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The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

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The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

When the United States entered World War II, the major warship was the mighty battleship, almost unsinkable and equipped with massive firepower, including guns that would fire a projectile the weight of a modern automobile twenty-five miles. It had seakeeping second to none and an awe-inspiring appearance as it would appear in silhouette on the horizon or in a foreign port. It even lent its name to a new term: “battleship diplomacy”.

A few minutes at a place named Pearl Harbor changed all of that.  Pearl Harbor was supposed to be too shallow for even the vaunted “Long Lance” Japanese torpedo to be effective.  However, the addition of wooden fins made them more than effective, it made them deadly. Pearl Harbor was supposed to be too well defended by land-based bombers, but the fast, weather-shielded aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy proved the United States wrong again.  Pearl Harbor was supposed to be too distant for Japanese bombers to attack, but fast carriers changed that, and so changed sea warfare forever.

Fortunately for United States forces, Admiral Bill Halsey had his carriers at sea that fateful Sunday, and they all survived.  The exigencies of the times put the carrier-borne aircraft as the weapon of choice, and soon there were Pacific battles that were fought with the major surface ships never in sight of one another. The first of such engagements was known as the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea was the third, and was also known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.  The two days counted 645 Japanese planes downed, to 123 for the Navy. A pilot said, “This is just like shooting turkeys back home” and the name stuck. The back of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s air arm was broken, and the number of effective aircraft was sliced to almost nothing. 

In the 1960s The U. S. Navy Institute held a symposium on the Battle of Midway.  During that morning in Pensacola over 2,000 people sat enthralled as two former enemies, Naval and Marine officers from the United States and officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy, told of that day. 

And then at night, at the U. S. Navy Aviation Museum, we gathered for a meal, drinks, and conversation.  It was natural for us to cluster around the heroes of the Pacific War.  I was standing near an old man who talked with his hands, as most flyers do.  His name was David McCampbell. 

Captain David McCampbell had retired with the distinction of being the Navy’s “Ace of Aces”, with more kills to his credit than any other Navy pilot.  He was a veteran of the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, and he told, using his hands and his voice, a voice that boomed out, how he took off on that day and shot down fourteen enemy planes, bombers and fighters alike.  

And in one sortie he shot out of the sky nine planes.  An Army general standing with us looked incredulous, especially when the Captain admitted to having only fourteen seconds of firepower.  

“And JUST how did you accomplish THAT?” the general asked, somewhat skeptically. 

And the reply came, in calm, measured words, VERY carefully, general, VERY carefully”.

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