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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
By June, 1944, the U.S. Navy had inflicted disastrous losses on the Japanese Imperial Navy and had seized control of the Central Pacific. The Gilbert and Marshall Islands had fallen; MacArthur’s forces were pressing relentlessly up the Bismarck Archipelago toward Rabaul, which Navy fliers had battered so hard that they had renamed it Rubble; and, two months before, a surprise carrier attack had neutralized the Japanese stronghold of Truk. The stage was thus set for a decisive naval confrontation at the Mariana Islands, only 1,500 miles from Tokyo. The U.S. objective was to seize Saipan and Guam and, in the process, to lure the remainder of the Imperial Navy into a death battle. The Japanese rose to the bait, and in the resulting, Battle of the Philippine Sea, the pilots of Admiral Marc A. Mitscher’s Task Force 58 effectively destroyed Japan’s carrier air power. Three Japanese carriers went to the bottom, but the rest of the enemy fleet fled out of Mitscher’s attack range. The escape of these ships prompted a round of bitter debate between the Navy’s “Gun Club,” composed of battleship admirals like Raymond A. Spruance (Mitscher’s commander during the Marianas operation), and the advocates of the fast carrier task forces. One such advocate is Admiral J. J. “Jocko” Clark, U.S.N. (Retired), an Oklahoma-born, part-Cherokee pioneer of naval aviation who commanded the new Yorktown before his promotion to rear admiral in 1944. Clark’s battle record in World War II was aptly described by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, when he introduced him to the 1945 American Legion Convention in Chicago as “the fightingest admiral of the fleet.” Clark’s proudest moment, however, came at a ceremony later that year when he received his second Distinguished Service Medal. As he presented Clark with the award, Admiral Mitscher called him “my best carrier task group commander.” Jocko was one of Mitscher’s four group commanders in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and he now tells his version of that crucial engagement in the following excerpt from his book Carrier Admiral, soon to be published by David McKay Co.
Task Force 58 sortied from its Marshall Islands bases on June 6, 1944, the landings on Saipan being scheduled for June 15. My Task Group 58.1 left Kwajalein to rendezvous with 58.2 (Rear Admiral A. E. Montgomery), 58.3 (Rear Admiral J. W. Reeves), and 58.4 (Rear Admiral W. K. Harrill), which came out of Majuro. Fueling took two days, June 8 and 9. On the night of the eighth, our radar registered several “bogies”—enemy search planes—but they never made contact with our force. “Snoopers” began to approach our combat air patrol on the tenth. Fighter director Charles D. Ridgway dispatched a group of Hellcats to destroy them before they could sight the force and radio back our position to their base. We shot down the first snooper forty-seven miles from the task group, and a few minutes later splashed another. Land-based Liberators from Eniwetok preceded the carriers; one of them shot down a Betty, but not before we overheard the pilot reporting our position. This incident prompted me to ask permission from Mitscher to station picket destroyers equipped with radar and fighter directors ahead of the group, with their own combat air patrol to detect enemy snoopers before they sighted the carriers. With Mitscher’s approval, on the morning of June 11 I sent two destroyers fifty miles ahead of the force and a third one twenty-five miles. This precaution became standard procedure for the fast carriers and was greatly expanded later in the war.
Making excellent time from the Marshalls to the target area, Task Force 58 was attacked by long-range enemy patrol bombers on the morning of June 11. When the shooting started, I sent out a final word of encouragement to the men of my task group: “Message to all hands. We need no special incentive, but Guam belongs to us. Deliver every bomb and bullet where it will do the most good. … God be with you and good luck. S/S Admiral Clark.” Our combat air patrol Hellcat pilots were the first to see action. During the morning and early afternoon, our new picket destroyers directed Yorktown fighters about forty miles beyond the force to shoot down six enemy patrol bombers, one of which yielded two survivors. I could not resist sending a signal to my old ship: “Your combat air patrol has turned in the usual and expected top-notch Yorktown performance. Congratulations.”
Since Task Force 58 was already under attack from enemy air units based on the target islands, Admiral Mitscher realized that if we waited until the next day for our customary predawn fighter sweep, the force would be under constant attack during the night. To avoid that, and to catch the Japanese by surprise, we launched the fighter sweep on that very afternoon. At 1 P.M. we began launching from a position 192 miles east of Guam. Hornet and Yorktown each sent off sixteen Hellcats, while Belleau Wood and Bataan each launched twelve. In all, from Task Force 58, 212 F6F’s and ten life-raft-laden bombers were included in the sweep.
