Admiral Marc Mitscher, 1887-1947

Admiral Marc Mitscher (1887-1947) was an American admiral best known as the command of the fast carrier task force in the Pacific during the battles of the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Mitscher graduated from Annapolis in 1910. He soon went into naval aviation, and in 1916 became Naval Aviator No.33. He served on the very first American carrier, USS Langley, and on the Saratoga, before being given command of the Hornet in October 1941.

Mitscher was a small, light man. As an admiral he normally sat at the rear of his bridge, facing the stern of the ship. He was taciturn but with a youthful reputation for being a hell raiser.

In April 1942 Mitscher was captain of the Hornet during the Doolittle raid on Japan. While Halsey commanded the overall task force and the carrier Enterprise, it was the Hornet that carried the B-25 bombers that actually carried out the raid.

In June 1942 Mitscher was promoted to rear admiral. He was captain of the Hornet within TF 16 during the Battle of Midway. He briefly commanded Carrier Task Force 17 while Halsey was in hospital in the period after the battle, then commanded the Naval Air Wing based at Noumea (December 1942-April 1943). After that he became naval air commander in the Solomon Islands, with authority over US Navy, Marine Corps, Army Air Corps and RNZAF aircraft. He held this post until August 1943, at which point he was ordered back to the United States for a relative rest period, as commander of Fleet Air, West Coast.

Early in 1944 Mitscher was promoted to vice-admiral and given command of Task Force 58, the fast carrier force of the main US fleet in the Pacific. This fleet changed commanders on a regular basis, swapping between Spruance and Halsey. When commanded by Spruance it was the 5th Fleet, and Mitscher's force was Task Force 58. When Halsey was in command the fleet became the 3rd Fleet and Mitscher's force became Task Force 38.

Mitscher's new command was a very powerful fleet in its own right, and made up most of the 3rd/5th Fleet. During the battle of the Philippine Sea Mitscher's fleet contained seven fleet carriers, eight light carriers, seven fast battleships, eight heavy cruisers, thirteen light cruisers and sixty-nine destroyers!

Mitscher's first duties with his new task force were the invasions of Hollandia and then the Mariana Islands. This second invasion triggered a major Japanese naval response, which led to the battle of the Philippine Sea (19-20 June 1944). Admiral Ozawa's Mobile Fleet, with 473 carrier aircraft, was to combine with the 500 aircraft on the Marianas to attack the American fleet. Unfortunately for Ozawa most of the land-based aircraft were destroyed before he reached the area, so he was outnumbered by two-to-one during the battle.

Mitscher detected the Japanese fleet late on 18 June and asked Spruance for permission to move his fleet into a position from where he could attack. Spruance decided that the risk was too great - his orders were to cover the landings on Saipan, and it was known that there were other Japanese carriers in home waters. On 19 June the battle began. Japanese aircraft attempted to attack the American fleet but were shot down in droves. Ozawa lost 346 aircraft, Mitscher only 15. Even worse, two Japanese carriers had been sunk by American submarines. On the second day of the battle the Japanese retreated to the north-west. Mitscher was given permission to pursue, but at first headed south-west. The Japanese were only found at 3.40pm. Despite the lateness of the hour Mitscher decided to send 216 aircraft to attack the remaining Japanese carriers. The American airmen damaged the carriers Zuikaku and Chiyoda and sank the carrier Hiyo, but on their way back to home many ran out of aircraft. Mitscher took the bold decision to turn on all of his carrier's lights in an attempt to guide aircraft home, but even so 80 aircraft, with 100 pilots and 109 aircrew were forced to ditch. Half of the ditched airmen were rescued that night, and another 59 on the day after the battle, but 16 pilots and 3 crewmen were lost.

During the summer of 1944 the Americans decided to invade the Philippines late in the year, starting in the south and moving up the islands. This changed as a result of raids carried out by Mitscher and Task Force 38. On 6-8 September Mitscher attacked the Palau Islands, then on 9-10 September he attacked Mindanao. This was followed by two days of attacks on the Visayan Islands, in the central Philippines. So little resistance was encountered that the Americans decided to skip the invasion of Mindanao and move the invasion of Leyte forward by two months into October 1944.

