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Chapter 20

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.
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Chapter 22
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p201  Chapter 21

Conquest of the Marianas

Prelude to the Campaign

[map below] Four months elapsed before the next large-scale amphibious operation took place — the campaign to wrest the Marianas from the Japanese. During that period naval aircraft, flying from newly commissioned fields on 1 Kwajalein and 2 Eniwetok, and from bases in the 3 Gilberts, went about the business of reducing 4 Truk, 5 Ponape, 6 Wake, and the enemy-held atolls in the Marshalls, to impotence. One of the principal features of this land-based air campaign was its correlation with attacks by aircraft under the control of the South and southwest Pacific commands. The northwestward movement of these commands and the westward progress of the Central Pacific Force meant that Truk, for example, was now threatened from two sides. The air noose was tightening around thousands of miles of enemy sea, and the spheres of Japanese influence in the central Pacific were being reduced to the shattered remains of their once-strategic bases.

In the meantime the fast carriers were not idle. On 18 March the Lexington, having repaired its battle damage, returned to conduct an "exercise" strike on 7 Mille Atoll. By 22 March the bulk of the carrier force was assembled in the 8 Majuro lagoon where it had replenished and rearmed for operations in support of the Hollandia invasion by General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.MacArthur's troops. On 23 March this force sortied in two groups; on 26 and 27 March it rendezvoused with a third group which had previously been assigned support tasks in the South Pacific area; and on 29 March the combined force of 5 large carriers (Enterprise, Bunker Hill, Hornet, Yorktown, and Lexington), 6 light carriers (Belleau Wood, Cowpens, Monterey, Cabot, Princeton, and Langley), and screening battle­ships, cruisers, and destroyers, began a high-speed run toward the 9 Palau Islands for a preliminary raid to aid the projected Hollandia assault.

The hope that heavy units of the enemy fleet might be found at Palau  p202 disappeared when search planes discovered and reported the force on 25 and 28 March, thus eliminating the element of surprise and alerting shipping in the area. As at Truk, however, the dawn fighter sweeps of 30 March displayed a potency which destroyed virtually all enemy airborne aircraft and created havoc among planes caught on the ground. Unlike Truk, enemy aerial opposition did not end after the first day's fighter sweep. During the night of 30 March the Japanese flew in reinforcements which engaged succeeding strikes in heavy combat. Our Hellcats won control of the air, however, and thereby exposed the islands to the bombs of the Helldivers and Avengers. Japanese plane losses in the approximate ratio of 19 to 1 proved once again the superiority of our equipment and pilot training.

The 115 sorties flown against ground installations accomplished results in conformity with previous experience; if they did not leave the bases of the Palau group utterly neutralized, they at least revealed the precariousness of their situation in respect to the advancing battle front. The attacks on shipping targets produced an interesting conclusion: a preference for masthead rather than glide tactics resulted in increased bombing efficiency and was largely responsible for the sinking of 28 vessels and the damaging of 18 others. Masthead or "skip" bombing had been developed by the Army Air Force and applied with devastating results in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, 6‑9 February 1943. The Navy's use of the technique confirmed its superiority to high level or glide methods. Finally, the raid introduced mine laying into the repertoire of the fast carrier task force. The mining operations carried out at Palau constituted the largest tactical use of mines made up to that time by United States air forces, and the first in history from carriers. A total of seventy-eight mines were dropped — an important contribution to the immobilization of enemy shipping in that area.

[map below] The operation plan did not limit the raid to the 1 Palau Islands and their adjacent waters. On 31 March, Task Group 58.1 sent 142 sorties against 2 Ulithi Atoll and 3 Yap Island, and on 1 April the combined force struck 4 Woleai with 150 tons of bombs. The cost of the four‑day operation was forty-three aircraft from all causes, an impressive total at first glance but one which was not out of proportion to the destruction obtained. Despite this deepest penetration to date of the Japanese defense system, air attacks on the task force were not as severe as those experienced off the Marianas in February. Excellent fighter direction, efficient combat air patrol, and, one suspects, a Japanese hesitancy born of recent experience, combined to protect our carriers and screening  p203 ships from damage. The withdrawal to 5 Majuro was made without incident.

