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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
At first light, Mitscher ordered me to launch a special 325-mile search to the southwest, which I did, with negative results. Hornet was on the eastern end of Task Force 58, and at daylight I could actually see Guam on the horizon. At 6:19 Spruance ordered all carrier task groups to change course westward in the general direction of the Japanese fleet.
A few snoopers had been splashed by the other groups, but not until 7:05 did my group get into the act. Lieutenant Charlie Ridgway detected many airplanes over Guam on his radar screen and dispatched four night fighters to investigate. Finding a number of Japanese planes in a landing circle over Guam, these Hellcats immediately went to work. I ordered twenty-four more fighters sent to Guam, then reported to Mitscher. Mitscher radioed all task groups: “Send fighter assistance to Guam immediately.” My acknowledgement was: “Help is on the way.” These Japanese planes were unquestionably from the approaching fleet. Lieutenant Russell Reiserer, leading the night fighters, tore into the Japanese planes at Guam. Other Hellcats, mostly from my task group, assisted. Enemy planes that were not destroyed in the air were shot up on the ground after landing. Reiserer himself scored five kills, which he modestly reported to me on the flag bridge upon his return. On my recommendation, Mitscher gave him the Navy Cross for becoming an ace.
At 9 A.M. Owen Sowerwine, my communications officer, intercepted a corrected contact report from a PBM Mariner search plane whose previous message, several hours earlier, had been garbled. The report pinpointed the Japanese fleet over 360 miles away, still beyond the range of our aircraft. We relayed the message to Mitscher, who sent it on to Spruance.
Task Force 58 was steaming west but getting nowhere, since the carriers had to swing around to the east to launch planes. At 9:37 Ridgway and the other task group combat intelligence officers began to pick up aircraft on their radars 130 miles to the westward. Mitscher recalled all his fighters from Guam to defend the carriers, ordering all dive bombers and torpedo planes to take off and orbit east of Guam. This expedient kept the carrier decks free to land, service, and launch fighters. At 10:04 general quarters was sounded, and all hands in the force went to their battle stations. Meanwhile, 450 Hellcats and a few night F4U Corsairs took off to intercept the attacking Japanese.
The melee that followed was aptly described by one pilot as “the Marianas Turkey Shoot.” Our pilots and planes were so superior to those of Japan that only a handful of enemy planes reached our ships, and these were promptly shot down by antiaircraft fire. Throughout the day, the Japanese repeatedly tried to launch air strikes against our ships, but each time our pilots shot the enemy out of the sky.
Our operations took Task Force 58 even closer to Guam. Mitscher knew the Japanese were trying to land there, so he ordered the bombers that were orbiting east of Guam to drop their charges on the airfield, and the bomb craters they produced caused a number of Japanese planes to crash. The desperate enemy pilots fought savagely to defend the integrity of Guam as their one refuge. We lost several pilots there toward evening, but by nightfall Guam was quiet; the last snoopers had turned away before eight o’clock.
Reports of the battle were impressive. My pilots claimed 109 enemy planes shot down, while the total for Task Force 58 turned out to be 385. It was the greatest aerial victory in the Pacific war. Forty Hellcats were lost, but many of the pilots were rescued. The Japanese lost about eleven aviators to every one of ours, a ratio that continued throughout the war. Admiral Mitscher sent a message to all hands: “The aviators and gun ships of this task force have done a job today which will make their country proud of them. Their skillful defense of this task force enabled the force to escape a vicious, well-coordinated aircraft attack carried out with determination.”
Admiral Spruance was not convinced that the Japanese air attack was spent until 10 P.M., when Task Force 58 took its last plane aboard. Then, at last, he headed toward the enemy fleet. At that stage we were forty miles from Guam, so closing the enemy became a long stern chase, but since the backbone of enemy air strength was expended, we possessed an overwhelming advantage once we got within aircraft range. As a precaution, I topped off [refueled] my destroyers. Just then I heard Admiral Harrill ask Mitscher if his task group could stay behind, because it was low on fuel. My big ships had the same amount of fuel as Harrill’s, but he had not topped off his destroyers, so Mitscher left him behind. I immediately signalled Mitscher: “Would greatly appreciate remaining with you. We have plenty of fuel.” He replied that my task group would remain with him until the battle ended. To me this was a compliment, but it also indicated Mitscher’s growing impatience with Harrill. Task Group 58.4 had broken away at 1 P.M. and continued to hit Guam, and then refueled the next day. “Harrill fought this group well through the Marianas ‘Turkey Shoot,” historian Samuel Eliot Morison later wrote, “but came down with appendicitis 28 June and was then relieved. …”