Archive for the 'Books' Category
Among the Americans serving on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.
-Admiral Chester Nimitz
America lost 6,821 of her sons on Iwo Jima. More than 19,000 were wounded. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor and more than 200 Navy Crosses were awarded for heroism on that island.
Where is USS Michael Strank? USS Franklin Sousley? USS Harlan Bloch?
Last Man Standing, The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu
by Dick Camp
Zenith Press, c. 2008
Retired Marine Colonel Dick Camp (Lima-6) whose writing has taken us from the battlefields of the Great War to the August 2004 fight for Najaf, produces with “Last Man Standing” an unvarnished account of one of the most tragic stories of Marine heroism, sacrifice, and bloodshed in the securing of a Pacific island objective in the Second World War.
The author’s duties as Aide de Camp to Marine Corps legend General Raymond Davis allowed Camp to compile a compelling and fascinating inside account of the savage and unrelenting combat on Peleliu. In addition to General Davis’ perspective (Davis was 1st Battalion commander in the 1st Marines under Colonel Lewis Puller), the author interviews Russ Honsowetz, also commander of a battalion (2nd) in 1st Marines, and makes extensive use of Eugene Sledge’s account of the fighting (With the Old Breed) to provide a day-by-day narrative of the unfolding of the near-destruction of Pullers’ First Marines in the coral crags of the Umurbrogol.
Operation STALEMATE, the seizure of Peleliu and Angaur in the Palau Islands of the Caroline Island chain, was intended to shield the flank of Douglas MacArthur’s drive to the Philippines. The airfield on Peleliu was of particular interest to US planners, and was believed to necessitate a major operation to seize it and the rest of the island. Despite the destruction of Japanese air power on Peleliu, and against the pleading of William Halsey to cancel STALEMATE, Admiral Nimitz ordered the landings on Peleliu and Angaur to proceed. Camp’s accounting of the fighting on Peleliu, illustrated with helpful maps and combat photographs, is nothing short of chilling. The airfield seizure was quickly accomplished, but in the rugged, forbidding coral croppings that ran the center of the island, a tragedy of bravery, sacrifice, and failed leadership played out.
The two Marine leaders whose performance, rightly, bear the most scrutiny are 1st Marine Division Commander BGen William Rupertus, and legendary Marine Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller. The reputation of General Rupertus is at best uneven, many of his peers and immediate juniors being somewhat unimpressed with the man, his tactical acumen, and his leadership. On top of his already identified shortcomings, Rupertus had badly injured an ankle in a rehearsal and was nearly immobile. His message to the Division that Peleliu would be a quick three-day affair highlighted Rupertus’ lack of understanding of the tasks at hand.
But it is the performance of “Chesty” Puller, commanding the 1st Marines, that is laid bare by the events on that hot and forbidding coral ridge. Camp’s book brings to the fore the human cost of Puller’s failure to understand the terrain and enemy his Marine rifle companies faced, nor the losses they incurred daily, for little or no gain. Puller was hobbled by a flare-up of the leg wound he had received two years earlier, commanding 1/7 on Guadalcanal, and despite his characteristic penchant for locating his command post within rifle range of the enemy, his lack of mobility prevented Puller from walking the ground with his Battalion and Company commanders. Had he been able to do so, he would have halted his stubborn admonition for wasteful and fruitless attacks against a disciplined and well-dug-in enemy in impossible terrain. In addition, as Camp makes clear, his unwillingness to heed the reports of his superb Battalion Commanders doomed his regiment to being bled white in the coral hills.
Camp also describes the foolishness of Rupertus and Puller all but refusing to accede to the presence of an Army Regiment to relieve Puller’s shattered 1st Marines after six bloody days, until Amphibious Corps Commander General Geiger came ashore and after meeting with both, ordered the relief.
How much Colonel Lewis Puller was affected by the debilitating pain in his leg, or by the death of his brother Sam on Guam some weeks before Peleliu is not known, but the author intimates both were draws on Puller, at a time and under conditions which required his absolute best.
