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The first official history of the legendary aircraft carrier that fought in World War II and Vietnam and continues to serve as a major air and space museum in New York City
The USS Intrepid is a warship unlike any other. Since her launching in 1943, the 27,000-ton, Essex-class aircraft carrier has sailed into harm’s way around the globe. During World War II, she fought her way across the Pacific—Kwajalein, Truk, Peleliu, Formosa, the Philippines, Okinawa—surviving kamikaze and torpedo attacks and covering herself with glory. The famous ship endured to become a Cold War attack carrier, recovery ship for America’s first astronauts, and a three-tour combatant in Vietnam.
In a riveting narrative based on archival research and interviews with surviving crewmen, authors Bill White and Robert Gandt take us inside the war in the Pacific. We join Intrepid’s airmen at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in October 1944, as they gaze in awe at the apparitions beneath them: five Japanese battleships, including the dreadnoughts Yamato and Musashi, plus a fleet of heavily armored cruisers and destroyers. The sky fills with multihued bursts of anti-aircraft fire. The flak, a Helldiver pilot would write in his action report, “was so thick you could get out and walk on it.” Half a dozen Intrepid aircraft are blown from the sky, but they sink the Musashi. A few months later, off Okinawa, they again meet her sister ship, the mighty Yamato. In a two-hour tableau of hellfire and towering explosions, Intrepid’s warplanes help send the super-battleship and 3,000 Japanese crewmen to the bottom of the sea.
We’re next to nineteen-year-old Alonzo Swann in Gun Tub 10 aboard Intrepid as he peers over the breech of a 20-mm anti-aircraft gun. He’s heard of kamikazes, but until today he’s never seen one. Swann and his fellow gunners are among the few African Americans assigned to combat duty in the U.S. Navy of 1944. Blazing away at the diving Japanese Zero, Swann realizes with a dreadful certainty where it will strike: directly into Gun Tub 10.
The authors follow Intrepid’s journey to Vietnam. “MiG-21 high!” crackles the voice of Lt. Tony Nargi in his F-8 Crusader. It is 1968, and Intrepid is again at war. Launching from Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf, Nargi and his wingman have intercepted a flight of Russian-built supersonic fighters. Minutes later, after a swirling dogfight over North Vietnam, Nargi—and Intrepid—have added another downed enemy airplane to their credit.
Intrepid: The Epic Story of America’s Most Legendary Warship brings a renowned ship to life in a stirring tribute complete with the personal recollections of those who served aboard her, dramatic photographs, time lines, maps, and vivid descriptions of Intrepid’s deadly conflicts. More than a numbers-and-dates narrative, Intrepid is the story of people—those who sailed in her, fought to keep her alive, perished in her defense—and powerfully captures the human element in this saga of American heroism.
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BILL WHITE is president of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. ROBERT GANDT is a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot and Delta Air Lines captain. His numerous previous books include the definitive work on naval aviation, Bogeys and Bandits, which was adapted for the television series Pensacola: Wings of Gold.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Call to Arms
In mare in coelo (On the sea and in the air)
--Motto given to USS Intrepid on her commissioning day
August 16, 1943
Capt. Thomas L. Sprague, USN, squinted in the harsh sunlight. It was a typical Chesapeake summer early afternoon, the humidity clinging to the atmosphere like a damp blanket. Sprague could feel the perspiration trickling beneath the starched white cotton of his service dress uniform.
For nearly three decades Tom Sprague had waited for this day. He had served for what seemed a lifetime in a budget-slashed, promotionless, peacetime Navy. Finally Sprague was getting his first major command.
And what a command. Sprague's new vessel was one of the most formidable warships ever built, the third example of the fast new Essex-class aircraft carriers. With a full complement of a hundred warplanes and nearly 4,000 crew, the new carrier displaced 36,000 tons and could slice through the ocean at a speed of 33 knots.
Her name was Intrepid, and she was the fourth U.S. Navy ship of the line to bear the distinguished title. This new Intrepid was named in honor of an armed ketch that had fought with distinction at Tripoli in 1803. She was constructed at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. in Virginia. Her ceremonial keel-laying in December 1941 had nearly coincided with the Japanese attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Getting Intrepid into service became a matter of national urgency. Instead of the normal three years, Intrepid had to be ready for duty in a year and a half.
When Tom Sprague entered the Naval Academy in 1913, he couldn't have guessed the historical twists and reversals that would shape his career. He received his commission in 1917, just in time to see duty as a surface officer escorting convoys across the Atlantic in World War I. Correctly sensing the future importance of naval aviation, he applied for flight training and was designated a naval aviator in 1921.
During the doldrums of the twenties and thirties, Sprague rotated through a succession of staff jobs, commanded a scouting squadron, became air officer aboard the carrier USS Saratoga, and eventually rose to the post of superintendent of naval air training at Pensacola. In 1940 he was assigned as executive officer of the carrier USS Ranger, then briefly commanded the newly constructed escort carrier USS Charger. Even in the plodding, peacetime Navy, it was clear that Tom Sprague was an officer on his way up.
On this hazy August day, Sprague knew he ought to feel a glow of contentment. This was the crowning moment of a successful military career, the prize he had dreamed about for his entire adult life. But the sweetness of the moment was tinged with a sense of foreboding. Hanging like a dark cloud over the celebration was the news from the Pacific. Four large American aircraft carriers had been lost in battle with the Imperial Japanese Navy. In May of the previous year, USS Lexington was torpedoed and sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea. USS Yorktown was lost to Japanese bombers and torpedo planes in the Battle of Midway. USS Wasp, torpedoed off Guadalcanal, went down in September 1942. A month later USS Hornet, the carrier from whose deck Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle's raiders launched the first attack on Japan, was sunk by dive-bombers and aerial torpedoes in the Battle of Santa Cruz Island. The Navy was desperately short of aircraft carriers.
