With Okinawa finally secured, the 3rd Fleet retired to Leyte, there to replenish, refuel, and rest. No further invasion operations were scheduled until October, when Operation ”Olympic”, the invasion of Kyushu, was planned to take place. Partially as a preparation for that invasion, and partially in order for 3rd Fleet not to sit idly by the sidelines while the war went on, for July and August, series of fast carriers operations against various targets in mainland Japan were scheduled. Among the targets to be hit were industrial plants and infrastructure, but most importantly, airfields from Hokkaido to Kyushu. By destroying parked and scrambling aircraft, the Third Fleet could reduce the potential danger of Kamikazes in October.
Task Force 38, comprising three American carrier groups under Vice-Admiral John S. McCain, commanded by Rear-Admirals Thomas L. Sprague, Gerald F. Bogan (unusually strong) and Arthur W. Radford, had the assistance of the British Pacific Fleet under Vice-Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings, the British carrier group being under Vice-Admiral Sir Philip Vian. Overall command over the Allied force was held by Admiral William F. Halsey in battleship Missouri.
All of Task Force 38 sortied from Leyte on July 1st, slowly proceeding north by west, passing south of Iwo Jima and reaching a position 200nm to ist east on July 8th, fuelling there from ServRon 10 oilers. From there, Task Force 38 bent on speed and headed north, for the flying-off positions from which it would launch ist first strikes on July 10th.
In the morning hours of July 10th, then, Task Force 38’s deck crews once more sprang into action, moving planes about and putting bombs under fuselages and wings. But as the American strikes reached their targets, they found the airspace deserted and the airfields, although holding aircraft, a difficult target because of strong revetments and the scattered placement of the aircraft. About 100 planes were destroyed.
Although partially puzzled, the American reaction was to accept the obvious. At home, aircraft contracts were cancelled - there being no reason to procure more modern, more powerful, and more expensive fighters, when no-one was contesting the existing supremacy in the air. At sea, Halsey and the fleet continued their raids. Departing the Tokyo vicinity on the evening of the 10th, heading east, Halsey proceeded to strike targets in northern Honshu and on Hokkaido. Another refueling took place on July 12th, for strikes were initially scheduled for the 13th, but foul weather prevented the aerial operations. On the 14th, however, South Dakota, Indiana and Massachusetts shelled a factory of the Japan Iron Company a Kamaishi. Some 802 16” shells were expended by the fleet, plus cruiser and destroyer ammunition (some of which was directed at three merchantmen encountered off the target). Extensive damage was done, although the ships encountered escaped.
As the weather cleared, the strikes that had been postponed for two days could finally be launched on July 15th, against various targets in northern Japan. Among the most vital targets hit, and perhaps the greatest strategic victory in bombing Japan, was the severing of the Honshu-Hokkaido car and rail ferry. Of twelve ferries on the line, eight were sunk, two heavily damaged, and two beached. This ferry line had supplied coal from the rich Hokkaido fields to the dependent industries of Honshu. No replacement would be possible; Japanese industrial production had suffered a critical blow. Taken against this background, the concurrent battleship bombardment by Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin of the Muroran industrial targets of the Wanishi Iron Works and the Japan Steel Company, which, due to heavy weather and fog, did not suffer too severely.
Completing their local operations, Task Force 38 headed south by east, for a special rendezvous: on July 16th, it met Task Force 37,the British Pacific Fleet, which had departed Manus in the Admiralty Islands on July 6th.
Although just three carriers were now part of the BPF, the stout armored decks of the British carriers and their American-equipped air groups were a valuable addition to the 3rd Fleet.
The British were quite anxious that their logitical supply would be unadequate to the tasks at hand; and indeed, it would turn out that only with U.S. support, and a bit of luck, the British were capable of standing up to the U.S. Navy’s operational tempo. Especially two delays of strikes ordered by Halsey, each giving the British another valuable day to refuel their ships, were critical aid.
The two Allied task forces now proceeded to hit Tokyo and the surrounding areas on the 17th and 18th of July. Although little resistance was offered by planes, flak was strong. Airfields and shipping targets were hit, but bad weather prevented part of the strikes. On the afternoon of the 17th, battleships Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama, with attendent cruisers and destroyers, and the British battlewagon King George V. with two destroyers, were detached to shell the industrial area of Hitachi/Mito on the 18th. The shelling began in the last hours of the 17th and continued to the 18th, with 1.207 shells fired by the U.S. battleships and several dozen more by King George V. Damage was relatively slight, owing to the nightly hours and the exclusive spot by radar.
On the 18th, the U.S. Navy bombed the naval base at Yokosuka, were the battleship Nagato was anchored. Through intense flak, the Navy’s bombers scored several heavy hits, but could not sink the battleship (no torpedoes could be used). The British fleet struck other targets; Halsey did not want them to take part in the sinking of the Japanese fleet.
