The United States awesome industrial might was on full display during the summer of 1944. On June 6th, the U.S. along with British and French vessels attacked the French coast from bases in England with over 5000 vessels of all sizes. Less than two weeks later on the other side of the world, the United States was readying an attack on Saipan with 500 ships, including seven large fleet aircraft carriers and eight light carriers containing 956 aircraft.

Saipan was part of the Marianas Chain and located just east of the Philippines in the Philippine Sea. The fleet arrived on the 15th of June but the Japanese were to use their remaining aircraft carrier strength in the Pacific, (five large fleet carriers and four light carriers) as well as land-based aircraft on Guam to attack the U.S. fleet to try to inflict heavy damage and turn back the invasion. The Japanese could muster 756 aircraft for the attack.

The resultant battle which took place over June 19-20 was a decisive loss for the Japanese and destroyed their last remaining hope for offensive capability in the Pacific.  The cream of the Japanese air arm which had carried them to huge victories in the Pacific early in the war was long gone. Losses in the Coral Sea, Midway and the resultant combat had stripped Japan of nearly all of her best-experienced pilots.

The U.S., on the other hand, had a very experienced aircraft force and their planes, the newer F6F Hellcats were bigger, faster, better protected and carried more firepower than anything the Japanese could muster. The Americans also had radar which warned them of any impending attack while the Japanese were still far away, giving them plenty of time to scramble fighter cover.

The Americans also had numerous submarine patrols and they would relay the Japanese fleet locations as well as take their toll on the carriers with torpedos. The American fleet named the 5th Fleet was comprised of Task Force 58, which comprised the fast carrier attack force, Task Group 58.7 which comprised seven fast battleships, and eight heavy cruisers.  Task Group 58.4 of one fleet carrier and two light carriers. Just to the east, in a line running north to south, were three groups, each containing two fleet carriers and two light carriers: Task Group 58.1, Task Group 58.2, Task Group 58.3 These ships were supported by 13 light cruisers, 68 destroyers, and 28 submarines.

After the Americans began going ashore in the Marianas, the Japanese were taken by surprise, thinking the attack would be farther south. Realizing that B-29 bombers could reach Japan from the Marianas, they decided to attack with everything they could muster.

Opening Moves: A Japanese search plane found the American fleet at 0550 in the morning. They readied land-based planes on Guam for their first strike. US radars picked them up immediately. The U.S. sortied 30 Hellcats from the USS Belleau Wood. Hellcats began arriving while Japanese planes were taking off. A melee ensued over Guam, where the Americans shot down 35 planes without a loss of their own. By 1000 hrs, the Americans recalled their fighters over Guam back to the ships where a series of Japanese attacks were beginning.

Because of the American radar, there would be no sneak attacks and the Japanese were normally intercepted anywhere between 45-60 miles from the American carriers. The Americans would launch their Hellcats and then send their torpedo and dive bombers out far to the east where if a bomb did hit a carrier, there would be no secondary explosions due to closely parked aircraft with fuel and bombs.

Hellcat fighters decimated the inexperienced Japanese pilots.

The lack of training for the newer Japanese pilots was plain to see, the skies far from the carriers was awash with plumes of smoke and fire as most of the Japanese pilots met their end without ever seeing the targets. Of the first 69 planes launched on the first raid, 42 were shot down by the Hellcats. Not one could break thru the hail of anti-aircraft fire from the support ships.

The next wave of Japanese aircraft, 128 in all were detected and 100 of them were intercepted. Only about 20 were able to break thru to the massed fires of the support ships. Only a few reached the carriers did minor damage to the carriers Bunker Hill and Wasp. By noontime, it was over and only 30 Japanese aircraft limped back to their bases, the inexperienced pilots vastly inflating the damage they did to the American carrier force.

Worse for the Japanese, two of their carriers had been hit by torpedoes from submarines. The Taiho was hit by the USS Albacore early in the day, and while the torpedo’s impact should have been overcome, mistakes made by the crew would doom the ship. The fuel system had been ruptured. And with fumes gathering, the order was given to turn on the ventilation system. That spread fumes everywhere. Not long afterward, those fumes ignited into a huge explosion which tore open the hull and the ship was a lost cause.

