Galveston Daily News
June 19, 1999

Cavalla makes its mark in naval history

Special to The Daily News

Editor's note: Today marks the 55th anniversary of the decisive day of the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, a pivotal battle that crushed Japanese naval power during World War II. On this date in 1944, the USS Cavalla, a submarine that now is on display in Galveston's Seawolf Park, sank a Japanese carrier. This account of the battle is written by Zeke Zellmer, who was onboard the Cavalla as its communications officer.

After the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy sank the pride of the British Pacific Fleet, the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse.

In a span of mere months, the Japanese stormed Hong Kong, British Burma, Malaya, Borneo, Singapore and the American-held Philippines. Admiral Yamamoto and the Japanese navy appeared unstoppable.

The Battle of Midway turned the war in the Pacific around, followed by the U.S. invasion of the Solomon Islands at Guadalcanal and the Allied thrust into New Guinea. The Japanese position was weakened by serious shortages of oil in the home islands where the fleet was stationed. U.S. submarines had destroyed much of the Japanese tanker fleet. However, unlimited supplies of oil were available in Borneo.

The Japanese strategic position remained strong because of bases in the Bonin, Mariana, Paulau and Caroline island chains and in the Bismarck Archipelago. These islands provided "unsinkable aircraft carriers" extending in an arc south and eastward from Japan to New Guinea. Intelligence on the opposing forces was critical to both sides. Each had similar tools: air search, submarine reconnaissance and communications intercept.

Air search from the "unsinkable carriers" proved to be most useful to the Japanese. Beginning in mid-May, Japanese submarines were strategically stationed to warn of U.S. force movements.

By the time of the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19, the Japanese had lost 17 of those submarines. In a remarkable two-week period, the USS England, a destroyer escort, sank six Japanese submarines. (The USS Stewart in Sea Wolf Park, Galveston, is of the same destroyer-escort class.)

U.S. submarines were not sitting ducks for the Japanese destroyers. During May and early June, they sank eight Japanese destroyers and damaged at least two others. USS Harder, in three days, sank three destroyers and damaged two. The Japanese Fleet grew short of escorts.

The Japanese reorganized their fleet under Admiral Ozawa. It was designated the Mobile Fleet and would be based near the vital source of oil.

On May 11, the elements of the fleet left the Inland Sea and steamed south toward Tawi Tawi, just east of Borneo. On May 16, the USS Bonefish reported six carriers, four or five battleships, three cruisers and many destroyers at Tawi Tawi.

Admiral Spruance, commander of Operation Forager, and Admiral Marc Mitscher, Commander of Task Force 58, learned where the Mobile Fleet would be based. On May 27, MacArthur invaded Biak Island at the western end of New Guinea. That same day, Japanese planes scouted Tulagi, where the U.S. Southern Force was staging for its part in the Marianna invasion. At Kwajelein and Majuro, the Japanese planes saw the main invasion force.

The stage was set. On June 11, the curtain was raised as elements of Task Force 58 attacked Saipan, Tinian and Guam.

Vice Admiral Kakuta's Base Air Force was greatly hurt, but reports to his superiors were optimistic and misleading. His lack of candor contributed to Admiral Ozawa's eventual defeat.

On June 15, Operation Forager invaded Saipan.

On June 12, a naval force that had been sent south toward Biak was directed to head for the Philippine Sea to rendezvous with the Mobile Fleet. Ozawa departed Tawi Tawi heading north. His departure was reported by U.S. submarine Harder and USS Redfin. On June 15, Ozawa exited San Bernardino Strait (in the central Philippines) and was reported by U.S. submarine Flying Fish.

The Biak relief force heading for the rendezvous was detected 200 miles east of the Philippines by USS Seahorse. Admiral Spruance knew the Japanese were coming to fight.

Locating the opposing fleet frequently was vital. In the open sea, a task force can move 500 nautical miles a day in almost any direction.

From this time on, the Japanese would know, almost continuously, the location of Task Force 58. It would be within search range of the "unsinkable carriers."

Ozawa was still beyond air search capability of Task Force 58.

ComSubPac (Commander Submarines, Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor) ordered his submarines to search for the Mobile Fleet.

Seawolf Park's own memorial submarine, the USS Cavalla, and other subs were directed to scout across the estimated track of Ozawa. Just before midnight June 16, Cavalla spotted a convoy of two tankers and three destroyers. She sped ahead of the convoy and dove. Cavalla was detected and forced deep as the convoy passed by. A destroyer searched for Cavalla for about a half-hour. When clear, Cavalla surfaced, made her report and, with no contact on the convoy, decided to resume her search.

ComSubPac felt the convoy was a replenishment group heading to a rendezvous with the Mobile Force. Cavalla was directed to pursue.

After an unfruitful pursuit, Cavalla received new search orders. At 7:57 p.m. June 17, Cavalla made radar contact at 30,000 yards. She found the range closing rapidly. At 15,000 yards, a large carrier could be seen visually, and Cavalla submerged to hunt beneath the waves. Radar had seven large blips while sonar heard at least 15 different ships. Cavalla's captain, Commander Herman Kossler, made the difficult decision to abandon the attack and carry out ComSubPac's general orders: Cavalla would track, watch and report as soon as she could surface.

By 9:30 p.m., the main body had passed, but two escorts remained and delayed Cavalla's surfacing. At 10:45 p.m., Cavalla radioed its report and started her second chase. The task force was moving at Cavalla's maximum surface speed; it was not to be overtaken.

That left the Cavalla, on its first patrol, with a frustrated crew. Two opportunities of a lifetime, and we had yet to sink a ship.

ComSubPac gave his submarines new orders: Shoot first, report later.

