Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett
When future historians come to write the history of the pacific war they will probably acclaim the United States development of carrier warfare as one of the decisive factors in the defeat of Japan. And they would be correct to do so. Without the mobile air power which carriers of the United States Central Pacific fleet provided it would have been impossible to march across the Pacific via Tarawa, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa to the China Coast and Japan. It would have been impossible likewise to have maintained our invasion forces in the Philippines without the magnificent work done by carrier-borne aircraft, until General MacArthur's land-based planes could take over the job.
The most decisive defensive battles of the Pacific war were won by aircraft carriers, without the supporting warships on either side coming to grips. The Battle of the Coral Sea, which blocked the Jap drive south to Australia and Port Moresby, and the Battle of Midway a month later, which stopped the Jap thrust east to the Hawaiian Islands, were won by the U.S. aircraft carriers, "Yorktown," "Lexington," "Enterprise" and "Hornet." The few U.S. carriers that the Japs had overlooked when they destroyed the backbone of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, backed by some land-based planes, were sufficient to halt the second expansive phase of the Jap war programme, and together with their work during the invasion of the Solomons, completely turned the tide of the Pacific war. After Coral Sea, Midway and Gaudalcanal, the Japs never regained the strategic offensive in the Pacific.
By the time we were ready to invade Palau we had half a dozen times as many large aircraft carriers as were available for the Coral and Midway Seas battles, as well as scores of lighter escort carriers splendidly suited for close-in support of landings. I was fortunate enough to attend the Palau landings aboard the U.S, "Franklin," the newest carrier to come into commission at that time. Her keel had been laid down the day Pearl Harbour was attacked, and she had been launched two years later.
Our job was to go up to the Bonin Islands, pound airfields at Iwo and Chichi Jima, then back to Yap in the Carolines, arriving at Palau in time to support the invasion on 21st September.
We cruised up to within about 600 miles of Tokyo without a sign of a Jap plane, except for a momentarily expanding red glow in the sky late one night when our night fighters shot down a Jap search plane that ventured too close. For the ship's gunners and even the pilots it was an uninteresting trip — at least the first part. Only eleven Jap planes were found airborne at the Bonins and they were shot down in as many seconds. We lost one torpedo plane, but the crew was picked up within half an hour by a rescue submarine stationed in the area for the purpose.
For the ship's and air group personnel it was a routine performance, but for me even the routine operation of an aircraft carrier was a dramatic and intensely colourful performance. If one could close one's ears to the terrific roar of motors and shut one's eyes to the purely mechanical side of things, it would be easy to imagine one was attending some stupendous ballet performance, with a spacious backdrop of sparkling blue sea and towering cloud masses.
There is the ballet master, for instance, the officer known as the flight director. Dressed in an orange pullover and cap he signals the planes to start on their run of a few hundred feet, to take off into the wind over the bow of the carrier. In front of him are the star performers —- the planes. There is a row of fighters in front with wings spread ready for flight, and more behind them, wings slung back, snug against their bodies. Behind them again are the bombers, their wings folded straight up and almost joining overhead, like conventional stage fairies awaiting their cue to perform.
There is the "corps de ballet" — hundreds of men on the flight deck, dressed in coloured sweaters and close-fitting skull caps, ear flaps twisted on top, giving them a pixie-like appearance. Those in red sweaters and caps load fuel, ammunition and bombs. The ones in yellow direct the planes into position on the flight deck. The blue boys act as plane pushers. The brown ones are plane captains, each has a plane allotted to him. He grooms it, guards it, and practically lives with it as long as it is aboard ship, yielding his place only to the pilot that flies it. There are green ones who control the arresting gear which brings homecoming planes safely back on deck. Finally, there are the leading male dancers — padded, goggled, helmeted heroes with red scarves streaming behind them, who fly the fighter planes.
To the onlooker at first the flight decks are a confusion of colour, movement, and sound, but as the operation gets under way, the pattern takes shape and it is then seen that each colour group and each unit in the colour group has a definite rehearsed role to play.
