March 04, 2009

The Kaselehlie Press

Weno, Chuuk - Representatives from Chuuk, the United States, and Japan gathered on February 17 at the Blue Lagoon Resort to commemorate the 65th anniversary of "Operation Hailstorm" the US strike force operation that resulted in the liberation of Chuuk from Japanese occupation. The now peaceful and tranquil Chuuk served as a backdrop to the morning's event. 65 years ago it was the scene of what Colonel Michael Korman of the US Army called an operation that had as much importance as Pearl Harbor in keeping peace.

The Japanese held the islands of Chuuk as a major logistics center and was the operating home base for the Imperial Japanese Navy's Combined fleet. They had held the islands since the end of World War I and no foreigners had been allowed there. On February 4, 1944 the United States sent a pair of PB4Y reconnaissance aircraft to gather aerial photos of what was then called the Truk Lagoon. The aircraft were based at the recently conquered airstrips in the Marshall Islands which were in range of Truk. The aerial photographs showed that Imperial Fleet warships were present in the Lagoon.

Knowing that US and Allied Forces air superiority depended on the destruction of Japan's operation center in Truk, Admiral Raymond Spruce ordered an attack by Task Force 58 a U.S. Fleet Carrier Force Battle Group consisting of five fleet carriers and four light carriers able to fl y 500 aircraft. Assisting the carriers was a large fleet of seven battleships, and numerous cruisers, destroyers, submarines and other support ships.

Before dawn on February 17, 1944 a squadron of Hellcat fighters took off from the carriers to ensure that the US would have air domination over Truk Lagoon. They found that the Japanese Combined fleet was gone and the skies were virtually unprotected. Over 250 Japanese aircraft were destroyed, mostly on the ground. Many of the aircraft were in various states of assembly. Over the course of the next two days US forces sank Japanese ships in the lagoon with a combined weight of 220,000 tons.

According to Colonel Korman over 2000 Japanese troops lost their lives, 120 Chuukese people were killed. 30 US servicemen were also killed in the battle. Their names were read at the Chuuk Peace Memorial Ceremony on February 17, 2009.

Mr. Luke Mechenuk was in Weno on that day in 1944. He said that at 6 o'clock in the morning sirens started to sound and he and the people with him thought that it was just more Japanese planes coming in.

When they looked up and saw that it was US planes and not Japanese planes a loud cheer went up from the crowd but that cheer was short lived. Soon the machinegun fire began and bombs started dropping from the US planes. The Japanese at the airstrip were trying to fire back but they didn't seem to have a chance. Mechenuk said there were at least ten fires downtown and that many people died including children.

Most of the Japanese ships were sunk on the first day and in the evening the planes left. Mechenuk said that the next day the US planes returned and sunk the remaining three or four vessels.

Mr. Kabayashi, a Japanese citizen also spoke and told the crowd that he comes to Chuuk every year to be there on February 17. It was on that day in 1944 that Kabayashi-san's father was killed in the battle for Truk Lagoon and he always to comes to Chuuk to honor his father.

When Truk Lagoon was destroyed US and Allied Forces had air superiority in the Pacific. Several thousand Japanese soldiers were marooned in Chuuk and had to fend off starvation until the end of the war.

Chuuk's Governor Wesley Simina said at the ceremony that he was grateful for the liberation but equally saddened by the loss of people during the battle. He said that his wish is for the absence of hatred in the world and absence of misunderstandings.