After relocating Task Force 58 on the afternoon of June 18, Ozawa decided to attack the following morning. He would strike Mitscher while the Mobile Fleet remained beyond Mitscher's range. Kakuta's planes searched through the night and made intermittent contacts with Task Force 58. Several of the Japanese snoopers were shot down.

Very early on June 19, an American long-range seaplane from Saipan made radar contact on a large number of ships in two groups. Then the fog of war descended - the plane's radio report never got to Spruance or Mitscher until midmorning when the plane returned to base. Well before dawn on June 19, both forces launched search aircraft. About 7:30 a.m., the Japanese sighted Task Force 58, and Ozawa prepared to attack. The American forces were nearly 400 miles distant. Ozawa changed course to maintain that distance; his planes could now hit Mitscher's forces, but Mitscher could not reach the Japanese fleet.

About 8:30 a.m., the Japanese launched the first of four strike waves. Just before 10 a.m., the first wave was detected 140 miles from Task Force 58. Mitscher's fighters flew out to meet them. The air battle raged; only a few of the Japanese aircraft broke through the fighter screens to face the guns of the fleet. Attacks by Ozawa were over by midafternoon. Mitscher's planes also had to fight a string of small attacks by Admiral Kakuta. The American defense decimated the Japanese planes, but Ozawa's ships eluded Task Force 58. Ozawa lost 250 planes and Admiral Kakuta lost another 50. Mitscher lost 29 planes, but many of the air crews were rescued. Only the South Dakota was hit by a Japanese bomb; it continued operations. Ozawa did not escape without serious ship losses.

As the strikes were being launched, the submarine USS Albacore made contact with the Mobile fleet. It was moving rapidly as it launched planes of the second wave. Just as Albacore was ready to fire from 2,000 yards, the torpedo data computer failed. Capt. Blanchard had to react quickly. A wide spread of six torpedoes was launched with last-second bearings cranked in by hand. One torpedo hit the Taiho, the flagship of Admiral Ozawa. Taiho continued on with the fleet. (Taiho was Japan's newest and largest carrier.) Albacore's crew felt a huge disappointment; a single hit was unlikely to sink a carrier. But fortune favored the Americans. Taiho's damage-control teams should have been able to contain the flooding, repair broken gasoline lines and put out the fires. They mishandled the crisis. An officer ordered fans to carry the gasoline fumes out of a hold. The vapors spread throughout the ship and inevitably, a spark caused a massive explosion that sank the carrier.

Later that morning, it was my submarine's turn to get lucky. At 10:12 a.m., an enemy plane closing on Cavalla caused her to submerge. Four small planes were seen through the periscope and sonar heard propeller noises on their bearing. Cavalla headed that way to investigate. Ship masts appeared, and Cavalla went to battle stations. Four ships were visible: a carrier with two cruisers on its port bow and a destroyer on her starboard beam. The destroyer was in position to cause trouble. Positive identification of the ships was important. We did not know the whereabouts of Task Force 58 and couldn't risk hitting one of our carriers. The carrier, the Shokaku, was large and similar to U.S. carriers, especially when viewed head on through a periscope that dipped beneath the waves occasionally. The last look before reaching the firing position gave proof positive - the Japanese naval ensign was visible.

Six torpedoes were launched. Three tore into the Shokaku. The close, unfriendly destroyer dropped four depth charges as Cavalla went deep. Cavalla ran as quietly as she could. Because the main induction line (the 36-inch diameter pipe through which the engines got air when Cavalla was on the surface) was flooded during the initial depth-charge attack, Cavalla was very heavy. The submarine increased speed (and noise) to maintain depth control. Before being able to check her descent, Cavalla was nearly 100 feet below her test depth and we hoped (prayed!) the safety factor would keep the hull from imploding. Three destroyers continued to hunt for Cavalla, dropping 106 depth charges. Over time, Cavalla drew away from them.

At 2:18 p.m., four large explosions were heard in the direction of the attack. Sonar reported loud, rumbling noises for many seconds thereafter. A jubilant crew believed the explosions spelled the end of the carrier.

Cavalla surfaced and triumphantly reported to headquarters. The carrier that attacked Pearl Harbor lay under the sea.

Task Force 58 spent June 19 in a series of defensive actions that decimated Ozawa and Kakuta's air power. Admiral Mitscher then proceeded westward at best speed to engage the mobile fleet. Ozawa, still optimistic, retired toward a refueling point to reorganize his forces. Before dawn on June 20, both fleets sent out search planes, but neither was successful. At noon, Mitscher launched another search, this time equipped for extended range. Two searchers made contact reports about 4 p.m. Mitscher decided to attack even though the range was extreme and it would not be possible to recover returning aircraft before dark. The American planes reached Ozawa's fleet with about a half-hour of daylight left. While Ozawa had few fighters left, his ships' anti-aircraft fire was intense.

When the attack was over, all of Ozawa's three divisions and the replenishment group had been hit. He lost a carrier, the Hiruna, two tankers and more planes, and had two carriers, a battleship and two cruisers badly damaged. At the start of the battle, the Japanese had 550 planes and nine carriers. The U.S. had 950 aircraft and 15 carriers. The Japanese were outmaneuvered, outgunned and outfought.

At the end of the battle, the Japanese had lost more than 400 planes, three carriers and two tankers and had major damage to several ships and many planes. Japan would lose the Marianas Islands, which the U.S. would use to base B-29s to strike mainland Japan. U.S. naval air and surface forces had won a remarkable victory in the "Turkey Shoot of the Marianas."

Capt. Ernest J. "Zeke" Zellmer, who retired from the
US Naval Reserves, lives in Satellite Beach, Florida.