The red flag on the air captain's bridge is changed to green. The ship is swung into the wind, so that its speed will be added to the wind velocity along the flight deck. Red sweaters are still moving about the planes — adjusting rockets, dragging the little trucks loaded with flat, 2,000-pound bombs and long, sleek, oily-looking torpedoes for the dive-bombers and torpedo planes at the rear. Orders are given to start up the fighter engines, and one by one, the blades commence swinging slowly, then in spasmodic jerks until they whirl around with a mighty roar. Our ballet master in the orange sweater — a merry, red-faced, former Texan lawyer, stands beside the right wing of the foremost fighter. He watches the torpedo plane's propeller, with his right fist vigorously spiralling — demanding more and more revolutions from the straining, quivering engine. When it seems as if the eardrums can stand no more, and the engine must shake itself free of the fuselage, his left arm sweeps forward in movement so sudden, so urgent, with a look of such demoniac demand on his face, that he seems to hurl the plane along the deck by his own energy, and at the same time, managing to combine a farewell, good-luck wave all in one gesture.
Planes take off at the rate of two, three and sometimes four a minute, dipping gently over the bow, then veering to starboard to take their slip-stream out of the way of the following planes. As the last plane thunders by, orders are shouted "stand by to land planes." The blue and yellow boys move offstage. The reds and browns disappear altogether. Here is where the green sweaters have the stage to themselves for a while.
In little galleries, on either side and just below the flight-level deck, their green-capped heads are popping up. On a little platform beside the flight deck stands a man in a white sweater with something that looks like red ping pong bats in his hand. He is the landing signals officer. A white flag replaces the red one and the white jersey holds out his arms and red bats in a wide, welcoming gesture. The stage is cleared for the last act. The formation of planes circles the ship, strung out in a line 30 seconds apart. The first one swoops down and a rigid hook swings out from its tail. As it comes over the deck the tail drops first, the hook catches and the wheels bang down and the seven tons of hurtling plane are brought to a stop.
But here is where all resemblance to the graceful rhythmic movements of the ballet ends. In fact, the way the plane plunges to the deck and writhes to free itself from the restraining cable reminds one more of roping a wild steer than of anything else. The green boys come into their own here. The moment the planes are safely hooked, the green sweaters rush to unhook them, and they are hustled off to the forward parking space. They are ready for the second landing twenty seconds after the first one.
An eager plane captain persuaded me to take a few trips in his dive-bomber, piloted by a dare-devil Swede named Hansen. After two flights I decided I was not cut out for that sort of work, and ever since then I always take "evasive action" when invited to ride in a dive-bomber. I still feel like making deep obeisance every time I meet a "Hell-diver" pilot.
My second trip was a support strike for H-hour on D-day at Peleliu. The first part was interesting enough — to take off from the carrier and glide smoothly upwards till we came over the Palau group, odd-looking islands like clumps of dung some prehistoric monster had dropped in the ocean. Below us battleships and cruisers were spouting flame, and ahead of them, clustered like bacilli on a bacteriologist's slide, were the landing craft, tiny white tails slung behind them, headed in towards the beach. We circled round for half an hour watching Jap counterfire set up boiling eddies as it plumped into the water. Low over the island scores of planes were circling, diving and strafing targets designated by the air co-ordinator. My earphones began to buzz and Hansen's voice came through:
"Do you hear me? Do you hear me?" to which I replied with the official "Roger."
"They've given us an artillery battery at 136 Fox George."
I looked at the little checkered co-ordination map and found 136 Fox George was a point near the north of the island on a slim neck of land. We commenced to climb again, till I nearly froze at 12,000 feet. Again the earphones buzzed.
"Safety belt strapped tight?"
"Hatch open?" I wound the hatch open;
Then we tipped over at an unearthly angle and I thought: this is terrible, I can never stand it. Then suddenly the bottom dropped away from me and I was hanging in the safety belt with the plane's nose pointed down in a ninety degree dive. In a dreadful, horrifying few seconds, in which I was conscious of the altimeter needle rushing round anti-clockwise, black puffs of smoke and a plane plunging down in flames on an airfield beneath us, and a square patch of earth slightly rocking, but rushing towards us at a devastating speed, we hurtled down from 12,000 to 2,000 feet, pulling out with a sickening rush of blood to my head that made me want to vomit violently.
