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!