The medal above is the “George Medal”, which was an unofficial award commemorating the early struggles of the Marines on Guadalcanal. The image depicts, legend has it, the sleeve of Frank Jack Fletcher, with his hand dropping a hot potato onto the Marines ashore. The inscription is “Facia Georgius“. “Let George do It”.

Let me state that, in my opinion, James D. Hornfischer is unquestionably one of the finest writers of Naval history in the last half-century. His books, especially Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, are iconic works that tell superbly the tales of the US Navy in the Second World War in the Pacific. However, during a recent episode of MIDRATS, Mr. Hornfischer’s assertions about the US Marines’ history of the Guadalcanal campaign are entirely incorrect. The issue at hand in those assertions is the decision of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to depart the Guadalcanal area on the morning of 9 August 1942, after just two days of supporting the amphibious operations ashore.

Fletcher was concerned with the risk to his carriers, Saratoga, Wasp, and Enterprise, by having them tied to support of operations ashore. While understandable, what Fletcher refused to acknowledge was that with amphibious operations, once the landing takes place and forces are ashore, a commander is all in, and must support the forces ashore. The landings by the Marines were the entire reason for having Task Force 61 in the waters of the Solomons. Admiral Turner (commanding the amphibious task force, TF 62) and First Marine Division Commander General A. A. Vandegrift argued the point heatedly in a conference aboard Saratoga, but to no avail.

Chapter 5 of the splendid History of the First Marine Division, “The Old Breed” (Infantry Journal Press, 1949), begins:

The feeling of expendability is difficult to define. It is loneliness, it is a feeling of being abandoned, and it is something more, too: it is as if events over which you have no control have put a ridiculously low price tag on your life.

When word got around Guadalcanal in the second week of August that the Navy had taken off and left the Marines, the feeling of expendability became a factor in the battle.

“I know I had a feeling” says a man who was there, “and I think a lot of others felt the same way, that we’d never get off that damned island alive. Nobody said this out loud at the time. I was afraid to say it for fear it’s come true”.

“But”, says a Captain, “there was an awful lot of talk about Bataan.”

Even the greenest Second Lieutenant in the Division knew enough to understand that an amphibious operation cannot be sustained without Naval support.

The Guadalcanal Campaign, the official historical monograph published by the USMC History Division, is somewhat more matter-of-fact, but still states:

The withdrawal of the supply ships, therefore, was, from a troop standpoint, little short of a catastrophe, but Admiral Turner’s decision was not changed.

And sums up the situation of the Marines ashore this way:

The withdrawal of the transports had left the Marine forces with only a part of their initially scanty supplies ashore. Ammunition supply was adequate, but the situation in the matter of food was serious. Even with the acquisition of a considerable stock of rice and canned food from the captured Japanese area, supplies were so short that it was necessary on 12 August to begin a program of two meals per day. There was a similar shortage of defensive material, barbed wire (of which only 18 spools were landed), and entrenching tools and sand-bags.

The most serious shortage of all, however, from the point of view of the engineers who were charged with the completion of the airfield, was that of specialized equipment necessary for the task. No power shovels had been landed, nor dump trucks.

So, on 9 August 1942, the day Admiral Fletcher departs with his warships of TF 61, and the cargo vessels of Admiral Turner’s Amphibious TF 62, the Marines of the First Marine Division are ashore. But not all of them. Vandegrift’s reserve, the 2nd Marines, is still embarked. Those that are ashore have barely 96 hours of ammunition. They are short of food. The enemy strength and disposition is largely unknown. Their lifeline, the airstrip, is not yet repaired and has no aircraft. They are all but defenseless against the frequent Japanese air strikes.

Vandegrift and his staff had agreed to come ashore with an initial load plan that represented significantly less than their minimum requirement due to constraints on cargo space, with the promise that the Navy would surge supplies to them. Now, most of even that small amount was out of reach of his Marines, headed to sea in Turner’s cargo holds, as the latter was forced to withdraw when Admiral Fletcher’s warships departed.

But for three absolutely miraculous occurrences in the fortunes of war, the Guadalcanal landings might have been a disaster comparable to the loss of the Philippines just a few months before.

The first occurrence is that the Japanese commander, caught off guard, underestimate both the strength of the landing force (believing only a few thousand ashore), and the fighting spirit of the Marines, and did not move decisively to reinforce the small garrison on Guadalcanal with elements of the 17th Army that were available. (A single reinforced battalion of the 28th Regiment, about 1,100 Japanese, was given the mission of re-taking the island.)

The second was the fortuitous capture, with slight damage, of a single bulldozer, which the Marines used to maximum effect to complete a 2,700 foot airstrip on the Lunga plain. Without that stroke of luck, several weeks likely would have passed before any aircraft could have operated out of Henderson Field.

The third near-miracle was the capture of large stores of Japanese canned fish and rice, which becomes a staple of the Marines’ diet in the absence of rations still in the holds of the Navy ships.

Meanwhile, the arduous task of building of bunkers and of obstacles to defend the Marine positions and the all-important airfield, was done by hand in the searing jungle heat. The Marines, short of wire and sandbags, improvised as best as possible. By the time the 2nd Marines arrived (22 August) and additional supplies were landed, the Marines had been engaged in a number of short, sharp fights with the Japanese, the first of dozens and hundreds of bloody slugging matches in the rotting heat of the jungle on Guadalcanal.

The fight for Guadalcanal has been well-documented, and by the time last of the First Marine Division embarked for good from the island, the Division had suffered nearly 700 killed, 1,300 wounded, and more than 8,000 sick with malaria and other jungle diseases. For veterans of that time on Guadalcanal, men who didn’t have our perspective of inevitable victory either on Guadalcanal or in the Solomons, their resentment of (at the time) the US Navy and of Admiral Fletcher (which persists to this day) is entirely warranted.

Fletcher’s departure with his carriers, claiming the need to fuel (“always fueling”, wrote Morrison) was an exceedingly poorly considered move. His decision to do so infuriated Admiral Turner, commanding TF 62, who understood that his ships and their cargo were they keys to survival for the Marines ashore. While Fletcher’s aircraft carriers were precious commodities, his decision to minimize risk to those units had the effect of placing the entire of Operation Watchtower in considerable danger of failure. The lack of supplies and support which the Marines ashore endured in the opening weeks of the fight for Guadalcanal negated Vandegrift’s plans for immediate offensive operations (with an expanded airfield) to clear the island, left them all but defenseless to Japanese air and naval forces, and prolonged what became a protracted and savage fight under unspeakably miserable conditions.

In his efforts to protect his carriers, Fletcher inexcusably risked something even more precious and irreplaceable. The only trained and equipped amphibious force that the United States had in the entire Pacific. The loss of the carriers would have had severe operational implications, but defeat on Guadalcanal, resulting in an evacuation, or worse, capitulation, would have been strategic disaster.

Attempts at “reassessment” of Fletcher’s decision to pull support for the Marines on Guadalcanal, and justifying that decision six decades hence as “prudent”, are exercises in revisionism mixed with ample doses of 20/20 hindsight. The Marines’ bitterness at Fletcher is well-placed. Asserting differently dismisses the situation the Marines faced in mid-August of 1942 vis a vis the enemy as well as their own logistics. The Marines would gain a new respect for the Navy once Fletcher and the overmatched and timid Ghormley are replaced, the latter by the legendary William F. Halsey, who immediately visited Vandegrift and the Marines on Guadalcanal. Halsey’s “battle-mindedness” and promise of the support of the Navy was a refreshing and comforting change from his predecessor, and was immediately reflected in the morale of the Marines ashore.

Mr. Hornfischer’s goal in his exploration of Naval history, to put himself (and his reader) in the shoes of the commander, is extremely admirable. He would be remiss, however, if the sets of shoes he places himself in do not include the muddy boondockers of a First Division Marine on Guadalcanal. Were Mr. Hornfischer able to interview the First Marine Division veterans of Guadalcanal forty years ago, he would have gotten their perspective on those weeks without Navy support, expressed in the most colorful of language. Which needs no revision.

***********************************

Interesting comments from the esteemed author, James D. Hornfischer:

I’m delighted to find this colloquy unfolding in this reputable forum between such well-informed service professionals.

As I tried fervently to convey in NEPTUNE’S INFERNO, I’m sympathetic to the plight of the Guadalcanal Marines who were forced to persevere without air cover or full provisions for a period of time that they could not know at the time. Doing their business under these conditions, they were gallant and resourceful as ever. They are entitled not only to their pride, but also their chagrin. The question is whether the study of this history should end there. Is their heat-of-the-moment rage sufficient to serve as the final word on Frank Jack Fletcher and the Navy’s performance in the campaign? This question pretty well answers itself in the asking.

The blogger labels as revisionist any assessment of Fletcher that does not comport with the partisan, Corps-centric assessments formulated during and immediately after the war and abetted by Samuel Eliot Morison (and never rebutted by Fletcher himself).

The Marines’ resentment of Frank Jack Fletcher was well placed in its day. Our burden today is to see it in light of everything else we know about the complex circumstances that attended the campaign. Most of these, of course, were invisible from the beach. In NEPTUNE’S INFERNO I tried to thread that needle without resorting to the kind of interservice partisanship that characterizes many of the Corps-centric accounts of the campaign.

Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders at all times to operate under the guiding star of “calculated risk,” that is, to weigh the potential benefits of an action against its potential costs and drawbacks. In choosing how long to expose the Pacific’s only three carriers in direct support of the Guadalcanal landings, Admiral Fletcher determined how much risk he was willing to accept in the opening act of Operation Watchtower. He informed his colleagues in advance of the operation and his decision was extensively debated in advance.

Today, it’s all over but the shouting. History bears out the wisdom of his determination. The Marines were left without carrier air support from the carriers’ withdrawal on August 9 until August 20, when the USS Long Island delivered the body of the Cactus Air Force. The consequences of those eleven days of exposure turned out, happily, to be negligible. The Japanese did nothing to seriously threaten the U.S. position on Guadalcanal during that time. The carriers returned in time to fight the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. (His conduct of the battle demonstrated the sincerity of his caution; he ordered one of his three carriers, the Wasp, out of the battle area to refuel.) Fighting with one hand behind his back, so to speak, he used the Enterprise and Saratoga to deflect the Japanese push. He saved his fleet for that moment and the others that followed. One could well speculate that had he left his carriers near Guadalcanal continuously from August 7, they might have been struck, making the close victory of Eastern Solomons impossible and imperiling the Marine position even more seriously.

This, much like Marine partisans’ complaints of “inexcusable risks to the landing force,” is a fruitless exercise in speculation. It’s only proper to damn Fletcher—or say the “risk” he took was “inexcusable”—by assuming an alternate universe of events where his decisions led to disaster. That’s when you ask the question Why and cast the arrows of judgment at the perpetrators.

It seems reasonable to judge the final wisdom of a particular risk by looking at the results that flowed from it. If we do that, there is no compelling basis for labeling Admiral Fletcher anything other than a winner.