It was one of the most comforting sights that have ever met my eyes, half an hour later, to see our task group again, and a vastly comforting feeling to bump gently to rest on the deck of the "Franklin." The enthusiastic young plane captain helped me out of the rear-gunner's compartment with a happy smile: "Isn't she a sweet plane, sir? She just rides like a feather."
Back in the briefing room Hansen was very disgusted that I hadn't been able to tell him just where the bombs had dropped. He was relieved, however, to know that I was still in the plane. I hadn't answered any of his questions after the dive because I had gone stone deaf, and Hansen thought I might have fallen out.
But such flights are routine for the carrier boys, and a "Hell-diver" pilot can't understand why some people want to fly fighters or torpedo-bombers.
"Wouldn't catch me flying those things," Hansen assured me, watching a "Hellcat" fighter land, "Boy, they're really hot!"
I left the "Franklin" for what I believed would be more interesting assignments, and it was not long after that she was hit by a Japanese bomber that killed 50 people and injured 70 more. On her first cruise after repairs had been effected, a Jap bomber dropped two 500 pound bombs amongst planes loaded with gas and bombs. This time casualties reached nearly 1,200, the greatest loss of American naval personnel in this war. By the very good seamanship and extraordinary courage of the remaining crew members, the ship was brought safely to port, — a tribute to the design and construction of American aircraft carriers as well as to the fortitude of the crews.
My next job was on Admiral Mitscher's flagship "Lexington," and our task was to carry out the first carrier raid on Formosa, in support of the forthcoming invasion of the Philippines. Formosa, with its scores of airfields, was expected to put up stiff opposition, it was being used as a training ground and air pool from which air reinforcements could be drawn for any part of the Jap Empire. It was also the chief staging area for planes being flown from Japan down to the Philippines.
Formosa was not an easy place to hit, with a high spine of mountains running down the east coast and most of the airfields on the flat country the other side of that range. Fighter sweeps were to be sent in first to stir up any Jap planes that might disturb our later strikes by dive and torpedo-bombers.
Skirting the formidable mountains which reach up to 12,000 feet on the east coast, the fighter squadrons reached their target areas on time. Expectations of Jap preparedness were fully justified. They were there in hundreds, and throughout the day it was a session of deadly duels, planes whirling and diving in a mad medley of combat in which we seemed to be doing most of the shooting.
It was the first time since the great Marianas battle that the Japs had shown aggressiveness, but it availed them little. Formosa's paddy-fields, hillsides and surrounding waters were soon dotted with smoking funeral pyres of Jap planes. Valuable installations, including the great hydraulic power plant supplying three-quarters of Formosa's power, built in 1931, with the aid of a U.S. loan of 22,000,000 dollars, were damaged. An aluminium plant fed with bauxite from the Dutch Indies, nickel smelting works, airplane assembly plants, radio stations, alcohol refineries, shipyards and docks all received their share of damage. The day's total number of planes downed was swelled by 15 more shot down over the task force, plus nine more that night by ships' gunfire. It was one of the greatest disasters suffered up to that time by Nippon's air force.
After their drubbing the Japs showed little enthusiasm to continue the tournament into a second day. The skies were relatively clear and bombers were able to continue without interruption their wrecking of ground installations. The following day was the most exciting experienced aboard the carriers. It was decided to launch a further strike against Formosa, staying in those waters an extra day.
Early in the morning Jap snoopers began trailing us, and all that afternoon came the first series of attacks we had been expecting since the first day. For the first time we were under attack by bombers and torpedo planes. We were warned that several hundred planes were winging our way. Flight after flight of Hell-cats took off to intercept them, shooting down scores before they were within sight of the task force. Aboard the ship our evening meal was interrupted by the booming of our five-inch guns.
I rushed up on top just in time to see two low-flying torpedo planes disintegrate as they hit the water and the sound of the gun chorus was replaced for a few minutes by cheers from the gun crews. All around us enemy planes, which had escaped our fighter screen, were diving from heavy clouds or skimming low across the grey waters, but mostly stopping short as they ran into the steel mesh, which, like old-fashioned chain armour, was set up around our ships by the incredible, rapid-fire, patterned curtain of exploding shells.
