Battle of the Philippine Sea
The Battle of the Philippine Sea, 19-20 June 1944, was the last of the major carrier aircraft battles of the Pacific War, a series of battles that started in the Coral Sea in 1942. It is sometimes called the "First" Battle of the Philippine Sea since the Battle for Leyte Gulf in October 1944 is sometimes called the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea.
Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku (top) and destroyer maneuvering, while under attack by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft. Zuikaku was hit by several bombs during these attacks, but survived. Photo taken late afternoon of 20 June 1944.
Battle of the Philippine Sea, 19-20 June 1944
Following the American Navy's success in the Central Pacific in 1943 and 1944, and MacArthur’s victories in western New Guinea in April and May 1944, the Japanese zone of control was contracting into the western and southwestern Pacific. Still under the illusion that the Americans could be stopped, the Japanese Commander in Chief Combined Fleet, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, ordered Operation A-Go, the concept of a decisive sea battle to crush the U.S. Navy, finishing the job started at Pearl Harbor. In early June 1944, they detected the buildup to Operation FORAGER, the invasion of the Mariana Islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. Toyoda ordered the Mobile Fleet, including five carriers, commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, to the Marianas to attack and annihilate the American invasion force.
Ozawa left the Tawi Tawi anchorage, the westernmost island in the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines, on 13 June, with a force of nine carriers and six battleships. He planned a combined operation to destroy Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance's Fifth Fleet. His plan called for long range attacks by land-based planes from airfields in the Marianas and the Bonins, supported by Ozawa's carrier aircraft. The carrier planes would also use the island airfields to rearm and refuel. About 540 land-based aircraft were thought to be available to augment Ozawa's fleet.
Ozawa’s plans were unrealistic, mainly because Fifth Fleet knew he was coming. The Japanese naval code had been cracked exposing Ozawa's intentions. American submarines watched his fleet depart from Tawi Tawi and tracked it from there, even sinking two of Ozawa’s oilers and four destroyers in the Philippines. Furthermore, the Japanese planes based in the Marianas were attacked and destroyed before Ozawa's arrival. In May, American B-29 bombers bombed Saipan and Guam and on 11-12 June, Fifth Fleet destroyed 150 Japanese planes with an air assault. Ozawa was falsely assured the land-based aircraft were still functioning, but in fact his carrier aircraft were virtually unsupported.
The Japanese Attack in the Philippine Sea
Fighter plane contrails mark the sky over Task Force 58. Photographed from on board USS Birmingham (CL-62), 19 June 1944.
Spruance deployed Fast Carrier Task Force 58 under Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher near Saipan. TF 58 put seven fleet carriers and eight light carriers carrying 891 aircraft in the Philippine Sea between Ozawa and the Marianas invasion. Japanese scout planes found the American carriers at about 1530 on 18 June 1944, but Ozawa feared that darkness would be too challenging for his inexperienced airmen and postponed the initial strike until dawn on 19 June.
The Japanese fleet was monitored by submarines and radio intercepts. Just before midnight of 18-19 June, Pacific Fleet Headquarters sent Spruance a message locating the Japanese flagship approximately 350 miles WSW of Task Force 58. Early on 19 June the nine Japanese carriers launched four successive waves of air strikes at Task Force 58.
Mitscher's carrier flagship, the USS Lexington (CV 16), was 90 miles northwest of Guam and 110 miles southwest of Saipan that morning, about 300 miles from Ozawa's fleet as the battle was engaged. At about 0900 the first Japanese strike wave was observed by scouts, at a distance of 160 miles. The four strikes were slaughtered by U.S. fighters from four carriers, mostly Grumman F6F Hellcats:
- First strike: 45 of 69 Japanese planes shot down;
- Second strike: 98 of 130 Japanese planes shot down;
- Third strike: Did not engage, became lost;
- Fourth strike: 73 of 82 Japanese planes shot down.
As the air battles raged, USS Albacore torpedoed Ozawa's newest and largest carrier, Taiho, at about 0900 and it sank six hours later. Shokaku, one of the carriers that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor, was sunk by another submarine, USS Cavalla. Overall, in the one day of combat between the two fleets, Japan lost two carriers and 346 planes while only 30 American planes were lost and a few ships damaged. The lopsided result is often called the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot."
The Japanese Withdraw from the Battle of the Philippine Sea
Ozawa was misinformed about the battle and its consequences. He thought the planes that did not return had landed on Guam to refuel and rearm. Late on the 19th, Ozawa's fleet withdrew to the northwest to regroup and recover the aircraft expected to be flying in from Guam.
Mitscher’s TF 58 patrols followed Ozawa, locating the retreating Japanese carriers at 1540 on 20 June. Although late in the day, Mitscher launched a long-range attack (over 300 miles), a gamble that paid off. TF 58 planes located the Japanese, sank two oilers and a carrier, and shot down an additional 65 planes, leaving Ozawa with only about 35 operational aircraft out of the 430 planes he had when he sailed into the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
On the 20th the Navy lost 17 aircraft in combat, but the biggest loss was returning aircraft that could not locate their carriers in the dark. Mitscher ordered lights on, despite the danger from Japanese submarines, but 82 planes ran out of fuel and had to crash in the sea. Almost all air crews were rescued.
The remainder of Ozawa's fleet escaped to the west, stripped of planes. Spruance called off the pursuit, not willing to risk the ongoing invasion of the Marianas for a long distance chase.
Summary of the Battle of the Philippine Sea
The Battle of the Philippine Sea was the greatest carrier aircraft battle in history with the result that Japanese naval air power was destroyed. The losses of planes, and even more the loss of experienced pilots, were not recovered before the end of the war in August 1945. After the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and the surface fleet Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the American drive to recapture the Philippines and tighten the ring on the Japanese home islands could not be seriously challenged by the Japanese Imperial Navy, leaving their ground forces to fight with little support.
Recommended Books about the Battle of the Philippine Sea
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