Raid into the South China Sea
Contributor: David Stubblebine
ww2dbaseWhen Admiral William Halsey's Third Fleet sailed from Ulithi Lagoon on December 30, 1944, it appeared to all the world like another of their sorties in support of General Douglas MacArthur's campaign in the Philippines; and it was. The fleet's main striking force was Vice-Admiral John McCain's Fast Carrier Task Force (Task Force 38). The Carrier Task Force sailed with eight Fleet Carriers, four Light Carriers, 19 other capital ships, and 56 screening vessels. They were also accompanied by ships in logistical support units. Starting on January 3rd, carrier planes struck airfields and shipping on Taiwan, commonly known in contemporary western literature as Formosa, then Luzon, and then Formosa again in preparation for MacArthur's Lingayen Gulf landings as part of Operation Mike I. Then, without warning, in the early morning hours of January 10, 1945, the ships turned west and transited the Luzon Strait into the South China Sea. Operation Gratitude was under way.
ww2dbaseExcept for submarines and long-range aircraft, this was the first appreciable presence of United States forces in the South China Sea since the war began. As 1945 opened, Japan was wholly dependent on oil, rubber, and other raw materials arriving in Japan from Singapore by way of the South China Sea shipping lanes. The Japanese desperately needed to keep these lanes open and the importance of these lanes was equally well understood by the Allies. Operation Gratitude's first priority was to deal a blow to the Japanese Naval fleet, but a secondary goal was to disrupt this vital line of supply.
ww2dbaseTask Force 38 spent two days going across the center of the South China Sea trying to avoid detection by staying within the edges of the weather being thrown out from a growing typhoon over Mindanao in the Philippines. The ships arrived on the other side on the morning of January 12th at a point about 65 miles off Cam Ranh Bay in French Indochina (now Vietnam). Halsey's intelligence indicated major elements of the Japanese fleet were in Cam Ranh Bay and plans were made to attack those elements with a combined air and surface attack. Early reconnaissance flights reported very few ships in the bay however, so alternate plans were quickly implemented.
ww2dbaseWave upon wave of US aircraft scoured the Indochinese coast along a 400-mile stretch from Qui Nhon in the north to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the south. Several clusters of merchant ships and escort vessels were identified and attacked. Concentrations were found in Saigon harbor on the Mekong River, off Cap St. Jacques at the mouth Mekong Delta, at Cape Padaran 150 miles up the coast, at Cam Ranh Bay (although fewer ships than first expected), and north of Qui Nhon another 150 miles up the coast. Convoy HI-86 north of Qui Nhon consisted of ten merchant ships plus six escorts and drew attention that was about average for the day: full strikes of 30-40 planes each from carriers Hancock, Hornet (Essex-class), Ticonderoga, Essex, Lexington (Essex-class), Independence, and Langley. The result was that only three of the smaller escorts remained afloat and the rest were either sunk or left beached and burning. The three surviving escorts were all damaged to the point they had to be removed from service and those three escorts combined amounted to less than 5% of the convoy's total tonnage. The absence of air opposition allowed the American planes to thoroughly pound all the targets they found. At the end of that single day, a total 41 ships throughout the region were sunk, 31 others were damaged, and 112 aircraft were destroyed on the ground (or on the water). Additionally, numerous docks, oil storage tanks, and airfield facilities were heavily damaged.
ww2dbaseThe results of the day drastically reduced the Japanese ability to ship essential goods along this route. The "pinch" this created in Japan would be felt until well after the war ended. Robert Sherrod was a Time Magazine correspondent who flew as an observer with planes from the Essex on a raid against targets in Saigon. He summed up the day by saying, "By any accounting, 12 January 1945 must be regarded as one of the great days of the US Navy."
