Red Sun Setting – William T. Y’Blood

This book is about the Battle for the Philippine Sea, the 1944 battle between the US and Japanese navies.  It was the last true carrier battle in the war, as the losses incurred here made the carriers useless for real attacks.  In the last battle at Leyte Gulf, the surviving carriers were used as bait to lure Halsey away from protecting the transport fleet, as they had few planes or pilots.

The Japanese plan was tempered by the realities of their position.  Their aircrew were inexperienced, and fuel was difficult to get due to the ravages of US submarines.  The carrier fleet had to travel to Borneo to fill its tanks with raw unrefined oil.  It would not have the fuel for the fancy tactics that they liked – a single thrust at the US fleet was all they could do.  Another part of the plan was to move aircraft from other bases to Guam and catch the US between two fires.

The action was triggered by the US invasion of Saipan.  While the invasion proceeded, the US carrier task force bombed the airfields of the islands, and even sent part of the fleet to bomb the bases at Iwo Jima.  This did not knock out the airfields, but many of the aircraft that were supposed to attack the fleet were damaged or destroyed.

The Japanese fleet was spotted by US submarines en route, and the US fleet prepared for the action.  The recovery of the last missions to the island bases required the carriers to steam into the wind, away from the Japanese fleet.  The Japanese expected this and were staying beyond normal range of the US search planes.  When Admiral Spruance decided not to spend the night steaming towards the Japanese, this pretty much assured that he would be taking the first blow.

This advantage was lost due to Japanese inexperience.  Radar picked up the strikes very far out.  Instead of coming in at full speed, the flights had to orbit for a time to receive final strike orders from the flight leader – inside radar range.  This gave the defending fighters plenty of time to reach the strike and attack it well away from the carriers.  Most of the planes were shot down and never returned to the Japanese fleet. The results were so lopsided that the battle was called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

Even more distressing for the Japanese fleet was that they sailed through a submarine patrol zone and two submarines fired at two carriers.  One, the Shokaku, was hit several times and sank.  Even worse was the one hit on the flagship Taiho.  While the torpedo hit did minor damage, blunders in damage control caused fuel and gas fumes to spread through the ship.  A spark set off huge explosions that gutted the ship and sank her.

Late the next day, the US struck back.  Because of the extended range, the attacks were poorly coordinated and hasty, but a third carrier, Hiyo, was sunk and the Zuikaku – the last surviving carrier from the Pearl Harbor attack, was heavily damaged.  A few other ships had slight damage.  Losses to the planes defending the fleet were heavy.

The US planes returned to the fleet in darkness and critically low on fuel.  Admiral Mitscher decided to risk turning on the fleet’s lights in full to aid recovery operations at the risk of attacks by enemy submarines.  In the confused operation, many planes were lost but most of the aircrews were saved.

This brought the battle to an end.  The US had destroyed the Japanese naval aviation, although they did not know it at the time.  Critics thought the carrier operations were a bit too tentative, despite the good results.  Of course, they were to find out that being over-bold can be just as bad in Leyte Gulf.

This is a good treatment of a battle that is usually glossed over in the histories.

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