As events actually unfolded, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons marked the beginning of the Navy’s sustained commitment to fight in defense of the Marine position on Guadalcanal, risking its most valuable assets the whole way through. By the time it was over, the Navy had fought seven major naval actions in which its KIA outnumbered infantry KIA by a factor of nearly 3 to 1.

It is entirely coherent to sympathize with the authentic anger of the Marines on Cactus, and simultaneously recognize the balance of merit favoring Admiral Fletcher’s controversial decision. The Marines lacked air cover for eleven days, and a large portion of their supplies, and suffered the bracing uncertainty how long those circumstances would attend.

By the time it was over, the three-to-one KIA ratio stood starkly apparent to anyone who was watching, and victory absolves all sins. General Vandegrift remembered the November 13 deaths of Admirals Scott and Callaghan with his famous dispatch “lifting our battered helmets in deepest appreciation.” To wallow in the bile of interservice partisanship, from a tendentious evaluation of a fragment of events, in spite of the actual outcome of history, is little more than a parlor game that negates the final judgment of the 1st MarDiv commander himself regarding the performance of the fleet. Nearly 70 years after events, we can do better than that.

*********************************************

And response from the “blogger”:

The questioning of Admiral Fletcher’s decision to remove the carriers of TF 61 from supporting the Marines ashore at Guadalcanal is far more than “a fruitless exercise in speculation”, or “bile of interservice partisanship”.

To assert that, because the Japanese failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity to interdict the US drive into the Solomons and bring about a potentially crippling strategic setback, that the decision Fletcher made to withdraw was correct, is to assert that “all’s well that ends well”. Such is a singularly dangerous approach to the study of military history, as it goes great lengths toward the already-prevalent tendency to believe that the winners have little to learn from an ultimately successful outcome.

In any amphibious operation, support from the sea is critical to success, irrespective of the service executing the amphibious assault. Nimitz’ concept of “calculated risk” is in no way sufficient to excuse the willful passing of initiative to the enemy in the very place that was the US main effort at the time in the Pacific. Fletcher left Vandegrift without the forces and supplies to execute his plan ashore, in fact with barely enough to defend a thin perimeter against an enemy whose strength and disposition was largely unknown. That the enemy did not seize that initiative is to our eternal good fortune. We have several bloody examples of what happened in amphibious operations when the initial advantage of the initiative is allowed to pass. At Anzio seventeen months later, Army General Lucas dithered in his beachhead while Kesselring acted, reinforcing the threatened area as fast as he could with every available formation at his disposal. The result was a bloody slugging match against what was an enemy well prepared to meet the breakout. We should be grateful that Hyakutake was no Kesselring.

It remains speculation, as well, whether Fletcher represented truthfully to Ghormley that both General Vandegrift and Admiral Turner had stated that 96 hours was the time required for full unloading of the transports. Both had done so, and had argued vehemently against Fletcher’s decision while aboard Saratoga.

No, this debate is not “partisan service” anything. Initiative is among the most precious commodities on the battlefield, to be surrendered only at dear cost. Fletcher did so, and the Japanese did not take it. He was, as were the Marines ashore, fortunate in the extreme.

As stated above, the Marines by and large came to respect greatly the efforts of the Navy in the waters around Guadalcanal. It has been a subject of intense study on my part, and worthy of the highest of admiration for the bravery and tenacity of the American Sailor. However, the anger of the Marines and their contempt for Fletcher is understandable. The loss of the transports and the Division reserve crippled the commander ashore, and prevented the undertaking of immediate offensive operations that could have cleared the island before Japanese reinforcements arrived in significant numbers. Instead, Guadalcanal became a protracted fight that ended only with the evacuation of the Japanese survivors in early 1943.

Fletcher’s decision should be recognized for what it was, a major tactical blunder that could have had severe strategic consequences. That he, and his boss, Ghormley, were removed from command, speaks volumes. That is true, seventy years or seven hundred years after the battle.




Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Air Force, Army, Aviation, Books, Foreign Policy, From our Archive, Hard Power, History, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Navy, Uncategorized
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  • AT1 Charles H. Berlemann Jr

    URR,

    I think you fall into logical fallacy with your article here. That is looking at it through your jaded lenses of your service and your service history. I know of the dangers and horrors that Guadalcanal brought to most of the folks there since I have had time to meet guys who flew with Torpedo 8 or Fighting 5 when they went ashore after thier carrier was sunk during Santa Cruz. So I have heard the stories of if you could walk a football field without weezing then you were fit to fight/fly, of guys who flew with just skivvie shirts and shorts on because thier flight suits had rotted away, or maintenance guys getting tasked to fight on the line during the night because there weren’t enough ground troops ashore to fill the line all the way around.

