South China Sea

Relief map of South China Sea

The South China Sea is one of the most important bodies of water in the world, where numerous important ocean lanes meet. In 1941, it was also a potential flash point, since British, French, Japanese, Dutch, and U.S. interests came into contact here. The Sea is bordered on the north by China and Formosa, the latter a Japanese colony; on the east by the Philippines, a U.S. commonwealth; on the southeast by Borneo, controlled by the British and Dutch; on the southwest by Malaya, a British colony; and on the west by the French colony of Indochina, whose occupation by the Japanese in July of 1941 was one of the mileposts on the march to war.

The eastern portion of the South China Sea is relatively deep, but contains numerous atolls belonging to the Spratly and Paracel island groups. The southern portion of the Sea is much shallower, as are the Gulf of Tonkin west of Hainan and the Gulf of Siam between Malaya and French Indochina.

The Japanese war objectives required seizure of all the land areas adjacent to the South China Sea. This the Japanese did in a brilliant four-month campaign. The South China Sea remained a Japanese lake until 1945, when Halsey's carriers carried out the first raids into the area.

Halsey's Raid. Halsey conducted a series of strikes in early January to support the invasion of Luzon at Lingayen Gulf.  These began with strikes against Formosa and the Ryukyus on 3-4 January in an effort to cut the air bridge from Japan. These strikes encountered poor weather, losing 22 aircraft without being able to observe the results of their strikes. However, no Japanese aircraft from Formosa participated in attacks on the invasion convoy. Halsey refueled on 5 January, then struck Luzon on 6 January, destroying perhaps 32 aircraft. The weather finally improved on 7 January and Halsey's pilots had their best day, claiming four aircraft shot down and 75 destroyed on the ground, at a cost of 28 aircraft (of which 18 were operational losses.)  Japanese air opposition was sporadic thereafter. Halsey refueled again on 8 January and made a final strike against Formosa on 9 January. The 9 January strikes were again hindered by poor weather, and those planes that got through discovered that most of the aircraft at Heito airfield were dummy aircraft. Total American aircraft losses in the series of raids numbered 86, of which 40 were operational losses.

On on January 1945, Halsey steamed into the South China Sea to strike at the Japanese naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. The raid had two objectives. The first was to protect the convoy route from Mindoro to Lingayen Gulf over which supplies and reinforcements flowed to the Allied forces that had invaded Luzon. Allied intelligence believed that the remaining units of Combined Fleet were in two sections, one in the Inland Sea and the other in the South China Sea, possibly at Cam Ranh. Nothing could be done about the units in the Inland Sea, but Halsey hoped to neutralize the Japanese naval forces in the South China Sea. The other objective of the South China Sea raid was to destroy Japanese shipping along the China and Indochina coasts.

The actual Japanese naval strength at this point was three battleships, three fleet carriers, two cruisers, 10 destroyers, and 44 submarines in the Inland Sea and two battleships, five cruisers, seven destroyers, and four destroyer escorts in the Singapore area. Total aircraft numbered about 750. Halsey's force alone numbered eight fleet carriers and six light carriers screened by nine fast battleships, 10 cruisers, and 72 destroyers with about 940 aircraft embarked. While Halsey conducted his raid, B-29s of 20 Air Force were assigned to strike the airfields on Formosa to neutralize the kamikaze threat to the Mindoro-Lingayen Gulf convoy route, but logistical difficulties meant that raids took place only on 14 January and 17 January. Two submarines were assigned to lifeguard duty near Halsey's likely strike objectives.

Halsey refueled on 11 January and made his run in to Cam Ranh bay that night. Bogan led the attack with his task group, which was to deploy into separate carrier and surface groups so that the latter could engage any heavy units fleeing Cam Ranh. Night scouting was provided by Gardner's night carrier group, which found to Halsey's disappointment that there were no large Japanese warships at Cam Ranh or anywhere else between Saigon and Hong Kong.

Halsey nevertheless launched some 850 aircraft, which savaged Japanese merchant shipping along the Indochina coast. One Japanese convoy lost nine loaded tankers, as well as light cruiser Kashii, to Halsey's airmen. Another lost two cargo ships, three tankers, three destroyer escorts, and a landing ship. Regrettably, Halsey's airmen also mistakenly sank the French cruiser La Motte-Piquet.  Total losses inflicted on the Japanese were 44 ships totaling 132,700 tons. Halsey also claimed 15 aircraft shot down and another 97 destroyed on the ground for a loss of 23 planes, most of whose aircrew were rescued.

Halsey then raced north to avoid a typhoon, attempted to refuel on 13 January but was hindered by heavy seas, then ordered by King to protect Lingayen. However, Nimitz authorized Halsey to attack Hong Kong if no other targets presented themselves. Heavy weather continued through 15 January, however, and the strikes on Formosa that day were relatively unproductive, sinking just one tanker, one transport, and destroyers Hatakaze and Tsuga. Some 34 Japanese aircraft were claimed destroyed at a cost of 12 American aircraft. Hong Kong was struck on 16 January, but a combination of heavy weather, improperly set aerial torpedoes, and extremely intense antiaircraft fire meant that the Americans destroyed just 13 Japanese aircraft, sank one freighter and one tanker, and damaged four other ships at a cost of 27 aircraft.

Poor weather again hindered refueling on 17 and 18 January, and with no prospects of the weather improving, Halsey sought sheltered waters west of Luzon for refueling on the 19th. Halsey then planned to exit the South China Sea via Surigao Strait, but Nimitz urged him to exit via Balintang Channel north of Luzon to avoid detection and leave the Japanese uncertain of his whereabouts. Halsey did so late on January 20, ending the raid on the South China Sea.


Morison (1959)

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