Camp’s matter-of-fact treatment of an otherwise legendary figure in Marine Corps lore is a valuable reminder that perspective is an important component of historical analysis. While many enlisted Marines would revere “Chesty” even after Peleliu, many Marine Officers who understood the tactical situation and had a larger view of Puller’s performance are less forgiving. As an example, Camp includes the perspective of Captain Everett Pope, the lone surviving Company Commander who was awarded the Medal of Honor while leading Charlie Company in Davis’ First Battalion. Captain Pope is quoted in Camp’s book leveling harsh, if justified criticism of Puller’s understanding of the terrain and conditions, and complete disdain for his ordering futile and bloody attacks. “The adulation paid him these days sickens me”. In hindsight, while Rupertus should never have been allowed to command the Division with his physical infirmity, Puller should probably have been relieved of command of 1st Marines.
Thankfully, Peleliu was most decidedly not the end of the Puller legend. His leadership at the front of those same 1st Marines in November-December of 1950 in the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir is a study of inspirational leadership and determination. There, Puller would win a fifth Navy Cross, and earn Brigadier General ‘s stars. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1955 as a Lieutenant General.
Dick Camp’s book is an important work for understanding the history of the Marine Corps, one of its more tragic episodes, and a rather inglorious performance of one of its revered legends. This book should be on the shelf of every serious student of the Pacific War, and of the Marine Corps’s role in that war.
Perspective is important. The ability to see events as others might see them is a talent that is mightily handy when navigating the shoals of international relations. It would seem that NATO and the US did not conceive of a point of view that could not agree with what is defined now as the “international norm” of the Right to Protect (R2P).
The disbelief and outrage expressed at the veto votes of both Russia and the People’s Republic of China over the UN Resolution regarding Syria leads one to believe that our State Department believed a contrary position on R2P did not credibly exist. Au contraire, points out STRATFOR in this morning’s Geopolitical Diary. STRATFOR posits that perhaps a couple of widely held assumptions are not quite as universal as we had believed. To both the Russians and Chinese, the preservation of human life, and prevention of crimes against innocent civilians or mass killings, still needs to be weighed against the spreading influence of potential geopolitical, military, and economic rivals. Responsibility to Protect, R2P, was for the West in reality E2I, excuse to intervene:
The Russian and Chinese view was that this doctrine opened the door to unlimited interventions not in response to mass murder, but in order to prevent mass murder. From the Chinese and Russian perspective, this would allow intervention based on fears. Fears can be feigned and anyone can assert the threat of mass murder and war crimes. Therefore, the Libyan precedent seemed to be a doctrine that justified intervention based on suspicion of intent. Or, to put it more bluntly, the Russian and Chinese view was that the intervention in Libya was designed to achieve political and economic goals, and the threat of impending mass murder was simply the justification.
China and Russia viewed the Syrian resolution as a preface to more aggressive resolutions also based on the doctrine of preventing atrocities much greater than those already committed. They felt that this would set a permanent principle of international law that they opposed. Their opposition was based on the perception that this was merely a justification for interventions against regimes of which the West disapproved.
Also, an America stretched thinner than its shrinking military resources can reasonably secure works to the advantage of both Russia and China. Not only that, but freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz or elsewhere is not necessarily a universal desire, especially when that freedom means possible interdiction or interruption of vital energy supplies.
Iran is in the process of establishing a sphere of influence in which Syria plays a strategic role. If al Assad survives, his regime will be heavily dependent on Iran. Neither China nor Russia would be particularly troubled by this. Certainly, Russia does not want to see an excessively powerful Iran, but it would welcome any dynamic that would tie American power down in a long-term duel with Iran. Creating a regional balance of power would divert U.S. power in directions that would provide Russia with freedom for maneuver.
