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The Battle of the Philippine Sea
19-20 June 1944

Spruance's Decision

Admiral Spruance decided to retire eastwards with Task Force 58 - away from the Japanese fleet - on the night of 18/19 June 1944, contrary to the recommendation and wishes of Vice Admiral Mitscher and the staff of the Fast Carrier Force,  who wanted to steam westwards to place the carrier force in what would have been an almost ideal position for a strike on the Mobile Fleet at dawn.  This was very quickly to become by far the most debated command decision of the Pacific Naval War, with Spruance coming under severe criticism, especially from the naval aviators, including most notably Admiral John Towers, former chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and at the time of the Battle of the Philippine Sea Deputy C-in-C of the Pacific Fleet. Towers strongly advocated Spruance's immediate removal from command of the Fifth Fleet.
Admiral Raymond Spruance - Commander Fifth Fleet  Admiral Raymond Spruance - Commander Fifth Fleet
Some commentators continue to upbraid Spruance - for example Clark G. Reynolds asserts "Spruance had revealed himself to be a formalist in the tradition of conservative fleet tacticians of the pre-Rodney era. Mitscher, by contrast, was a meleeist of the Nelson mould . . . Six Japanese carriers had survived to fight again . . Mitscher knew that through no fault of his own he had missed the chance of a lifetime." [Reynolds - "Admiral Marc A. Mitscher" in "Men of War  -  Great Naval Leaders of World War II" edited by Stephen Howarth {London 1992}].

Contributions from readers to a discussion of Spruance's decision would be welcomed

  Below is quoted Morison's characteristically balanced and magisterial commentary on the question from Volume VIII (pp 313-9)
  "History of United States Naval Operations in World War II"

"The immediate reaction in Task Force 58 to the Battle of the Philippine Sea was one of disappointment and vexation. Admiral Clark, only ten days after, told this writer 'it was the chance of a century missed.' Admiral Mitscher thus concluded his action report: 'The enemy escaped.  He had been badly hurt by one aggressive carrier strike, at the one time he was within range.  His fleet was not sunk.'

Admiral Montgomery wrote:-

'Results of the action were extremely disappointing to all hands, in that important units of the enemy fleet, which came out in the open for the first time in over a  year and made several air attacks on our superior force, were able to escape without our coming to grips with them. It is true that our troops on Saipan were well screened and protected against the enemy surface force, but it is considered unfortunate that our entire strength was deployed for this purpose and therefore not permitted an opportunity to take the offensive until too late to prevent the enemy's retirement.'

At naval air headquarters in Pearl harbor the line was, 'This is what comes from placing a non-aviator in command over carriers.' Admiral Spruance had never won wings, but that does not prove that he did not know what to do with naval air power. After all, he more than anyone else had won the Battle of Midway.  He was not infallible, of course.  In warfare,  where decisions have to be made promptly on imperfect intelligence of the enemy, mistakes are inevitable;  and in considering a commander's actions we should base our judgment on his reaction to factors known or legitimately guessed by him at the time,  not on the fuller knowledge that reaches an historian years later.

There was no distinction between Spruance and Mitscher in aggressiveness, fighting spirit or desire to come to grips with the enemy. The difference in their respective attitudes was due to the scope of their respective responsibilities. Mitscher was responsible only for TF58;  hence his absorbing passion was to destroy the Japanese carriers that menaced his carriers.  Spruance had the overall responsibility for Operation 'Forager' [invasion of the Marianas];  for the Joint Expeditionary Force as well as the carriers;  for the troops ashore on Saipan and the Guam assault force,  which was still hanging in the bight.  His objective was to secure the Marianas. Imbued with a strong sense of his mission, Spruance refused to be diverted; he was unwilling to accept the risk that the Japanese ships reported up to the early hours of 19 June might be only a detachment of the Mobile Fleet.