On 13 April 1944 Task Force 58 departed the central Pacific in three groups for operations in support of army landings in the 6 Hollandia- 7 Aitape area. Upon completion of that campaign the force retired by way of the Carolines and on 29‑30 April conducted the second carrier raid on 8 Truk. By this time a carrier attempt on that once-formidable fortresses had become anticlimactic. But the Japanese were still strong enough to offer major resistance, and approximately 120 planes had to be destroyed before our pilots won control of the air. Thereafter, pre‑established patterns of attack were employed, with staggered strikes pounding buildings, airfields, and defense guns, and ferreting out the few ships which necessity had forced the enemy to retain in the anchorage.

If the second Truk raid was an anticlimactic blow in the central Pacific offensive, it was nevertheless distinguished by individual heroism and the precision of fighter tactics. A study of the initial fighter sweep, for example, provides material for stories of high adventure. Two divisions from the Langley, while orbiting above the heavy cloud layer over Truk, spotted an estimated thirty Japanese fighters approaching from slightly below. The eight pilots attacked at once and in a few minutes of tense and expert fighting destroyed 21 planes without loss to themselves. Some minutes later a Lexington group of 11 Hellcats encountered 15 to 18 Japanese planes, of which they shot down 9 for the loss of one. Such examples of our air superiority produced that confidence which is the key to victory, and chastened the enemy with losses that he could not afford.

Although this was the last carrier raid in force before the invasion of the Marianas, the central Pacific air war continued with increasing tempo, waged by army, navy, and marine land-based aircraft. Routine tasks — long-range searches, anti-submarine patrols, transport flights — occupied the time and energies of naval pilots who were denied the thrill of carrier warfare. Others maintained the neutralization of by‑passed islands with strikes that lost their adventure through repetition. The luckier ones flew their Liberator on attack missions to Truk and Ponape, where excitement could still be had, or on reconnaissance flights to the Marianas. In the meantime, under cover of this activity, air, sea, and land forces were being assembled at Eniwetok for the assault on Saipan.

[map below] Late in May a final carrier raid was made to indoctrinate new air  p204 groups and to strike a blow at airfields on 1 Marcus and 2 Wake islands, from which the Japanese might threaten the northern flank of our supply line to the Marianas. Three carriers participated — Essex, Wasp, and San Jacinto — under the tactical command of Rear Admiral A. E. Montgomery, Commander, Task Group 58.6. The group sortied from 3 Majuro on 15 May, opened the attack with a night fighter sweep on Marcus in the pre‑dawn darkness of 19 May, and, in the face of intense antiaircraft fire, strafed and bombed that hapless island for two consecutive days. On 23 May the raid moved eastward where it struck Wake Island with 354 combat sorties. With the return of the task group to Majuro on 25 May, Vice Admiral Mitscher's Task Force 58 began active preparations for its next great role in the central Pacific offensive. During the occupation and defense of the Marianas the naval air arm, operating at a new peak of efficiency, offered a challenge to the enemy which could be ignored no longer; and the Japanese, for the first time since the desperate days of the Solomon Islands campaign, accepted the challenge with their own fast carrier fleet.

Conquest of the Marianas — First Phase

[map below] As our amphibious ambitions brought us closer to Japan the power of the enemy to resist in the air increased accordingly. The campaign for the Marianas put the air war on a more equal basis than it had ever been in the central Pacific, and although American control of the air was won in a series of shattering defeats for the enemy, the example of quick and easy victory which had been established in the Gilberts and Marshalls could not be applied to the conquest of 1 Saipan, 2 Tinian, and 3 Guam. The reasons for this are obvious both to the military strategist and the geographer: loss of the Marianas portended consequences that demanded the commitment of Japanese air strength; and the comparative ease with which the islands could be reinforced from the empire by way of the 4 Bonin-Volcano group supported that demand. And so the Japanese Air Force expended its aircraft with lavish hand. Such strategy impeded our advance only momentarily and presented us with a solid triumph over enemy air power.