    I would suggest if you have a chance give this book, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway & Guadalcanal by John Lundstrom. In that book he spends about two whole chapters talking about the Guadacanal operations. There he lays the blame all the way around the table from Fletcher and his staff for not fully understand the plan, Gen. Vandergrift and RADM R. K. Turner failing to fully articulate the true time they needed to be on station and finally on Turner and his staff for failure in relaying all the way around the revised plan (which they generated up the day of the landings, but failed to deliever to Fletcher prior to the close of business that day). Lundstrom also seems to show that Morision had an axe to grind as it came to Fletcher since he felt at numerous times Fletcher didn’t act aggressively enough like either of Morision’s heroes Halsey or Spruance. Final point I would note is that Lundstrom researched the fuel rates of pre-war compared to actual combat ops and then used some additional research done by Thomas Wildenburg in his book “Gray Steel and Black Oil: Fast Tankers and Replenishment at Sea in the U.S. Navy, 1912-1992″ that all the pre-war suggestions on area of operations given in all of the destroyers and cruisers was recreational pharmceutical levels of wishful thinking. So for him to withdraw the carriers after three days seemed prudent and combined with the fact that both Vandergrift and Turner’s initial operations planned called for the Marines to be ashore and with in control of a defensive line by the Landing+3. If you also critically look at the 1st Battle of Savo Island, realisitically the US Navy squadron was able to turn back the Japanese Navy and could have granted the transports longer time to offload thier cargo. However, all the combat commanders got spooked and pulled the those limited available cargo ships out of the danger area. So in the heat of combat some poor decisions were made that in hindsight now look unsatisfactory if not down right criminal.

    So I don’t think it is revisionist for modern historians to try and defend Fletcher. Even more so that as more and more data is unclassified through out the years and others are more then willing to dive not only into what has already been published research, but also do critical research themselves on the actual combat diaries, combat reports, after-action-reports, and even the more mundane things such as the reports of fuel/ammo taken on or transfered via deck logs or supply reports.

    The most interesting thing I think is that even some 60yrs since Fletcher a man who never got a pair of aviator wings and stayed true to his SWO roots, a medal of honor winner (no matter how dubious you view it) and a person who knew when to yield to his staff for the subject matter expertise; is still vilified even though he fought at all of the opening carrier battles during the first year of the war and had built up a ton of experience. Only to be replaced by Halsey, the Navy’s version of Patton; and Sprunace who twice got caught with a clutch decision to destroy the IJN and decided (just like Fletcher) that to withdraw was the better part of valor. Yet, Fletcher is vilified if not hung in effigy by historians while Spruance and Halsey are both given passes for thier leadership failings or combat failings.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    AT1

    I have read Lundstrom’s book, and I believe he is guilty of precisely that very same revisionism I discuss above. He is factually incorrect in several places, and his opinions are questionable in others. Both Turner and Vandegrift told Fletcher they needed 96 hours. Four days. Documented in both message traffic and in the meeting aboard Saratoga. Fletcher only gave them two.

    I would submit that you, too, are looking back with 20/20 hindsight of a campaign won as if it could not have been lost. Fletcher risked foolishly the entire of the Solomons operation. His excuse, needing to fuel, is contradicted directly by the ships’ logs of his own task force.

    From the USMC Official Monograph:

    “According to data secured from ships’ logs, every ship in Task Force 61 had on hand enough fuel when the log was closed on 8 August to last for at least four days. The carriers could have operated for 17 days, North Carolina for 18 days, the cruisers for about 11 days, and the destroyers, most voracious of the lot, for about seven days. These figures are based on the average daily consumption of each individual ship taken over the period of 1 to 8 August, 1942, and take into account the fact that two “short-legged” destroyers–Benham and Grayson–had fuel enough for three and two days respectively. Logs may be found in the National Archives.”

    So, no, I am not buying Lundstrom’s explanations.

  • sean quigley

    Seems the 1st Battle of Savo Island seems to be the crux of the decision to haul out….I’ll float this for your opinions cause you both have way better access to source material than me. What was the impact of seeing the ability of the IJN to fight at night against an equil force per ship vs ship and the effectiveness of the Long Lance torpedo??? That and few other battles were the meeting engagements of the US Navy and the IJN on a large scale surface action could it be that the leadership of the USN suffered a morale problem after seeing how damn good the Japanese were and knowing how far our surface forces had been cut down????

  • mcx

    for reverse logic, had fletcher not left, would the marines have performed as borne out in the campaign?
    somewhat akin to the sea story of cortes’ scuttling of his ships on the shores of the yucatan?

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Sean,

    Fletcher’s decision to only stay 48 hours off Guadalcanal was made several days before Savo. The conference referred to above aboard flagship Saratoga occurred a number of days before the landings on 7 August.

    Even with loss of the cruisers at Savo, TF 61 was still a formidable fighting force, and the only one capable of protecting the transports to ensure offload and supply to the Marines ashore.

    MCX,

    Vandegrift’s plans for large-scale offensive action were negated because his Division reserve (2nd Marines) was unavailable, and because his forces had, at best, 96 hours worth of ammunition, and no immediate prospects for resupply. Whether or not that plan would have succeeded, Fletcher’s actions ensured that it could not be executed at any rate.

  • Duke

    @URR- I too thought Mr. Hornfischer gave an unconvincing answer to the issue of the USMC “grudge”, perhaps because it wasn’t really central to him at that point, but I do think he had something when he said the Marines did a better job of telling their story. I also have to disagree a bit with your conclusion that the loss of the three carriers would have posed only operational, as opposed to strategic, problems. The Essex had only been launched within the last couple of weeks, and was not commissioned until the last day of 1942. The second ship of the class, Yorktown, wasn’t launched until January, 1943. Of the lighter Independence class, none were launched as of August 9, 1942, and only two had been commissioned by the end of 1942. Without a credible fast carrier threat to oppose the Japanese (only the Hornet would remain), I think it possible that serious strategic problems would result. Leaving a Marine division without supply, reinforcements and air cover at the time is certainly a serious matter, and a different decision should have been made. But I don’t think it requires hindsight to think that Fletcher’s concerns were legitimate.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Duke,

    The loss of all three carriers in TF 61 would have been very serious indeed. But the loss of the only trained and equipped amphibious force, of 18,000 Marines and Sailors, more serious by far. And that is considering the loss of ALL THREE carriers, which was unlikely.