The same can be said of China, with the additional proviso that the Chinese do not want to see anything interfere with their energy trade with Iran. So there were two issues for China. First, China did not want a precedent set that might allow an American intervention in Iran. Second, China, like Russia, welcomed the diversion of American power from the South China Sea, where it had been planning to shift forces.
None of this should surprise us. Unfortunately, China and Russia continue to play realpolitik at a time when the US foreign policy team seems unwilling to admit that such power politics even exist. Russia’s dispatch of a Naval flotilla (which included an aircraft carrier) last month to the Syrian port of Tartous was a message strongly sent to both NATO and the United States. The Russian vessels comprised an “influence squadron” if ever there was one. The clear signal to NATO, the members of which share the continent with Russia, was a not-so-subtle “HANDS OFF”. With Russian resurgence a distinct possibility amongst a largely disarmed Europe, and Russian control of the natural gas valves that supply the key NATO economies, the message will be heeded. For the United States, that message, and the message of China’s and Russia’s veto, is slightly more ominous:
What we have now seen is that China and Russia recognize the battlefield and for now are prepared to side with Iran against the United States, a move that makes clear sense from a balance of power perspective.
Perspective. Spelled out very well by STRATFOR.
“…now it is time to think!”
This statement, alternately attributed to Winston Churchill and Ernest Rutherford, was the baseline theme of all of yesterday’s speaking and panel sessions here at USNI/AFCEA West 2012.
But is it a fair statement? And is it accurate?
The implication of that statement is that senior military and civilian officials in the Defense Department have been accustomed to throwing money at problems rather than thinking through a solution. And this questionable practice is the reason for “bloated” Defense budgets in the post-9/11 world.
I disagree. While undoubtedly there are inefficiencies in Defense spending, and more can be purchased for the dollars spent, I simply don’t buy into the notion that the statement implies.
Much is made of the “doubling” of the Defense budget between 2000 and 2011, but little is said of the effects of the “Peace Dividend” and the acquisition “holiday” of the 1990s. In yesterday’s shipbuilding panel, of which more will be written soon, Mr. Mike Petters from Huntington Ingalls Industries (the shipbuilder formerly known as Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock, among other names) gave us some interesting insights as to the effects such uneven procurement and “holidays” have on building ships. The cost to the manufacturer of sitting idle, and of sudden restart at a surge level, is considerable. Elsewhere, in the Navy-Marine Corps Team panel, there was also significant discussion of the very real problems experienced by prime and sub-contractors when production drops below minimums for business solvency, or unpredictable dry spells and cancellations occur.
The costs of fighting two wars that represent a level of commitment of a single Major Regional Conflict (MRC) in 1990s parlance undoubtedly drove up Defense budgets, with personnel increases for the Army and the Marine Corps, operating costs, ammunition and fuel, aircraft and ground equipment maintenance and repair, and rapid acquisitions of vital equipment like MRAP vehicles as the dollar drivers. Many of those rapid acquisitions centered on burgeoning technology and unanticipated requirements, and anticipated requirements that had not been met (up-armored M1114 HMMWVs) in anywhere near sufficient numbers over the previous decade.
However, I cannot agree that the services, especially the notoriously tight-fisted Marine Corps, suddenly spent the last decade as profligate spenders without rhyme or reason, as if they had their parents’ credit card on a college weekend. If they did, then such did not occur at the tactical level.
Today, with US military involvement with Iraq at an end, and Afghanistan employing a small fraction of the US Military (90,000 of 1.44 million, just 6.2% of personnel), the “pivot” of the focus of our military to the Pacific region and the execution of the Cooperative Strategy requires meaningful commitment of adequate resources to counter the capabilities of a fast-rising near-peer in China.
While comments from each of the speakers and most panel members were couched in terms of required and critical capabilities, there was acknowledgement of the budget axe that will be the final arbiter of which capabilities we can afford, and which we cannot. Where and when that axe falls will determine this nation’s ability to execute its National Military Strategy, and by extension, its National Security Strategy.
