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Chapter 26

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 28
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p300  Chapter 27

Into the Heart of Japan

With the retaking of the Philippines and the conquest of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the way was cleared for a series of blows at the heart of Japan. The capture of Okinawa had removed the last defensive ring of islands protecting Japan. Life for the Japanese during the ensuing months was to be a continuing nightmare, for from the newly acquired and quickly developed airfields on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and from the carriers of the United States and British fleets, swarms of planes took to the air. Penetrating the core of the home islands, these planes challenged Japanese air power to defend itself, and if the challenge was refused, sought out enemy planes and destroyed them on the ground. Not content with attacking simply Japanese air power, our planes also struck at industrial plants, navy yards and other military installations in an all‑out effort to destroy the enemy's power to resist.

The Navy's greatest striking air unit during these last months of war was Task Force 38, now organized into three task groups with a total strength of 9 large and 6 light carriers, 9 battleships, 3 heavy and 16 light cruisers, and 62 destroyers. On 1 July, this force, under the command of Vice Admiral J. S. McCain, sortied Leyte Gulf bound for Japan. Three days later units of the British Pacific Fleet, under Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings, totaling 4 large carriers, 1 battleship, 6 light cruisers and 18 destroyers, reported for duty with the Third Fleet as Task Force 37. Another extremely important but little publicized group joined the Third Fleet on 8 July. This was a fueling group consisting of 26 fleet oilers, 1 store ship, 4 tugs, with 6 escort carriers, 13 destroyers, and 19 destroyer escorts. The presence of this group made possible a more sustained period of attack than would otherwise have been the case.

While this fast carrier Task Force 38 was en route to the scene of action, army, navy, and marine air forces based on the islands surrounding the empire continued the air war against the home islands  p301 of Japan. B‑29's of the Twentieth Army Air Force, operating from bases in the Marianas and escorted by fighters based on Iwo Jima, fired the industrial cities of Japan with area-bombing incendiary attacks. Army Thunderbolts (P‑47's), Black Widows (P‑61's), Mitchells (B‑25's), and Marine Corsairs (F4U's) from Okinawa, attacked and heckled the airfields on Kyushu, the southern island of Japan. Search planes of Fleet Air Wing 18 continued operations from Iwo Jima against merchant and other vessels off the southern and eastern coast of Honshu. Fleet Air Wing 1 Privateers (PB4Y2's) from Okinawa continued to harass and destroy merchant and naval shipping in the East China Sea and extended their rovings to the waters of the Yellow Sea around the Korean peninsula.

After a speed run to the launching point, the carriers of Task Force 38, early on the morning of 10 July, were ready to make their first strike of an intensified campaign against Japanese air power. Aircraft, airfields, gun positions, fuel storage areas, repair facilities, and industrial installations in a broad arc around Tokyo were the targets for the day. Complete tactical surprise was achieved on the first strike, and the attacks continued throughout the day under ideal weather conditions against little air opposition.

On the following day the weather changed, and remained bad for flying for four days. During this time the task force moved north, and as soon as the weather lifted slightly, made a two‑day attack on the previously untouched enemy territory of northern Honshu and southern Hokkaido. Weather over the airfields made visibility poor on the first day, and the strikes were diverted to shipping targets. The results were gratifying from the American standpoint, and targets were found principally in the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido, through which vessels were found trying to escape into the Japan Sea. Five of the estimated nine train ferries operating across the strait were sunk and a sixth was beached. In the two‑day attack, 140 ships totaling 71,000 tons were sunk, and 234 ships and small craft damaged. The enemy sent up no air opposition, but had 37 planes destroyed and 45 damaged on the ground.

On the fourteenth of July, as an illustration of the versatility of the task force, a bombardment group was detached and moved into gun range off the coast and for an hour and a half with telling effect shelled industrial targets at Kamaishi. On the following night, the task force moved south and fueled on the sixteenth. As it made this movement, this task force that had been blasting the Japanese back across the Pacific  p302 and would have been counted pretty fair fighters in any league, conducted training exercises! Naval aviation was, in addition, still trying out new techniques of warfare. In the first operation of its kind, a night fighter combat air patrol from the Bon Homme Richard, on the sixteenth, covered a night bombardment of the coast by the cruisers and destroyers of the task force.

