Archive for the 'From our Archive' Category
This is the second installment in my series of posts on William Sims and what his discovery and development of continuous aim fire a century ago can tell us about junior leaders and innovation. They are part of the remarks that I delivered at NWDC’s Junior Leader Innovation Symposium.
PREVIOUS: A Junior Officer and a Discovery.
Recently Jonah Lehrer, a writer for Wired and other magazines, wrote a book about the developing field of science that studies creativity and innovation titled Imagine: How Creativity Works. In his book, Lehrer tells us that researchers have “discovered that the ability to stick with it – the technical name for this trait is grit – is one of the most important predictors of success.” Whether talking about Bob Dylan taking years to get a song just right in order for it to become a classic, or J.K. Rowling sending her kids book about a wizard school to 12 publishers before it was accepted and we all got to read Harry Potter, that tenacity, never-give-up, never-say-die attitude is necessary for true creative or innovative success.
Lieutenant William Sims had plenty of grit. Even though he had heard nothing from Washington he continued to write reports to the Bureau, updating his findings, refining the techniques, and suggesting new tactics that could be developed. He still heard no response. Sims knew what was happening…he knew that the Bureau was ignoring him because he was simply a Lieutenant, and one that was deployed at that. He wasn’t even an expert on the Bureau’s staff. Sims wrote to a friend and fellow officer:
“With every fibre of my being I loathe indirection and shiftiness, and where it occurs in high place, and is used to save face at the expense of the vital interests of our great service (in which silly people place such a child-like trust), I want that man’s blood and I will have it no matter what it costs me personally.”
While Sims respected those who were senior to him, rank alone didn’t seem to impress him. Navy Staffs that stood on bureaucracy and focused on building bullets for their own fitness reports over the combat effectiveness of operating forces were his enemy. He apparently felt pretty strongly about it.
I’d say that Sims certainly had true grit in this case. He continued writing reports. However, his language became more dramatic as he pointed out the risks involved in ignoring the TTP’s he was developing. Besides sending his reports to the Bureau he began to send them to battleship Captains across the Fleet, on his own initiative. He got his Commanding Officer to endorse the reports, and the Admiral who headed the Asiatic Squadron on China Station. They had seen TERRIBLE and KENTUCKY in action and couldn’t deny the success.
As word spread in the Fleet the Bureau realized that they needed to do something. Captains were writing messages back to headquarters and asking questions. They developed a test to prove that continuous-aim-fire didn’t work. After the test, they wrote a report that said Sims’ claims were a mathematical impossibility. However, they conducted the test without making the modifications Sims suggested to the guns, and they completed the test on land…for a gunnery practice designed for a rolling ship. The Bureau of Ordnance submitted their report that continuous-aim-fire was impossible. Belief in Sims’ claims evaporated overnight.
Sims had submitted 13 reports in all, over the span of two years, each one continually improving his method and technique. When he heard that the Bureau of Ordnance had completed a test and proved that what he claimed was impossible, he finally had enough. He knew that if the United States Navy went up against a force that was using continuous aim fire it would be decimated. Destruction of the fleet would open up the U.S. coast to invasion, as the Brits had done in the War of 1812 (a war that was roughly as distant to him as World War I is to us). He believed that the nation’s security depended on his success.
Lieutenant William Sims did something that he later characterized as “the rankest kind of insubordination.” He wrote a letter to the President.
President Roosevelt had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt. He was a navalist in the truest sense of the word. He was the author of the seminal work “The Naval War of 1812” and friends with Alfred Thayer Mahan. He would become the inventor and deployer of The Great White Fleet. As Presidents sometimes did a century ago, he actually read the letter that the young Lieutenant on China Station sent him, and he was shocked. If Sims was right and continuous-aim-fire worked, then he was also right that it was an issue of the highest importance.
Roosevelt had ordered a gunnery exercise in order to demonstrate the existing state of naval skill. The results were worse than anyone predicted. Five ships from the Atlantic Fleet each fired for five minutes at a former light-ship, at a range of about a mile. After 25 minutes of firing, two shells had gone through the light-ship’s sails and none had struck the ship itself. Roosevelt ordered the Navy to bring Sims back from China Station, saying: “Give him entire charge of target practice for eighteen months; do exactly as he says. If he does not accomplish anything in that time, cut off his head and try someone else.”
