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Many regard this work as the definitive account of a controversial conflict of the war in the Pacific, the June 1944 battle known as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot." Drawing on ten years of research and told from the viewpoint of the fliers and sailors who were on the firing line, William T. Y'Blood leads the reader through every stage of the battle, from the dogfights to the persistent attacks on the Japanese carriers to the frantic efforts of the returning fliers to land on friendly carriers. He takes the battle from the initial planning through the invasion of the Marianas and the recriminations that followed, describing Admiral Spruance's decision to allow U.S. forces to remain on the defensive and giving blow-by-blow details of the action. This intensive study of what many believe to be a major turning point in the Pacific War has remained an important reference since it was first published in 1981.
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About the Author
William T. Y'Blood, a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and later in commercial aviation, served as a historian for the Air Force. The author of eight books on World War II aviation topics, he died in 2006.
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Red Sun SettingTHE BATTLE OF THE PHILIPPINE SEA
By William T. Y'Blood
Naval Institute PressCopyright © 1981 United States Naval Institute
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUnited States strategic planning for Pacific operations during World War II can be likened to a tortuous back road in the mountains. Along the winding road on the way to Tokyo were a number of stops and an occasional side road. One of these stops, in the Marianas, did supply the provocation for the Japanese Fleet to seek a naval action with the United States Fifth Fleet. However, the road to the Marianas engagement was not a smooth one, and for some time thought was given to taking a side road and bypassing these islands entirely. Even before the war, the Marianas had figured importantly in U.S. naval plans for the Pacific. In the event of a war with Japan the pre-World War II Orange and Rainbow plans called for U.S. forces to move across the Pacific via the Marshalls and the Marianas to the Philippines. It was assumed the latter islands would be under heavy attack or even lost. American forces would move through the Central Pacific to drive off the Japanese and relieve the Philippines. The Pearl Harbor attack and the stunning early victories of the Japanese in the Pacific threw out of balance these pre-war plans. The direction of the Japanese attacks also tended to color U.S. strategic planning in the first years of the war. With Japanese and United States forces fighting in the South and Southwest Pacific during this time, the attention of the U.S. strategists was drawn in that direction. Operations in the Central Pacific were limited to weak raids on widely scattered targets. Still, the "traditional Navy view of war against Japan in any case was that the major offensive would be across the Central Pacific rather than through the East Indies." Fortunately, the war plans issued were not cast in concrete. Circumstances changed and so plans changed. The operations against the Marianas showed just how flexible these plans could be. At the time of the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 "there was no final, approved plan in existence for the defeat of Japan." In August of the previous year the Joint United States Strategic Committee had begun work on a strategic plan for the defeat of Japan, but this plan was far from finished when the American and British leaders met at Casablanca. Although nothing was yet in solid form, Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, undertook to present his views on the Pacific situation. King's "ideas at this stage of the war closely followed the concept developed in the preceding years of war games at Newport and of successive plans named Orange." An American advance, according to King, should be toward the Philippines-but by way of the Marshalls, Truk, and the Marianas, not via New Guinea and the Netherlands East Indies. These latter areas were not, in King's view, the proper places for the use of American naval forces. King stressed the Marianas as "the key of the situation because of their location on the Japanese line of communications." So it was here at Casablanca that King described to the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) "the line of advance through the Central Pacific to the Philippines that was in fact to be the primary strategic pattern for the war against Japan." King was sure that America's growing naval strength (which would see in 1943 a massive increase with the addition of the new Essex-class carriers and Iowa-class battleships) would eventually force the Japanese into submission without the terrible losses which would be incurred in an invasion of Japan. It took many months of high-level wrangling before a Central Pacific route was approved, but King's confidence in his naval forces was well founded. When the fast carriers showed they could operate without land-based air cover, deep in enemy territory, the Central Pacific drive moved more rapidly and deeply into the Japanese defenses. It would take some time for King's ideas to be digested by the Combined Chiefs. In the meantime, General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief Southwest Pacific, found King's plans