The Marianas Turkey Shoot


The afternoon fighter sweep had indeed caught the Japanese unaware. Reeves and Harrill worked over Saipan and Pagan, Montgomery hit Tinian, and I took Guam and Rota. Lieutenant Commander William A. Dean, skipper of Fighting 2 from the flagship, led the Hellcats into their strafing and bombing runs, which pitted the airstrips and destroyed several parked planes. The thirty Zeros that appeared were quickly engaged and shot down. Though antiaircraft fire was heavy, our planes easily carried the day. I signalled the ships in the task group: “Damn well done. Upwards of thirty airborne aircraft destroyed against one of ours shot down.” In all, about 150 Japanese planes were destroyed by Task Force 58 at the cost of eleven Hellcats; three of our pilots were rescued. The total score for my task group on that day was forty-one enemy planes shot down. That night and the next morning no planes molested Task Force 58.

The customary pre-invasion destruction of enemy positions and equipment on the target islands began on June 12. Japanese antiaircraft gunners, lying in wait for our bombers and fighters, threw up a fire so withering that Fighting 24 from Belleau Wood reported it as “the heaviest encountered by this squadron in its nine months of combat experience.” At dawn I sent out search planes 325 miles to the southwest to look for enemy warships; they sighted a convoy of six small Japanese vessels, destroyers and transports, about 270 miles west of Guam, heading south at eight knots. We launched a special strike against this convoy, but our planes failed to relocate it. I had the bombers drop their bombs on Guam as they returned. To conclude the day’s operations, Hornet’s planes dropped leaflets to the Chamorro natives on Guam announcing our intention to free them from Japanese domination.

Before daylight next morning, we launched another search-strike to look for that convoy. Two radar-equipped night fighters led twenty Hellcats from Hornet and Yorktown, followed by two rescue-equipped SB2C dive bombers. Each fighter carried one five-hundred-pound bomb. Finally the convoy was sighted and the planes attacked it, but the fighter pilots were inexperienced in the art of bombing warships and succeeded in damaging only one. Also, the 350-mile range was the longest carrier air strike of record at that time. Our other planes pounded Guam and were joined by the surface ships. By the end of that day, no aircraft remained on Guam that could possibly assist the defenders of Saipan when that island was assaulted two days later.

During the morning of June 13, Captain W.K. “Sol” Phillips, my screen commander and the skipper of the cruiser Oakland, had sent me a signal regarding Tokyo Rose, the infamous American-born Japanese woman broadcaster: “Tokyo Rose has just announced on the radio that all our ships are sunk.”

I signalled back: “Do not believe Tokyo Rose. When the rising sun goes down she will sing a different song.” This message began an exchange between Phillips and me referring to Tokyo Rose; thereafter, signalmen in my task group kept on the lookout for the Tokyo Rose messages to pass along to their friends.

During the attacks on Guam, Lieutenant (j.g.) Beath and his radio interceptors had been picking up Japanese radio transmissions and decoding messages relating to aircraft movements. We learned that the Japanese were sending great numbers of planes from the home islands to Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima, about seven hundred miles to the north, for attacks on our shipping off Saipan. Mitscher had the same messages confirmed by our submarines in the area. He wanted these planes destroyed.

Mitscher sent Harrill and me north to stop this buildup and to knock out the airfields in the “Jimas.” On June 14, as our two groups rendezvoused, I received a message from Harrill saying that he did not want to go north to hit the Jimas. I could not believe he meant it, so I had Douglas “Tex” McCrary, my air operations officer, fly me over to Harrill’s flagship, Essex, for a talk. Harrill was firm in his desire not to go north at all. He said heavy weather was going to cover the Jimas and that the Japanese fleet might come out from the Philippines to attack the shipping off Saipan. His reluctance to carry out orders surprised me. Formerly a topflight officer, he seemed to have lost his zip.

Mitscher’s order to Harrill and me was unusual. It was a multiple-address dispatch giving the two task groups the mission of striking the Jimas while remaining “tactically concentrated.” Ordinarily the senior officer would lead such an assignment, but neither of us was in tactical command. Later I learned that Mitscher had purposely written the order that way to give me freedom of action. Harrill’s chief of staff, Captain H. E. “Blackie” Regan, and I spent hours trying to convince Harrill of the importance of stopping the Japanese air threat from the north. Exasperated, I finally said, “If you do not join me in this job, I will do it all myself.” After that remark he agreed to participate, but he provided only token assistance. Nevertheless, seven carriers were better than four, and though concerned about Harrill, I returned to my flagship satisfied.