Task Force 58 Off Truk (Chuuk), Central Pacific February 17, 1944

Chuuk Lagoon, known up to 1990 as Truk Lagoon, is a sheltered body of water in the Cen­tral Paci­fic north of New Guinea. Con­sisting of eleven major islands, Chuuk is part of the larger Caro­line Islands group. Truk was part of the Spanish East Indies until the Spanish-Amer­i­can War (1898), after which con­trol shifted to Ger­many. Following Ger­many’s defeat in World War I, Truk became a pos­ses­sion of the Japanese Empire under a League of Nations mandate.

Between the war years the Japa­nese made Truk their prin­ci­pal supply and repair base in the Cen­tral Paci­fic, a sort of “Japa­nese Pearl Harbor,” stationing close to 28,000 naval per­son­nel and 18,000 army per­son­nel there. Truk was the base for Japa­nese opera­tions against Allied forces in New Gui­nea and the Solo­mon Islands. Due to its heavy for­ti­fi­ca­tions, both man­made and natural, Truk was known to the Allies as “the Gibraltar of the Pacific.”

On this date, February 17, 1944, U.S. Naval Task Force 58, con­sisting of 12 carriers, 7 battle­ships, 45 other ships, and 10 sub­marines under the com­mand of Vice Adm. Marc “Pete” Mitscher, began a two-day pounding of Truk. Opera­tion Hail­stone destroyed most of the Japa­nese air­strips, 270 air­craft (56 in air combat), the torpe­do boat station, sub­marine repair shops, a com­muni­ca­tions center, a radar station, 3 cruisers, 4 destroyers, 17 trans­ports, 4 fleet tankers, and 32 mer­chant ships, making Truk la­goon the biggest grave­yard of ships in the world. The Japa­nese Navy saved its larger war­ships from de­struc­tion by moving them the week before to their base at Palau at the ex­treme west­ern end of the Caro­line Is­lands. Owing to the damage and the in­ability of the Japa­nese to con­tinue using Truk as a for­ward base in the Cen­tral Pacific, the Allies were able to bypass the is­land and isolate it, practically starving its garrison along with the Trukese.

The attacks on Truk and later Palau during Febru­ary and March 1944 had a crucial effect on the war: a third or so of all tankers assigned to the Japa­nese Com­bined Fleet was sunk, which was to im­pair future fleet opera­tions of the ship-poor Im­perial Navy during the cli­matic cam­paign of the Pacific War, Operation Forager—the Mariana and Palau Islands campaign (June–November 1944).

Operation Hailstone, the February 1944 Destruction of the Japanese Central Pacific Base at Truk (Chuuk) Atoll

Location of Truk in Central Pacific

Above: Truk (known today as Chuuk) was the key logis­ti­cal and opera­tional hub sup­porting Japan’s peri­meter defenses in the Cen­tral and South Pacific. It lay between 625 and 675 miles/­1,005 and 1086 km to the east of the Mariana Islands (Sai­pan, Tinian, and Guam), which the U.S. wrestled from Japanese control in mid-1944 and where the U.S. built bases for their B‑29 Super­fortress long-range bombers that assaulted Japan’s major population and manufacturing centers in 1945.

Operation Hailstone: Navy torpedo bombers over Truk, February 1944Operation Hailstone: Douglas Dauntless dive bombers over Param Island

Left: Navy aviators surprised Japanese war­ships at anchor during Opera­tion Hail­stone, the U.S. raid on Truk, Febru­ary 17–18, 1944. Adm. Mitscher’s self-effacing com­ment on the air-sea raid was, “All I knew about Truk was what I’d read in the National Geo­graphic.” In June Mitscher’s avia­tors devas­tated more Japa­nese assets in the Battle of the Philippine Sea—also known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”

Right: Navy Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bombers from a USS Lexing­ton bombing squadron fly low over Japa­nese instal­la­tions on Param Island, Truk Atoll. Note the smoke rising from damaged buildings.

Operation Hailstone: Destruction at TrukOperation Hailstone: Japanese freighter torpedoed

Left: Aerial photo showing the destruction resulting from the surprise U.S. raid on Truk. In addi­tion to U.S. Navy carrier strikes, land-based Army Air Forces B‑24 and B‑29 bombers carried out their own extensive bombing campaign on Truk Atoll.

Right: A Japanese freighter in Truk Atoll is hit by a tor­pedo dropped from a VT‑10 (Torpedo Squadron 10) Grumman Avenger, Febru­ary 17, 1944. Including the ground-breaking night attack of Febru­ary 16/17, tor­pedo bombers from the USS Enter­prise accounted for one third of the total shipping destroyed by Task Force 58’s attack on Truk Atoll

Operation Hailstone: Japanese ships being bombed at TrukOperation Hailstone: Japanese ammunition ships explode, Truk Harbor

Left: Japanese ships being bombed during Opera­tion Hail­stone. The sur­prise raid managed to sink a great num­ber of auxiliary vessels and warships in the Truk lagoon.

Right: Japanese ammunition ships in the Truk lagoon explode following a dive-bombing attack by a U.S. carrier-based plane, Febru­ary 17, 1944. The aircrew that dropped the bomb on the ammunition ship Aikoku Maru went missing and was believed to have been caught in the terrific explosion.

Newsreel Showing the February 17–18, 1944, Destruction of the Japanese Base on Truk