The Battle of the Philippine Sea was a naval battle fought June 19-20, 1944, in the Philippine Sea several hundred miles west of Saipan near the Mariana Islands between the United States Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy. It resulted in a decisive American victory that put American forces within bombing range of the Japanese mainland. It was the largest aircraft carrier action in WWII.
Guam, a U.S. territory and part of the Mariana Islands, was captured by Japan in 1941. Japan established airbases on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. In an effort to capture the Marianas, U.S. Marines stormed the beaches of the northerly island of Saipan on June 15, 1944. They hoped to place the US within striking distance of Japan and block their supply lines.
In response, Japan sent the Japanese Combined Fleet to the Marianas. The Japanese fleet was spotted by US subs, who alerted Task Force 58 comprised of 15 aircraft carriers to intercept. On the morning of June 19, 1944, Japan launched an attack, sending aircraft in four waves to attack the American fleet. In response, the U.S. scrambled 450 fighters and the ensuing Battle of the Philippine Sea became the largest aircraft carrier battle ever fought.
Having lost many of its experienced pilots in the Solomon and Marshall Islands, Japan’s pilots lacked the experience of their American counterparts. Some had just three months of training. The Americans also had superior technology and equipment, including the highly classified new proximity fuses. The aerial battle became known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” when an American aviator compared it to Turkey hunting back home. More than 400 Japanese aircraft were destroyed.
As the day progressed, U.S. subs sank several Japanese aircraft carriers. Japanese fighters did manage a direct hit on the deck of the USS South Dakota, but the ship remained operational. On June 20th, the US Navy spent most of the day trying to locate the remaining ships in the Japanese fleet. They were finally spotted in the afternoon and a risky decision was made to proceed with another attack. It meant that pilots would fly in the dark and risk running out of fuel. During the attack, US forces managed to sink a third Japanese carrier. While returning to their home carriers and low on fuel, pilots struggled to find their ships in the darkness. Some had to ditch in the sea. Finally, despite the danger, the carrier’s lights were ordered illuminated to guide the pilots safely back. Despite the efforts, more than 80 American planes were lost.
Japanese losses were far greater, with three carriers sunk and most of their aircraft destroyed. The battle allowed the US Navy to dominate the Pacific and open access to the Philippine and Japanese islands. The operation also allowed US forces to provide support to the ongoing Marine invasion of the Marianas Islands.