This Day in History: Bravery at the Battle of the Philippine Sea
On this day in 1944, the Battle of the Philippine Sea begins. Americans would win a decisive victory, leaving the Imperial Japanese Navy crippled and the U.S. Navy in command of the Pacific.
One pilot became America’s leading Navy Ace during the battle. Then-Lt. Alex Vraciu shot down 6 Japanese planes in just 8 minutes! He later shot down another, making his grand total 19 enemy planes downed during flight.
It was the best record of any Navy pilot at the time.
Vraciu accomplished this remarkable feat with a Grumman F6F that was having a fair amount of trouble. For one thing, the wings on his plane had inadvertently been left unlocked. (The Grumman had wings that could fold and unfold to make more room on an aircraft carrier.) Maybe worse, Vraciu was having engine problems: They limited how high he could fly—and they ensured that his engine would keep misting oil onto his windshield.
Nevertheless, Vraciu was itching to fight. When he learned that a fresh wave of bogies was headed their way, he jumped into the fray.
He would describe the “rambling mass of enemy planes about two thousand feet below us—a fighter pilot’s dream!” He was preparing to make a run at one of them when he saw another American pilot doing the same. He turned and found another target instead. “I had a lot of oil on my windshield,” he related, “so I had to get in close and I always tried to aim at the wing root and cockpit.”
He took out five planes in quick succession before turning to his final target.
“Number six blew up with a tremendous explosion right in front of my face,” he later said. “I must have hit his bomb. I yanked the stick up sharply to avoid the scattered pieces.”
No wonder this portion of the Battle of the Philippine Sea came to be called the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”? The Japanese planes were no match for the Americans. Not only were they outnumbered, but the Japanese had lost too many of their experienced pilots in earlier Pacific battles. Now Japanese aircraft were dropping like flies. “[A]ll of a sudden,” Vraciu concluded, “the battle was over. I looked around and all I could see were Hellcats, and pieces of planes falling into the water.”
One American pilot was heard to say afterwards: “Why, hell, it was just like an old-time turkey shoot down home!”
The next day was a lot harder. The remainder of the Japanese fleet had (finally) been found, but it wasn’t located until late in the day. The American fighters took off on a long range mission just before sunset. They likely wouldn’t have enough daylight—or fuel—to get back.
They went anyway.
“I saluted to the bridge as I took off,” Vraciu later said, “because I didn’t think I was coming back. A lot of us didn’t.”
Perhaps it’s worth noting again: Those boys thought they weren’t coming home. They took off anyway.
Ultimately, Americans won an important victory that night, but our pilots would struggle. They had trouble finding their way back to aircraft carriers in the dark. Many ran out of fuel and had to ditch in the ocean. Some crashed as they tried to land. Fortunately, many pilots were rescued from the sea.
Vraciu was among those who landed his plane safely. He would receive the Navy Cross for his actions, but he also remained matter-of-fact about what he’d done. To him, as for many pilots that day, it was simple: “I had a job to do: Clear the sky.”
How blessed we were to have such a generation.
Barrett Tillman, Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II (2006)
Bruce M Petty, At War in the Pacific: Personal Accounts of World War II Navy and Marine Corps Officers (2005)
Dawn Mitchell, Alex Vraciu, WWII fighter pilot, dead at age 96 (Navy Times; February 9, 2015)
Elmont Waite, Navy Air Ace Bags 19 Jap Planes in Pacific Fighting (Miami Daily News Record; June 29, 1944) (p.3)
Philip Kaplan, Naval Aviation in the Second World War (2013)
William T. Y’Blood, Red Sun Setting: The Battle of the Philippine Sea (1981)