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One unknown story of World War II concerns the role of the battleship USS Alabama (BB-60) in alerting Task Force 58 to a force of attacking enemy aircraft 60 years ago in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, commonly referred to as "The Marianas Turkey Shoot."
Historians have consistently omitted important details and circumstances of the battleship Alabama 's initial contact and report in June 1944. Early evidence either was disregarded or considered unsubstantiated. Today, however, with early documentation augmented by the action reports of the three on-scene Task Force 58.7 battle line division commanders, the Alabama 's so-called claim finally can be substantiated.
In August 1943, a new, improved SK air-search radar was to be fitted on the Alabama , but because of a time constraint and the need for the two battleships of Battleship Division Nine (the Alabama and South Dakota [BB-57]) in the Pacific, installation could not be accomplished. Thus, Captain Fred D. Kirtland had the equipment loaded aboard, with plans to install it at Pearl Harbor.
A few hours into the Pacific Ocean from the Panama Canal, Captain Kirtland announced that instead of going to Pearl Harbor, we would proceed to an advanced base at Havannah Harbor, Efate, in New Hebrides.
The ship's radar pedestal was high on the mast, about 130 feet above the water line, with the mast extending about 30 feet higher. Normally, such installation requires use of navy-yard cranes, but Alabama crewmen and crewmen from a nearby repair ship muscled block-and-tackle to dismount the original air-search radar and install and calibrate the new one. This was the same radar—with the same operators—used to detect, track, and then permit reporting the approaching massive air attack force on 19 June 1944. Initially detected approximately 190 miles away, the bogie was considered by many to be an anomaly. A closing plot, the Alabama 's formal 1006 report at 141 miles, and then a confirmation by the battleship Iowa (BB-61) removed any doubt of its validity. The South Dakota 's description of the first attack wave at 1028, "bogey now covers an area of four miles," indicated this contact was highly unusual.
The Alabama 's action report from that day cited the various reports of enemy surface force sightings and estimates of their progress toward the Marianas area:
On the morning of 19 June 1944, this vessel was operating as a unit of Task Group 58.7 (Vice Admiral W. A. Lee, Jr., USN, Commander Battleships, U.S. Pacific Fleet, U.S.S. Washington [BB-56], Flagship), and of Task Force 58 (Vice Admiral M. A. Mitscher, USN, Commander Fast Carrier Task Force, U.S.S. Lexington [CV-16], Flagship) engaged in support of amphibious operations against the Japanese held MARIANAS ISLANDS. Reports had indicated that enemy surface units were approaching the area from the southwest. One report received at 1900(K) on 15 June 1944 reported a large force leaving SAN BERNARDINO STRAIT. Another report received at 0318(K) 18 June gave position, course and speed of apparently the same force as of 2155(K) on 17 June. Based on these two reports it was estimated that the enemy's daylight position, 19 June, could be in the vicinity of Lat. 12-30 N., Long. 136-40 E. At 0700(K) on 19 June, a blue submarine report as of 0630(K) on 18 June confirmed the previous estimate. The enemy daylight position from Task Group 58.7 was therefore estimated to be approximately bearing 250 true, distance 410 miles, at daylight on 9 June 1944.
War diary entries of Rear Admiral O. M. Hustvedt, commander of Battleship Division 7, for the hours of 0001 through 1005 of 19 June 1944 provide further amplification. Excerpts from (unnumbered) paragraphs follow:
USS FINBACK in position 14 - 25 N. 135 - 45 E. at 2010 on 18 June had spotted searchlights. A search of the area produced negative results but FINBACK added that during the day of 18 June she had observed unidentified planes. It was thus increasingly evident the Japanese were approaching an area from which aerial assaults could be launched against our forces.
At 0913, a report of a search plane of VP211 had a radar contact earlier, at 0115, with a large task force, presumable enemy surface units, although no word of this information was received until about 0910.
Selected entries from the Alabama 's action report chronology begin with the following:
1000—Position of ALABAMA was Latitude 14-15-55 N., Longitude 143-00-20 E. Task Group 58.7 was disposed in Cruising Disposition 7-Roger, Axis 270, Course 250, Speed 18.
1006—ALABAMA made initial contact, reporting to CTG 58.7 a large bogie, bearing 268 true, distance 141 miles, angles 24 or greater, closing.
CTF 58 asked for confirmation of ALABAMA 's contact; IOWA substantiated.
Selected entries from the South Dakota 's action report for 19 June 1944 provide a dramatic description of the action:
1027—Friendly fighters have been ordered to form up at 270 T, range 30 miles.
1028—Bogey 1 bearing 269 T, range 53 to 57 miles, bogey now covers an area of four miles on this bearing.
1029—Order given to catapults to jettison bombs and depth charges.
