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The Silent Service and the Turkey Shoot
By James Hinton

They called it the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. American pilots flying from fifteen carriers met Japanese pilots from nine carriers and four islands in the waters just off of Saipan. The resulting battle was the greatest carrier battle of World War II.

At the end of the fighting Japan had lost 80% of its employed aircraft, three carriers, and two oilers, and had failed to achieve any of its objectives. The U.S. carrier pilots were lauded and toasted for their victory, and are credited for effectively ending the Japanese carrier threat. In the seventy years since the Battle of the Philippine Sea took place it has been known as the pinnacle moment for Navy Aviation.

The truth is far more complicated. While the Navy air arm did account for many of the relatively cheap Japanese planes from the carrier force, and their inexperienced, it wasn’t them that delt the harshest blows in the Marianas. Instead, it was the U.S. submarine fleet that did the lion’s share of destroying the virtually irreplaceable ships of the Japanese carrier fleet.

The Prelude to the Turkey Shoot

The roots of the Marianas fighting were planted before the First World War had even finished. President Woodrow Wilson, in an attempt to prevent any other great war from happening again gave a January 8, 1918 speech where he laid out Fourteen Points meant to build peace after the war ended. Second on that list was the principle of Freedom of the Seas.

Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.

Though it seems like a common sense plan today, and forms the basis of our current international maritime law, at the time it was not well thought of. Britain and France both objected to it strongly. The ability to use their large navies to restrict and limit access to spheres of influence gave them virtual monopolies on some valuable territories. Freedom of the Seas was a threat to their imperial dominance.

Japan’s resistance to the principle of Freedom of the Seas was just as strong as that of Britain and France. An ally during the WWI, Japan’s navy had helped guard Pacific sea lanes against German naval elements based out of China, Micronesia, and a number of scattered islands throughout the Pacific. Ultimately, Japan seized most of these colonies. Japan was thus just as invested at being able to control the sea lanes of the northern Pacific as Britain and France was in controlling their spheres of dominance.

Among the colonies Japan seized were three German held islands in the Marianas. When the war ended, the Treaty of Versailles recognized Japan control over these islands, as well as islands in the Carolines, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. The post war League of Nations further reinforced this with the assigning of a Class C Mandate to Japan.

This brought the U.S. and Japan into conflict. The Mandate sat right on top of many of the major route between the U.S. and the U.S. held Philippines, leading to fears that trade routes could be closed if the U.S. punished Japan for its actions in China. Japan was concerned about the fact the U.S. owned the fourth island of the Marianas, Guam, giving it a strategic holding in the lynchpin of Japanese defenses.

While the attack on Pearl Harbor captured the national attention on December 7th, 1941, it was far from the only attack. Within hours Guam also came under attack. Japan landed nearly 6,000 troops on the island. The U.S. had only 547 combatants, a mixture of army, navy, and local auxiliaries, and only half the weapons needed to equip them. The battle was over quickly, with the U.S. suffering seventeen killed and 401 captured. Additionally a mine sweeper and two patrol boats were also lost and a freighter damaged. The Japanese lost a single man and one obsolete sea plane.

Japanese success throughout the Pacific in the first months of the war allowed Japan to establish a defense in depth around the Japanese main islands. The Marianas, closer to Japan than anything else in the North Pacific, became the lynchpin of the innermost defenses. The islands were heavily fortified against any potential future threats.

The Marianas were not only the most important piece of the inner defenses around Japan, they were also a knife pointed at its throat. B-29 bombers had the range to strike Japan from the northernmost island of the Marianas. Further, Guam was well positioned as a rally point for fleets prepared to head to the Philippines, Okinawa, or the Japanese mainland itself. Realizing its value, the United States Navy moved in to attack in June.

