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Prelude to Combat
(December 1941 - July 1942)

The epic story of the USS NORTH CAROLINA in the Pacific Theater of World War II - a story filled with the flames and smoke of battle - reads almost like the history of the war, itself. From her arrival in the Pacific in July 1942 until the very end of the conflict, the Showboat fought in every major campaign from Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands through the Gilberts, Marshalls, Carolines, New Guinea, and the Marianas; the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa; to the shores of Japan, and finally to victory in Tokyo Bay.

The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, on 7 December 1941, found the NORTH CAROLINA and her crew in port for the week-end at the New York Navy Yard, shakedown training not yet completed. Within an hour after the first news of the attack came crackling over the radio, the Showboat's duty officer had recalled all hands from liberty and shore leave. For the few senior officers who could be told the whole grim truth, it came as a profound shock to learn that eight United States battleships had been sunk or damaged. The full implications, for the NORTH CAROLINA in particular, of this blow to our battle line strength were staggering. What odds would the Showboat now face when sent out to do battle with the Imperial Japanese Navy?
One of the first reactions of the NORTH CAROLINA's pugnacious skipper was to pound on the desk of the Navy Yard Commander and demand that one hundred new 20-mm automatic antiaircraft guns be installed on his ship at once. Forty of the rapid-fire Oerlikons were promptly mounted on the Showboat, and additional men ordered on board to man them. Gunnery drills and target practice became almost the full-time preoccupation of all hands, as the ship hurried through the final tests of her engineering plant and readied herself for battle.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific the remnants of our fleet were engaged in a desperate struggle for survival. After Pearl Harbor, the odds between the two opposing sea forces were overwhelmingly in favor of the Imperial Japanese Navy - a tough, well-trained and powerful opponent. Even if the odds had not been altered, their fleet was in every important branch, including the air arm, and in all ship types; in gunnery, navigation, ship-handling, tactics, and in fighting spirit, a worth adversary. But that wasn't all. The Japanese had ten aircraft carriers and twelve battleships while the United States Pacific Fleet, until reinforced later, included only three carriers and, thanks to the Pearl Harbor disaster, just one operational battleship that was too slow to keep up with the carriers.
The three aircraft carriers in our Pacific Fleet as of December 1941 were the LEXINGTON ( CV-2), SARATOGA (CV-3), and ENTERPRISE (CV-6). By the end of January 1942, the YORKTOWN (CV-5) plus three old and slow battleships had been transferred from the Atlantic, but Japan still retained a strong numerical superiority.
As an inevitable consequence of these odds, the first six months of the war were marked by relentless advance of Japanese invasion forces across a vast Pacific domain. They seized Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, Indo-China, Borneo, Singapore, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Rabaul, and the Gilbert Islands. In the face of this powerful onslaught, out thin line of ships then in the Pacific Fleet could offer little more than hit-and-run tactics and delaying actions. It was tough going. Small, hastily improvised task groups - usually composed of a single carrier screened by a handful of old cruisers and destroyers - stayed at sea, sometimes for more than a hundred days at a time, without rest for the men or upkeep of the ships. Often they returned from the sea without a morsel of food left on board, having rationed their dwindling supplies of rice, dehydrated eggs and potatoes, and wormy flour until the last meager meal before entering port. The gaunt men waited anxiously for help to arrive from the States; but America had been caught unprepared for war, and adequate reinforcements were a long time in coming.
The gravity of the situation in the Pacific was fully understood in Washington, but the equally urgent demands of the war in the Atlantic also required attention. Early in 1942 the Navy Department had prepared orders which would have sent the NORTH CAROLINA at full speed to the Pacific; but the move was held up and the ship kept in the Atlantic for several months so she would be on hand to take on the powerful new German battleship TIRPITZ, if that ship was used to prey on allied convoys in the Atlantic. Meanwhile, sister ship WASHINGTON, whose commissioning and shakedown had followed closely behind those of NORTH CAROLINA, was sent across the Atlantic to operate with the British Home Fleet protecting Allied convoys on the dangerous run to Murmansk.
The in May came better news from the Pacific when our carriers LEXINGTON and YORKTOWN halted a Japanese advance into the region of the Coral Sea, dangerously close to Australia. One month later, in a brilliant and decisive victory over a numerically superior Japanese invasion force, Navy flyers from carriers ENTERPRISE, YORKTOWN, and HORNET (CV-8) (newly arrived from the Atlantic), stopped a similar move against Midway Island. One Japanese carrier was sunk at Coral Sea, and four at Midway, while we lost the LEXINGTON and YORKTOWN respectively in those two battles. These two great clashes gave the enemy a bloody nose and took some momentum out of his offensive; but they regained no lost ground. To the typical young man serving in the Pacific Fleet in the summer of 1942, the odds still seemed stacked heavily against the United States, and the outlook was grim.

1999 The Battleship USS North Carolina Commission
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Last updated: July 18, 1999.