War in the Pacific

Evan Mawdsley

Naval historian Evan Mawdsley describes the war in the Pacific in 1944.
Part of the US Fleet in 1944
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The Admirals Who Won the Central Pacific Battles

Raymond Spruance and Marc “Pete” Mitscher were the two admirals who led the decisive advance across the Central Pacific in the first six months of 1944. Admiral Spruance commanded the Central Pacific Force (later the Fifth Fleet) and Vice Admiral Mitscher, subordinate to  Spruance, commanded the “fast carriers” of Task Force 58. The two men were near contemporaries, but they represented two different branches of the U.S. Navy and their careers had been very different.  Spruance was a “black shoe” officer of the mainstream “battleship” navy, who had studied and taught at the Naval War College and served exclusively in surface gunnery ships – destroyers, cruisers, and battleships. Mitscher was in the “brown shoe” branch, one of the earliest aviation pioneers. He disdained battleships and what he regarded the backward-looking staff college. Although Spruance felt considerable doubts when Mitscher  took over command of Task Force 58 under him, he was impressed by the carrier admiral’s conduct of operations in February 1944, during the invasion of the Marshall Islands and the raid on the Japanese base on Truk.

Their relationship was tested in June, during the great battles in the Mariana Islands at the climax of the campaign. Spruance was overall commander of both the carrier task force and the amphibious force. He, wanted to keep  the carriers back near Saipan where heavy ground fighting was still going on. Moreover, he feared an “end run”, flanking attack, by the enemy fleet. Mitscher, in contrast, urged action further west. He wanted to seek and  destroy the approaching Japanese carrier fleet out in the Philippine Sea in a decisive battle. In the event, Mitscher accepted Spruance’s decision without argument, The Battle of the Philippine Sea turned out to be a decisive defensive victory over Japanese naval air power, although many of the enemy ships were able to return safely to their bases. [end]

The Battle of the Philippine Sea in Perspective

The Battle of the Philippine Sea, fought on 19-20 June 1944, is not the best known naval battle of World War II. In popular memory it is overshadowed by the “miraculous” Battle of Midway in June 1942, and the wide-ranging Battle of Leyte Gulf fought in October 1944. The June 1942 battle prevented the invasion of Midway, and  the four aircraft carriers of the main Japanese striking force were sunk. Leyte Gulf protected the invasion of the Philippines and was the largest naval battle ever fought; afterwards  the Japanese fleet was never able to take to sea again as an organised force.

And yet the Philippine Sea battle was of no lesser  importance. When Saipan in the Marianas came under attack 15 June 1944 the Japanese Navy came out as full scale sea/air force steaming cross the Philippine Sea to destroy the U.S. Navy in a decisive sea/air battle. In two days of action American submarines sank two of the three heavy carriers still in service, and American carrier bombers sank a light carrier. More important the huge air battle over Task Force 58 on 19 June the Japanese lost over 300 carrier planes s, most of them shot down in what was called the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”; the U.S. Navy lost only 30 planes. When the Japanese carriers reappeared off the Philippines in October they had very few aircraft and the carriers were present only as a decoy to lure the U.S. fleet to the east. The really decisive sea/air battle had been fought and won by Task Force 58 in June. The Mariana were also strategically more important than the Philippines. The battle guaranteed the capture of Saipan and crucial air bases in the Marianas  – from which the Japanese mainland could be attacked by American B-29 strategic bombers. The loss of Saipan also led to the collapse of the Tojo government in Tokyo [end]

The Year 1944 and Global Sea Power

For the last eighty years the United States had been the preeminent sea power, with the U.S. Navy much superior to any other. Britain and its  Royal Navy had been occupied the dominant position before that, certainly since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  The Royal Navy entered World War II still in great strength, but it was not what it had been. In 1939 Britain was only slightly ahead of the USA in terms of the number of warships in commission, but it had a much larger merchant marine, many more overseas bases and, initially, a larger shipbuilding capacity.

When exactly did the changeover take place? America only entered the war in December 1941, and it did so after a humiliating naval defeat at Pearl Harbor. The year, 1942, saw major American naval victories, but also significant losses. Nevertheless, the American warship building  program had begun in 1938. It  was greatly accelerated in 1940 (after the fall of France) for the planned “Two Ocean Navy”. By 1943 these new warships were beginning to arrive in the Pacific in great numbers although it would be more than two years after Pearl Harbor that that the USN had in service a really powerful oceanic fleet, especially strong in its aircraft carriers and their air squadrons. The rapidly expanded American shipbuilding industry also saw massive construction of cargo ships and amphibious vessels. Britain, meanwhile, had to devote its efforts to a different kind of war, especially against German U-boats in the Atlantic – which it won in 1943.

The changeover, I would argue, came in the middle of 1944. This saw the climax of the British maritime efforts in World War II with the invasion of Normandy, and on the other hand there was the Battle of the Philippine Sea in which a new American “fast” carrier force (Task Force 58) with fifteen aircraft carrier, nearly all of them brand new, supported the successful invasion of the Mariana Islands and crippled the Japanese carrier fleet. The Royal Navy did reach the waters off Japan in the last months of the war with a newly assembled fleet of modern ships, including six fleet carriers, but it was now dwarfed by the Pacific fleet of its great ally. Sea power had definitely changed hands. The year 1944 was certainly not the end of the Royal Navy but it was the end of British naval supremacy. [end]

Evan Mawdsley is the author of Supremacy at Sea: Task Force 58 & the Central Pacific Victory, published by Yale University Press.