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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
Task Force 58 steamed west at twenty-three knots during the night. While the pilots of Task Force 58 slept, the plane mechanics prepared the aircraft for the battle expected the next day. As we passed over the waters of the afternoon air battles, one of my destroyers picked up three of our airmen floating in a life raft. At first light we launched a long-range search flight 325 miles to the west, but these planes found nothing to report. Around 9 A.M. our combat air patrol shot down three snoopers. We pressed on, but sighted no enemy ships.
The quiet of this Sunday afternoon at sea was suddenly broken at 3:40 by excited chatter over the radio. The Japanese fleet had been sighted 275 miles due west of Saipan, steaming northwest at twenty knots. Eight minutes later Mitscher told all task groups to report to him any other radio messages they heard. At 3:53 he gave us the word: “Expect to launch everything we have, probably have to recover at night.” The pilots, who had been in their ready rooms since dawn, now copied down the latest target information from the ticker-tape screens onto their navigation charts. Mitscher gave them a parting thought: “The primary mission is to get the carriers.” At 4:10 the pilots manned their planes, and at 4:21 we turned into the wind to execute a record ten-minute launch.
The flight consisted of 216 planes—eighty-five Hellcats, fifty-four Avengers, fifty-one SB2C Helldivers, and twenty-six SBD Dauntlesses. But no sooner was the strike on its way than the search planes sent in a corrected position report placing the Japanese fleet sixty miles farther west. This meant that our planes had to fly 335 miles to the target, attack the enemy fleet before darkness, and fly back to the carriers in the dark. The trip and attack would amount to over seven hundred miles of flying, which was about the limit of fuel. Some planes would surely have to land in the water at night. Those pilots whose fuel lasted could land aboard, but unfortunately none of them had qualified for night carrier landings. This was a sample of Mitscher’s indomitable leadership. He gambled despite the expected losses, knowing full well that this was our one and only chance to hit the Japanese fleet.
At this point in the battle I realized bitterly what a great opportunity I had missed on June 18 by not getting behind the Japanese fleet. Retreat would have been impossible, for my carriers would have stood between it and the homeland, making this precarious flight unnecessary. In the game of war an advantage unpressed may have tragic consequences. To me this seemed to be a case in point.
Around 7 P.M., as a half-hour air attack on the Japanese warships was ending in approaching darkness, we began to get reports from our planes. Antiaircraft fire was thick; the battleships and cruisers in desperation fired their heavy guns at our planes. About seventy-five Japanese fighters took off from the carriers, and our Hellcats attacked them immediately. By Japanese records, only ten of their planes survived. Racing against the sudden tropical darkness, our pilots executed hastily co-ordinated attacks on the flaming ships. Planes from Belleau Wood in my task group succeeded in sinking one carrier, Hiyo. Lieutenant (j.g.) George P. Brown flew down along the flight deck to draw away antiaircraft fire, thus allowing Lieutenant (j.g.) Warren R. Omark to drop his torpedo into the ship’s side. Unfortunately, the courageous Brown went into the sea on the return flight and was never found. Some bombs hit and damaged the carriers Zuikaku and Junyo, but they managed to limp back to the homeland.
Pitch-black darkness had already descended as the running lights of the first of our returning planes appeared over the horizon. With understandable anxiety, for I had flown at night from carriers myself, I made a drastic decision. I ordered all my ships to turn on all their lights. Of course, this was taking a chance that no enemy submarines were lurking nearby. To identify my task group I ordered Hornet to display in addition a vertical searchlight beam. I notified Admiral Mitscher of my action at once, and he promptly signified his approval by ordering all the ships of the entire task force to turn on their lights. This was indeed one of the war’s supreme moments—a multitude of ships emblazed the skies for many miles in a calculated risk to provide greater safety for the return of battle-worn airmen.
The assistant air officer of Yorktown, Lieutenant Commander Verne W. Harshman, rigged a cargo light to shine down on the flight deck to facilitate landings. Other ships then used this innovation to advantage.
Flown by Commander Bill Dean, skipper of Fighting 2, the first Hellcat landed aboard Hornet. Dean rushed up to the bridge to report the results of the attack and expressed great fear that he was going to lose many of his fine pilots in the recovery operation. I tried to allay his apprehension, and, as it turned out, he did not lose a single man.