The largest aircraft carrier battle in history, that included 24 carriers enaging eachother with a total of over 1700 planes, took place during the Second World War, on the Pacific Front. The conflict did see the two opposing navies clash in a massive engagement, and the result would have a decisive effect on the outcome of the Pacific War…
Mid 1944 the US Navy started the invasion of the Mariana Islands, including Guam, Tinan and Saipan. These islands did hold strategical importance, as not only were they considered by the Japanese Forces to be their inner defense line, but with the recently developed B-29 Superfortress bombers they would also bring the Japanese main islands within direct bombing range.
It’s no surprise than that as soon as the air raids on the islands begun – followed by the amphibious invasion – the Japanese Admirality set a plan in motion, that they nurtured for years… From the very beginning, the Japanese master plan was to inflict such grave losses on the American forces, that the homeland would force a treaty, allowing Japan to keep its newly conquered lands in Asia. This culminated in planning the so called „Kantai Kessen”, a decisive major engagement with the American forces, that would tip the war in their favor.
The plan was however delayed, and as the months and years passed, Japans early technological advantages melted away, while their numerical disadvantage became more and more serious. Their air-force suffered probably the most in the former engagements, and they found it increasingly difficult to fill up the gaps with well trained pilots. This time however there was no more delaying, and Kantai Kessen was officially set in motion.
The IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) committed most of its forces to this attack, and amassed a considerable fleet to meet the invading US Navy. Their carrier fleet consisted of 9 ships, including the Taiho, Shokaku, Ryuho and Zuiho. These were protected by a whole fleet of 5 battleships (including legends like the Yamato, Kongo or the Nagato), 19 cruisers, 27 destroyers and 24 submarines. While they had much fewer ship based aircraft (450 compared to the American 950), the surrounding islands could support the battle with an additional 300 land based aircraft, bringing the numbers much closer. The Japanese planes had also one advantage which they planned on exploiting to the maximum – their range was greater than their US counterparts, allowing them to attack the US forces without the risk of a counter-attack.
The American forces focused around the Fast Carrier Task Force (or Task Force 58), consisting of 15 aircraft carriers (among them some well known names, like the Lexington, the Essex, or the Langley), protected by most of the 5th Fleet. This meant an additional 7 battleships (including the legendary Iowa, North Carolina or the Washington), 21 cruisers, 58 destroyers and 28 submarines. One of the submarines, the USS Flying Fish spotted the amassing Japanese forces, so they were fully aware of the oncoming attack. Despite the known aircraft range disadvantage however, Admiral Spruance decided not to strike out at the amassing enemy carrier fleet, in fear of a Japanese attack on the invasion forces. They did stay put, and waited for the oncoming attack…
Contrary to their plan, early morning 19th of June 1944 it was the Japanese carrier fleet that came under attack first by the USS Albacore and the USS Cavalla submarines, who discovered the fleets location. Their torpedo attacks came just as the carriers launched their planes for the upcoming raids. In fact, a Japanese pilot even managed to take out one of the torpedoes heading for the flagship Taiho, by flying into it. In the end however the day started with losing the Taiho and the Shokaku together with about 3000 men to a series of explosions caused by the torpedo hits, while both US submarines could escape with only minor damage.
Little did they know that there were more bad news on the horizon as well. The American air raids conducted on the islands successfully decimated a large portion of the land based aircraft. Lacking this vital information the Japanese raids did start as planned, one group of fighters being launched from Guam and four raids conducted by the Japanese carriers. The size of the raids ranged from 40 to a 107 planes and their targets were mainly the US carriers. These were however protected by a wall of anti-aircraft fire from the fleet positioned around the carriers, so getting through to them was easier said then done. Their efforts were further hampered by the fact that thanks to the radar screening, the US forces could launch their Hellcats well in time to intercept the incoming raids still about 80 to 110km-s away from the carriers. Each raid was met with a similar number of Hellcats, and each of them turned out to be catastrophic for the Japanese side, losing 90% of their planes in each attack while being unable to inflict any serious damage themselves.
The US carriers suffered only minor damage due to some near-misses and only the battleship South Dakota received moderate damage from a direct bomb hit. Even this ship could remain in formation however. At the end of the day the Americans only lost about 30 Hellcats, while having shot down about 350 enemy planes. This was mostly due to inexperienced Japanese pilots flying in outdated A6M Zeros and the also very fragile D4Y Judy-s, going up against the superior F6F Hellcats flown by well trained forces. This day was often recalled by troops as „the great Marianas turkey shoot”.
By the end of the day the IJN had only about 150 planes left, but Admiral Ozawa decided to continue the attack after a quick re-positioning from their compromised location. The next day the US forces were looking for the Japanese fleet all day long, but it was only late afternoon when they finally spotted their target. Being at the edge of their range and losing daylight fast, they only launched 240 planes for the risky attack. The squadrons consisted of Hellcat fighter planes, Avenger torpedo bombers, and Helldiver and Dauntless dive bombers, and they did manage to reach the enemy carrier fleet just at sunset.
Against the incoming well over 200 planes the 35 or so fighters covering the Japanese carriers had absolutely no chance, and were swept away. Still, together with the considerable anti-aircraft fire that the ships could focus on the attackers 20 American planes were shot down in the raid. Of course the damage caused by the attack was considerable, one carrier being sunk, with 3 more and a battleship taking moderate damage from direct bomb and torpedo hits. The raid was however not over yet and it only became apparent at return just how risky of a move this was. The planes arrived home in pitch black, just about running out of fuel. To help the returning pilots, the carriers were fully lit with additional search lights (risking submarine or night time aerial attack), and the returning planes could land on any available flight deck contrary to the usual standard. Despite all these measures, some 80 aircraft were lost upon returning, some crashing into the flight decks, and most ditching their planes into the sea either by choice or due to running out of fuel. About two thirds of the pilots were rescued from the seas over the coming days.
While the Japanese fleet remained in tact, their aircraft carrier force was decimated, with 90% of their planes being destroyed in these two days. As Japan had neither the resources, nor the time to re-build it (again), their surviving carriers were useless for the remainder of the war, and were only used as expandable decoys in the upcoming battles.
- Wreck of D3A Type 99 carrier dive bomber: United States National Archives
- Japanese carrier Zuikaku with two destroyers: United States National Archives
- USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, during the Mariana Islands Campaign: United States National Archives
- Alexander Vraciu showing the number of shot down Japanese planes: United States Navy
- SB2C Helldivers above Saipan: United States Army Air Force
- Battle of the Philippine Sea: United States Army Air Force