National Geographic : 1945 Aug
Saga of the Carrier Princeton BY CAPT. WILLIAM H. BURACKER, USN H IGH LIGHT of a naval officer's career comes when he is skipper of his own fighting ship in time of war. This certainly proved true in my case.* The captain of the ship is master of every man aboard and every plank and intricate mechanism-the tools to make his ship the best in the fleet. It was my privilege to command the U. S. aircraft carrier Princeton, which was lost on October 24, 1944, in the Battle for Leyte Gulf. Princeton Fought in Every Major Battle During her active life of 17 months, the Princeton steamed approximately 150,000 sea miles, an average of nearly 300 a day. She took part in every major naval engagement in that period. Her pilots knocked down 186 Jap planes in aerial combat and destroyed uncounted others on enemy airfields. Her antiaircraft guns accounted for seven more. And in her sweeps from the Gilberts to the Philippines and from the South Pacific to the Ryukyus, at Japan's very doorstep, she sank or crippled 17 ships and inflicted enormous damage to shore installations on many Pacific islands. Truly our ship, in her short career, made a name for herself that will live long in naval annals. The Princeton began life on the ways as a light cruiser. Early in the war the Navy desperately needed more flattops; so flight decks were added to nine cruiser hulls and the Independence-class light carrier was born. Princeton was the second of these (page 215). Our ship, about half the tonnage of a big Essex-class carrier, carried only one squadron each of fighters and torpedo bombers. But she had plenty of speed. Built by the New York Shipbuilding Cor poration at Camden, New Jersey, she was christened by Mrs. Harold Dodds, wife of the President of Princeton University, in honor of the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777, which followed George Washington's recross ing of the Delaware. Her first commanding officer was Capt. (now Rear Adm.) George R. Henderson, USN. After commissioning, he took the Princeton with her air group to the Caribbean for a shakedown cruise. Most of the pilots and crew were green; only a few had had battle experience. The shakedown was followed by the trip to the Pacific, where the Princeton operated until her loss. The Princeton began her active war career in the assault and occupation of Baker Island, in August and September, 1943. Thus she entered the greatest ocean war in naval history just as our team started its relentless march across the Central Pacific to Japan. Air resistance in the Baker area was negli gible, and our fighter and bomber pilots ob tained valuable combat experience at prac tically no cost. In all her air strikes and battles against the Japs, Princeton operated as a unit in the "Big Show"-our fast task force composed of many carriers supported by new battle ships, cruisers, and destroyers. This phase of our Pacific war was a welcome change from the days I knew before the Battle of Midway. Then only a handful of cruisers and destroyers supported one or two carriers. We depended largely upon surprise to get close. We hit and ran. Now, in the fall of 1943, the picture was changed. With a strong carrier task force, made up of scores of ships, we felt secure when attacking and relished every opportunity to mix with the Jap Fleet.t After Baker Island was occupied, the Prince ton participated in air strikes on Tarawa and Makin, in the Gilberts, in September, 1943. This operation was a softening process, de signed to wipe out Jap aircraft and destroy ground facilities, thus paving the way for the landings later. November found the globe-trotting Prince ton, after a quick trip back to Pearl Harbor, way out in the South Pacific, making air strikes on Buka, Bonis, and Rabaul, in Admiral Halsey's domain (map, 210-211). These were the first carrier air strikes on the strong Jap * For his services in command of the U.S .S. Prince ton, Captain Buracker was awarded: Navy Cross for "extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy, September and October, 1944 . . . courageous and inspiring leadership . . . When his ship was heavily damaged, he made heroic and determined efforts to save her, with utter disregard for his own safety, even in the face of three great explosions. At all times his conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service"; Legion of Merit for "exceptionally meritorious conduct .. during operations against Japanese forces in the Western Pacific"; and Purple Heart for injuries sus tained when his ship was lost October 24, 1944. In addition, he has received, for his services in the cur rent war, Silver Star Medal, Presidential Unit Cita tion, and a Letter of Commendation from the Secre tary of the Navy.- TH E EDITOR. t See "New Queen of the Seas (Aircraft Carrier)," July, 1942, and "Cruise on an Escort Carrier," by Melville Bell Grosvenor, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAG AZINE, November, 1943.