The (First) Battle of the Philippine Sea (6/19 & 20/44) was a major victory for the ships of Task Force 58. When we began the invasion of Saipan (6/15/44) – the opening round of our Marianas’ campaign, the Japanese Navy headed north and east to disrupt the landing(s) and destroy the American fleet. Their plan was to whack the task groups from their carriers to the west, and from land based planes launched from bases on Guam. Planes were supposed to be on the ground ready to launch, and planes were supposed to be arriving in great numbers from the Bonins (Iwo and Chichi Jima). Unfortunately for them, we had been striking airbases relentlessly. There weren’t any available Japanese planes to speak of. (The Boston’s group was called back from bombing Iwo Jima on June 17 at full speed to return to the Task Force.) TF58 was forming up into a gigantic Battle Formation west of Guam, in anticipation of the arrival of the Japanese Fleet. A fifth task group, made up of battleships and called the Battle Line, was added. We were going to have a kick-ass ship-to-ship battle, old-school, like two man-o-wars lining up across from each other and firing their cannons.
None of that worked out as planned. Instead, the Japanese carriers, desperate after searching for the American ships for days, finally spotted part of one of the task groups and launched all their fighters. They were way out of range and could not strike American ships and return home (not enough gas). Pilots were instructed to strike the Americans, then land on Guam, refuel and then strike again on their way home. The Task Force commanders, many of them old-school Navy guys, were itching to sink some Japanese ships. What developed instead, was wave after wave of Japanese fighter and bomber planes getting intercepted and picked off by the better-trained and more seasoned Navy pilots. The resulting lopsided disaster came to be known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. We destroyed over 400 Japanese planes that day. The Imperial Japanese Navy never recovered from the devastating loss.
. . . The fleet refueled early in the morning of 20 June and set course for Nakagusuku Bay, Okinawa. At 1710 a reconnaissance plane reported the sighting of two enemy carriers accompanied by ten other warships, some 200 miles to the rear of the Japanese force. Hoping for a break, at 1900 Ozawa ordered Kurita’s Second Fleet to prepare to engage in night battle. Before that order could be carried out, however, enemy planes came sweeping down on the Mobile Fleet to score direct hits on carriers Zuikaku, Junyo, Ryuho, and Chiyoda; and carrier Hiyo, still adrift after it’s torpedoing by an enemy submarine, was sunk by aerial bombs.
Thus the Japanese Navy’s last real opportunity to destroy the enemy fleet ended in tragic defeat. With two out of three fleet carriers and one out of three light carriers lost, together with the destruction of nearly 400 carrier planes, it would be almost impossible to reconstitute the Mobile Fleet. In contrast to Japan’s tremendous losses in this two-day naval battle, the United State’s Navy suffered damage to battleships South Dakota and Indiana, carriers Bunker Hill and Wasp, and heavy cruiser Minneapolis, and lost slightly more than 100 planes. [Excerpted from “The End of the Imperial Japanese Navy” by Masanori Ito.]