Vice Admiral Mitscher

On the other side, there are three alleged counts against Spruance. First , Mahan is quoted to the effect that the main object of a fleet is to destroy the enemy's fleet.  But where did Mahan say this?  The nearest thing we can find is in his 'Naval Strategy' p.199,  where,  discussing the Siege of Gibraltar,  he says  'In war the proper main objective of the navy is the enemy's navy.'   And,  on pp. 220-21,   his discussion strongly supports the decisions of Spruance in this battle.]   Second,  that a powerful striking force as mobile as the fast carriers should never be tied to the apron strings of an amphibious operation.   Third,  that in view of the known strength of Ozawa's Mobile Fleet any possible 'end run' could have been dealt with adequately by the ships left to guard Saipan.  No danger of a flanking movement actually existed; but, in view of Japanese past performances, the possibility had to be anticipated.  Military men never get any credit for guarding against dangers that might occur but do not, but they are quickly 'hanged' if they fail adequately to guard against dangers that do occur  -  witness Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Spruance, who is able to view his own actions candidly and without emotion, still thought eight years later that he had missed a great opportunity.  'As a matter of tactics,' he wrote to me in 1952, 'I think that going out after the Japanese and knocking their carriers out would have been much better . . . than waiting for them to attack us;  but we were at the start of a very large and important amphibious operation and we could not afford to gamble and place it in jeopardy.   The way Togo waited at Tsushima for the Russian fleet has always been in my mind.   We had somewhat the same basic situation, only it was modified by the long-range striking power of the carriers.'

Yet  would it have been better,  as a matter of tactics,  to have sought out Ozawa's fleet on the night of 18-19 June and attacked it next morning?  We cannot assume that fortune would have favored the strong - it did not do so at Midway.  Our dive- and torpedo-bombers would probably have sunk some of the Japanese carriers; but the Japanese planes might also have sunk some of ours.   And the 'Turkey Shoot' could never have made such a spectular score if Mitscher had had to divide his air forces between offense and defense;   Ozawa's planes and anti-aircraft would probably have doubled or trebled their small bag of American planes and pilots if he had been on the defensive on the morning of 19 June, and had been able on the 20th to employ his full air strength instead of a poor remnant.    Moreover,  Japanese land-based air forces at Guam could have got into the fight if the battle had been joined halfway between Ozawa's position and the Marianas.   Spruance,  by steering east on the night of 18-19 June,  against Mitscher's wishes and his own inclination,  put Task Force 58 in about the optimum position to inflict the greatest damage on the enemy.  His entire fleet was concentrated.   All fighter planes were available for interception, and enemy planes that escaped them encountered the anti-aircraft fire of Lee's battle line.  And the Japanese planes on Guam were knocked out before they could take the offensive . . .

. . . Admiral Mahan never said that destruction of an enemy fleet was an object in itself, but a means to the greater ends of victory and a lasting peace. The Battle of the Philippine Sea contributed as much to victory as if Ozawa's fleet had been destroyed; for without its air arm the fleet was crippled, and the six carriers that survived were useful only as decoys to lure another American admiral to do what Spruance had declined to do. Admiral Toyoda had announced on 15 June "the fate of the Empire rests on this one battle." He was right. It decided the Marianas Campaign by giving the United States Navy command of the surrounding waters and air.  Thus, the Japanese land forces in Saipan, Tinian and Guam were doomed, no matter how bravely and doggedly they fought. And victory in the Marianas made an American victory over Japan inevitable.

Admiral Spruance compared his tactics to those of Togo at Tsushima in 1905. An historical parallel more remote in time but closer in fact, because amphibious and land operations were involved, was the Yorktown campaign of 1781. In the naval battle of the Chesapeake, on 5 September of that year, Admiral de Grasse defeated an inferior fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves that threatened to break into the Chesapeake and raise the siege of Yorktown.  The battle itself was not tactically decisive since Graves lost but one of his nineteen capital ships, and De Grasse was criticized for not renewing action. But he covered the British in a week's maneuvering at sea, shouldering them away from the Cape long enough for a second French fleet to enter Hampton Roads with Rochambeau's siege artillery, and later to enter himself.  In other words,  De Grasse's sense of his mission, to support the Allied land campaign against Cornwallis,  prevented him from risking the chance of throwing away his advantage.  His cautious tactics rendered Cornwallis' surrender inevitable; and so won the War of Independence, although the British Fleet was not destroyed. Spruance's sense of his mission, to protect the amphibious operation against Saipan, precluded his running undue risks;  he failed to annihilate the Japanese Fleet, but he won air and sea command,  so that the Japanese forces in those islands were sealed off from any hope of reinforcement."

A Brief Account of the Battle of the Philippine Sea

Philippine Sea - Index