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Greatest Aircraft Carrier Duel - March '99 World War II Feature

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1999 
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Greatest Aircraft Carrier Duel
Greatest Aircraft Carrier Duel

Operation A-Go was meant to trap the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Marianas. What followed was a disaster for Japan–and a "Turkey Shoot" for the Americans.

By John F. Wukovits

Naval aviation advocates in both the United States and Japan had long argued that aircraft carriers, possessing mobility and potent air groups, would in large measure determine the outcome of the Pacific War. That prediction held true for the war's first six months as Japanese carriers recorded a stunning triumph at Pearl Harbor and supported numerous advances throughout the Pacific. American carriers redeemed Allied pride in the gigantic carrier encounters in the Coral Sea and off Midway in May-June 1942. Little, though, in the way of carrier battles occurred for two years as Japan slowly replaced its 1942 losses and waited for the opportunity to destroy the American Navy in an enormous decisive encounter.

As Japan husbanded its naval resources, its American foe moved steadily westward. Japanese naval leaders patiently waited for an opportunity to deliver that decisive defeat, and by the middle of 1944, with their carrier strength rebuilt, they saw their chance in an expected American move against either the Caroline or Palau islands north of New Guinea, or against the Marianas. In early May 1944, the commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, admiral Soemu Toyoda, issued a plan called A-Go in which a major portion of the Japanese navy would move against the enemy in an attempt to crush its carrier power. Commander of the First Mobile Fleet, Vice Adm. Jisaburo Ozawa, was given practically every available surface craft to throw against the Americans.

Ozawa also counted on help from at least 500 land-based aircraft, which were expected to destroy one-third of the enemy's carriers before Ozawa even steamed into battle. His lightweight carrier planes, relying on a huge 100-mile advantage in attack range that would permit the Japanese to hit American carriers before they could hit him, would then finish off any remaining American strength. This plan might have been more sensible early in the war, when skilled aviators manned the craft. But continuously worn down by combat attrition and accidents, expert fliers had become a scarce commodity. Most current Japanese pilots possessed few of the talents their predecessors carried into Pearl Harbor and into other Pacific targets in early 1942, and they logged far fewer training hours in the air than the Americans they would shortly face.

Ozawa's counterpart, Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, planned to deploy his fleet in a conservative manner. According to orders, his prime objective was to protect the Saipan invasion forces, in particular the valuable troop and supply transports, from a Japanese sea assault. He knew that enemy carriers might appear, since the Marianas represented a deep thrust toward the home islands, but he would not be lured away from protecting the Saipan invasion beaches. If he could both protect Saipan and take on Ozawa's carriers–fine. But he would not endanger his prime responsibility by chasing after the enemy. The Japanese had divided their forces in other major naval engagements, such as Midway, and had reinforced their use of that tactic as recently as May, when a captured Japanese document emphasized the use of feinting to the middle while a flank attack darted around the end. Therefore, Spruance wanted to guard against being drawn away from Saipan by one force while a second group swung in on an end run.

On June 6, Task Force 58, commanded by Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher, steamed out of Majuro Harbor in the Marshall Islands on its way to the Marianas. Consisting of four carrier task groups and one fast battleship task group, the flotilla of almost 100 ships required five hours to leave the lagoon. At sea, the armada blanketed 700 square miles of ocean. Fifteen aircraft carriers bore 900 planes, including superb new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat fighters.

Spruance's first order of business was to take out Ozawa's land-based air strength to gain local air supremacy and to remove the possibility of Ozawa's using Marianas airfields to shuttle-bomb his forces. American admirals dreaded shuttle-bombing, in which planes took off from carriers, hit their targets and landed on nearby shore bases rather than return to their carriers, because it enabled the Japanese to launch while still outside the attack range of American fighters. In two days of heavy air raids on June 11-12, American fighters and bombers tore into airfields on Guam, Rota, Saipan and Tinian, while seven carriers swerved north to blast airfields on Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima. Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes rose to do battle, but the inexperienced pilots proved no match for the better-trained American fliers darting about in superior Hellcats. When the smoke had settled, Ozawa had been shorn of his much needed land-based air strength. But in an amazing display of ineptness, the commander of the decimated land squadrons, Vice Adm. Kakuji Kakuta, failed to relay that vital information to Ozawa. The Japanese admiral sailed on to meet Task Force 58, blissfully ignorant that one of his offensive arms had been hacked off.