Lieutenant Sims returned to the United States and assumed the responsibilities of the U.S. Navy’s “Inspector of Target Practice.” He held the position for six and a half years. He was given a small staff of two junior Lieutenants and was tasked with revolutionizing naval gunnery. Three Lieutenants, change the world…no sweat.
Sims re-circulated his reports to the Fleet and instituted annual practice requirements for gunnery. He didn’t make his method of continuous aim fire mandatory, he simply sent out the reports for gunnery officers to read. He established a yearly fleet wide gunnery competition. Every ship in the Navy would compete, and could use any system or technique that they wanted. They were all welcome to start with continuous aim fire. The winning ship would be identified to the Navy and the country, and the winning gunnery officer was responsible for writing a report on his TTPs. Each year, the gunnery officers across the Fleet would pour over that report, and the reports that came before, and make constant refinements and adjustments to gunnery TTP’s. They sent out their own reports out and wrote articles for the Naval Institute’s place for disruptive thinking, the journal Proceedings.The winning ship each year received a pennant that they could fly on their yardarm, a pennant with an E on it for gunnery excellence. This was the birth of “The Battle E.”
Sims was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and he and his assistants Lieutenants Ridley McLean and Powers Symington were in constant demand to visit the ships of the Fleet. Here you can see an invitation to “The Gun Doctor” and his assistant’s “Ping” and “Pong” to visit the wardroom of the USS Missouri for a “silent dinner,” which was like a Dining-In, with rules like Vegas: what happened at a silent dinner stayed at a silent dinner.Toward the end of Sims’ years leading the gunnery revolution, one gunner on the winning ship made fifteen hits in one minute at a target 75 by 25 feet at the same range as the test ordered by President Roosevelt years before; half of the hits were in a bull’s eye 50 inches square.
The US Navy rapidly overtook the Royal Navy as the greatest gunners in the world…and it wasn’t until the US adopted continuous-aim-fire that the Brits realized that their own Gritty revolutionary Percy Scott had been onto something all that time, and they followed the American TTPs that had been developed from watching Scott. Even Admiral Newton Mason, the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, admitted “The renaissance in gunnery which came about chiefly through the instrumentality of Commander Sims, has … led to great improvements in ordnance.” In the Fleet Lieutenant Commander Sims became known as “the man who taught us how to shoot.”
NEXT: Expertise, Voice, Grit, and Listening…A Look At The Possible.
The May 2012 Proceedings reached me while I was on some active duty facilitating some war games at NDU. It is my second-favorite Proceedings issue of the year. It is the Naval Review issue. Contained therein is every Navy Flag Officer currently serving. Three hundred thirty one in total, according to USNI.
There has been discussion aplenty here and elsewhere regarding the absurdity and wastefulness of having 1.17 Admirals for EACH SHIP in the United States Navy. While the profligate growth of stars in the Navy’s senior ranks may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it is unconscionable in the current environment of extreme fiscal constraint, especially as the Sea Service is hemorrhaging highly qualified E-6 Sailors one hitch short of retirement eligibility. It is well past time to cull the Flag herd. And here’s one way forward (Hint: Simply shouting “you CAN’T!” and “we NEED!” does not constitute a counter-argument).
Among Rear Admirals, and Rear Admirals, Lower Half, there are 62 positions that are Deputy, Vice, or Assistant positions. Fill each with a Captain, breveted temporarily one or two ranks while serving in those billets. A successful tour in one of those positions would be a career enhancer for a Captain, increasing chances for permanent promotion.
Among Vice Admirals, there are ten positions that are Deputy or Assistant positions. Reduce those positions to two star rank. Reduce the billet of VCNO from four stars to three. Ditto Fleet Forces Command. Next time NDU is a Navy fill, do so with a Rear Admiral instead of a Vice Admiral. The Naval War College gets a Rear Admiral, Lower Half.