The afternoon fighter sweep had indeed caught the Japanese unaware. Reeves and Harrill worked over Saipan and Pagan, Montgomery hit Tinian, and I took Guam and Rota. Lieutenant Commander William A. Dean, skipper of Fighting 2 from the flagship, led the Hellcats into their strafing and bombing runs, which pitted the airstrips and destroyed several parked planes. The thirty Zeros that appeared were quickly engaged and shot down. Though antiaircraft fire was heavy, our planes easily carried the day. I signalled the ships in the task group: “Damn well done. Upwards of thirty airborne aircraft destroyed against one of ours shot down.” In all, about 150 Japanese planes were destroyed by Task Force 58 at the cost of eleven Hellcats; three of our pilots were rescued. The total score for my task group on that day was forty-one enemy planes shot down. That night and the next morning no planes molested Task Force 58.
The customary pre-invasion destruction of enemy positions and equipment on the target islands began on June 12. Japanese antiaircraft gunners, lying in wait for our bombers and fighters, threw up a fire so withering that Fighting 24 from Belleau Wood reported it as “the heaviest encountered by this squadron in its nine months of combat experience.” At dawn I sent out search planes 325 miles to the southwest to look for enemy warships; they sighted a convoy of six small Japanese vessels, destroyers and transports, about 270 miles west of Guam, heading south at eight knots. We launched a special strike against this convoy, but our planes failed to relocate it. I had the bombers drop their bombs on Guam as they returned. To conclude the day’s operations, Hornet’s planes dropped leaflets to the Chamorro natives on Guam announcing our intention to free them from Japanese domination.
Before daylight next morning, we launched another search-strike to look for that convoy. Two radar-equipped night fighters led twenty Hellcats from Hornet and Yorktown, followed by two rescue-equipped SB2C dive bombers. Each fighter carried one five-hundred-pound bomb. Finally the convoy was sighted and the planes attacked it, but the fighter pilots were inexperienced in the art of bombing warships and succeeded in damaging only one. Also, the 350-mile range was the longest carrier air strike of record at that time. Our other planes pounded Guam and were joined by the surface ships. By the end of that day, no aircraft remained on Guam that could possibly assist the defenders of Saipan when that island was assaulted two days later.
During the morning of June 13, Captain W.K. “Sol” Phillips, my screen commander and the skipper of the cruiser Oakland, had sent me a signal regarding Tokyo Rose, the infamous American-born Japanese woman broadcaster: “Tokyo Rose has just announced on the radio that all our ships are sunk.”
I signalled back: “Do not believe Tokyo Rose. When the rising sun goes down she will sing a different song.” This message began an exchange between Phillips and me referring to Tokyo Rose; thereafter, signalmen in my task group kept on the lookout for the Tokyo Rose messages to pass along to their friends.
During the attacks on Guam, Lieutenant (j.g.) Beath and his radio interceptors had been picking up Japanese radio transmissions and decoding messages relating to aircraft movements. We learned that the Japanese were sending great numbers of planes from the home islands to Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima, about seven hundred miles to the north, for attacks on our shipping off Saipan. Mitscher had the same messages confirmed by our submarines in the area. He wanted these planes destroyed.
Mitscher sent Harrill and me north to stop this buildup and to knock out the airfields in the “Jimas.” On June 14, as our two groups rendezvoused, I received a message from Harrill saying that he did not want to go north to hit the Jimas. I could not believe he meant it, so I had Douglas “Tex” McCrary, my air operations officer, fly me over to Harrill’s flagship, Essex, for a talk. Harrill was firm in his desire not to go north at all. He said heavy weather was going to cover the Jimas and that the Japanese fleet might come out from the Philippines to attack the shipping off Saipan. His reluctance to carry out orders surprised me. Formerly a topflight officer, he seemed to have lost his zip.
Mitscher’s order to Harrill and me was unusual. It was a multiple-address dispatch giving the two task groups the mission of striking the Jimas while remaining “tactically concentrated.” Ordinarily the senior officer would lead such an assignment, but neither of us was in tactical command. Later I learned that Mitscher had purposely written the order that way to give me freedom of action. Harrill’s chief of staff, Captain H. E. “Blackie” Regan, and I spent hours trying to convince Harrill of the importance of stopping the Japanese air threat from the north. Exasperated, I finally said, “If you do not join me in this job, I will do it all myself.” After that remark he agreed to participate, but he provided only token assistance. Nevertheless, seven carriers were better than four, and though concerned about Harrill, I returned to my flagship satisfied.
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.
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.”
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. …”
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.
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.