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Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II

by Barrett Tillman, New American Library, New York, 2005, $24.95.

It is a truism to say that there are two kinds of military history. “Popular history” is essentially the preserve of the buff and the amateur. It emphasizes telling the tale over analysis and tends to highlight the excitement and glory of combat and the heroism of American warriors. It also usually has gripping prose (popular history, in fact, isn’t likely to be popular without it). “Scholarly history,” by contrast, is the domain of the professional historian. Rather than narrate “what happened,” it deals extensively with the question “why?” Its purpose is to construct an argument, to engage both past and contemporary historians in a dialogue. While it may be well written in its own way, it usually features much drier prose, and will rarely grab readers the way popular history does.

Actually, these are just stereotypes. First of all, there are scores of scholars who can write with the best of them. Dennis Showalter, Geoffrey Wawro and Douglas Porch stand in the front rank, but there are many others. Second, there are many popular and/or amateur historians who really do know their stuff. Rick Atkinson is not a professional scholar, but his An Army at Dawn is as good an evocation of the U.S. Army’s travails in North Africa as you are ever likely to read. Nor are Jonathan Parshall or Anthony Tully, but their Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway has already set the naval history community on its ear; I will state unequivocally that it is the most important book ever written on Midway.

This brings us to Barrett Tillman. Clash of the Carriers is a popular history of the Battle of the Philippines Sea. It offers no startlingly new interpretations, unearths no new evidence for either side in the clash, and features enough detailed descriptions of aerial combat to induce motion sickness in those of us without a pilot’s license. It is certainly not a companion volume to H.P. Willmott’s recent dissection of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Then again, those are not really Tillman’s concerns, nor does he obsess on “the meaning of it all”—a la Willmott. Although Clash of the Carriers offers a good general overview of the battle, little of it has not been divulged before. The First Mobile Fleet vs. Task Force 58; Jisaburo Ozawa vs. Raymond Spruance and Marc Mitscher; the Japanese desire to fight a “decisive operation” against the U.S. Navy (code-named “A-Go”); the American plans to invade the Marianas, starting with Saipan (Operation Forager); and the “turkey shoot” that resulted, a combination of better U.S. training, better technique and tactics, and above all better airplanes: All of this has long been available to the interested reader.

What Tillman does—indeed what he has done in all of his books—is to paint a compelling and readable portrait of the Pacific War at sea and in the air. He is concerned with the human side, the drama of commanders and men caught up in the third-largest naval battle of the war—and the greatest carrier action of all time—a clash of man and machine taking place in a theater of operations the size of North America. He deals quite well with the U.S. Navy’s odd couple at the top: the calm and taciturn Admiral Raymond Spruance and the fire-eating Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher. That was a case of the strengths of one personality almost perfectly balancing out the weaknesses of the other. In a pleasant surprise, Tillman caricatures neither. Spruance is careful, yes, concerned about protecting the Saipan landing beaches and about the possibility of a Japanese end run around his positions. But Tillman wastes no time on those who accuse Spruance of wasting a chance to go after the Japanese carriers. As he points out, the next time these adversaries met, in Leyte Gulf, an American admiral named William Halsey would go after the Japanese, with near-disastrous results. Likewise, though Mitscher does champ at the bit throughout the book, itching to do more than defend the invasion fleet, he also reveals a side that we might almost label sensitive when it comes to the welfare of his fliers.

Much of the book takes place at lower levels of command, however. Tillman is at his best in portraying war at the business end—at the tip of the spear, in other words, where a relatively small group of (usually) young men have to do or die against an enemy counterpart eager to do the same. The reader will learn what it must have been like to take off from an aircraft carrier in that fateful summer of 1944. As your Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat hurtles off the deck of Captain Ralph Ofstie’s USS Essex into the bright sunlight of a beautiful Pacific morning, you’ll feel the same mixture of confidence and concern. You know that you have the edge in speed, power, armament, protection—just about everything a pilot could want.

And yet, nagging doubts remain. Before you can begin splashing Zeroes, you have to find them. 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 most of them have nothing to do with the Japanese. That’s why your last words as you take off are the heartfelt prayer, “Please Lord, don’t let me…foul…up.” I could go on, but suffice it to say that no one can write this stuff like Tillman. It is a “you are there” approach that has been done before—in fact, all popular histories try it—but rarely so well as this.