Sullen, white-capped waters, spouting flames and smoke from burning planes — turned the blackness of night into a spectacle that took on the dramatic brilliance of pyrotechnics at a world exhibition. Red and white tracers streamed and cascaded upwards like coloured water sprayed from hundreds of hosepipes, with now and again a plane bursting in crimson balls of fire in the middle of the streams.
In what I believe was the first Jap suicide attack, one crazy Jap hero tried to crash his plane on one of our cruisers, and partly succeeded by landing half his flaming craft on the cruiser's stem, starting a small fire. The debris was shoved overboard and the fire extinguished within a few minutes. As the battle continued into early night our night fighters shot down three Jap torpedo planes in as many minutes. Eventually, remnants of the Jap striking force had enough and went streaking back toward their homeland. Planes destroyed that afternoon and evening accounted for most of the total of 259 planes announced by Admiral Mitscher.
The next day was comparatively quiet. Our group continued fuelling while other units struck again at Northern Luzon. The Japs contented themselves with fighting the war that day by radio, shooting down our planes by hundreds and sinking scores of warships, according to "Tokyo Rose." Next morning, however, they sent out another attacking force, losing an additional 52 planes which were shot down by escort carriers. It was in the late afternoon that day that a feeling of jubilant excitement spread through the ship as the mighty carriers and fastest modern battleships swung around and again headed for North Formosa. Word soon passed around, "the Jap fleet is out."
It looked as if the Japs believed their own fantastic claims of sinking and crippling most of our fleet and were sending task forces to polish off the remnants. There were constant sessions of alerts that afternoon as we retraced our course towards Formosa. Jap snoopers were shot down for the most part many miles distant, before they were able to discover the size of our force. Most of us were optimistic that this time the Japs were really coming out.
Vice-Admiral Mitscher, however, remained pessimistic, or perhaps realistic. He had been cheated too many times by the Japs to believe they were anxious to join battle. He had chased them farther than Cunningham chased the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean. Hunched up in his swivel chair on the flag bridge, surveying the might of the fleet silhouetted on the horizon, he opined: "I still don't believe they'll come out and fight. They'll run as they always do." Sure enough when our first search planes returned from pre-dawn sweeps there was no sign of the Jap fleet. During the morning we sent out more searchers, but it was soon apparent that some Jap snoopers, before they were shot down, got word that the American "devils" must have resurrected their fleet once again or had sufficient left to engulf anything the Japs had.
Their brief, timid foray ended in an ignominious scurrying back to the safety of distant harbours out of range of our planes. This was the extent of the tremendous naval battle they boasted to their people of having successfully fought. Announcing destruction of 932 enemy planes, of which 600 odd were shot out of the air, Mitscher said these included at least 400 naval types. These, plus those destroyed in the great Marianas battle, represented virtually all the planes of the entire Japanese naval aviation, the admiral believed.
However, even without the fleet encounter, Admiral Mitscher dubbed this "the most exciting voyage I've yet taken," and from him that means a lot. His whole life has been spent in taking exciting voyages. In 1919 he piloted one of three naval planes first attempting an Atlantic crossing. In 1930 he made the first Pacific crossing from San Francisco to Pearl Harbour. He commanded the "Hornet" bearing Doolittle's fliers to within 600 miles of Tokyo, in April, 1942, and later, commanding the same ship, took part in the great battle of Midway Island. Since he took over command of the fast Pacific carrier force, he had destroyed 4,000 Jap planes, over 30 combat ships, plus hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo shipping. His carrier-borne air force made possible the landings in the Marshalls, Marianas, Hollandia, Palau and the Philippines.
Vice-Admiral Marc A. Mitscher is a kindly little gnomelike man with eyes as blue as the sea and sky. His face is criss-crossed with tiny furrows through a life exposed to sea and wind, and dominated by craggy, bushy, fair eyebrows. Terse and soft-spoken, he sits all day hunched in a swivel chair on the bridge, directing operations with a minimum of fuss and bother. His greatest concession to excitement is to remove his baseball cap from his balding pate and rub the latter softly with his hand.
