Continuing with my series on the Pacific War, I turn to 1944–where the war would have ended in a rational world.
Seventy years ago today, the Second World War could have ended, save for one strange historical quirk—the Axis Alliance decided to become a joint suicide pact. Days after the landings in Normandy, the Americans had established a continuous front with British and Canadian forces to their south with the capture of the town of Carentan. The inevitable German counterattack failed miserably, a result that in retrospect also seems inevitable as the last Wehrmacht counteroffensive that succeeded was at Kharkov in February-March 1943. Also noteworthy was the fact that the Luftwaffe only managed to send only a token force against the massed invaders (and exclusively against British and Canadian beachheads). The enduring myth that a mere two aircraft attacked the Allies invaders on D-Day nevertheless does not detract from the indications that perhaps the German air force was rapidly becoming a spent force in 1944.
Rather than permit Rommel and his other competent commanders to use fortifications such as the Atlantic Wall to hold out, Hitler insisted his soldiers must never retreat and fight to the last man. This had very predictable results. Within a month, the Americans would take Cherbourg and the entire Contentin Peninsula would fall to the Allies, spelling doom to the Germans as their forces were now fully engaged on two fronts against unstoppable juggernauts.
A similar sequence of disaster was playing out on the other side of the globe. While the U.S. Army was heavily engaged at Carentan, the Marines were landing on Saipan. Often mistakenly referred to as the largest island in the Marianas (Guam is more than four times larger), Saipan nevertheless was an ideal spot from which to launch B-29 raids against the Japanese home islands.
Unlike Rommel, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) defenders on Saipan had heavy backup in the form of powerful Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) air and surface forces. 450 fighters and bombers were on hand aboard five fleet carriers and four light carriers plus additional 500 available at land bases throughout the Marianas; the naval aircraft backed up by a force of five battleships, 12 heavy cruisers two light cruisers and 28 destroyers under the command of Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. Unfortunately for the IJA, the IJN had learned nothing in the two years since the Battle of Midway.
It isn’t 1942 anymore
Admiral Ozawa’s force would have had an overwhelming advantage against the American defenders had he been attacking the invasion fleet off Guadalcanal in August 1942, where Admiral Frank Fletcher’s Task Force 61 had three fleet carriers. Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58, however, mounted seven fleet carriers and eight light carriers with 900 aircraft embarked screened by seven battleships, eight heavy cruisers, 12 light cruisers and 67 destroyers. More importantly, the USN fighter pilots were flying the F6F Hellcat, a far more formidable fighter than the F4F Wildcat that had been the Navy’s mainstay in 1942.
Admiral Mitscher requested to take TF 58 seaward to close with Ozawa’s force prior to the battle commencing 19 June 1944. Admiral Raymond Spruance, overall commander of the Fifth Fleet, denied Mitscher’s request as he believed retaining TF58 to cover the Saipan invasion force was his first order of business. As a result, TF58’s CAP and anti-aircraft escorts would have to engage hundreds of attacking IJN aircraft—a violation of the maxim “the best defense is a good offense” and therefore inviting disaster, one might think.
Spruance was often mocked for shepherding Mitscher’s powerful flying fist instead of permitting the 15 carriers to sail to an optimum striking distance and wipe out Ozawa’s carriers, similar to how Spruance himself wiped out Nagumo’s carrier force with Task Force 16 at Midway. Left unmentioned is the fact that 500 land-based IJN aircraft could have fallen upon the invasion fleet off Saipan had TF 58 sailed against Ozawa. TF58 averaged over 30 F6Fs embarked per carrier; without those 470 fighters providing defensive air cover, the transports and escort carriers could have been mauled by land-based bombers a la the Royal Navy capital ships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse which had been sunk by IJN land-based bombers off Malaysia in December 1941.
The result of Spruance’s caution was the annihilation of the IJN air fleets with the loss of no ships (the one success for the IJN bombers was hitting U.S.S. South Dakota on a turret, but the damage didn’t even slow the fast battleship down). The highly-trained, experienced F6F pilots shot down over 300 IJN attackers for the loss of 27 of their own. Altogether, 58 American servicemen lost their lives during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, an engagement the fighter pilots described as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” Very few of the downed Japanese airmen were recovered, and the IJN’s losses were about to skyrocket.
Task Force 17 Strikes Back
Ozawa’s force had been sighted by U.S.S. Flying Fish on 15 June 1944, one of 28 submarines acting as an advance guard and scouting force. The Japanese fleet would not endure air attacks from Mitscher’s carriers on 19 June, but that did not prevent U.S.S. Albacore from torpedoing Taiho, Ozawa’s flagship. As the newest IJN fleet carrier filled with gasoline fumes which had spread throughout her hull due to poor damage control, U.S.S. Cavella torpedoed Shokaku three times. She exploded and sank rapidly, taking 1,263 aircrew and sailors down with the veteran carrier. Minutes later a spark blew up the Taiho, killing 1,650 of her men before and as she sank.
Two years prior, Admiral Fletcher had been the overall American commander at Midway, directing Task Force 17 personally and sailing aboard TF 17’s flagship, the fleet carrier Yorktown. Perhaps in homage to the sunken Yorktown, the 19 of the 28 American submarines (including Albacore, Cavella and Flying Fish) in the Philippine Sea had been designated as TF17.
Revenge of the Ghosts
As I mentioned in a previous post, the U.S. Navy lost the carriers Langley, Lexington, Yorktown, Wasp and Hornet in 1942. On 20 June 1944, the dead struck back. Langley’s name was transferred to an Independence-class light carrier, CVL-27, and the Essex-class fleet carriers CV-10, CV-12, CV-16, and CV-18 bore the names Yorktown, Hornet, Lexington and Wasp. All five of the resurrected carriers were in the Philippine Sea as part of TF58, Admiral Mitscher flying his flag from Lexington. Two other Essex-class carriers sailed with the ghosts, Essex herself and Bunker Hill. They were all led by the expert carrier-killer Enterprise, the last surviving Yorktown-class carrier which had set Akagi, Kaga and Hiryu afire at Midway.
The Japanese carriers put up a CAP of 35 Zeroes, “good by 1942 standards.” Naturally, the 35 were facing 230 incoming attackers. The ghosts of 1942 struck with fury, sending the carrier Hiyo and 250 of her men to the bottom along with two oilers. The bombers likewise damaged the carriers Chiyoda, Junyo and Ozawa’s new flagship Zuikaku, the commanding admiral (like his predecessors Nagumo on Akagi and Fletcher on Yorktown at Midway) having managed to escape his blazing former flagship. Ozawa had a total of 35 operational aircraft at the conclusion of the battle, sounding the death knell of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Or it would have, had the Japanese not christened Suicide Cliff in blood.