Well-crafted individual stories form the heart of Clash of the Carriers. You’ll exult with Lt. j.g. Alex Vraciu, getting an adrenaline rush as he looks down to spot a formation of no fewer than 50 Japanese planes 2,000 feet below him. Vraciu dives right in, and in eight minutes of high intensity excitement flames at least six of them. “That was my payback for Pearl Harbor,” he says later, no doubt speaking for a great number of his fellow airmen. He had fired just 360 rounds—10 per gun per kill, which still must be some kind of record. Tillman does us all the favor of including the photo of an exultant Vraciu taken just moments after he lands back on the carrier Lexington. The newly minted ace is practically glowing, with a toothy smile and an “I got six” hand gesture—it is one of the great photos of the war.

You’ll be at the helm of U.S. submarines, standing alongside Commander James W. Blanchard in Albacore as he hunts and kills the Japanese carrier Taiho, or Commander Herman Kossler in Cavalla as he does the same to Shokaku. You’ll shake your head at that hapless Japanese Val dive bomber that tried to land on three U.S. aircraft carriers in the aftermath of the battle. And you’ll no doubt find yourself agreeing with the wisdom of Japanese dive-bomber pilot Zenji Abe, who tried and failed to penetrate the U.S. fighter screen on the fourth and last raid of June 19: “I never saw so many Grummans,” he exclaimed, a fitting epitaph to the senselessness of the entire Japanese war with America.

Where the book really comes alive, however, is the narrative of the great U.S. counterstrike against Ozawa’s First Mobile Fleet late on June 20. A dusk takeoff and a 600-mile round trip meant a night landing for virtually every pilot and crew who took part. It was an unprecedented event, with losses virtually guaranteed, and there was a real sense of poignancy as these young men took flight. Many of the pilots confessed that they felt they were saying goodbye for good as they passed the island and saluted the bridge, and the feeling seemed mutual among those who remained on board. Tillman takes us through this signal event: the shock of getting a new “latlong” reading in the air and realizing that an extra degree of longitude was involved; the giddy schoolboy chat on their radios as they found Ozawa’s immense force. For all their training for this moment, pilots rarely got to see enemy ships maneuvering at sea; the drama of the attack, which sunk the carrier Hiyo and badly damaged Zuikaku; and then, of course, the incredible denouement: the awful ride home in pitch darkness, as plane after plane ran out of gas and dropped into the sea. Pilots had to make a choice on when to ditch. Running your tanks dry got you that much closer to home but left you with an uncontrolled drop; ditching a few moments earlier left you with some power and control. Once again, radio discipline broke down; some pilots became disoriented, others snapped and began sobbing.

And then there was a dramatic second climax, as Mitscher and his able chief of staff, Captain Arleigh Burke, made the gutsy decision to illuminate the fleet, a dangerous thing to do in the middle of the ocean. Mitscher risked his fleet to save his fliers, a decision in the best traditions of the U.S. military. It wasn’t a perfect solution, and in fact the entire process was attended by more than a touch of chaos, as pilots scrambled to land on any carrier they could find. Some even tried to land on the occasional destroyer. But I won’t be alone in reading this account and being profoundly moved by it, or in stating for the record that this is one of the few moments of the war that I wish I could have witnessed personally.

As a scholar, I can complain about certain aspects of this book. I would like to have seen Tillman engage some of the conceptual issues raised by the battle. What does it say about war at sea in the mid-1940s that two lone submarines managed to sink a pair of Japanese aircraft carriers, while the combined power of 15 U.S. carriers—some 900 planes in all— sank only one? Just why had the Japanese lost the technological war so badly? They certainly have done well in various technological fields since 1945.

Even the great dusk raid, for all its pathos, raises certain questions. Why, despite the massive assemblage of this U.S. naval force, was a desperation raid—at extreme range and at dusk—the only real blow that Spruance and Mitscher managed to inflict on the Japanese during the entire battle? Was there perhaps a command-and-control downside to maneuvering such immense fleets? There are times as well when Tillman’s penchant for flier jargon gets in the way of reader comprehension (at least this reader), and other times when he indulges in the clichés of the popular history genre, especially in the pedestrian “where are they now” section that ends the volume.

Nevertheless, every aficionado of the Pacific War should read Clash of the Carriers. You certainly won’t find any radical new interpretations or scholarly breakthroughs. What you will find is an exciting book by a first-class writer that places you squarely in the fight. Consider it a trip to the balmy Pacific, a steal at just $24.95.


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here