1030—Friendly planes bearing 269 T, range 39 miles. Bogey 1 bearing 268 T, range 49 miles. Bogey 2 bearing 330 T, range 59 miles.
1031—Friendly planes bearing 275 T, range 39 miles and 49 miles. Friendly fighters bearing 272 T, range 48 to 52 miles.
1032—Friendly fighters bearing 273 true, range 40 miles and 48 miles. Increased speed to 22 knots by signal.
1033—Large group of friendly planes bearing 290 T, range 48 miles.
1034—Bogie 1 bearing 270 T, range 40 to 45 miles, at altitudes from 16,000 to 21,000 feet. Sky IV is on this target, range 98,000 yards.
1036—Merged plot on screen, bearing 275 T, range 38 miles, covering an 8 mile area. Order given to get up extra 5" ammunition.
1039—Bogies 1 and 2 bearing 282 T, range 30 to 40 miles, merged in general melee with our fighters.
1040—Bogies bearing 285 T, range 35 to 45 miles. Twenty bogies in group reported by friendly fighters. Groups of bogies began breaking through our fighters.
1042—Bogey 1 has split into two groups. Bogey 1 bearing 277 T, range 21 miles.
1043 1/2—Sky IV has bogey bearing 280 T, range 37,000 yards. Sky III has bogey at 40,000 yards. Sky I has bogey at 32,000 yards.
1044—Bogey is bearing 276 T, range 34 miles. Low flying planes on horizon off port bow.
1044 1/2—Sky II has bogey, three enemy planes visually bearing 293 T, range 29,000 yards. Bogey 1A bearing 283 T, range 13 miles. Friendly fighters are also at that position.
1045—Sky II has target, range 25,200 yards. Bogey 1A bearing 280 T, range 11 miles. Our fighters are also in that position.
Crewmen on board the Alabama on 19 June 1944 were made aware the ship's radar and its operators had made the initial contact. Notes cited in the 21 June 1944 plan-of-the-day reinforced awareness:
A [news] 'Flash':
Our search planes have reported the Jap Fleet in three or four groups about 250 miles to the west of us. At this writing, our Attack planes were taking off and heading for the Enemy. We may have a surface action today, Wednesday.
Messages, originated after the Air Attacks Monday, are quoted below for information. From CTF 58 (Vice Admiral Mitscher) to TF 58 . . . skillful defense of this Task Force enabled the Force to escape a vicious well coordinated Aircraft Attack carried out with determination.
From CTG 58.7 (Vice Admiral Lee) to TG 58.7, In the matter of reporting initial bogies, to IOWA , well done, to ALABAMA , very well done.
From ComBatDiv 9 (Rear Admiral Hanson) to ALABAMA , Congratulations to you, your ship and especially to your Super Alert Radar Crew. You were in large measure responsible for yesterday's superlative Air Victory. Southwest corner was getting hot yesterday. Your help is greatly appreciated.
From ALABAMA to SOUTH DAKOTA , All hands here express sympathy and hope casualties were light.
From SOUTH DAKOTA to ALABAMA , Thank You. Twenty men and one officer killed. Twenty three were injured. Ten serious. One five hundred bomb struck port side at 0-1 level.
Documentation that Pacific Fleet headquarters was aware of the Alabama 's initial contact and considered it noteworthy appeared in U.S. Pacific Fleet, Advance Headquarters, Guam, Press Release No.182, labeled "For release at 0800 (-10), 12 August 1945." It presented brief descriptions of the Alabama 's participation in various operations through to 5 June 1945. But the third paragraph of page 2 reads as follows:
It was the ALABAMA which first gave the warning to the rest of her task force that a huge air-fleet of Japanese planes was approaching. The resulting battle, in which the Japanese force was turned back, has been called the first battle of the Philippines Sea. American carrier pilots termed the air battle a "turkey shoot."
In a book published in 1999, containing statements by various crewmen on their memories of duty in the Alabama , watch officer E. Wayne Bundy commented:
In any case we got bogeys first and further out than anybody else. Turkey Shoot Day off Saipan and Guam, Joe Cook and Cliff O'Brien had incoming Japanese carrier planes so far out the Flag didn't believe us. Nor our 2nd report. Nor 3rd. Finally somebody else confirmed, and they decided it was for real. (We knew that from the first blip on.)
The radar officer, Captain (then-Lieutenant) John Henry, the two radar technical officers, (then Naval Reserve Lieutenants) Walter F. Lenoir Jr. and Eugene S. Pennebaker, and the two radar operators on watch that morning, O'Brien and Cook, were honored officially with commendations for their outstanding performance.
