From: Oregon, USA
March 3, 1942
Location: 175 miles south of Gardner Island
Attached to: TF 6
Mission: Surface Combat
System Damage: 5
Float Damage: 0
Orders: Accompany Kido Butai towards the Phoenix Islands region.
The Hibiki plows steadily east early on the morning of March 3, surrounded by the other destroyers and cruisers of Task Force 6. Some four miles to the southwest are the six carriers and escorts of Kido Butai.
There has been no sign of any enemy ships. No one aboard the Hibiki suspects as yet that they are about to have ringside seats for the first carrier battle in history, a battle that will become known as the Battle of the Phoenix Islands.
Admiral Nagumo was ordered to attack enemy ships around Fiji, but after being sighted two days ago he ordered a sharp turn to the east. Now his ships are 175 miles south of Gardner Island. They are getting close to the US air base on Canton Island, so Nagumo has ordered Admiral Goto's ships to position themselves to the northeast so that they can screen his carriers against attacks coming from that direction.
To the west are two US task forces. One is built around the carrier Lexington and is commanded by Admiral Spruance. The other is built around Hornet and is commanded by Admiral Marc Mitscher. Admiral Nimitz suspects that the Japanese are preparing to invade Fiji and has ordered these carriers to keep an eye on things and to interfere with any landings that develop. They have steamed west as the Japanese carriers were moving east, and as dawn breaks the two opponents are only 120 miles apart. Neither has any idea the other is in the area.
That changes at 0800 hours when the crew of the Hibiki is electrified to hear that one US carrier has been spotted by a search plane from Zuikaku. Captain Ishii immediately orders combat stations. Some twenty minutes later a plane that Seaman First Class Taiki Takahashi has no trouble identifying as an SBD Dauntless dive bomber is spotted over the fleet. Kido Butai has been found.
Admiral Nagumo immediately orders his carriers to come about 180 degrees to launch planes. Spruance and Mitscher are already heading into the wind, and despite the fact that their sighting report came later than that of the Japanese the two opponents put their planes into the air at about the same time.
Every eye on the Hibiki that can be spared is riveted to the Japanese carriers as the first group of American planes arrives. These are from the Hornet, which is 30 miles closer to the Japanese than is Lexington. Captain Ishii looks around and barks at a couple of lookouts whose attention is straying towards the battle, then squints back into the big 12 cm. binoculars.
Zeros swarm over the escorting Wildcats. The American pilots are brave and well trained, but they are outnumbered two to one and none of them have ever faced a Zero before. Too many of them make the mistake of trying to mix it up in dogfights, and before long the sky is streaked with smoke as first one Wildcat and then another plunges towards the sea.
Not all of the Zeros are battling the fighters. There are 12 TBD Devastators, and they are immediately pounced upon by diving Zeros. Half of them are shot down, and the other six release their torpedoes too early and turn away. No hits are scored.
Overhead are 30 Dauntlesses, and as they approach they are engaged repeatedly by other Japanese fighters. Many are riddled with machine gun bullets and a number of them are shot down, but over 20 of them survive to reach their tip over point and dive on the Japanese ships.
On the Hibiki the crew holds their breath as the American planes plunge down through the black bursts of anti aircraft fire. They watch columns of water from misses sprout around cruiser Chikuma and battleship Kirishima. Hiryu comes under heavy attack, but twisting through a series of turns the carrier emerges unscathed.
Suddenly there are cries of dismay aboard Hibiki. A bomb has caught Shokaku on the flight deck near the forward elevator, and a column of thick smoke rises into the air from the stricken carrier.
Then it is quiet again. The Zeros begin to pursue the fleeing American planes but most are immediately called back as Lexington's planes arrive. Because some of the Zeros are caught out of position this attack meets less opposition. Half of the escorting fighters are destroyed, but only four Devastators and two Dauntlesses out of 42 attacking bombers are shot down. The rest press home the attack.
Shokaku is singled out because the smoke draws the dive bombers attention. Another bomb penetrates the flight deck of the big carrier and explodes in an almost empty hanger. Fire blazes up.
Just as it seems the attack is almost over another Dauntless catches Kaga. A bomb rips through the edge of the flight deck thirty feet aft of the island and detonates beside the ship, sending fragments ripping through the gallery and into the hull. Kaga shudders but signals that she is all right and still able to launch and recover planes.
Destroyers circle protectively around Shokaku as the carrier tries to bring the fires under control. Aboard Hibiki they can only watch this effort, but soon all attention on the bridge shifts to the reports that the radio operator is relaying from Kido Butai's own strike.
The Japanese planes miss the closest carrier, Hornet, which is at the moment hidden by a rain squll. They grope beyond her and find Lexington. 35 Zeros and 87 bombers sweep aside the carrier's defending fighters and execute a textbook attack. For a few minutes Lexington twists and turns, avoiding the first wave of attackers, but then a bomb strikes near the base of the island. Two more bombs hit in rapid succession and the carrier begins to lose speed. More bombs hit, and then the torpedoes arrive. Three detonate against her port side and two more strike starboard. Cruiser San Francisco, which is matching Lexinton's every move and putting up a stream of anti-aircraft fire, is also struck. One bomb penetrates the deck and explodes in the engine room. The cruiser loses speed and slews away, rudder jammed.
Finally the attack is over. As the Japanese planes depart it is obvious that Lexington cannot be saved. Admiral Spruance calmly transfers his flag to cruiser Minneapolis, and watches as Lexington settles into the Pacific. As the waves close over her she is still upright, a lady to the last.
Aboard Hornet the morning's strike returns to their ship. Mitscher immediately flings every plane he has available into the air again. But most of the aircraft that returned from the earlier strike are damaged, and all he can put in the air are 16 planes.
The Japanese too are readying a second strike. Shokaku is unable as yet to launch or recover aircraft, but her planes are divided among the other five carriers and sent out to find Hornet.
Hornet's second strike is annihilated before any planes can attack. And this time Kido Butai's planes find Hornet. The US carrier is struck by four bombs and no fewer than 6 torpedoes. Fires rage aboard the ship. Her fire fighting lines are ruptured by the numerous impacts, and the fires quickly spread to the avgas storage area. Hornet is wracked by a massive explosion, and almost immediately rolls over and sinks. Among the missing is Marc Mitscher.
Cheated of their prey by the Kates, most of the remaining Vals vent their fury on the nearest ship, the light cruiser Phoenix. Phoenix is struck by four bombs and left burning and adrift.
As the Japanese planes return to Kido Butai and circle overhead Shokaku signals that the fires are mostly under control and that she can recover her own planes. Admiral Nagumo considers retiring, but perhaps mindful that he would be criticized for failing to follow up a stunning victory with a second attack he orders his and Admiral Goto's ships to continue slowly east in search of more prey. The Battle of the Phoenix Islands is over.
Situation at dusk, March 3:
< Message edited by Cuttlefish -- 2/28/2007 11:41:47 PM >