“The Rise and Fall of Imperial Japan Depends on This One Battle” Part III

In the meantime, both sides were busily preparing for an action which appeared likely the next day. With the Cavalla’s report in hand, Admiral Lockwood shifted the four submarines of his Pentathalon Group (then scouting northwest of Saipan) one hundred miles south. He told them, “Indications at this end that the big show may be taking place at the present time. Exact location unknown but possibly Finback, Bang, Stingray and Albacore may be the corner post of the boxing ring. . . . Do not miss any opportunity to get in a shot at the enemy. This may be the chance of a lifetime.” Working a “square” scouting line, these subs would be athwart the track of the Japanese force. It turned out to be an excellent move and would indeed provide one of the subs with the “chance of a lifetime.”

The 18th saw a miminum of air activity on the Americans’ part. PBMs from the Saipan roadstead flew searches 600 miles west, while PB4YS from the Admiralties also flew missions 1,200 miles to the northwest—all with no success. Unfortunately, one of the Liberator’s search patterns extended only 1,050 miles. As luck would have it, it was through this area that Ozawa led the Mobile Fleet on the evening of the 18th and the morning of the 19th. The carrier-launched searches fared no better. The first planes lifted off the decks at 0532. Narrow ten-degree legs were flown to a limit of 325-350 miles and covered an area between 195 degrees and 280 degrees. No ships were seen, but several enemy planes, obviously out scouting, were picked off.

Essex searchers scored two kills. At 0755 Lieutenant (jg) R. L. Turner, flying a Helldiver, spotted what he identified as a Jill but was probably a Kate. Turner and his fighter escort gave chase. The enemy pilot did not see the Americans until it was too late. After a pass by the Hellcat pilot which started a fire in the plane’s left wing root, Turner punched home about a hundred rounds of 20-mm fire into the Kate’s fuselage and wings. A large piece of the left wing suddenly ripped off, almost slamming into the “2C”. As Turner passed over the Kate, he could see the gunner hanging out of the cockpit and the pilot desperately trying to get out. Flames surrounded them and their clothes were burning. Then the Kate’s left wing dipped and the plane spun into the sea. About an hour and a half later, Ensign K. A. Flinn, escorting another SB2C, slammed a Betty into the water with his .50-calibers.

Meanwhile, Lieutenants (jg) Charles E. Henderson and Clifton R. Largess, flying Torpedo 10 Avengers, sandwiched a twin-float Jake between them and dropped the burning floatplane into the sea. Another pair of Jakes were the victims of a Yorktown fighter pilot.

Obviously, the Japanese had been busy launching searches, and with better luck than the Americans. Ozawa’s force was making 20 knots and heading 060 degrees when he sent his first reconnaissance missions out at 0600. Fourteen Kates and two Jakes were to cover an area between 350 and 110 degrees to a distance of 425 miles. (Note that this was almost one hundred miles farther than the American searchers.) By 0800 two of the planes had sighted enemy carrier planes. The first contacts between the two sides had been made.

When the Japanese planes returned to their ships, the two Jakes and a Kate did not come back. (There is a discrepency between the number of Jakes launched and those claimed shot down. Where the extra Jake came from is unknown.) At noon Ozawa sent off another search. This one consisted of thirteen Judys and two Jakes. Ozawa was sure this search would turn up something. At this time the Mobile Fleet was at 14°40’N, 135°40’E (about 120 miles northeast of its 0500 position). As soon as the search was launched the fleet changed course to 030 degrees.

It was not long before a number of contact reports came filtering back to Ozawa. The first few sightings were of enemy aircraft and served only to heighten the tension on Ozawa’s flagship, the Taiho. One report was of a PB2Y Coronado flying-boat (more likely a PB4Y from the Admiralties). At 1445 eight fighters were, rather unusually, sent out in a vain attempt to catch it.

The really important sightings began reaching Ozawa shortly after the abortive try to find the “flying-boat.” The pilot of Plane No. 15 had reached his search limit of 420 miles and was on the dog-leg portion of his pattern when he sighted TF 58. At 1514 he began transmitting to Admiral Ozawa “enemy task force, including carriers” at 14°50’N, 142°15’E. The Americans had been found.

