On June 19, 1944, in what would become known as the “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” U.S. carrier-based fighters decimate the Japanese Fleet with only a minimum of losses in the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
The security of the Marianas Islands, in the western Pacific, were vital to Japan, which had air bases on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. U.S. troops were already battling the Japanese on Saipan, having landed there on the 15th. Any further intrusion would leave the Philippine Islands, and Japan itself, vulnerable to U.S. attack. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, was on its way west from the Marshall Islands as backup for the invasion of Saipan and the rest of the Marianas. But Japanese Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo decided to challenge the American fleet, ordering 430 of his planes, launched from aircraft carriers, to attack. In what became the greatest carrier battle of the war, the United States, having already picked up the Japanese craft on radar, proceeded to shoot down more than 300 aircraft and sink two Japanese aircraft carriers, losing only 29 of their own planes in the process. It was described in the aftermath as a “turkey shoot.”
Admiral Ozawa, believing his missing planes had landed at their Guam air base, maintained his position in the Philippine Sea, allowing for a second attack of U.S. carrier-based fighter planes, this time commanded by Admiral Mitscher, to shoot down an additional 65 Japanese planes and sink another carrier. In total, the Japanese lost 480 aircraft, three-quarters of its total, not to mention most of its crews. American domination of the Marianas was now a foregone conclusion.
Not long after this battle at sea, U.S. Marine divisions penetrated farther into the island of Saipan. Two Japanese commanders on the island, Admiral Nagumo and General Saito, both committed suicide in an attempt to rally the remaining Japanese forces. It succeeded: Those forces also committed a virtual suicide as they attacked the Americans’ lines, losing 26,000 men compared with 3,500 lost by the United States. Within another month, the islands of Tinian and Guam were also captured by the United States.
The Japanese government of Premier Hideki Tojo resigned in disgrace at this stunning defeat, in what many have described as the turning point of the war in the Pacific.