ww2dbaseThe following day, the Task Force withdrew eastward across the South China Sea again, this time skirting northward to avoid the typhoon now moving west. After refueling, they were in a position to strike Formosa again on Jan 15th. The destruction of shipping and shore installations in and around Takao harbor (now Kaohsiung) were not as dramatic as the Indochina strikes but they were decisive American victories nevertheless. The Task Force backtracked to the west again and on Jan 16th launched strikes against Hong Kong and targets on the southern Chinese island of Hainan. These strikes on Formosa, Hong Kong, and Hainan encountered a greater volume of better organized anti-aircraft fire than was seen in Indochina, but it was not enough to hold back the assault. Over those two days, another 14 Japanese ships were sunk, most of them warships, and 10 more were damaged.
ww2dbaseAfter two days of refueling west of the Philippines, Halsey scrapped his plans to take the fleet back into the Pacific via the San Bernardino Strait and instead he turned northward to go out the way he came in. On the night of January 20th, Task Force 38 transited the Luzon Strait once again, exiting the South China Sea and returning to the Pacific. Straightaway, the carrier force struck targets on Formosa once again. Then they continued north for one of the first carrier strikes against Okinawa before returning to Ulithi to end their sortie.
ww2dbaseOperation Gratitude's mission to destroy elements of the Japanese Fleet could not be fulfilled because those elements were not there. But the daring 10-day foray into the South China Sea exceeded some of the most optimistic hopes of the American planners by dealing a severe blow to the Japanese ability to supply its war machine; something the Japanese would never fully recover from during the war. As such, the Americans never considered the operation as anything but a tremendously successful sortie.
Admiral Earnest J. King, USN: Report to the Secretary of the Navy
US Navy Aerology and Naval Warfare Section Report: Carrier Strikes on the China Coast, January 1945
Robert J Cressman, The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II
Task Force 38 Chronology
US Navy Action Reports
Last Major Update: Aug 2014
Raid into the South China Sea Interactive Map
Raid into the South China Sea Timeline
|10 Jan 1945||USS Ticonderoga and the other ships of Task Force 38 entered the South China Sea via Bashi Channel.|
|10 Jan 1945||USS Yorktown (Essex-class) and Task Force 38 entered the South China Sea via Bashi Channel to begin a series of raids on Japan's inner defenses.|
|12 Jan 1945||Kashii, sailing in convoy off Indochina, was sunk by American SB2C Helldiver dive bombers and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. Only 19 out of her complement of 640 survived.|
|12 Jan 1945||USS Ticonderoga and other Task Force 38 carriers launched aircraft that sank 44 Japanese ships off of Indochina, totaling 130,000 tons; Ticonderoga lost 1 aircraft. Part of the pre-launch intelligence was provided by agents of Katiou Meynier, who observed a 26-ship convoy enter Cam Ranh Bay, although no such convoy was found specifically. Hoang's intelligence reached the US Navy via the Sino-American Special Technical Cooperative Organization (SACO) in China.|
|12 Jan 1945||USS Yorktown (Essex-class) planes hit the vicinity of Saigon, French Indochina (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam). TF 38 aviators sunk 44 enemy ships including 15 combatants.|
|15 Jan 1945||USS Ticonderoga launched Air Group 80 aircraft for strikes on Taiwan, hitting Kaneka Soda Company chemical plant (mis-identified as a magnesium plant) in Tainan, among other targets. 1 aircraft was lost on this day.|
|15 Jan 1945||USS Yorktown (Essex-class) launched raids on Formosa (Taiwan) and Canton (Guangzhou) in China.|
|16 Jan 1945||Aircraft from USS Enterprise struck neutral Portuguese Macau, destroying stores of aviation fuel at the Naval Aviation Center.|
|16 Jan 1945||USS Ticonderoga launched Air Group 80 aircraft for strikes on Hainan island in southern China; 5 men and 3 aircraft were lost.|
|16 Jan 1945||USS Yorktown (Essex-class) struck Canton (Guangzhou), China again and Hong Kong.|
|20 Jan 1945||USS Miami transited the Balintang Channel between Taiwan and the Philippine Islands.|
|20 Jan 1945||USS Ticonderoga and other ships of Task Group 38 exited South China Sea via Balintang Channel.|
|20 Jan 1945||USS Yorktown (Essex-class) and Task Force 38 exited the South China Sea via Balintang Channel.|
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General Douglas MacArthur at Leyte, 17 Oct 1944