The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service Before the Battle

The Japanese navy had suffered a number of setbacks prior to June 1944. At the start of the war it had been one of the most powerful and professional forces in the world. It had entered the war with eight major carriers and one of the most highly trained and experienced naval pilot corps to ever exist. These ships and pilots had run roughshod over the Pacific in the early days of the war using extremely nimble, fast, and long legged aircraft.

This ended during the very unpleasant summer of 1942. Starting with the Battle of the Coral Sea in May and ending in October with the Battle of Santa Cruz, the Japanese suffered a number of key losses, including five major carriers. Nearly half of their most experienced pilots had also been lost in these battles. Faced with such significant losses the IJN had little choice but to withdraw its major elements and avoid the U.S. Navy while they rebuilt.

By June 1944 the rebuild had created a force that, on paper, was stronger than ever. Japan now had nine significant carriers and a full complement of aircraft and pilots. Escorting these were the largest and most powerful battleships ever built. The pilots were flying planes that were not only light and highly maneuverable; they were extremely long legged, able to cover a greater distance than their American counterparts. The Japanese were finally ready to seek the Kantai Kessen, the one grand battle that would hurt the American Navy enough to allow Japan to call for an honorable peace on equal terms.

In reality wasn’t nearly so rosy. The Japanese may have built more carriers than they had lost, but these ships were qualitatively inferior. While a few of them had been given upgraded technology incorporating some of the lessons of earlier battles, such as armored decking, they were as a whole smaller ships, with many of them being rush job conversions of support ships or ocean liners.

Their crews weren’t much better. After suffering the heavy losses of ’42 the IJN had attempted to speed up training. While this had refilled the ranks of pilots and aircrew alike, these replacements were not the equal of their predecessors. They had little or no combat experience, fewer hours behind the stick in training, and had received had spent less time learning tactics and strategy.

Only three carriers in the Japanese fleet sent to the Marianas were equal to their U.S. counterparts. These were the Shokaku, Zuikaku and the Taiho. True fleet carriers, these three ships alone carried more than half of the carrier based aircraft the Japanese would employ in the coming fight.

Shokaku and Zuikaku were sister ships, and the remaining two survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both had been accepted into service in late ’41, just a few months before the attack. As such they were still fairly new machines. Zuikaku had been a lucky ship, having avoided being scratched up to this point in the war. Shokaku, however, had not been so fortunate. She had been hit by three bombs in the Coral Sea, resulting in both ships missing Midway. Later, she had once again been struck by three bombs at the Battle of Santa Cruz.

Taiho was the kid sister to Shokaku and Zuikaku. She had entered active service only three months earlier. Although she was only three years younger, she was a different beast altogether. Originally laid down with the same design as her sisters, the lessons of the Coral Sea and Midway had been learned while she had been under construction and applied to her hull within days of those battles. She was the Shukaku on steroids, with six inch belt armor at the waist and a steel deck three inches thick, along with armored torpedo blisters. In theory she could have shrugged off a hit from a 1,100 lb bomb or a strike from a torpedo with nothing worse than a damaged paint job.

Three Submarines, Two Carriers, and One Fateful Day

On June 19th, all nine of Japans carriers had arrived in the Philippine sea within striking distance of the Marianas. The American fleet had been engaged in heavy fighting against the defenses of Saipan Island for seven days, with ground troops having landed on the 15th. The U.S. 5th Fleet had not anticipated a major carrier action, and so her carriers had been focused on destroying Saipan’s defenses from the air.

5th Fleet, however, caught a lucky break. The Japanese ships had been scattered throughout the Pacific on various duties when the airstrikes on Saipan had begun. As a result they’d had to race into the Philippines to rally together before proceeding on to the Marianas. While doing so they had been spotted.

The U.S.S. Flying Fish was a Gato-class submarine that had been in operation since the start of the war. Armed with twenty-four torpedoes in ten tubes and a three inch deck gun, she’d already had a successful career during her previous nine patrols. June ’44 found her on her tenth patrol, loitering in the Philippines. She had sunk two cargo/transport ships earlier in the patrol, but with the Saipan attack under way she had been ordered to picket the San Bernardino Strait to watch for suspicious ship movements.

Lurking at periscope depth on the evening of the 15th,, she spotted the Japanese carrier force streaming westward, having just left the Japanese naval base at Tawi Tawi. Recognizing the significance of this major movement, her skipper, Commander R.D. Risser, elected to remain in silent running and not execute attack. He waited until nightfall and then surfaced, radioing in a contact report to Admiral Chester Nimitz and to the 5th Fleet.

Admiral Raymond Spruance, then in command of the 5th Fleet, reacted decisively. Most of the carriers of the fleet had been positioned to the north of the Marianas, where they could either strike at Saipan or intercept any aircraft inbound on the direct route from Japan. Spruance ordered them south, leaving behind only the tiny escort carriers to support Saipan. From this position the carriers, commanded by Admiral Marc Mitscher could intercept the incoming fleet.

In spite of numerical superiority, better training, and new aircraft specifically designed to defeat Japan’s nimble planes, the U.S. Fleet was not in a good position. The prevailing winds in the area ran from West to East. The Japanese fleet, commanded by Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo could thus launch its already longer ranged aircraft from far outside of the range of the American carrier based aircraft, allow them plenty of engagement time, and then land in the Marianas after a lengthy but “safe” one way trip. They could then refuel in the Marianas and launch further attacks or return to their carriers as needed. The Japanese carriers would suffer no risks, while the American carriers could be attacked repeatedly.

On the morning of the 19th the Japanese launched their attack. Successive waves of aircraft approached Mitscher’s carriers, only for their crews’ inexperience to prove fatal. American pilots would mangle the incoming aircraft while experienced deck gunners picked off the few that the pilots missed. The Japanese would lose 2/3rds of their attacking aircraft that day, while the inexperienced pilots failed to strike their targets. Only one bomb struck its target, the U.S.S. South Dakota, and that powerful warhorse was able to remain in action even after the hit.

While this was going on the Japanese carriers remained safely out of reach of the American carrier force. The pilots may have been paying a butchers bill, but the math remained the same. They only needed to get lucky once or twice to claim a carrier. The U.S. carriers, however, had to get lucky every time, and had no way to reciprocate. It was a calculation that made continued attacks very much worth the losses.

The math did not, however, calculate in the risk from U.S. submarines. It was a deadly mistake.

As Ozawa launched the second wave of attacks against the vulnerable U.S. carriers, the Albacore was right where it needed to be. A deadly ship under the command of the cool headed but aggressive Lt. Commander James Blanchard, Albacore was sitting at periscope in the middle of Ozawa’s fleet. He casually stood by while a Japanese carrier and destroyer both passed dangerously close, then prepared to attack.

His target was the Taiho, the huge, supposedly invulnerable younger sister of the Pearl Harbor vets. Realizing at the last minute his Torpedo Data Computer had gone awry, he could have broken off, seeking to repair it before renewing his hunt. Instead, he chose to fire. Using nothing more than his eyeballs and intuition he fired a spread of six torpedoes before diving.

Four of the torpedoes immediately went off course, as American torpedoes of the time were prone to do. Two, however, ran true. As the Japanese escorts commenced their retaliatory attacks on Albacore, Blanchard would report hearing three explosions.

In truth there had been only two explosions and one of them was not a hit. One of the pilots that Taiho had just launched spotted the two torpedoes coming in. In a heartbeat he twisted his plane around and drove it straight into the water. One of the torpedoes struck the wreckage, detonating well away from the Taiho. The other torpedo completed its run and struck the carrier amidships on the starboard side.

