“We had come into Pearl on December 8, to find ships still burning and the stench of the dead on the air. Every man was mad to refuel, rearm, get back to sea and kill the enemy."
So recalled seaman Bobby J. Oglesby about being aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise as the ship entered Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the day after the devastating Japanese aerial attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Enterprise's sister ships — battleships Oklahoma, California, Arizona, West Virginia and Utah and destroyer Shaw, among others — had all been either sunk or destroyed. Casualties included 2,335 killed.
As World War II unfolded in the Pacific the Enterprise became a terrifying instrument of vengeance against the Japanese. After the battle of Pearl Harbor, in which Enterprise pilots frantically engaged the Japanese over Oahu (and in which Lt. Clarence Dickinson destroyed a Japanese sub with a quarter-ton bomb on Dec. 10, 1941 — America's first strike back against Japan), the ship went on to distinguish itself heroically in the crucial Pacific battles of Midway, Guadalcanal, the Marianas, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and over a dozen other major engagements. By then the ship was respectfully referred to as "the Big E."
Barrett Tillman, a recognized authority on air warfare in World War II and the author of Whirlwind and more than forty other nonfiction and fiction books on military topics, tells the action-packed saga of the carrier in his new work, Enterprise: America's Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II.
Tillman describes the 20,000-ton Enterprise, launched in 1936 and commissioned in 1938, as "a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle" where there was "room for 2,000 men to work, eat, and sleep . . . for seventy or more aircraft" as well as tons of fuel oil and gasoline, and bombs, torpedoes and other ammunition. The carrier's flight decks "were each an acre and a half of . . . resilient . . . Douglas fir."
Tillman's book is filled with harrowing scenes of combat. We meet Enterprise pilot Lt. Wilmer Rawie who, during the Gilbert-Marshall Islands operation, encounters two Japanese Mitsubishi fighters. Rawie's "four .50 calibers chewed up the Mitsubishi's light airframe, turning the little fighter into a red gout of flame vivid against the early sky." It was the first aerial victory by a U.S. Navy fighter pilot since 1918, Tillman informs us.
But now Rawie faced another fighter coming straight at him "in a high speed aerial game of chicken . . . Rawie felt an impact as his Wildcat's belly scraped across the top of Petty Officer Tomita Atake's wing." Both aircraft were damaged; both pilots lived to fly another day.
Tillman also introduces us to 40-year-old Enterprise group commander Wade McClusky, leader of 30 scout bombers. During the pivotal Battle of Midway in June 1942, McClusky finds himself anxiously pondering his error-prone compass navigation readings over a vast expanse of Pacific — an inherent problem in the Midway battle.
But, miraculously, he finds his target: Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's Carrier Striking Force: the Kaga, Agaki, Soryu and Hiryu — an entire carrier flotilla.
In the wild, explosive carnage that ensued, Kaga's losses were horrific: 800 men killed in the "blasted, blazing hull." Agaki and Soryu were left burning. Hiryu, mortally wounded, headed out of further harm's way.
Tillman emphasizes that "Enterprise's vital contribution" at Midway "remained a fierce source of pride for her men."
The author never loses sight of how the horrors of combat affect human beings. He reveals exactly what it was like when machine gun bullets "smashed" into the windscreen of Flight Petty Officer Sahuro Sakai's Zero during the battle of Guadalcanal: "glass and fragments punched into Sakai's face, chest, left leg, and arm."
He describes how, after the battle of Santa Cruz, "a horribly wounded, legless" American sailor managed to crawl over a ship's rail, rolling overboard. A "corpsman advised against helping him," writes Tillman.
On May 14, 1945, during the Kamikaze-infested battle of Okinawa, 22-year-old Lt. Shunsuke Tomiyasu dove his Zeke fighter through a withering barrage of Enterprise ordnance into the carrier's flight deck, resulting in a horrific explosion.
"The bulkhead between the pilots' staterooms was obliterated, leaving a ballroom-sized pile of rubble. The flight deck was bulged upward nearly five feet." Fourteen men were killed, about 60 wounded, and 25 aircraft were destroyed.
The Big E was now out of the war. Tillman writes that by 1945 Enterprise aviators were credited with destroying 911 enemy aircraft and 71 ships. The ship had, beyond a doubt, taken its revenge for Pearl Harbor.
In 1958 the Enterprise, the seventh ship so named, was hauled to New Jersey and dismantled for scrap metal. (The eighth Enterprise sailed earlier this month on its final deployment after 50 years of service; the first joined the U.S. fleet in 1775.)
Assiduously researched and packed with searing combat scenes, this book is a poignant tribute to the men of the Enterprise and a must-read for anyone interested in World War II.
Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.