Doing “more with less”, another phrase often heard yesterday, is a hackneyed and trite bit of platitude that is a signal that what we truly have is not a capabilities-based Defense budget, but budget-constrained Defense capabilities. You do not do more with less, you do less with less. That, whether it is a popular sentiment or not, is an inviolate fact of life. To the vast preponderance of the men and women of the US Military, who have always done as much as possible with what was given them through two protracted wars, the idea that thinking only takes place when all the money has been spent is an affront to them and is dismissive of their courage and commitment.
If I don’t hear Churchill’s words applied to our Military ever again, it will be too soon. If there is a ringing of truth in them, it should be in the ears of those who wear stars and wide gold stripes. The rest of us have been thinking all along.
On the warm evening of 17 December 1939, the German panzerschiff KMS Graf Spee glided silently into the shipping channel of the River Plate (Rio de la Plata) at the mouth of the harbor in Montevideo, Uruguay. She cleared the channel at about 1830 local time, and the crowds gathered pierside (and beside their radios in England) assumed she was headed to sea to re-engage Commodore Harwood’s HMS Cumberland and two battered light cruisers, Ajax and Achilles.
Graf Spee had haunting connections to the waters in which she found herself. She was named for Admiral Maximillian Graf von Spee, who, with his two sons, and his Sudseegeschwader of cruisers Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Nurnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden had met their ends off South America in the Battle of the Falkands, a battle that included an eerie parallel to the events of December 1939, and was fought just nine hundred miles from where Graf Spee now sailed, almost exactly twenty five years before.
What the crowds who watched the drama didn’t know was that Graf Spee was manned by a skeleton crew of officers and senior rates. Her captain, Hans Langsdorff, had made the decision to scuttle his ship. Graf Spee came to a stop at about 2000, when her remaining crew were taken off by tug. Scuttling charges exploded, along with munitions in her magazines, in the fading evening light.
For many, including the leadership of the Third Reich, the move seemed inexplicable, even cowardly. Further examination in the aftermath of events reveals a situation of serious damage to Graf Spee, a touching humanity from her Captain, and a web of British deceit that forced the German Captain’s hand.
On 13 December, Graf Spee engaged in a dawn running fight against Harwood’s force of HMS Exeter, as well as light cruisers Ajax and Achilles. Graf Spee’s six 11-in (28cm) guns wrecked Exeter, and damaged Achilles and Ajax. However, in the exchange Graf Spee was struck no fewer than thirty times. Hits had wrecked her Arado float planes, her foretop rangefinder, and her galley. More importantly, Graf Spee’s oil purifier, required for her diesel engines, was damaged by an 8-in hit from Exeter, leaving her with fuel for just twenty hours’ operation.
In the mean time, British intelligence spread disinformation that heavy Royal Navy units which included battlecruiser Renown and aircraft carrier Ark Royal, lay over the horizon off Montevideo to intercept Graf Spee. In actuality, any Royal Navy units capable of defeating the German were unable to intercept until the 19th at the earliest. But the rumors were convincing enough for the numerous German agents to faithfully report the information to the German consulate, and to Langsdorff.
Captain Langsdorff, his ship crippled by the damage from the fight on the 13th, believed he was facing a greatly superior force. Graf Spee, even at full strength, was four knots slower than Renown, and her 11-in guns, while with comparable range to Renown’s 15-in (38cm) main battery, were markedly inferior in weight of shot and penetration. She certainly was no match for the air contingent aboard Ark Royal.
A gentleman warrior who managed to destroy nine merchant vessels at the outbreak of war without the loss of life, Langsdorff chose not to send his ship and his crew to what he believed to be certain death. Instead, Graf Spee is scuttled in the shallow waters of the River Plate estuary. Two days after his ship is destroyed by her own crew, Captain Langsdorff wraps himself in the colors of the Imperial Navy, and takes his own life. His crew is interned, and the thirty-seven dead among his crew buried with honors in a Montevideo cemetery.
