The Marianas Turkey Shoot

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Recovery of the returning planes, however, was a wild scramble, as the exhausted pilots rushed to get on board before their fuel gave out. We ordered them to land on any carrier they could find. Some deck crashes fouled flight decks for a few minutes, but very few flight personnel were injured. Many planes landed in the water, but destroyers picked up the pilots and crews. Everyone concentrated on rescue operations. During all this activity, Sol Phillips radioed that a Japanese Zero was circling Oakland. Thinking it was one of our carrier planes trying to land, I asked him: “How do you know it’s Japanese?”

He signalled back: “I can tell by the red balls on its wingsl”

Lieutenant Michael S. Alexatos, returning in a Hellcat, heard over the plane’s radio circuit: “Hey, that was a Jap Zero!” Since it was not seen again, it must have ditched in the sea.

Knowing he was low on fuel, Alexatos asked for the location of his ship, Yorktown. The reply was: “We are the one with the searchlight turned straight up.”

He headed for the first searchlight he saw, because his gasoline gauge read zero. He made a perfect landing, taxiing clear of the barrier. The engine of his plane sputtered and stopped. As he was climbing out of his cockpit, someone said, “Welcome aboard Hornet.”

The mistake was understandable, since Hornet and Yorktown each had a searchlight turned straight up.

Task Force 58 steamed over the path of the returning flight during the night picking up more downed pilots. The final count of our task force losses on June 19 and 20 was one hundred airplanes, sixteen pilots, thirty-three aircrewmen, and, due to deck crashes, two ship’s officers and four enlisted men. Postwar investigation revealed that Japan, in contrast, lost three carriers, including two sunk by submarines before June 19, and 445 aircraft, including twelve catapult planes from battleships and cruisers, along with about fifty land-based planes destroyed at Guam. The Japanese fleet still had aircraft carriers left, but only about ten planes aboard them, so if we had come within striking distance we would have encountered negligible air opposition. As we tried to chase the fleet through the next night and throughout the following day, June 21, our extreme-range scouting planes sighted the fleeing ships intermittently, but they were always beyond our combat radius. We did not have fuel in our ships to pursue the enemy farther west.

The two-day engagement that was fought west of Guam, in the direction of the Philippine Islands, became known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea and thus gave a name to the area. The first day, in the Marianas Turkey Shoot, we broke the backbone of the Japanese carrier air strength. The second day we inflicted damage on seventeen of their ships, including the sinking of Hiyo. Because it was Mitscher’s one and only opportunity to strike the Japanese, it was called “Mitscher’s Sunday Punch.”

On my track charts I wrote the words made famous by Horace Greeley: “Go West, young man, go West,” which in my opinion is what Admiral Spruance should have done on the night of June 18.

The naval analyst must examine dispassionately all aspects of a naval engagement. Through the pages of history, major wars have often been decided by the outcome of a single battle, as in the case of Salamis or Actium. The naval commander is at his best when he takes full advantage of every chance to destroy his enemy. The bigger the battle, the better the naval officer. It is a fair statement to say that had we sunk every Japanese ship the war might have ended in days instead of in fifteen months. Spruance could still have provided maximum protection for the invasion forces even if his carriers had been farther west on the morning of June 19, and the airfields at Guam and Rota could have been kept inoperative just as well from that position. It was not possible for the approaching Japanese fleet to make “end runs” around our aircraft carriers. Had we been two hundred miles farther west that morning, we could have scored a decisive naval victory.

My high admiration for Spruance has been maintained ever since he was my first destroyer skipper aboard the Aaron Ward in 1919. He won the crucial Battle of Midway, he blazed a trail across the Pacific from Tarawa to Saipan, and now in the Battle of the Philippine Sea he had turned back the Japanese fleet with staggering losses, without losing a single ship of his own. The tactical decisions he made as commander of the Fifth Fleet during this battle have been supported by historian Morison and by Admiral King, and I hesitate to align myself against such stalwarts. Yet the inescapable fact remains that our lost opportunity allowed the Japanese fleet to sail away, to fight again at the Battle for Leyte Gulf.