Battle of the Philippine Sea

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The Battle of the Philippine Sea, also known as the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, that took place on June 19th and 20th, 1944, was an air-sea battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II fought between the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) off the Mariana Islands. Won by the United States, historians considered this as one of the great naval battles in history.

The battle proved to be a disaster for the Japanese forces, which lost almost all of their carrier-borne aircraft and a third of the carriers involved in the battle. The defeat of the Japanese led to the US capturing the Marianas. By breaking the Japanese main line of defense in the south, it paved the way for Americans to set up targets on Japanese soil. Americans' modern war machines and experience were considered to be the decisive factor in the battle that was nicknamed "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" for being one-sided.

Operation A

In September 1943, the Imperial Japanese Navy Headquarters decided that the time was right to go back on the offensive in the Pacific. Since the U.S. was attacking Japanese-held islands as part of its “island-hopping campaign” to gradually inch closer to Japan, the Japanese weak air defense could be addressed and fixed with the addition of strong land-based forces. This led to Operation A, which would take place sometime in early 1944, attacking the U.S. Pacific Fleet while it launched its next minor offensive. On May 3, orders for Operation A were sent out, and the waiting began.

The Japanese fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, consisted of six fleet carriers (Taihō, Shōkaku, Zuikaku, Junyō, Ryuho, and Hiyō), three light carriers (Chitose, Chiyoda, and Zuihō), five battleships (Yamato, Musashi, Kongō, Haruna, and [Nagato) and supporting cruisers, destroyers, and oilers.

As the U.S. island-hopping campaign continued further on the Marianas with the reinforcement of the U.S. carrier-borne forces, Admiral Toyoda Soemu, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, voiced his concern that the U.S. was preparing to invade. This came as something of a surprise to the Imperial Japanese Navy intelligence since they had expected the next U.S. target to be further to the south, at either the Caroline Islands or the Palau Islands, and therefore the Mariana Islands were protected with a weak force of only 50 aircraft.

When U.S. started invading Saipan on 15 June 1944, Toyoda issued the order for the attack. The main portions of the fleet, consisting of six carriers and several battleships, rendezvoused on June 16 in the western part of the Philippine Sea and completed refueling on June 17.

U.S. response

The Japanese forces had been sighted on June 15 by American submarines, and by the next day Admiral Ray Spruance, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, was convinced that a major battle was about to start. By the afternoon of June 18, Admiral Marc Mitscher, aboard his flagship (the carrier USS Lexington (CV-16)) had his Task Force 58 (the Fast Carrier Task Force) formed up near Saipan to meet the Japanese attack.

TF-58 consisted of five major groups. In front (to the west) was Admiral Willis Lee’s Task Group 58.7 (TG-58.7), the “Battle Line”, consisting of seven fast battleships (USS Washington (BB-56), USS North Carolina (BB-55), USS Indiana (BB-58), USS Iowa (BB-61), USS New Jersey (BB-62), USS South Dakota (BB-57), and USS Alabama (BB-60)). Just north of them was the weakest of the carrier groups, Rear Admiral William K. Harrill’s TG-58.4 of three carriers (USS Essex (CV-9), USS Langley (CVL-27), and USS Cowpens (CVL-25)). To the east came three groups of four carriers each in a line running north to south: Rear Admiral Joseph Clark’s TG-58.1 (USS Hornet (CV-12), USS Yorktown (CV-10), USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24), and USS Bataan (CVL-29); Rear Admiral Alfred Montgomery’s TG-58.2 (USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), USS Wasp (CV-18), USS Cabot (CVL-28), and USS Monterey (CVL-26)); and Rear Admiral John W. Reeves’s TG-58.3 (USS Enterprise (CV-6), USS Lexington (CV-16)|, USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), and USS Princeton (CVL-23)). The capital ships were supported by eight heavy cruisers, 13 light cruisers, 58 destroyers, and 28 submarines.

Shortly before midnight on June 18, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz sent Spruance a message from Pacific Fleet Headquarters indicating that the Japanese flagship was approximately 350 miles (650 km) to the west-southwest of Task Force 58. Shortly thereafter, Mitscher asked for permission to head west during the night to an ideal launch position for an all-out attack on the enemy force at dawn.

However, Spruance refused. Throughout the run-up to the battle, he had been concerned that the Japanese would try to draw his main fleet away from the landing area using a diversionary force, and would then make an attack around the flank of the U.S. carrier force—an “end run”—hitting the invasion shipping off Saipan. Instead, he placed TF-58 on a purely defensive footing, leaving it to the Japanese to set the pace of the battle.

