During the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Japanese lost 2 fleet carriers due to actions by American submarines. Why were the Japanese not able to defend against such attacks, and why were the Japanese submarines not able to execute similar attacks on the American side?

  • 4
    The Japanese never really got into anti-sub ops. Perhaps they thought it beneath the warrior code. On the other side the US had the North Atlantic experience. But, the US did have capital ships torpedoed (such as the Lexington), they just didn't lose many of them.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 12, 2016 at 2:04
  • 2
    And note that the Battle of the Philippine Sea occurred when Japan's naval might was greatly diminished. Apr 12, 2016 at 13:23

3 Answers 3


By 1944, US submarines were very experienced and had ironed out their problems with their equipment. They had been conducting an extremely successful offensive campaign against Japanese shipping since the beginning of 1942, and unlike German U-boats, had not taken heavy losses and so gained in experience. They had fixed the flaws in the Mark 14 torpedo finally giving them a reliable weapon.

In contrast, by 1944 the operations of Japanese submarines were severely limited by both fuel and Allied air superiority. The Allied experience in fighting the Battle Of The Atlantic; convoys, radar, sonar, air support, plus a huge production of US destroyers to protect convoys; was put to use in the Pacific. This meant little easy pickings for the Japanese submarines. Japanese submarines were often pressed into service to resupply Japanese garrisons behind enemy lines. All this meant they did not have the operational experience that the US had.

Strategically, the US knew the Japanese were coming and from what general direction. The night before the battle they'd intercepted a radio transmission. Radio direction finding gave the position, and the content let them know it was the Japanese carriers. The US could position their line of submarines so the Japanese fleet ran right over them.

In contrast, the Japanese were surprised by the US attack on the Marianas. They were looking to engage the main US fleet and so attacked. In doing so they could not put out a picket line of submarines for the US fleet to run over.

Tactically, that US submarines were attacking during a pitched air battle gave them a great advantage. With ships maneuvering at high speed and watching for aircraft they'd be less likely to be spotted in the chaos.

Once the battle was joined, the major advantage the US submarines had was poor Japanese damage control. Time and again, relatively minor damage to Japanese carriers is magnified by out of control fire and failing damage control systems.

Albacore only hit Taihō with a single torpedo...

However, the sixth torpedo struck the carrier on her starboard side, rupturing two aviation-fuel tanks.

This might seem bad, but putting fuel and water tanks on the outer hull is a form of anti-torpedo defense. The liquid fuel will dissipate the shock and slow fragments. Taihō was able to quickly repair the worst of the damage.

Putting fuel tanks in the path of a torpedo might seem like madness, but liquid fuel will only burn as a vapor mixed with oxygen. A full tank (or one filled with an inert gas) will not burn (sorry, Hollywood). But that vapor became a problem...

Initially, the damage to Taihō seemed minor; the flooding was quickly contained and the carrier's propulsion and navigation were unaffected. Taihō quickly resumed regular operations; however, gasoline vapors from the ruptured fuel tanks began to fill the hangar decks, creating an increasingly dangerous situation on board.

This is a running theme with Japanese damage control: they fail to ventilate vapor and purge fuel lines leading to increased risk of fire. And that's just what happened.

Hoping to clear the explosive fumes, an inexperienced damage-control officer ordered her ventilation system to operate at full blast. This action instead spread the vapors throughout Taihō, putting the entire vessel at risk. At approximately 14:30, an electric generator on the hangar deck ignited accumulated fumes, triggering a series of catastrophic explosions.


For more on Taiho's loss, listen to Drachinifel's IJN Taiho - Always Train Your Crew and American and Japanese Damage Control in WW2.

USS Cavalla hit Shōkaku with three torpedoes and did great damage. Again, poor Japanese damage control and their rush to rearm were their doom.

Badly damaged, the carrier came to a halt. One torpedo had hit the forward aviation fuel tanks near the main hangar, and aircraft that had just landed and were being refueled exploded into flames. Ammunition and exploding bombs added to the conflagration, as did burning fuel spewing from shattered fuel pipes.

As at Midway, a Japanese carrier was hit while refueling and rearming its aircraft. All that fuel and explosives lying around greatly magnified the torpedo damage.