And have a long look at the Joint Billets that swell the Navy’s senior officer structure. Pursuant to meaningfully re-evaluating Goldwater-Nichols, which is now in its 27th year.
Implement this concept, and you have at least a 20% reduction of Navy Flag Officers. Between 65 and 70, depending on which path one takes regarding force structure tied up in Joint assignments. It’s a start. The path we are on gives this nation a Navy of 200 ships and 400 Admirals before the end of the next decade. That ain’t no way to run a railroad. Or win a war at sea.
Yes, I will have a similar look at the Marine Corps in the near future.
From the April 2012 Edition of Leatherneck Magazine:
By R. R. Keene
If you’ve never been to Dong Ha, you haven’t missed a thing. Well, perhaps with the exception of Easter 1972.
No one really knows how many of those who were there are still around to talk about it. The South Vietnamese Marines are no more: banished or dead. The North Vietnamese soldiers who fired their weapons in frustration from across the Cau Viet River are scattered and old or dead. John Ripley’s been dead for three years and wasn’t the kind to brag.
So, from time to time we have to retell his legendary tale and pass it to every generation of Marines.
Colonel John W. Ripley: When they talk of Marines with cojones, one thing comes to mind—Ripley as a captain at the bridge at Dong Ha.
At 33, Ripley was an “old Asia hand” on his second Vietnam combat tour. He deployed in country as a reconnaissance platoon leader in 1965 and then commanded “Lima” Company, 3d Battalion, Third Marine Regiment. “Ripley’s Raiders” they call themselves, and they insist the “33” label of Vietnamese “Ba Muoi Ba” Bier (beer) really means 3d Bn, 3d Marines. They liked Ripley. He was no wuss. He gave his Marines no slack, kept them in the field and got them in plenty of combat, but also took good care of them, and they took their wounds together.
In addition to the Purple Heart, Ripley won a Silver Star during an attack with Lima Co against an NVA regimental command post.
The men of Lima Co admire their “skipper” and like telling stories about him.
One Marine said, “I remember Staff Seargeant Joe Martin saying, Ripley was on Harlan County [(LST1196)] in port on the Caribbean in 1964. He was crossdecking when one of the ‘squid’ officers of the day said something insulting about the Corps. ‘Rip’ threw him in the drink. They put him in ‘hack’ down over the bilges in the bowels of USS Boxer [(LPH4)], where the hull makes a V. He did pushups all day. Eventually he took over Weapons, 2/2 and was Martin’s platoon commander.”
Ripley, even for a Marine, was a physical fitness animal. He was a “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war” believer who’d taken it to heart—and all the other muscles of his body—as an enlisted man and later as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. It gave him an edge on his exchange tour with the British Royal Marines on the Malay Peninsula, at the U.S. Army’s Airborne and Ranger schools and with the Navy’s underwater demolition teams. He had be come jump, scuba and Ranger qualified.
Ripley said, “Endurance: We confuse this with fitness … but mental endurance is like an extra bandolier. … You lock and load and keep going.”
More about the Memorial to Company L, 3d Battalion, Third Marine Regiment gathered at Semper Fidelis Memorial Park, National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., to dedicate the “CAPTAIN J. W. RIPLEY LIMA CO RVN-1967” Memorial, honor their fallen comrades and remember their commanding officer.
Thank you Leatherneck Magazine and Mr. Keene.
Semper Fi Dad
Explorer- filmmaker James Cameron became the first person to dive solo into the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth. He completed the dive the night of 25 March, Eastern Daylight Time, off Guam. In light of his feat, we thought it appropriate to post an interview done for Naval History magazine in 2000 with Dr. Don Walsh, one of the two men who beat Cameron to it more than 52 years ago.
