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Let There Be Light: Admiral Mitscher’s Decision

By Robert M. Citino
5/2/2012 • Fire for Effect

Last week, we ended on a pretty grim note: U.S. naval aviators taking off for the unknown at the end of the battle of the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

It is customary today to think of this battle as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” a shattering blow that broke the back of Japanese carrier aviation. In a single day of combat, the Imperial Japanese Navy lost hundreds of aircraft (which, by this point of the war, Japan could barely replace) and hundreds of pilots (completely irreplaceable).

The next day was a very different story, however. After establishing nothing less than full-spectrum naval dominance on June 19th, 1944, the 20th would see the U.S. Navy having a very difficult time locating the main body of the Japanese fleet, always the most critical and most frustrating activity in the Pacific War. It wasn’t until late in the day that Admiral Raymond Spruance was able to get a fix on his Japanese counterpart, but there were only a few hours of daylight left and the enemy was at extreme range. Belying his reputation as a cautious commander, he gave orders for a full-scale raid by his carrier aircraft, involving more than 200 planes. Everyone knew, from Spruance down to the pilots, that they would barely have enough fuel for the return trip and—even worse—that they would have to find their way home in the dark. The raid went well enough, considering all the problems in getting it launched. U.S. aircraft sunk the Japanese carrier Hiyo and badly damaged the Zuikaku, along with a few other ships. It wasn’t any sort of knockout blow, however.

But we barely remember all that today. Usually in the Pacific War, the return flight after a raid was a kind of denouement. Here it was the horrific climax of the story. As night fell, plane after plane ran out of gas and dropped into the sea. Radio discipline seemed to break down for a time. Some pilots became completely disoriented, others snapped and began sobbing. Who can blame them? It was a pitch black night in the middle of the world’s biggest ocean.

Consider for a moment the tough decision they had to make: when to ditch the aircraft. Running your tanks dry got you closer to home, but left you with an uncontrolled drop at the end. Ditching a few moments earlier left you with some power and control when you hit the water, but left you farther out at sea. It was a bad scene, either way.

You might think it couldn’t get any more dramatic, but you’d be wrong. With his pilots desperate for any kind of assistance, Admiral Marc Mitscher made a gutsy call, the kind we pay flag officers to make. He ordered the entire carrier fleet illuminated, and the dark Pacific night suddenly turned to daylight, as every light in the fleet was turned on to guide the fliers. It was a dangerous thing to do in the middle of an unfriendly ocean. Nighttime light discipline is part of Naval Operations 101, after all, and a single Japanese submarine in the vicinity might have made Mitscher look pretty foolish. He was accepting risk to the fleet in order to save his fliers, however. It was a decision in the best traditions of the U.S. Navy, and—I must say—one of the few moments of the war I wish I could have witnessed personally.

It wasn’t a perfect solution. Pilots were scrambling to land on any carrier they could find, and with most of the aircraft running on fumes, some of those landings were pretty rough. Some even tried to land on the occasional destroyer and had to be frantically waved off. About 100 aircraft were lost in the raid, and no fewer than 80 of those losses took place during the landing. But with a group of destroyers left behind to search the area in daylight, only 16 pilots and 33 crewmen were lost.

It sounds like a miracle. The entire complement of aircraft could well have been lost. But it strikes me that none of this in a miracle. Instead, the shining end of the “mission beyond darkness” is an example of higher commanders calculating and managing risk. Mitscher and his able chief of staff, Captain Arleigh Burke, knew the risks involved, but they were willing to take them. There just might be a couple of Japanese submarines out there, licking their chops and slapping high fives as they saw those lights come on. But there definitely were pilots calling for help, and they were calling for it now.

And so, Mitscher and Burke said, “Let there be light.” At the end of the day, a large number of U.S. naval aviators were glad they did.

On a personal note, by my count, this is the 100th column I have written for Front & Center. I’d like to acknowledge my readers, those who comment on the columns, those who like what I have to say (and those who seem to be driven crazy by it). Thanks, and I hope you’ll all keep reading!

For the latest in military history from World War II‘s sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

27 Responses to Let There Be Light: Admiral Mitscher’s Decision

  1. Bruce Cohen says:

    The irony in your comment that it would have been amazing to witness is that in today’s embedded-live-reporting environment, decisions like that are much harder to make. Merely being observed by a mass audience making those sorts of decisions is surely not likely to embolden a commander. The Hawthorne Effect really seems to have had much less impact in WWII.

    (And, needless to say, I’ve already got The Wehrmacht Retreats.)

  2. Chris Ehlers says:

    I would have loved to be there when General McCauliffe told the Nazis “Nuts”. I can only imagine the look on the German’s face as that word was translated and explained. And having to explain it up the chain to Hitler must have been terrible.

  3. Bob Kohn says:

    In my case it would not be a particular point in WW 2. If I could I would love to have been able to ask Rommel (favorite anti-Nazi general) why he would take an oath to a individual person (Hitler) and not to a country. Did he ever realize Hitler was insane, did Rommel know or care about the Holocaust. I would want to show him what Germany is like today (2012) and the collective guilt throughout Germany.

