The Grey Ghost | The USS Enterprise

“Fate: Protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise.”

— William Riker, Star Trek: The Next Generation —

No, this podcast is not about Star Trek, so Star Wars fans and science fiction skeptics need not reach for the stop button. The name “Enterprise” is not exclusive to fictional starships or the space shuttle; in fact, nineteen ships of the British Royal Navy and nine of the United States Navy have born the name (spelled either with an S or a Z). Undoubtedly, the most famous USS Enterprise is the World War Two-era aircraft carrier, which fought in more battles in the Pacific War than any other vessel, earned twenty battle stars, and is today the most decorated ship in American naval history. “The Big E,” (first of her many nicknames) was commissioned in May 1938 and attached to the Atlantic fleet for her first year of service. As tensions rose with Japan and the Navy Department realized the importance of aircraft carriers in the Pacific, the Enterprise was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and based first at San Diego and then at Pearl Harbor.

From Pearl Harbor to Midway

The Enterprise was the flagship of Admiral William F. Halsey’s Carrier Division Two in the Pacific. On November 28th, the Navy Department ordered Halsey to deliver a Marine fighter squadron to Wake Island in preparation for a Japanese attack on US bases in the Pacific, and the Enterprise departed Hawaiian waters that evening. Halsey’s other carrier, USS Lexington, was moving a bomber squadron to Midway, and the Saratoga was at San Diego for repairs. All three carriers were thus absent when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, which is one of the reasons why the United States recovered and went on the offensive against Japan so quickly. Halsey learned of the attack while the Enterprise was returning to Hawaii from Wake, and she reached Pearl Harbor on the evening of December 8th. As the crew watched the still-burning wrecks of American warships from the flight deck, Halsey met with Admiral Husband Kimmel and ordered every able-bodied man aboard his flagship to prepare the Enterprise for departure and battle.

Halsey was the most aggressive fleet commander in the Pacific War, and the Enterprise was his primary weapon. While he lacked the ground strength to invade enemy-occupied islands, he was determined to move and strike as quickly and as often as he could, and the Enterprise and her escorts sailed from one Japanese target to another throughout the early months of 1942, bombing enemy islands and sinking enemy supply ships. She also protected troop and supply convoys headed for Samoa and, on February 1st, raided the Marshall Islands in the largest American attack on the Japanese thus far. Enterprise pilots sank three ships, damaged eight more, and destroyed at least sixteen aircraft and numerous ground installations.

By April 1942, both the public and the Roosevelt administration were eager to hit the Japanese Home Islands, and a plan had been drafted by Colonel James Doolittle of the US Army Air Corps to fly sixteen B-25 bombers off a carrier to attack Tokyo. Halsey’s carrier division, now centered around Enterprise and USS Hornet, would be the main naval strike group for the “Doolittle Raid.” The Hornet would carrier the bombers (and thus be unable to launch fighters), while the Enterprise would protect the attack group by flying combat air patrol. The Enterprise left Pearl Harbor on April 8th, met the Hornet coming west from San Diego, and crossed the Pacific heading for Japan. The fleet was sighted by enemy patrol vessels six hundred miles from their targets, and the Hornet launched the bombers while the Enterprise’s fighters attacked the enemy ships. Their job complete, both carriers and their escorts returned to Pearl Harbor on April 25th. The Doolittle Raid was a stunning success, both in the military and propaganda spheres. While Tokyo suffered little damage, the psychological effect of an attack on their capital led the Japanese to pull some of their air defense strength back from the front to defend the city and their emperor.

Only days after their arrival at Pearl Harbor, the Enterprise and the Hornet were steaming south to join the carriers Lexington and Yorktown in the Coral Sea, but the Japanese attacked before the task force could arrive. The Lexington was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor in late May. Admiral Halsey was beached because of a skin condition, and command of his task force passed to Admiral Raymond Spruance, who sailed with the Hornet and the Yorktown to defend Midway Island in early June. The initial Japanese attack on the island and the American carriers did little damage, while the first American strike group got lost searching for the Japanese fleet. They found the enemy as the Japanese were rearming their planes and attacked immediately. Three Japanese fleet carriers were sunk, two by dive bombers from the Enterprise, and a fourth had to be abandoned. The American carrier Yorktown was badly damaged and scuttled as well. Midway was the turning point in the Pacific War, and the Enterprise had played a key role in stopping the Japanese onslaught once and for all.

