Excerpt from Clash of the Carriers

PART I

A PRECARIOUS HONOR

One

USS Lexington, 1005, June 19, 1944

                  The atmosphere was literally electric in the air-conditioned steel confines of the room called “radar plot.”  Radio circuits crackled and phosphors glowed green on radar screens in the subdued lighting of the flagship’s combat information center (CIC).

                  Vice Adm. Mark A. Mitscher’s senior fighter direction officer (FDO) was Lt. Joseph R. Eggert, a thirty-one-year-old reservist.  He had been a New York stock broker in a previous life, but now he shouldered a responsibility that no Wall Street merchant ever imagined.  Eggert oversaw the air defense of more than 100 American warships deployed in four task groups, each with its own FDO who would conduct a localized battle of survival.         

                  Mitscher’s carrier fleet was nearly a century removed from the age of sail but every officer and sailor understood what was pending that clear Pacific morning.  Task Force 58 was standing by to repel boarders.

                  The only thing that seemed peculiar about Joe Eggert was his preference for tea.  In Uncle Sam's navy, coffee was the brew that fueled the fleet.

                  The preliminaries had been underway more than a week.  Since June 11 Mitscher's fighters had claimed more than 200 kills in Marianas skies, not counting a foray against Iwo Jima.  Earlier this Monday morning, elements of nine squadrons splashed fifty Japanese planes near Saipan, Guam, and Tinian, so the eastern flank was secure.  Now the threat winged out of the west.

                  The “boarders”—-nearly seventy Japanese fighters and torpedo planes—-approached beyond human vision but within sight of the argus-eyed sentinel called radar.  Launched at 0830, they advanced at the rate of two and a half sea miles per minute, and they had been plotted by the westernmost U.S. task group minutes before.  At 0957 the battleship Alabama had reported the initial contact at 140 miles.  Eggert approved: atmospherics were unusually good.  A “skin paint” at that range--without enhancement by transponders—-was excellent performance.  The long-range SC radars were working exceptionally well.

                  Eggert ran the time-distance equation in his mind.  He had nearly an hour to marshal his forces and assign fighters in relays to intercept the bandits, for they were surely no longer bogies.  Early in the war the Navy identified stock brokers as prime FDO material: they managed expendable resources (fuel and ammunition) in a fluid situation requiring coolness and judgment.  In wartime, with the lethal game played in three dimensions, Joe Eggert was one of the best.

                  Now the enemy formations appeared on Lexington’s scopes.  The primary radar operator made the call: “Contact!  Two groups, 121 and 124 miles, bearing 260.” 

      Eggert handed off to the task group director, Lt. J.H. Trousdale.  Behind a plexiglass screen a sailor marked the plot on the circular grid radiating outward from the center.  The FDO assigned the day’s first plot as Raid One, then called the flag bridge.  Vice Adm. Mitscher, his ruddy face concealed beneath the long brim of his lobsterman’s cap, responded with an esoteric order: broadcast “Hey Rube!”

      Eggert knew what it meant: the old circus call for “Everybody come help.”  He keyed his mike and relayed the message to Grumman F6F Hellcats “capping” Guam’s airfields.  Japanese planes had been landing there, funneled in from the Carolines and elsewhere, building strength for the coming battle.  But the F6F pilots had shot them down in growing numbers; now the main event shaped up at sea.  Most of the Grumman fighters turned their blunt noses westward, returning to their respective ships to refuel, rearm, and await an air battle of unprecedented scale.

      Things began to happen with accelerating speed.  Those ships not already at general quarters sounded the klaxon or bugle call that sent sailors sprinting to battle stations.  Hatches were dogged; helmets donned; trousers tucked into socks to reduce flash burns.  Gun crews trained their weapons toward the westerly threat, setting ready ammunition nearby.  One of the four carrier group commanders, Rear Adm. John Reeves, cautioned his gunners, “Try to avoid shooting down our fighters.  They are our best protection.” (FN)

      On carriers the red diamond Fox flag was hoisted to indicate flight quarters.  Pratt and Whitney engines belched blue-gray smoke, emitting loud hollow coughs as three-bladed propellers turned over.  The wood-planked flight decks—-Oregon Pine or Douglas Fir--trembled with the sensation.

                  In fourteen minutes between 1023 and 1037, Task Force 58 had 220 Hellcats airborne.  The big, angular fighters from Grumman’s Long Island hatchery already had proven themselves the masters of Pacific skies.  Now their pilots anticipated their greatest battle yet.

 

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