Operation Battle of Formosa

The 'Battle of Formosa' was an air campaign fought between US and Japanese forces over Formosa (now Taiwan) and Okinawa (12/16 October 1944).

Formosa is a large island, with an area of 13,976 sq miles (36197 km˛), off the south-eastern coast of the Chinese mainland. It had been part of the Imperial Japanese empire since the Sino-Japanese War of 1896, when its seizure as the first Japanese colonial territory resulted from opportunistic possibility than strategic necessity. Except for lingering resistance by indigenous tribesmen in the deep interior, the island was pacified rapidly, and the Treaty of Shimonoseki transferring sovereignty to Japan had an unusual clause giving the Chinese on the island two years to leave rather that accept Japanese rule: the clause was designed to eliminate potential troublemakers. The initial wave of Imperial Japanese army administrators and civilian carpetbaggers was soon replaced by the administration of governor general Kodama Gentaro and his civil administrator, Goto Shinpei.

During its first decade in Japanese hands, Formosa was transformed into a laboratory highlighting Japanese skills in modernisation, modelled after Japan’s own modernisation in the Meiji era. Goto took the time to understand local customs, and adapted local institutions such as the pao-chia village militia to help maintain order. Careful thought went into planning the rapid and large-scale development of a local sugar industry. However, Law 63 giving the governor general authority to legislate for the colony was repeatedly attacked as infringing on the legislative monopoly of the Japanese Diet.

By 1941, the island had sizeable military bases and some industrial development, and supplied Japan with most of its sugar and small quantities of bauxite. Formosa’s terrain is mountainous, except for the plain along the western coast, where most of the population lives, and its climate is subtropical. The most important cities were Taipeh and Takao on the northern and south-western coasts respectively. The island was ruled by the governor general, who held the highest bureaucratic rank and was often a vice admiral or lieutenant general, and who was personally recommended to the emperor by the prime minister on the advice of the genro (retired elder statesmen) and the army leadership. The governor general was Admiral Hasegawa Kiyoshi when war broke out in December 1941 and General Ando Rikichi from 30 August 1944.

The native Formosans (takasago to the Japanese) are an Austronesian people pre-dating the first Chinese settlements in the 17th century. The Japanese initially confined the takasago to large reserves in the deep interior, where they were literally fenced off, with a special permit required for anyone to enter or leave the reserves. Almost 50% of the colonial police force was directed towards policing the aboriginal population as late as 1931. Much of the policing took the form of encouraging the aboriginal people to 'switch from firearms to peaceful agricultural implements' in a programme that was largely successful, with acreage under aboriginal cultivation more than doubling and rice yield more than tripling.

The takasago numbered about 140,000 in 1929 and were relatively loyal to the Japanese, and takasago civilian volunteers at Buna, in the New Guinea campaign, proved to be excellent carriers and scouts. The Japanese compared the takasago favourably with Koreans, whom they accused of eating the rice they were supposed to be carrying along the Kokoda Track, whereas the takasago would reputedly starve rather than open the bags of rice entrusted to them. Later takasago recruits were organised into companies under Japanese officers and trained in guerrilla warfare. The Allies first encountered these units on Leyte island in the Philippine islands group when the 1st Raiding Company carried out a suicide attack from aircraft deliberately crashlanded on Burauen airfield.

Some 1,360,423 Formosans volunteered for military service in 1942/43, often under pressure from recruiters, but only 3,505 of these were introduced into Imperial Japanese army regular units. Formosans were not subject to conscription until January 1945. By a time late in 1944 the island of Formosa had 15 army airfields, 11 navy air stations and two seaplane bases.

Admiral Ernest J. King, the US chief of naval operations, favoured a major landing on Formosa rather than Luzon as the ultimate objective of the Pacific counter-offensive, but was opposed by General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the South-West Pacific Area, and, somewhat surprisingly, his own Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. MacArthur’s staff estimated that the conquest of Formosa would require nine divisions and more service troops than would be available until after the defeat of Germany. The decision to invade Luzon was made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been persuaded in part by MacArthur’s argument that it was a political imperative to liberate the US commonwealth. The Joint Chiefs-of-Staff formalised this decision on 3 October 1944, following the recommendations of the San Francisco conference of 29 September/1 October 1944.