Twenty-five years earlier, British cryptanalysts had broken the German Naval code, and had baited a trap for Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee in the form of generating a fake order to raid the British coaling station at Port Stanley in the Falklands. There, Sturdee’s battlecruisers awaited the Sudseegeschwader, overtaking the worn-out German cruisers and sinking them after a short pursuit.
In 1914, the British deception pushed the German warships into a one-sided battle that led to their destruction. In 1939, it was the ruse of that very threat of overwhelming force that caused the self-destruction of the pocket-battleship named for the commander of that 1914 squadron. Twenty-five years and less than a thousand miles away.
In a great example of “creative friction” at its highest level of practice, we find ourselves with the authors of Red Star Over the Pacific on one end – and a great naval mind, Dr. Norman Friedman, on the other.
I think good people can fall on either side of the arguments presented – and I encourage you to read both articles to decide for yourself even if you have not read the book in question. That isn’t what this post is about though.
In their response to Dr. Friedman, the authors brought up a topic that will have everyone with an Operational Planning background nodding their heads. Especially those who have taught Operational Planning or better yet have had to lead an Operational Planning team – their words will ring true, and might even open up a scar or two – or even trigger a migraine.
Friedman’s worst sin, though, is to succumb to (if not revel in) what the late Michael Handel termed the “tacticization of strategy.” Battlefield commanders and many civilians are prone to become spellbound by technological and tactical wizardry. In so doing, they lose sight of the higher – and ultimately decisive – levels of competition and warfare. Since World War II, observes Handel, “technological means have started to wag the strategic dog.” Andrew Krepinevich strikes a similar note in The Army and Vietnam, faulting the U.S. Army for prosecuting a “strategy of tactics.” U.S. forces seldom lost a tactical engagement with Vietnamese regular or irregular forces, yet they were unable to derive strategic or political gains from these engagements. Conflating equipment and tactics with strategy rendered an unbroken string of battlefield triumphs largely moot.
Knowing your place; a concept even more difficult to accept in the era of the “Strategic Corporal” and all the implications of it. To keep your place takes discipline, knowledge, and better yet a command climate that allows someone to pull you back when you drift away from your proper place.
Strategic planning does not need to concern itself with tactical details (AKA 3,000 nm screwdriver) if all three levels function properly. Not just a Strategic level problem, the temptation is even greater at the Operational level where the tendency to drift down to the Tactical is greatest. People plan where they are the most comfortable, and if you just came back from the Tactical level and haven’t mentally adjusted to the fact you now have to think and plan at the Operational or Strategic – you are setting yourself up for disruptive planning, intrusive direction & guidance, and eventually Tactical level paralyses.
Worse that that – if you are in a decision making position at the Strategic or Operational level – and you are not doing that job from that perspective – who is? The answer is, no one. That is where historians have their fun.
Adding to that problem is the amplifying effect. A poorly constructed or ill-disciplined Strategic guidance results in disjointed and inefficient Operational level direction & guidance. That in turn leads to Tactical anarchy. Where does that lead? Well, not to the “W” column.
Fun stuff … fun stuff. As a side note, if you are interested in hearing the authors discuss their book and China in general, EagleOne and I interviewed them back in Jan; you can hear the archived show here. We’ve also interviewed Dr. Friedman twice, once in 2010, and again earlier this year.
George was a neighbor and friend with a remarkable past. I had lived across the street from George for a number of years, and always enjoyed the times when he would amble across busy Route 5 to talk to me when he’d see me out with the rake or the mower. We’d talk football and a host of other sports. He’d been a magnificent athlete, even as an older man, setting records for his age-group in many track and field events for seniors well into his 70s. He was an icon of the tight-knit community who’d been a high school coach and mentor for more than forty years. Tall and dignified, he had remained in excellent shape until the inevitable ravages of time caught his heels in his mid-80s. Even then, he remained a commanding figure.
Like many his age, George was a Second World War Veteran, serving in the United States Army in New Guinea and New Britain in the South Pacific. (This was the same area my Father served in as an MM2 aboard an LCT.)
What I didn’t know, and found out only after quite some time, was that George had been stationed at Schofield Barracks on December 7th, 1941. After a bit of prompting, I was able to get George to relate the story of that morning to me. George had enlisted in the Army upon graduation from Boston University in 1938, where he had lettered three times in football, and twice in track and field. On that fateful Sunday morning, George, then a Sergeant, was scheduled to play football for his regiment, the famous Wolfhounds of the 27th Infantry, against the arch-rival 8th Artillery. He had slept in and decided to skip Sunday mass, and was just getting up to shave at 0750, when he heard the hum of aircraft engines, lots of them, over the runway at Wheeler Field.
Squinting to see in the bright sunshine, George saw the large red roundels on the fuselages of the green-painted aircraft and knew instantly what was about to happen. He described how, because they had stored a substantial amount of ammunition in the Company barracks arms rooms, the various companies of the 27th Infantry were able to quickly bring several .30 caliber machine guns and BARs to bear against the attacking Japanese aircraft. George could hear the rumble of bombs exploding in the fleet anchorage at Pearl Harbor, and see the sky blackened by smoke. However, he would not get a true view of the carnage until a day later, when his company was moving toward fighting positions to defend against the Japanese attack which everyone was sure was imminent. The wrecked airplanes and hangars of Wheeler Field were a harbinger of a scene of even more complete destruction at Ford Island. George described the fleet anchorage as a “shambles”, and recalled seeing every battleship sunk, or capsized, with Arizona still burning like a torch.
The Japanese invasion never came, of course. The recovery from the attack began, and eventually an uneasy sense of order prevailed. But, as George noted at the end of his tale, every man knew that their lives had changed dramatically, and forever.
George never did get to play that football game against the 8th Artillery. From that day on, everyone was on the same team, and the games were finished.
George eventually received a commission in the US Army, and served in the South Pacific as a Captain and Combat Engineer. After the war, he remained in the National Guard, retiring in 1962 at the rank of Colonel. His vintage “crush hat” is one of my prized possessions. George died in November of 2004, at the age of 89. His funeral was, sadly, held on the same day that news came of the death of an area Marine killed in the Second Battle of Fallujah. I think of George every December 7th, and of the story of his remarkable participation in one of the watershed events in our Nation’s history.
Like Karl Marlantes I was a rifle platoon commander in Vietnam, 1968-69, albeit with the 1st Marine Division. Like Karl Marlantes I was wounded twice, albeit I lost my left eye. Like Karl Marlantes I have been visited by ghosts of the past, and have wrestled demons, and prevailed. Like Karl Marlantes I now struggle to exorcise reoccurring apparitions from the past through writing. I remained in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer, albeit a one eyed infantry officer; and, have commanded, post-Vietnam, an infantry company through a Joint Task Force. I would like to meet Karl Marlantes.
Reading both What It Is Like To Go To War, and Marlantes’ 2010 novel, Matterhorn, can be challenging, at times engaging, yet both are ultimately unsatisfactory. Even allowing for novelistic license certain plot themes in Matterhorn lack authenticity. What is also ignored, certainly within the novelist’s prerogative, is that starting in 1968 under then MajGen Raymond G. Davis, USMC, the 3rd Marine Division shifted from being tied to static defense positions into a coherent helicopter-borne strategic assault force. Davis, no stranger to combat, was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star, and the Bronze Star. Amongst the fifty division commanders then in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, Commander, MACV, rated Davis as his best. What It Is Like Go To War does not tell us what it is like to go war; it does accurately, often with poignancy and with a knowledge borne only by those who have experienced prolonged and fierce ground combat, and often with deep feeling, portray the horrors and diabolically all-consuming attraction of combat. There is an instance of a curious intertexuality between the novel and the non-fiction account for which it is difficult to account. That the writing of the books served therapeutic and cathartic purposes is plausible, even discernible, particularly in What It Is Like To Go To War. Both books capture well the uniqueness, and sheer claustiphobic terror, of mountainous jungle fighting. But so have other books. Leon Uris’ Battle Cry, and Combat Infantry: A Soldier’s Story, by Donald E. Anderson, and D. E. Anderson, Jr., (to name two of many) come to mind.
