Early U.S. Navy Carrier Raids, February–April 1942
Five Operations That Tested a New Dimension of American Air Power
David Lee Russell
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019, 207 pages
Book Review published on: December 20, 2019
David Lee Russell’s Early U.S. Navy Carrier Raids may be the best World War II-era book on U.S. Navy carrier operations to come out in years. Russell examines five carrier raids that followed the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor and their impact on the development of carrier and naval operations during the war. However, Russell’s book is far more than the story of five carrier raids; it is the story of a group of carrier task forces with the bravado to take the fight to the Japanese following the Pearl Harbor attack.
Russell opens with a vivid description of Adm. Chester Nimitz’s Christmas Day 1941 visit to Pearl Harbor. Battleships Utah and Oklahoma were upside down in black, oil-covered waters. Battleships California, West Virginia, and Arizona were blackened from fires, and only their top decks were above the waterline. The putrid smell of oil, charred wood, and dead bodies still filled the air almost three weeks later. News of American forces having just surrendered on Wake Island only contributed to the bleak despair of the moment.
Conventional wisdom for the Navy following Pearl Harbor would have been to save its carriers to defend against perceived Japanese plans for invasion of Hawaii and attacks against the West Coast. Notwithstanding, the Navy wasted no time in foregoing conventional wisdom by using its carriers and naval aviation to launch raids against Japanese targets throughout the Pacific. Russell describes how Nimitz gained approval for carrier strikes against the Marshall and Gilbert Islands over opposition from senior naval officers who feared the potential loss of the carriers.
Russell goes beyond providing detailed descriptions of the raids to include lessons learned by the carrier task forces and the Japanese view of the raids. Naval planners quickly learned
- delayed-action fuses on five-hundred-pound bombs were superior to instantaneous fuses,
- incendiary bullets were preferred in strafing attacks,
- armored and leak-proof fuel tanks as well as enhanced pilot armor were a necessity,
- improvements were needed in voice radio communication and identification of friendly aircraft, and
- the Navy needed an additional 50 percent of qualified pilots as a reserve for any operations lasting longer than a day.
Russell saves the best for last in describing the raid on Tokyo; it may be one of the finest descriptions written of the raid. Russell describes the trip to Japan, the actions of the Doolittle Raiders over their targets, and the events following the raid. He also includes actual map routes, and explains how sixteen Raider B-25B planes were organized into five groups to attack targets in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Yokohoma, Yokosuka Navy Yard, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. Russell includes combat details observed by each B-25B aircrew.
Russell’s description indicates that the Imperial Japanese Navy were alerted early on the morning of 18 April to the presence of Task Force 16 and the Doolittle Raiders. James Doolittle would report later that the Raiders passed innumerable Japanese patrol and fishing boats. Despite the fact that the Japanese navy had prior warning of the U.S. Navy task force, the overall Japanese defense was observed by the Doolittle Raiders as entirely unprepared for their attack. The Raiders noted that the Japanese air warning system essentially did not function. Japanese fighter pilots were too cautious and lacked sufficient training, and Japanese antiaircraft fire was slow to respond and lacked intensity. While the raid caused little material damage to Japan, it captured the imagination of Americans and dealt a severe psychological blow to the Japanese. Importantly, it would set the conditions for the Japanese defeat at Midway.
In chapter 7, Aftermath,” Russell provides an excellent analysis of lessons learned and the overall success of the carrier raids in the war in the Pacific. Moreover, the appendices provide task organization for each raid.
Historians and students alike will be impressed with Russell’s depiction of Navy leaders, aviators, and carrier operations in taking the war to the Japanese in the dark days following Pearl Harbor. Early U.S. Navy Carrier Raids is a must read for those with an interest in World War II, American naval aviation, or carrier operations during the war.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas