Welcome back to Karl’s Korner, a historical segment written by myself, Karl Zingheim – Ship Historian of the USS Midway Museum.
I recently shared about the military connection to National Donut Day, click here if you missed it! Today, I will be heading back in history to tell you about the world’s largest carrier battle, keep reading…
Off the Marianas Islands
The recent 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings is not the only epochal event from World War II to reach this milestone in June. Just two weeks after the landings in northern France, the largest carrier battle ever was waged halfway around the world off the Marianas Islands in the central Pacific. In fact, as news of the Normandy landings was broadcast, Admiral Raymond Spruance’s vast Fifth Fleet was departing its anchorage in Majuro lagoon for the assault on Saipan. Task Force 58 was so vast it took hours for the last ship to assume its turn in weighing anchor. The ensuing Battle of the Philippine Sea of 19-20 June 1944 pitted fifteen American carriers against nine Japanese, and ultimately crushed Japanese carrier airpower.
The Marianas island chain are located within 1500 miles of the Japanese homeland. Airbases developed on these islands would permit the new B-29 Superfortress to conduct a bombing campaign against Japanese industry, as well as protecting the strategic advance across the Pacific towards the Philippines and Japan itself. For the Japanese, the American advance was getting dangerously close to the heart of their empire, and, two years after the disastrous Battle of Midway, the Imperial Navy’s carrier force was just getting back up to strength. The trouble was, fierce campaigns in 1942 and 1943 in the South Pacific eroded the last of their quality aircrews, leaving inexperienced levies in their place, hampered all the more by shortcuts in their training regimens.
Throughout the war, the Japanese leaders clung forlornly to the concept of a “decisive battle,” a single, all-out clash that would halt American progress and permit a negotiated settlement. For the Marianas, Imperial Navy planners banked on a home-field advantage in catching the U. S. fleet in an airpower vise with their airfields on one side, and Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo’s carrier approaching from the other. Additionally, the airfields would permit the longer-ranged Japanese carrier planes to attack the American carriers, and land ashore without bringing their valuable carriers into range of a counterattack. However, U. S. airstrikes against the airfields before and during the battle destroyed the land-based component of the Japanese plan, and word was not sent to Ozawa of this miscarriage.
Surprise by U.S. Submarine Fleet
Another factor that bedeviled the Japanese was the rapid improvement in the performance of the U. S. submarine fleet. Wartime production brought many more submarines commanded by veteran skippers to ply the Pacific, and the constellation of torpedo problems had been resolved. Submarines detected the deployment of Ozawa’s fleet through the Philippines, ruining the element of surprise. Additional submarines lurked off the Marianas, ready to attack. For Admiral Spruance, however, the appearance of Ozawa stoked an age-old dilemma in amphibious warfare: how best to protect the beachhead and the vulnerable shipping from an enemy fleet. His carrier leader, Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, advocated a meeting engagement, where Task Force 58 would set out meet the Japanese head-on, well within range of carrier aircraft. Spruance, instead, opted to remain not far from the beaches and allow the enemy to extend himself into an attack.
The Japanese did indeed approach, and launched several waves of fighters and bombers to engage Mitscher’s carriers. However, two years of combat experience were thoroughly invested in U. S. operational procedures, particularly in radar-directed air defense. Each Japanese raid was detected well out from the carriers, and robust fighter interceptions were made for each one. The disparity in equipment and crew skill told in the resulting encounters as entire Japanese formations were cut to ribbons, leaving few aircraft to attempt any attacks on Task Force 58. In the meantime, U. S. submarines found Ozawa’s ships, and torpedoes struck the flagship Taiho, and the veteran Shokaku. The latter succumbed to fires and flooding, but the single hit on the brand-new Taiho caused little concern. However, design flaws, and a poor decision to open ventilators to dissipate leaking gasoline fumes, doomed the great ship as a colossal detonation erupted beneath the Taiho’s armored flight deck hours later. Thanks to a breakdown in communications, Ozawa was not fully appraised of the calamity that met his air groups.
Jubilation reigned among the returning U. S. fighter pilots, one comparing the dogfights to a down home turkey shoot. Yet, the Japanese carriers had not been spotted by air scouts, despite the success of the submarines. As the day drew to a close, Mitscher sped westward to find the Japanese fleet. Ozawa, meanwhile, hoped to continue the battle, believing that Japanese air strength in the Marianas was still potent. However, a mid-day long range search from Mitscher’s carriers finally found Ozawa’s surviving ships, and as the Japanese turned to retire, Mitscher decided to risk a late afternoon strike at extreme range. Low on fuel, most of the planes would be returning after dark, though, and night operations was not a forte for Task Force 58’s fliers.
The Real Struggle
Nevertheless, a powerful strike set off, and soon located a Japanese refueling group. Two oilers were destroyed, but the rest of the strike continued onward. Eventually, Ozawa’s fleet was sighted, and the thin force of just 35 defending fighters were brushed aside. Hits sank the carrier Hiyo and bombs damaged three others, for the loss of twenty American aircraft. The real struggle was in the long flight home with the sun setting behind the homeward bound strike. Mitscher at length ordered the ships of Task Force 58 to train their searchlights skyward to help guide his men back to the fleet, all the while risking a submarine attack. The ensuing hours saw a riot of aircraft attempting to land aboard any flight deck they could find, while others ditched in the ocean nearby to await rescue. At length, some 80 aircraft either wrecked on attempting a night landing, or sank after settling on the water. Rescue operations continued for days afterwards. U. S. aircraft losses from all causes amounted to 130 planes.
The Battle of the Philippine Sea was an unmitigated disaster for the Japanese, as nearly all of their trained manpower in carrier aviation were lost or maimed, as reflected in the destruction of some 350 aircraft. Soon, the Japanese resorted to suicide tactics for their remaining airpower. The Marianas fell over the summer months, prompting the collapse of the Tojo government. Although Japanese carrier aviation was finished, the Americans were slow to perceive this, and bitter recriminations raged among the admirals over Spruance’s decision to await the Japanese attacks. This debate undoubtedly influenced Admiral William Halsey’s decision in the Leyte Gulf battle to abandon further attacks on a battleship force to close on Ozawa’s empty carriers, who were deliberately acting in a decoy role. The Battle of Philippine Sea stands as a testament to thorough training, mastery of technology, and perfection of doctrine.
As always, thank you for reading, Midway Family! Please leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought of this month’s Karl’s Korner. Did you know about the world’s largest carrier battle before this post?
Launch em’… until next time,
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