On the 19th, U.S. ships shelled a radar station with inconclusive results. But the weather was growing worse by the hour, and few planes were launched by either force, so the Allied fleets broke off their operations to refuel, an operation to be concluded on the 21st, later the 22nd. As, however, some U.S. ships still received fuel on the 23rd, the combined fleet could not sail for its next attack positions until the afternoon of the 23rd, ready to hit their next targets on the 24th. They would hit the enemy fleet again: anchored at Kure were most of the last remaining Japanese heavy ships. Again, the British were not allowed to participate in the strikes, being assigned different targets. The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, struck heavily on the 24th and the 28th. They sank the battleships Hyuga, Ise and Haruna, severely damaged the carriers Katsuragi and Amagi, as well as the Ryuho, and damaged the carrier Kasagi, Aso, and Ibuki (which were incomplete). Cruisers Tone and Aoba, veterans of all major campaigns, and the light cruiser Oyodo, flagship of the Combined Fleet, were sunk too. The British, by coincidence, had their share of heavy ship sinkings too: British raids against land targets by accident found the escort carrier Kaiyo, which in three attacks was destroyed along with two frigates.
The combined fleet withdrew to the south between the 24th and 28th, continuing carrier raid operations, and shooting down the occasional small scale raid. The renewed attacks of the 28th, which combined with the losses on the 24th (they are listed above together) ended the final strikes against Japan’s fleet.
The 29th was passed without strike operations, but on the 30th, the fleet struck Kobe and Nagoya. No special incidents are worth mentioning, except a bombardment of the Hamamatsu area by surface vessels, including U.S. and British battleships.
As August came, so did a special order from Admiral Nimitz: remove the fleet from Japan and cruise to the south. The reason for this order became clear on August 6th, when Hiroshima was obliterated by the nuclear bomb.
Events now took a swift step. While the Allied fleets refueled south of Japan, restocked, rearmed, and replaned, Nagasaki was devastated on the 9th by another atomic bomb. That same day, a combined U.S.-British bombardment group hit Kamaishi again, this time the town proper and the harbor areas, damaging installations and sinking shipping. The aircraft carriers in the meantime selected targets in northern Honshu and on Hokkaido, aware that airfields there might be used by Japanese bombers against the new Russian enemy. Other targets were shipping up and down the coast.
Admiral Nimitz’ orders specified that the Allied fleets were to continue pressure on Japan until the 13th of August, a problem for both Halsey’s TF 38 and Rawlings’ TF37. Halsey’s fleet needed resupply and rest, both of which could not be had at sea, and Rawlings’ force was scheduled to return to Manus on the 10th.
Rawlings and Halsey both compromised. They would keep their fleet in the area (although Rawlings had to decisively reduce his, leaving, in the end, only one fleet carrier active), effectively operate on dry bread and gas fumes, to keep pressure up.
On the 10th, repeated air strikes were flown, but most importantly, in the evening, Domei News Agency Tokyo reported that Japan was prepared to accept the Potsdam declaration - ready, as it were, to surrender. Both Allied fleets refuelled on the 11th, and Admiral Halsey ordered offensive strike operations cancelled for the next day. CAPs were kept in the air. Since, however, no news arrived in the fleet on the 12th of the imminent end of the war, Halsey renewed air operations against Japan on the 13th of August with strikes against airfields and various other targets in and around Tokyo. The Japanese showed little sign of peacefulness. AA was heavy, and repeatedly, the Allied forces had to shoot enemy aircraft approaching the Task Force out of the sky. Strikes continued through the 14th, and finally, on August 15th, 1945, a few morning strikes were flown. At 0700, Admiral Nimitz’ welcome signal was received: ”Suspend air attack operations.” For the next weeks, however, until the final document of surrender was signed on September 2nd, 1945, all forces remained alert and CAPs were continued.
The final raids against Japan, and the battleship bombardments, are difficult to evaluate for their usefullness. Losses, particularly in the 24th and 28th July strikes against the Imperial Fleet were heavy, and although all targets that were attacked were also severely damaged, it is to be presumed that in the final account, the Allied raids were unimportant. The fact is also, however, that this is only the case because the atomic bombs effectively negated all effects the raids might have had by ending the war. Several successes, for example, would have been critically important for the ability of Japan to wage war: the battleship bombardments of steel and iron works, which would have reduced output of Japanese steel factories by a quarter, and the destruction of the Hokkaido-Honshu ferry connection, which deprived most of Japan of the coal needed to keep factories working. Again, however, the question would be whether the same goal would not ahve been achieved by the B-29 raids on the transportation systems, especially vital rail connections. All these questions remain unanswered, leaving only one thing to be pointed out: the fact that American and British warships could operate off Japan for a month without suffering a single shipboard, enemy-induced casualty is testimony to the utter defeat of Japanese arms by the carrier forces.