Near the end of What It Is Like To Go To War, Marlantes cites Robert Graves, the poet, and author of Goodbye to All That. He also diagnoses Graves suffering from PTSD, certainly not a revelation about ground-combat veterans of the First World War, or, for that matter, about the veterans of the siege of Petersburg during our own Civil War Nevertheless, even today PTSD remains little understood and in certain medical circles is controversial. The counter argument in this instance is that the effects of heavy and prolonged artillery shelling of infantrymen were almost unknown and certainly not understood. Combat veterans of that war, like Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, CBE, MC (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), also an excellent war poet, tried to assuage their afflictions through writing. Though Wilfred Owen was killed one week before the Armistice, read his poems and you see a man grappling to come to terms with the horrors he has borne.
The kaleidoscopic array of subject matter in What It Is Like To Go To War hinders the author in explaining and burdens the reader in understanding what is really going on here. There is throughout the book a series of changing phases and events obliquely supported by cites from classical literature, some rather arcane, and in today’s military environment, anachronistic. In a book whose tone fluctuates between serious thought and banal personal observation recondite purpose results. Marlantes’ striving to sound erudite while switching to vulgar commonalty has a self-cancelling effect. Marlantes has something very important to say; he just doesn’t argue or express it clearly. This is a shame, because he has seen the elephant, something a relatively few military personnel actually do. He just hasn’t adequately described what the trunk, the leg, and the tail all add up to. This reader, upon finishing the book, reflected that Marlantes has taken on a difficult task well worth undertaking, and definitely germane, but an effort that should put aside Oliver Stone-like imagery and metaphors suspiciously tailored for contemporary Walter Mittys who voyeuristically transport themselves into the phantasmagoric orbit of Mars.
What It Is Like To Go To War would have benefited from an index and bibliography. A good editor would have avoided misnomers like mortars having a ”tripod leg;” U. S. infantry mortars have bipod legs.
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.
A few minutes past midnight on 30 July 1945, the Japanese submarine I-58 fired a spread of six torpedoes at the US heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) hitting her twice on the starboard side. The first impact blew off forty feet of bow, and the second struck under the bridge, detonating a 5″ magazine and breaking the vessel’s keel. The torpedoes killed some 300 to 350 of the 1,196 crewmen aboard Indianapolis. The ship settled quickly by the bow, rolled to starboard, and sank in twelve minutes.
The three and a half days of agony endured by the crew of Indianapolis, and the monumental mistakes made by the United States Navy in not discovering the loss of the ship, followed by the unseemly court martial of Captain Charles B. McVay III, make the tale of the sinking of this gallant ship one of the most compelling and disturbing of the entire of the Second World War.
Indianapolis was a 10,000-ton Portland-class “treaty cruiser” built under the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty. The limits on displacement meant that the entire of the three classes of “treaty cruisers” were very lightly protected for their size, earning them the derisive nickname of “tinclads”. Laid down in 1930 and commissioned in 1932, Indianapolis nevertheless participated in most of the major naval campaigns of the Pacific War, earning ten battle stars and lending her 8″ main battery to bombardments in the Gilberts and the Marshalls, including Tarawa and Kwajalein. She had served as the flagship for Admiral Spruance and the 5th Fleet, present in the Marianas, Palau, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Indianapolis would earn ten battle stars for her service.
