The Marianas Turkey Shoot

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By June, 1944, the U.S. Navy had inflicted disastrous losses on the Japanese Imperial Navy and had seized control of the Central Pacific. The Gilbert and Marshall Islands had fallen; MacArthur’s forces were pressing relentlessly up the Bismarck Archipelago toward Rabaul, which Navy fliers had battered so hard that they had renamed it Rubble; and, two months before, a surprise carrier attack had neutralized the Japanese stronghold of Truk. The stage was thus set for a decisive naval confrontation at the Mariana Islands, only 1,500 miles from Tokyo. The U.S. objective was to seize Saipan and Guam and, in the process, to lure the remainder of the Imperial Navy into a death battle. The Japanese rose to the bait, and in the resulting, Battle of the Philippine Sea, the pilots of Admiral Marc A. Mitscher’s Task Force 58 effectively destroyed Japan’s carrier air power. Three Japanese carriers went to the bottom, but the rest of the enemy fleet fled out of Mitscher’s attack range. The escape of these ships prompted a round of bitter debate between the Navy’s “Gun Club,” composed of battleship admirals like Raymond A. Spruance (Mitscher’s commander during the Marianas operation), and the advocates of the fast carrier task forces. One such advocate is Admiral J. J. “Jocko” Clark, U.S.N. (Retired), an Oklahoma-born, part-Cherokee pioneer of naval aviation who commanded the new Yorktown before his promotion to rear admiral in 1944. Clark’s battle record in World War II was aptly described by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, when he introduced him to the 1945 American Legion Convention in Chicago as “the fightingest admiral of the fleet.” Clark’s proudest moment, however, came at a ceremony later that year when he received his second Distinguished Service Medal. As he presented Clark with the award, Admiral Mitscher called him “my best carrier task group commander.” Jocko was one of Mitscher’s four group commanders in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and he now tells his version of that crucial engagement in the following excerpt from his book Carrier Admiral, soon to be published by David McKay Co.
—The Editors

Task Force 58 sortied from its Marshall Islands bases on June 6, 1944, the landings on Saipan being scheduled for June 15. My Task Group 58.1 left Kwajalein to rendezvous with 58.2 (Rear Admiral A. E. Montgomery), 58.3 (Rear Admiral J. W. Reeves), and 58.4 (Rear Admiral W. K. Harrill), which came out of Majuro. Fueling took two days, June 8 and 9. On the night of the eighth, our radar registered several “bogies”—enemy search planes—but they never made contact with our force. “Snoopers” began to approach our combat air patrol on the tenth. Fighter director Charles D. Ridgway dispatched a group of Hellcats to destroy them before they could sight the force and radio back our position to their base. We shot down the first snooper forty-seven miles from the task group, and a few minutes later splashed another. Land-based Liberators from Eniwetok preceded the carriers; one of them shot down a Betty, but not before we overheard the pilot reporting our position. This incident prompted me to ask permission from Mitscher to station picket destroyers equipped with radar and fighter directors ahead of the group, with their own combat air patrol to detect enemy snoopers before they sighted the carriers. With Mitscher’s approval, on the morning of June 11 I sent two destroyers fifty miles ahead of the force and a third one twenty-five miles. This precaution became standard procedure for the fast carriers and was greatly expanded later in the war.

Making excellent time from the Marshalls to the target area, Task Force 58 was attacked by long-range enemy patrol bombers on the morning of June 11. When the shooting started, I sent out a final word of encouragement to the men of my task group: “Message to all hands. We need no special incentive, but Guam belongs to us. Deliver every bomb and bullet where it will do the most good. … God be with you and good luck. S/S Admiral Clark.” Our combat air patrol Hellcat pilots were the first to see action. During the morning and early afternoon, our new picket destroyers directed Yorktown fighters about forty miles beyond the force to shoot down six enemy patrol bombers, one of which yielded two survivors. I could not resist sending a signal to my old ship: “Your combat air patrol has turned in the usual and expected top-notch Yorktown performance. Congratulations.”

Since Task Force 58 was already under attack from enemy air units based on the target islands, Admiral Mitscher realized that if we waited until the next day for our customary predawn fighter sweep, the force would be under constant attack during the night. To avoid that, and to catch the Japanese by surprise, we launched the fighter sweep on that very afternoon. At 1 P.M. we began launching from a position 192 miles east of Guam. Hornet and Yorktown each sent off sixteen Hellcats, while Belleau Wood and Bataan each launched twelve. In all, from Task Force 58, 212 F6F’s and ten life-raft-laden bombers were included in the sweep.