On June 13, the same day that American battleships moved into bombardment positions to unleash a largely ineffective pre-invasion shelling of Saipan's beaches, Ozawa guided his fleet out of Tawi Tawi in the Sulu Archipelago and headed toward the Marianas. American submarines quickly reported the departure to Spruance, who later ordered the transports to continue unloading supplies on Saipan until June 17, when they were to withdraw and head east, away from the coming battle. The submarine Cavalla picked up Ozawa 800 miles west-southwest of Saipan on the night of June 17-18 and tracked the Japanese fleet as it churned closer to the Americans.

Both Ozawa and Spruance knew one force would sooner or later locate the other. Throughout much of June 18, both combatants cautiously moved about the Philippine Sea like boxers gingerly testing each other–Ozawa wary because of Spruance's superior power, Spruance concerned about his foe's longer range and habit of slipping in an end run. Before showing his hand, Spruance intended to get a precise fix on Ozawa's location. "Until we know exactly where the enemy is," he told subordinates, "we must be positive that we are between his possible locations and those landing ships."

Ozawa split his force as he moved farther east. Admiral Takeo Kurita commanded the advance group, built around the carriers Chitose, Chiyoda and Zuiho and 88 planes protected by a lethal concentration of battleship and cruiser anti-aircraft guns. One hundred miles behind Kurita followed Ozawa's main force of two groups. Group A, commanded by Ozawa, centered on the carriers Taiho, Shokaku and Zuikakau, with 207 planes; in Group B, Rear Adm. Takaji Joshima led the carriers Junyo, Hiyo and Ryuho, with 135 planes. Ozawa hoped that Spruance's planes and ships would be lured west by Kurita's van, giving Ozawa a chance to crush him with his two lurking carrier groups. To prepare his men for the important battle, Ozawa signaled Japanese hero Admiral Togo's famous message, flashed before the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War early in the century: "The fate of the Empire rests on this one battle. Every man is expected to do his utmost."

Ozawa first spotted Spruance in late afternoon but refrained from sending his planes since little daylight remained. He also could not determine if Japanese airfields on Guam, where his planes would have landed after attacking Spruance, were intact or pockmarked with craters from recent American attacks.

Spruance's turn came next. Mitscher's Task Force 58 steamed west for much of the day, its search planes reaching out even farther to the west, like tentacles hunting for prey. As darkness neared, Spruance ordered Mitscher to turn eastward so the carriers would hover closer to Saipan when daylight broke on June 19 and thus guard against an end run. However, a signal intercepted when Ozawa foolishly radioed a land-based commander, placed the Japanese 335 miles west-southwest of Mitscher.

Mitscher and most aviators in Task Force 58 saw an opportunity to get in a first strike at dawn. Mitscher asked Spruance if he could again head west and close on Ozawa during the night so as to be in a position for a daylight attack, but Spruance denied the request.

Spruance's orders stunned Mitscher's staff and most aviators waiting on board carriers. Instead of taking the offensive, Spruance was allowing Ozawa to steam on toward Saipan unmolested. The Japanese admiral would be within striking range of the American carriers the next day while still remaining outside the range of American planes. Captain Arleigh Burke of Lexington dejectedly stated: "This we did not like. It meant that the enemy could attack us at will at dawn the next morning. We could not attack the enemy."

Spruance received unjust criticism after the battle for this conservative move. Spruance had to think not only of his aviators' desire to get Ozawa's carriers but also of protecting the Saipan landings. Had he sent Mitscher's planes after the enemy, they would have flown into a tortuous series of Japanese opposition: first facing Kurita's dense concentration of anti-aircraft fire, then flying another 100 miles into Ozawa's guns and air cover to deliver their load, before finally revisiting Kurita's fire to return home. Although a number of Ozawa's planes would have been destroyed, so would a significant portion of the attacking American planes–planes that would not have been there for the slaughter about to unfold on June 19. Spruance opted to remain near Saipan, thereby guaranteeing a full complement of air power to handle Ozawa's inexperienced pilots the next day and dish out an even more lopsided victory than Mitscher could most likely have achieved with a dawn attack.

