipated in raids on Aparri, Leoag, Luzon Island in the Philippines.
For two days, 14-15 October, Belleau Wood planes attacked airfields of Manila and shipping targets in Manila Bay. On one of the raids, her fighters escorted torpedo bombers from the ENTERPRISE and engaged in a vicious dog-fight over the target area.
D-Day on Leyte was 20 October and, as the amphibious craft churned ashore, the ship cruised to the east of Leyte Gulf with her planes covering and supporting the troops assaulting the beach-head. This operation lasted four days and on the 24th a Navy land-based search plane reported a Japanese force of 4 carriers, 2 battleships, 5 cruisers, and their escorts 200 miles north of Luzon, steaming southward at full speed. With reception of this news, Task Force 38 immediately drove north.
Early next morning planes of Belleau Wood with those of the other carriers completely surprised the Jap force and pounded them with bombs, torpedoes and strafing fire. There was little opposition - the enemy having succeeded in getting only 15 planes airborne. The final tally in this encounter was four Japanese carriers sunk and the two battleships and other supporting ships damaged. The remnants of the force turned back north in complete retreat.
Back at Samar another Jap force had penetrated through the San Bernardino Strait and was attack-ing a group of U.S. escort carriers 70 miles off Leyte. In response to an urgent call, Belleau Wood and other ships of her task force turned south in a dash to relieve the emergency. Though the guns of the escort carriers and destroyers were no match for the heavier enemy guns, they were inflicting much damage on the attackers. Unex-pectedly, the Japanese force turned and sped northward to slip back through the San Bernar-dino Strait before the U.S. task force could inter-cept. On 26 October Belleau Wood and other carrier planes, collaborating with land based aircraft, succeeded in sinking three straggling cruisers of the enemy force while they were in full retreat.
On 30 October 1944 Belleau Wood, as part of Task Group 38A, cruised 90 miles off Leyte Gulf on routine patrol duty. Shortly after noon, enemy planes were reported nearing the group. An of the force rushed to "General Quarters" and as Belleau Wood's sixth fighter plane cleared the flight deck, nearby a Jap "Kamikaze" plane was seen hurtling down on FRANKLIN. There was a flash of flame near the island structure and in-stantly her flight deck was ablaze and smoking. Another enemy plane peeled off from about the same spot and began an apparent suicide dive on the same ship but, after dropping a large bomb near FRANKLIN, quickly swerved toward Belleau Wood. Her antiaircraft batteries commenced firing but could not stop the Jap which crashed with an explosion of flame and smoke on the after-portion of the flight deck. After a battle with burning gasoline coupled with exploding ammunition and depth charges which lasted for hours, it was found that in addition to the heavy damage, ninety-two men were found dead or missing.
Belleau Wood and Franklin, accompanied by screening destroyers left the task group on 31 October for Ulithi where it was found that Belleau Wood's damage could not be repaired in that forward area. The ship sailed to Hunter's Point, San Francisco, California, for repair of battle damage and overhaul, having steamed 141,178 miles since having been commissioned.
On 20 January 1945, in company with the new USS RANDOLPH (CV-15), Belleau Wood stood out of San Francisco for the western Pacific.
A few hours after reaching Pearl Harbor on 26 January, Captain Perry turned command of the ship over to Captain W.G. Tomlinson, USN.
On 29 January the ship, with four large carriers, the new battle cruiser ALASKA and seven destroyers, steamed out of Pearl Harbor to rendezvous at Ulithi with the rest of the fleet.
Belleau Wood was assigned to Task Group 58.1 when the FIFTH Fleet left the Ulithi anchorage on 10 February and turned northward. In this raid which was the first of the Tokyo strikes, Belleau Wood planes did their part in pounding the air-fields on the Tokyo plain.
Following this strike, the task force turned toward the Bonin Islands beginning a series of raids against Chichi Jima and Haha Jima, neutralizing them as staging areas for Jap raids on Iwo Jima where U.S. forces were storming ashore. After another swing at Tokyo, raids were made on the Nansei Shoto on 1 March as well as ship-ping in Sakishima Gunto, between Okinawa and Formosa. Three days afterwards, the ship dropped anchor at Ulithi once more.
Thus began the series of raids on the Japanese Home Islands which grew in damaging propor-tions to the Japanese. Belleau Wood saw much fierce action in these last operations which were to bring about defeat to the enemy.
On 18-21 March in action off Kyushu, the nearest to Okinawa of the major Jap islands, Belleau Wood fought off attacking planes bravely and destroyed a number of their force while her planes bombed and strafed nearby enemy airfields. On 24 March in two strikes by Belleau Wood planes, a Japanese convoy of two destroyers, three cargo ships and three subchasers was destroyed in the Okinawa area.
In the months that followed the ship was actively engaged in the strikes against the Japanese homeland and covering landings in the final steps on the "Road to Tokyo". These ranged through the invasion of Okinawa, Kyushu, and the mission of intercepting aircraft and destroying airfield facilities, shipping, and defenses in the Empire and the Nansei Shoto.
On 27 May 1945 the Fast Carrier Task Force became a unit of the THIRD fleet as Task Force 38, Belleau Wood remaining in her same group, now designated as 38.1 and continuing raids upon the home islands of Japan.
In June 1945 the ship suffered some damage from winds of a tropical storm that raged in excess of 100 miles per hour but conducted flight opera-tions the following day, and shortly thereafter made another raid on Kanoya.
Belleau Wood next proceeded to San Pedro Bay, Leyte Gulf, where her Air Group 30 departed for home after establishing an impressive record. She then conducted a training cruise in Leyte Gulf for her new Air Group 31. On 1 July 1945 she again steamed northward with Task Group 38.1 for Japan.
In the main Empire Strike, 1 July to 15 August 1945, Belleau Wood lived up to her previous records, bombing and strafing Jap defenses and activities on the home islands of Honshu and Hok-kaido until the final day of surrender when she was at anchor with her sister ships in the waters of Tokyo Bay.
When Belleau Wood's fighting service was com-pleted, she left Tokyo to enter "magic carpet" duty -- that of returning servicemen to the United States. After three trips of this nature, she entered the harbor at San Francisco, California, on 31 January 1946 having steamed a total of 216,682 miles and accounting for the destruction of 502 enemy aircraft, as well as sinking 12 heavy and 36 light ships besides inflicting damage to 83 others. Her crew and air groups (24,21,30 and 31) can justly be proud of their record and the part they played in bringing about the successful conclusion of hostilities in the Pacific.
After a short period of duty on the West Coast, USS Belleau Wood was inactivated and placed out of commission with the Alameda Group of the Pacific Reserve Fleet in January 1947.
----- From the Publications of the USS Belleau Wood Alumni Group and Submitted by QM3/c John DiFusco
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