The U.S. submarines Flying Fish and Seahorse sighted the Japanese fleet near the Philippines on June 15. The Japanese ships did not finish refueling until two days later. Based on those sightings, Spruance quickly decided a major battle was at hand. He ordered Mitscher’s Task Force 58, which had sent two of its carrier task groups north to intercept aircraft reinforcements from Japan, to reform and move west of Saipan into the Philippine Sea. Mitscher was aboard his flagship, the carrier Lexington, which Tokyo Rose would erroneously report on at least two occasions to have been sunk. Spruance was aboard the heavy cruiser Indianapolis.
Task Force 58 comprised five attack groups. Deployed in front of the carriers to act as an antiaircraft screen was the battle group of Vice Adm. Willis Lee (Task Group 58.7), which contained seven battleships (Lee’s flagship the Washington, as well as the North Carolina, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Alabama), and eight heavy cruisers (Baltimore, Boston, Canberra, Wichita, Minneapolis, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Spruance’s Indianapolis). Just north of them was the weakest of the carrier groups, Rear Adm. William K. Harrill’s Task Group 58.4. This group was composed of only one fleet carrier (Essex) and two light carriers (Langley and Cowpens).
“Let’s Do It Properly Tomorrow”
To the east, in a line running north to south, were three additional attack groups, each containing two fleet carriers and two light carriers. This was Rear Adm. Joseph Clark’s Task Group 58.1, which consisted of the Hornet, Yorktown, Belleau Wood, and Bataan, Rear Adm. Alfred Montgomery’s Task Group 58.2 (Bunker Hill, Wasp, Cabot, and Monterey), and Rear Adm. John W. Reeves’s Task Group 58.3 (Enterprise, Lexington, San Jacinto, and Princeton). These ships were supported by thirteen light cruisers, fifty-eight destroyers, and twenty-eight submarines. The attack groups were deployed 12 to 15 miles apart.
Eight older battleships along with smaller escort carriers under the command of Adm. Jesse B. Oldendorf remained near Saipan to protect the invasion fleet and provide air support for the landings.
On the afternoon of June 18, search planes sent out from the Japanese fleet located the American task force, and Rear Adm. Sueo Obayashi, commander of three of the Japanese carriers, immediately launched fighters. He quickly received a message from Ozawa, however, recalling the fighters. “Let’s do it properly tomorrow,” Ozawa wrote.
Later that night, the Americans also detected the Japanese ships moving toward them. Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, alerted Spruance that a Japanese vessel had broken radio silence and a message apparently sent by Ozawa to his land-based air forces on Guam had been intercepted. A fix obtained on that message placed the Japanese some 355 miles west-southwest of Task Force 58. Mitscher requested permission from Spruance to move Task Force 58 west during the night, which would by dawn put it in position to attack the approaching Japanese fleet. “We knew we were going to have hell slugged out of us in the morning [and] we knew we couldn’t reach them,” Capt. Arleigh Burke, a member of Mitscher’s staff, said later when discussing that request.
But after considerable consideration, Spruance denied Mitscher permission to make the move. “If we were doing something so important that we were attracting the enemy to us, we could afford to let him come and take care of him when he arrived,” Spruance said.
Carrier Commanders Spruance & Mitscher
This decision was far different from decisions Spruance had made at Midway. There he had advocated immediately attacking the enemy even before his own strike force was fully assembled with the intent of neutralizing the Japanese carriers before they could launch their planes, an action that he then considered the key to the survival of his carriers. He would also take considerable criticism for missing what some were to consider a chance to destroy the Japanese fleet.
Spruance’s decision to deny Mitscher’s request was influenced by orders from Nimitz, who had made it clear that the protection of the Marianas invasion was the primary mission of Task Force 58.
Spruance was concerned that the Japanese move could be an attempt to draw his ships away from the Marianas so a Japanese attack force could then slip behind it, overwhelm Oldendorf’s force, and destroy the landing fleet. Locating and destroying the Japanese fleet was not his primary objective, and he was unwilling to allow the main strike force of the Pacific Fleet to be drawn westward, away from the amphibious forces.