The Solomons and Santa Cruz

By mid-1942, the United States had mobilized its economy for wartime production and was putting new warships to sea every week. The Pacific fleet began to receive small Wasp-class escort carriers, but its three remaining fleet carriers (Enterprise, Saratoga, and Hornet) were still the core of its striking power and thus were deployed in every major engagement going forward. The Enterprise spent a month at Pearl Harbor for crew rest and refitting before joining the fight at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. The Battle of Guadalcanal, fought on land and sea, was one of the fiercest engagements of the Pacific War.

The Enterprise’s fighter and bomber groups fought countless actions against the enemy and sank the light carrier Ryujo in July 1942. Squadron VF-10 was so effective in aerial combat that it earned the sobriquet “The Grim Reapers.” Enterprise itself took heavy damage in July, but her damage control parties managed to patch her up, and she was able to return once again to Pearl Harbor. Back in the fight in October 1942, the Enterprise fought in the Battle of the Santa Cruz islands, where the Japanese sank the carrier Hornet and severely damaged “Big E.” With the Saratoga out of action temporarily from an enemy torpedo hit, Enterprise was now the only American fleet carrier in the Pacific. She fought through and pushed the Japanese back at Santa Cruz, and her Seabees (Construction Battalion workers) pulled double-duty and worked around the clock to repair as much of the ship’s battle damage as possible before the ship reached an Allied drydock at New Caledonia. The carrier pulled into Nouméa on October 30, 1942, and French yard workers and civilians saw a massive banner fluttering over the flight deck: “Enterprise vs. Japan.”

The Seabees and their French counterparts repaired the Enterprise in record time, earning them the praise of Admiral Halsey, long recovered from his skin condition and now commander of all American naval forces in the South Pacific: “our commander wishes to express to you and the men of the Construction Battalion serving under you his appreciation for the services rendered by you in effecting emergency repairs during action against the enemy. The repairs were completed by these men with speed and efficiency. I hereby commend them for their willingness, zeal, and capability.” These words of high praise were rare from the famously-gruff Halsey, and they inspired the ship’s Seabees to redouble their efforts in the coming battles. For the next six months, the Enterprise was the tip of the spear in America’s fight against Japan. She appeared, struck, and disappeared so often that the Japanese called the ship the “Grey Ghost” and speculated that there had to be at least three identical ships bearing the name Enterprise. As the Guadalcanal campaign wound down, Enterprise fliers destroyed the Japanese battleship Hei, covered American landings on small islands in the Solomons, and engaged enemy surface ships near the Rennell Islands. She was then ordered back to Pearl Harbor in May 1943, where she was presented with the first Presidential Unit Citation ever given to an aircraft carrier. She then steamed for Puget Sound for major repairs and upgrades.

From Washington to the Philippines, and Back Again

The 1943 refit of Enterprise included new anti-aircraft guns, upgraded plane elevators, new workshops for the Seabees, and an “anti-torpedo blister” to protect her hull. She returned to Pearl Harbor in November 1943 and joined Admiral Spruance’s Fifth Fleet. The Enterprise was smaller than the new Essex-class carriers and Iowa-class battleships, but her famous name and fearsome reputation inspired sailors aboard any ship which could see her in the distance. Now serving in the Central Pacific Theater under the overall command of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Enterprise spearheaded the assault on the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, striking enemy shipping and shore installations before the Marines went in to capture the islands. She then joined the attack on the Mariana Islands, hitting Saipan and supporting troops liberating the island of Guam. As the summer of 1944 approached, the crew of the Enterprise knew that their next target would be the Philippines, America’s largest prewar possession and the final goal of the central Pacific offensive.