No other U.S. military service was as steeped in centuries-old tradition as the Navy. The ritual of commissioning a new ship, like many U.S. Navy traditions, was adopted from the British Navy. It was a symbolic birthing, a way of giving "life" to an inanimate, newly constructed vessel. Tom Sprague, as traditional as any sailor of his generation, was sticking with the script.
More than a hundred guests--women in long skirts and sun hats, men in summer suits and in the uniforms of all the services--stood on Intrepid's gleaming flight deck at the Norfolk Navy Yard. Each division of the ship's new crew, resplendent in their dress whites, stood in neat rows facing the elevated podium. The band was playing a medley of Sousa marches and traditional military tunes.
Standing with Sprague on the podium was an assortment of Navy brass, including Rear Adm. Calvin Durgin; Cdr. Dick Gaines, who was Intrepid's new executive officer; and the guest of honor, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Artemus Gates.
The crowd stood for the playing of the national anthem. Then came the invocation, followed by the ceremonial turning over of the ship by the commandant to the new captain. Captain Sprague read the orders appointing him to command the new warship. His first act as Intrepid's new captain was to order the ship's ensign and her commissioning pennant--a long red, white, and blue streamer--hoisted. The ship's bell rang, and the watch was set. Assistant Secretary Gates delivered an address, followed by the pipe-down order and the retreat.
The new ship had just taken on a life of her own. The band struck up, and the crowd broke into applause.
There was a reception on the hangar deck, with more music by the ship's band, congratulatory talk, handshakes, and farewells. Then Tom Sprague and his crew changed uniforms and went to work. They didn't have the luxury of a long shakedown cruise, publicity tours, or visits to exotic ports of call. There was a war on. Time was short.
They had, in fact, less than four months.
First skipper, first day at sea, first round of ammunition fired. In the early life of a new warship, there came a succession of such events. When the warship was an aircraft carrier, there were some unique firsts: first landing, first launch, first combat sortie flown by the carrier's aircraft, first crash.
It was October 16, 1943, and Intrepid was about to notch her first arrested landing. Behind the ship trailed a long white wake, glistening in the autumn sun. A steady 20-knot wind blew straight down the flight deck. This was a carrier's raison d'etre and her primary function. Her armament, crew, massive displacement, and gleaming flight deck were irrelevant without the ability to launch and recover warplanes.
Turning into the groove--the final approach behind the ship--was a Grumman F6F Hellcat. To no one's surprise, the honor of making Intrepid's first arrested landing was going to Cdr. A. M. Jackson, commander of Air Group 8, Intrepid's newly assigned air group. Under the watchful eye of the LSO--the landing signal officer--on his platform at the aft port deck edge, Jackson landed the Hellcat squarely in the middle of the arresting cables, snatching a wire with his tailhook, logging the first of more than 100,000 arrested landings aboard this ship.
In early October, with Air Group 8's full complement of F6F-3 Hellcats, SB2C-1 dive-bombers, and TBF torpedo bombers aboard, Intrepid headed for the benign waters of the Caribbean. In the Gulf of Paria, near Trinidad, Intrepid's crew and airmen began rehearsing the tenuous, intricate choreography of carrier flight operations.
There were mishaps. Bombing Squadron 8 had just received the new and troublesome Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver and was still working out the dive-bomber's many handling problems. Many of the air group's aviators were fresh out of flight training. Most of the "traps"--arrested landings--were routine, with the plane's tailhook snagging one of the sixteen arresting cables strung across the deck. But not all. A few missed the wires and careened into the barricade, the cabled fence at the end of the landing area that protected the parked airplanes, equipment, and crewmen on the forward deck. Except for some damage to airplanes, none of the incidents was serious. There was no loss of life.
By October 27 Captain Sprague was satisfied. He turned Intrepid to the north and headed back to Norfolk. In the next few weeks there were more sea trials off the Atlantic coast, including a winter trip north to Maine without the air group. On November 30 Intrepid went back into port for final storing and provisioning.
Finally, on December 3, 1943, with a full complement of crew and aircraft, Intrepid sailed out of Norfolk, bound for the far end of the world. For most of the crew--and for the base where Intrepid had come to life--it was a sentimental departure. No one knew what lay ahead, but they all had the clear sense that Intrepid would not soon return.
As all seagoing Navy men knew, a new ship headed to war needed luck. Before Intrepid had even reached the Pacific, her luck turned bad. Looking back on that day, some would say it was an omen.
The Panama Canal was a tight squeeze for any capital ship. The passage had been completed at the turn of the century, and even then it could barely accommodate the Navy's biggest warships. For Intrepid, it turned out to be more than tight.
On December 9, 1943, she left her mooring at Colon, on the Atlantic side of the isthmus, and entered the first lock of the Panama Canal. Most of the crew gathered on deck to watch the arduous process of guiding the ship through the narrow passage. At times the ship appeared to have only a few feet of clearance on either side. Scaffolding was constructed on the flight deck, perpendicular to the bridge, to give the canal pilot better visibility.
The pilot took the carrier into the Gaillard Cut, the twisting waterway leading to the locks at Balboa. What happened next would later be the subject of finger-pointing and speculation. Midway through the narrow passage, while the ship was negotiating a left turn, the bow veered to starboard, toward a steep cliff at the waterway's edge. Though the crew put the engines into full reverse and dropped a bow anchor, the ship's momentum shoved her bow into the rocky cliff. The impact ripped a 4-by-4-foot hole in her bow and buckled several plates in her hull.
Blame for what happened--whether it was the pilot or the captain or, as some suggested, the opening of a lock that caused a surge of water--was never assigned. A later boa...
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