1

Battle of the Philippine Sea: The Day the Imperial Japanese Navy Died

October 23, 2019 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIPacific WarAmericaJapanNavyMilitary

Battle of the Philippine Sea: The Day the Imperial Japanese Navy Died

Imperial Japan didn't see it coming.

Only one Hellcat was lost in the fighting. At 11:07 am, radar detected a second wave of 107 Japanese aircraft approaching. American fighters met this attacking group while it was still sixty miles out, and seventy of the attackers were shot down before they reached the task force. Of those that did get through, six attacked the American fleet, nearly hitting two of the carriers and causing some casualties before four of that six were brought down. A small group of torpedo planes also attacked the carrier Enterprise and the light carrier Princeton, but all were shot down. Altogether, 97 of those 107 attacking Japanese aircraft were destroyed.

“Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”

A third attack consisting of forty-seven Japanese aircraft came at the American ships at about 1 p.m. Forty U.S. fighters intercepted the attack group fifty miles out and shot down seven of the Japanese planes. A few again broke through defenses to attack the American ships but caused little or no damage. The forty remaining Japanese aircraft fled the scene.

The Japanese fleet had also launched an additional attack, but somehow those planes had been given incorrect coordinates for the location of the American fleet and were originally unable to find the ships. Eighteen of those aircraft did finally stumble on some of the American ships as they were heading back to Guam and attacked. U.S. fighters shot down half of them while the remaining planes were able to attack the Wasp and Bunker Hill but failed to score any hits. Eight of these Japanese planes were also shot down. Meanwhile, the remains of this aborted attack force were intercepted by twenty-seven American Hellcats as they were landing on Guam and thirty more were shot down. Nineteen others were damaged beyond repair.

“Hell, this is like an old-time turkey shoot,” said Lexington Cmdr. Paul Buie, creating the nickname, “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” which would later be pinned on the battle by the men who were fighting it.

The Japanese had lost 346 aircraft during the day’s fighting, while the Americans had lost fifteen and, aside from the casualties on the South Dakota, had suffered only minor damage to their ships.

Submarines In The Water

The pilot with the highest score of the day was Capt. David McCampbell of the Essex, who would go on to become the U.S. Navy ’s all-time leading ace with thirty-four confirmed kills during the war and would win the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. On June 19, he had downed five Japanese D4Y “Judy” carrier-based dive bombers. He would also notch two Zero fighters later in the day during an afternoon strike on Guam.

Lt. Alex Vraciu of the Lexington, the top-ranked Navy ace at the time with twelve victories, downed six Judys of the second wave in about eight minutes, and Ensign Wilbur “Spider” Webb, a recent transfer to fighters from bombers, attacked a flight of Aichi dive bombers over Guam, also downing six. Webb returned safely to the carrier Hornet, but the gunners aboard the Japanese bombers had shot his plane so full of holes that it was judged a total loss.

The destruction wrought in the air was not the only damage done to the Japanese that day. While the air battle was taking place, another battle was being fought above and below the surface of the sea.

At 8 a.m. that day the submarine Albacore sighted a Japanese carrier group and began maneuvering to attack. The submarine’s commander, Lt. Cmdr. James W. Blanchard, selected the closest carrier to his position as his target. That carrier happened to be Admiral Ozawa’s flagship, the Taiho, the newest carrier in the Japanese fleet. As Blanchard gained position and prepared to fire, however, the Albacore’s fire-control computer failed, and he was forced to fire manually. Blanchard fired all six torpedoes in a single spread. Four veered off target. One of the remaining two was spotted heading for the Taiho by Japanese Warrant Officer Akio Komatsu, who had just taken off from the carrier. Without hesitation, Komatsu jammed his stick and intentionally dove his plane in front of the torpedo, detonating it and saving the carrier. But the remaining torpedo of the six struck the Taiho on its starboard side, rupturing two aviation fuel tanks. The Albacore was able to escape the ensuing depth charge attack with only minor damage.

Initially, the Taiho seemed to have suffered only slight damage, but gasoline vapors from the damaged fuel tanks soon began to leak into the hangar decks, creating a serious situation on the ship.