But that's when things get really hot, when he is actually under attack. His seamed and wrinkled face was wreathed in smiles as the Jap radio continued announcing the destruction of the U.S. Fleet, but his only comment was: "Guess it's cheaper for the Jap navy to let Tokyo radio do its work than to come out and fight."
Within a week, however, the Japs had apparently believed their own propaganda and decided to test their strength with the "remnants" of the United States Pacific Fleet.
The Japs were caught in a trap set by their own misinformation, and sent their fleet out to try and hold off the invasion of the Philippines against the cream of the American Navy, in what became known as the second battle of the Philippines Sea.
Tokyo radio, which has "sunk" the U.S. Fleet so often in the past, was partly responsible for the Japanese defeat this time.
After the air battles off Formosa, in which we shot down over 600 planes, the Japs claimed the sinking and damaging of 57 U.S. warships, including 17 aircraft carriers. At first we were inclined to believe these purely propaganda claims were designed to bolster morale, increase production and rally the puppet governments in the Philippines and elsewhere; but now it seems more likely that they were taken in by their own story, at least in part.
Tokyo radio and the whole Japanese nation indulged in an orgy of celebrations after the Formosa sea battle. They boasted that the U.S. navy was now so badly crippled that the projected invasion of the Philippines would have to be cancelled. When the invasion actually started a couple of days later, Tokyo radio solemnly prophesied this could only end in disaster with the backbone of Nimitz's fleet already sunk in six miles of water off Formosa. Their deductions must have seemed correct when their intelligence reported that MacArthur's invasion transports were protected only by baby carriers, a few light cruisers, and old, slow battleships. It might have been a different story had the Japs known that Halsey's 3rd fleet was waiting in the background. Halsey, who was holding his breath, hardly dared to believe the Japs would actually sally forth from their hiding places west of the Philippines.
The Japs evidently thought there was little risk involved in sending 6 of their best battleships, 14 cruisers and 20 destroyers against that insignificant little fleet Admiral Kinkaid had protecting the vast armada of transports in Leyte Gulf. The Japs mustered up all available planes, rushed them to the Philippine bases, and prepared for that sort of engagement they had always dreamed about. With superiority in armament, speed and numbers, they could chew off a small portion of our fleet with the help of land-based planes. It was their textbook strategy, and here was a chance to prove it.
The air-naval battle which followed the landing of General MacArthur's troops at Leyte on 19th October, 1944, was on a scale unsurpassed since the battle of Jutland. For numbers of ships engaged and damage inflicted it far exceeded any battles previously fought in Pacific waters. The Japanese seemed to overlook the fact that apart from Admiral Kinkaid's 7th fleet of escort carriers and old battleships, mostly repaired since they were damaged at Pearl Harbour, there was Admiral Halsey's 3rd fleet comprising nearly a dozen great carriers with battleships, light cruisers and cruisers in proportionate strength.
The Japanese plan to split U.S. naval forces into small parts and overwhelm them one at a time, failed miserably, and after the battle Admiral Halsey sent a message to all ships, saying that the Japanese Navy had been "beaten, routed and broken." This assessment was proved correct by subsequent developments.
The battle was split up into three sectors, each separated by several hundred miles of ocean. It ranged from the South China Sea, across the Central Pacific, off Leyte, up the North Pacific, and between Luzon and Formosa. Both sides' land-based and carrier-based aircraft, as well as the guns of capital ships, played a part.
The Japanese objective was to envelop U.S. forces that had been landed on Leyte Island in the Central Philippines, destroy our light naval forces and transports concentrated in Leyte Gulf, and possibly prepare the way for Jap landings in our rear.
Two Jap task forces were sighted moving from Singapore and the Dutch East Indies respectively, one heading for the Surigao Straits south of Leyte, between Leyte and Mindanao, the other for the San Bernardino Straits north of Leyte, between Leyte and Samar Island. A third, including aircraft carriers, was sighted between Formosa and North Luzon, heading south from the homeland.
