Some of the American planes also bombed the large carrier Zuikaku and the light carrier Chiyoda, both of which were set ablaze, and heavily damaged the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruiser Maya. The converted carrier Junyo was also hit. Sixty-five Japanese planes were downed in the fighting as were 20 of the American aircraft. But for the Americans the worst was yet to come.
After the strike, which ended at about 6:45 pm, many of the American planes were already running low on fuel, and some had suffered enough battle damage that they were forced to ditch on their way back to their carriers. Darkness was falling. Despite the danger of submarine attacks on his ships, Mitscher fully illuminated his carriers and had his destroyers’ fire star shells to aid the pilots in landing.
“The effect on the pilots left behind was magnetic,” said Lt. Cmdr. Robert Winston. “They stood open-mouthed at the sheer audacity of asking the Japs to come and get us. Our pilots were not expendable.”
Sixty of the returning aircraft were still lost, many of them crashing into the sea as they ran out of fuel, but the majority of the flyers, 38 of the downed men, were eventually rescued.
Meanwhile, Admiral Ozawa received orders from Toyoda to cease fighting and withdraw from the area. U.S. forces briefly gave chase, but by June 21 the Japanese planes were out of range. The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot was over.
A Resounding American Victory
The Battle of the Philippine Sea had been a resounding American victory. The Japanese lost three carriers and two oilers sunk and had almost all of their aircraft destroyed. Six other ships had been damaged and an estimated 2,987 Japanese combatants killed. The Americans had one battleship damaged and 123 aircraft destroyed. The task force lost 29 airmen and another 31 men on the ships.
The Japanese losses were irreplaceable. They had spent the better part of a year building up their carrier strike force, and the United States had destroyed 90 percent of it in the fighting. The Japanese only had enough pilots left to form the air group for one of their light carriers, and during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 they used their carriers only as decoys.
The battle also added to the growing reputation of the American F6F Hellcat. With its powerful engine, greater speed, and firepower it had proved itself deadly, greatly outclassing the A6M Zero.
Spruance’s conservative battle plan, while not destroying all of the Japanese aircraft carriers, had resulted in an overwhelming American victory. It had severely weakened Japanese naval aviation forces by killing most of the remaining trained enemy pilots and destroying their last reserves of naval aircraft. Despite the lopsided American victory, though, many officers, particularly aviators, criticized Spruance for his decision to fight the battle cautiously rather than exploit his superior forces and intelligence more aggressively.
Spruance’s critics argued that he had squandered an opportunity to destroy the entire Japanese fleet. Admiral John Towers, a naval aviation pioneer and deputy commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, demanded that Spruance be relieved. The request was denied by Nimitz. Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of the amphibious force during the Pacific campaign, and the Navy’s most senior commander, Admiral Ernest King, chief of naval operations, joined Nimitz in supporting Spruance. Despite what some called the chance of the century, Spruance had done what Nimitz had ordered him to do: he had remained and protected the invasion of Saipan.
A month after the Battle of the Philippine Sea, King and Nimitz visited Spruance at Saipan. During that meeting, King made a point of telling Spruance of his support. “You did a damn fine job there,” he said. “No matter what other people tell you, your decision was correct.”
The Battle of the Philippine Sea was the last great contest between carrier strike forces ever fought. It was a victory that, among other things, brought the American B-29 within striking distance of the Japanese home islands, and in so doing shortened the war.
Originally Published October 9, 2018.