The Marianas campaign imposed tasks on the fast carrier force which increased its responsibility, its operating difficulties, and the importance of its role in amphibious warfare. The four groups under Vice Admiral Mitscher contained 8 large carriers (Hornet, Yorktown, Franklin, Bunker Hill, Wasp, Enterprise, Lexington and Essex), 8 light carriers  p205 (Bataan, Cabot, Belleau Wood, Monterey, Princeton, San Jacinto, Cowpens, and Langley), 7 new battle­ships, 13 cruisers, and 58 destroyers. These ships could provide an air fleet of 900 planes to oppose local Japanese air power, support ground troops, and meet any threat from the enemy fleet. The full significance of this ability is only understood when it is realized that 5 Eniwetok, the closest base for logistic support, was a thousand miles from the combat zone.

Task Force 58 sortied from 6 Majuro on 6 June 1944 after the concentration of ships in that anchorage had been spotted by a high altitude Japanese search plane. The approach to the Marianas, however, was uneventful and on 11 June at 1300, while two hundred miles east of the islands, a fighter sweep was launched which began the campaign with the advantage of surprise and destroyed 150 planes in the air and on the ground. This crippling blow prevented the enemy from reacting in strength, and that first and most anxious night in the vicinity was passed without attack on our carriers. On 12 June the bombing began, and the islands of Guam, 7 Rota, Saipan, Tinian, and 8 Pagan felt the weight of high explosives on airfields and installations. With most of their airplanes burned on the ground or missing in action, the Japanese responded only with sporadic dusk and night attacks during this preliminary phase of the operation. These were unsuccessful and there was reason for optimism.

The inability of the enemy to foresee the danger to the Marianas left him with two convoys in the area which were found on the twelfth by carrier search planes of Task Groups 58.1 and 58.4. Rear Admiral W. K. Harrill's group (58.4) struck a formation of twenty ships which was fleeing on a northerly course, 125 miles west of Pagan Island. In an afternoon of merciless destruction the enemy convoy was reduced to wreckage and a few survivors. One destroyer was sunk by strafing alone, a rare example, but one which suggests the character of the attack. Search planes on the morning of the thirteenth found only a single ship, a few abandoned hulks, and the evidence of catastrophe. It is doubtful if more than one or two ships escaped. To the south, 135 miles west of Guam, another convoy of six ships became the target for a special attack mission sent by Rear Admiral J. J. Clark (CTG 58.1). This strike failed to locate the convoy on 12 June, however, and it was not until the next day that it was caught and strafed by twenty fighter-bombers. All of the ships were damaged, and two destroyers left trailing oil and a cargo vessel on fire.

Air strikes on island targets continued on 13 June in accordance with  p206 the program of neutralization. On 14 June Task Groups 58.1 and 58.4 rendezvoused and commenced an approach to the Bonin Islands, which they were to attack on 15 and 16 June in support of the D‑Day landings on 1 Saipan. This was the deepest penetration of empire waters ever made by a carrier striking force up to this time. In the teeth of a growing gale, fighter sweeps and bombing missions were launched against 2 Iwo Jima, 3 Chichi Jima, and 4 Haha Jima; and despite airborne opposition, heavy antiaircraft defense, and the most unfavorable flying conditions, planes from the Essex, Hornet, and Yorktown reduced the ability of the Japanese to resist and left the area in poor condition to stage aircraft into the Marianas. High seas, wet and pitching decks, and formidable cloud fronts made carrier landings so hazardous that the loss of only one plane operationally is a tribute to the skill of pilots and flight deck crews. On the afternoon of 16 June, there being indications of threatening movements by the Japanese Fleet, the two task groups retired southward toward a rendezvous with the rest of the force.

In the meantime, in the early morning of 15 June, marine and army ground forces began their bitter month-long struggle to conquer Saipan. Throughout that grim ordeal, naval aircraft controlled the air over the troops and aided them in the bloody business of extermination. In addition to the fast carrier task force — which supported ground operations when it was not occupied with the sinking of ships, the neutralization of adjacent islands, and its duel with the Japanese Fleet — an impressive fleet of escort carriers hovered about the islands, performing the routine and necessary tasks of service and support. The roster of these ships reveals by its length that the experimental use of escort carriers in the Gilbert Islands campaign had proved the value of the type in amphibious operations. Twelve CVE's supported the seizure of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam: Suwannee, Sangamon, Chenango, Kitkun Bay, Gambier Bay, Coral Sea, Corregidor, Fanshaw Bay, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, Nehenta Bay, and Midway. And for the first time in the central Pacific, a division of escort carriers (Copahee, Breton, Manila Bay, and Natoma Bay) was used, not only for replacement plane service, but for the protection of oiler groups. The word "invaluable" has perhaps become hackneyed in its constant association with our escort carriers, but they deserved the adjective in the Marianas, where their absence could only have prolonged the war.

[map below] The story of the air war in the Marianas during this first phase cannot be restricted to a recital of the exploits of carrier aircraft. Facilities for operating planes from Saipan developed rapidly as our troops gained  p207 control of the southern part of the island. The primitive airstrip at 1 Charan-Kanoa was secured on 16 June, and the following afternoon a TBF crash-landed there. By the twentieth, this strip was operational for emergency landings and artillery observation planes. On 18 June, 2 Aslito airfield was captured and a few days later army Thunderbolts moved in and assumed responsibility for local combat air patrol. The threat of the Japanese Fleet made long-range searches to the westward necessary, and five Mariners arrived at Saipan on 17 June. On the sixteenth the tender Ballard had begun laying buoys for these planes in the open sea about two and a half miles from the reef off 3 Tanapag Harbor. Long swells made operations here difficult, but planes and tenders were fairly free from harassment by enemy guns ashore or by enemy aircraft. Before Saipan had been captured, seven aircraft tenders (Pocomoke, Chandeleur, Ballard, Casco, Mackinac, Yakutat, and Onslow) had been formed into a search, reconnaissance, and photographic command which became a principal source of naval intelligence. Nor should the cruiser and battle­ship observation planes be forgotten in any analysis of the part played by naval aircraft in the Marianas. Unwieldy, unprotected, and unsung, these planes spotted for ship to shore bombardments, rescued downed personnel, and, in one amazing instance, shot down a Japanese fighter! If the pilots and crewmen of these spotting, search, rescue, and patrol planes did not receive glorification in newsprint, they earned the respect of those who profited by their labors.

It must not be supposed, however, that our overwhelming air strength accomplished, as it had in the Gilberts and Marshalls, the emasculation of enemy air power. Although airfields throughout the Marianas had been subjected to heavy attack beginning on 12 June, they were by no means completely neutralized by the fifteenth. Tinian air facilities were covered by surface ships and combat air patrols from the fifteenth on, and there were heavy and repeated strikes on the fields of Guam, Rota, and Pagan throughout the remainder of June and into July; but these attacks were not sufficient to prevent the fields from being used as staging bases for Japanese aircraft. It is therefore not surprising that enemy planes carried out a series of raids on our ships in the vicinity of Saipan and on the forces ashore during this first phase of the campaign. None of the raids was of serious proportions, and they were more of a nuisance than a threat to the success of the Marianas operation. Damage to the Fanshaw Bay, the battle­ship Maryland, and several auxiliaries, put these ships out of action but did not alter the fact that, for most practical purposes, our control of the air was complete.

 p208  This inability of the Japanese to turn the tide of our advance with land-based aircraft led them into a decision to bring their carriers into the action. This could be, and was, no surprise to our strategists. No matter with what bravery or fanaticism the enemy troops fought across the green fields and stony hills of Saipan, their defeat was but a matter of time if our domination of the skies was not challenged and overthrown. And since American possession of the Marianas foreshadowed consequences of extreme danger to the homeland, it became evident to the Japanese that the gamble of another carrier battle, so long delayed, could no longer be avoided. The alternative of certain defeat under existing conditions made the possibility of victory through desperate action more attractive than it might otherwise have been. The enemy's choice, therefore, was simple and logical, both to himself and to the American admirals. Only the outcome could be in doubt.

Conquest of the Marianas — Second Phase
The Battle of the Philippine Sea

During the first phase of the Marianas campaign, the Japanese battle fleet was attacked by our submarines from its anchor at Tawi Tawi, in the southern Philippines, northward into the Sulu Sea, through the Straits of San Bernardino and into the Philippine Sea. Air searches launched from southwest Pacific and central Pacific bases groped for this force as it maneuvered in preparation for its attack, but were unable to locate it until 19 June. Our submarine pickets, however, had more success. On the seventeenth the Cavalla sighted an oiler group at 13°29′ North, 130°45′ East, and about seventeen hours later made contact with a force of fifteen or more ships in position 12°23′ North, 132°20′ East. On the eighteenth, several reports and a number of sightings of small single-engined planes gave indication of the approach of the enemy fleet, but no actual contact was made. The situation on the morning of the nineteenth, then, was one of suspense and anxiety. The enemy battle force was known to be heading eastward and it was known to be of formidable proportions: the Japanese Fleet striking force which had been present in the Philippine area in early June was estimated to contain 9 carriers, 5 battle­ships, 16 cruisers, and 32 destroyers. Until it had been definitely located and brought within range of our aircraft, this fleet possessed strategical possibilities which increased its formidableness and our apprehension.

In the meantime, Admiral Spruance (Commander, Fifth Fleet) regrouped  p209 his forces for the coming battle. Task Force 58 was reinforced with units from Task Force 51 (Joint Expeditionary Force) and on 19 June it contained 7 large carriers (Hornet, Yorktown, Bunker Hill, Wasp, Enterprise, Lexington, and Essex), 8 light carriers (Bataan, Belleau Wood, Monterey, Cabot, San Jacinto, Princeton, Cowpens, and Langley), 7 fast battle­ships, 8 heavy cruisers, 13 light cruisers, and 67 destroyers. Aircraft carried 450 fighters, 250 bombs, 200 torpedo planes, and approximately 80 scout-observation aircraft. In point of air and surface striking power, this was the greatest armada that had ever been assembled. Commencing on 17 June — all groups of the fleet having rendezvoused — the general plan was to operate in an area west of the southern Marianas, advancing westward during the day, retiring eastward during the night and remaining continually within supporting distance of the amphibious forces at Saipan. On 18 June a formation was assumed which placed three carrier groups on a north-south line, 12 to 15 miles apart, a battle-line group of fast battle­ships 12 to 15 miles westward of the center carrier group, and a fourth carrier group (designated the battle line carrier group) stationed to the north of the battle line. Although Admiral Spruance was present and issued general policies, plans, and orders, Vice Admirals Mitscher and W. A. Lee, Jr. kept tactical command of the carrier and battle-line groups. On the morning of the nineteenth the entire fleet was fueled, armed, and ready for action.

At 0115 on 19 June a Mariner search plane out of Saipan made contact with a large enemy force of about 40 ships in a position 470 miles west of Guam. Because of transmission failure, however, this important information was not received by our waiting forces until seven hours later, a circumstance which not only improved the tactical position of the Japanese but deprived us of an opportunity which might have altered the course of the Battle of the Philippine Sea and resulted in much greater destruction of enemy forces. Searches flown from our carriers, meanwhile, had negative results. The great air battle began, then, with the Japanese launching their attack on Task Force 58 in the early morning daylight of the nineteenth, without our knowing the position of the enemy carrier striking force.

The enemy attack which continued throughout the nineteenth involved the largest number of planes that had ever been sent against an opposing fleet. Fortunately, the attack was poorly co‑ordinated and instead of being concentrated it was extended over a period of many hours. This circumstance, combined with the excellence of our radar  p210 technique, aircraft equipment, and pilot performance overcame the difficulty of position and presented us with the greatest triumph in air to air combat achieved in the Pacific war.

No one can doubt that the Japanese strategy was cunning and that it contained the elements of victory. With our fleet between his carriers and the operational airfields on Guam and Rota, the enemy could launch strikes from a position outside the range of our planes and, after attacking, land on his island bases; then, to complete this squeeze-play strategy, these planes could be shuttled back to the carriers, attacking again en route. It was a plan which forced us into a defensive role and therefore offered a measure of protection to the Japanese Fleet. It failed for reasons already suggested and because the enemy did not readjust his strategy to meet new problems and circumstances.