The 'Battle of Formosa' was a series of large-scale aerial engagements between carrier air groups of the US Navy’s Fast Carrier Task Force (TF38 of the 3rd Fleet) and Japanese land-based air forces of the Imperial Japanese navy and army. The battle took the form of US air raids against Japanese military installations on Formosa during the day and Japanese air attacks against US ships during the night. The Japanese losses exceeded 300 aircraft destroyed in the air, while the US losses amounted to fewer than 100 aircraft destroyed and two cruisers damaged. This outcome effectively deprived the Imperial Japanese navy’s Combined Fleet of air cover for future operations, a fact which proved decisive during the 'Battle of Leyte Gulf' later in October.

Japanese strategic plans for a decisive battle with the US fleet had already been established by September 1944. Anticipating the various options open to US amphibious assaults, the Japanese 'Sho' operational order envisaged four possible scenarios: these were 'Sho-1', 'Sho-2', 'Sho-3' and 'Sho-4' for the defence of the Philippine islands group, Formosa and Okinawa, the Japanese homeland, and Hokkaido and the Kurile islands group respectively.

As a result of its losses in the 'Battle of the Philippine Sea', the core of Japan’s air power for 'Sho' was land-based warplanes. The plan also broke with Imperial Japanese navy tradition by assigning overriding importance to the sinking US supply vessels rather than US warships. To restore morale, the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, flew to the front early in October to rally the troops behind 'Sho'.

The Imperial Japanese navy had experimented with adverse-weather training for a special air unit called the T Attack Force, in which the letter 'T' stood for typhoon. The strategy, along with night operations and submarine warfare, was meant to compensate for Japan’s smaller fleet compared to that of the USA by flying missions in weather conditions for which the Americans were not trained. However, like other Japanese units at the time, the T Attack Force suffered from a shortage of pilots, even after the recruitment of inexperienced pilots directly from the Imperial Japanese army. The inexperience of these pilots, compounded by carrying out missions at night, would later lead to poor performance and exaggerated kill counts during the battle.

By 10 October Toyoda’s tour of the front was complete, and he intended to depart Formosa for Japan that same day. He was forced to change his plans when Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force suddenly appeared to the north, launching strikes against the Ryukyu islands group. Toyoda could not risk a return trip home through a concentrated US carrier force which now carried more than 1,000 aircraft, especially not after previous Combined Fleet commanders had been lost during aerial engagements. As a result, he was grounded far from Combined Fleet headquarters at a decisive moment. Out of position and with inadequate lines of communication, the response to such overwhelming enemy air power was left to Toyoda’s chief-of-staff, Vice Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka. Kusaka correctly saw these attacks as a precursor to US troop landings, in part due to Imperial Navy intelligence collected over the previous week. As he was still unsure exactly where the US forces would land, he chose to execute the air component of 'Sho-1' or 'Sho-2', the planned defence of the Philippine islands group or Formosa respectively, during the morning of 10 October. 'Sho' was a complex plan involving multiple naval surface forces departing bases as far away as Singapore and Japan. It would take these warships time to reach their designated operational area and manoeuvre into position for a concerted attack. Rather than waiting for the arrival of the fleet for a combination of sea and air power, Kusaka ordered the air forces reserved for 'Sho' to engage the US forces at once, and reinforced this order by implementing 'Sho-2' in full during the morning of 12 October.

More than 1,800 aircraft were allocated to 'Sho', but these were widely dispersed over the four operational regions. About one-third of them were not battle-ready as a result of casualties and a lack of parts or trained pilots. When the fight began, Vice Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, commanding the 2nd Air Fleet, had approximately 700 aircraft ready on Formosa and Okinawa. About 100 aircraft in the Seto Inland Sea were later added to his command. Over the course of the four days, an additional 690 or so aircraft arrived from Japan and China.

