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USN March 1944
On August 25, 1943 departed Pearl Harbor bound for Baker Island as part of U. S. Navy Task Group 11.2 (TG 11.2) commanded by Rear Admiral A. W. Radford aboard Princeton as his flagship to provided air cover during the occupation and construction of Baker Airfield between September 1-14, 1944. During that time her aircraft downed an H8K2 Emily.
Afterwards, Princeton rendezvoused with Task Force 15 (TF 15) conducted strikes against enemy installations on Makin and Tarawa, then returned to Pearl Harbor. In mid-October departed for Espiritu Santo and on October 20, 1943. joined Task Force 38 (TF 38).
Operation Shoestring 2
On November 5, 1943 and November 11, 1943 her planes attacked Rabaul and on November 19, 1943 with TF 50, helped neutralize Nauru Airfield. Princeton then steamed northeast, covered the garrison groups en route to Makin and Tarawa and, after exchanging operational aircraft for damaged planes from other carriers, got underway for Pearl Harbor and the west coast.
Availability at Bremerton, Washington followed and on 3 January 1944, Princeton steamed west. At Pearl Harbor, she rejoined the fast carriers of TF 50, now designated TF 58. On the 19th, she sortied with TG 58.4 for strikes at Wotje and Taroa (29 January–31 January) to support amphibious operations against Kwajalein and Majuro. Her planes photographed the next assault target, Eniwetok, 2 February and on the 3rd returned on a more destructive assignment - the demolition of the airfield on Engebi. For 3 days the atoll was bombed and strafed. On the 7th, Princeton retired to Kwajalein only to return to Eniwetok on the 10th-13th and 16th-28th, when her planes softened the beaches for the invasion force, then provided air cover during the assault and ensuing fight.
From Eniwetok, Princeton retired to Majuro, thence to Espiritu Santo for replenishment. On 23 March, she got underway for strikes against enemy installation and shipping in the Carolines then made strikes against Palau, Woleai and Yap.
On March 30, 1944 twelve F6F Hellcats took off on a fighter sweep and strafing mission over Peleliu Airfield on Peleliu Island. Two of the Hellcats aborted the mission due to mechanical failures. Over the target, the formation spotted a formation of 15-20 Zeros and intercepted. Shot down was F6F Hellcat 40653 (MIA).
Afterwards, replenished at Majuro and sortied again 13 April. Steaming to New Guinea, the carriers provided air cover for attack at Hollandia from April 21 - 29, then crossed back over the International Date Line to raid Truk (29 April–30 April) and Ponape (1 May).
On May 11, Princeton returned to Pearl Harbor only to depart again on the 29th for Majuro. There she rejoined the fast carriers and pointed her bow toward the Marianas to support the assault on Saipan. During June 11-18, 1944, she sent her planes against targets on Guam, Rota, Tinian, Pagan, and Saipan, then steamed west to intercept a Japanese fleet reported to be en route from the Philippines to the Marianas. In the ensuing Battle of the Philippine Sea, Princeton's planes contributed 30 kills and her guns another 3, plus 1 assist, to the devastating toll inflicted on Japan's naval air arm.
Returning to the Marianas, Princeton again struck Pagan, Rota and Guam, then replenished at Eniwetok. On 14 July, she got underway again as the fast carriers returned their squadrons to the Marianas to furnish air cover for the assault and occupation of Guam and Tinian. On 2 August, the force returned to Eniwetok, replenished, then sailed for the Philippines. En route, its planes raided the Palaus, then on 9 September–10 September, struck airfields on northern Mindanao. On the 11th, they pounded the Visayas. At mid-month the force moved back over the Pacific chessboard to support the Palau offensive, then returned to the Philippines to hit Luzon, concentrating on Clark and Nichols fields. The force then retired to Ulithi, and in early October, bombed and strafed enemy airfields, installations and shipping in the Nansei Shoto and Formosa area in preparation for the invasion of the Philippines.
Battle of Leyte Gulf
The USS Irwin (DD-794) went alongside the burning carrier to port. In a heroic saga that brought Irwin the award of the Navy Unit Commendation, she braved raging flames, violent explosions, falling debris, and exploding shells as she went alongside Princeton. Fighting dense black smoke in a choppy sea, she rigged hoses and fought fires in the forward part of Princeton’s hangar deck.
At 3:24pm, another, much heavier explosion, possibly the bomb magazine, blew off the carrier's stern and with it the after flight deck. The cruiser Birmingham (CL-62), who also came alongside to fight fires, suffered heavy damage and casualties. Irwin immediately dispatched boats and her men dived into icy seas to rescue survivors. Though damaged herself, the destroyer stood at close quarters until she had rescued 646 men from the sea and from the decks of Princeton. the carrier's 646 crew were packed like sardines on the small destroyer's decks.
Efforts to save Princeton continued, but at 4:04pm the fires were out of control. Boats were requested to take off remaining personnel and shortly after 5:06pm, USS Irwin (DD-794) began to fire torpedoes at the burning hulk. At 5:46pm, after the Irwin's torpedoes turned around and chased the Irwin, USS Reno (CL-96) relieved Irwin and at 5:49pm the last, and biggest explosion occurred. Flames and debris shot up 1,000' to 2,000' into the air. Princeton's forward section was gone. Her after section appeared momentarily through the smoke. By 5:50pm she had disappeared and sunk. 10 officers and 98 enlisted men were lost in the attack the aftermath.
R. Gallatin, 19 years old at the time recalled: "In a way, it was a miracle that so many men could be saved as well as myself. The ship was a burning inferno!"
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