The Imperial Japanese High Command was desperate for a decisive victory over the Allies. After their retreat to the inner circle in late 1943, they looked for an opportunity for the “Kantai Kessen”, or the decisive victory that would end the war. Historically, the Japanese won their wars through a single titanic decisive battle that irrevocably smashed their enemies ability to fight. There was a Kantai Kessen that defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century, one that brought the Tokugawa Shogunate to power in the 17th, and one that defeated the Russians in the early 20th. Admiral Spruance’s 5th Fleet off of Saipan would provide the opportunity to similarly defeat the Americans. The Japanese hoped that destroying the US Navy in the Philippines Sea would be the Pacific War’s Kantai Kessen.
If the Japanese wanted a final showdown with the Allies’ strongest force, they couldn’t have chosen a better target. Their objective was the innocuously named Task Force 58, the carrier task force of the 5th Fleet, led by Vice Admiral Marc Mitsher. TF 58 was the largest and most powerful independent naval strike force in the history of mankind. Mitsher commanded seven big fleet aircraft carriers, eight light carriers, seven fast battleships, 900 aircraft, and dozens of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. Against this, Vice Admiral Ozama had only five fleet carriers, four light carriers, 400 carrier based aircraft, and five battleships, but two of those were the Yamato and Musashi, the largest battle ships in existence, and he also had 300 land based planes on Guam.
But it wasn’t the numbers that defeated the Japanese, it was the Japanese that defeated the Japanese. By 1944, they were being out produced and out innovated by a wide margin. All but one of Ozawa’s capital ships were commissioned before Pearl Harbor, while virtually none of Mitcher’s were. Ozawa’s ships were 1930’s designs, while Mitcher’s ships reflected the hard lessons learned over the past two years, and his planes even more so. The Japanese A6M Zero was the terror of the skies in 1941 and 42, but by 1944 it was obsolete. The US Navy F6F Hellcat and the US Marines’ distinctive gull winged F4F Corsair had more power, more armor, and more guns. The Zero was still more maneuverable but to take advantage of that, you needed experienced pilots.
Bushido, or at least the perverted version of Bushido pushed by Imperial Japan in the Second World War, destroyed the once vaunted Japanese naval air arm well before the Battle of the Philippines Sea. Specifically the “No Retreat” rule. Fear of being shamed, Japanese aircrews would not come off the line to train the next generation of airmen. The victors of Pearl Harbor fought until they died. The Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Solomon’s saw thousands of irreplaceable aircrews shot down, and there was no one to train the replacements. Furthermore, Allied submarines created an oil shortage, so very little fuel was allocated for training. What fuel there was available was wasted by bad instructors, whom were usually the worst flyer of the previous class who was left behind to train the next class. There was no honor in training new flyers, only in engaging the enemy and dying for the emperor. Most Japanese airmen in 1944 had fewer than 60 hours in the air, were poorly trained, and had no combat experience.
When the Japanese attacked TF 58 on 19 June 1944, the outcome of the largest carrier air battle in history was already a foregone conclusion. The Americans did lose over one hundred aircraft but the majority of them were due to empty fuel tanks, not Japanese bullets. It would have been more, but Mitcher ordered his whole task force to turn on their lights during the night of the 19th, defying every, risk management worksheet, safety officer, and OPSEC notice on his wardroom bulletin boards, in order to bring his flyers back home in the dark. Ozawa lost two carriers, but more importantly, he lost 700 pilots, never to be replaced. An American anti air gunner on a destroyer said, “It was like shooting fish in a barrel”, but it was a Hellcat pilot’s quote that would stick; he said,
“It was like going to a turkey shoot back home.”