To prepare for Ozawa, Spruance positioned his task groups so that if any Japanese pilots broke through the air screen they would have to first fly over Vice Adm. Willis A. Lee's powerful battle line of cruisers and battleships, each sporting a multitude of deadly anti-aircraft guns. Fifteen miles behind Lee steamed three of Spruance's four carrier task groups, three miles east and 12 miles north of the battle line. For mutual support, Spruance placed each group in circles four miles in diameter. To get at the carriers, an inexperienced enemy pilot would have to evade American combat air patrols, elude Lee's fire, and shake off carrier task group anti-aircraft fire.

Once within range, Ozawa hurled a continuous succession of Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes at Spruance in a futile attempt to get his carriers. The first of his four raids departed at approximately 8:30 a.m., when 69 fighters, bombers and torpedo planes rose from Kurita's carriers and headed east toward Saipan. Expectant American radar picked up the enemy craft 90 minutes later when they were still 150 miles away. By the time American Hellcats jumped off their carriers at 10:23, only 72 miles separated the opposing forces.

A string of disastrous Japanese errors turned the raid into a fiasco. Instead of immediately pressing their attack before American fighters could reach proper intercept altitude, Japanese pilots circled at 20,000 feet to regroup. By the time they were ready, Hellcats had established a multitiered intercept formation miles in front of Lee's front-line defense. Rather than remaining in formation to take advantage of increased fire-power, Japanese pilots charged alone or in small numbers at American ships or chased after Hellcats in uncoordinated attacks. They swerved away from targets before reaching effective bombing range. Veteran American pilots so easily fooled Japanese pilots with basic combat maneuvers that one is struck, in reading action reports, by how often one American flier shot down two or more enemy planes within seconds.

Spruance's fliers were assisted by superb American fighter-director officers who, having recently endured a rigorous training program that weeded out those who could not think calmly under extreme pressure, accurately deployed American fighters at proper altitudes, speed and range. They also had Lt. j.g. Charles A. Sims, who eavesdropped over the radio as the Japanese air coordinator sent his planes into the fray. Sims relayed this information to American fighter-director officers, who then placed their Hellcats where they could most successfully intercept the enemy. Stunning results quickly followed. Over half the planes in that first raid were shot down by waiting Hellcats before they sighted an American ship. At one point in the fray, Commander William A. Dean of Hornet's fighter squadron VF-2 spotted 20 or 25 enemy parachutes floating in the Philippine Sea, a stark illustration of how hopelessly outclassed the Japanese pilots were.

On board Lexington Lieutenant Joseph Eggert, Mitscher's fighter-director officer, commenced the day's slaughter by barking out the timeworn circus cry for help, "Hey Rube!" Within 15 minutes of the 10:23 a.m. launch, over 220 Hellcats raced toward the incoming enemy. Lieutenant Commander Charles W. Brewer, commander of Essex's VF- 15, met the Japanese 55 miles out from his ship and quickly set a pattern that would be repeated throughout the intense day. Brewer lined up the enemy leader, locked on his tail from 800 feet, and with a quick burst of machine-gun fire sent him careening toward the water. Before Brewer even emerged from the debris of this first kill he spotted a second target and fired a rapid volley which downed that plane. A third followed in quick succession when Brewer pounced on his tail and dispatched him smoking toward the water. A fourth quarry proved more elusive and executed a string of expert maneuvers to escape, but he, too, fell victim to Brewer's accurate fire.

Twenty-seven enemy planes eluded that initial fighter screen only to encounter a second, which splashed another 16 planes. The 11 surviving craft flew on and unsuccessfully attacked the picket destroyers Yarnell and Stockham. A handful of Japanese bombers finally managed to get through to Lee's battle line and landed a direct hit on the battleship South Dakota, killing 27 men and wounding another 23, but not a single enemy plane reached the American carriers, their main target.