    Had the Japanese acted aggressively and landed major elements of 17th Army, which they had transport and available troops to do, they would have created a situation of extreme peril for the US forces ashore. Had they done so, we would have been extremely fortunate to have had a stalemate on Guadalcanal, but would likely have been hard pressed to obtain even that result.

  • Duke

    URR,

    Sometimes luck favors the unprepared as well? In any event, I think we agree that, for whatever reason, Fletcher’s move was a mistake, and that the Marines’ long-lasting hard feelings in that direction are fairly justified. Now, what about the attitude toward the Navy in general. Do you think the comments about the disdain persisting are exaggerated, did Halsey repair the damage, or does some sort of contempt (“Nice of you guys to drive us to where the fighting is”) still exist? What’s your take?

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Duke,

    There is always some inter-service rivalry, mostly because squids are, well, squids. :) However, I don’t think the disdain for the Navy was terribly long-lasting, as the Marines on Guadalcanal did have an idea of how hard the Navy was fighting in the waters around their island and throughout the Solomons. They knew where “Ironbottom Sound” was and why it was called that.

    The Marines also would witness the punishment that the Task Forces took off of Iwo Jima and especially Okinawa. More than a few of those Okinawa veterans likely were very happy to be in their foxholes instead of on Franklin, Bunker Hill, or Laffey, or any of those other ships that took such punishment.

    I should also state that I don’t believe Fletcher to have been a coward for his actions. I believe he was tired, worn out. He couldn’t bring himself to risk what was required for success after Coral Sea and Midway, where triumph and disaster were separated by the thinnest of margins. But the bold move into the Solomons that Ernie King ordered required precisely such risk.

  • http://www.eaglespeak.us Eagle1

    As I suggested during our conversation with Mr. Hornfischer, one of the most interesting aspects of his new book is the number of decisions (on both sides) made all along during the battles on and off Guadalcanal that impacted the course of the campaign.

    These include the failure to “combat load” the cargo ships before they sailed, the decision not to bring forward the older battleships because of fuel use issues, the tactical decisions made during the various battles and the decision to replace experienced battle commanders with inexperienced but slightly senior commanders.

    If there was ever a case study in how not to structure a command system, I would suggest Guadalcanal.

    Some of the issues were simple growing pains. Some were driven by serious logistical issues.

    The Marines and the Navy (with the Coast Guard), abetted by the Army and allies, prevailed. As bad as our issues were, the Japanese had as many or more and also lacked the replacements for lost assets that the US leaders knew were soon to be rolling in.

    In hindsight I suspect almost none of the leaders at the time would have done it the way they did it. Which is why, eventually, the Pacific amphibious force became a well-oiled machine.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Eagle,

    Those are excellent points. Our amphibious doctrine was by no means fully formed, with large-looming details such as the CATF/CLF relationship being among the biggest issues that were being worked through.

    It was only after Tarawa in the Gilberts in November 1943 that the Commander of the Landing Force was given the authority to dictate the load plan, and during the assault, the pace and nature of unloading.

    FWIW, it has been so long since we (USN and USMC) have done this, even in practice, that it is a near-sure bet that even very senior commanders of both services will have to dust off doctrinal pubs to determine just whom has responsibility and authority for what… We learned the lessons in blood once, we should not have to do so again.

  • http://www.midway42.org Midway42

    “I have read Lundstrom’s book, and I believe he is guilty of precisely that very same revisionism I discuss above. He is factually incorrect in several places…..”

    In what places are Black Shoe Carrier Admiral factually incorrect? Page numbers and paragraphs? What can you cite that (a) inarguably counters any fact so claimed by Lundstrom, and (b) demonstrates that the source he used for said fact (pp. 525-606) is wrong?

  • Barrett Tillman

    The article misses some key points, not least of which is context. It is entirely understandable that the Guadalcanal Marines resented the navy’s departure. The leathernecks could only form an opinion based on the minimal information available at the time. Nearly seventy years later, with vastly more info, a much more reasoned assessment is possible. I recall when John Lundstrom’s study of Fletcher was announced, Marine partisans immediately excoriated it before they could possibly have read it. Even Amazon.com, never quick to correct such things, withdrew the more egregious examples.

    Fletcher’s critics inevitably ignore Colonel Melvin Maas’ comments AT THAT TIME regarding the recommendation to withdraw the carriers. He was not only a Fletcher staffer but a Marine aviator. Nor do many Marine partisans own up to the fact that their logisticians flunked ‘Phib 101 by failing to combat-load the transports.

    The notion that losing all three PacFleet carriers was somehow an acceptable option is just stunning. How were the marines to hold Guadal absent carrier air? The two CV battles, Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz, were fought in opposition of Japanese reinforcement attempts. Loss of the CVs would have been bad enough; loss of their air groups would doom the campaign. Period. We had one replacement air group in the Pacific, and it was not available until October.

    Furthermore, it’s remarkable that anyone faults Jim Hornfischer for omitting most of the land campaign from his study of the Guadalcanal naval battles. The leathernecks’ muddy boondockers have been well and thoroughly described in scores of other books. “Neptune’s Inferno” has no comparable treatment, and therefore is all the more valuable.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Mr. Tillman,

    Thank you for your comments. But there are some points that should be addressed.