The Japanese attack developed in four stages and covered the entire daylight period of 19 June. The first evidence of air attack appeared at 0530 when several "bogies" were picked up by radar in the general direction of Guam, and, soon after, the evidence became conclusive when Belleau Wood fighters, in a request for help, reported many planes taking off from Agana Field. Until 1000 the air over that island was filled with the clash of opposing aircraft. Approximately thirty-three of our Hellcats made contact with a slightly larger number of enemy fighters and established the pattern for the day by shooting down thirty-five planes for the loss of one. The destruction of these planes upset the enemy's plan to catch our carriers in an aerial vise, and warned us of events to come.

During this first stage of the action, Task Force 58 was eighty miles northwest of Guam. At 1000 the Alabama reported the first large "bogey" of the day bearing 265° true, distant 125 miles, at 24,000 feet or above, and closing. Admiral Mitscher immediately ordered all planes over Guam to return, and directed his group commanders to launch additional fighters. In a matter of minutes all flight decks had been cleared and interception was being made at a distance of sixty miles from the fleet. The fifty to seventy Japanese attackers were cut to pieces in a running fight that brought the remnants of the group into antiaircraft range. These desperate planes, singly and in small groups, pushed through an attack which hit the South Dakota with a small bomb, sent one plane crash-diving against the Indiana at the water line, and scored a near miss on the Minneapolis. Ships' gunners knocked down nine planes, which completed the action with the virtual annihilation of the enemy raiding force.

 p211  Shortly after 1100, as the few survivors of the first raid disappeared from radar screens, a new large "bogey" was detected. Another interception at sixty miles discovered a second raid of sixty to seventy fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes which was broken up and, to a large extent, destroyed in the same manner as the first. About four dive bombers broke through to score near misses on the Bunker Hill and Wasp but three of these were shot down by antiaircraft fire. From 1130 to 1430 several raids by isolated planes or small attack groups were intercepted at distances from the force of two to sixty miles. These last hopeless attempts to reverse the fortunes of war failed through lack of co‑ordination and strength, and our fighters splashed the Japanese planes with a determination increased by the day's success.

By 1400 the attacks on Task Force 58 had tapered off, and in the intervening lull our fighters paused to refuel and rearm. During the spectacular action over the fleet the situation at Guam had not remained static. With the alarm of the first raid on the fleet, all bombers and torpedo planes had been ordered into the air to eliminate the hazard of fire and explosion in the event of an enemy success against our carriers. These planes, which had been armed and made ready for an attack on the Japanese Fleet, were diverted to Guam and Rota in an attempt to neutralize the airfields on those islands. This maneuver, while it contributed to the discomfort of the enemy, did not succeed in rendering the fields inoperational, and by late afternoon there were numerous reports of enemy aircraft in the Guam area. As a result, fighter sweeps were vectored there which engaged the enemy on a large scale, and, by shooting down about seventy-five planes, completed the last stage of the air battle. Following the destruction of these planes at Guam, a few snoopers remained in the area of the task force until 2200, but the Japanese offensive was spent and no further attacks were made.

The "Marianas Turkey Shoot" will be remembered as a climax in the history of naval aviation. No aerial defeat could have been more crushing for the enemy or more decisive in its relation­ship to our amphibious efforts. The 385 Japanese planes which were shot into the sea and the 17 others destroyed on the ground might well have turned the tide of battle on Saipan had our pilots been less skillful, our equipment less efficient, and our fighting spirit less determined. Final statistics revealed that losses in air combat favored our Hellcats in a ratio of 13 to 1 when compared to enemy fighter plane losses, and 21 to 1 if other types are included. If this demonstrated superiority in the air did not reveal to the Japanese that the war was lost, it proved to them that  p212 excellent strategy could not overcome the defects of equipment and pilot training. The only possible action left them now was retreat; and in the fact of their retreat lay the second challenge to the fast carrier task force.

Although the enemy inflicted only minor casualties on our force during the first day of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, our continued loss of position seriously handicapped any attempt at counterattack. In order to keep a constant fighter patrol in the air it was necessary to head the task force into an easterly wind, which consequently took our ships away from the Japanese carriers. By nightfall, Task Force 58 was only forty miles west of Rota — farther east than it had been in the morning and impotent to strike back. With the conclusion of the day's action, therefore, the force immediately took a westerly course at twenty-three knots in an effort to close the enemy. For the purpose of covering the Marianas area, Task Group 58.4 (Essex, Cowpens, and Langley) was detached, which reduced the carrier strength of the main body to six CV's and six CVL's.