Spruance was heavily criticized by many officers after the battle and continues to be to this day, as he missed the chance to destroy all of the Japanese strike force when given the chance, but it is instructive to compare Spruance’s caution with Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s later impetuous pursuit of a diversionary force of Japanese carriers at the Battle of Leyte Gulf that left inferior US forces open to the attack of Samar by a Japanese surface action group composed of cruisers, destroyers, and battleships.

Early actions, June 19

At 05:30 TF-58 turned north-east into the wind and started to launch their air patrols. The Japanese had already launched their morning search patrols from using some of the 50 aircraft stationed on Guam and at 05:50, one of these, a Mitsubishi Zero, found TF-58. After radioing his sighting of US ships, he attacked one of the destroyers on picket duty and was shot down.

Thus alerted, the rest of the Guam forces began forming up for an attack but were spotted on radar by US ships, and a group of F6F Hellcats from the Belleau Wood were sent to investigate. The Hellcats arrived while aircraft were still launching from Orote Field. Minutes later, additional radar contacts were seen, which were later discovered to be the additional forces being sent north from the other islands. A huge battle broke out; 35 of the Japanese planes were shot down and the battle was still going an hour later when the Hellcats were recalled to their carriers.

Japanese raids: The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

Fighter plane contrails mark the sky over Task Force 58, 19 June 1944

The recall had been ordered after a number of ships in TF-58 picked up radar contacts 150 miles (280  km) to the west at about 10:00. This was the first of the raids from the Japanese carrier forces, with 68 aircraft. TF-58 started launching every fighter they could, and by the time they were up the Japanese had closed to 70 miles (130 km). However, they then made a fatal mistake and started circling in order to regroup their formations for the attack. This ten-minute delay proved critical, and the first group of Hellcats met the raid, still at 70 miles, at 10:36. They were quickly joined by additional groups, and within minutes 25 Japanese planes had been shot down for the loss of only one U.S. aircraft.

The Japanese planes which survived were met by other fighters and 16 more were shot down. Of the remainder, some made attacks on the picket destroyers USS Yarnall (DD-541) and USS Stockham (DD-683) but caused no damage. Three or four bombers broke through to the battleship group, and one made a direct hit on the USS South Dakota (BB-57), which caused many casualties but failed to disable her. Not one aircraft of Ozawa’s first wave got through to the American carriers.

At 11:07, radar detected another and much larger attack. This second wave consisted of 109 aircraft. They were met while still 60 miles (110 km) out, and no less than 70 of these aircraft were shot down before reaching the ships. Six attacked Rear Admiral Montgomery’s group, making near-misses that caused casualties on two of the carriers. Four of the six were shot down. A small group of torpedo aircraft attacked USS Enterprise (CV-6), launching a torpedo that exploded in the wake of the ship. Three other torpedo-planes attacked the light carrier Princeton but were shot down. In all, 97 of the 107 attacking aircraft were shot down.

The third raid, consisting of 47 aircraft, came in from the north. It was intercepted by 40 fighters at 13:00, while 50 miles (90 km) out from the task force. Seven Japanese planes were shot down. A few broke through and made an ineffective attack on the Enterprise group. Many others did not press home their attacks. This raid, therefore, suffered less than the others, and 40 of its aircraft managed to return to their carriers.

USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) is nearly hit by a Japanese bomb, during the air attacks of 19 June 1944.

The fourth raid was launched between 11:00 and 11:30, but had been given an incorrect location for the Americans and could not find the fleet. They then broke into two loose groups and turned to Guam and Rota to refuel. One group of aircraft flying towards Rota stumbled upon Montgomery’s task group. Eighteen aircraft joined battle with American fighters and lost half its number. A smaller group of nine Japanese dive bombers of this force evaded U.S. planes and made attacks on the USS Wasp and USS Bunker Hill, but failed to make any hits. Eight of these aircraft were shot down in the process. The larger group of Japanese planes had flown to Guam and were intercepted over Orote Field by 27 Hellcats while landing. Thirty of the 49 Japanese planes were shot down, and the rest were damaged beyond repair. A pilot on the Lexington was overheard saying "Hell, this is like an old-time turkey shoot!", and since then the entirely lopsided result of these air battles has been known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

Submarine attacks

At 08:16 the submarine USS Albacore (SS-218) had sighted Ozawa’s own carrier group and began an attack on the closest carrier. This happened to be the carrier Taihō, Admiral Ozawa’s flagship. As Albacore was about to fire, however, her fire-control computer failed, and the torpedoes had to be fired “by eye”.