Forty-six minutes later Plane No. 13 also reported enemy ships, including carriers, heading west. The conclusive sighting came from the crew of Plane No. 17, searching the sector north of Plane No. 15. Shortly after 1600 they reported sighting TF 58, amplifying this at 1640 with

“UI2CHI—1st group—2 regular carriers, 10-15 destroyers.

URA4E —2nd group—2 seemingly regular carriers, 10 others.

URA1A —3rd group—2 seemingly carriers, 10 others.

This sighting put TF 58 at 14°12’N, 141°55’E. Plane No. 17 also reported that the enemy ships were heading west, that there were cloud layers at 29,500 and 3,300 feet and the cloud cover was 7/10s, and the wind was from 100 degrees at 11 mph. It was a good, solid sighting and report.

Ozawa received Plane No. 15’s report at 1530 and began making his final plans for the battle. At 1540 he ordered course changed from 030 degrees to 200 degrees and for his forces to prepare to shift into battle disposition. At this time the Mobile Fleet was about 360 miles from the “15-I” position. Ozawa had no intention of getting any closer than necessary to TF 58. By remaining 400 miles away, he could stay out of range of enemy planes, yet his own planes would still be able to strike.

But while Ozawa was patiently awaiting the proper time to attack, a number of his subordinates were anxious to take action. Rear Admiral Sueo Obayashi, 3rd CarDiv commander with his flag in the Chitose, readied the planes of his three carriers for an attack on the ships seen by Plane No. 15. Sixty-seven planes were spotted for takeoff and launchings began at 1637. However, only three Jills, fifteen bomb-carrying Zekes, and four Zeke fighters from the Chiyoda were airborne when Obayashi received Admiral Ozawa’s Operation Order No. 16, which had been sent at 1610. This order read: “1. At around 1500 enemy task forces believed to be, one, 350 miles bearing about 220° from Iwo Jima, and the other, 160 miles west of Saipan. 2. Mobile Fleet will retire temporarily, after which it will proceed north and tomorrow morning contact and destroy the enemy to the north, after which it will attack and destroy the enemy to the northeast.”

The north sighting was a phantom. Admiral Toyoda, in Tokyo, had sent Ozawa a land-based search plane’s garbled transmission. A short time later Ozawa received a corrected report that showed there was nothing in that direction. At 1817 Ozawa issued Operations Order No. 19 which announced that the only target for the next day would be the enemy force west of the Marianas.

When Admiral Obayashi received Operations Order No. 16, he immediately recalled his strike force. All the Chiyoda planes landed safely except one of the bomb-carrying Zekes, which crashed. Not everyone was happy with the recall. Although most of the senior officers believed that a late-afternoon or early-evening attack followed by a night landing on Guam (required because of the late takeoff) would be asking too much of the green aircrews, many of the junior officers thought otherwise. In their enthusiasm and zeal—and rashness—they were sure they could destroy the enemy that day.

The “Impressions and Battle Lessons (Air) in the ‘A’ Operation” written after the battle conveys the feelings of these younger officers. Regarding the recalled strike, it says: “On the 18th the 3rd flying squadron was determined to attack the enemy as soon as sighted and prepared to return to the carrier, if it was not later than 1400, and to land on Guam, if it was after 1500. But by order from the operational unit the attack was cancelled. Although the outcome of the attack could not be predicted, a surprise was planned before sunset. If it had been carried out, it could certainly have been a surprise attack, as compared with the attack carried out next morning. Under these conditions it would be better to be prepared for an attack immediately after discovery of the enemy. And in case there is a risk of our operation being already known to the enemy on the day of the attack, it is admittedly necessary to launch a night flanking movement on a large scale in order to administer the first blow on the enemy. If the 3rd flying squadron under the circumstance had reported its plan of attack to the flag commander of the fleet, there would not have been any blunder [on Ozawa’s part, presumably]. And in receiving the order of cancelling, if it had any confidence in itself at all, it should have proposed its opinion.”

These statements are to the point. However, the top commanders from Toyoda on down disagreed with the conclusions. First, because of the fuel problem a flanking attack was out of the question. Then, surprise might have been achieved, but this is very doubtful; United States radar techniques were too good by this time. The raid would have been discovered even if the Japanese had attacked out of the sun. Mitscher was not going to let his guard down just because his planes had not yet spotted the Japanese. Finally, the Japanese fliers of June 1944 were generally not the same caliber as those of June 1942. Would a surprise attack on the evening of the 18th have been better handled than the disorganized mess of the next day? This is extremely doubtful. Ozawa was probably right in saving his aircraft for one big blow. It was no fault of his that although he got in the first strike on the 19th, it turned into a disaster.

