The Battle of the Philippine Sea | June 19-20, 1944
The Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19-20, 1944) was a major naval battle of World War 2 that eliminated the Imperial Japanese Navy’s ability to conduct large-scale carrier actions. It took place during the United States’ amphibious invasion of the Mariana Islands during the Pacific War. The battle was the last of five major “carrier-versus-carrier” engagements between American and Japanese naval forces, and pitted elements of the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet against ships and aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Mobile Fleet and nearby island garrisons. The aerial part of the battle was nicknamed “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” by American aviators, for the severely disproportional loss ratio inflicted upon Japanese aircraft by American pilots and anti-aircraft gunners. A pilot aboard USS Lexington, during a post-air combat debriefing, remarked, “Why, hell, it was just like an old-time turkey shoot down home!” The Battle of the Philippine Sea was the largest carrier-to-carrier battle in history.
In March 1944, Admiral Koga was killed when his aircraft flew into a typhoon and crashed. A new commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, was appointed. He continued the current work, finalizing the Japanese plans known as Operation A-Go. The plan was adopted in early June 1944, then, within weeks, quickly put into place to engage the American fleet now detected heading for Saipan.
For this battle, the American force was designated the Fifth Fleet, under the command of Admiral Raymond Spruance. The fast carrier group was designated Task Force 58, commanded by Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher. Spruance flew his flag aboard the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, which was sailing in the outer defensive ring of Task Group 58.3. Mitscher’s flagship was USS Lexington, also in Task Group 58.3.
The Japanese fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, consisted of three large fast fleet carriers (Taiho, Shokaku and Zuikaku), two slower fleet carriers converted from ocean liners, four light carriers, five battleships, thirteen heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, twenty-seven destroyers, six oilers, and twenty-four submarines. Ozawa’s flagship was the aircraft carrier Taiho.
Shortly before midnight on June 18, Nimitz radioed Spruance that a Japanese vessel had broken radio silence. The message intercepted was an apparent dispatch from Ozawa to his land-based air forces on Guam. RDF placed the sender approximately 355 miles west-southwest of TF 58. Mitscher considered whether the radio message was a Japanese deception, as the Japanese were known to send a single vessel off to break radio silence, to mislead their adversaries about the actual location of the main force. Mitscher realized that there was a chance of a night surface encounter with Ozawa’s forces. Captain Arleigh Burke, Mitscher’s chief of staff, a former destroyer squadron commander who had won several night battles in the Solomons, assumed that battle line commander Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee would welcome the opportunity. But Lee strongly opposed such an encounter. Having personally experienced a confused night action off Guadalcanal, Lee was not enthusiastic about a night engagement with Japanese surface forces, believing that his crews were not adequately trained for it. Shortly after learning Lee’s opinion, Mitscher requested permission from Spruance to move TF 58 west during the night, to reach a launch position at dawn that would allow for a maximum aerial assault on the enemy force. Spruance considered for an hour, then refused Mitscher’s request. Mitscher’s staff was disappointed with Spruance’s decision. On the situation, Captain Burke later commented: “We knew we were going to have hell slugged out of us in the morning. We knew we couldn’t reach them. We knew they could reach us.” Spruance said, “If we were doing something so important that we were attracting the enemy to us, we could afford to let him come — and take care of him when he arrived.” This was in stark contrast to the Battle of Midway in 1942, where Spruance advocated immediately attacking even when his own strike force wasn’t fully assembled, as neutralizing enemy carriers before they could launch their planes was the key to the survival of his carriers. Spruance’s decision was influenced by his orders from Nimitz, who had made it clear that the protection of the invasion fleet of Saipan was the primary mission of Task Force 58.
The Japanese had already launched their morning search patrols, using some of the fifty aircraft stationed on Guam, and at 0550, one of these, a Japanese Zero, found TF 58. Alerted, the Japanese began launching their aircraft on Guam for an attack. These were spotted on radar by US ships. A group of thirty Hellcats were dispatched from the USS Belleau Wood to deal with the threat. The Hellcats arrived while aircraft were still launching from Orote Field. Minutes later, additional radar contacts were seen, which were later discovered to be the additional forces sent north from the other islands. A battle broke out in which thirty-five Japanese aircraft were shot down for the loss of a single Hellcat. It was a pattern that would be repeated throughout the day.
A recall had been ordered after several ships in TF 58 picked up radar contacts 150 miles to the west around 10:00. This was the first of the raids from the Japanese carrier forces, with sixty-eight aircraft. TF 58 started launching every fighter it could, and by the time they were in the air, the Japanese had closed to seventy miles. However, the Japanese began circling to regroup their formations for the attack. This ten-minute delay proved critical, and the first group of Hellcats met the raid, still at seventy miles, at 10:36. They were quickly joined by additional groups. Within minutes, twenty-five Japanese aircraft had been shot down, against the loss of only one US aircraft. The Japanese aircraft that survived were met by other fighters, and sixteen more were shot down. Of the twenty-seven aircraft which now remained, some made attacks on the picket destroyers but caused no damage. Between three and six bombers broke through to Lee’s battleship group and attacked; one scored a direct hit on the main deck of USS South Dakota, which killed or injured over fifty men, but failed to disable her. South Dakota was the only American ship damaged in this attack. Not one aircraft of Ozawa’s first wave got through to the American carriers. Forty-one total Japanese aircraft were shot down in this first-wave attack. Only one US aircraft was lost.
At 11:07, radar detected a second, larger attack. This second wave consisted of 107 aircraft. They were met while still sixty miles out, and at least seventy of these aircraft were shot down before reaching the ships. Six attacked Rear Admiral Montgomery’s group, nearly hitting two of the carriers and causing casualties on each. Four of the six were shot down. A small group of torpedo aircraft attacked Enterprise, one torpedo exploding in the wake of the ship. Three other torpedo aircraft attacked the light carrier Princeton but were shot down. In all, ninety-seven of the 107 attacking aircraft were destroyed.
At 08:16 the submarine USS Albacore, which had sighted Ozawa’s own carrier group, had maneuvered into an ideal attack position; Lieutenant Commander James Blanchard selected the closest carrier as his target, which happened to be Taiho, the largest and newest carrier in the Japanese fleet and Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s flagship. As Albacore was about to fire, however, her fire-control computer failed, and the torpedoes had to be fired “by eye.” Determined to go ahead with the attack, Blanchard ordered all six torpedoes to be fired in a single spread to increase the chances of a hit. Taiho had just launched forty-two aircraft as a part of the second raid when Albacore fired its torpedo spread. Of the six torpedoes fired, four veered off target; Sakio Komatsu, the pilot of one of the recently launched aircraft, sighted one of the two which were heading for Taiho and dove his aircraft into its path, causing the torpedo to detonate prematurely. However, the sixth torpedo struck the carrier on her starboard side, rupturing two aviation-fuel tanks. After coming under depth charge attacks from the carrier’s escorting destroyers, Albacore escaped with only minor damage.
Initially, the damage to Taiho seemed minor; the flooding was quickly contained and the carrier’s propulsion and navigation were unaffected. Taiho quickly resumed regular operations; however, gasoline vapors from the ruptured fuel tanks began to fill the hangar decks, creating an increasingly dangerous situation on board.
Another submarine, USS Cavalla, was able to maneuver to an attack position on the 25,675-ton carrier Shokaku by about noon. The submarine fired a spread of six torpedoes, three of which struck Shokaku on her starboard side. Badly damaged, the carrier came to a halt. One torpedo had hit the forward aviation fuel tanks near the main hangar, and aircraft that had just landed and were being refueled exploded into flames. Ammunition and exploding bombs added to the conflagration, as did burning fuel spewing from shattered fuel pipes. With her bows subsiding into the sea and fires out of control, the captain gave orders to abandon ship. Within minutes, there was a catastrophic explosion of aviation-fuel vapor which had built up between decks, which blew the ship apart. The carrier rolled over and slid beneath the waves about 140 miles north of the island of Yap, taking 887 crew plus 376 men of the 601st Naval Air Group, a total of 1,263 men in all, to the seabed. There were 570 survivors, including the carrier’s commanding officer, Captain Hiroshi Matsubara. Destroyer Urakaze attacked the submarine, but Cavalla escaped with relatively minor damage despite near misses from depth charges.