Search missions on the morning of 20 June were negative, and it was not until 1518 that contact was made with the retiring enemy fleet. By this time Task Force 58 had reached a position 370 miles west of Rota and was over 275 miles from the closest enemy group. It thus became evident that if the enemy was to be hit it would be necessary to launch a strike at extreme range and recover the planes in darkness. At 1553 Admiral Mitscher advised Admiral Spruance that he intended to launch a deckload of 85 Hellcats, 77 Helldivers, and 54 Avengers. This flight was off at 1630 on a mission made hazardous not only by the defensive capabilities of the Japanese, but also by the lateness of the hour and the distance involved. All air groups made contact with the enemy fleet slightly before sunset after flights of from 300 to 330 miles.

The Japanese had disposed their fleet in three groups, a small group to the northeast, the main body in the center, and an oiler group to the southeast. It was an impressive force; returning airmen estimated that 6 carriers were present, screened by 4 battle­ships, 11 cruisers, and 22 destroyers. Despite the difficulties of co‑ordinating an attack at that time and at that distance, the distribution of aircraft between the enemy carriers was well handled by the officers in tactical command of the various units. The action was tense and dramatic. Through the varicolored bursts of the Japanese flak our planes hit the carrier targets hard, and although skillful and aggressive enemy fighters were in the air, they could not prevent the attack from being pressed home with  p213 vigor and determination. Two carriers were sunk and the rest damaged. A relatively small proportion of the total of bombs and torpedoes was expended on other types, but at least two destroyers and one oiler were sunk among the several hit. If the Japanese Fleet was not broken, it was removed as a threat to the Marianas operation.

This gallant strike cost us eighteen planes to antiaircraft fire and enemy interceptors but the battle against distance and the gathering darkness produced many more casualties. With the darkness came difficulties in navigation which forced our carriers to reveal their position with searchlights, star shells, and white truck lights in an effort to home the returning planes. The scene was a nightmare of desperate efforts. Flight-deck crews worked feverishly to recover planes which were coming in on their last gallon of gas. Confusion caused by the darkness, and an eagerness to land caused some pilots to make approaches on cruisers and destroyers. Others fouled the carrier decks with barrier crashes. And during the evening many more, lost or simply out of fuel, made water landings, raising the total of operational losses from all causes to 80. The subsequent rescue of 77 per cent of the downed personnel did much to relieve the desperation of that night in the minds of those who were participants, but the event will be remembered by many as the most spectacular phase of the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

While this dramatic recovery of planes was taking place the wounded Japanese Fleet was limping off toward the safer waters of the empire. A PBM located it the next morning, but by that time it was 350 miles from our force. Nevertheless, a decision to launch a strike was made and at 0550 on 21 June our planes took off in the hope of dealing the enemy a last, shattering blow. The mission, however, was unsuccessful; the flight proceeded to the limit of its combat range, and, having made no contact, jettisoned bombs and returned to base. Searches during the remainder of the day were negative and at 1920 Admiral Spruance directed the retirement of Task Force 58 toward Saipan. At that point our carriers had reached a position only 545 miles from the Philippine island of Samar.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea was won, but it was a victory which brought criticism, as well as congratulations. The enemy fleet, for the first time since the naval decisions in the Solomon Islands, had come out to do battle and it had escaped destruction. Since the formation of the fast carrier task force, a fleet engagement had been one of the objects of our strategy and our hope. When the chance came it found  p214 our carriers committed to a defensive role by a proper hesitation to leave the amphibious operations at Saipan uncovered. When the opportunity to strike back was grasped, the factors of time and distance prevented a decisive blow. The campaign in the Marianas was saved, but the Japanese Fleet escaped with its major strength, to fight again.

Conquest of the Marianas — Third Phase

With the repulse of the Japanese Fleet our air effort in the Marianas returned to the less spectacular tasks of patrols, searches, and field support missions. The only air threat that the enemy could muster came from his operational but battered airfields in the Caroline, Bonin, and Volcano Islands. Such a threat did not demand the attention of all the fast carrier groups, and a system of rotation consequently enabled our carriers to return to Eniwetok for rest and replenishment.