While Obayashi’s carriers trailed behind recovering planes, the rest of the Mobile Fleet headed 200 degrees. At 1900 course was changed to 140 degrees and speed was reduced to 16 knots. At 2020 Ozawa took a calculated risk and broke radio silence to inform Admiral Kakuta on Tinian of his proposed plans for the next day. It was a risk, but one that Ozawa thought necessary to gain the proper coordination with his land-based air for the next day’s fighting. Unfortunately, Base Air Force was in no condition to provide much help, and Kakuta remained reluctant to tell Ozawa and Toyoda the truth of his situation.

This transmission, probably of just a few minutes duration, could have led to the destruction of Ozawa’s fleet. A U.S. naval “Huff-Duff” (HF/DF—high frequency direction-finding) shore station picked up the message and identified the sender as Ozawa. The station also pinpointed the Mobile Fleet’s position as 13°N, 136°E.41 This was good sharpshooting; Ozawa’s ships were only about forty miles away from that spot, and about three hundred miles from TF 58. The fix was passed on to Spruance.

Ozawa split his forces at 2100. Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s powerful Van or C Force headed due east, while the other two units changed course to 190 degrees. Eventually Kurita’s force would be stationed one hundred miles ahead of the rest of the Mobile Fleet and therefore closest to the enemy. With this formation Ozawa figured that any attacker would have to fly through a wall of fire thrown up by C Force and would thus probably be decimated before reaching his large carriers. C Force was the largest of the three units Ozawa utilized during the battle. Along with the light carriers Chitose, Chiyoda, and Zuiho were four battleships (including the monsters Yamato and Musashi), eight cruisers, and eight destroyers.

At 0300 on the morning of the 19th, the Mobile Fleet turned to a course of 050 degrees and speed was upped to 20 knots. The three forces shifted into their battle formation, and by 0415 all was in readiness. Following behind C Force was Admiral Ozawa and A Force. (Besides commanding the Mobile Fleet, Ozawa was in tactical command of all the carriers and also commander of A Force.) A Force consisted of the big carriers Taiho, Shokaku and Zuikaku, three cruisers, and seven destroyers. Nine miles north of A Force was B Force, commanded by Rear Admiral Takaji Joshima. It was made up of the carriers Junyo, Hiyo and Ryuho, battleship Nagato, heavy cruiser Mogami, and eight destroyers.

Ozawa sadly lacked destroyers for screening and antisubmarine work. And this shortage would cost the Japanese dearly. The Harder (and other U.S. subs throughout the war) had hurt the Japanese greatly with their attacks on destroyers.

Back with TF 58, the 18th would be a day of momentous and controversial decisions. After huddling with his staff over the Cavalla’s contact report and a later one which Admiral Spruance thought added “little to the information previously received,” Mitscher decided a late afternoon air strike would be possible and a night surface action a very good possibility. Mitscher signaled Admiral Lee, “Do you desire night engagement? It may be we can make air contact late this afternoon and attack tonight. Otherwise we should retire to the eastward for tonight.”

“Do not (repeat, not) believe we should seek night engagement,” was Lee’s disappointing reply. “Possible advantages of radar more than offset by difficulties of communications and lack of training in fleet tactics at night. Would press pursuit of damaged or fleeing enemy, however, at any time.”

If there were any need for confirmation that the battleship was no longer the ruler of the sea, Lee’s statement certainly provided it. In no way was Lee afraid of the Japanese; he had shown that at Guadalcanal. But he respected them as fighters, particularly in night battles. By this stage of the war also, the battleships had been reduced to spear carriers for the flattops. Their primary job was to protect the carriers with their awesome array of antiaircraft weapons. The fast battleships had not had the time to perfect tactics for a surface action; they had been too busy escorting the carriers. However, Lee must surely have been aware that in a hostile air environment, a night battle would be the only way his battleships could ever fight a purely surface action.

The battleships would stay tied to TF 58.