The explosion of the torpedo against her hull seemed only to demonstrate the veracity of Taiho’s design. Though two fuel tanks were cracked and one of Taiho’s elevators jammed half way up, the damage seemed extremely light. Her captain ordered a slight reduction in speed to compensate for light flooding that was causing a five foot dip of the bow. Ozawa ordered a jury rigged planking job to cover the open elevator well. Less than an hour after the torpedo struck, Taiho was back in fighting trim, and was able to launch two more waves of aircraft against 5th Fleet’s carriers.

Blanchard would escape the attacking destroyers, eventually returning to the Marshall Islands convinced he had damaged, but not sunk, Taiho.

Commander Herman Kossler and the crew of the Cavalla would suffer no such ambivalence. A brand new boat, the Cavalla was only two weeks into her first patrol. She had spotted the Japanese fleet two days earlier, relaying their position, but had yet to fire a shot in anger. Two hours after Albacore had struck Taiho, Kossler made his move.

Like Blanchard, Kossler would fire six torpedoes. Unlike Blanchard, he’d chosen a more auspicious target. Running true to form, Shokaku’s bad luck had put her right in the path of Cavalla at the worst possible moment. Shokaku had just recovered aircraft and was in the middle of refueling and rearming operations.

At least three of Cavalla’s torpedoes struck home. One ripped open Shokaku’s forward aviation fuel tanks, spreading fuel and vapors throughout the front portion of the ship before igniting them. Planes on the deck, loaded with bombs, immediately caught fire. The other torpedoes did massive internal damage that caused the carrier to stop dead in the water.

With power out and a raging fire running out of control amidst a muddle of bomb and fuel laden aircraft, Shokaku had little chance. Forty-five minutes after the disaster started a bomb detonated, igniting fuel vapors inside of the ship. A series of explosions rocked the ship. Her bow dipped forward and Shokaku went to her grave, taking 1,272 men to the bottom.

Aboard Taiho things seemed to be going far better, but this was an illusion. Inexperienced, Taiho’s damage control teams were having difficulties ridding the ship of fuel vapors from the cracked fuel tanks amidships. As part of her protective armor, Taiho’s hanger decks had been completely enclosed (a first for a Japanese carrier). In an attempt to vent the hanger deck safely, damage control personnel smashed portholes throughout the ship and the aft (functional) elevator was lowered, but this proved inadequate.

Desperate to vent the dangerous vapors, the ship’s chief damage control officer ordered all hatches and doors throughout the ship opened and turned on the ship wide ventilation system. Rather than disperse the fumes, it simply served to stir up quiet pockets and mix them with fresh oxygen while greatly increasing the odds of fumes finding an electrical spark.

At 14:30, that is precisely what happened. Without warning Taiho’s flight deck rippled and stretched upward and the ship’s sides blew outward. The explosion gutted Taiho, and she began to settle in the water immediately. Soon a second massive explosion rocked the ship and she plunged downward, stern first, taking another 1,650 men down with her. The U.S. would be unaware of this loss for months, and the Taiho would remain a part of their operational calculus.

The Carriers Finally Get Their Turn

Even with two Japanese carriers lost and the majority of his aircraft destroyed, Ozawa elected to remain in the area rather than retreat in the night. It was his hope to renew the attacks in the morning, hoping for one last bid to smash a few American carriers.

Unfortunately for the plans of both fleets, neither one was where it was expected to be when the sun rose. Ozawa had expected the American fleet to attempt to close and so had chosen to steam westward to keep the range open. However, he had underestimated how quickly the Americans would move, and so his attempts to find 5th Fleet wound up looking in the wrong direction. The Americans had not expect Ozawa to move outward with only one carrier lost (they thought), and so their scout planes kept turning back short of the true location of the Japanese fleet.

Finally, shortly before 16:00 on the 20th, scout planes from the Enterprise located the Japanese fleet. The discovery was not the good news hoped for. The Japanese were 275 miles upwind and continuing to steam west at 20 knots. If Mitscher launched a strike, his pilots would have to fight a headwind the entire way. This meant that the planes would arrive over the Japanese fleet at the extreme end of their practical range, giving them only the briefest moment to attack before they would have to turn back. Worse, the planes, already short on fuel, would have to attempt a dangerous mass night landing, something no one relished.