Meanwhile, a second American submarine, the Cavalla, attacked the carrier Shokaku, which was a veteran of the fighting at Pearl Harbor and the Coral Sea. At about noon, the Cavalla fired on the Japanese ship, hitting her with three torpedoes and badly damaging her. One torpedo had hit the forward aviation fuel tanks, and aircraft that had just landed and were being refueled exploded into flames. Ammunition, exploding bombs, and burning fuel added to the chaos. The order to abandon Shokaku had just been given when an explosion on her hangar deck initiated a series of secondary explosions that blew the ship apart. She rolled on her side and sank taking 887 officers and sailors and 376 members of the 601st Naval Air Group to the bottom with her. There were 570 survivors, including the carrier’s commanding officer, Capt. Hiroshi Matsubara.

Ozawa Retires Northwest to Refuel

The destroyer Urakaze made several attempts to destroy the submarine, but the Cavalla escaped with relatively minor damage. However, she did get a scare. Cavalla’s main induction line, which brought air into the engines when she was on the surface, had become flooded during the initial depth charge attack, which made the submarine very heavy. When diving to avoid the attack of the Urakaze, the additional weight took Cavalla nearly 100 feet below her maximum test depth. “We hoped the safety factor would keep the hull from imploding,” said a crewmember. It did.

Three destroyers continued to hunt the Cavalla, dropping 106 depth charges, but she was able to slip away. Meanwhile, aboard the Taiho an inexperienced damage control officer ordered that the ship’s ventilation system be operated at full blast to clear the growing fumes. Instead of clearing the air, however, the action allowed the gasoline vapors to spread throughout the ship. At about 2:30 am, those fumes were ignited by an electric generator on the hangar deck, and a series of large explosions followed. Taiho had become a floating bomb. Ozawa and his staff quickly transferred to the nearby Zuikaku, and shortly afterward the Taiho sank, taking down 1,650 of her 2,150 officers and sailors.

As darkness fell, Ozawa retired to the northwest to refuel, intending to attack again in the morning. He had received several erroneous reports of heavy damage done to the American ships and was also under the impression that many of his missing aircraft had landed in the Marianas. During the night Task Force 58 began to move west in order to be closer to the Japanese when dawn came.

For the Americans, the Worst Was Yet to Come…

As the sun finally edged over the horizon, American search planes were sent out but were unable to locate the enemy. A later search also failed to make contact. But, finally, at 3:40 pm an American search plane located the Japanese fleet 275 miles away from the task force, near the limit of the American fighters’ range. That range was advertised at 250 miles, one aviation commander said, “But with planning and luck we could get to 300.” In addition, because of the time of day that the Japanese ships had been finally spotted, any planes that took off from the American carriers would have to strike in the fading light of dusk and find their way back to the American carriers and land in the dark, something that was new to most of the American pilots. Mitscher, prodded by Nimitz in Hawaii, nonetheless opted to launch an all-out attack.

When he became aware of the American attack, Ozawa began pulling his ships back, hoping to get them out of the American planes’ range before they could close the gap. Aboard the American ships, a another message, perhaps a result of Ozawa’s retreat, arrived indicating the Japanese fleet was actually sixty miles farther out than previously believed. That put the Japanese at 335 miles, beyond even the Americans’ lucky range of three hundred miles. Based on that information, further launches were cancelled, but the planes already launched were allowed to continue. Of these 240 planes, fourteen returned to their carriers for various reasons. Of the remaining 226 planes, ninety-five were Hellcat fighters, fifty-four were Avenger torpedo bombers (only a few carrying torpedoes, the rest four five-hundred-pound bombs), and seventy-six were Curtiss Helldivers and Douglas Dauntless dive bombers.

As the American planes approached the Japanese fleet, Ozawa was able to put up only seventy-five planes to protect his ships, and the American planes quickly overwhelmed these fighters. They swept through the Japanese defenses and attacked the fleet, quickly causing serious damage to several oilers and then hitting the carrier Hiyo, which was soon ablaze after leaking aviation fuel exploded. An abandon ship order was sounded, and she went down. Two hundred-fifty of the Hiyo crew were killed; Japanese destroyers in the area rescued the remaining one thousand survivors.