Fred L. Schultz
From Naval History Magazine, April 2000
In January 1960, he and Swiss copilot Jacques Piccard navigated the U.S. Navy’s bathyscaphe Trieste into the Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the World Ocean. At nearly seven miles, the record still stands. Retired U.S. Navy Captain Walsh also was a member of Operation Deep Freeze in 1971, spending more than a month on the ice in Antarctica and earning recognition for his contributions there by having an Antarctic mountain ridge named for him. Today, Captain Walsh is president of International Maritime, Inc., an Oregon-based consulting company that has completed projects in 20 nations. He is one of 20 living Honorary Members of the Explorers Club, an Honorary Life Member of the Adventurers Club, and a Fellow of England’s Royal Geographic Society. Captain Walsh is a 1954 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and earned Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Oceanography from Texas A&M University and a second Master’s degree from California State University in San Diego. A technical advisor for such films as Gray Lady Down, Raise the Titanic, The Hunt for Red October, and The Abyss, Captain Walsh is scheduled to lead an expedition in April 2000 to HMS Breadalbane, the world’s northernmost shipwreck, 350 feet beneath the ice off Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic. He spoke recently about a variety of topics to Naval History Editor Fred L. Schultz.
Naval History: In a Naval History interview a few years ago, Jean-Michel Cousteau referred to you as the Buzz Aldrin of the ocean. What do you think he meant by that?
Captain Walsh: I’ve known the Cousteau family for many years. I know Jean-Michel well. I’ve been a guest in the Cousteau home. We go way back, so I believe that was a compliment and not a complaint.
Naval History: We thought he might have meant that Jacques Piccard received more of the credit for your expedition to the Challenger Deep, comparing you to Aldrin and Piccard to Neil Armstrong.
Captain Walsh: Well, it’s a tad nationalistic. Europeans tend to favor the European, and Americans tend to favor the American. I think that’s just human nature. The Piccards, of course, are a dynasty. I don’t think any family in the history of exploration has had three generations who, essentially, all established world records. Auguste, of course, was a great balloonist. He was basically a physicist, but he set the world altitude record in the early 1930s in a balloon. And, of course, his son Jacques was with me in the Trieste. And now Jacques’s son Bertrand is the first man to fly a balloon around the world.
So they’re a dynasty of explorers and scientists in Europe, and, understandably, the press treatment would probably favor them. I don’t think it’s any kind of a deliberate spin; it’s just the way people see the news and report it. It doesn’t trouble me.
Naval History: What was it like competing against the space program at the time?
Captain Walsh: It was pretty tough, because the advent of the space program came at just about the time we brought the Trieste to the United States. We and this inner spaceship we had didn’t even enjoy a year of primacy. NASA already was off and running. The Navy’s entire undersea program has lived in the shadow of the space program. Of course, our project seemed to be under wraps from the beginning.
I remember presenting the program to Admiral Arleigh Burke. Of course, the Navy doesn’t require lieutenants to go the Chief of Naval Operations to get approval for programs, but nobody wanted to make the decision. I kept getting handed up the chain until one day I ended up in front of Admiral Burke.
So I briefed him on the program. And he said, “How many of you are in this thing?”
And I replied, “It’s just myself and Piccard.”
Then he said, “Are there any other Navy people associated?”
And I said, “There’s Lieutenant Larry Shumaker, who’s the assistant officer in charge. He’ll be in charge of the topside aspects.”
The Admiral then said, “Well, if this thing doesn’t come back up, you tell Shumaker that you’re the lucky one, because I’m going to have his lower appendages.” Arleigh Burke said what he meant and meant what he said. So I got the approval from him, but he put a condition on it. He said, “There’ll be no publicity, none at all.” I looked at him in surprise, because if we were successful, this was going to be quite a coup for the Navy.
“The science guys and the research and development engineers in the Navy,” he said, “have been promising me spectacular things. We were going to put up the first earth-orbiting satellite.” They had lit off a rocket at Cape Canaveral, and it shot into the ocean rather than into space. So Admiral Burke said that he didn’t want any more of these promised science spectaculars that turn out to fizzle. “If you do it successfully,” he said, “then we’ll have the publicity. But until then, just keep your mouth shut and go do it.”
So we didn’t really have a ramp-up to this great event. There was no general knowledge of what we were doing. Although Life, National Geographic, and improbably, The London Daily Mail got a whiff of it, the Navy’s Chief of Information bought their silence by saying they could go on the trip but they couldn’t tell anybody. And they didn’t. Does Macy’s tell Gimball’s? They were inside, and the door was shut. They essentially had scoops. And so, off we went to Guam. That was good coverage.
The London Daily Mail had a wonderful foreign correspondent, Noel Barber. He was out of the trench coat-Lowell Thomas school. When the Dalai Lama came out, Barber hired horses and rode a hundred miles into Tibet to greet him and get the scoop. He was a wonderful raconteur. During the evenings in Guam, when we’d all go out for dinner, we didn’t talk about the Trieste, we sat around and listened to the reporters tell stories about their adventures. It was great fun.
Naval History: Were you at all trepidatious before your dive in the Marianas Trench to the Challenger Deep?
Captain Walsh: No. People say, “Well, you’re just being modest.” And my wife says I’ve got a lot to be modest about. But the fact is, the whole strategy of the testing of the Bathyscaph, over nearly a year, was to make increasingly deeper test dives. When we got it, it was configured for only 20,000-foot diving depths. We had to reengineer it, enlarge it, and buy a new cabin for it, to be able to go to 36,000 feet. And so we did a few test dives in San Diego, then shipped the whole thing to Guam.
At Guam, we started out at 400 feet in the harbor and worked our way offshore, in increasingly deeper water. And we actually brought the world’s depth record home to the United States in November of 1959, when we made a dive to 18,000 feet. The previous record, of course, was held by the French Navy, at 12,500 feet, which actually is the average depth of the ocean. That was set in 1954. So we captured the record again in 1958, and by early January 1960 we dove to 24,000 feet. Then 12 days later we made the deep dive. It was all incremental.
So I say it was just a longer day at the office, and people think I’m trying to be clever. But that’s the truth. All the manipulations we did to make it dive were the same whether we were diving 1,000 feet or 36,000 feet. And we got to know it intimately. I’d put on a boiler suit, scrape rust inside that tank, and help paint it. Everybody turned to. We were a small team—only 14 people. And we worked seven days a week, dawn to dusk, at Guam. You build a certain confidence in your equipment.
Tomorrow, 11 March 2012, the storied USS Enterprise (CVN-65) will leave home port to ply the world’s oceans for the 22nd, and last time. As she is about to head toward Middle Eastern waters, the Associated Press published a nice piece about her, and the challenges that her crew of 4,000 face in keeping a ship that is older than most of their parents operating and ready.
Since SWMBO reminded me how expensive picture books were to print, I figured I would take advantage of this newfangled internet thing to post some pictures of the Big E, and relate some things about her 52 years in service. A good deal of these pictures will come from familiar places, such as NavSource.org, and DANFS, as well as some others included from various spots.
It is staggering to think of a ship 52 years in commission. How long is that? Here are some facts about Enterprise and her history:
The sitting Secretary of the Navy, William B. Franke, whose wife christened CVAN-65, had been born in 1894. He lived to be 85, and still died 33 years ago.
Enterprise’s first CO, Captain Vincent P. de Poix, Annapolis ’39, had been a World War II aviator, and is still with us at 95!
In February of 1962, Enterprise stood by to assist with the recovery of the first American to orbit the Earth, LtCol John Glenn, USMC, in Mercury 6.
Enterprise was a part of the Second Fleet force that established the “Naval quarantine” of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October, 1962.
Enterprise was the first nuclear powered warship ever to operate in a combat zone, off Vietnam, December, 1965.
Enterprise remains the longest warship ever to put to sea at 1,102 feet, 2 inches.
On May 24th, 2011, a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet of VFA-11 made arrested landing number 400,000 on Enterprise.
When Enterprise joined the fleet in October of 1961, she was one of 24 carriers, and the only nuclear-powered carrier, in a Navy of 870 ships. Today she is one of 11 nuclear-powered carriers in a Navy of 285 ships.
Enterprise deployed to Vietnam six times, Operation SOUTHERN WATCH three times, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM four times (about to be five), and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM three times. Her CO, Captain William Hamilton, was not yet three years old when Enterprise was commissioned, her XO would not be born for another five years.