Newly repaired from a kamikaze hit that blew holes in her stern and damaged both shafts, beginning on 16 July Indianapolis had raced from Pearl Harbor to Tinian on a highly secret mission carrying components of the atomic bombs that would end the war. Following delivery of her secret cargo on Tinian, Indianapolis was proceeding to Guam at 17 knots when she had her fatal rendezvous with I-58.
When the ship did not appear on 31 July, she was not reported overdue. Nobody searched for her or her crew. In the eighty-four hours between the sinking of their ship and the beginning of rescue operations, more than five hundred sailors died in the waters. Thirst and dehydration, wounds, exposure, exhaustion, despair, all played a part in the story. But it was the sharks who did the real killing. The unspeakable ordeal thinned the ranks of floating men over the three nights and four days until salvation came on 2 August in the form of a PBY which had been alerted by a PV-1 Ventura flying anti-submarine patrols. The PBY pilot landed (against orders) and began gathering the most in danger into the hull and onto the floats of the aircraft. The PBY also dropped rafts and flotation devices for those in what were by then soggy kapoks. The PBY also overflew and alerted Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368), skippered by a future Secretary of the Navy, who (without orders) immediately diverted to begin rescuing the survivors of Indianapolis.
In the end, only 316 men of the nearly 900 who abandoned the sinking Indianapolis survived the sharks. More than 800 crewmen were lost with the ship, one of the largest losses of life for a single US Navy ship in the entire war.
A great injustice was added to terrible tragedy when the US Navy brought Captain McVay (who had been awarded a Silver Star previously for heroism under fire) in front of a Court of Inquiry. The result was recommendation for a General Court Martial on the charges of failing to order abandon ship, and hazarding his vessel with a failure to zig-zag.
The Court Martial convened on 3 December 1945, over the objections of both Chester Nimitz and Ray Spruance. The resulting proceeding is a dark stain on the honor of the US Navy and both Navy Secretary Forrestal and CNO Admiral King. Seemingly ignored by the court were Captain McVay’s request for an escorting destroyer, which was denied, as well as the failure of the staff at Guam to inform Captain McVay properly of Japanese submarine activity. The thoroughly-botched Movement Reporting System, which never listed Indianapolis as overdue, received scant attention. Worse, despite testimony from ship’s crew that visibility on that fateful night was fair to poor, despite the order to zig-zag being at the Captain’s discretion, and in the face of the opinion of the Japanese captain of I-58 that zig-zagging was ineffective and would not have made a difference, Captain McVey was found guilty of hazarding his vessel for failing to zig-zag.
Despite Nimitz’ success in having Forrestal restore Captain McVey to duty, and McVey’s promotion upon retirement to Rear Admiral, Charles Butler McVay III lived a troubled two decades following his retirement from the Navy in 1949. Following the death of his wife from cancer, Rear Admiral McVey died by his own hand at his Litchfield, Connecticut home in November, 1968. In 2001, a bi-partisan effort in Congress officially exonerated Rear Admiral McVay in the sinking of USS Indianapolis. It was, while good news, thirty three years late.
We know the name Indianapolis from some excellent works such as the movie Mission of the Shark, and Dan Kurtzman’s magnificent book Fatal Voyage. But our generation was first re-introduced to the tragedy of the tale from the 1975 movie Jaws, when Quint tells Hooper and Brody of his experience as a sailor who endured the sinking of Indianapolis and the sharks which killed so many. For my money, perhaps the best eight seconds of acting in memory is done by Richard Dreyfus (Hooper), when, in the midst of the laughter and comraderie, his expression and demeanor change so dramatically as the significance of Quint’s missing tattoo hits home.
Sixty-six years on, let us remember those Sailors and Marines of Indianapolis whose lives were lost in the warm Marianas waters, and pray for those whose grief and anguish would not subside. Shipmates, loved ones, and Rear Admiral Charles B. McVay. And let us vow never again allow the US Navy to stain the honor and reputation of brave men whose efforts and courage could not alter the grim equation of war at sea.