Although this represented a huge number of available aircraft, the Imperial Japanese naval air service was still recovering from losses suffered in the 'Battle of the Philippine Sea' during June. While units had been largely reconstituted in terms of quantity by this time, pilot quality was in clear decline. Moreover, although the overall number of warplanes committed to battle by 12 October dwarfed any force that Japan had previously fielded in the air, the US Navy’s Fast Carrier Force of Admiral William F. Halsey’s US 3rd Fleet, was capable of committing a much larger, significantly better-trained force.

So far as its ordered of battle was concerned, the Imperial Japanese navy had in the four 'Sho' areas the 1st Air Fleet headquartered at Manila in the Philippine islands group with 350 land-based aircraft, the 2nd Air Fleet headquartered at Takao on Formosa with 510 land-based aircraft, the 3rd Air Fleet of 300 land-based aircraft as well as 100 diverted from carrier divisions, the 12th Air Fleet based in Hokkaido and the Kurile islands group with fewer than 100 aircraft, for emergencies, and the 13th Air Fleet based in Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies with fewer than 100 aircraft, for emergencies.

The Imperial Japanese army air service had about 600 aircraft allocated for all 'Sho' regions, in the form of the 4th Air Army headquartered in Manila with about 200 aircraft, the Formosa Army with about 200 aircraft, and the homeland training forces with about 200 aircraft.

As noted above, about one-third of the aircraft allocated were unavailable as a result of casualties and a lack of parts or trained pilots. A total of 720 aircraft was placed under Fukudome’s unified command when the battle began, with 100 aircraft from the Seto Inland Sea added later. The 330 aircraft based in Formosa were able to fight immediately. About 350 aircraft were still based in Okinawa and participated in missions farther away from Formosa. Some 690 additional aircraft arrived from Japan and China over the course of the four days.

The core of the US 3rd Fleet, the Fast Carrier Task Force (TF38) had 17 aircraft carriers including eight light carriers, six battleships, four heavy cruisers, 11 light cruisers and 57 destroyers. TF38 was disposed in four task groups: TG38.1 had the carriers Cowpens, Hornet, Monterey and Wasp; TG38.2 had Bunker Hill, Cabot (detached), Hancock, Independence and Intrepid; TG38.3 had Essex, Langley, Lexington and Princeton; and TG38.4 had Belleau Wood, Enterprise, Franklin and San Jacinto.

Radar-equipped Japanese reconnaissance aircraft sighted various task groups of the 3rd Fleet throughout the day and night of 11 October, giving area commanders on Formosa and in the Philippine islands group early warning. Knowing that dawn attacks on 12 October were imminent, the Japanese ground forces were placed on alert and aircraft were readied for early morning take-off to intercept attackers.

The combat experiences of US carrier air groups during the battle depended to a considerable degree upon disposition of their task group and assigned targets. On the morning of 12 October, the four task groups of the Fast Carrier Task Force were extended approximately from north-west to south-east: TG38.2, as the northernmost group, was assigned the northern one-third of Formosa; TG38.3 was next in line and assigned the central portion of the island; and finally TG38.1 and TG38.4 were jointly assigned the southern portion of Formosa.

All four task groups had completed the launch of their pre-dawn fighter sweeps by about 06.00. As the Japanese were on alert, Grumman F6F Hellcat single-engined fighters of all four groups were intercepted by Japanese aircraft and moderate to intense anti-aircraft fire was universally reported. Air-to-air engagements were fiercest over northern and central Formosa, where aircraft of Rear Admiral Gerald F. Bogan’s TG38.2 and Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman’s TG38.3 operated. Sherman’s Lexington and Essex claimed almost 50 Japanese aircraft shot down between them. Bogan’s task group contained the three 'Essex' fleet carriers Intrepid, Bunker Hill and Hancock: Intrepid and Bunker Hill[/e[ claimed more than 50 Japanese aircraft destroyed, making the combined claims for the two groups around 100 aircraft. The Japanese lost 17 of their 50 operational Formosa-based fighters, according to one survivor.