Shortly after 0700 Bataan pilots sighted a life raft a short distance from TG 58.1. The raft appeared to be populated with dead men. The destroyers Bell and Conner were sent to investigate and discovered the men, eighteen in all, were alive. They had been members of a small Japanese cargo ship sunk enroute from Woleai to Guam on 13 June. They were later transferred to the Hornet to enjoy the amenities of the brig.

At noon the four task groups rendezvoused, with the antiaircraft cruisers San Juan and Reno joining TGs 58.2 and 58.3 respectively. For the impending action TGs 58.1, 58.3, and 58.2 were placed twelve miles apart on a north-south line. Fifteen miles west of the Lexington was Admiral Lee’s TG 58.7. About twelve miles north and slightly east of TG 58.7 was TG 58.4.

Before the rendezvous Spruance made one of the most important decisions of the battle. “Task Force 58 must cover Saipan and our forces engaged in that operation,” he told Mitscher and Lee. “I still feel that main enemy attack will come from westward but it might be diverted to come in from southwestward. Diversionary attacks may come in from either flank or reinforcements might come in from Empire. Consider that we can best cover Saipan by advancing to westward during daylight and retiring to eastward at night so as to reduce possibility of enemy passing us during darkness. Distance which you can make to westward during day will naturally be restricted by your air operations and by necessity to conserve fuel. We should however remain in air supporting position of Saipan until information of enemy requires other action. . . . Consider seeking night action undesirable initially in view of our superior strength in all types, but earliest possible strike on enemy carriers is necessary.”

The decision had been made. Instead of pursuing an offensive course as his battle plan had stated, Spruance was pulling back into a basically static defensive position. There would really be no possibility of “earliest possible strikes” now, and TF 58’s “superior strength” was being wasted. Spruance was doing exactly what Ozawa thought he would.

Mitscher and his staff were dismayed. They “could not understand why the Commander Fifth Fleet would throw away the tremendous advantages of surprise and initiative and aggressiveness.” But Spruance was a “Big Gun” man (as was most of his staff). His experience in carrier warfare was primarily on a lofty plane. When Lee said he would not fight at night, Spruance was left, figuratively, at sea. Now without his beloved battleships to fight the battle, Spruance was unsure how to use his carriers. His choice—wait and let the enemy attack him.

More searches were flown at 1330. Though ranging out 325 miles, the planes again missed the Mobile Fleet, but this time by only sixty miles. Confrontations between opposing search planes again took place. Hornet planes bagged another of the vulnerable Jakes 240 miles out, and another Jake and a Judy were downed by aircraft from TG 58.3. Only thirty miles from TF 58, a number of Hellcats on CAP were run ragged by a single Judy.

This Judy first ran afoul of a division of Monterey Hellcats. Although the Americans were able to hole the enemy plane a few times, the Japanese pilot evaded them by the judicious use of cloud cover. Then, four more F6Fs from the Cowpens and six from the Langley began queuing up. Still, the Judy “evaded no less than twelve passes by doing a startling and expert series of maneuvers, including snap rolls, spins, split ‘S’s, falling leafs, and one snap loop that would have pulled the wings off a less sturdy plane.”48 VF-25’s Lieutenant (jg) Frederick R. Stieglitz finally popped out of a cloud directly behind the Judy. Firing almost continuously, he poured 750 rounds into the dive bomber. The Judy caught fire and fell into the sea.

Flight operations continued until dusk. Mitscher then headed TF 58 into the setting sun so any enemy planes trying to sneak in would show up easily. This was just the time that Obayashi’s planes would have been attacking if they had not been recalled.

The Japanese had been attacking throughout the day, but not with carrier-based planes. A number of the aircraft that had gotten into Guam the night before went out again on the morning of the 18th. This day they were unsuccessful in their attacks and suffered additional losses. One of the pilots was picked up by the Americans, to become one of the few Japanese aviators to survive the air battles around the Marianas. Enemy aircraft flying from Yap and Palau were also still active. An early-morning reconnaissance by nine Bettys found the jeep carriers southeast of Saipan. A large strike of six Franceses and eleven Zekes from Yap, and one Judy and thirty-eight Zekes from Palau, was directed against the carriers, but the pilots could not find their targets. Some, however, did run across some oilers of TG 50.17, the Fueling Group.

