The USS Enterprise’s first engagement was the defense of Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attacks of December 7, 1941.
The Enterprise was returning from routine duty where she was transporting five warplanes between bases on the morning of the attack. As her scout planes approached Pearl Harbor, they perceived that the base was under attack, and immediately engaged the enemy planes.
The Enterprise’s pilots suffered heavy losses, with several planes shot down by friendly anti-aircraft fire and others by Japanese fighters.
In the days after the attack, the Enterprise refueled, assembled its flight compliment, and began to search for the Japanese Navy. The Japanese fleet had withdrawn and could not be found, but the Enterprise’s planes sank one Japanese submarine on December 10.
The Enterprise remained stationed in Hawaii in the wake of the attack, defending Pearl Harbor and sinking three Japanese ships in the process of reinforcing American position in the Marshall Islands.
The Doolittle Raid
In April 1942, the Enterprise escorted the carrier USS Hornet on the Doolittle Raid, a small bombing campaign launched against the Japanese home islands. The Raid was a response to the Pearl Harbor attacks, and was meant primarily to boost sagging American morale and strike doubt into the heart of the Japanese, whose government had told them their homeland was invulnerable.
The strike consisted of modifying 16 B-25 bombers for a long-range strike launched from the flight deck of the Hornet, a revolutionary tactic that had not been utilized with planes as large as the B-25. Even with extra fuel tanks installed, the bombers would have to make emergency landings in China, as a return to the Hornet was impossible.
During the raid, the Enterprise was to escort the Hornet, providing air cover in case of an aerial attack. The bombing inflicted minimal damage, and all the B-25s were destroyed when they crash landed in China, but the goals of the campaign were successful: The United States completed an attack on the Japanese homeland, giving them several key psychological advantages, and possibly helping to incite the Battle of Midway, which resulted in a rout for the US.
Battle of Midway
In May 1942, the Enterprise sailed for US-controlled Midway Island, which the Japanese were expected to attack. The Enterprise was the flagship of Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, whose orders were to hold Midway and inflict maximum damage on the Japanese fleet.
In the weeks before the Battle of Midway, US cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese radio communication code, and so were aware of the general outlines of Japan’s battle plans and fleet location. This tactical advantage proved to be a key factor in the battle.
On the morning of June 4, 1942, Japanese forces began a bombing raid on the US base on Midway. The Enterprise, however, was nearby, and responded within three hours. Engaging in battle, the Enterprise’s warplanes sank two Japanses aircraft carriers – the Kaga and the Akagi.
A mixed formation of warplanes from the Enterprise and Yorktown sank the Japanese carrier Hiryu, while Yorktown planes sank the Sōryū.
Japanese forces destroyed the Yorktown and one other ship, but the battle was a lopsided blowout victory for the US, which sank four aircraft carriers to Japan’s one, and downed 272 aircraft to Japan’s 113.
The USS Enterprise was structurally undamaged, and sailed back to Pearl Harbor on June 13 for repairs and restocking. Meanwhile, the United States remained in control of Midway Island, a key lynchpin in the Pacific Theater, while the Japanese fleet was substantially depleted.
The Enterprise’s role in the Battle of Midway was perhaps one of the most decisive shows of naval superiority displayed in World War II.
Battle of the Eastern Solomons
On August 24, 1942 a month and a half after the battle of Midway, the Enterprise was on duty protecting communications channels in the Solomon Islands when a Japanese fleet was detected 200 miles north of Guadalcanal. The Enterprise helped to sink the light Japanese carrier Ryūjō, but suffered heavy damage in the process.
(A Japanese bomb explodes as it hits the Enterprise’s flight deck)
Japanese planes scored three direct hits to the ship, causing substantial damage. However, the crew was able to save the ship with quick repair work, and the Enterprise returned to harbor under its own power, having emerged the victor over the Ryūjō.
Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
After undergoing repairs, the Enterprise put back out, and on October 26, 1942 discovered a Japanese carrier fleet in the South Pacific. The Enterprise and the Hornet, comprising a task force, engaged the Japanese force.
The Enterprise again took direct hits from Japanese planes, but managed to stay operational. When the Hornet was sunk, the Enterprise accommodated her stranded aircraft compliment.
The result of the battle was a victory for the Japanese Navy. The sinking of the Hornet meant that the Enterprise was the only American aircraft carrier remaining in the Pacific Theater. In response, her crew defiantly hung up a banner reading “Enterprise vs. Japan.
After the damaged sustained during the Battled of the Santa Cruz Islands could not be repaired before the Enterprise was called to the Solomon Islands for duty, she actually set sail for Guadalcanal while still under repairs. Welders and mechanics continued to work around the clock to fix the ship, even after she had engaged the enemy.
The Guadalcanal engagement was the result of US attempts to prevent Japan from retaking a Japanese airfield which American forces had seized. US forces learned that Japan planned to land 7,000 troops on the island in order to retake Henderson Airfield, and interceded on November 12, 1942.
The campaign lasted for months, and involved repeated attempts by the Japanese to land an infantry force on the island and then supply the soldiers that survived. American forces were mostly successful in limiting the Japanese offensive.
The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was a pivotal engagement toward the beginning of the campaign. The Enterprise played a pivotal role in the battle, helping to sink 16 enemy ships and damage eight others.
The Japanese were ultimately unsuccessful in retaking Henderson Airfield, and were forced to covertly evacuate as many as 10,000 infantrymen from the island.
The success of the Guadalcanal Campaign ultimately led to a major shift in the war. While the Battle of Midway had rewarded the United States with an equalization of naval power in the Pacific, the success of the Guadalcanal campaign actually forced the Japanese to abandon the core push of their offensive campaign, shifting the tactical initiative to the United States.
Battle of the Philippine Sea
In 1943, the Enterprise returned to Puget Sound for repairs and to be retrofitted with new technology that was being included in the Essex-class aircraft carriers of the day.
After supporting various maneuvers in the Pacific for several months, the Enterprise was called upon to reinforce the US position in Saipan.
On June 19, 1944, the Enterprise, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, detected and engaged Japanese forces in the Philippine Sea.
US and Japanese forces battled in the skies for eight hours. The Enterprise teamed with American submarines to sink three Japanese aircraft carriers. Her warplanes helped shoot down over 400 Japanese aircraft.
The battle ended in a crippling Japanese defeat, the effect of which left the Japanese Navy at less than full power for the duration of the war.
Battle of Leyte Gulf
In the fall of 1944, the United States was undertaking an invasion of Leyte, a tactical supply hub in the Philippines, in order to cut off Japanese supply routes. Japan responded by sending almost all of its remaining naval force in an attempt to repel the American invasion.
The Enterprise spend several weeks supporting the invasion with air-to-land attacks, to fair success. On October 23, 1944, the Japanese fleet approached. What ensued was one of the most protracted naval battles in history.
The Japanese forces were divided into three groups, as was the American force. The six task forces encountered each other in a variety of configurations over the course of several days, but the Enterprise ended up engaging them all, shooting down planes and bombing battleships and destroyers from each Japanese group.
The Enterprise, overhauled to be the only vessel approved to conduct night operations, subsequently remained operational in the Pacific Theater reinforcing these American offensives for several more months. During this time she supported a variety of invasions, including the Battle of Iwo Jima. She eventually sustained two hits from kamikaze attacks, and sailed to port in June 1945, where she was moored when the Japanese surrendered.