The first of the post-battle raids to involve more than routine operations was an attempted strike against the Volcano-Bonin group which the Japanese turned into an air battle of impressive proportions. At 0600 on 24 June Task Group 58.1 (Hornet, Yorktown, and Bataan) launched a long-range fighter sweep against Iwo Jima which was intercepted by a large number of enemy fighters. In the resulting action our 48 Hellcats lost 4 of their number while destroying an estimated 68 Japanese fighters and bombers. This defeat, however, did not discourage the enemy from attempting an attack against the task group with the remnants of his local air strength. This attempt proved equally disastrous: our interceptors shot down 46 more aircraft, to raise the day's total to 114. Its mission completed without bombing the airfield, Task Group 58.1 retired to Eniwetok without incident.

After rearming, Task Groups 58.1 and 58.2 rendezvoused on 1 July and set course for Iwo Jima on another raid to neutralize that flanking base. On 3 July a snooper reported the approaching carriers and forced the decision to launch a long-range sweep in an effort to obtain the advantage of some surprise. This stratagem was success­ful and the sweep of 63 fighters shot down 50 Zekes and destroyed an undetermined number on the ground. On 4 July a heavy flight schedule was carried out against Iwo, Chichi, and Haha islands which removed their immediate threat to the progress of operations in the Marianas.

These operations, after the defeat of the Japanese Fleet had permitted our aircraft to concentrate on supporting the troops, proceeded efficiently. On 9 July all organized resistance on Saipan ceased and the  p215 invasion of Guam, long postponed by the fanatic resistance on the former island, became the new object of our plans. Since the Japanese offered no organized air opposition, little could be said about the role of naval aircraft at Guam which distinguishes it from the similar role at Kwajalein and Eniwetok. Air operations were devoted almost exclusively to an initial softening up of the landing beaches, followed by direct support of the combat teams. Fast carriers and escort carriers combined to punish the Japanese positions and exposed personnel with such severity that the landing on 21 July had all the characteristics of a well-rehearsed play. Thereafter, Task Group 58.4 (Essex, Langley, and Princeton) and the Carrier Support Group (Sangamon, Suwannee, Chenango, Corregidor, and Kalinin Bay) remained to cover and assist the advance of our soldiers and Marines until the capture of the island on 10 August.

In a concurrent operation, landings were made on the island of Tinian to complete the amphibious phase of the campaign. Air support was furnished by Task Group 58.4, five escort carriers of Task Group 52.14, and land-based planes operating from the newly won fields on Saipan. Nine days after the landings on 24 July the island was declared secure. Naval aircraft, flying unopposed except for ground fire, supported the invasion troops with 1,775 sorties and 457 tons of bombs. The co‑ordination of air, sea, and land forces, now made efficient by much practice, contributed to the success with which Tinian was neutralized, invaded, and captured.

During the assaults on Guam and Tinian the fast carrier task force roamed north and south, gathering photographic information and neutralizing those Japanese bases which might still send long-range bombers against our footholds in the Marianas. With a plan for the seizure of Yap, Palau, and Ulithi under consideration by the high command, it became necessary to reconnoiter the western Carolines again as well as to strike facilities which remained a threat in the central Pacific. Vice Admiral Mitscher led three groups to this area and, beginning on 25 July, raided the islands for three days. This done, two groups of three carriers each steamed north for the third strike of the campaign against the Volcano-Bonin islands. Enemy air strength at Iwo, Chichi, and Haha had by this time come under the neutralizing power of land planes based on Saipan, and as a result of negligible air opposition, attacks were made on shipping targets with gratifying results. Our loss of 7 aircraft was greatly overbalanced by a Japanese loss of 32 ships sunk, others damaged, and 10 planes destroyed.

 p216  These raids guaranteed the security of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. By the latter part of August the defense of the islands could be turned over to aircraft operating from the newly commissioned fields, and the fast carriers and escort carriers were relieved of support duties in order to participate in the next westward movement. This movement followed quickly and became a springboard into the Philippines. The success of the Palau-Ulithi operation can be attributed, in large measure, to the experience gained and the lessons learned in the air war for the Marianas.

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Page updated: 12 Dec 20