Admiral Spruance deployed the Fifth Fleet west of the Mariana Islands in the Philippine Sea to screen for enemy defenses as Army and Marine units boarded their transports for the assault on the Philippines. The Enterprise and three other carriers were in the van when the Japanese attacked on June 19, 1944. The Battle of the Philippine Sea was the largest carrier battle in history. Enterprise bombers struck Japanese battleships and cruisers, which burst into flames as bombs and torpedoes found their mark, and her fighters blasted one enemy Zero from the skies after another. The carrier took moderate damage during the battle and returned to Pearl Harbor (as it turned out for the last time during the war). She then returned to the Fifth Fleet in time for the invasion of the Philippines.

During the preliminary moves toward the Philippines, the Enterprise made minor attacks on small Japanese islands and one large raid on Formosa, but her crew husbanded their resources for the battle to come. Before the Americans could land on the many islands of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy would have to be brought to battle one last time and its strength destroyed by the overwhelming might of the Fifth Fleet. The two sides engaged each other in the last major naval battle of the war at Leyte Gulf in late October 1944. This battle produced heroes on both sides and saw some stunning acts of courage on the part of American destroyer captains (most famously Ernest Evans aboard USS Johnston), and it was the Enterprise’s greatest test of the war. The carrier’s pilots sank one Japanese ship after another in the largest naval battle in history, and she suffered two direct hits from enemy kamikaze planes. Fortunately the damage was minor, and she emerged from Leyte Gulf largely unscathed. Her record for the battle stood at three enemy ships sunk and 52 planes shot down, the largest count of any ship in the battle.

With the Japanese now confined largely to land and unable to project power at sea, the Enterprise returned to supporting landing forces and conducting small air strikes on enemy-held islands. She participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima, at one point maintaining a continuous combat air patrol over the island for seven days and eight hours. Whenever she was damaged, the carrier sailed to Ulithi atoll in the Caroline Islands north of Indonesia and then returned to the fight, usually within three or four days. As the Battle of Okinawa heated up, the Enterprise was repeatedly attacked by suicidal kamikaze planes. On May 14, 1945, six days after the war in Europe had ended, a kamikaze Zero fighter crashed into her forward elevator, destroying the mechanism and killing or wounding almost fifty sailors.

Now unable to launch aircraft at full capacity, the Enterprise set sail for Puget Sound, where she was repaired and upgraded for a second time. However, two days before she was scheduled to return to action, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, and the war ended only a few days later. Of America’s five prewar aircraft carriers, only two had survived the war (Enterprise and Saratoga). Both were heroes of the Pacific war, but the Enterprise stood tall above her sister and all other warships of the United States Navy.

The End of “Big E”

For the several months, the Enterprise became what one sailor aboard called “a glorified ocean liner.” She ferried returning veterans home from Pearl Harbor in the weeks after the war’s end and then sailed for the East Coast, where her hangers were filled with bunks. The carrier then crossed the Atlantic three times to retrieve veterans of the European war. She was honored by the British Admiralty in a ceremony at Portsmouth in November 1945, and by early 1946 her labors had ended.

Many World War Two-era ships have been turned into floating museums, but this honor was sadly denied to both veterans of the early Pacific war. Saratoga was sunk in an atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1946. She survived the first explosion, but the second sent her to the bottom. Enterprise was spared this ignominious end, but her fate was hardly more glorious. The “Big E,” pride of the US Navy and symbol of American strength in the darkest hours of the war with Japan, was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap. By 1960, only the ship’s bell (which is now at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD), the stern name plate (now in River Vale, NJ), and an anchor at the Washington Navy Yard remained of the great ship.

Of course, the Department of Defense was determined not to allow the name Enterprise pass into history, and in 1958 the Navy christened the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. After 51 years of service, that Enterprise was decommissioned in 2012, and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced at its decommissioning ceremony that the next Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier would also carry the name Enterprise. When it comes to the United States Navy, names carry with them the legends of those ships which came before, and history will surely not forget the name Enterprise.