Taihō had just launched 42 aircraft as a part of the second raid. Four of Albacore’s torpedoes were off-target. Sakio Komatsu, the pilot of one of the recently-launched aircraft, sighted one of the two which were heading for Taihō and crashed his aircraft on it, but the last torpedo struck the carrier on her starboard side near her aviation-fuel tanks. At first, the damage did not appear to be very serious.

Another submarine, USS Cavalla (SS-244), was able to maneuver to an attack position on the carrier Shōkaku by about noon. Three torpedoes hit Shōkaku, setting her afire. At 15:00 the fire reached the bomb magazine, blowing the ship apart.

Meanwhile, Taihō was falling victim to poor damage control. On the orders of an inexperienced damage-control officer, her ventilation system had been operated full-blast in an attempt to clear explosive fumes from the ship. This instead had the effect of spreading the vapors throughout Taihō which were liable to ignition by spark or flame. At 17:32 she suffered a series of explosions from this volatile condition and ultimately sank.

U.S. counterattack

Japanese Carrier Division Three under attack by United States Navy aircraft from Task Force 58, late afternoon, 20 June 1944. The heavy cruiser circling at right, nearest to the camera, is either Japanese cruiser Maya or Japanese cruiser Chōkai. Beyond that, is the small aircraft carrier Japanese aircraft carrier Chiyoda.

TF-58 sailed west during the night in order to attack the Japanese at dawn. Search patrols were put up at first light.

Admiral Ozawa had transferred to the destroyer Japanese destroyer Wakatsuki after Taihō had been hit, but the radio gear onboard was not capable of sending the number of messages needed, so he transferred again, to the carrier Zuikaku, at 13:00. It was then that he learned of the disastrous results of the day before, and that he had about 150 aircraft left. Nevertheless, he decided to continue the attacks, thinking that there were still hundreds of planes on Guam and Rota, and started planning new raids to be launched on the 21st.

American searches failed to locate the Japanese fleet until 15:40. However, the report made was so garbled that Mitscher knew neither what had been sighted nor where. At 16:05 another report was received that was clearer, and Mitscher decided to launch an “Alpha strike” even though there were only 75 minutes to sunset and his aviators did not normally recover at night thereby risking significant losses to landing mishaps. The attack went in at 18:30.

Ozawa had been able to put up very few fighters to intercept the incoming US attack—no more than 35 according to later estimates, but these few were skilfully handled, and the Japanese antiaircraft fire was intense. The U.S. raid, however, contained 216 planes, and the majority were able to press the attack.

The first ships sighted by the U.S strike were oilers, and two of these were damaged so severely that they were later scuttled. The carrier Hiyō was attacked by four Grumman Avengers from Belleau Wood, and hit by at least one of their torpedoes, and later sank. The carriers Zuikaku, Junyō, and Chiyoda were damaged by bombs, as was the battleship Haruna. Twenty American aircraft were lost in this strike.

At 20:45, the first U.S. planes began to return to TF-58. Knowing his aviators would have difficulty finding their carriers, Mitscher decided to fully illuminate his carriers shining searchlights directly up into the night, despite the risk of attack from submarines and night-flying aircraft, and the picket destroyers fired star shells to help the planes find the task groups. Despite this, 80 of the returning aircraft were lost, some crashing on flight decks, the majority going into the sea. Many of the crews were rescued over the next few days.

End of the battle

That night, Admiral Ozawa received orders from Toyoda to withdraw from the Philippine Sea. U.S. forces gave chase, but the battle was over.

The four Japanese attacks involved 373 carrier aircraft, of which 130 returned to the carriers, and several more were lost onboard the two carriers sunk on the first day by submarine attacks. After the second day, the losses totaled three carriers and over 400 carrier aircraft lost, and around 200 land-based planes. Losses on the U.S. side on the first day were only 23, and on the second 100, most due tonight landings when strikes launched late in the day at maximum range had to recover after sunset, which was not a normal practice.

The losses to the Japanese were irreplaceable. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a few months later, their carriers were used solely as a decoy due to the lack of aircraft, and aircrews to fly them.



  • Samuel Eliot Morison, New Guinea and the Marianas, March 1944–August 1944, vol. 8 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (1950).
  • Barrett Tillman, Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II.
  • Lieutenant Commander J. Bryan III: Mission Beyond Darkness The story of USS Lexington's Air Group 16 June 20, 1944 attack on the Japanese carrier fleet as told by the men who flew that day (1945)
  • William T. Y'Blood. Red Sun Setting: The Battle of the Philippine Sea (2003).


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