The US carrier air groups had suffered minimal personnel losses with nine US aircraft shot down and three pilots subsequently recovered by nearby ships or submarines. These unbalanced results were due, at least in part, to a lack of experience among Japanese pilots, and indeed Imperial Japanese army air service fighter pilots stationed to the north of the Philippine islands group were still in training. The majority of the Japanese fighter aircraft reported by US pilots were Imperial Japanese army air service types, primarily the Nakajima Ki-44 'Tojo', Kawasaki Ki-61 'Tony' and Nakajima Ki-43 'Oscar' single-engined fighters. Even though there were some experienced Japanese naval pilots operating at this time, the Imperial Japanese navy air service’s Mitsubishi A6M Reisen 'Zero' single-engined fighter units reconstituted after the 'Battle of the Philippine Sea' were flying obsolescent if not actually obsolete aircraft and still learning to work together, and therefore could not execute the kind of section or division flying that yielded tactical advantage.

Though the day’s remaining carrier attacks by Hellcat fighters, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver single-engined dive-bombers and Grumman TBF Avenger single-engined torpedo/level bombers did significant damage to military installations on Formosa, they failed to effect the complete neutralisation of Japanese air power based on the island. The Japanese response was well suppressed, however, and the only effective counterattack mounted against the ships of TF38 came from Japan itself. The elite T Attack Force, unit trained for all-weather and night flying, moved south to execute Japan’s first major radar-assisted nocturnal air-launched torpedo attack. The result was poor: US Navy ships made smoke for cover and manoeuvred radically to keep the Japanese astern even as the Japanese aircraft dropped flares to illuminate their targets. Eight Japanese aircraft were shot down by the ships' guns during the night, and three Mitsubishi G4M 'Betty' twin-engined medium bombers were claimed by night-fighters from Independence. The destroyer Pritchett suffered damage from friendly fire, but no damage from Japanese aircraft was incurred.

On 13 October the weather was worse than it had been on the previous day. Even though a wider array of targets was assigned to the task groups, from the Pescadores islands group to northern Luzon and Formosa, far fewer Japanese aircraft were encountered in the air. Results of the day’s operations were hard to ascertain as a result of the overcast. Pilots' reports from these two days of attacks helped uncover a larger network of air bases on Formosa than had previously been anticipated. This knowledge, combined with radio intercepts and the dusk attacks fended off the previous evening, led Mitscher to cancel any attacks scheduled to take-off after 14.00, and instead the task groups prepared to defend against another night assault.

As expected, elements of the T Attack Force returned to carry out twilight strikes against the US warships, on this occasion those of TG38.1 and TG38.4. The Japanese formations were spotted on radar at 16.40 and intercepted by the combat air patrols of TG38.4’s Belleau Wood one hour later. Belleau Wood's fighters routed the Japanese formation more than 70 miles (110 km) from the carrier force, destroying 10 fighters and bombers before returning to their ship. By 18.12, just before sunset, another formation of T Attack Force pilots was closing to within attacking range of the task groups. Six more warplanes were shot down in the vicinity of TG38.4 in just 20 minutes. A subsequent group of six G4M bombers which had penetrated the picket screen and evaded the combat air patrol made determined attacks on the carriers of TG38.4, putting four torpedoes in the water before all six were shot down by shipboard anti-aircraft guns. One torpedo ran just ahead of Franklin, and another ran too deep and therefore passed beneath the carrier. One of the bombers attempted to crash into Franklin on its way down, but glanced off the flightdeck and slid over the ship’s starboard edge into the water.

TG38.1 was not as lucky for 10 Yokosuka P1Y 'Frances' twin-engined attack bombers made contact with the group at 18.23 after eluding early radar detection by flying low over the water. Though visual contact was made and shipboard anti-aircraft fire destroyed six of the aircraft, one P1Y pressed home a determined torpedo attack on the carriers. The pilot was forced off course, missing his chance to torpedo a fleet carrier, but his torpedo struck the heavy cruiser Canberra, killing 23 of her crew and inflicting serious damage. Both engine rooms flooded and damage was done to the rudder. As a result, Canberra had to be taken in tow as part of a new task group, TG30.3, composed of ships detached from the carrier groups, and at about 22.00 the heavy cruiser Wichita began to tow the crippled cruiser to the south-east.

