Thursday, November 20 2014
In writing “Vows to the Fallen,” I learned a great deal about World War II. My research was startling and left me scratching my head, both at my misconceptions and knowledge gaps. The first surprise was that the US Navy was ill-prepared for war in December of 1941.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the US Navy’s senior ranks were lax, smug, and bureaucratic. They did not understand the war they were about to fight. The navy had allowed the senior officer ranks to become bloated, and denied promotion to worthy young officers because the senior ranks were overstaffed. Administrators, not warriors, lead the US Navy.
Had the US Navy’s high command been mentally prepared for war, the attack on Pearl Harbor would have resulted in a devastating Japanese defeat or at least a draw. I will devote at least one future blog to that subject.
Regarding the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Turner said:
The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise.
The psychological factor was not limited to the Pearl Harbor command; it started at the top and permeated the fleet. Pacific Commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz boasted he could beat a bigger Japanese fleet because of “our superior personnel in resourcefulness and initiative, and the undoubted superiority of much of our equipment.”
The next two Pacific naval battles upheld Nimitz’s view, at least in the navy’s eyes, because no one was looking at the details. Both the United States and Japan declared victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea. They both were wrong. The two fleets, of equivalent strength, slugged it out from May 4 through May 8, 1942. The United States lost the aircraft carrier Lexington, and the carrier Yorktown was badly damaged. That left the United States with only two operational aircraft carriers in the Pacific and none in the Coral Sea. The Japanese suffered the loss of one light aircraft carrier and slight damage to a fleet carrier, but Japan still had one fully operational carrier left in the Coral Sea.
On May 9, the Japanese command ordered their fleet to find and destroy the remaining US ships, and their fleet had sufficient carrier aircraft and surface ships to do just that. However, due to heavy losses, Admiral Fletcher ordered Task Force 17 to retire. Had he not ordered retreat, the Japanese probably would have devastated the American fleet. Nonetheless, the United States declared victory for turning back the Japanese invasion of Port Moresby, Australia. From the Japanese perspective, the battle was a strategic setback, but Japan declared victory based on the ship tonnage sunk.
One month later, the US Navy heralded the battle of Midway as a great US naval victory. The victory fed the navy’s sense of superiority, but the American forces did not win the battle by superior strategy, superior training, or superior equipment. Quite to the contrary, the Japanese force decimated the aircraft in the initial US attacks. Attacks by American B-26 and B-17 bombers failed to inflict any damage. In subsequent American attacks, squadron commanders couldn’t agree on the course they should fly, and became lost, and many aircraft ran out of fuel. Twenty-one torpedo bombers did find the Japanese fleet; all but two of those were lost, and of the six torpedoes they did launch missed their target or failed to explode.
The lost American squadrons continued to search for the Japanese fleet when the fickle tumblers of fate fell in favor of the Americans. Three groups of American planes, coming from different directions, found the Japanese fleet at precisely the same moment. Admiral Fletcher had accepted the strategy of piecemeal attacks; this was now an attack in force. What saved the day was the tenacity of the American airmen to continue the search for the Japanese fleet. The final tumbler was Admiral Nagumo’s controversial decision to rearm his reserve aircraft at the same time he was recovering aircraft from a previous strike.
When the lost American aircraft found their target, the Japanese carrier’s flight decks were locked with refueling aircraft and loaded bomb carts. Nagumo was unable to respond. The US lost 117 aircraft, and the Japanese lost 322, most of those still aboard their carriers. The American aircraft proved inferior to anything the Japanese had, and in terms of US strategy, there wasn’t any. The far superior Japanese force had bad luck that day. In other words, the United States won the Battle of Midway by sheer luck against a better prepared and trained navy.
Two months later, the US Navy got a wake-up call at the Battle of Savo Island near Guadalcanal when the Japanese mounted a nighttime counterattack. The Japanese navy had practiced nighttime combat for years, the American navy had not. There was no opportunity to retreat, and the navy ran out of good luck. In that battle, a superior allied force was mauled by the Japanese, who sunk four cruisers and damaged two destroyers. Japanese cruisers suffered only minor damage. The United States lost the battle of Savo Island due to poor command and control and overconfident US commanders who were operating under sloppy and lax standards—even for peacetime.
Adding to the US defeat was the botched invasion of Guadalcanal. Cargo ships were loaded backward, there was no beach management plan, air cover was withdrawn early and without notice, and fully loaded cargo ships had to abandon the beach. Taken together, these factors contributed to turning the battle for Guadalcanal into a six-month war of attrition. It was the malaise and psychological factor that Admiral Turner spoke about.
The number and the magnitude of the mistakes got Nimitz’s attention. They could no longer be ignored. A shake-up of the navy’s command structure began. Admirals began “retiring” in the midst of war, and those lacking the prerequisite aggressiveness were replaced. Nimitz got the message, and from then on worked to clear the navy’s officer ranks of deadwood. He wanted warriors, not bureaucrats. He found the warriors, and the tide of the war began to shift.
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