The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
The Battle of the Philippine Sea, 19-20 June 1944, was the fifth and last major carrier-vs-carrier battle of the Pacific War, and perhaps in history. Triggered by the US invasion of Saipan, in the Mariana Islands, the battle pitted the nine Japanese carriers of the Mobile Fleet against the fifteen American carriers in Task Force 58.
Among the American naval aviators present were then-LCDR James "Jig Dog" Ramage, commanding officer of Enterprise's Bombing Squadron Ten, and LT Don "Flash" Gordon, of Fighting Squadron Ten. Gordon participated in both major phases of the battle: the "Turkey Shoot" of June 19, and the attack on the Japanese fleet the following evening. Ramage led Bombing Ten on the maximum-range attack of the 20th, losing only one plane due to lack of fuel (the crew was rescued). By war's end, Gordon was an ace with seven confirmed kills, while Ramage was awarded a Navy Cross for his leadership during the battle, and eventually retired as Rear Admiral.
The following article was composed by James Ramage and Don Gordon, relating the story of the battle and their actions those two June days. I deeply appreciate their contribution of this article to CV6.ORG.
James Ramage of VB-10 begins the story:
By May 1944 the Imperial Headquarters believed that the moment for decisive battle was approaching. The Commander in Chief Combined Fleet, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, announced the general order for Operation A-Go. A-Go envisioned a decisive fleet action around the Palaus and in the Western Carolines. If the U.S. fleet attacked the Marianas, its ships would be pounced on by land-based planes. Then the enemy would be lured into areas where the Mobile Fleet would destroy him. The optimistic authors of the plan expected complete success.
In conjunction with A-Go, the Japanese Navy's First Air Fleet would deploy from the Home Islands to the expected battle area. There were 540 land-based aircraft involved, under overall command of Vice Admiral Kakuji Kakuta. Most went to the Carolines/Philippines areas. Only 172 were sent to the Marianas. Movement south started on 23 May and was completed in early June. So they were all in place prior to our fighter sweep on 11 June.
The Mobile Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, consisted of five fleet carriers - Taiho, Shokaku, Zuikaku, Junyo and Hiyo - plus four light carriers: Ryuho, Chitose, Chiyoda and Zuiho. They carried 430 aircraft which combined with Kakuta's 540 land-based aircraft gave a total of 970 aircraft. This looked like a very formidable force - on paper at least. It was obvious that coordinating these aircraft would be a problem, one that was never solved.
To be near an oil source, the Mobile Fleet was massed at Tawi Tawi, a fine anchorage in the westernmost Sulu Archipelago. The oil there was of such high quality that it could be burned in ships' boilers without refining. It was, however, quite unstable. Ozawa's fleet left port on 13 June, observed by our submarine Redfin.
At noon on 6 June 1944, Task Force 58 under Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher commenced to sortie from Majuro in the eastern Marshalls to support Operation Forager - the invasion of the Marianas. The composition of the force was as shown here - a tremendous striking force of seven fleet carriers and eight light carriers carrying 891 aircraft. Carrier operations started at 1300 on June 11 when the task force was 200 miles east of Guam. Mitscher launched a fighter sweep of 208 fighters and 8 torpedo planes against the airfields on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. The sweep was certainly effective as there was no air opposition evident for the next three days. Our pilots claimed 86 kills plus 33 on the ground. We lost eleven F6F Hellcats. The Japanese claimed 65 of ours and admitted to losing 36. Vice Admiral Kakuta's Base Air Force had been seriously hurt, and could only put up effective action if he received outside help.
D-Day for Saipan was 15 June. At 0855 on 15 June, Admiral Toyoda sent the following message: "On the morning of the fifteenth, a strong enemy force began landing operations in the Saipan-Tinian area. The Combined Fleet will attack the enemy in the Marianas area and annihilate the aviation force. Activate A-Go operation for decisive battle." So the carrier battle that we aircrews had looked forward to was at long last to occur.
Enterprise Air Group Commander Bill "Killer" Kane was to be overall airborne coordinator for the H-hour strike and ensuing close air support on Saipan on 15 June. H-hour was 0800. This was a tremendous air effort which included deckloads from the fifteen TF 58 carriers plus the air support escort carriers with the amphibious force - at least 500 planes.
It was still quite dark when "Killer" and the Big E deckload strike flew into the objective area on the southwest coast of Saipan. As we flew over our amphibious force all hell broke loose. Kane was shot down and I moved into his spot as air coordinator for the landings. It was a magnificent show to observe from about 2000 feet over the beach. "Killer" was recovered and returned to the ship. He had a beautiful pair of shiners which he wore into the strike on the Japanese fleet on 20 June, when he went into the water again.
Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance, Commander Fifth Fleet, realized that the Japanese fleet could not strike before the 17th, so he permitted Mitscher to go on with a plan to strike Iwo Jima, Haha Jima, and Chichi Jima. Mitscher sent Task Groups 58.1 and 58.4 north. The object was to stop the flow of land-based air from the Japanese Homeland to the Marianas. Task Groups 58.2 and 58.3 continued to support the troops ashore and maintain control of the air above the Marianas and over the Fifth Fleet. The main effort in troop support had been taken over by the escort carriers. We in the ready rooms could feel the Japanese carriers' presence and were hot to get at them. Searchers were going out 350 miles covering bearings 215° to 285° with no results. TG's 58.1 and 58.4 headed south on the 17th to rejoin TF 58.
On 17 June, Mitscher recommended to Spruance that at 1800 Task Force 58 steam on course 270°: due west. He felt that a night surface action could occur and that a daylight carrier strike would follow. Mitscher queried Vice Admiral Willis Lee, the battle line commander, "Do you desire a night engagement? It may be we can make air contact late this afternoon and attack tonight. Otherwise we should retire to the eastward tonight." Lee replied, "Do not, repeat, not believe we should seek night engagement. Possible advantages of radar more than offset by difficulties of communications and lack of training in fleet tactics at night."
On 18 June, not one Task Force 58 search plane located Ozawa: they missed by 60 miles. About 1800, before sunset, in anticipation of enemy air strikes during the night or on 19 June, Admiral Mitscher ordered the formation of a battle line of seven battleships, four heavy cruisers and fourteen destroyers - Task Group 58.7 - fifteen miles to the west of the central carrier force, TG 58.3. At the same time, TG 58.1 was ordered to a position twelve miles north of TG 58.3, and TG 58.2 twelve miles south. Task Group 58.4 was positioned twelve miles west of TG 58.1. In addition, two picket destroyers were positioned 10 miles west of the battleship Indiana at the center of the battle line formation. In this disposition, it was considered feasible for each group to conduct air operations independently, or otherwise maneuver at will. The battle line would form up into a circle with one battleship - Indiana - in the center as an air defense cell, or an attractive lethal target, which it turned out to be.
In contrast to the U.S. disposition, the Japanese formed a van of three single carrier groups (Carrier Division or "CarDiv" 3) with eight destroyers in each group, five miles apart. The van was 100 miles northeast of CarDiv's 1 and 2 with three carriers and eight destroyers each, but the centers of these two formations were only five miles apart. This disposition did not lend itself to strike coordination, mutual air defense, nor defense against submarine attacks.
At 2200, Nimitz sent Spruance an HF/DF (radio direction finder) location of the Japanese fleet at 13° north latitude, 136° east latitude as of 2033. At 2325 Mitscher proposed to Spruance that he reverse course to due west at 0130 in order to commence "treatment" at 0500. Spruance, considering a reported contact between submarine Stingray and Ozawa's fleet somewhat further east than expected, decided to continue on to the east, stating that an "end run by other carrier groups remains possibility and must not be overlooked." At 0100, Enterprise launched radar-equipped VT-10 Avengers to search out to the west to 325 miles. It was later determined that their search had ended just 40 miles short of the enemy, which would still have been out of range for a strike mission. In the meantime, a Saipan-based PBM made radar contact about 390 miles from the fleet. The contact was not acknowledged at the base. Therefore, the fix was at least six hours old by the time the aircraft landed at the seaplane anchorage at Saipan. An earlier HF/DF fix was reported in the same area.
Ozawa, however, knew exactly where we were. At 1637 on 18 June, CarDiv 3 commander Rear Admiral Sueo Obayashi commenced launching a 67 plane strike against the American carriers, but it was cancelled by Ozawa's order for a major attack on the 19th. According to Ozawa's battle plan, all carrier aircraft launched after 1600 were to land at Guam.
The transfer of carrier planes to nearby airfields was Mobile Fleet doctrine. For 19 June, Ozawa issued no orders to his aircraft where to land. It was left to the squadron commanders, whether to land ashore or return to the carriers. Ozawa's intention for the night of 18-19 June was to keep his main body 400 miles and his van 300 miles from Task Force 58. He planned to remain outside our strike range. The greater range of his aircraft and the presence of airfields on Guam and Rota where they could rearm and refuel, plus the expected help from land-based air would enable him to destroy the American carriers.
At daybreak on 19 June, the Mobile Fleet continued their searches with carrier aircraft and float planes from the battleships and cruisers. Forty-three aircraft were sent on three dawn searches. Twenty-one failed to return. However, by 0730 on 19 June, Admiral Ozawa had several reports on the location of the U.S. carrier fleet. Earlier reports had the carrier force east of the Marianas, but those were the "jeep" carriers supporting the expeditionary forces. Search planes from his ships, and maybe from Guam, confirmed the position of the Task Force 58 carriers as northwest of Guam. Now was the time to strike.
Don Gordon of VF-10 continues the narrative:
My first launch was at sunrise on a combat patrol mission above our group: Lexington, Enterprise, Princeton and San Jacinto. I recall observing the Hornet and Yorktown group to the north, and the Bunker Hill and Wasp group to the south. I do not remember seeing the Essex group to the northwest during my two flights for a total of about five hours on 19 June.
What was really impressive, on this flight and the next one, was the perfect, huge circle of ships with a lone battleship in the center to the west of Enterprise. My flight of four Hellcats were vectored over there a few times. We were under the control of Enterprise's Fighter Director, the Fighter Director for TG 58.3. The frequency assigned prevented us from eavesdropping on some of the activities taking place around us by other combat air patrols.
At 0550, the destroyers Yarnall and Stockham, west of the battle line, were attacked by five or six Zekes carrying small bombs. One Zeke was shot down by Yarnall, while a small bomb missed Stockham. These aircraft were probably from Guam, but why had they flown around a force of 110 ships covering an area 24 miles long and 15 miles deep, just to attack two small boys?
At 0600, the battle line's destroyer screen shot down a Val dive-bomber. After moving east by north from 0200, Admiral Mitscher changed course to west-southwest to close the distance to the enemy for an air strike. But the prevailing easterly wind forced the fleet to the east for every launch and recovery. In the next four hours, the fast carriers advanced toward their goal by only 45 miles.
Belleau Wood's combat air patrol was ordered at 0630 to Guam to investigate bogeys over the island. The combat air patrol was about 100 miles northwest of Guam at the time. On arriving over Guam at 0720, the Belleau Wood CAP reported many aircraft taking off from Orote Field and called for help. More Hellcats from Belleau Wood, Cabot, Yorktown and Hornet responded, but the planes had disappeared or landed and concealed themselves in camouflaged revetments by the time reinforcements had arrived.
Not quite an hour later, many bogeys were picked up on radar 81 miles southwest of the force, headed for Guam. These were probably the aircraft from Yap or Truk that intended to augment the forces at Guam and Rota. Three of the task groups launched 12 Hellcats each to intercept the bogeys. The 33 Hellcats shot down 33 fighters and 5 bombers, but the Japanese planes continued to land at Orote, on Guam.
The requirements for each task group to launch 12 additional Hellcats was not a burden on any individual squadron. The large carriers each had 33 to 40 Hellcats, and each of the light carriers had at least 24. A few of the fleet carriers had a detachment of night fighters. In the case of Enterprise, we had three F4U-2s with six pilots, and the other large carriers had three F6F-3Ns. So, except for the Task Group 58.4, each task group had at least 120 Hellcats and a few F4U-2's available for interceptions at any time. With only one fleet carrier - Essex - Task Group 58.4 had only 84 Hellcats.
In Enterprise, Bud Schumann had relieved Killer Kane as commanding officer of the Grim Reapers, VF- 10. Killer replaced the former Air Group Commander, Roscoe Newman, who had been promoted to the Carrier Division Five staff.
As Flight Officer, I prepared the flight schedule and ready room alert schedule. Enterprise was assigned a light flight schedule on 19 June. Only one division, four pilots, was scheduled at 2 to 2-1/2 hour intervals. However, the alert schedule was heavy with three or four divisions in the ready room, constantly briefed, and prepared to launch in 10 minutes: Condition 3. (At Condition 1 readiness, the pilots had to man their aircraft and stand by for immediate launch.)
We had 39 to 40 pilots in the squadron, but our tactical organization was maintained at nine divisions - four pilots per division - in order to have spare pilots without routinely destroying the tactical organization to provide a spare pilot at each launch. We never considered that we had a shortage of pilots. We expected that the loss of a pilot would mean the loss of the aircraft. We did not expect any illnesses as pilots were a healthy lot, especially when a combat situation was imminent.