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PART II: One of the decisive naval battles of World War II

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By Ron Van Stockum

 

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 As originally planned, the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions landed on Saipan on June 15, 1944, but air strikes preliminary to this assault brought about an immediate Japanese naval reaction.

The enemy’s task force, including nine aircraft carriers, under the command of Vice Admiral Ozawa, came out of hiding in the Philippines on June 11 and steamed for the Marianas to attack the U. S. invading forces.

Upon receiving this information, Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Commander of the U. S. Fifth Fleet and the over-all commander of the operation, postponed the Guam assault, originally planned for June 18.

The Fifth Fleet consisted primarily of the landing forces for Saipan, Tinian,  and Guam under Vice Admiral Richard Kelly Turner, and the Fast Carrier Task Force of 15 carriers and their escorts (“Task Force 58”) under Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher. ee

On June 19, a day after the original date set for the invasion of Guam, Admiral Ozawa’s fleet was met about 150 miles west of Guam by aircraft launched from Task Force 58.

Thus commenced the great Battle of the Philippine Sea, which later was called by those Americans who participated "The Marianas Turkey Shoot".  It was a decisive naval battle of World War II, and the largest aircraft carrier battle in history.

Surface ships were not directly engaged; the damage was done by aviators on each side, attacking ships and aircraft of the other.  The engagement proved disastrous for the Imperial Japanese Navy, which lost three aircraft carriers and at least 480 aircraft, and was forced to limp away, never again to pose a serious threat.

But the loss of hundreds of Japanese naval pilots provided perhaps an even greater blow.  Many had been previously lost in the Battle of Midway.

Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force lost no carriers and only 120 planes.

Naval ace Dave McCampbell

Naval pilot David McCampbell (1910-96), with whom I had served aboard USS Wasp in 1941-42, won the Medal of Honor in this fleet engagement.

From my battle station in the mast of Wasp, I had watched him many times, standing at the stern of our carrier as Landing Signal Officer, guiding with hand-held signal paddles, the successful landings of his fellow pilots.

On one such occasion, in the Mediterranean in May 1942, after we had launched British Spitfires for the relief of beleaguered Malta, one British pilot accidentally dropped his reserve fuel tank.  He would not have sufficient fuel to reach Malta.  If he were to land in the sea, the ship could not have exposed itself to submarine attack by stopping to lower a boat.

The plane had no tail hook, but the pilot, who had never been instructed in carrier landings, decided to attempt a landing.  McCampbell brought him in, and the pilot survived after using the entire flight deck and crashing into a barrier.

On Sept. 15, 1942, three months after I was detached, the Wasp had been sunk while supporting the Marines off Guadalcanal.  My replacement as commanding officer of the Marine Detachment went down with the ship.

McCampbell, who had been a champion diver at the Naval Academy, dived off the ship’s fantail and was rescued.

The qualities of airmanship, courage and decisiveness he had displayed as landing signal officer were demonstrated again in his leadership of fighter aircraft in combat.   The citation for McCampbell’s award of the Medal of Honor includes the following:

"An inspiring leader, fighting boldly in the face of terrific odds, Commander McCampbell led his fighter planes against a force of 80 Japanese carrier-based aircraft bearing down on our fleet on 19 June 1944.  Striking fiercely in valiant defense of our surface force, he personally destroyed seven hostile planes during this single engagement during which the outnumbering attack force was utterly routed and virtually annihilated.”

Before the war ended he had shot down 34 Japanese aircraft to become the U. S. Navy’s all-time leading ace. The West Palm Beach Airport Terminal was named in his honor in 1988.

Tribute to the Fast Carrier Task Force

The magnitude, magnificence and effectiveness of WW II carrier operations can be appreciated by viewing the great TV documentary of 1952-53, “Victory at Sea,” with accompanying musical themes by Rodgers and Bennett, one of which was “Theme of the Fast Carriers.”

John Keegan, perhaps the best-known military historian of the 20th Century, has described these forces as follows:

“The majesty of the American carrier groups maneuvering at sea exceeded even that of the dreadnought fleets.   The spectacle of those great floating airfields steaming upwind . . . . under the vast Pacific sky to launch and recover up to a hundred aircraft  . . . .  surrounded by the cruisers,  destroyers and radar pickets of their air-defense screens,  left an indelible impression of grace and power on all who witnessed it.  Here, it seemed beyond doubt, was the supreme instrument of command of the sea, unapproachable by surface ships, self-defending against aircraft, and able to strike at will for hundreds of miles in any direction beyond the circle of ocean it directly occupied."

Afloat, waiting for orders to attack

Those of us in the 1st Battalion 21st Marines, along with other elements of the Third Division, combat-loaded aboard naval transports, knew nothing of this dramatic sea battle.  We had been crowded aboard ship since embarking at Guadalcanal on June 7, expecting to land on the south shore of Guam on June 18.  On June 28 we sailed to Eniwetok to await further orders.  Eniwetok is an atoll in the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific, 1066 nautical miles east of Guam.

It had been captured by U. S. forces in February 1944; its lagoon, 50 miles in circumference, provided a large and secure anchorage for our ships.  Later, between 1948 and 1958, 43 nuclear tests would be conducted in this lagoon.

Having already spent more than 20 days aboard transports, awaiting orders to make an assault landing, the men of the Third Marine Division were becoming tense.  They were landed a few at a time on the small islets surrounding the lagoon, where they were able to stretch their legs and drink a beer.  Unlike our British allies, the U. S. Navy allowed no consumption of alcohol aboard ship.

We officers played a lot of bridge during the long delay, and I suspect that much money changed hands in more serious card games below decks.  We listened to radio broadcasts from the States, piped through the ship’s general announcing system, but nothing was revealed about current operations.

We heard the popular music of the times, including David Rose’s 1944 hit, “Holiday for Strings,” played time and again.  It remains in my memory, associated with these tense and boring days afloat, waiting to assault Guam.

Finally the long-postponed W-Day was reset for July 21, six weeks after we had embarked for the invasion.  We headed for Guam.

Next: “Assault landing on Guam”