When anyone with even a passing interest in World War II history thinks of June 1944, the day that automatically comes to mind is June 6th, D-Day. On that day Allied forces landed in Normandy. Yet, for naval aviation, the Battle of the Philippine Sea was equally important.
Hellcats Hunt Turkeys
The action was the Battle of the Philippine Sea, which occurred on June 19–20, 1944, in the waters near the Mariana Islands. At the Battle of Midway two years earlier, the U.S. Navy could muster only three aircraft carriers. In June 1944 Task Force 58 counted 16 flattops, two of them, San Jacinto and Monterey, each including a future President of the United States among the men on board. The fighter on their flight decks was the F6F Hellcat, which epitomized the America’s place as the wartime “Arsenal of Democracy.” At peak wartime production, Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation reportedly delivered one F6F Hellcat an hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week!
It was the Hellcat that was at the centerpiece of the first day of the battle. The Japanese fleet launched a wave of aircraft against the U.S. ships. Scores of F6F Hellcats rose to meet them in the most wide-ranging and lopsided air battles of the Pacific War. Such was the volume of fire that Lieutenant (junior grade) Arthur Ray Hawkins, who splashed three enemy airplanes, noticed something peculiar when at one point during the battle he landed aboard a carrier to rearm and refuel. All around his airplane he watched spent shell casings dropping from the sky and hitting the flight deck. This reflected the volume of fire from both the American aircraft high above and the ships’ antiaircraft gunners. Another pilot likened the battle to an “old-fashioned turkey shoot.” The name stuck, the events of June 19th going down in the annals of naval history as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” with more than 250 enemy aircraft shot down.
Mission Beyond Darkness
The following day brought an opportunity to strike another blow at the enemy. Scouting aircraft spotted the Japanese fleet. However, their position in relation to U.S. Navy carriers meant the American aircraft would have to attack at extreme range. The fact that the enemy was located late in the day also meant that the American aircraft would have to return after dark.
Launched into the late afternoon sky, the strike group eventually arrived over the enemy fleet. The dive bombers plummeted down to unleash their ordnance, torpedo planes flying low over the waves dropped their “fish,” and fighters warded off enemy aircraft that sought to disrupt the attacks. The result was the sinking of one carrier, and heavy damage to three flattops, a battleship, and six other ships. Yet, for the pilots, the greatest challenge came not in battle, but the gathering darkness and dwindling fuel sloshing in their tanks.
Making their way back their ships singly, in pairs, or as part of small formations, the planes droned through the night sky. The radio chatter told the tale as aviators and aircrewmen reported they were ditching their planes in the Pacific waters below for lack of fuel. As aircrews neared the point at which their carriers were located, lights of all type and intensity illuminated the sky. The fleet received orders to do so to guide the airplanes home despite the fact that it exposed the ships to potential enemy submarine attack. Amidst an environment akin to Times Square on a Saturday night, the pilots landed on the first carrier decks they could find or, ditched next to ships that could pick them up. The order to “turn on the lights” saved the lives of many.
Commander William R. “Killer” Kane, who flew on both days, recorded the events in his diary. “The greatest air defeat suffered by any nation—ever,” was how he described June 19th, later summing up the battle with a boxing allusion. “The first two rounds are ours. Looks like a K.O.” Indeed, satisfying words to write for an officer who had been on duty at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese threw their first punch on the morning of December 7, 1941.