‘During the last bursts on the leader, gun stoppages occurred. Both port and starboard guns were charged in an attempt to clear them before firing again,’ David McCampbell, US Navy’s leading ace and top F6F Hellcat ace.
After aircraft from Task Force 58 (TF 58) seven fleet carriers and eight light carriers had pummelled the Mariana Islands of Saipan, Tinian and Guam in the lead up to the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, US forces were able to successfully undertake an amphibious landing on Saipan on Jun. 15, 1944. As told by Mark Chambers with Tony Holmes in their book Yokosuka D4Y ‘Judy’ Units, this event triggered A-Go.
It would appear that the very first Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force (IJNAF) aircraft lost on Jun. 19 was a ‘Judy’ – probably a D4Y1-C sent out by 121st Kokutai from Palau to locate TF 58. It was claimed by two pilots from VF-28 at 0547 hrs. Almost 13 hours later, at 1825 hrs, a solitary ‘Judy’ was amongst nine IJNAF aircraft downed by VF-51 to end the day’s scoring. By then, 380 Japanese aircraft had been claimed by fighters from TF 58 in what was dubbed the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’. Amongst the aircraft credited to US Naval Aviators as destroyed were 57 ‘Judys’ and 19 ‘Tonys’, with the latter claims almost certainly being for D4Y1s too.
Lt Zenji Abe was involved in the action on this fateful day, as he describes in the following extract from The Emperor’s Sea Eagle;
‘On 13 June [Vice Admiral Jisaburo] Ozawa’s fleet weighed anchor and sortied from its Tawi-Tawi anchorage. Upon receiving information that Saipan, Tinian and Guam were being subjected to fierce gunfire from US warships, Ozawa steamed north of the Sulu Sea, sailing east of the San Bernardino Straits which form the centreline of the Philippines.
‘On board Taiho, Ozawa broke out a “Z” flag [symbolising the IJN’s victory over the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905 – this flag flown alone meant, “The fate of the Empire rests on the outcome of this battle”] on the mainmast as his fleet advanced to the waters north of Palau. Once there, he employed numerous search aircraft [including nine D4Y1-Cs] whose labours ultimately bore fruit when, during the early morning hours of 19 June, they detected three US naval carrier task forces steaming west of Saipan. Ozawa gave the order for immediate attacks.
‘The First Stage Attack was composed of three waves. At 0825 hrs, the first wave totalling 64 aircraft [none of which were D4Y1s], and all from 3rd Koku Sentai, took off. This strike force was intercepted by many, many F6F Hellcats lying in wait 150 miles ahead of the enemy fleet, resulting in the destruction of 41 aircraft. According to US sources, one fighter bomber [erroneously identified as a “Judy”] broke through the American screen and scored a direct hit on the battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57).
‘At 0845 hrs, our 1st Koku Sentai launched 128 aircraft [this second wave included 53 Suisei]. Although this group located the enemy carriers, they were greeted by countless Hellcats and a wall of fierce anti-aircraft fire which cost our forces 23 Zeroes, 41 Suisei and 23 Tenzans [B6N “Jill” torpedo/level-bombers], including the group commander. One Tenzan crashed into the battleship USS Indiana (BB-58) amidships at the waterline, with the Essex-class carriers USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) and USS Wasp (CV-18) also being attacked.’
The vast majority of the Suisei destroyed in this second wave attack fell to VF-15, embarked in USS Essex (CV-9), and VF-16, embarked in USS Lexington (CV-16). Three pilots achieved coveted ‘ace in a day’ status during this one-sided clash, downing five or more ‘Judys’. One of them was Cdr David McCampbell, the US Navy’s future ranking ace. Commander of Carrier Air Group 15, he had led a division of 12 aircraft into the air from Essex shortly after 0915 hrs and climbed up to 25,000 ft to commence his assigned CAP ahead of TG 58.2. McCampbell was duly given a vector to follow in order to intercept the approaching second wave, and these aircraft – 50+ D4Y1s and their A6M5 escorts – were spotted at 1139 hrs 45 miles from Essex. Minutes later, McCampbell nosed his Hellcat over and led his division into action. He subsequently noted in his Aircraft Action Report;
‘My first target was a Judy on the left flank and approximately halfway back in the formation. I intended, after completing the run on this plane, to pass under it, retire across the formation and take under fire a plane on the right flank with a low-side attack. My plans were upset, however, when the first plane I fired at blew up practically in my face, and forced me to pull out above the entire formation. I remember being unable to get to the other side fast enough, feeling as though every gunner had his fire directed at me.
‘I made my second attack on a Judy on the right flank of the formation, which burned favourably on one pass and fell away from the formation out of control. Retirement was then made below and ahead, and I directed my efforts toward retaining as much speed as possible and working myself ahead and into position for an attack on the leader. I made a third pass from below and the rear on a Judy, which I hit, and it smoked as it pulled out and down from the formation.
‘I pulled up and on to the side, shortly placing my aircraft in position for an above-rear run on the leader, who was closely formed with his port wingman and the other wingman trailing somewhat to the right rear. While reaching for a favourable position on the leader, it was noted that the formation really consisted of two groups, with the lower one being laterally displaced by about 1000 yards and about 500 to 800 ft below. After my first pass on the leader with no visible damage observed, I pulled out below and to the left. Deciding it would be easier to concentrate on the port wingman rather than the leader, my next pass was an above-rear run from seven o’clock. The wingman exploded, enveloped in flames.
‘Breaking away down and to the left placed me in position for a below-rear run on the leader from eight o’clock. I worked onto his tail and continued to fire until he burned furiously and spiralled downward out of control.
‘During the last bursts on the leader, gun stoppages occurred. Both port and starboard guns were charged in an attempt to clear them before firing again.
‘A brief survey of the situation at this point revealed that the formation had been decimated, and the attack effectively broken up. One Judy, which appeared to have been leading the lower formation because of his position ahead and near alignment with the leader of the high group, offered himself as a target to me. By this time, I was at four o’clock, down, and I made a modified high-side run on him. Only my starboard guns fired on this run, which threw me into a violent skid, and I pulled out early after a short burst. Guns were charged twice again, and since my target had pushed over and gained high speed, a stern chase ensued. Bursts of my starboard gun alone, before all guns ceased to fire, caused him to burn and pull up into a high wing-over before plummeting into the sea.’
Yokosuka D4Y ‘Judy’ Units is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Wikipedia