The task groups were forced to stay within Japanese air range longer than had been anticipated as a result of Canberra's situation. On 14 October, early morning fighter sweeps were launched to suppress Japanese air power on Luzon and Formosa while the newly formed task group attempted to escort Canberra to safety. Some air groups encountered Japanese warplanes in the attack zones, but no major air-to-air combat developed. Throughout the afternoon, Japanese aircraft flew to the perimeter of the task groups to relay sighting reports.

Another long night at general quarters was anticipated by the ships of TF38, and this was soon confirmed as sensible as TG38.1, TG38.2 and TG38.3 all suffered mass Japanese air attacks between roughly 15.00 and 18.30. TG38.2 was the first group to come under attack when a formation of 25 Yokosuka D4Y 'Judy' single-engined dive-bombers, using cloud cover to evade detection, was intercepted by the group’s combat air patrol. Only a few Japanese aircraft evaded the attentions of the US fighters, and these were able to put two bombs in the vicinity of the Hancock: one hit the forward port-side gun tub without detonating, so no serious damage was inflicted.

At about 17.00, a large formation of Japanese aircraft was spotted on radar as it headed toward TG38.3. As before, a great many of these attackers were shot down by combat air patrol fighters. The surviving Japanese aircraft descended to sea level to evade further radar detection, and these torpedo bombers and fighters successfully ambushed the formation just minutes later. Evasive manoeuvres, squally weather and poor Japanese fighter cover helped TG38.3 to avoid significant damage.

TG38.1 had been designated as cover for the retiring Canberra group. At 16.15 the light cruiser Houston joined TG38.1 to replace Wichita, which had been positioned to port off Wasp's bow before its reassignment as the towing ship. A large force of Japanese aircraft appeared after the sun had set at 18.31, and while anti-aircraft batteries of the group’s picket ships downed 10 aircraft as they attempted to close on the carriers, many more reached the centre of the group. At least two Japanese aircraft put torpedoes into the water in Houston's vicinity. The ship turned hard to starboard in an attempt to avoid the first torpedo wake that was seen. Although a second torpedo missed the ship to port, the first struck the cruiser amidships between the keel and the armour belt. Flooding in the engine rooms and other interior spaces caused the ship to take on a 16° list. Many of the ship’s crew had gone over the side of the wallowing vessel into the water. An order to abandon ship was almost given, but it was decided that the heavy cruiser Boston would tow the damaged Houston back to the east.

Although attacks on TG38.1 continued for hours after Houston had been hit, no further successes were scored by the Japanese aircraft.

Initially, the US operational order had called for the task groups to refuel on 15 October. Given the torpedoing of Houston and Canberra, however, only TG38.2 and TG38.3 departed to refuel. TG38.4 was reassigned to attacks on Luzon in order to keep Japanese attackers at bay while TG38.1 continued to function as escort for the group of damaged ships now nicknamed 'Crippled Division 1'. Faced with the decision either to scuttle or to protect the damaged cruisers, advisers to Halsey, commander of the 3rd Fleet, convinced him to turn a bad situation into an opportunity. Unofficially dubbed the 'Bait Division', the slow-moving ships and their escorts were used as a lure to draw out the Japanese fleet. Urgent radio transmissions were broadcast on open channels in the hopes of Japanese interception. Based on sighting reports, it appeared that the plan might work: in the morning and evening, cruiser and battleship forces were reported heading to the south from Japan and to the south-east from Formosa.

Meanwhile, Japanese air attacks did not reduce in intensity despite the severe losses suffered by the Japanese over the preceding days. Rather than waiting for night raids, Japanese attack formations, escorted by A6M fighters, flew attacks on TG38.1 and TG38.4 from dawn to dusk, and the combat air patrols over TG38.4 had to be boosted with additional fighters to intercept incoming Japanese aircraft. About 25 Japanese attack and fighter planes were shot down between 10.45 and 10.56 hours by a combination of combat air patrol fighters and ships' guns. Fighters from the light carrier San Jacinto accounted for many more aircraft destroyed during the afternoon. Although Franklin took a glancing bomb hit during these battles, the damage proved superficial. Aircraft from TG38.4’s carriers also fought the Japanese over land. Air Group 13 from Franklin encountered a large group of Japanese aircraft on Nielson Field during the morning strikes against Luzon, and claimed at least 20 Japanese aircraft destroyed for the loss of just one Hellcat fighter.

