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The Marianas Turkey Shoot
Japanese naval air power was wrecked at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, but, says a U. S. carrier admiral who was there, our Navy missed a chance to destroy the enemy fleet and shorten the war.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
Our plans were to hit the Jimas for two days, June 16 and 17, and then to rejoin Mitscher off Saipan. That night, June 14, Spruance sent to Task Force 58 an important dispatch announcing that the Japanese fleet had left its anchorage at Tawi Tawi in the southern Philippines, presumably to prevent us from capturing the Marianas, and therefore we should shorten our strikes to just one day and hasten back to rejoin Mitscher for a possible fleet engagement. I calculated that two days were needed to destroy the enemy air strength at Chichi and Iwo Jima, so I speeded up my group to twenty-five knots to get us within aircraft range of the target one day early. This still gave us the two days of air strikes against the enemy.
When my task group reached a position 135 miles from Iwo Jima on the afternoon of the next day, we launched planes from my four carriers. They shot down about twenty-four Zeros over the islands, destroying more on the fields at Iwo and Chichi. Off Chichi Jima my planes intercepted the 1,900-ton transport Tatsutakawa Maru. Over four hundred Japanese went over the side as the steamer burned. The destroyers Boyd and Charrette finally sank her, then proceeded to rescue all Japanese sailors who were willing to be picked up. The two ships rescued 118 people in all, but two of these changed their minds and jumped off the destroyers later. The 116 prisoners were delivered on board Hornet. Another sixteen picked up later made a total of 132 Japanese aboard my flagship, a record for the carriers.
While the Marines were landing on Saipan to the south, we attacked Chichi and Iwo. Our planes destroyed many of the choice targets—oil dumps, buildings, aircraft, and small vessels; we did not need Harrill, as it turned out, but he did assist by maintaining a combat air patrol. My planes also worked over the smaller island of Haha Jima.
Heavy weather developed by late afternoon, making recovery of our planes difficult. One crashed on the badly pitching Belleau Wood. It started a fire that looked serious, but Captain Jack Perry and his heroic crew put it out. The sea became so rough that I cancelled the remaining strikes, but I kept two night fighters over Chichi Jima during the night in order to heckle the Japanese and prevent their planes from taking off at dawn. Both task groups had retired to the south during the night, but we could not avoid the weather. The carriers were pitching too badly to launch any planes.
In the afternoon, as the wind abated somewhat, I launched a fighter sweep and two bombing strikes against Iwo Jima. They added to the destruction done on the previous day. After the recovery of my planes, both task groups headed south. The mission had been a great success; we had destroyed for the time being the Japanese air threat from the north staged through the Bonin Islands, thereby protecting the invasion forces.
Meanwhile, bigger game was approaching the Marianas—the Japanese First Mobile Fleet, which according to our intelligence estimates included nine carriers with about 450 aircraft. During the next afternoon, June 17, Mitscher ordered us to send searches to the southwest. The position of the enemy fleet was known by our trailing submarines; possibly it could be hit later from two sides, if our planes spotted it. I sent twelve search planes 350 miles to the southwest, then steamed in that direction to recover them and be that much closer to the enemy. The result of the search was negative, because the Japanese fleet was still seven hundred miles away.
That night I faced an important decision; an opportunity was presented that seldom comes in the lifetime of a naval officer. Had I steamed to the southwestward all night, by the next morning I could place myself between the Japanese fleet and its homeland, thereby blocking off its retreat and boxing in the enemy between our four task groups. I called Harrill on the TBS [special inter-ship] voice radio and explained the situation to him. I also called Rear Admiral Ralph Davison, who was riding in “makee learn,” or training, status on board Yorktown. Davison strongly endorsed my idea, but Harrill would have nothing to do with it, maintaining that his orders were to rendezvous with Mitscher the next morning west of Saipan. He told me he had had enough of independent operations and was now going to make his rendezvous. Without further ado, he changed course and headed off to the south, leaving me all alone. I dared not break radio silence to consult Mitscher, for this would have disclosed my position to the Japanese fleet.