Planes from Admiral Mitscher's carriers were sent to attack the force heading towards the San Bernardino Straits, and pilots brought back reports, later proved to be over-optimistic, that the Jap task force had been badly hit and had fled towards the Western Philippines. The northern force, the only one containing carriers, seemed the main threat, and it was against that that Admiral Halsey devoted his main strength.
The Jap air force, which had been inactive during the first days of the Philippines invasion, suddenly sprang into action. Our carrier task forces were attacked by at least a couple of hundred Jap planes. There was a brisk shooting match for a few hours, with our guns joining in as the Japs' persistent attacks broke through our fighter screens. One managed to score a direct hit on the light cruiser "Princeton." Our guns later sank her after nearly all the personnel had been taken aboard other ships. That hit on the "Princeton" cost the Japs 150 planes, downed by our fighters and gun crews.
The 3rd fleet commander, Admiral "Bull" Halsey, passed over to Vice-Admiral Kinkaid, commander of the 7th fleet, the job of guarding the Surigao Straits, through which the Japs were expected to attempt to pass that night, while he raced 3rd fleet elements north to engage carrier and battleship forces. In the meagre light of a thin crescent moon, around 2 a.m., Kinkaid contacted elements of the Jap fleet. A few hours before dawn a bitter battle was fought. Not a single Jap vessel got through and at least seven were sunk outright.
Admiral Kinkaid drew up his battle line in semi-circular formation and waited until the last of the Jap force was within range of his battleships' guns before he gave the word to open fire. The Jap ships, without room to manoeuvre in the narrow Surigao Straits, were blown out of the water before they knew what had hit them.
By dawn next day, — 24th October, the task groups of Vice-Admiral Mitscher's First Carrier Task Force, of which the carrier "Hancock," to which I had transferred from the "Lexington," was part, were racing north and had reached a point less than 200 miles from the Jap carrier-battleship force. Our group had paused to re-fuel, and during this operation we received word that a small force of our baby carriers were under attack by Jap battleships many hundreds of miles to the south. The "Hancock" and a couple of other carriers were immediately ordered to the rescue. Fuelling was cut short, lines cast off, and with every knot of speed we were able to muster we raced back, leaving Admiral Halsey and the rest of the carriers to engage the enemy to the north.
The stage was now set for a battle royal. It appeared that one of the Jap battleship forces had negotiated the maze of islands in the South Philippines and while its counterpart, with which it later hoped to effect a junction, was being pummelled by Kinkaid's surface craft in Surigao Straits, it had slipped through San Bernardino Straits and was now out in the Pacific pounding away at our unfortunate baby carriers.
The Japs' thrust through San Bernardino Straits was an audacious move, and the projection of their fleet into the Pacific at all was an indication they believed their own claims of having sunk a major portion of the U.S. fleet off Formosa. Halsey and his fleet had long been waiting for such an opportunity and it was certain that with his reputation for dash and energy he would not leave a single stone unturned to pound the Jap fleet to pieces.
We sped southwards, flying fish scudding from our racing bow, pilots munching toast and swilling coffee as they were briefed for targets. On the flying bridge the air captain roared, "Get torpedoes off five torpedo planes. Put on 500-pounders, armour-piercing. Shake it up. We're after them." A minute later action stations was sounded and the guns were manned, but it was a false alarm. Pilots were warned they would have to take off at absolute maximum range, with a good chance of not being able to return to the ship, if we were going to save the baby carriers from the battleships. Planes were armed with the greatest speed. There was no time to attach extra wing tanks. At 10.30 the first pilot took off, with little apparent chance of regaining the carrier.
One plane dived into the water while taking off and the rear-gunner was drowned. Others got away safely, 33 planes being launched in 14 minutes. Other carriers likewise launched planes and we continued full speed ahead, the long lines of planes like wild geese in flight, strung out and heading dead south. There was no circling to make formation; it would only have wasted precious gasoline. At 12.30, about the time we reckoned the first strike was over the target, the second strike was launched. Then came news that Halsey, having seen a good start made in the attack against the Jap force at North Luzon, had ordered a battleship squadron detached from our main force in the north to speed southwards and try to block San Bernardino Strait in case the Japs should try to return the way they had come.