Meanwhile, Taiho was falling victim to poor damage control. Hoping to clear the explosive fumes, an inexperienced damage-control officer ordered her ventilation system to operate at full blast. This action spread the vapors throughout Taiho, putting the entire vessel at risk. At approximately 14:30, a spark from an electric generator on the hangar deck ignited the accumulated fumes, triggering a series of catastrophic explosions. After the first explosions, it was clear that Taiho was doomed, and Ozawa and his staff transferred to the nearby Zuikaku. Soon thereafter, Taiho suffered a second series of explosions and sank. From a crew of 2,150, 1,650 officers and men were lost.
On the night of June 20, Toyoda ordered Ozawa to withdraw from the Philippine Sea. US forces gave chase, but the battle was over. After the strike of June 20, it became clear that most of the aircraft returning to their carriers were running dangerously low on fuel, and to worsen matters, night had fallen. At 20:45, the first returning US aircraft reached their carriers. Knowing his aviators would have difficulty finding them, Mitscher decided to illuminate his carriers, shining searchlights directly up into the night, despite the risk of attack from submarines and night-flying aircraft. Picket destroyers fired starshells to help the aircraft find the task groups. Planes were given clearance to land on any available flight deck (not just their home carriers, as usual), and many did land on other carriers. Despite this, eighty of the returning aircraft were lost. Some crashed on flight decks, but the majority ditched into the sea. Some pilots intentionally went down in groups to facilitate rescue, and more ditched individually either in a controlled landing, with a few gallons of fuel left, or in a crash after their engines ran dry. Most of the crews (approximately three-quarters) were fished from the seas, either that night from crash locations within the task forces, or over the next few days for those further out, as search planes and destroyers searched the ocean looking for them.
The four Japanese air strikes involved 373 carrier aircraft, of which 130 returned to the carriers. Many of these survivors were subsequently lost when Taiho and Shokaku were sunk by submarine attacks. After the second day of the battle, losses totaled three carriers, approximately 433 carrier aircraft, and around 200 land-based aircraft. The exact number of Japanese aircraft lost may never be known due to poor record keeping of the time.
The losses to the already outnumbered Japanese Fleet air arm were irreplaceable. The Japanese had spent the better part of a year reconstructing their carrier air groups, and the American Fast Carrier Task Force had destroyed ninety percent of it in two days. The Japanese had only enough pilots left to form the air group for one of their light carriers. As a consequence, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, four months later, their carriers were used merely as decoys. The Japanese military, which had shielded the Japanese public from the extent of their losses, continued this policy throughout the war.
The United States totals:
129 warships: 7 fleet carriers, 8 light fleet carriers, 7 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 13 light cruisers, 58 destroyers, 28 submarines, 956 carrier aircraft.
Damaged and sunk: No ships were sunk, and 1 battleship, USS South Dakota, was damaged. 123 aircraft were lost (approximately 80 of these crews survived). 109 US personnel were killed. The
90 warships: 5 fleet carriers, 4 light carriers, 5 battleships, 13 heavy cruisers, 6 light cruisers, 27 destroyers, 24 submarines, 6 oilers. 450 carrier-based aircraft and 300 land-based aircraft. Damaged and sunk: 3 fleet carriers sunk, 2 oilers sunk, 600-645 aircraft lost. 6 ships damaged, approximately 2987 Japanese personnel killed.
As Japan’s military situation deteriorated, Nagumo was deployed on March 4, 1944, as commander in chief in the Mariana Islands of the Fourteenth Air Fleet and the Central Area Pacific Fleet. The Battle of Saipan began on June 15, 1944. Nagumo and his army peer General Saito were on their own to keep control of Saipan. On July 6, Nagumo killed himself with a pistol to the temple rather than the traditional seppuku. His remains were recovered by the US Marines in the cave where he spent his last days as the Japanese commander of Saipan. He was posthumously promoted to admiral.
Some historians call the Battle of the Philippine Sea the most decisive naval battle ever fought. That, of course, is open to debate.