To deflect Japanese aircraft, an American pilot had to get close enough to his quarry to register a kill, but in doing so he flew perilously near a target that American surface anti-aircraft guns were simultaneously trying to destroy. An errant move by the pilot or a poorly aimed shell could bring down the wrong plane. Commander of one of the four task groups, Rear Adm. John W. Reeves, Jr., was so concerned for his pilots that he signaled all his ships during this first raid: "Try to avoid shooting down our own planes. They are our best protection."

By 10:57–a scant 34 minutes after Mitscher launched his initial fighter–the first raid had ended. While suffering minimal damage, Mitscher's force shot down 41 of Ozawa's 69 planes in a display of aerial superiority rarely witnessed, in the Pacific. Lieutenant Commander Paul D. Buie, commander of Lexington's VF- 16, heard one of his pilots exclaim: "Why, hell it was just like an old-time turkey shoot down home!"The phrase speedily bounced from ship to ship until most officers and men were speaking of the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

At 8:56 a.m., before the first raid had even located Mitscher's force, Ozawa had launched a second wave of 128 fighters, bombers and torpedo planes. Pilot Sakio Komatsu had barely lifted off from his carrier when he spotted a torpedo churning directly toward the carrier Taiho. Without hesitation, Komatsu reversed his course and crashed into the explosive. Komatsu's courageous self-sacrifice bought only a brief respite for Ozawa's flagship, which later fell victim to a second torpedo from the same American submarine, Albacore. Eight other Japanese planes experienced engine difficulties shortly after liftoff and had to return to their carriers. As the remaining 119 planes flew over Kurita's van, 100 miles out, Kurita's ships erupted in a mistaken but furious anti-aircraft barrage that downed two of their own planes and so damaged eight others that they had to turn back. Before the raid had flown out of sight of its own ships 19 planes were lost.

The rest flew on to calamity. After American radar picked up the group at 11:07 a.m., a scant 10 minutes after the first raid had retreated, Hellcats from several carriers pounced on the outclassed enemy and registered almost 70 kills in less than 30 minutes.

Commander David McCampbell of Essex started the slaughter at 11:39 by exploding the first Aichi D4Y2 "Judy" dive bomber he spotted. As he darted across to the other side of the enemy formation, evading a gantlet of return fire, McCampbell quickly splashed a second Judy, sped toward the front of the enemy formation to record a "probable" on a third, dispatched the formation leader's left wingman with a staccato burst, downed the leader with a steady stream of machine-gun bullets, then scored a final kill on a diving enemy craft. In minutes McCampbell, who would become the Navy's leading ace in the war, logged five kills and one probable.

During that frenetic interception, however, Lt. j.g. Alexander Vraciu of Lexington outperformed McCampbell, weaving his way through the enemy formation to pick off six enemy aircraft. Vraciu downed his initial quarry from a distance of only 200 feet and quickly reacted to avoid damage from the dive bomber's debris. He then crept toward a pair of dive bombers and shot down the trailing Judy before splashing the lead plane. Every minute brought the action continuously closer to Lexington, which meant that not only was the carrier in danger, but Vraciu and other American pilots would have to fly directly into their own ships' anti-aircraft fire to chase attacking enemy planes.

Vraciu scanned the skies, which by now were dotted with speeding Hellcats, plunging enemy planes, and hundreds of lethal bursts of anti-aircraft fire. He warned Lexington: "Don't see how we can possibly shoos 'em all down. Too many!" But he nevertheless chased after, and downed, a fourth dive bomber. Three other Judys zoomed into view as they began their final runs on ships below, and Vraciu followed them. He quickly downed the first but was forced into a perilous vertical dive to stop the second before it dropped its bomb on a destroyer. With anti-aircraft fire intensifying, Vraciu caught up to the enemy plane and destroyed it, then pulled out of his dive to avoid crashing into the water. Battleship anti-aircraft fire downed the final enemy dive bomber.