Having fueled, Task Force 38 rendezvoused with the British Task Force 37, and on 18 July the combined forces launched an air attack on the Yokosuka naval base at Kure. In spite of the heaviest antiaircraft fire encountered since the last attack on this base in March, the planes inflicted serious damage on the base, bombed the battleship Nagato, sank an old heavy cruiser, two destroyers, and several craft. Unfavorable weather reduced the effectiveness of the attack, however, and it was called off after three strikes had been made.

The forces next retired to sea to conduct, within the succeeding three days, the largest refueling, replenishing, and rearming operation ever undertaken at sea. The essential co‑operation between naval and air forces was never more thoroughly demonstrated. On 23 July the force proceeded southward toward the next launching point and carried out a two‑day continuous attack on lower Honshu and the southern islands of Japan, Shikoku and Kyushu. Day strikes launched on the twenty-fourth were continued through the night by night hecklers and intruder missions over the airfields. Once again bad weather came to the aid of the enemy, and the attack had to be called off toward midafternoon on the twenty-fifth.

Before bad weather intervened, however, naval air forces had hit the jackpot at the naval base at Kure, in the Inland Sea. In addition to other heavy devastation, 22 warships (258,000 tons) were damaged. Notable among the casualties were 1 battleship (Hyuga) sunk and 2 (Ise and Haruna) damaged, as were 3 cruisers. The airfields at Nagoya-Osaka and Miho were well worked over, and fortunately so, for it was found that the enemy planes were fueled and apparently ready for an attack on the fleet. The first concerted air opposition since 10 July was encountered in this attack. There was, however, no damage to the ships of the force, and 18 enemy planes were shot down during the day.

The lack of air opposition and the wide dispersal of grounded aircraft which characterized the enemy's reaction to attacks during this period made it apparent that the Japanese had decided that they were no longer able to oppose our carrier aircraft except under the most favorable conditions. The enemy's air power, which had been so lavishly expended  p303 during the Okinawa campaign, was now being hoarded for a final assault on our forces when they invaded Japan. The wide dispersal of Japanese aircraft, some planes being found as far as five miles from an airfield, and the excellent camouflage used made the destruction of these planes quite difficult and required the extensive use of photographs and photo interpretation. By the use of these, however, pilots successfully located and destroyed enemy aircraft, thus reducing the strength that the enemy was trying to desperately to conserve.

The next objective was the Inland Sea, the inner hiding place of the Japanese Fleet, that was to be blasted by air attacks. It had been hit before, at Kure, and elsewhere, but this raid was designed to launch continuous waves of attacks from Nagoya to North Kyushu and Miho. Under favorable weather conditions, operating from the task force located about a hundred miles off the coast of Shikoku, on 28 July, our planes scored heavy damage to naval and merchant shipping, transportation facilities, aircraft factories and to the Japanese air arm. Noteworthy victims sunk during this attack included the Haruna, which had been frequently reported sunk, the battleship Ise (fitted with a half flight deck), the heavy cruiser Aoba, and the light cruiser Oyodo. Some air opposition was encountered, and 21 enemy planes were destroyed in the air. In spite of the wide dispersal of aircraft, 123 were destroyed on the ground. In addition, there was serious damage to ground installations and equipment, including destruction of 14 locomotives, 1 hangar, 3 warehouses, 1 transformer station, 3 oil tanks, and 3 roundhouses.

The flexible operation of naval aviation was well demonstrated on the thirtieth. Strikes were launched against airfields in the Tokyo area, but weather being unfavorable in that area, the planes were diverted to the Maizuru area on the coast of the Japan Sea. More than 1,200 sorties were flown, during which the pilots continued to locate well-hidden Japanese aircraft and destroyed 144 on the ground. Merchant shipping was hard hit, with 24 ships sunk and 133 damaged. Industrial targets, also, were not spared, and among the chief victims were three aircraft plants, one steel mill, the arsenal at Nagoya, and naval docks at Maizuru.

On the following day, the combined forces retired toward a refueling rendezvous and were forced to head south to avoid the path of a typhoon. The stormy weather caused the cancellation of strikes scheduled for 4 and 8 August, and it was not until the force moved northward on 9 August that the attack on Japan was resumed.