Only 500 of the crew of over 2100 had been evacuated when another explosion rocked Taiho. She quickly capsized and sank to the bottom.

At 1220, the Shokaku was staggered with three torpedo hits by the USS Cavalla who reported the movings of the Japanese fleet and followed. When Shokaku turned into the wind to recover her aircraft, she struck.

Japanese destroyers dropped 105 depth charges on Cavalla, and she survived, meanwhile fires raged on Shokaku, And any attempts to put the fires out were dashed when fuel fumes, which permeated the ship, caught fire and exploded.  

The other Japanese air attacks fared badly as well, one group was sent too far north with most of the aircraft, finding nothing and returning. Of the 47 aircraft, a few carried out ineffective bombing attacks, seven were shot down.

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A force of 89 aircraft from the Zuikaku and a few of the light carriers were sent too far south to find the Americans. Less than half also made an ineffective raid on the American carriers. The remaining 49 made for Guam. There they were set upon by Hellcats and 30 of them were smoked into either the sea or the airfield.

Back on board the USS Lexington, as the pilots were being debriefed before their next mission, one pilot remarked, “Hell, this is like an old-time turkey shoot!” One American pilot, Lt. Alexander Vraciu downed six Japanese dive bombers in a single mission, he ended up with a career 19 enemy aircraft shot down and another 21 destroyed on the ground.

Lt. Alexander Vraciu downed six Japanese dive bombers in a single mission,

By nightfall, the sky above America’s carriers had been swept clear of Japanese aircraft. Of the 430 aircraft that were available to the Japanese carriers, only 102 could answer the call. Another 50 planes from land bases in Guam were shot down. The losses were crippling. Never again would the Japanese navy have the planes to equip and man an effective carrier force. American losses were 23 aircraft with another six damaged beyond repair.

As the day was turning into night, Admiral Spruance wanted to close the distance between him and the Japanese fleet and they turned west at 24 knots. An American scout plane found the Japanese fleet the next day at 1615.  The attacking raid force could still hit the Japanese in the fading daylight but would have to return in the dark. American pilots had not been trained in night landings.

The risked it all, sending a force of 54 torpedo bombers, 77 dive bombers and 85 Hellcats flying escort in a hunt for the Japanese. They first came across six tankers and a section of dive bombers attacked, the remaining aircraft bore in on the Japanese fleet, spread in an arc, was arrayed beneath them.

The overhead cover of Zeros was not nearly enough and they were quickly swept aside. The torpedo and dive bombers aligned to attack the Japanese carriers. After 20 minutes of hellacious combat, 14 American planes had been shot down. But they did terrible damage to the Japanese fleet. The carrier Hiyo had been torpedoed and was sinking. Several bombs had struck Zuikaku and fires were blazing all over her. The carrier Chiyoda was also ablaze and her flight deck was a mess of mangled steel. Also damaged was the battleship Haruna and the cruiser Moya.

Of the 102 planes available to the Japanese on the morning of the 20th, only 35 remained. Admiral Ozawa knew his defeat had been total and during the night, the fleet hightailed it for Okinawa.

The Americans broke every rule during the night. With the planes flying in on fumes and untrained in night landings, the Americans disregarded all risk from Japanese bombers or submarines and turned on every conceivable illumination to get the flight crews back safely on board ships.

Despite this, 80 aircraft either crashed on the deck or ditched in the sea as their fuel ran out. But rescue efforts were outstanding. Only 16 pilots and 33 aircrews were missing after the air raid on the Japanese fleet.

The battle was over and it was a complete American victory. Officially the battle was known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The Japanese still had several carriers left, but the inexperienced pilots were decimated and now there was no one left to fill the void. The value of the carrier is for the aircraft and aircrews that operate on them. The Japanese Navy, just a two and half years before, the most powerful force in the Pacific was reduced to a shell of its former self.

With America knocking on the door, there was no time to train replacement aircrews to defend the homeland. There remained one final option. The kamikaze or suicide attack planes. As an offensive fighting force, the Japanese Navy ceased to exist after June 19-20, 1944.

Photos: US Archives