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American naval aviation paved way for advances in Pacific theater of operations

U.S. Navy Task Force 58 at anchor at Majuro, Marshall Islands, on April 25, 1944, prior to the battle of the Philippine Sea. It consisted of fifteen carriers, seven fast battleships 13 cruisers, 58 destroyers and about 900 aircraft at the time.

U.S. Navy Task Force 58 at anchor at Majuro, Marshall Islands, on April 25, 1944, prior to the battle of the Philippine Sea. It consisted of fifteen carriers, seven fast battleships 13 cruisers, 58 destroyers and about 900 aircraft at the time. (Courtesy U.S. Navy)

Pilots aboard the USS Monterey, built as a light carrier, keep busy while other pilots are attacking Japanese land-based aircraft, June 1944. During World War II, the number of aircraft aboard a light carrier was only one-half to two-thirds that of a full-sized fleet carrier. Similar to the smaller escort carrier, the light carrier had the speed for deployment with the larger fleet carriers.

Pilots aboard the USS Monterey, built as a light carrier, keep busy while other pilots are attacking Japanese land-based aircraft, June 1944. During World War II, the number of aircraft aboard a light carrier was only one-half to two-thirds that of a full-sized fleet carrier. Similar to the smaller escort carrier, the light carrier had the speed for deployment with the larger fleet carriers. (Courtesy U.S. Navy)

An SBD Douglas dive bomber flying over Task Force 58 in the Marshall Islands on the way to attack targets in the Marianas on June 15, 1944, the day U.S. forces landed on Saipan. It proved to be an excellent Navy scout plane and dive bomber and sank more enemy shipping in the Pacific War than any other Allied aircraft.

An SBD Douglas dive bomber flying over Task Force 58 in the Marshall Islands on the way to attack targets in the Marianas on June 15, 1944, the day U.S. forces landed on Saipan. It proved to be an excellent Navy scout plane and dive bomber and sank more enemy shipping in the Pacific War than any other Allied aircraft. (Courtesy U.S. Navy)

The Navy F-6F Hellcat, such as these assigned to the second USS Lexington, in summer 1944, conducted many of the attacks on Japanese aircraft during the battle of the Philippine Sea. It served as the Navy's dominant fighter in the second half of the Pacific War.

The Navy F-6F Hellcat, such as these assigned to the second USS Lexington, in summer 1944, conducted many of the attacks on Japanese aircraft during the battle of the Philippine Sea. It served as the Navy's dominant fighter in the second half of the Pacific War. (Courtesy U.S. Navy)

The Japanese carrier Zuikaku (center), which took part in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, and two destroyers under attack by Navy carrier aircraft, June 20, 1944. American aircraft sank her in the battle of Cape Engano on Oct. 25, 1944, during the battle of Leyte Gulf.

The Japanese carrier Zuikaku (center), which took part in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, and two destroyers under attack by Navy carrier aircraft, June 20, 1944. American aircraft sank her in the battle of Cape Engano on Oct. 25, 1944, during the battle of Leyte Gulf. (Courtesy U.S. Navy)

The Japanese fleet under attack during the battle of the Philippine Sea, June 19-20, 1944. The Japanese navy lost three carriers, two oilers and approximately 400 carrier- and 200 land-based aircraft.

The Japanese fleet under attack during the battle of the Philippine Sea, June 19-20, 1944. The Japanese navy lost three carriers, two oilers and approximately 400 carrier- and 200 land-based aircraft. (Courtesy U.S. Navy)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

Although the war in the Pacific and East Asia had gone badly for the Allies during the six months after the Japanese attack on Allied possessions in early December 1941, the tide of war had turned in favor of the Allies over the first six months of 1942.

Following the American naval victories at Coral Sea (May 4-8) and Midway (June 4-7), both achieved by U.S. naval aviation, the Americans invaded Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and launched attacks along the northern coast of New Guinea.

Throughout the long Allied counterattack across the Pacific, the Americans used Navy task forces, built around aircraft carriers, from the central Pacific across the western Pacific in amphibious invasions of selected Japanese-held islands. Senior Allied leaders knew that they did not have the manpower or war materiel to invade every Japanese-held island, so they adopted an “island-hopping” strategy—attacking selected islands and bypassing major strongholds.

This island-hopping strategy had three major goals: dislodge the enemy forces in some places, neutralize them in more heavily defended areas and secure airfields and supply bases as the launching points for future attacks on less defended islands. The Japanese defenders, left on these isolated, bypassed islands, would eventually weaken from starvation and disease.

During these naval operations, aircraft carriers provided the major offensive firepower for the American invasion fleets as they moved westward. Smaller escort, or “jeep,” carriers provided additional aircraft for close-air support for the invasion forces and replacement crews and aircraft for the larger fleet carriers. Battleships and heavy cruisers, the backbone of the world’s major navies before 1941, served as flagships, command and control ships or gunnery support platforms.

In August 1942, the United States launched its first major amphibious landing of World War II against Guadalcanal. The objective was the seizure of the airfield on the island from which Japanese aircraft could have launched attacks against Allied supply routes to Australia and New Zealand. After a ferocious six-month struggle, marked by seven major naval battles, three major land battles and almost continuous air combat on, around and above the Solomon Islands, U.S. forces finally controlled Guadalcanal.

With Guadalcanal in American hands, Allied forces closed in on the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul on the northern tip of New Britain. However, the Americans decided to bypass this heavily defended anchorage and, instead, neutralized it through systematic air and naval attacks.

After Guadalcanal, the Allies pursued a two-pronged offensive, using soldiers, airman, sailors, and Marines in a series of joint and combined operations. Allied forces, commanded by Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in a succession of landings along the northern coast of New Guinea, controlled most the island by the end of 1943. By early 1944, most of the southwest Pacific was under Allied control, and MacArthur looked to returning to the Philippines soon, which he had left in late December 1941.

Meanwhile, Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz oversaw a series of amphibious operations, featuring fast carrier task forces, across the central Pacific westward toward the Marianas, starting with the invasion of the Gilbert Islands in November 1943. After costly campaigns to take Tarawa in the Gilberts and Peleliu in the Palau Islands, Nimitz’ forces moved westward to seize Saipan and Guam in the Marianas during June-August 1944.

As the Americans moved relentlessly westward through the central Pacific, Japanese military leaders concluded that they needed a major naval victory over the Navy to redress the balance of power in the western Pacific in their favor. On June 19-20, a Japanese fleet, consisting of nine carriers and five battleships under the command of Adm. Jisaburo Ozawa engaged the American fleet in the Philippine Sea.

Ozawa also expected to have several hundred additional land-based aircraft in the Marianas to support his strike force. However, unknown to him, American air attacks on June 11-12 had greatly reduced the available land-based Japanese aircraft.

To oppose the oncoming Japanese fleet, Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher stationed his Task Force 58 (fifteen carriers with 900 total aircraft and seven fast battleships) to the west of Saipan. On June 19, the largest naval air battle in history began around 8 a.m. and lasted, off and on, to sundown. By the end of June 20, the battle had cost the Navy 123 aircraft, including 80 lost after they ran out of fuel returning to their carriers in the dark from a late afternoon strike. Japanese aircraft scored a handful of hits against the American warships, but sank no ships.

However, the Japanese lost three carriers, two oilers and approximately 400 carrier- and 200 land-based aircraft with most of their pilots. The disproportional Japanese aircraft losses from the American pilots during the battle led to the battle earning the nickname “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” It crippled the Japanese air arm, still hurting from its losses at the battle of Midway two years earlier, and their remaining carriers with only a “handful” of aircraft becoming decoys during the battle of Leyte Gulf, Oct. 23-26, 1944.