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The Bombing of Truk, February 17, 1944

Truk was part of the Japanese Mandated Islands ceded to Japan in 1919. A major fleet anchorage was created there soon after occupation, and over the next twenty-five years the Japanese used Truk as their main base of operations for the Southern Pacific. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto left for his fateful rendezvous with death over Rabaul from the Combined Fleet Headquarters on Truk.

The attack on Truk was dreaded by the pilots of the fast carriers. Intelligence believed that the island’s defenses were very powerful. To facilitate the advance on Japan, the United States Navy decided to reduce the garrison by air attack, especially the potent fighter and bomber force. The Americans hoped this would obviate the need for a ground invasion. They also hoped to destroy any shipping in the island’s anchorage.

Three carrier task groups hit Truk on the morning of February 17, 1944. By the third wave, the Carrier Air Group Commander listed the Japanese ships apparent mission as “flight” away from the attack. Some 200,000 tons of shipping was eliminated, including Japanese ammunition ship Aikoku Maru, which blew up in a tremendous explosion that engulfed the American bomber that had struck it, killing the three men in the aircraft. Meanwhile, American battleships USS Iowa and New Jersey took the Japanese cruisers Katori and merchant ships Maikaze and Shonan Maru under fire and sank them. Losses at Truk itself were severe. Some 17,000 tons of stored fuel were destroyed by the strikes, affecting future defensive actions in the Marianas and the Philippines.

In the first dedicated use of lifesaver submarines, the USS Tang (SS-306) picked up twenty-two downed aviators, the highest record for a single submarine during the war. Later in 1944 the USAAF would repeatedly attack Truk with B-24 Liberators of the Fifth Air Force.

The ability to reduce Truk signaled that a powerful new carrier force was available to the Americans. By grouping their fleet carriers, and attacking in massive waves, horrific destruction could be achieved. The Americans would use their aircraft carriers as mobile artillery and as anti-air units, grouped in overwhelming firepower, for the rest of the war.

As part of the invasion of the Marshall Islands, Truk was repeatedly bombed during February 1944. During the war it was a favorite target for American submarines and aircraft, who would stalk Japanese freighters and warships entering and leaving. Like Rabaul in the Solomons, Truk was left to wither on the vine. It was still occupied at the end of the war, by starving Japanese soldiers.

After the war, Truk became Chuuk in most western countries, a more accurate spelling of the local name for the island.

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