    The loss of three PacFlt carriers was nowhere proposed as an “acceptable option”. However, combat, particularly that as desperate as the US counteroffensive in the Solomons, executed with barely sufficient means (“Operation Shoestring” indeed), entails risks that have to be assumed. The risk to the carriers was very real, and the concern Fletcher had, real as well. But because of Fletcher’s decision, the risk to the entire of WATCHTOWER was also very real. Which was, of course, the entire purpose for TF 61 to be where they were.

    Two other issues:

    The transports were as “combat loaded” as they could be, having been reconfigured at Wellington NZ under difficult conditions. However, as acknowledged by both Navy and USMC historical monographs, the fact that the transports were not purpose built vessels but converted civilian passenger ships made both loading and unloading far more time consuming and less efficient. Indeed, one of the largest Navy and Marine after-action items from Guadalcanal was the absolute requirement for purpose-built attack transports.

    Finally, there was no criticism of Mr. Hornfischer for not including the Guadalcanal land campaign. None. His comments during the radio interview regarding the Marines’ perception of Fletcher and the Navy were what prompted this post. While the Marines came to greatly respect the US Navy for their efforts, they have no such regard for Fletcher. And with good reason.

  • leesea

    Eagle1 points to THE main lesson learned from Guadalcanal about amphibious assaults. Simply stated the ships were loaded backwards. First needed materials must be loaded last. And sot he significance of needing 4 days to offload them.

    That lesson has been learned for the most part, BUT the wet well dock ships are still loaded in THE sequence it is *assumed* they will needed.

    Perhaps we should also overlay Bob Work’s new scalable theather entry ops concept on this battle to see what else might drop out?

  • UltimaRatioReg

    leesea,

    I beg to differ on the loading of the transports at Guadalcanal. While not combat loaded to the efficiency of later amphibious assaults, they were hardly loaded “backwards”. Suggest you read Dyer’s work “The Amphibians Came to Conquer”, Chapter 11, and Zimmerman’s monograph “The Guadalcanal Campaign”, Chapter 1.

    But yes, Bob Work’s theater entry ops would be an interesting study in context, wouldn’t it?

  • James Hornfischer

    To the Most Honorable UltimaRatioReg: I didn’t see the byline at first (it was buried in the small print at the bottom of the post), so no disrespect was meant with my reference to “the blogger.”

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. While it’s a bit disadvantageous to debate someone who’s using a pseudonym, I do appreciate your courtesy and good will and so will be happy to plunge in again. First, one bit of editorial housekeeping: The “He” in the paragraph of my response beginning “Today, it’s all over but the shouting” referred to Admiral Fletcher, of course, but might easily have been misread.

    This whole exchange is stimulating and enlightening, but I am struck by the moving target you’re inserting into it, in terms of defining Fletcher’s actual sin. At first you said his sin was risking losing an entire MarDiv (“the loss of the only trained and equipped amphibious force, of 18,000 Marines and Sailors”). Now you say his sin was “willful passing of initiative to the enemy.”

    Even the ghost of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s might accept the latter criticism. It is far milder than the former one, which seems to assume Japan had the means of destroying (or seriously imperiling) the entire amphibious force at a stroke.

    It was indeed very possible Japan could have sunk our three carriers at a stroke. We did it to them in June, and they returned the favor impressively off Guadalcanal with their submarines from time to time. Of course, a Marine Division ashore is another matter. It is scarcely as vulnerable as carriers at sea. Destroying it or even threatening it seriously would have required a huge marshaling of surface-combat and amphibious resources that would have hit the tripwire of Allied long-range air search, coastwatchers and submarines and brought an immediate response from TF 61, no matter where it had gone to refuel.

    Is there any evidence showing that Fletcher’s decision to withdraw was so immutable, absolute, and permanent that he would not have had the capacity or will to double back to engage an actual existential threat to the 1stMarDiv on Guadalcanal? I don’t know of any.

    In NEPTUNE’S INFERNO I considered Fletcher’s varied responsibilities in his dual role as expeditionary force commander and carrier task force commander. As I wrote in the book, it was incumbent upon him to tend to his larger, more encompassing responsibility to the Expeditionary Force as a first order of business. It seems inconceivable he would not have thrown the carriers into the breach at first sign of a major enemy reinforcement effort, which, as we know, took many weeks to muster at Rabaul.

    Withdrawing the carriers after D-Day plus 2 was thus indeed a calculated risk that he no doubt figured he could afford. (As for the low-fuel/enough-fuel argument, I believe John Lundstrom addressed this question rather fully in his book.)

    I’ll tee up another question for you (aiming at your relocated goal posts): When you criticize Fletcher for ceding the “initiative” to the enemy, what do you mean by “initiative” and what do you suggest he should have done with it post August 9, when the major portion of the Japanese fleet was nowhere to be found and Japan’s response to the landings (reinforcement and bombardment operations) was taking place at night, when carriers couldn’t project their combat power? I don’t think a strike on Rabaul would have been terribly prudent, and standing by to hit destroyers and cruisers as they transited by day in the northwestern part of the Slot would seem to run afoul of Nimitz’s “calculated risk” mandate too.

  • James Hornfischer

    Whoops — I inadvertently reposted my entire response from last night. Please delete the redundancy and post my new response beginning with “To the Most Honorable UltimaRatioReg:” Thanks.

  • Byron

    URR, you remark that the three carriers, all we had left until the new fleet carriers were able to get in theater, were as expendable items to accomplish the mission. In making this assertion, you are ignoring the sense of the times; for the 9 months of this war, we had been fighting with the short end of a men and materials stick. The carriers pulled away for the same reason they pulled away after we had sunk four carriers at Midway; Nimitz ordered his admirals to work on the principle of acceptable risk. So instead of going after the surface forces, the two remain carriers pulled back that night.

