With today’s surface ships so much in the blogosphere, I thought I would go back in time and interview Vincent P. O’Hara about his latest book, The U.S. Navy Against the AXIS: Surface Combat 1941-1945.

What inspired you to write The U.S. Navy Against the Axis?

I wrote The U.S. Navy Against the Axis because no such work existed. It started many years ago when I began collecting information on naval actions thinking to construct a simulation. I discovered that a few famous battles were well described, like Salvo or Leyte, but the most were hardly mentioned. In fact, just identifying all the occasions when large warships exchanged gunfire or torpedoes proved a challenge. I kept waiting for a book to come along that would address this problem, but one never did. Finally, I decided to write it myself.

What makes your book unique?

The U.S. Navy Against the Axis has an uncommon thesis: it argues that the surface forces were critical to the Pacific campaign and that their contributions have never been properly credited. While the combination of fast carriers and submarines eventually guaranteed American victory, in the crucial 1942-43 period carriers were too few and too fragile to secure sea control and submarines were ineffective due to faulty torpedoes. Even as late as October 1944 surface ships repulsed the Japanese assault on the Leyte beachhead after fast carriers and submarines had failed to do so.

The book also contains a great deal of uncommon information you won’t find anywhere else. For example, the only place you’ll find a reference to an action against German destroyers off the Italian coast in late 1944 is in my other book, German Fleet at War. I also try to present the perspective from both sides. The work has many maps and tables and is consistent in its presentation of material. This is an uncommon approach to navy history, but readers have been very receptive.

What were some of the factors that affected the U.S. Navy’s surface forces as they entered World War II?

The book’s first chapter describes these and compares the U.S. Navy to the Japanese, covering topics like training, doctrine, weapons, intelligence, aviation, technology, logistics and other important factors.

The Navy believed that sea power would be gained by sinking enemy warships, most effectively in a decisive battle, and that battleships were the premier weapon to win and maintain sea power. However, the way that war erupted, with the crippling of the battle line, and the fact that it was initially fought in unexpected waters, like the Dutch East Indies, immediately forced the Navy, out of its comfort zone. It had to react applying a doctrine that did not fit the circumstances or the forces available. It was truly a case of adapt or die and unfortunately, many U.S. sailors, particularly in the Asiatic Fleet, did not make it.

Also, the Navy was in the midst of a tremendous expansion and the outbreak of war caught the surface forces assimilating new men and new ships – as well as new technologies, principally radar. To this add the fact that the surface fleet deployed defective torpedoes and some of the results of the early battles come as no surprise.

What are some of the lessons learned from your book that are important today?

The book shows how doctrine was applied in battle. In the beginning results were largely negative. The process by which U.S. doctrine was rewritten, and honed to the point where new ships manned by draftees and skippered by reserve officers could outfight Japanese veterans is rich in lessons we can apply today in besting the asymmetric foes we face. The failure of our enemy, the Japanese, to apply a similar process is likewise relevant. For example, the U.S. Navy Against the Axis demonstrates the importance of intellectual honesty. Even as late as the battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese believed they had won a great victory because they tabulated the destruction claimed by their airmen and sailors and concluded they had destroyed the American Fleet. And this was on top of their destruction of the American fleet off Taiwan the month before. Rather than questioning their interpretation of their own intelligence, they wondered where the Americans were getting all these fleets from. At the beginning of the war the Americans suffered from a similar problem, but we quickly learned better.

The importance of adaptability is another lesson. The actions of the surface forces and the way relatively junior officers were willing to test new solutions was an important ingredient in America’s eventual victory. The home-brewed development of CIC is one example, the adjustment of torpedo depth settings in battle is another. There are many others.

Do you have plans for another book?

The Naval Institute Press is publishing my next book, Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940-1945 in June 2009. This work examines the Mediterranean theater with a focus on surface combat. It relies heavily on Italian and French material and tackles many of the old myths about Italian competence or French motives that haunt traditional Anglo-centric histories of this campaign. I am also a co-editor of a very exciting work on the Navies of the Second World War that the Naval Institute Press will publish in 2010.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would add that the U.S. Navy Against the Axis is based largely on primary sources for the Americans, the most helpful of which were individual action reports for many of the ships involved, and the Command Summary (Grey Book) produced by the Pacific command. On the Japanese side I was able to commission or secure translations of the Senshi Sosho, Japan’s official history, for all the actions involved. I also used ship’s actions records, the Monograph series, interrogations and translations of individual accounts.

Finally, I very much enjoyed writing this book. It is a work of passion and I have been pleased by the reviews it has received. Most particularly, I am happy that the reviewers have universally noted it is a well written and accessible work because I write to be read.

Posted by Jim Dolbow in Books

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