The oilers Saranac, Neshanic, and Saugatuck were fueling four destroyers and destroyer escorts about forty miles southeast of Saipan when they were attacked by five planes shortly after 1630. The attackers did quite well, hitting all three of the oilers. The Saranac had eight seamen killed and twenty-two wounded and was so badly damaged she had to head back to the rear areas for repairs. The Neshanic was hit by a bomb that exploded drums of gasoline stowed on deck. Flames boiled up to the top of the mast, but the ship’s damage-control party had the fire out in seven minutes. She and the Saugatuck were repaired at Eniwetok.

Events began speeding up on the evening of the 18th. Far to the west of TF 58 the submarines Finback and Stingray were patrolling. Shortly after 2000 the Finback was traveling on the surface at 14°19’N, 137°05’E, when her lookouts saw a pair of searchlights stab the sky to the south. Full speed ahead was ordered, but the sub was unable to close fast enough to pick up any targets on her radar. The lights had apparently come from one of Admiral Obayashi’s carriers as it recovered some late returning planes. (The Japanese analysis of the battle later showed great concern with this and other breaches of security in the Mobile Fleet.) There was some delay in sending a contact report, and it was not until 0150 on 19 June that Spruance received it. By that time he had already made the important decisions.

While the Finback was watching the lights, the Stingray had been having problems. A small fire had broken out in the conning tower but had soon been extinguished. The fire apparently affected the submarine’s radio equipment, for a routine incident report to ComSubPac was badly distorted. Admiral Lockwood thought the Japanese had jammed the transmission. While Lockwood was trying to figure out what the Stingray was saying, the Huff-Duff stations had picked up the Mobile Fleet.

At 2030 TF 58 heeled around according to Spruance’s plan and took up a course of 080 degrees and a speed of 18 knots. In the eight and one-half hours since the rendezvous, the ships had made only 115 miles to the west-southwest. At 2200 more bits of intelligence began reaching Spruance and Mitscher. The first interesting tidbit was the HF/DF fix. Mitscher got this report at 2245 and thought it good enough to take action on. Spruance, on the other hand, was unimpressed, taking the fix to be a Japanese trick. Mitscher, however, put his staff to work on the fix to see what they could come up with.

After several minutes’ work they calculated that Ozawa’s ships were 355 miles away and would probably remain there until daylight. It was still too great a distance for a strike by U.S. planes. However, by reversing course at 0130 on the 19th, TF 58 would be in an ideal striking range of 150 to 200 miles from the enemy by 0500.

At 2325, after many calculations and recalculations, Mitscher radioed Spruance, “Propose coming to course 270 degrees at 0130 in order to commence treatment at 0500. Advise.”50

Spruance and his staff mulled over Mitscher’s message. Even before Mitscher had submitted his plan Spruance had in his hand another piece of the intelligence puzzle; a piece that actually fit nowhere. About 2230 a message from Admiral Lockwood to the Stingray concerning the submarine’s earlier garbled transmission was intercepted. This message was not addressed to ComFifthFleet and was not intended for him!

Yet, surprisingly, Spruance became very interested in the Stingray. Figuring the Stingray’s patrol station as about 175 miles east-southeast of the Huff/Duff fix, Spruance concluded that the submarine had found the Mobile Fleet and her radio transmissions had been jammed for her troubles. It appears that by this time Spruance already had his mind made up, and this message to the Stingray merely confirmed his impressions of what the Japanese would do—come in two or three forces, employing diversionary tactics. After discussing Mitscher’s plan for over an hour with his staff, Spruance replied to the TF 58 commander at 0038 on the 19th.

“Change proposed does not appear advisable,” he told Mitscher. “Believe indications given by Stingray more accurate than that determined by direction-finder. If that is so continuation as at present seems preferable. End run by other carrier groups remains possibility and must not be overlooked.”

When this message reached Mitscher, both he and his staff were stunned. They were not then aware of the Stingray messages and when they did learn of them they could not believe Admiral Spruance would put such faith in a garbled transmission not even addressed to him. Disappointment pervaded the ships of TF 58. On board the Enterprise Captain Matt Gardner threw his hat on the deck and stomped on it.

Task Force 58 continued eastbound.

By shortly after midnight on 19 June the decisions had been made on both sides. No matter what new information might surface in the next few hours, no matter how many calculations could be made, the die had been cast. The 19th of June would be the day of battle and TF 58 most likely would have to take the first blow.