The Battle of the Philippine Sea took place between June 19th and June 20th, 1944. This battle was said to be the last great carrier battle of World War Two. The Battle of Midway in 1942 had done a great deal to damage Japan’s carrier force, but even into 1944, Japan statistically had a larger carrier force than America. Despite America’s huge military capability, the Japanese Navy still represented a threat to her – especially in America’s desire to advance to the Marianas.
In November 1943, America launched the start of a major assault through the Central Pacific and at the heart of the Japanese defence system. This started with the assault on the Gilbert Islands and moved, in February 1944, to the main atolls of the Marshall Islands. The ferocity of the American attack forced the Japanese to move their fleet to Singapore. As the Americans moved relentlessly east through the Central Pacific, the Japanese came to the conclusion that only a major sea battle with America would redress the balance at sea. Without control of the sea, the Japanese believed, the Americans could no longer maintain their advance as all their successes had been amphibious based. Without control of the sea, the Americans could not longer move her troops to shore.
The next stage in the American campaign was an attack on the Marianas, which was scheduled for June 1944. The Northern Attack Force, led by Vice-Admiral Richmond Turner, was assembled at Hawaii in readiness to attack Saipan. The Southern Attack Force, commanded by Rear-Admiral R L Conolly assembled at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in preparation for an attack on Guam. There were 71,000 assault troops in the Northern Force and 56,000 in the Southern; a combined total of 127,000.
The Japanese had planned for an attack on the Marianas with ‘Operation A-Go’. Her Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Toyoda, had developed a complex plan to lure the American fleet to either the Palau’s or the Western Carolinas. Once in either region, America’s ships would be in range of Japan’s land based air force. Toyoda envisaged that they would finish off America’s naval power in the Central Pacific. So what would entice the Americans to where the Japanese wanted to get them? Toyoda decided that part of his fleet would be used to lure the Americans to either the Palau’s or the Western Carolinas. Little attempt would be made to conceal the movement of the Japanese force that was to be the bait – a force commanded by Vice-Admiral Ozawa.
The Japanese gathered 1,700 planes at their shore bases in Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and New Guinea. More than 500 planes were based on Tinian, Guam and Saipan in the Marianas. Toyoda planned that the planes would attack whatever fleet America sent and damage it so badly that the second phase, a naval battle, could only result in a Japanese victory.
While the Northern and Southern forces were in training, America continued its advance led by Douglas MacArthur. In March, 1944, MacArthur attacked Hollandia in New Guinea. In this assault, he was assisted by Task Force 58 – a massive carrier component of the 5th Fleet. Planes from the carriers also attacked Truk that had a Japanese air base on it, and various other targets – all of which allowed the American pilots to keep their skills honed.
The attack on Saipan was scheduled for June 15th and the two forces, Northern and Southern, moved to their forward bases at Eniwetok and Kwajalein respectively. The invasion fleet was protected by a vast force – 7 battleships, 12 escort carriers, 11 cruisers and 91 destroyers or destroyer escorts. Task Force 58 had already started to soften up targets on Saipan on June 11th. Task Force 58 was commanded by Vice-Admiral Marc Mitscher who flew his flag on the ‘USS Lexington’. The Americans had planned for air superiority over Saipan before the assault took place. Over 200 Hellcat fighters from Mitscher’s carriers attacked Japanese positions on the island on a regular basis.
The ships in Task Force 58 were divided into four battle groups.
1. TG58-1 with the carriers Hornet and Yorktown had 265 aircraft in it.
2. TG58-2 was led by the carrier Bunker Hill and had 242 planes at its disposal.
3. TG58-3 had the carriers Enterprise and Lexington in it and could call on 227 aircraft.
4. TG58-4 was led by the carrier Essex and had 162 aircraft in it.
Each battle group was protected by battleships and cruisers. In all, Task Force 58 could call on 896 planes - nearly all were the Grumman F6F Hellcat - a plane with a deserved reputation in combat. Such was the improvement in communications since the Battle of Coral Sea in 1942, that each battle group could operate on its own very effectively but could support any other one (or fight as a complete unit) when required to do so.
By the evening of June 13th, the planes from Task Force 58 had gained air superiority over the Japanese in Saipan and Tinian. On the same day, 16-inch and 14 –inch guns from American battleships pounded targets on the shoreline.
Toyoda had placed a great deal of faith in the 500 Japanese planes based on the Marianas. They had now been destroyed or had moved out of the battle zone. This was a serious blow to the Japanese – and one that they failed to inform Ozawa of as he attempted to ‘lure’ out the Americans. On June 13th, Toyoda gave the go-ahead for ‘Operation A-Go’ to start.
On June 15th, American forces landed at Saipan – the Northern Force. Therefore, the coming naval battle was to be in the vicinity of Saipan. The Japanese ordered more ships to the region to support Ozawa – including the battleships Yamato and Musashi. They were accompanied by two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and three destroyers. It seems that at this point any intention to lure the Americans to a specific spot was dropped and that a simple full-scale sea battle was envisaged. All the Japanese ships met together on June 16th. The following message was sent to every Japanese ship:
“The fate of the Empire rests on this one battle. Every man is expected to do his utmost.”
However, American submarines had tracked both parts that made up the Japanese fleet – and informed Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander of the 5th Fleet, accordingly. He had to offer sea protection to the troops on Saipan even though his instinct was to sail to the enemy and meet them away from Saipan itself. Knowing that such a move would be risky as there was always the chance that he would lose the battle, Spruance decided to wait for the Japanese to move towards his fleet.
Intelligence had informed Spruance that the Japanese would not reach the area where the Americans were until June 19th. During the time that this took, Spruance organised his force so that it was 180 west of Tinian. Seven battleships were taken from task groups 58-1 and 58-4 to form a battleship force supported by four heavy cruisers and thirteen destroyers. The primary task of this awesome force was to stop the Japanese getting near the American aircraft carriers. The planes from task group 58-4 were used to give the battleship group air cover.
On June 18th, the American submarine ‘Cavalla’ spotted the Japanese fleet 780 miles to the west of Saipan. As it approached the Americans, the Japanese split the fleet in three:
A Force had three large carriers attached to it and could muster 430 planes
B Force had two carriers and one light carrier in it and had 135 planes in it.
C Force had three light carriers in it and had 88 aircraft in it.
C Force was kept 100 miles from the other two forces, in the hope that the Americans would concentrate their resources on this force as a large number of ships were attached to it including four battleships and five cruisers. In this way, Ozama hoped that the carriers in A and B would not be the main target of America.
However, there was a delay in intelligence reaching Spruance and not even land based airplanes could find the Japanese fleet despite the information given by the ‘Cavalla’. So at this vital moment, Spruance was short of vital information. The same was not true for the Japanese. They launched sea planes from their large warships and the whereabouts of Task Force 58 was soon known. The Japanese held the advantage as there was 400 miles between them and the American fleet. Japanese carrier-launched planes could attack the Americans but the American planes did not have this distance in them.
Scouting seaplanes gave Ozawa the information he needed and at 08.30 he ordered an attack. Forty-five Zero fighter-bombers, eight torpedo bombers and 16 Zero fighters were launched from C Force. A Force sent out a force of 128 planes and B Force launched 47 planes. In just one hour, the Japanese sent out 244 planes.
However, Ozawa’s plan suffered a series of setbacks from the start. The US submarine ‘Albacore’ attacked the carrier ‘Taiho’. The carrier continued to operate but the simple fact that it had been hit by a torpedo salvo undermined confidence. Also the strike force of Japanese planes attacked ships from C Force – Japanese ships that were sailing in advance of the main bulk of C Force. The ships fired back and two planes were shot down and eight had to return to their carrier for repairs. Such an occurrence was symptomatic of how the rest of the battle would go – the so-called ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’.
Spruance had sent up Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters at dawn to give his fleet aerial cover. At 10.00 on June 19th, American radar picked up a very large swarm of Japanese planes approaching. More planes were launched from the American carrier force – 300 in all.
The American planes intercepted the Japanese between 45 and 60 miles from the American fleet. Many Japanese planes were shot down. Japan had lost many experienced naval pilots at Coral Sea and Midway and this experience had never been fully replaced. Many who fought in this battle had not finished their training, and paid the price.
In the first Japanese strike, 42 planes were shot down out of a total of 69, an attrition rate of 61%. In Europe, Bomber Command and the USAAF deemed a bomber loss of 5% as being unacceptable. From the second strike, out of 128 planes, about 20 got through the US fighter cover but hit the massed guns of American battleships, cruisers and destroyers. A few got passed the battleship line and attacked the carriers. Only minor damage was done to the ‘Bunker Hill’ and ‘Wasp’. Out of the 128 planes that attacked this time, only 30 returned.
Along with these losses, Ozama suffered another when the carrier ‘Shokaku’ was sunk by the submarine USS Cavalla. This carrier had been in on the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, so her loss did a lot to lower morale. The ‘Taiho’, hit by an earlier torpedo attack, also went down when fumes from ruptured petrol tanks were ignited and tore open the hull of the carrier.
The second air strike by the Japanese was also a failure. Some failed to find a target. Those that did had to cope with the Hellcats protecting the fleet.
Another air fleet attacked from the carriers of Forces A and B. This attack involved 87 planes. They had been ordered to land in Guam after the attack without knowing that the runways there had been badly damaged. Also at Guam they flew into another defence force of Hellcats and 30 were shot down. Only 19 planes out of the 87 got to any base – be it carrier or land.
The Japanese tried to land more planes at Guam or Rota from air forces elsewhere, but many were shot down by the Americans before they could land. In all, the Japanese had launched 373 planes from its carriers and only 130 returned – nearly a two-thirds rate of loss. Only 102 were serviceable to any degree. Only 29 Americans planes were destroyed.
A carrier fleet without planes was useless. The Battle of the Philippine Sea effectively spelt the end of whatever carrier strength the Japanese Navy had.
However, Ozawa was never fully aware of what had happened to his plane force carried by his carriers. Those pilots that had returned had brought back stories of four American carriers being sunk and many US planes destroyed! He prepared to continue the battle.
However, he was never given the chance. At 16.30, 77 dive-bombers, 54 torpedo-planes and 85 fighters took off from American carriers to attack the Japanese fleet. Ozawa had very few planes with which to fight back and his losses were severe. The carriers ‘Hiyo’, ‘Zuikaku’ and ‘Chiyoda’ were hit. The battleship ‘Haruna’ was also hit. The Japanese lost a further 65 planes and by the end of the attack, Ozama’s fleet only had 35 planes left. The total American loss in this attack was 14 planes. Ozama realised that he had no hope of continuing the fight and signaled Toyoda that he was retreating to Okinawa. He had lost 375 planes in total.
The problem the Americans now experienced was getting back to the carriers as darkness was falling and few pilots were trained to land in the dark. The carriers broke all the rules imaginable by essentially flood lighting themselves so that the returning pilots had as good a view of the deck as was possible. Luckily no carrier fell prey to Japanese submarines despite illuminating themselves. The Americans lost 80 planes that either crashed into the deck or went over the side. However, as a result of a massive rescue operation only 16 pilots and 33 aircrew remained missing by first light on June 20th.
The Japanese still had carriers but very few planes to operate on them. More important, they had few aircrew who had any degree of experience. The Battle of the Philippine Sea was an overwhelming victory for the Americans. The next major concern they had at sea were the kamikazes.