Admiral Marc Mitscher
Dawn. June 17th 1944, the United States Navy is about to hammer Saipan in the drive to Marianna Islands. Airfields and other real estate features favored the Marianna’s Island as a staging area for B-29 bombers on the attack of the mainland. The strategy this revealed was the notion that just as in Europe, strategic bombing will hasten the end of the war. Taking it for what it is, Strategic Bombing is the policy first authored by British Air Commander Arthur Harris that allows the technical and industrial infrastructure of a war machine is a target. Of course targeting citizens as a war ending strategy had not been proven in the west but that would not stop the Allies from trying anything they could to bring the war to a conclusion.
Saipan was the first time the US Iowa Class battleship. The Iowa Class Battleship was a game changer in the Pacific, and a perfect segue to this time, in mid 1944, when there existed a particular perfect storm of adverse conditions that the Japanese had to deal with.
First there were the Hellcats. The Grumman F6F Wildcat was a reliable and tough fighter bomber that was outclassed by Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes; however a new engine turned the Wildcat airframe design into a fast climbing pursuit fighter. By now Japan didn’t have enough experienced combat pilots to fill out the ranks of their squadrons. The Gigantic Aircraft carrier Taiho had a handful of experienced pilots and the rest of its planes were being flown by recent air academy graduates, many of them rushed through flight training. Then there was the Iowa Class Battleships. It was a 45,000 ton behemoth. It was almost three football fields long, and it bristled with huge guns: Over 20 5 inch guns, 20mm guns, 40mm guns, all AAA and 9 16 inch guns. It was a floating armamentarium of steel and gun power. It also was equipped with robust radar capabilities, and the latest technology we had. Plus we had all of our carriers out of dry dock repair. US industrial capability was unstoppable now, and the Japanese, along with all the Axis allies, could simply not replace losses. We showed up at Saipan with 15 carriers, 7 battleships, 14 cruisers, and over 200 other ships from mine layers to mine sweepers, to submarines to over 20 destroyers. On the American command with Mark Mitscher, a former Naval Aviator, and he brought Essex Class carriers into the battle, these were bigger than the USS Enterprise. The Enterprise could carry 90 planes. The Essex Class Carriers could carry 110 planes. They also packed 40mm antiaircraft batteries and 4 and 5 inch guns.
The Japanese had still managed to cobble together a giant flotilla and sent to Saipan to deny the Americans ownership of one of their bigger sea bases. In many ways, Saipan was the Normandy of the Pacific. It stretched Japanese resources from French Indochina to Okinawa and Iwo Jima to New Zealand. They showed up with the Shokaku, and Zuikaku, both carriers had struck Pearl Harbor. They also showed up with a mega carrier the Taiho. It was 30,000 tons and carried 60 planes. It had 12 99mm guns and 50 25mm guns. The Taiho had two hangar decks and a steel reinforced deck. The Japanese had 430 strike aircraft on carriers and another 500 on Guam. The Japanese also had the Musahi and the Yamato with them, their big big battleships.
Gruman F6F Hellcat
Mark Mitcher faced Ozawa, a crafty and experienced naval warrior. Both fleet admirals were trying to locate each other and strike first. A Gato Class submarine sighted the Japanese fleet and Mitcher new Ozanawa was coming from the east towards to the western edge of the Mariannas. Mitcher lined up destroyers and light cruisers on the western shore of Tinian Island to provide AAA cover for the carriers who were patrolling waters to the northeast around Saipan.
Big Day Against the Japanese.
On the 19th of June 1944, at 5:40 AM, Hellcats from the Enterprise found zeros and Nates and Betty Bombers from the Taiho. The US fighters shot down 30 Japanese planes in the first few minutes. The USS Albacore submarine scored a good hit on the Taiho, and little to the crew’s knowledge, fuel was leaking inside the carrier and fumes were filling lower compartments. By the end of the day, the experienced US crews had shot down 400 Japanese planes in what was termed the “Marianna Turkey Shoot”. The USS South Dakota, a heavy cruiser took 27 Japanese bombs and torpedoes and was still afloat. The USS Cavalla, another submarine, sank the mighty Shokaku with a salvo of torpedoes. Later in the afternoon, the Taiho was hit again and the resulting explosion could be seen and felt for miles. Effulgent flames glinted off the waters of both behemoths ships into the late afternoon.
The Japanese fleet and the US fleet then lost contact. Mitscher knew that despite the loss of two of their last large carriers, the Japanese were still a tremendous threat. The US was invading Saipan with tens of thousands of Army and Marine personnel. The might Japanese battleships and cruisers could turn the beaches of Saipan red if Mitcher couldn’t find them.
On the 21st, Mitcher’s air crews spotted Ozawa. It was late in the day. If he could get the strike force ready in time they could launch and strike the IJN and make it back before the sun set.
Mitscher gambled. He ordered the strike.
The Grim Reapers squadron was among the aircrews that pounded the Japanese carriers Riuho and Juneo in the middle of the Japanese Sea. About five squadrons of Micther’s strike force had to ditch in the seas because they could not find the carriers in the dark, despite the fact that searchlights were on everywhere. The deck of the Enterprise was filled with crews from other carriers.
The battle for Saipan had begun. Three weeks after the invasion, the US experienced 16,000 casualties. The Japanese lost 24,000 and 500 of the island inhabitants committed suicide.
The Japanese still had the Musashi and the Yamamoto and the Zuikaku. They would meet their fates at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Sources: The Last Samurai, Saipan 1944-1945 by Don Jones; http://www.combinedfleet.com/shoksink.htm, History Channel, Saipan: The Beginning of the End by Carl W. Hoffman and Oba: