Marianas Turkey Shoot’ Stymied Operation A-Go
By DAVID F. WINKLER
Sixty years ago this month, American naval aviators triumphed in one
of the greatest dogfights ever, scoring a major victory against Japan.
In May 1944, the Japanese Combined Fleet commander in chief issued plans
for Operation A-Go that would mass Japanese carrier power and land-based
airpower against the American naval task forces intruding into the Western
Pacific. Adm. Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet, spearheaded by Vice
Adm. Marc A. Mitscher’s Task Force 58, arrived in the region in
mid-June. With Marines storming ashore at Saipan on June 15, Japanese
commanders received orders to execute A-Go.
The Mobile Fleet, commanded by Adm. Jisaburo Ozawa, moved through the
San Bernardino Strait between Luzon and Samar into the Philippine Sea.
A supporting battleship force, led by Vice Adm. Matome Ugaki, moved in
from the south.
Ozawa had five carriers and four light carriers to oppose the seven carriers
and eight light carriers in the American order of battle. However, Ozawa
felt that the longer range of his lighter, unarmored aircraft and the
addition of hundreds of shore-based planes canceled out the American advantage.
With these factors, combined with the element of surprise, Ozawa felt
confident he could pull off a Midway in reverse.
But surprise, a key element that contributed to the American triumph
two years earlier, would be denied to Ozawa. Whereas Task Forces 16 and
17 evaded Japanese submarines before the 1942 epic battle in the central
Pacific, Ozawa’s forces were sighted by American submarines as they
emerged into the Philippine Sea. Alerted, Adm. Spruance delayed planned
landings at Guam to focus on the oncoming enemy threat.
On the morning of June 19, the Japanese air assault on the American sea
forces began. For some enemy aviators, the attack ended before it could
begin as F6F Hellcat fighters off the USS Belleau Wood and other U.S.
carriers arrived over Guam to intercept them as they were taking off.
Then, American air-search radars detected the first of four massive enemy
air formations to the west.
Directed by Naval Reserve Lt. Joseph R. Eggert, the task force fighter
director embarked on the USS Lexington, Hellcats ripped into the oncoming
Japanese aircraft. The few aircraft that made it through the fighter screen
then had to contend with Vice Adm. Willis A. Lee Jr.’s battleships.
While one Japanese bomber scored a hit on the South Dakota, the rest were
driven off. Nearly two-thirds of this first wave of 69 failed to return.
Near midday, Cmdr. David McCampbell, joined by fighters off the USS Essex
and other carriers, ambushed a second, larger wave of more than 100 enemy
attackers. Despite the spirited assault launched by McCampbell and his
fellow fliers, some of the Japanese airmen managed to make it through
to press attacks on Mitscher’s flattops, but only scored near misses
and inflicted minimal casualties. Meanwhile, more than 70 Japanese aircraft
went down in flames.
Ozawa’s third raid lost only seven aircraft as most of the pilots
returned having not located Task Force 58. His fourth raid threw some
82 aircraft at the Americans. Some of these planes evaded the combat air
patrol, but missed hitting the USS Wasp and USS Bunker Hill. Other planes
in this raiding group failed to locate the American fleet and flew on
After landing, refueling and rearming, McCampbell and his Essex comrades
joined with Hellcats from the USS Cowpens to shoot down 30 of 49 Japanese
aircraft approaching the runway over Orate Field at Guam. Many of those
that did touch down were unable to avoid the craters left by SB2C Helldiver
bombers that had swooped down hours earlier. By the end of the day, McCampbell
would have seven Japanese flags to paint beneath his cockpit. He would
shoot down nine enemy aircraft in a single day during the Battle of Leyte
Gulf four months later.
Overall, the Japanese lost nearly 300 aircraft to the American fliers
in one day. The more than 12-to-1 kill-to-loss ratio that U.S. Navy pilots
enjoyed could be directly attributed to superior tactics, training, aircraft
and air defense coordination. While sunset on June 19 marked the end of
the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” the Battle of the Philippine
Sea had another day to play out.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval
Sources: Samuel E. Morison, New Guinea and the Marianas: March 1944-August
1944, Vol. VIII, History of United States Naval Operations in World War
II (Edison N.J.: Castle Books, 2001). M. Hill Goodspeed, U.S. Navy: A
Complete History (Naval Historical Foundation, 2003).