The Marshall-Gilbert Islands raids
While Yorktown had been escorting her charges to American Samoa, the new Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, deemed the time right for the first American counter-offensive against the Japanese. The selected targets were Japanese forward bases in the Marshall and Gilbert island chains. The aims of this counter-offensive were to inflict damage on the enemy, draw forces away from other areas where Japanese forces were steadily advancing, and boost the morale of all Americans. Yorktown and her sister ship USS Enterprise were chosen by Nimitz as the means to carry the war back to the Japanese.
On 11 January 1942, Enterprise left Pearl Harbor to join Yorktown in the South Pacific. Enterprise and her screening warships were designated Task Force 8 (TF-8), with Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr. in command.
Having safely covered the troop movement to Pago Pago, Yorktown, in company with Enterprise, departed Samoan waters on 25 January and the two carrier task forces steamed north-west towards the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. Every day, Yorktown's aircraft were aloft, probing for the enemy, and battling recurring rain squalls.
A Curtiss SOC-1 seaplane from the Enterprise task force flies over burning installations on the island of Wotje during the Marshall-Gilbert Raid.
On 31 January 1942, Yorktown (TF-17) and Enterprise (TF-8) parted company. The objectives for the Yorktown Task Force were Jaluit, the seat of government in the Japanese Marshall Islands Mandate, and Makin and Mili Atolls, located at the northernmost point of the Gilbert chain. The Enterprise Task Force continued steaming further northward to raid Kwajalein, Wotje, and Maloelap in the Marshall Islands.
Screened only by cruisers USS Louisville (CA-28) and USS St Louis (CL-49), Yorktown approached her objectives in the pre-dawn darkness of 1 February 1942. Her four destroyer escorts had been detached the previous night to form a scouting line. At 0415 hours Yorktown went to flight quarters, and launched eleven Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers and seventeen Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless scout bombers. The air strike was led by Commander Curtis W. Smiley.
The Jaluit attack group had to battle rain squalls all the way to the objective, and over Jaluit they encountered a fierce tropical thunderstorm that scattered an already ragged formation. Despite the foul weather, and very poor visibility, an uncoordinated attack on Jaluit was pressed home by squadron sections and individual aircraft. Yorktown's aircraft attacked the few Japanese shore installations and shipping that could be seen in the murky conditions. Little damage was done and six Yorktown aircraft failed to return from the Jaluit raid. Appalling weather conditions or running out of fuel appear to have been responsible for these losses. Two SBDs took off from Yorktown and were never seen again. Two TBDs were forced to ditch off Jaluit. The crews reached shore where they were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Two downed TBDs were seen in the sea by aircraft returning to Yorktown and their approximate location was reported. Some stragglers from the Jaluit raid touched down on Yorktown with only a couple of gallons of fuel left in their tanks.
Other Yorktown aircraft looked for Japanese installations and ships at Makin Atoll. Here the weather conditions were better, and Yorktown's SBDs destroyed two large Kawanishi four-engine H6K flying boats (code-named "Mavis" by the Allies) and severely damaged a gunboat, the Nagata Maru. At Mili Atoll, Yorktown's pilots found nothing to attack.
The attack by TF 17 on the Gilberts appears to have taken the Japanese completely by surprise. Apart from some belated and ineffective anti-aircraft fire, the main obstacle was the bad weather.
While searching for the crews of the two TBDs seen in the sea by aircraft returning from the Jaluit raid, three of Yorktown's destroyers encountered a four-engine Kawanishi H6K Mavis flying boat. The heavily armed reconnaissance flying boat was one of three that had taken off from Jaluit after Yorktown's raiders had withdrawn. The flying boat attacked USS Sims but a stick of bombs fell well astern in the destroyer's wake. The flying boat was driven off into low cloud by anti-aircraft fire from Sims.
Responding to an appeal for air support from her destroyers, Yorktown launched six F4F Wildcat fighters of VF-42 to hunt for the enemy flying boat. The search was fruitless, but at 1307 hours Yorktown's radar picked up another intruder approaching from the east. Yorktown went to general quarters, and shortly afterwards, another Mavis flying boat emerged from low clouds. The intruder was only about 15,000 yards from the carrier, but Yorktown and her escorts withheld anti-aircraft fire to give the combat air patrol Wildcats a free hand to deal with the enemy.
The Japanese flying boat had only just crossed Yorktown's bow when Ensigns E. Scott McCuskey and John P. Adams closed with the enemy aircraft and fired simultaneously. McCuskey saw his tracers striking the flying boat near the wing root, and it suddenly exploded. The excited McCuskey was heard to report, "We just shot his ass off!"
As the first Yorktown pilots to down an enemy aircraft, McCuskey and Adams were called to the bridge to be awarded respectively a colourful jacket and a fez as mementos of the occasion. It was only later that night, when the adrenalin rush had subsided, that the two young American pilots began to address the sobering realisation that they had been forced to destroy a Japanese aircrew as well as the aircraft that was threatening their ship. A week later they would view the terrible devastation wrought by the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and their initial sympathy for the Japanese aircrew would be swept away by the sight.
Rear Admiral Fletcher was contemplating a temporary withdrawal to refuel his destroyers and await better flying weather when Vice Admiral Halsey ordered TF-17 to terminate the Gilbert-Marshall operation and return to Pearl Harbor.
The Marshall-Gilbert Islands Raid in retrospect
Admiral Nimitz described the Marshall-Gilbert Islands raids as "well conceived, well planned and well executed", and noted that the task forces had been obliged to make their attacks somewhat blindly, due to lack of hard intelligence data on the Japanese occupied islands, and in the face of appalling weather conditions.
Although the damage inflicted on a section of the Japanese eastern defensive perimeter had not been significant, and was in no way commensurate with the heavy loss of American lives and damage to the Pacific Fleet produced by Japan's treacherous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the bold hit-and-run raids by Yorktown and Enterprise on the Marshalls and Gilberts resonated strongly in Japan. Admiral Yamamoto was especially alarmed. The primary targets of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had been the aircraft carriers of the US Pacific Fleet, but they had all been at sea when the attack took place. Japan's military leaders believed that their devastating attack on Pearl Harbor would cause the United States to adopt a largely defensive posture for at least six months. This comfortable belief had been shattered by the Marshall-Gilbert Raid. That raid demonstrated very clearly to Tokyo that the US Pacific Fleet was still very much in business. Over the ensuing months, Admiral Nimitz intended to provide the Japanese with continuing reminders of that fact.
Yorktown returns to a changed Pearl Harbor
On 6 February 1942, Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor for the first time since April 1941 when she departed for service in the Atlantic war zone. As Yorktown moved up the channel to enter the harbor, her officers and men were mustered on the flight deck in their dress whites. As the ship entered the harbor, the extent of the devastation produced by the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941 was still apparent, and officers and men were shocked by the scene.
After replenishing in Pearl Harbor, Yorktown was ordered to join Vice Admiral Halsey's Enterprise task force (TF-8) in more bold hit-and-run raids on America's Wake Island, now occupied by Japanese invaders, and Japan's Minami-tori Island (also known as Marcus Island), a coral atoll in the central Pacific, only 700 miles (1,125km) south-east of Japan.
Yorktown put to sea on 14 February, but on that same day, she was redirected by Admiral King to the South Pacific. Admiral King was concerned by intelligence suggesting that the Japanese were preparing to seize more territory in New Guinea or the Solomons. Under Admiral Halsey's command, TF-8 sailed off alone to raid Wake and Minami-tori Islands.