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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
My staff and I discussed the alternatives. Conceivably, the Japanese might have concentrated on me before the trap was set and possibly sunk some of my ships. With Harrill, our two task groups had three hundred fighters and two hundred attack planes, which I considered more than a match for the entire enemy carrier force. But when Harrill sailed away, he took some ninety fighters and seventy bombers with him. I did not wish to find myself on a windy corner with so many Japanese airplanes that I could not shoot them all down. In addition, embarking on my own course might have embarrassed Mitscher in front of Spruance; I admired both men, but it was obvious to me that Spruance did not understand the full capabilities of the fast carriers. Together, Mitscher’s fifteen carriers made a virtually invincible force. If Mitscher had been in command of the Fifth Fleet, I would have continued to the southwest. But Mitscher was subordinate to Spruance, and I did not want to disturb their good working relationship. Finally, I asked myself if I were not about to take the whole world on my shoulders.
In many ways, my situation recalled the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Vice Admiral David Beatty made a similar decision in the opening stages of that celebrated fleet action of World War I. Beatty had been racing toward the enemy fleet with his fast battle cruisers, trying to get behind the German battle force to prohibit its retreat and box it in between his force and the British Grand Fleet under Admiral John R. Jellicoe. Beatty was out of touch with Jellicoe and made his dash without keeping Jellicoe adequately informed. His boldness made him the hero of that war, but he lost two of his ships and was almost caught by the German High Seas Fleet. He could have lost the battle. In 1925, Admiral J. M. “Billy Goat” Reeves, who was a great student of Jutland, gave a four-hour lecture on the battle at his headquarters in San Diego. Reeves’s conclusion was that Beatty made a mistake in trying to trap the Germans without keeping Jellicoe informed. My friend Lieutenant Al Buehler, who had listened with me, summarized Reeves’s lecture in three words, “Beatty bitches battle!” Now I applied Buehler’s remark to my own situation.
After debating the pros and cons, my staff and I decided against striking off on our own, so I turned, following Harrill, to carry out my orders. Later, after the Marianas were captured, Mitscher told me he thought I should have continued to the southwest to get behind the Japanese fleet. He uttered practically the same words Admiral Ernest J. King had said to me when I had wanted to attack Rabaul very early in the war, “I almost ordered you to do it.” So I missed the chance of becoming the Beatty of World War II. But the enemy had not yet closed, and there was still an opportunity to deal a crushing blow to the Japanese fleet. I rejoined the other three task groups off Guam on the morning of June 18, fully expecting Admiral Spruance to assume tactical command and head west to attack the Japanese fleet. But he did not. Conflicting or vague submarine reports suggested that two Japanese forces were approaching, as had been the case during the Midway campaign. One force was known to be due west of Guam, the other possibly southwest; consequently, Spruance kept the carriers off Guam as a shield for the exposed southern flank of our landing forces at Saipan, awaiting better reports of enemy movements. The Japanese fleet was still about seven hundred miles away from the Fifth Fleet, which meant no battle could be joined that day.
In the morning, the destroyer Cowell picked up sixteen survivors from the Japanese transport Shinjiki Maru, which had been sunk six days before by Harrill’s planes. Later, my combat air patrol shot down a snooper 250 miles northwest of the formation, probably from the Jimas. We spent the day cruising back and forth near Guam, sending aircraft searches to the southwest.
During the night, Spruance was faced with the decision of whether or not to go west. It became evident that the Japanese held a theoretical advantage. They could launch their carrier planes from six hundred miles out, attack the Fifth Fleet, land and refuel on Guam, attack us again, and fly back to their carriers. We could not reach their carriers if we remained near the Marianas. The maximum operating radius of our planes was 350 miles, which meant we had to continue westward during the night to set within combat range of the Japanese for strikes the next morning. Spruance’s great concern was the protection of the invasion forces. He was afraid of an “end run.” The transports could have been protected just as well from 250 miles farther west, with our radar, our search planes, and our submarines keeping us informed of the movements of the enemy fleet.
At 8 P.M. Spruance ordered the fleet to head eastward, which we had to do anyway in order to operate aircraft, since the wind was from the east. This was definitely not closing the Japanese fleet. In my judgment, we should have steamed west at every opportunity. At midnight, Admiral Mitscher recommended that the fleet turn west to meet the enemy because at 10 P.M. a radio-direction-finder report had placed the Japanese fleet 355 miles to the west. Spruance, however, persisted in remaining near the invasion forces and sent a message at 12:38 A.M., June 19, to Mitscher: “End run by other fast ones remains a possibility and must not be overlooked.”