With her bows subsiding into the sea and fires out of control, the captain gave orders to abandon ship. Within minutes, total catastrophe struck the vessel. Volatile gas fumes had accumulated throughout the vessel, and when an aerial bomb exploded on the hangar deck, a series of terrific explosions simply blew the ship apart...

This is repeated time and again with Japanese carriers, most spectacularly at Midway where the US aircraft caught the Japanese rearming. Akagi is hit by a single bomb landing in a hanger filled with armed and fueled bombers. Their pumps and flooding systems failed and she was lost to fire.

Kaga is hit by three bombs, Sōryū takes the same, and Hiryū takes four. Bad damage to be sure, but recoverable. They both suffer fates similar to Akagi: armed and fueled bombers contribute to the damage, and their damage control systems fail.

In contrast, the USS Yorktown is hit by three bombs and an out of control dive bomber. But in anticipation of the attack they stopped all fueling activities, even dumping fuel tanks overboard. Fires in the hanger deck (also filled with armed and fueled aircraft) are quickly extinguished and she's able to resume fueling within 90 minutes. Salvage teams begin to repair the damage, but she takes two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. She's abandoned, but remains afloat all night finally sinking in the early morning.

USS Hornet (CV-8) was also extraordinarily tough. Three bombs, two torpedoes, and a kamikaze knock out power. Despite this, power is nearly restored when another torpedo hits reversing all the repair work. With the Japanese on their way, the US puts nine torpedoes (many duds) and hundreds of 5 inch shells into Hornet. Still she does not sink. She finally goes down to four more Japanese torpedoes.

  • Note: Wikipedia has Yorktown sinking without the help of American torpedoes - Still a tough ship May 7, 2020 at 14:03
  • @EugeneStyer Thanks, I got it mixed up with Hornet.
    – Schwern
    May 7, 2020 at 19:11

Due to the low surfaced speed and even more limited speed/endurance submerged, in order for pre-modern submarines to take part in a fleet action they need to be pre-positioned on patrol lines, choke points etc likely to intercept the opposing fleet. This was Japanese doctrine for a major fleet action.

In the case of the Philippine Sea the US being on the offensive and with superior intelligence resources could preposition its submarines for the battle. The Japanese in contrast being on the defensive and having inferior intelligence (not knowing where or when the blow would fall) could not achieve this to the same extent - if at all.

This is additional to the technological inferiority in virtually every aspect of equipment and resources for both pro and anti-submarine operations by 1944, except possibly for torpedoes.


First of all the Japanese had significantly fewer submarines, by a factor of 3, than the US and the subs that they did have were for the most part smaller subs with less range and capability.

The US fleet had the advantage that it mostly operated in blue water where it is much more difficult for a sub to find a target. In general, attacking warships was very difficult for subs in World War II because such surface ships were much faster than the subs and could maneuver. Even if you shot a torpedo, in many cases the surface ship could avoid it just by speeding away and making sharp turns. Subs were mostly intended to destroy slow-moving transport ships, not military vessels.

That the Japanese carriers were sunk shows they were following bad doctrine and were probably either stationary or moving far too slowly. If they had been moving at full speed it would have been very difficult to hit them.

It was difficult for the Japanese subs to approach US naval groups because they had radar. A diesel sub has to cruise on the surface, where it can be seen by radar. Thus, American subs could approach Japanese ships at night, submerge and then attack during the day. The Japanese could not do the same thing because radar would detect them. Of course, the Japanese could have defended themselves by moving at high speed and not staying in one place, but apparently they failed to do this in some instances.

  • 1
    If you knew anything about the battle, or even about aircraft carriers in general, you'd know that the Japanese carriers were moving at high speed, and probably in a curving path. Carriers of the era didn't have catapults, so the airplanes needed the wind blowing from the front of the ship to take off. And general naval doctrine during battle was that if you didn't have a reason to go in a particular direction, you'd have your ship circle, zig-zag, or otherwise maneuver to make it a harder target. Almost every WWII picture of a ship under attack shows the circular wake this produces.
    – Mark
    May 8, 2020 at 3:23

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