    This mindset was still in effect during the first days of the campaign. And yes, once Halsey assumed command, the Navy got a lot more agressive…and shortly afterwards, were down to one single carrier for the entire Pacific.

    My point is that your objections are based entirely upon the Marine viewpoint; My point is that the Navy could NOT afford to suffer huge losses for this one island, at least not for the first three months. It was a calculated risk to pull back.

    And in case this is forgotten, the facts do not lie: For every Marine that fell at Guadalcanal and Tulagi, three sailors fell in battle with the enemy.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    No, Byron, I did not remark that the three carriers of TF 61 were expendable. I assert that they should have been risked, in all or in part, to ensure unloading of the transports. If they were too precious for the role they were vital for in WATCHTOWER, then the operation should never have been conducted.

    My objections to Fletcher’s decision are based on the viewpoint of military soundness. See my remarks above. Fletcher handed the initiative to the Japanese, who, somewhat inexplicably, did not seize it. Had they done so, WATCHTOWER would have been in very serious trouble. And as valuable as the carriers were, the loss of the landing force would have been strategically catastrophic.

    An exploration of contemporary and primary source documentation shows that Admiral Turner (TF 62) was furious with Fletcher over the decision. Hardly “entirely a Marine viewpoint”. Also very telling is that both Fletcher and his boss, Ghormley, were replaced soon after. Halsey, who replaced Ghormley, went great lengths to assure Vandegrift that the Navy would never abandon the Marines ashore again.

    Fletcher blundered. He had a number of options open to him that would have allowed the transports to finish unloading their supplies and the Division reserve of the 2nd Marines. He chose none of them, and on 9 August he “hawled arse”, in Dyer’s words.
    It was the wrong move. Turner knew it. Vandegrift sure knew it. So did Halsey, and Chester Nimitz, too. Ditto Ernie King, who sent Fletcher to the Aleutians at the first opportunity.

  • Byron

    URR, were you there on Fletchers flagship? Did you have access to his intel, the threat estimates? Were you privy to any discussions between Fletcher and his staff regarding what might come crashing down him him from Rabaul and Truk? Did Fletcher have battlespace awareness on the threats facing him and the time it would take for those enemy assets to be in place to threaten his task force? For a fact, Japanese air assets were in place at Rabaul to attack Guadalcanal. What more lay over the horizon that Fletcher had almost zero intelligence about?

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Byron,

    It was the mission of TF 61, a very powerful force even after Savo, to support the main effort, which was WATCHTOWER, the landings on Guadalcanal. His failure to do so jeopardized the entire operation. That was a major blunder that no amount of re-examination will erase.

    WATCHTOWER was the brainchild of Ernie King, by the way, and was a bold move in the extreme. He needed bold commanders. Bold commanders assume risk to accomplish the mission.. Fletcher was not that bold commander. So he was sent packing. As was Ghormley.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Mr. Hornfischer,

    Again, thank you for your engagement. The study of military history is chock full of such compelling debate.

    I do not believe that the statements that Fletcher risked the loss of the amphibious forces ashore, and that he surrendered initiative to the enemy, are at all different. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. General Hyakutake, commanding the Japanese 17th Army, had both the lift and the the forces necessary to execute a counter landing (or a series of them) virtually unmolested. (The “huge effort” you refer to needed only to have consisted of roughly equal infantry forces and the 105mm and 150mm howitzers of the artillery regiments.) That he did not do so, but sent only token forces (such as the reinforced battalion that perished at Alligator Creek) was due to both a drastic underestimation of US strength ashore and a dismissive contempt of American fighting capabilities.

    Back in the late 1980s, while I was with the 11th Marines, I was a part of a Guadalcanal battle study presented to my Battalion’s Officers. In researching that battle study, we had the opportunity to look at Vandegrift’s concept of operations, which was to push a perimeter around Henderson Field out past artillery range, and build up what became AirSols ashore. His ability to execute that plan was negated by the failure to land anything close to adequate ammunition supplies, and to disembark his Division reserve. Not only did Fletcher surrender his initiative, but he surrendered Vandegrift’s as well.

    Were Fletcher so inclined as to come charging in at the first sign of an “existential threat” on Guadalcanal (remember, enemy strength and disposition on the island was largely unknown on 9 August), he likely would have stayed (at least with a portion of TF 61) the extra two days to land the balance of the ammunition, engineering equipment, food, supplies, and the Division reserve, and would not have denied Vandegrift the initiative ashore.

    As I stated in a previous comment. WATCHTOWER was a very bold move that was the brainchild of Ernie King. It required bold commanders, of which Fletcher was not one.

  • Byron

    I’ll ask this one thing and then leave it be: Did the Navy make up for Fletchers presumed lack of boldness during the rest of the Solomons campaign?

  • Duke

    @Mr. Hornfischer and/or Mr. Tillman-

    If Admiral Fletcher’s concern regarding the risk to the carriers was justified, as I think it was, what do you believe was the major reason for his removal from command and reassignment? What was there, if anything, about his response to that concern that was not acceptable to Admiral King or Admiral Nimitz?

    @Byron-

    Excellent point regarding the diminution of the carrier force to one shortly after Admiral Halsey took command.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Bryon,

    The answer to your question is a resounding and unqualified YES. Heroism and sacrifice abounded. As I also state above, I don’t believe Fletcher to be a coward. He was tired, worn out, had danced on the razor’s edge at both Coral Sea and Midway. He was simply not the right man for the job.