Vraciu headed back to Lexington, where he was almost killed by his own ship's fire. Shouting into his radio that he was an American, Vraciu finally landed. As he walked away from his plane, a tired Vraciu glanced toward Admiral Mitscher on the bridge and held up six fingers to indicate his success.

Other pilots experienced spectacular missions. Lieutenant William B. Lamb of Princeton attacked a group of 12 enemy dive bombers even though only one of his six guns operated correctly. As other Hellcats joined in, Lamb knocked down three planes. Lieutenant junior grade P.C. Thomas of Bataan almost latched onto more than he could handle when he charged at one enemy plane. The Japanese pilot, obviously one of the few savvy Japanese aviators in the sky, so beautifully executed a series of maneuvers to avoid Thomas that the American flier later said, "It was like trying to catch a flea on a hot griddle." He destroyed the enemy plane after other Hellcats ringed the enemy pilot on three sides and forced him to fly a straight course. Essex pilot Ensign C.W. Plant got on the wrong side of another skilled enemy pilot, who bounced a stream of bullets off Plant's armor plate before being destroyed by an assisting Hellcat. When Plant returned to Essex, amazed service personnel counted 150 bullet holes in his fighter.

Only 20 Japanese planes in that unfortunate second raid broke through the aerial intercept to approach Mitscher's ships, but they broke against a heavy anti-aircraft screen. A handful of dive bombers eluded all defenses and attacked scattered targets. Four singled out the carrier Wasp, but adept maneuvering by its skipper, Captain C.A.F. Sprague, avoided serious damage. Ozawa's second raid achieved little in expending itself. Ninety-seven of the 128 planes fell to watery graves in 30 intense minutes of action.

At least the survivors of the second raid could claim they located the American ships, something most pilots in Ozawa's third raid could not say. In the third raid, 47 planes lifted off between 10 and 10:15 a.m., but over half lost their bearings and turned back to their carriers without firing a shot. Twenty planes did spot Mitscher and forced a brief attack on Rear Adm. William K. Harrill's three carriers of Task Group 58.4, but inflicted only minor damage while losing seven planes.

The fourth raid accomplished little more. As in the third raid, 49 of the 82 planes that launched by 11:30 a.m. failed to locate Task Force 58 and flew on to the Japanese airstrip at Guam, where waiting Hellcats shot down 30 as they attempted to land. Some pilots broke through the American intercept to deliver their loads, none of which caused serious damage.

Captain Sprague's Wasp received most of the fourth raid's attention. Wasp Hellcats intercepted a large group of enemy planes at about 2:20 p.m. and shot down three, but another eight or nine planes attacked the carrier, which was steaming at 22 knots and executing a 15-degree left turn. Sprague quickly ordered a hard right to avoid one bomb dropped by a dive bomber that crashed into the sea barely seconds after its bomb exploded. Fragments from the bomb and disintegrating dive bomber bounced off Wasp's hull and across the carrier, knocking over Marine Captain R.C. Rosacker and three others as they manned a 20mm gun. Rosacker and his crew quickly jumped back up and continued firing at enemy targets. Two other near-misses sprayed more fragments about Wasp, wounding one sailor, while an incendiary cluster showered the ship with phosphorus.

By the time that final raid ended, Ozawa had thrown 374 planes at his enemy. Less than 100 returned to their carriers. When added to the 50 land-based craft lost by Admiral Kakuta, the Japanese had sustained an incredible defeat. While losing only 22 fighters and 60 men, Spruance had removed Japanese carriers as a factor in the war.

While Ozawa's four air raids futilely charged the American surface fleet, American submarines inflicted major damage on his fleet. Despite Japanese pilot Komatsu's heroic action of purposely crashing into a torpedo headed directly at Taiho, Commander James W. Blanchard of the submarine Albacore had aimed five other torpedoes at the same target, one of which found its quarry. Since Taiho used highly volatile unrefined oil from Tarakan, the crew tried to pump the oil overboard before sparks ignited. One inexperienced officer opened the ventilating ducts to remove the fumes; instead, this further spread the dangerous gases throughout the carrier. At 3:32 p.m., a spark ignited the fumes, causing an eruption that blew out both sides of the ship's hanger, warped the deck and ripped holes in the carrier's bottom. After being evacuated with his staff aboard the destroyer Wakatsuki, and subsequently re-establishing command aboard the heavy cruiser Haguro, Ozawa watched the carrier explode and capsize, taking 1,650 men to their graves.