Once again, it was TG38.1 which was subjected to the most concerted Japanese attacks. No offensive attacks were launched by the group’s aircraft, so the strength of the combat air patrols could be bolstered as much as possible. Fighting Squadron 14 aboard Wasp had claimed 30 Japanese aircraft shot down by the end of the day, and other carrierborne fighter groups in the task group downed more than 12 others. Some close bomb hits were recorded by the carriers, but no real damage was done to any US warship during these attacks.

During the morning and afternoon of 16 October, long-range searches were flown by TF38’s aircraft, for it was hoped that a Japanese surface fleet was heading toward the broadcast location of the 'Bait Division'. By the evening, however, it had become clear that Japanese reconnaissance aircraft had taken stock of the remaining US fleet strength, and no surface engagement developed from Halsey’s 'Lure of the Streamlined Bait'. Although no Japanese ships materialised, Japanese air attacks continued in force throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Dedicated air cover for TG30.3 was provided by light carriers Cowpens and Cabot, whose air groups intercepted numerous attackers. The largest strike, comprising 75 Japanese attack and fighter aircraft, arrived at about 13.30. One twin-engined aeroplane fought through the combat air patrol and ships' anti-aircraft batteries, surviving just long enough to put a torpedo in the water before itself crashing into the sea. The torpedo struck the after part of Houston's starboard side, blowing 20 men overboard and spreading petrol fires in the waters around the cruiser. Initially unsure whether the ship would hold together, the captain ordered the evacuation of 300 men as the ship’s condition was ascertained. In the end it was determined she would stay afloat and towing continued as before, slowly moving the task group towards the naval base at Ulithi atoll.

Surviving Japanese pilots returned with tales of a stunning victory, reporting that practically the whole 3rd Fleet had been sunk and that the US carrier force had been left in shambles. Though some members of the Imperial Japanese navy’s higher command echelons were initially skeptical of such reports, this narrative was carried forward by members of the cabinet until it reached the Emperor Hirohito, who congratulated the navy and army for their success. Newspapers in particular trumpeted these claims, repeating that the US task force had been broken and was in retreat. Even those unconvinced members of the Imperial Japanese navy, up to and including Toyoda, believed some kind of victory had been achieved off Formosa.

In reality, the 'Battle of Formosa' represented a rout of Japanese air forces and a turning point for future naval operations. Upon realising the scale of the Japanese defeat suffered on 12 October alone, Fukudome lamented that 'Our fighters were nothing but so many eggs thrown at the stone wall of the indomitable enemy formation.'

In response to the US attacks on Formosa from 12 October, newly formed Japanese carrier units such as the 634th Kokutai (flotilla) were detached from their ships in the 4th Carrier Division. Posted to the land-based 2nd Air Fleet, the 634th Kokutai now underwent rapid attrition throughout the remainder of the month. By January 1945 this group had no personnel capable of maintaining flight operations. At the same time, older carrier units such as the 653rd Kokutai, which had just finished rebuilding after losses suffered during the 'Battle of the Philippine Sea', were detached and similarly integrated into the 2nd Air Fleet. Over the course of the 'Battle of Formosa' alone, the 653rd Kokutai lost almost half of its available aircraft.

Between the aforementioned carrier air group losses, which deprived Ozawa’s ships of their pilots, and losses of experienced land-based attack units like the T Attack Force, there remained no real Japanese prospect of providing air cover over the Japanese fleet in the forthcoming 'Battle of Leyte Gulf'. Both historians of the battle and Imperial Japanese navy commanders have acknowledged this factor as the primary reason for the 'Sho' plan’s failure.

The 'Battle of Formosa' also proved to mark a turning point in Japanese military tactics. Organised kamikaze attacks had been proposed after the 'Battle of the Philippine Sea' but rejected by Imperial Japanese navy leaders throughout September 1944. Only in the immediate wake of the 'Battle of Formosa', when Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi replaced Vice Admiral Kimpei Teraoka as commander of the 1st Air Fleet, were units specifically deployed with the intent to crash-dive onto US vessels.