    The rest of the tale is that Halsey was the right man for the job. In 1942. When, by 1944, fleets had become enormous and the battlespace exponentially more complex, there is significant opinion that states that such was beyond Halsey. Which is why he took the bait at Leyte. It was his ill-considered aggressiveness that pulled him away from the Leyte landings. Halsey’s blunder, in part, was rectified by the heroism off Samar.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Byron,

    By the way, Fletcher and Halsey would certainly not be the last to succeed at one level and be in over their heads at another. The legendary “Chesty” Puller was the inspirational and stubborn leader that 1st Bn, 7th Marines needed on Guadalcanal. However, his performance in 1944 on Peleliu, in command of 1st Marines. was unsatisfactory. He probably should have been relieved. His failure to walk the ground and see the Umurbrogol for himself was inexcusable.

    However, Puller’s performance leading those same 1st Marines in Korea in 1950, including the fighting withdrawal from the Chosin, was superb.

  • KenC

    Fascinating posts, I might not agree with you but all provide some great questions on this pivotal battle of WWII, history has not treated ADM Fletcher well.
    Nothing has been said of the evolving carrier aviation tactics during the late 20′s to Pearl Harbor. While the navy had enthusiastically embraced aviation, aviation tactics had never been proven in battle and USN tactical doctrine was dominated by battleships until half were sunk or disabled at Pearl. Fletcher found himself in a poor situation as tactical commander of the only effective heavy units available or suitable for combat against the IJN, A/C carriers that Fletcher had near zero experience nor the mentality of an aviator to be comfortable commanding aviation assets. Fletcher was a “big-gun” admiral fighting a campaign dominated by aviation assets that he had never been trained for. Under these circumstances Fletcher did his best, losing the Lexington at Coral Sea and Yorktown at Midway would have only reinforced Fletcher’s impression of the vulnerability of carrier assets.
    As others have said Fletcher appeared to lose sight of USN’s mission to support amphibious operations and ground combat operations of the Marines. Pre-war doctrine was carriers were extremely vulnerable to shore-based air attack. This was not the case until Okinawa and the kamikazes but Fletcher and no one else knew this at the time.
    I suspect Spruance would have been a better suited commander for the operation than Fletcher or Halsey. Under the timid direction Admiral Ghormley who never believed in the campaign from the first, even Halsey would have had difficulty.
    Fletcher deserves credit for not losing strategically and allowing naval aviation the time to develop and perfect the tactics to win the pacific war.

    Best of luck, mates!
    KenC

  • James Hornfischer

    If one additional bomb had struck the Enterprise at Santa Cruz, sinking her, forever depriving the Marines on Guadalcanal (and everywhere else) of carrier air support, then the Marines would view Halsey forevermore as the reckless fool who lost them Guadalcanal, Fletcher would have been the picture of discretion, and we’d be having another discussion entirely. It seems equally speculative, therefore, to cast aspersions on Fletcher for things that didn’t happen.

    The judgments of commanders very much does seem to depend on “all’s-well-that-ends well,” as Halsey’s good reputation after Guadalcanal more than attests.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Mr. Hornfischer,

    By the time Santa Cruz took place, AirSols was effectively up and running, and the Marines were on the island to stay. Not true of the first 12 days.

    In addition, your assertion that the judgments of commanders depends on “all’s well that ends well” should not be true of an serious examination of a battle or campaign. Fletcher’s actions in not sending Saratoga into the hornets’ nest on an ill-advised attempt to relieve Wake was the correct move. Pulling TF 61 from Guadalcanal after 48 hours was not.

    Similarly, Halsey’s aggressiveness in supporting WATCHTOWER was the correct move. Risks needed to be taken for a risky operation to succeed. Conversely, his pursuit of Ozawa’s decoy force with the entire of TF 34 was ill-considered. Leading to the action off Samar about which you wrote so brilliantly.

  • http://www.eaglespeak.us Eagle1

    In defense of Fletcher: Someetimes you have to play a bad hand in a conservative way because you know what the other guy is holding and how little support you have at your back. Maybe Fletcher was too timid, maybe not. It’s a moot point. He made a tough command decision. As it turned out, it did not cost the Marines Guadalcanal.

    The lack of equipment and an adequate logistics train- including sufficient aircraft (the Air Corps did offer up the pathetic P-400 – which is itself quite a story) – and the fact it was into “first time” event all played a role in what happened. Pinning it on Fletcher – or on Ghormley – just is unfair. Admiral King and Nimitz put those guys out there. “Ching” Lee probably should have been jumped into the surface command . . . But that’s not how it played out.

    There are a lot of things to wonder about. Where was the U.S. submarine force? Who made the decision not to put more American subs along the Slot? I’ve sailed those waters, it seemed to me it was not sub unfriendly. Just curious.

    Halsey’s aggressiveness proved a problem later on and only some really brave DE, DD and CVE crews and pilots saved his . . . reputation when he took his carriers off to chase a broken Japanese carrier force. As noted above, he damn near lost the carriers during this campaign.

    Nice debate,though.

  • Roy Thomas (Pee Wee) White

    Roy served as a corpsman, from August 1942 until December 1942, so much happened during those months. He carried many horrible images of the wounded and the dead. Living out of a bunker made from an ships hull and palm trees with so many nightmares of the Japanese charges through those few months. Pee Wee as corpsman did what he could for those who suffered, serving as a Naval Corpsman attached to the Marines, there was battles that were fought between Marines and Naval personnel, but on Guadalcanal they looked out for each other.

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