Commander Herman J. Kossler of the submarine Cavalla added to Ozawa's woes. First sighting Shokaku at 11:52 a.m., Kossler moved into position and fired a spread of six torpedoes, four of which hit. For four hours the frantic crew tried to save Shokaku, but additional explosions doomed the carrier, which finally sank shortly before Taiho did. Another 1,263 men died with their carrier.

While devastation plagued Ozawa, Spruance turned his carriers north to recover jubilant, yet tired and shot-up pilots returning from the day's slaughter. Although aviators urged him to chase Ozawa and complete the destruction, Spruance held off turning west because he did not know for sure what carriers Ozawa retained, nor where they were. He would not send weary crews against an enemy of undetermined strength, especially when they most likely would have to battle at night. And he was not prepared to abandon Saipan and leave it open to that flank attack he still considered a possibility.

At 8 p.m., Spruance ordered his carriers to head west during the night. Mitscher hoped he could lessen the distance separating Task Force 58 from Ozawa for a daylight attack.

Pilots scoured the air on June 20 trying to spot Ozawa. Finally, at 4 p.m., an Enterprise search plane located the enemy force in four groups 275 miles from Mitscher–just about the maximum range for American fighters. With a scant three hours of daylight left, the pilots would have to fly out, make at most two runs on the enemy, then return to their carriers before darkness or low fuel forced them into the sea. When Mitscher asked his operations officer, Commander W.J. Widhelm, if his pilots could successfully make the hazardous flight, Widhelm bluntly replied, "It is going to be tight."

Mitscher accepted the risk, and at 4:10 the order went out to launch planes. Pilots rushed from ready rooms, where chalk board messages exhorted them to "Get the carriers!" and within 20 minutes more than 200 fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes were speeding toward Ozawa. Each aviator hoped luck went along, for the amount of fuel did not give them much room for error. One gunner hopped into his Douglas SBD on Lexington and saw the crew give him a thumbs-up signal. "Thumbs up, hell!" he thought. "What they mean is 'So long, sucker!'" Lieutenant Commander Robert A. Winston of Cabot doubted whether any of his squadron's planes would return.

Their unease heightened when Mitscher notified the fliers shortly after takeoff of an error in the original sighting. The Japanese fleet was actually 60 miles farther away than was first thought. As the planes neared Ozawa, pilots saw their fuel gauges dip below the halfway point, meaning they would go into battle with the certainty of ditching into the sea on the way back. With so little daylight left, Ozawa only had to hold out for 20 minutes to escape into friendly darkness. Thus a sense of urgency propelled the American fliers at their foe in uncoordinated attacks at whatever target entered their sight.

Although Mitscher's aviators had but 20 minutes to inflict their damage, they made the most of it. Sixty-five Japanese planes were shot out of the sky, and four Grumman TBM Avengers from light carrier Belleau Wood sank the light carrier Hiyo, while bombs tore into and sank three tankers, heavily damaged the carriers Zuikaku and Junyo, battleship Haruna and heavy cruiser Maya. The total cost to Mitscher was 18 planes. At the end of the day, a dejected officer penned in Ozawa's flag log what remained of the 430 aircraft Ozawa had possessed the morning of June 19, "Surviving carrier air power: 35 operational aircraft."

Now the American pilots had to worry about getting back to their carriers, 250 miles away. Most started home shortly before total darkness closed in, transforming the moonless night into a blackened shroud that eradicated the horizon. Weary pilots faced a two-hour flight in battle-scarred aircraft, to carriers that–if they reached them–would be almost indistinguishable from their surroundings. One by one, planes sputtered out of fuel and swooned in guided descents to the sea. A string of phosphorescent marks, telltale signs of splashdowns, dotted the water as Mitscher's planes neared their destination.

Meanwhile, Mitscher prepared a homecoming welcome. He first spread out his task groups so that 15 miles separated each group, thereby giving the carriers ample maneuvering room to land planes or pick up downed fliers. He then ordered a daring move that could have cost him a carrier or two if any enemy submarine had lurked in the area. He ordered his ships to turn on every light so the aviators could make safer attempts at landing. All types of carrier lights flashed into brilliance–truck lights, red and green running lights, signal lights. Five-inch guns on destroyers and cruisers shot star shells into the blackened heavens, while carriers beamed searchlights straight upward as beckoning beacons for the bleary-eyed pilots.

The effect was electric. Lieutenant Commander Winston recalled the incredulity with which most men on board Cabot at first reacted. "They stood open-mouthed for the sheer audacity of asking the Japs to come and get us. Then a spontaneous cheer went up. To hell with the Japs around us. Our pilots were not expendable." From above, one ecstatic pilot stared at the lights and was reminded of a Hollywood premier, the Chinese New Year, and a Fourth of July celebration combined.

For two hectic hours, aircraft sputtered to uneasy landings near or on board anything that floated. Normal air landing procedure was abandoned, as some pilots dangerously low on fuel cut into other pilots' approaches or ignored wave-offs. Almost half of the planes landed on ships other than their own, resulting in carriers retrieving planes from as many as eight different ships.

Many made it down safely. Ensign Adam Berg circled a ship for 11 minutes, using up almost all his fuel before realizing what he thought was a carrier was, in fact, only a destroyer. Without enough fuel to hunt elsewhere, Berg stalled his plane into the sea a short distance from the destroyer and was picked up within 15 minutes. Two pilots simultaneously landed on Enterprise without sustaining any damage, one latching onto a forward wire while the other hooked onto a rear wire.

Other pilots landed and erupted with anger. Commander Blitch of Wasp stomped out of his plane after landing on board Lexington, drained a hefty amount of brandy, then proceeded to blast the entire operation.

Most aircraft returned in one piece. About 80 planes were lost because of low fuel or landing accidents. Fortunately, most of their crews were rescued. Altogether, about 50 aviators were either lost at sea or died in landing attempts.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea wound to a conclusion in the next three days. On July 21, Spruance dispatched Lee's battleships and cruisers after Ozawa's retreating force, but Lee only succeeded in rescuing downed American aviators from the previous day's combat. Two days later, Spruance sent most of Task Force 58 back to Eniwetok for repairs and resupply.

Thus ended one of the U.S. Navy's most complete victories of the Pacific War. Ozawa had steamed out of Tawi Tawi on June 13, intent on destroying Spruance's carriers. He sank none. His opponent, while still fulfilling his primary duty of protecting the Saipan beachhead, so shredded Ozawa's air power that the Japanese carriers could only act as decoys for the war's remainder. Spruance's planes combined with two American submarines to sink three enemy carriers and other supporting vessels. Spruance gambled by sitting off Saipan and allowing Ozawa to come to him, but the gamble paid off handsomely.

The next month, Admirals Ernest J. King and Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, visited Spruance at Saipan. Reacting to the bitter criticism Spruance was still receiving from aviators angry that he had not been more aggressive, Admiral King, the irascible chief of naval operations, pointedly told his commander, "Spruance, you did a damn fine job there. No matter what other people tell you, your decision was correct."


John F. Wukovits is a Michigan-based teacher and author. For further reading, he suggests: Nimitz, by E.B. Potter; and The Pacific War, 1941-1945, by John Costello.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]


2 Responses to “Greatest Aircraft Carrier Duel - March '99 World War II Feature”


  1. 1
  2. 2
    John Woolley says:

    I was surprised that John Wukovits in his "Greatest Aircraft Carrier Duel" article did not mention the the third and fourth WW II aircraft carrier battles of the Eastern Solomon's and Santa Cruz. Certainly these were "larger" than the total combatants at Coral Sea. These appeared to have been significant carrier engagements.



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