Our job was twofold — to rescue our baby carriers and cripple sufficient Jap ships to slow them up and give the battleship force time to blockade San Bernardino Straits. With Kinkaid still patrolling Surigao Straits, the Japs then would be bottled up. Fast as the new U.S. battleships are, however, it seemed too much to expect them to beat the Japs to San Bernardino. Around 3.15 p.m. the first of our pilots was seen returning.
They caught up with the Japs off the east coast of Samar Island As the "Hell-divers" pilots tipped their planes over the cloud banks in a vertical plunge at the battleships' decks, the Jap force went into a crazy dance of death, wildly zig-zagging, their funnels belching smoke as they tried high-speed manoeuvres and struggled to wriggle away from the orbit of hurtling planes. Protecting destroyers flung up a vast box barrage of black ack-ack bursts. Battleships and cruisers were singled out. Pilots scored hits on three battleships and several cruisers. One fighter pilot swooped down within 200 feet of a battleship's decks, strafing it with his 50-calibre guns. "It was fun watching the tracers bouncing like red golf balls across the decks. Their guns were throwing out flames 15 feet long.'' he said later.
That first strike did its job nobly. The Japs fled at top speed towards San Bernardino Straits. Only three out of a dozen of our bombers returned. Several landed on the water and the pilots were picked up. Others landed on the decks of the baby carriers they had protected.
The Jap force was forced to flee, but a major part of it still had sufficient speed to make San Bernardino Straits 75 minutes before our battleship force arrived. The latter had to be content with picking off cripples in the early morning, getting at least one heavy cruiser and two more smaller ships. Our searchers, however, were able to follow oil slicks through the straits and picked up a force of three battleships, two cruisers and six destroyers between Mindoro and Luzon. Some of the latter were straggling behind, and strikes from the "Hancock" sank one battleship or heavy cruiser with two torpedo hits, a seaplane tender which blew up and sank immediately after a direct hit from a 1,000-pound and a 5,000-pound bomb. There were also two torpedo hits on a Fuso class battleship, and one 500-pound hit and four near misses on a light cruiser. Another battleship, or heavy cruiser, belched black smoke, and settled at the bow after receiving two torpedo hits.
From the north came welcome news that the 4 Jap carriers had been sunk as well as 3 cruisers.
The Japs lost what was the last great naval battle of the Pacific war, with 58 warships sunk or damaged. Their fleet has never appeared since except for one miserable foray by the "Yamato" — one of Japan's two crack battleships — and a few cruisers and destroyers during the early stages of the Okinawa invasion. The whole of that force except three destroyers was sunk within a few hours by Mitscher's carrier-planes.
How complete was the victory over Japanese sea power in the 2nd Philippine Sea Battle was demonstrated during the Iwo Jima action in February, 1945, when I accompanied another brand new American aircraft carrier — on the first carrier raid on Tokyo, since Doolittle's "token raid" in April, 1942.
Instead of the sixteen planes that were used on the Doolittle raid our carriers launched 1,200 planes at the Japanese capital.
For two days just prior to the Iwo Jima invasion and for two days after the landings we cruised; up and down off the coast of Japan, at times within 30 miles of the coast, and the only sea-borne opposition encountered were two picket boats by day and one which tried to make a suicide attack at night.
Carrier-planes hammered away at the Imperial capital's airfields and harbour area without provoking more than mild air opposition. Of the Japanese navy there was not a sign.
American air-power borne on the flight and hangar decks of the mighty Essex-class aircraft carriers alone made possible the tremendously swift advance from the Gilbert Islands to Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
One of the miracles of this war has been the production of these vast carriers and the pace at which they have been projected into the Pacific war during the twelve months since June, 1944.
No less remarkable is the expansion and training programme of the United States Navy which enabled the carriers to be manned by competent crews and expert air groups as fast as the ships came into commission.
It would be hard to name any group of combat personnel who have contributed more towards winning the war against the Japanese than the carrier-pilots and the admirals who have directed carrier warfare with such consummate skill.