Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sailing for Ulithi, 1944

During the summer of 1944, my dad, Frank Dolan, was stationed aboard the USS Hector at Eniwetok Atoll, only recently captured from the Japanese. While there, crews from Hector repaired numerous ships both alongside and docked throughout the harbor.

By late September, Hector's services were needed at the new forward naval base at Ulithi Atoll for support of Task Force 38, the fleet's main striking force in the latter half of the Pacific War. The rest of the Navy's mobile service force, Service Squadron 10, would follow in the days ahead.1

On today's date in 1944, Hector and destroyer USS Whitman, forming Task Unit 57.4.8, steamed on a zig-zagging course for the small atoll in the Western Caroline Islands. For part of the nearly 1,400-mile trip the ships had to endure extremely heavy seas and wind, which caused some damage to equipment aboard Whitman. The fierce weather was a harbinger of an unusually violent typhoon season ahead. Repairing Whitman's damage became Hector's first job upon arrival at Ulithi.

Located 360 miles southwest of Guam, 850 miles east of the Philippines, and 1,300 miles south of Tokyo, Ulithi was ideally situated to anchor the entire Third Fleet and to stage operations in the Western Pacific. The atoll was formed by a natural harbor, 19 miles in length and about 5 miles wide, surrounded by 40 tiny islands barely rising above sea level. The Japanese had established a radio and weather station at Ulithi and also anchored ships there early in the war. However, by September 23rd, as part of Operation Stalemate to take Peleliu2 and the Caroline Islands, the American invasion forces took the Ulithi without enemy ground opposition. By the 25th, the harbor was completely occupied.

Southwest Pacific

Some mopping up operations were still underway when Hector arrived at Ulithi on the morning of October 5th. The lagoon had just been swept of mines, and there were no port facilities for repairing or resupplying ships. As it reached Mugai Channel, Hector was met by the minesweeper, YMS-177, who directed her to berth 39 within the lagoon.

The remainder of Service Squadron 10 and all its equipment for the new base followed in 4 convoys, the first leaving Eniwetok on October 4th. Remarkably, no personnel or equipment was lost in the immense transport of Squadron 10 from Eniwetok. And nearly as remarkable was the fact that the enemy allowed the transfer to take place unopposed.

Ulithi Atoll
Source: Univ. of Texas Perry-CastaƱeda Library Map Collection

The task confronting the service squadron at Ulithi in October was to convert its lagoon into a major naval resupply and staging area. Within a month of the occupation of Ulithi, the Navy had constructed a floating, operational basea vast network of pontoon piers, floating drydocks, and repair yards. It was an astonishing engineering feat.

Ulithi Atoll, late 1944. Foreground is one of several depot islands surrounding
the anchorage (from U.S. Navy photo from NARA collection)

Source: Mighty 90: Official Website of USS Astoria

Ulithi offered a huge capacity for anchorage for the ships of the fleet. It was larger than either the bases at Majuro or Pearl Harbor. Up to 700 ships could anchor within the lagoon at a time, creating the largest naval base in the world. And, with a base there to refit, repair, and resupply, many ships were able to deploy and operate in the Western Pacific for a year or more without having to return thousands of miles to a major base facility like Pearl Harbor or San Francisco.

Other repair vessels would eventually arrive at Ulithi and share in the daunting task of servicing and repairing the fleet's ships, equipment, and shore facilities. These repair vessels included sister repair ships Ajax and Vulcan, the heavy-hull repair ship Jason, internal combustion engine repair ships Mindanao and Tutuila, and several floating dry-docks.
On September 15, 1944, the U.S. 1st Marine Division landed on the beaches of Peleliu, one of the Palau Islands, 400 miles to the southwest of Ulithi. The amphibious assault was part of a larger operation to provide support for Gen. Douglas MacArthur's planned invasion of the Philippines. At Peleliu, the Japanese introduced a new tactic of fighting, which would be used again in prolonging the fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Rather than meeting the U.S. invaders on the beach, the defenders' main line of resistance was located well in the rear. While a token defense was offered at the beaches, the main force utilized interconnected caves and rugged terrain from which to mount a series of counterattacks. The island was declared secured on the 27th. The cost in American lives proved historic: Over 9,000 were killed or wounded by the time the invasion was over. The Japanese lost nearly 11,000 in killed and captured. The high casualty rate for the Americans exceeded all other amphibious operations during the Pacific War. Peleliu was never used in significant operations against Japan. Instead, Ulithi become the major staging base for operations in the Philippines and the invasion of Okinawa.

Sources: USS Hector War Diary, September & October 1944; USS Whitman War Diary, September & October 1944; USS Hector AR7- Ship's Log (WWII)Wikipedia; Mighty 90: Official Website of USS Astoria; The Two-Ocean War, Samuel Eliot Morrison,  Beans, Bullets and Black Oil, Chapter 18: "Further Stalemate Support," Worrall Reed Carter