Spruance also may have been influenced by Japanese documents that had been captured in March and described just such a proposed plan: drawing American ships that were supporting an invasion away from an island and then sweeping in behind the fleet to destroy the invading force.
Spruance and Mitscher were different commanders. Though now commanding carriers, Spruance was still at heart a battleship man and, like most of the Imperial Japanese Navy establishment, he dreamed of a ship-to-ship confrontation. As the Battle of the Philippine Sea loomed, Spruance early on considered sending his fast battleships out to confront Ozawa in a night action and had only dropped the idea when his battleship commander, Admiral Lee, deferred. Lee had seen enough of night actions at Guadalcanal and the Solomons.
As for Mitscher, he was a carrier man. He sat on the bridge of his flagship watching the flight deck as planes were launched and could be seen using body language to help them off. He had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1910 and had taken an early interest in aviation, requesting a transfer to aeronautics in his last year as a midshipman. The request was denied, and he served on the destroyers Whipple and Stewart before being stationed on the armored cruiser North Carolina, which was being used as an experimental launching platform for aircraft. Mitscher trained as a pilot and became one of the first U.S. naval aviators on June 2, 1916.
As information about the Japanese buildup came in and the upcoming battle loomed, Mitscher said that what was coming “might be a hell of a battle for a while,” but added that he believed the task force could win it.
Search Planes At Dawn on June 19
At dawn on June 18, Task Force 58 launched search aircraft, combat air patrols, and antisubmarine patrols and then turned the fleet west to gain maneuvering room away from the islands. The Japanese also launched search patrols early in the day. Those planes pinpointed the American position, and one of the Japanese planes, after locating the task force, attacked one of its destroyers. The attacking Japanese plane was shot down.
At dawn on June 19, Ozawa again launched search planes and located the American ships southwest of Saipan. He then launched seventy-one aircraft from his carriers, which were followed a short time later by another 128 planes.
Among the U.S. fighters that would be sent up to confront them were a large number of F6F Hellcats, a Grumman aircraft that had been put into service in early 1942, eventually replacing the F4F Wildcat. The Hellcat had been engineered specifically to confront Japanese fighters when the Americans recovered an intact Zero during the fighting in the Aleutian Islands in 1942 and were able to engineer a fighter to succeed against it in combat. The Hellcat could outclimb and outdrive the Japanese Zero and was heavily armed. In addition, its pilot was protected by heavy armor plating, self-sealing fuel tanks, and a bulletproof windshield, which made it popular with the Navy pilots.
The American pilots who would meet the Japanese also had at least two years of training and 300 hours of flying experience as opposed to the Japanese pilots, who had at most six months of training and a few flying hours. They were faint copies of the pilots who had flown against the American base at Pearl Harbor and the American fleet at Midway.
A Great Fight In The Sky and In The Water
At 10 a.m., radar aboard the American ships picked up the first wave of Japanese attackers. American fighters that had been sent to raid Guam were called back to the fleet, and at 10:23 am Mitscher ordered Task Force 58 to turn into the wind. All available fighters were sent up to await the Japanese. He then put his bomber aircraft aloft to orbit open waters to the east to avoid the danger of a Japanese bomb strike into a hangar deck full of aircraft.
The approaching Japanese planes were first spotted by a group of twelve Hellcats from the Belleau Wood about seventy-two miles out from the American fleet where they had paused to regroup. The Belleau Wood planes tore into the Japanese planes there and were soon joined by other American fighter groups. Twenty-five of the Japanese planes were quickly knocked out of the sky, and then sixteen more.
As the Japanese and American fighters dove at each other, machine guns blazing, seventy miles west of the American fleet, a few of the Japanese planes were able to break away and work their way through to the American ships. They attacked the picket destroyers Yarnall and Stockham, causing only a small amount of damage. But one Japanese bomber was able to get through the American defenses and scored a direct hit on the main deck of the battleship South Dakota. More than fifty of her crew were killed or injured, but the ship remained operational.