On 18 June 1944, two large aircraft carrier battle groups approached each other southwest of Saipan in the Marianas. The First Mobile Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy carried 440 aircraft on nine carriers: Taiho, Shokaku, Zuikaku, Junyo, Hiyo, Ryuho, Chitose, Chiyoda, and Zuiho. It was led by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, a 1909 graduate of the Japanese Naval Academy, Etajima. At nearly six feet, six inches in height, he was an imposing figure for the normally short Japanese. He was considered one of the ugliest officers in the Imperial Japanese name and was nicknamed “The Gargoyle.”
The opposing American carrier group commander was Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, an Annapolis graduate of 1910. Mitscher had mishandled his carrier Hornet at the battle of Midway and had thought his career was over. Nimitz needed flag officers with an aviation background, however, and he gave Mitscher a second chance with the Marianas campaign. Task Force 58 would carry 905 aircraft embarked on fifteen aircraft carriers: Hornet, Yorktown, Belleau Wood, Bataan, Bunker Hill, Wasp, Cabot, Monterey, Lexington, Enterprise, San Jacinto, Princeton, Essex, Langley, and Cowpens.
The purpose of the Marianas campaign was to seize the islands of Saipan, Guam and Tinian from the Japanese so that the Army Air Corp could begin their long range strategic bombing of Japan’s home islands. The Japanese knew what would happen should they lose the Marianas and Ozawa put Operation A-Go into action, expecting a decisive battle that would turn their fortunes in the war.
18 June was the day when both fleets were positioning themselves for the largest aircraft carrier battle in world history. Aircrew and squadrons on both sides began preparing their aircraft for action the next day. Several American attack squadrons had just transitioned from their trusty SBD Dauntless dive bombers to the SB2C Helldivers and as their first test of combat in the “Beast” approached…you can get a glimpse of what they thought as they sang “The Helldiver Driver’s” song below (sung to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”
The Helldiver Driver’s Song
Oh Mother, dear mother,
take down the blue star.
Replace it with one that is gold.
Your son is a Helldiver driver;
he’ll never be 30 years old.
The people who work for Curtiss
are frequently good and drunk.
One day with an awful hangover, they designed and built an old clunk.
The wings are built with precision, the fuselage so strong it won’t fail.
Who were the half-witted people
who designed the cockpit and tail?
The skipper hates Helldiver drivers
he doesn’t think much of that clunk.
Each time we fly aboard his carrier,
he prays that his ship won’t be sunk.
My body lies over the ocean;
my body lies under the sea.
My body lies under the ocean
wrapped up in an SB2C!
Tomorrow…the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot…