Letters Home: Gilbert, Marshall, and Caroline Islands

Since the August 1943 letters, things were just about to get interesting for Kenny.  We have no letters in our collection until July 1944.  But we have his chronology, Naval history, and Big Mamie’s memorial book.

Operation Vella Lavella in the Coral Sea was about a month-long operation that ended on 6 October 1943 (per the histories, but Kenney’s chronology erroneously records 5 September – is this when the U.S.S. Massachusetts was released from the operation, or a typo?).  Vella Lavella was the beginning of the unified Allied force’s objective of routing the Japanese out of the Pacific, starting with the Solomon Islands.  This operation began by increasing military pressure on the Japanese, systemically pushing their troops to a single egress point on the northwest shore of Vella Lavella.  This operation ended with a single battle on 6 October while the Japanese Navy was evacuating its last ground troops.  Both sides lost one destroyer and it was considered Japan’s last victory in the Pacific.

The 1943-1944 portion of the chronology in Kenney’s World War II memorabilia.

The United States ramped up their efforts with the next operation in the Gilbert Islands dubbed Operation Galvanic and Operation Kourbash; their first major amphibious assault.  The Gilbert Islands were a kind of war prize for the Japanese days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Between 31 October and 7 November, a fast carrier task group was assembled consisting of the U.S.S. Massachusetts joined by sister battleships, North Carolina and Indiana, three carriers (U.S.S. EnterpriseBelleau Wood, and Monterey), and six destroyers – anchoring at Nandi Bay, Fiji Islands.  The mission of the task group was to bombard Tarawa, Makin, and Apanama atolls in support of ground forces assault.  Other task groups were formed with specific missions at each location.  The operation commenced on 20 November with landing forces at both Tarawa and Makin.  The ground battle was over in three days with heavy U.S. Marine casualties at Tarawa.  Big Mamie supported airstrikes on Tarawa and Makin Islands then went on the defensive.  By 26 November 1943, the island battles were mostly over while nighttime naval attacks commenced against the fast carrier forces.  These attacks proved ineffective against U.S. Naval forces and Big Mamie was credited with shooting down several Japanese aircraft.

Next were operations Flintlock and Catchpole against Japanese strongholds in the Marshall Islands.  Big Mamie and the fast carrier task group turned their sites on the Kwajalein Atoll.  Enemy aircraft hit another carrier group and was believed to have come from Nauru.  The Massachusetts was among the ships redirected to conduct bombardments of that island in retaliation.   On the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Mamie fired upon Nauru with all her armament, launching 536 projectiles at the island while carrier airplanes unleashed 51 tons of bombs on enemy positions.

With Nauru out of commission, Big Mamie rejoined the main operation.  Her primary objective was Kwajalein from which enemy fire had locked onto Mamie … and missed.  She returned fire demolishing an ammunition dump and BOOM! – Jackpot.  In all Mamie reigned down 2,246 projectiles on the atoll effectively taking out airstrips, airfields, and enemy positions and opening the path for landing forces on Kwajalein 7 February 1944.  

Lastly, as final retribution for Pearl Harbor, the Pacific fleet headed to the Caroline Islands to launch a surprise attack on Japan’s naval stronghold at Truk.  The fast carrier task group headed out on 12 February 1944 and miraculously arrived undetected on the 16th.  Truk was Japan’s Pacific fleet headquarters like Pearl Harbor was headquarters to the U.S.  It is said the task group took out 209 airplanes and 41 ships.  All hands spent two full days and nights at battle stations during the attack; shelling Truk and repelling the heaviest enemy air attacks of their enlistment.  The U.S. attacks continued in a hopscotch fashion; the fast carrier task group would move ahead to the next target to begin shelling in advance of the landing forces.

NOTE: This footage is graphic in several places. View with caution.

With the Gilbert, Marshall, and Caroline Islands under full Allied control by 23 February 1944, the Pacific was lost to the Japanese and the tide had turned.

It is a shame that we have no surviving letters from Kenny for these months.  It is very unlikely that they would contain any details of these battles as the censor was still stamping the letters we do have before and after 1943-1944

A portion of a 1945 press release (#183) detailing Big Mamie’s history. Written by U.S. Navy, accessed from Fold III, WWII Diaries USS Massachusetts.