World War II’s Operation Hailstone remembered on Chuuk

March 4, 2019

 

 

Seventy-five years ago in 1944 sunrise was at 6:10 a.m. Operation Hailstone, the American navy’s campaign to neutralize firepower over Truk Lagoon was underway.

 

Thirty waves of 72 planes were launched from the American Douglas SBD bombers would, in two days, drop ordnance with a total weight 15 times heavier than the Japanese had dropped on Pearl Harbor.

 

Tarioshy Ruben, a Chuukese from Nechap, Tonoas, described what it was like to live under the Japanese. He described the horror of the attack and the suffering and starvation of the Chuukese people until the Japanese surrendered to the Americans.

 

But an American mother in the United States had a tale to tell as well. Lillie Mae Maddox saw four of her children drafted for the war. Only two came home. Buddy Bridges had worked with the OSS in Manila, and had a Chinese wife. He had been captured and held prisoner of war by the Japanese for five years in Shanghai. Mercer Bridges was a land-based Marine Corps night fighter pilot who saw duty in Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands. Madison Bridges died in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge.

Jim Bridges, a Navy pilot died in Truk during Operation Hailstone. Earning his wings and approved for carrier duty, he bragged to mom in a letter:

 

“Carriers carry the best fighting and fastest planes the Navy has. They are of three types: fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes. In these new planes I will have a chance to fight back when we get in battle. The planes on battleships are very slow and sluggish making them cold turkey in combat. In short, this new duty is the fastest, toughest and I may say ‘Zenith’ of aviation.”

 

On Feb. 17 1944, the twenty-six year old Lt. Bridges got his chance at Truk Lagoon.

 

At 7:15 a.m. Truk time, the Intrepid’s deck crew launched wave 2Bravo, with eight Avengers. Their bomb bays had been loaded with either a single 2,000-pound bomb, or four 500-pound general-purpose bombs. Their targets on Tonoas Island were the  submarine base in Nechap Village, the seaplane base in Nukuno, the fuel tanks in Sapun, the communication towers, and other military facilities for the Japanese Combined 4th Fleet.

 

The fourth Avenger, piloted by Lt. Bridges, hit the 10,437 ton cruiser Aikoku Maru, one of the largest vessels in the atoll.  The bombs appear to have struck the ship’s powder magazine or munitions storage hold. James D. “Jig Dog” Ramage, who would retire as a rear admiral, was flying at Truk that day and saw the blast. He later described it as “the biggest explosion I have ever seen--other than the atomic blasts.”

 

Ramage had the tough duty of explaining what happened to Bridges’ mom:

 

“[Lt. Bridges] ‘Jimbo,’ as we all very affectionately called him, was as you will know, very courageous.  It was perhaps that courage which was [his] undoing at Truk on Feb. 16, 1944.

 

“Jim flew my plane on the second attack on that morning... Jim picked out a ship that was zig zagging around in the lagoon attempting to escape. Several other planes had attacked it and missed with their bombs.

 

“Jim, and his courage certainly showed here, made a prolonged diving attack to insure getting a hit. His bomb was a perfect hit. Unfortunately he was below the safety altitude when his bomb exploded. That alone might not have affected him, but the fact that the ship he attacked was loaded with ammunition made the dive a fatal one. The ship exploded with a terrific blast, scattering its parts over an area a mile in diameter. It was that tremendous concussion that caught Jim’s plane. His plane was seen to flutter helplessly into the lagoon.

 

“I hate intensely to tell you that there was not a chance that anyone in his plane could possibly survive the shock and the crash. I feel sure that I can say truthfully that they did not drown. The end was instantaneous.

 

 “’Jimbo was without comparison the best-liked man in the squadron. We kidded him about his accent and he tossed plenty right back at us. He was the best morale builder any squadron could hope for. We all trusted his abilities as a pilot and as a leader, and he was the last man ever to shirk his duties or dodge any unpleasant ones.

 

“I extend to you my very deepest sympathy Mrs. Bridges. Believe me, you have every right to be very proud of Jim and what he has done.  I do realize that all the pride in the world does not commensurate his loss.”

 

In 1973 on an October morning, Kimiuo Aisek’s hand-built plywood boat shoved off from the jetty in Nepukos, Weno, near the construction site for his Blue Lagoon Dive Shop. After witnessing the sinking of the Aikoku Maru twenty-eight years earlier, today he finally would visit her grave. Dr. Steven Zuckerman was his guest.

 

After a historic twelve-minute dive to the wreck of the Aikoku, Zuckerman recalled the words from one of his favorite books, Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

 

"Upon its surface men…tear one another to pieces…with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases…and their power disappears."

 

After waiting twenty-eight years, the man who had watched in horror as the Aikoku Maru disappeared, now felt the powerful lure of the wrecks of Truk’s ghost fleet.

 

Kimiuo had unwittingly become the founder of the diving industry in Chuuk. What Operation Hailstone sank eventually gave birth to the world’s greatest underwater museum, to be reverently visited by divers for generations.

 

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