In the 1960s, the late retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Stephens Croom, member and secretary of the state's USS Alabama Battleship Commission, performed extensive research and made numerous inquiries, seeking confirmation and recognition of the Alabama 's initial contact report. In paragraph 2 of a 22 October 1973 letter to the then-Head, Curator Branch, Naval History Division, Washington Navy Yard, Croom states:
Your suggestion that we have erred in our claim that Alabama provided "the early warning" of the enemy's approach has caused us some concern.
With all due respect to [Rear] Admiral [Samuel Eliot] Morison in his decision not to credit a single ship ( Alabama ) as the source of the early warning, we submit, in support of our posture, two items of official documentary evidence, plus two living eye witnesses who were on the scene.
He then proceeds to detail the contents of a recommendation from Rear Admiral E. W. Hanson, commander of Battleship Division Nine, that Captain Kirtland be awarded the Legion of Merit. He cites also the telephone testimony of retired Navy Captain Henry, who recalled that the Iowa was asked to confirm the radar signal reported by the Alabama .
Croom's detailed assembly of the evidence, too lengthy to reproduce here, includes recollections from retired Navy Captain Frank H. Brumby Jr., gunnery officer on board the USS Indiana on 19 June 1944. What he remembers most is his skipper's reaction when the ship's communications officer read about the Alabama 's initial contact over the loudspeakers. "Dammit," Brumby remembers him saying, "why the devil does he have to tell what other ships have done; we have our own ship to think about."
At a ship's reunion in the late 1970s, Croom distributed copies of two letters he had received. One, dated 6 December 1974, was from the Navy's World War II historian, Rear Admiral Morison, and the other, dated 20 May 1975, was from the Director of Naval History and Curator for the Navy Department. Neither provided confirmation of the Alabama 's initial contact, but neither gave an unqualified denial. In fact, the letter from the Navy Department concluded: "My people have done further research on the subject without uncovering contrary information. Unless or until such information comes to light, I believe it is safe to assume that Alabama was the first to detect the Japanese aircraft on this occasion."
In fall 2001, a new inquiry to the Naval Historical Center yielded excerpts of action reports and war diaries for 19 June 1944 submitted by Task Force 58 battleship division commanders. Each cites the Alabama by name as having made the initial contact report.
On 30 May 2002, an outline of this article was mailed to the two Alabama radar operators on watch the morning of 19 June 1944, Cook and O'Brien. Cook remembered the distance for the first contact as being approximately 175 to 178 miles distant. From first contact on, Joe and Cliff observed the blips of individual enemy planes as they flew to an assembly point at an altitude of about 25,000 feet. The size of the bogey enlarged. Few believed the contact because of the distance, but radar operators on the other ships were alerted. Their radar, however, could not pick up the image. At about 150 miles distant and with the contact tracking ever closer, Captain Kirtland became convinced of its validity and qualified it as an official report at a distance of 141 miles. When the Iowa confirmed, everyone became a believer. Shortly, other ships picked up on the bogie. At a past reunion, one of the Alabama radar operators remembered the wait for confirmation as "some of the longest minutes of my life."
We frequently have seen the phrases "our radar provided early warning" and "at a distance of about 140 miles" as the lead sentences in historical descriptions of the Turkey Shoot. Other than CinCPac's Press Release 182, however, battle accounts omit comment on the considerable evidence that the Alabama had made and reported the initial contact.
It would seem Admiral Morison was aware not only of the Alabama 's report, its time, and distance, but also of her very first contact at about 190 miles distant. Today, with the detailed perspective of each of the battle line division commanders, substantiation is lacking for Admiral Morison's volume 8, page 263, citation of "one minute before ten o'clock . . . task force radar picked up a flock of bogies." Battle line commanders do not mention any such radar report.
Except for the cited time, their reports do parallel to some degree. Admiral Morison's page 265 citation of Admiral Lee's battle line picking up the massive bogey "at 1000 when over 150 miles distant" is close. The Alabama reported at 1006 and at 141 miles distant; the Iowa confirmed at 125 miles. With no other on-the-scene battle line reference to earlier contacts, Admiral Morison's scenario, citing times before 1006, yet including the phrase "over 150 miles distant," had to have some basis for him to extrapolate in such a manner.
Historians exercise some latitude in describing the overview of a major event, such as a war. Unique actions by an individual unit that contribute significantly to the outcome would seem an important part of any description. In Admiral Morison's letter of 6 December 1974 to Croom, he included the statement: "I am quite willing to admit that I was wrong." At a minimum, his historical account was incomplete.
Master Chief Spinner has been working tirelessly for years to gain the crew and officers of the Alabama the credit he says they deserve. For the sake of brevity, we have not reproduced all of his documentation here. He can back up each of his claims.
Proceedings content made possible by a gift from CAPT
Roger Ekman, USN (Ret.)