Best of luck to all the Officers and Sailors who crew this venerable old warship. She carries a glorious name proudly. One day you can tell your grandchildren you sailed on her. When you return, she will pass from the Navy list and into history.
But perhaps her name can live on with CVN-80. There always should be an Enterprise in the US Navy.
As the sun’s rays broke over the top of the eastern hills this morning, the military blogging community was coming to grips with the loss of a truly remarkable man. Retired Navy Captain Carroll LeFon, who was known to thousands by his “nom de blog” of Neptunus Lex, died when his Israeli-built F-21 Kfir single-seat fighter aircraft crashed at NAS Fallon at around 0915 yesterday morning.
The challenge in writing about such a man is that my command of the language to do justice to him is insufficient for the task, yet his mastery of words gave vivid understanding on most everything he chose to chronicle. “Lex” was one of the first and perhaps the best of those military bloggers (milbloggers), with a large and faithful readership that included his former Navy shipmates, other military types (including myself), former military types, and civilians of all descriptions. That readership came and stayed because Lex was far more than a milblogger who wrote about all things military. He had a wonderful gift with the written word, speaking to his readers as if engaged in a conversation at a back table of a favorite pub. His eloquence about military issues, his witty and often brilliant commentary on things political and social, always provided thought provoking reading. His commenters, even while disagreeing and adding rich commentary of their own, respected each other and revered their host.
His post was a daily read for me, and several times a week I would push my chair back from the desk and think (and sometimes say) “Damn! I wish I’d said that!” or “I wish I could write like that!” Lex wrote eloquently of the human condition, both in and out of uniform, and had an appreciation for others who did, as well. We had in common a love of Kipling and the classics of martial poetry and other such works, and I would always smile to read them quoted at some appropriate juncture or situation. His remarkable Rhythms, a superb narrative of a day in the life aboard a CVN, is suitable for publishing. (USNI?)
But Lex did something extraordinary in his missives. In the impersonal world of the internet, he gave us glimpses of himself. His writing brought his readers into his cockpit, where he described in common terms the joys and challenges of flight and what it took to be the exceptional pilot he was. He also wrote incredibly lovingly about his wife and children, his love for them and pride he felt, and the worries he carried as a husband and father. And he managed to do so without intruding into their lives or his, but in a way that allowed us all to share just a little of him.
Lex chose to re-grip the flight controls to serve again the Navy he loved, by doing what had been his passion (outside of his wife and children) for his far too brief time this side of heaven. He helped to train Navy pilots to be better Navy pilots, and accepted the concomitant risks long after his time in uniform ended. The value of men such as he cannot be overestimated. His loss leaves a hole, a void, that never really is filled.
Our thoughts and prayers to his wife, his Navy pilot son, and his lovely daughters. Theirs is a deep grief that cannot be assuaged by the words they will read today and in the coming days. But perhaps, as that grief lessens, they can be warmed with a pride of having been the greatest treasure of such a remarkable man.
Captain Carroll LeFon, United States Navy (Ret.) has stepped into the clearing. Far more than most, he will be missed.
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?
As the Independent Forum of the Sea Services – also celebrating our birthday this week – we are proud to be a part of the narrative that has helped shape our United States Navy’s rich history and way forward. Since 1873 – Taking the Dare.
The Naval Institute celebrates the 236 Years of the United States Navy and welcomes the new CNO Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert. Here are his Sailing Directions:
Warfighting First: Be ready to fight and win today, while building the ability to win tomorrow
Operate Forward: Provide offshore options to deter, influence and win in an era of uncertainty
Be Ready: Harness the teamwork, talent and imagination of our diverse force to be ready to fight and responsibly employ our resources
The CNO, MCPON, and SECNAV message:
And let us not forget the birthday of the U.S. Naval Academy.
With that, we offer you a piece from our archive; a celebration of the future and knowledge through discourse.
NAVAL EDUCATION. By Commander A. T. Mahan, U. S. Navy.
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.