In the build-up to the invasion Mitscher's carriers, now under Halsey's command as Task Force 38, took part in a series of attacks on Japanese positions, starting at Okinawa on 10 October. On 11 October they attacked northern Luzon, and then on 12 October attacked Formosa. This time the Japanese came out to fight, but the resulting battle off Formosa was a total disaster for them. Hundreds of aircrews were lost, including the newly trained men required for Operation Sho-1, the defence of the Philippines.

On 20 October the Americans landed on Leyte. The Japanese had already put their plans into action, but even so the four Japanese fleets heading toward Leyte couldn't arrive until 25 October, by which time the invasion fleets they were targeting had unloaded their precious cargo. The eventual Japanese plan was for Admiral Ozawa's carrier fleet to act as a decoy, drawing Halsey's 3rd Fleet away from Leyte Gulf. Three other Japanese fleets, based around some powerful battleships (including the two largest in the world) would try and get into Leyte Gulf and attack the American invasion fleet. The resulting battle of Leyte Gulf was a major American victory, but the performance of several of their admiral came in for some criticism. Things began well. As Admiral Kurita approached from the west his fleet was detected. Two US submarines sank two of his cruisers, while on 24 October the giant battleship Musashi was sunk by Mitscher's aircraft (battle of the Sibuyan Sea (23-24 October 1944). Late on 24 October Halsey's scouts discovered Ozawa's carriers approaching from the north. Halsey decided to take the entire third fleet north to deal with this threat, even though Kurita still had the Yamato, sister ship to the Musashi, and a powerful force of smaller battleships and cruisers. He did create a new Task Force just in case it was needed to face Kurita, but then decided to take that force north with him.

By this point Mitscher was in something of a huff.  Halsey had personally issued orders to the commanders of the three carrier task groups that sank the Musashi. When Halsey repeated this breach of protocol to issue direct orders for the attack on Ozawa Mitscher felt that he had been cut out, announced that 'Admiral Halsey is in command now' and went to bed! His staff were less content to rest, and attempted to make sure that Kurita was either out of the battle or that his appearance was being guarded against. Halsey refused to accept any warning that Kurita still posed a threat, and Mitscher refused to press him. As a result of this breakdown in the command structure (and of Admiral Kinkaid, commander of the 7th Fleet's failure to make sure that the new task force was indeed watching Kurita), early on 25 October Kurita's battlefleet emerged from the San Bernardino Strait undetected and turned south towards the escort carriers of Taffy 3. The resulting battle of Samar nearly ended in a disaster for the Americans, but they were saved when Kurita withdrew from the battle, believing he had already won a significant victory. Meanwhile Mitscher's carrier aircraft caught and sank all four of Ozawa's carriers (Battle of Cape Engano). The battle of Leyte Gulf ended with the Japanese navy crippled as a fighting force. From now on the main threat to the American fleets would come from the kamikaze.

Mitscher had now been in charge of his task force through three major and many minor battles and was ready for a rest. On 30 October 1944 he was replaced by Admiral McCain, who commanded the fast carriers for the next three months. Mitscher returned in 30 January 1945, and commanded the task force during the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, serving under Spruance. In mid-February he led his carriers in a strike on the Japanese mainland, attacking targets around Tokyo, before returning south to take part in the fighting around Iwo Jima. In April the Japanese navy made its last major move, an attempt to get the battleship Yamato to Okinawa, where it could serve as a giant gun battery. Spruance wanted his battleships to deal with this threat, but Mitscher was determined to prove that his aircraft could sink the giant battleship, and was able to get permission to launch the attack. After several waves of heavy air attack the Yamato was indeed sunk, effectively marking the end of the Japanese navy.

In May 1945 Halsey replaced Spruance, and on 30 May McCain replaced Mitscher. This ended Mitscher's wartime service at sea, and when he returned from a rest he was appointed Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air. After the war Mitscher was offered the post of Chief of Naval Operations, but turned it down in favour of a seagoing command. On 1 March 1946 he was appointed commander of the new 8th Fleet (Atlantic), with the rank of full admiral. He didn't live long to enjoy his new appointment, dying of a coronary thrombosis on 3 February 1947.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 May 2012), Admiral Marc Mitscher, 1887-1947 ,

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