Turkey Shoot: The Battle of the Philippine Sea

Sometimes, we historians are our own worst enemies. We get a word or a phrase in mind and we wring it for all its worth. My own specialty–German military history–has a boatload of terms we should probably retire. Foremost among them is Blitzkrieg, a new kind of warfare allegedly invented by the German army in the interwar period, even though the historical record is pretty clear that the Germans rarely used the term, and certainly never used it in any official capacity. But every field of military history has them. I just taught the Korean War in my classes at the University of North Texas, and we discussed the Chinese use of “human wave assaults.” In fact, Chinese tactics throughout that conflict were usually a great deal more sophisticated than the term implies, involving simultaneous frontal assaults and infiltration onto the flanks and rear.

My vote for a cliché that we should revisit has to do with Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. As every student of the Pacific War knows, it was the “the great Marianas turkey shoot.”

Oh, sure, there is some truth here. A big win for Admiral Raymond Spruance and the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet over the Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa and the Japanese “First Mobile Fleet.” Three Japanese carriers sunk (two the victim of U.S. submarines Albacore and Cavalla), the vital Mariana island of Saipan invaded and wrested away from its tenacious Japanese defenders. Above all (and it is this fact that gave rise to the battle’s nickname), there was the absolutely lopsided advantage in aircraft casualties, with the Japanese losing some 600 planes in two days of fighting, while U.S. losses were just about a fifth of that total (123). Better training, better pilots, better aircraft: the U.S. Navy had recovered from its early stumbles, and had now become a dominating force. One pilot from the Lexington, Lt. Alex Vraciu, dove into a Japanese formation and shot down six aircraft in just eight minutes. It was a comrade of Vraciu’s from the Lex, a pilot who has remained anonymous to history, who supposedly characterized the carnage by whooping, “This is like an old-time turkey shoot!”

And so a moniker was born.

As nicknames go, it’s not the worst. I simply think it doesn’t do justice to anyone involved in this vast struggle. Think about taking off from an aircraft carrier, the Lexington, let us say, or Captain Ralph Ofstie’s USS Essex. Your F6F-3 Hellcat is just about the hottest thing flying. By this point in the war, you have the edge over your Japanese opponent in speed, power, armament, protection–you name it. But nagging doubts remain. It is a very big ocean and a lot of things can go wrong. There are any number of ways for a young man to die in the Pacific, and a lot of them have nothing to do with the Japanese. But before you can even worry about the enemy, you have to find him, and you just hope you do it before he finds you.

The point: at sea, in the middle of the Pacific, even a “turkey shoot” has its nervous moments, its gut-wrenching changes of fortune. As I read about the Marianas campaign, I don’t think in the first instance of the air battles on day one (June 19, when the Japanese suffered most of their air losses in four successive raids on the U.S. carrier fleet). I think instead about the great US counterstrike against Ozawa’s fleet late on day two (June 20). Having finally located the Japanese main body, Spruance wasn’t about to let it get away. The result was the very definition of a long shot, a kind of desperation raid not normally carried out by the victor in a battle, or by the side with such an enormous advantage in ships and aircraft. It took place at extreme range–a 600 mile round trip–and at dusk. Unfortunately, a dusk departure meant a night landing for virtually every pilot who took part, and the length meant empty fuel gauges by the end of the flight. It meant guaranteed U.S. losses, even if the raid worked, which, at this distance, it very well might not.

It was an unprecedented event, and one of the most dramatic moments of the entire Pacific War. Think about it: these were the same aviators who had smashed the flower of the Japanese fleet just the day before. Then, they must have been feeling ten feet tall. Now, their commanders, their service, and their country were asking them for one more, perhaps impossible effort.

“The great Marianas turkey shoot?” Sure, why not? The designation has stuck, and it’s not going anywhere.

But how about “sunset over the Pacific?” Or “into the darkness”?

More next time.

2 Responses

  1. Prof. B.t.H.

    The bottom line is, a person in the combat at the time made the remark, and the line went from American ship to ship and became a popular phrase. I think history made its decision?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.