Mitscher ordered his planes into the air.

The first wave was on the way when news grew worse. The original location report had been off by 60 miles. The strike could reach the fleet, but might not be able to return at all. Reluctantly, Mitscher cancelled the launch of further waves, but made the gutsy decision to let the first wave continue onward.

Desperate and short on fuel, the Americans struck what they could as quickly as they could. Despite having 226 planes, this urgency resulted in their being unable to coordinate their attacks. While numerous ships were struck, only the Hiyo would succumb to her wounds. During the battle a torpedo struck the starboard engine room, knocking it out of action. Slowed, she continued to steam west until fires from the torpedo hit reached a pocket of gasoline vapors. Like the Taiho, she would explode and sink, though only 247 men would be lost.

After the battle, two more ships, both oilers, would be scuttled owing to damage received from the strike.

For the American pilots the fight wasn’t over yet. 20 planes had been lost in the attack itself, but now they had to attempt to reach home with questionable fuel supplies. Even if they made it they would need to land at night, in the dark.

Concerned that they wouldn’t make it, Mitscher gave his final, controversial order. Despite the risk it could attract enemy aircraft, submarines, or surface combatants, he uttered four simple words. “Turn on the lights.” Though this helped the pilots find the straightest path back to the carriers, 80 planes would still be lost, and approximately a quarter of their crews with them.

In Conclusion

The fighting in the air over the Philippine Sea was so lopsided in terms of both skill and equipment that it would earn the name “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”. American pilots and ship’s gunners would destroy approximately 600 planes, while losing only 123 of their own. They would earn the applause of a grateful nation and the Battle of the Philippine Sea would be recognized as the moment that the U.S. Navy aviator had driven the Japanese Imperial Navy Air Service from the seas.

The problem is that it isn’t really true. While those men are to be lauded for their amazing accomplishments they should be recognized in context. They successfully annihilated those aircraft and pilots they had faced, and sunk a carrier in the mix, demonstrating their bravery, heroism, professionalism, and skill.

But they had not destroyed Japans air power, or its carrier fleet. Six carriers, including the Zuikaku, escaped that battle, and made their presence known in Leyte Gulf four months later. Japanese planes and pilots were cheaply and easily replaced, as evidenced by the devastating, and continued, effect of the Kamikaze.

The silent service, however, deserves far more acclaim than they ever received. They would account for two carriers, both of them larger and more significant than the Huyo. They would also cause far higher casualties, killing almost three times as many Japanese sailors and airmen as the rest of the fleet.

In spite of these accomplishments, the silent service’s actions have been treated as little more than a footnote. News reports and films of the time make no mention of submarines at all, giving credit exclusively to the air wing of the Navy. This silence continued after the war was over. The 1950’s television hit Victory at Sea (Episode 17) barely mentions the subs, crediting them only with warning 5th Fleet that the Japanese were coming.

Even today the story of the Battle of the Philippine Sea often treats the actions of U.S. submarines casually. When Battle 360° aired its episode on the battle it spent two minutes acknowledging the sinkings of the Shokaku and Taiho. The remaining 56 minutes focused on American carrier pilots.

U.S. submarine power showed its colors admirably at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. However, because it wasn’t “shooting turkeys,” but instead quietly and professionally striking the enemy from beneath the waves it seems that its legacy remains just as silent as the service itself. It’s unfortunate, but it seems like the true heroes of the day remain unlauded.

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© 2024 By James Hinton

James Hinton is a former army aviation soldier and graduate from Boise State University. A military history nut, he spends his days boring his daughters to tears by rambling on at length about the obscure operational data of V1 rockets and his nights trying to figure out how to build a full scale replica of the Bismark in the back yard of his Idaho desert home.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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