thoroughly indigestible and wasted no time in criticizing it. In his campaign plan for the Southwest Pacific, Reno I issued in February 1943, he claimed that the route King favored would be "time consuming and expensive in ... naval power and shipping." A drive up the back of New Guinea and into the Philippines (under his command, of course) would be more successful. MacArthur's protests had little effect. In March 1943, representatives of the three major areas (South, Southwest, and Central) met in Washington for a Pacific Military Conference. Most of the agenda was taken up with operations in the South and Southwest Pacific and the endless debate over the division of resources between Europe and the Pacific. However, King and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz's representative, Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, were able to put in a few words for a Central Pacific offensive. King pointed out indirectly that major Navy units could be more valuable in the Central Pacific than in the Solomons-New Guinea area. Spruance then pointed out that with Japanese naval forces still afloat, Pearl Harbor remained a tempting target. Ships from the South Pacific, along with the new vessels just becoming available, could launch an assault on the Gilberts and Marshalls, and remove the threat of an attack on Hawaii. (Left unsaid but very likely considered by King was the thought that a Gilberts or Marshalls operation would provide the opening for the Navy to push through to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) more reasons for a Central Pacific offensive.) At the Trident Conference held in Washington in May 1943, a Central Pacific route was tentatively approved by the CCS. In the "Strategic Plan for the Defeat of Japan" presented to and approved by the Combined Chiefs, however, it appeared that the planners were leaning toward MacArthur's views. In this plan Nimitz's forces were given a secondary role of capturing the Gilberts, Marshalls, and Truk, while protecting MacArthur's right flank. MacArthur, in turn, would be rolling up New Guinea into the Celebes and Sulu Sea areas. But MacArthur was still upset that any planning would be considered for a Central Pacific drive. Nevertheless, he did not argue too strongly against the invasions of the Gilberts and the Marshalls since they would remove a threat to his flank. Any further moves through the Central Pacific would be another matter, however. In the meantime King was still fighting to get the Marianas targeted by the CCS. At the Trident Conference King tried once again. His intense interest in the Marianas "stemmed from a realization on his part that the true importance of this target was not unanimously felt. Significant in this connection is the fact that the Marianas had not been prescribed as a specific objective even at this time." For the Navy to undertake an offensive in the Central Pacific, major naval units would have to be transferred from the South Pacific to join with the new construction just appearing. MacArthur and Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Commander in Chief South Pacific, definitely opposed this idea as did one of Nimitz's deputies, Vice Admiral John H. Towers. As Commander Air Force Pacific Fleet, Towers believed that Rabaul (still in the plans to be assaulted) was the best Japanese base for American use in operations against enemy bases in the Carolines and sea routes between Japan and Malaysia. Nevertheless, Admiral King was for the redeployment of certain naval units, and this movement did take place. Following the Trident meetings King reviewed the plans that had been proposed and urged that a timetable be set up for Central Pacific operations. Shortly the Joint Staff Planners agreed to prepare an outline plan for the capture of the Marshalls in November of 1943. Nimitz was directed by the JCS to submit an operational plan and target date for the Marshalls. A tentative plan was received in July. The Joint Strategic Survey Committee presented to the JCS in late June a memorandum covering Pacific operations to that time and making several recommendations for the future conduct of the war. In the Committee's view the war against Japan had fallen into a strategy of attack from the South and Southwest Pacific because the defense of Australia had required so much of the available resources. This, coupled with "certain psychological and political considerations" and a lack of U.S. naval forces, had tended to spotlight an offensive strategy from Australia. It had originally seemed that an offensive in the Bismarcks-Solomons-New Guinea area would be fairly successful. This turned out not to be the case, however. Strong Japanese bases in the area had made the offensive slow and relatively costly. But now it appeared that, with U.S. naval strength growing, a drive through the Central Pacific, supported by these naval forces, would be more successful and offer greater strategic advantages. By this time in the war, after the losses in the Solomons and the Aleutians, the Japanese began to worry that they were overextended. And there was a gnawing fear of an American offensive in the Central Pacific. Thus the Japanese withdrew their main defensive line into a perimeter extending from western New Guinea through the Carolines to the vital Marianas. This line was to be held at all costs. Though the Marianas were very important to the Japanese, and Admiral King also considered them so, many planners in the Army and Navy had not been convinced that the Marianas