The ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’

Watching contrails over the US fleet as the 'Great Marianas Turkey Shoot' unfolds before them.

Watching contrails over the US fleet as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’ unfolds before them.

USS Bunker Hill is nearly hit by a Japanese bomb during the air attacks of June 19, 1944.

USS Bunker Hill is nearly hit by a Japanese bomb during the air attacks of June 19, 1944.

Air combat off the Marianas - where US planes dominated.

Air combat off the Marianas – where US planes dominated.

Japanese aircraft shot down

Japanese aircraft shot down as it attempted to attack escort carrier Kitkun Bay, near Marianas Islands, Jun 1944

In the Pacific war the huge disparity in the resources that US could put into battle as compared with the Japanese was now clearly evident. In a short space of time the US Navy had not only recovered from Pearl Harbour but had expanded dramatically. The superiority of their ships and planes was now much in evidence. The clash of the two battle fleets off the Marianas, where the US were engaged in the invasion of Saipan demonstrated this only too clearly.

On the 19th Japanese planes had attacked the US fleet and had come off worse. They suffered such huge losses that what was officially known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea became more widely known as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’. The Japanese were misled in believing that their carrier borne aircraft had landed at the nearby airfields on Tinian and Guam – in fact they had suffered devastating losses and most had been shot down.

There were further Japanese losses on the 20th. This time the US fleet were trying to locate the Japanese fleet – and it took almost all day before it was located. In a risky manoeuvre the US planes were launched late in the day to attack the Japanese ships, knowing that the mass of US planes would return to their own fleet in darkness.

Max Strean was in command of Fighter Squadron 1 based on the USS Yorktown:

We sat all day long waiting for information about where the Japanese ships came from. There had to be a fleet out there.

It was on the afternoon of the twentieth when the word came. The report turned out to be in error one degree, which was sixtv miles out of position. They launched us all — everybody they could — and sent us out to attack the fleet. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and the enemy was about two to three hundred miles distant. After we got in the air they corrected the position.

It was going to be well after dark when we got back to the carriers, but we were night qualified and so they sent us out anyway knowing we would arrive over the enemy before the end of daylight.

I was leading the fighter sweep for the whole of Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58. We had several squadrons of fighters, and we went out first to sweep the area of their defending aircraft.

We got there and we saw the fleet. There was nobody to defend them, for there was nothing in the air that we could find. So we continued sweeping the area until our bombers came in.

Japanese ships taking sharp evasive action during the 20 June attack.

Japanese ships taking sharp evasive action during the 20 June attack.

The Japs had several task groups deployed with destroyers in a perfect circle around their carriers. They had a cruiser or a battleship supporting the carriers with antiaircraft fire. As our bombers came down on them they did a tight circle turn and fired all kinds of colored ammunition. It was quite a sight.

the 20th June attack on the Japanese fleet.

The 20th June attack on the Japanese fleet.

It was about dark when our people finished bombing. Then we fighters made an attack on their ships because we were carrying bombs in case we didn’t have to fight their cover. I was credited with a bomb hit on the Taka, an aircraft carrier, a large converted carrier, one of their important ones.

Then we started back to our carriers. The weather was pretty bad, with towering cumulus. It was dark and difficult to get in formation. I think 1 could only find about four people to lead back to the carrier, which was about 350 miles away. When we got back there it was drizzling rain.

That was the greatest fiasco the navy ever had. The lights had been turned off on the carriers. Japanese pilots in Zeros were supposedly in the landing circle. When I first got back I found my own carrier with our direction finder (we called it a Hay rake), but then it was so dark that in making a turn I apparently found another carrier. (It was not possible to recognize a carrier when you got close to it except by its wake and shape.)

There must have been about thirty people circling her, when only six were supposed to be there at one time. I got down in the circle nevertheless, for I thought thai if they couldn’t get aboard I could. But every time I came around to land it was a foul deck and they gave me the wave off.

That carrier turned out to be a light carrier, a small one. They turned off the lights and told us to get away. I thought that was damned unfeeling of them, for here we were about to get our feet wet.

I still had some fuel; I had about thirty gallons. The fighters did all right, but the bombers were going in the water one after the other. This was all part of the confusion. People were saying they were going in the water and the carriers were throwing in float lights as a result. After telling the light carrier what I thought about them, I pulled up and got on the Hayrake again and started searching for the Yorktown.

Every carrier was surrounded. You couldn’t get lined up unless you were close to the carrier. You could see the deck then and could try to come around and get in position by seeing the wake aft.

In looking for my carrier I must have made approaches on perhaps four or five ships. One turned out to be a battleship. I was frustrated and didn’t know where to go from there. I was trying to figure out what I would do. so I just continued my approach. Gee, that battleship! They turned on the lights. They fired Very pistols and yelled. “”Pilot trying to land on the battleship — get away, get away!” Well. I pulled up and got again on the Hayrake and found my own carrier.

I kept telling them to turn on the lights because too many people were going in the water. Finally they did turn on the lights. Authorities claim that Admiral Mitscher was responsible for this, but I claim I was the one they could hear bitching and asking them to do it. They not only turned on the lights but they turned On vertical searchlight beams. So it was like a carnival out there.

I circled my home carrier and finally got aboard. The first question we all asked that night was. “What ship is this?” because you could not tell one ship from the other.

This account appears in The Pacific War Remembered: An Oral History Collection

Around 80 aircraft were forced to crash into the sea during the end of this episode, although three quarters of the crew were saved. This brought US aircraft losses to 123 – compared with Japanese losses of 550-645 over the two day battle.

A Helldiver approaching the USS Yorktown

A Helldiver approaching the USS Yorktown

Admiral Marc Mitscher in command of Task Force 58 during the battle.

Admiral Marc Mitscher in command of Task Force 58 during the battle.

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