Supremacy at Sea: Task Force 58 and the Central Pacific Victory

Image of Supremacy at Sea: Task Force 58 and the Central Pacific Victory
Release Date: 
April 30, 2024
Yale University Press
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By the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy was the foremost maritime power, eclipsing Britain’s Royal Navy. However, at the end of 1942, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was nearly combat ineffective from over four months of heavy combat with the Imperial Japanese Navy in the waters around the Solomon Islands. The rebuilding of the Navy and its technical, operational, and logistical rise to dominate the Pacific Theater is the topic of this new naval history.

In the Pacific Theater, 1943 constituted a long lull in major naval engagements as both the U.S. and Imperial Japanese navies attempted to rebuild and reorganize. Although fighting still occurred up the Solomon Island chain and along New Guinea, in the Central Pacific, the theater under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz, there were no major naval engagements that year. The American navy was down to two operational aircraft carriers and the Japanese Navy, although still larger in carrier numbers, had lost a significant number of aircraft and pilots in the previous six months in the South Pacific.

By the end of 1943 however, the focus of the American campaign against Japan had shifted to the Central Pacific and the Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana island chains spread across thousands of miles of ocean. Moving into 1944, the rebuilt and restructured American fleet began a vigorous campaign to capture islands and atolls to serve as forward bases while trying to bring the Japanese Combined Fleet to a decisive engagement. The six months of almost constant fleet actions finally brought about the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the last true carrier battle of the Pacific War.

The author analyzes the rise of navy through three major changes through that year: the introduction of new carriers; the development of new aircraft to fly off those carriers and the pilots to fly them; and most important, but often overlooked in many histories, the development of the forward basing and at sea logistics capabilities that allowed the U.S. Navy to stay at sea far longer than their Japanese opponents, leading to a strategic shift in the balance of power in the Central Pacific.

The industrial might of the United States during the war was truly staggering. Fortunately for the Pacific war effort, a massive shipbuilding program had already begun before war broke out, and those ships began to make their appearance during 1943. The Essex and Independence class of carriers came out of the shipyards at a brisk pace, replacing all of the carriers lost during 1942 and giving the Navy the ability to begin strikes against Japanese held islands before the year closed.

Combined with the influx of new carriers, the aircraft that were flown from them now technically outclassed their Japanese counterparts and they were filled with highly trained pilots that replaced most the Navy’s casualties from 1942. The Japanese Navy simply could not match the capacity to produce ships, planes, and pilots to replace their combat losses from 1942 and 1943.

More importantly, the Navy emphasized the skills of underway replenishment and refueling, commissioning large numbers of dedicated logistics ships that could keep the fleet resupplied at sea, allowing the newly created Task Force 58 to not only venture deep into the Central Pacific, but stay there for extended periods of time.

This allowed the increasingly confident Admiral Nimitz to begin the strategy of “island hopping,” bypassing more fortified Japanese island bases to seize less defended islands where anchorages and airfields could be built, essentially isolating those Japanese outposts, and rendering them militarily useless.

The author details the concerted effort to use these powerful fast carrier task forces during the first half of 1944 to sweep through the Japanese held island chains, sinking dozens of ships and destroying hundreds of aircraft. By eliminating the ability of the Japanese to use land-based aircraft or these long established naval bases, Nimitz was able to accelerate the pace of operations, culminating in the invasion of the Marianas in June 1944, the same month the Allies landed in Normandy. Unable to ignore this action, the Japanese Combined Fleet sortied to defend these critical islands, setting up the last great carrier dual of the Pacific War, the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

This battle was a lopsided American victory immortalized as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” by the Navy’s fighter pilots. With advancements in radar, improved fighter direction doctrine and procedures, and superior aircraft, the Japanese carrier wings were decimated, leaving them combat ineffective for the rest of the war. The subsequent sinking of three Japanese carriers ensured that the U.S. Navy’s supremacy in the Pacific Theater would also be assured for the rest of the war.

By August 1944, Task Force 58 was preparing for its next campaign under new leadership and a new designation, Task Force 38, but as the author demonstrates with his excellent battle narrative, the Japanese Navy was essentially reduced to a force that could only gloriously die in battle, which it would two months later at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but it was no longer able to determine the outcome of the war. The U.S. Navy, using the lessons learned from this campaign that matured the role of the carrier task force in naval combat, would become the dominant maritime power by the end of the war and into the 21st century.