needed to be taken. This was obvious in Quebec at the Quadrant Conference in August 1943 where the islands were not "mentioned in the written plans" of the Joint Chiefs. This state of affairs would change as some major strategic alterations were brought about by the talks. At Quebec the Combined Chiefs suggested timing the defeat of Japan within a twelve-month period after the fall of Germany. This concept would mean accelerating operations in the Pacific, and perhaps extending their reach. In line with this reasoning, the decision was made to bypass Rabaul. Also, with King again vocal on the subject, the Marianas were approved, somewhat halfheartedly, as a target. The Marianas were conspicuously absent from a proposed timetable for operations. King, however, was able to offer a modification of the timing of operations by inserting into "Specific Operations in Pacific and Far East" this statement: "It may be found desirable or necessary to seize Guam and the Japanese Marianas, possibly the Bonins, in conjunction with the seizure of the western Carolines, and in particular with the attack on the Palaus. The Mariana-Bonin attack would have profound effects on the Japanese because of its serious threat to the homeland." (It should be noted here that though the Combined Chiefs considered Pacific operations, strategic control of this theater had in fact been turned over to the American Joint Chiefs.) King gained an important ally at Quebec: General Henry H. Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces. Arnold's new weapon, the B-29, had been mentioned at Quebec, but its importance was not yet understood. This would shortly change. The Quebec decisions and the apparent alliance between King and Arnold indicated to MacArthur that he and the Southwest Pacific might soon be playing second fiddle to Admiral Nimitz in the Central Pacific. MacArthur intensified his opposition to the Central Pacific route. On 4 October 1943 Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter USA, of the Joint Staff Planners, wrote a memorandum concerning the B-29, pressing for the capture of the Marianas. In it he stated, "Current Planning in the Pacific treats the seizure of the Marianas as a subordinate operation...." He continued that if this was the case, the planners ought to forget about the Marianas, for the operation would serve no purpose. But the new B-29s had the capability of reaching and bombing Japan-from the Marianas. Another paper, originated by the Joint War Plans Committee and titled "Outline Plan For The Seizure of The Marianas, Including Guam," was also circulating in JCS upper echelons about this time. The paper predicted, as had Admiral King earlier (and both correctly), that the Japanese Navy would probably come out and fight in defense of the islands. The next meeting of the Combined Chiefs (Sextant) was held in Cairo in late November-early December 1943. General MacArthur sent his chief of staff, Major General Richard K. Sutherland USA, to oppose any more Central Pacific operations. MacArthur, through Sutherland, argued that amphibious operations in that area would take too long to mount; land-based air support would be unavailable because of the distances involved; and carrier-based air would not be strong enough to maintain pressure on the enemy. Therefore, Nimitz's forces should be used to support MacArthur. On the other hand, proponents of an offensive through the Central Pacific argued that such a route would require fewer and longer moves; could bypass enemy strongholds far easier than an army tethered to the range of land-based fighters; would be more direct; would cut Japanese sea communications more effectively; would provide a base (the Marianas) for the B-29s; and would probably draw the Japanese Navy out for a decisive naval engagement. Along with King, General Arnold brought his influence to bear on the Combined Chiefs on the matter of the Marianas. Basing the B-29s in China, as was then planned, promised to be a headache, and Arnold had little confidence in the Chinese's ability to defend the airfields. The Marianas would be easier to defend and supply. And he assured the CCS that the B-29s could bomb Japan from Guam, Tinian, or Saipan. The Sextant Conference brought about some far-reaching agreements pertaining to operations in the Pacific. Two documents were particularly important in this regard: "Specific Operations for the Defeat of Japan" and "Over-all Plan for the Defeat of Japan." "Specific Operations" set up a timetable for execution. It was strictly for planning purposes and took into account the fact that circumstances might change drastically. It called for the invasion of the Marianas on 1 October 1944, with the start of B-29 attacks from there in December. The "Over-all Plan," which was approved in principle at Cairo, was used as a jumping-off place for later studies. This plan "established the strategic concept within the Pacific." The revised Combined Chiefs plan was sent to Nimitz and MacArthur on 23 December 1943. In it a two-pronged plan was formulated. Each prong would be mutually supporting, and each would be executed in conjunction with the other. One prong would be led by MacArthur up the back of New Guinea, through the Netherlands East Indies, and into the Philippines. Meanwhile, Nimitz would lead the Central Pacific prong, which would stab through the Japanese Mandated Islands.
Excerpted from Red Sun Setting by William T. Y'Blood Copyright © 1981 by United States Naval Institute
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.