  4. Ian Lewenstein says:

    I wish I could have been aboard a C-47 on June 5-6 with the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, surveying the English Channel and dark French countryside, waiting to begin the long-awaited invasion of western Europe.

  5. Stew Dalton says:

    Midway with Spruance .

  6. Miguel says:

    I wish I could have seen the night sea battles that raged on the waters surrounding Guadalcanal and Savo Islands, between the cruisers, destroyers (and between Battleships too!!!) of the American, and Allied ships vs the IJN ones.

  7. Rodrigo Gomes says:

    I’d like to be one of German soldiers entering Paris in 1940. Achieving in one month a thing that wasn’t made in 4 years in World War One. With feeling of victory, it was a great sensation.

  8. Rachel Head says:

    I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the briefing to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The sheer enormity of those moments would have been amazing to witness.

  9. Shimpson says:

    It may be cliché, but I’d like to have seen the D-day landings. Just to see the men, materiel, vehicles, ships and planes as far as the eye could see…

  10. Luke Truxal says:

    I wish I could have witnessed the Battle of Samar. Destroyers charging battleships gets my heart racing every time.

  11. James Boggs says:

    So MANY moments cross my mind. One that stands out would be standing on the deck of the Missouri watching the Japanese sign the documents of surrender. GREAT moment in the history of not only the United States, but the world itself. What a day that MUST have been!
    Of course, Times Square in New York City must have been a blast!

  12. Dan Albers says:

    I would have been interested to witness any of the following (it’s a tie for me):

    1. I would like to be able to see the look on Hitler’s face shortly after the assassination attempt bomb exploded – to see his shock and disbelief

    2. I would love to have been present as the American soldiers from the “Band of Brothers” celebrated at the Eagle’s Nest

    3. Although terrifying I would like to have been on a successful B-17 or B-24 bombing mission

    Thanks for running this contest!

  13. wendy says:

    I would have liked to be there for the liberation of Dachau.

  14. Mike Yerion says:

    As a young boy, I remember my Mom telling me about Dresden. She was a war refugee from eastern Germany and was outside of Dresden with my grandmother when she could see the glow of Dresden from the Valentine’s Day bombing. I think if people could witness what war does to the innocents, we would be less quick to use military action, until all diplomacy fails, and their is not another choice.

  15. WB says:

    I would have liked to be a witness to Operation Citadel. As an old tanker myself, I think that must have been something.

  16. Mike A. says:

    I would like to have witnessed the Battle of the Bulge just outside Bastogne.

  17. Colin R says:

    Eben-Emael, though not from inside the fortress.

  18. Edward Chusid says:

    I would have loved to have seen the Trinity test in the Nevada desert. To be there when it all began and to see the individual reactions.

  19. Dave says:

    Wow! A lot of great moments listed by everyone. Many of them I could choose as well. Others come to mind, Stalingrad, Iwo and a sub patroll in the Pacific. But I think I will go with either of the two Schweinfurt raids in 1943.

  20. Guy says:

    For personal reasons, I would like to have been on the St. Lo-Perriers Road on July 18, 1944, the day my grandfather, an infantryman in the 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division was wounded in the knee by shrapnel. His friend, kneeling beside him, whose name I never learned, was killed by the same shell. I’d like to have witnessed that, despite the horror of the incident, so I would never take my freedom or anything else in life for granted again, and I’d also like to know the name of my grandfather’s friend so I could visit his gravesite and pay my respects.

  21. aburchyski says:

    Thanks so much to everyone for sharing the moments you wish you could have witnessed, the fact that they’re so diverse just goes to show what an unfathomably vast conflict it was.

    Our winner this time is Rodrigo Gomes, but keep an eye on Front&Center, Facebook, and Twitter (@WWIImag) for more giveaways. In the meantime, don’t forget to send in your answers to each issue’s Challenge page for the chance to win one of our featured books or DVDs!

  22. Jerry says:

    I guess I would have liked to be a fly on the wall where Admiral Kondo was during the second naval battle of Gudalcanal.
    After sinking 3 American tin cans and putting the 4th out of action and watching the South Dakota go lifeless, Kondo probably thought he had done a great night’s work. Then suddenly the USS Washington opens up and in 7 minutes buries the Kirishima in heavy gunfire, sinking her and the tin can Ayanami. Kondo had no idea Washington was even there and then all of a sudden Uh Oh!

  23. M Robbins-Guarr says:

    I encountered this site researching a comment in an Andrew Greeley novel (“the poor guy died later in the Marianas when the Admirals turned off the lights on their carriers…”). Yours was the article I chose from the surprisingly long list. It contained all the information I needed not only to understand the reference, but to inform me of the practice broken by Admiral Mitscher. Thank you for a clear and thorough read. I shall need no better information. (The novel: *The Search for MaggieWard,* p. 38.) Further, I enjoyed reading the comments made by the fellows entering the contest. My choice: Waiting for rescue on the beach at Dunkirk for its ‘agony and ecstasy’.

  24. M Robbins-Guarr says:

    Oops, I meant to check then followup box as well.

  25. Lyndon says:

    The look on Douglas Macarthur’s face as he heard the news on the radio that Truman had sacked him.

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