It was during these months of attack on the home waters of the  p304 Japanese Empire, and the enemy-controlled Chinese coast, that one of the finest examples of naval air‑sea co‑operation was demonstrated time and time again. This was the liaison between our long-range navy patrol planes and submarines in the area. Two main benefits resulted from this co‑operation. In the first place, the patrol planes spotted potential targets for the submarines, which went in to make the kill. The combination proved to be a potent one, and as a result Japanese shipping losses mounted higher and higher. In the second place, during the last six weeks of the war, the American submarine proved to be the greatest "Dumbo" of them all. Outstanding work had been done in air‑sea rescue by Catalinas, Mariners, and scouting craft. As the pressure on offensive was relaxed somewhat for the submarines, however, they turned to the task of rescuing downed Allied airmen, army, navy, and marine. Operating under the noses of the Japanese, the submarines were responsible for the rescue of over 80 per cent of the total personnel saved. Their presence gave a morale lift to pilots and air crewmen that can hardly be exaggerated, and naval aviation feels a deep sense of gratitude to the "Silent Service" for its performance on behalf of aviation's fighting men.

Meanwhile, as this fast carrier task force had been opening with such devastating results off the coast of Japan, the strategic and tactical air arms of the AAF, the marine fighter-bombers, and the search planes of the Navy added to the pressure of our air offensive by continuing the delivery of impressive evidence of what the continuation of the war would mean to the people of Japan. Large groups of B‑29's literally rained incendiary bombs on the industrial cities, and shipping, airfields, aircraft, transportation and industrial facilities were fired and destroyed over such a large area that all Japan felt the impact of our power.

This mounting offensive reached its climax on the morning of 6 August 1945, when a lone B‑29 dropped a single bomb which hit Hiroshima with earth-shattering force and rudely awakened Japan and the rest of the world to the awesome power of the disintegrating atom. Reconnaissance photos showed that 4.1 square miles, or 60 per cent of the city's built‑up area, had been totally destroyed. Two days later, Soviet Russia entered the lists against Japan, and on the following day a second atomic bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki.

Meanwhile Task Force 38 continued pummeling Japan. In a two‑day attack, beginning on the ninth, over 2800 sorties were flown against targets on Honshu north of Tokyo. The primary objectives were airfields and aircraft, but in addition 44 small vessels were sunk, and 38 damaged.  p305 The attacks against the primary targets were even more satisfactory; 412 planes were destroyed on the ground. A few enemy planes from fields bordering the area being attacked succeeded in reaching the ships of the force and damaged the destroyer Borie and narrowly missed the Wasp in suicide attacks. No enemy planes approached the ships of the force on the second day, but word of Japanese surrender moves resulted in special alertness against surprise attacks.

The task force returned to the Tokyo area on the thirteenth and continued attacks throughout the day in spite of bad weather. There was no air opposition over the target, but unsuccessful air attacks were launched against the ships of the force at various times during the day.

After fueling on the fourteenth, strikes were launched early on the morning of the fifteenth. The first strike was met over the Tokyo area, which was the target, by 45 planes, 26 of which were shot down by our aircraft. Before the second strike reached the target, the news everyone had been waiting for came through. This was a dispatch from Admiral Nimitz announcing the end of the war. The planes returned to their carriers, and aside from the small task of shooting down eight attacking Jap pilots who hadn't heard that the war was over, the shooting was finished. At 1600 the task force retired from the area to await further orders.

During its period of operation off Japan, from 10 July to 15 August, in which strikes had been launched on thirteen days, the task force had caused heavy damage to the enemy. More than 10,000 sorties had been flown against land and shipping targets, 4,619 tons of bombs had been dropped, and 22,036 rockets expended on the enemy. A total of 1,232 enemy aircraft had been destroyed and 1,181 damaged; 86 ships totaling 231,000 tons had been sunk, 118 ships totaling 568,000 tons had been damaged, and 618 small craft had been sunk or damaged. In contrast, our losses amounted to 307 planes, of which only 174 were actually lost in combat, and 1 vessel, the Borie, damaged. The Navy's air war had come to a triumphant conclusion.

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Page updated: 7 Sep 14