Fletcher, Task Force Commander and the early days of the Pacific War
We are here to talk about the “Days of Fletcher,” that is to say,--Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher and the first year of the Pacific War.. Although he is little known, even here in his hometown, he contributed greatly to the successful conclusion to the Pacific War that began at Pearl Harbor. And, by holding on in the Pacific, he allowed the U.S. to concentrate on the administration's policy of Germany First. If Fletcher had failed, then the American people really wanted to go after the Japanese, and the lions share of the resources allotted to Europe would have bee reduced and we could have lost our English and Russian Allies.
Areas of Control in 1941.
World War Two started almost seventy-five years ago, At the time the U.S. entered WW2, the war had been going on for over two years and three months in Europe, five years in Africa, and ten years in China.
Japanese control includes in the north Pacific :, Manchuria, eastern China, Korea and Kurile and half of Sakhalin Island, Formosa, and eastern China from Shanghai to Nanking and up to and including Manchuria.
All of the coastal cities of South China as enclaves, largest of which is Hong Kong.
Then as member of Tripartite Agreement Hitler had France give to Japan :, Hainan Island and French IndoChina which they young people call Vietnam. For her participation on the Allie's side in WWI, Japan was given mandate over a collection of islands all over the Central Pacific from Equator to International Date Line Including Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Marcus, Marianas, Marshalls, Carolines and Paulus island groups
- The U.S. owned the smattering of islands east of the International Date Line: Hawaii, Midway, Aleutians, the tiny Line Islands and the Phoenix Islands the biggest of which was too small for Amelia Earhart to find.
- There were a few American islands in the Japanese quadrant including Wake Island and Guam used as refueling stations for steamers and the PanAm Clippers – flying boats from U.S. to the Orient
- The British had Burma, Malaya, the Gilberts and Fiji.
- Holland had the Dutch East Indies consisting of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Celebes, and half of New Guinea.
- The Australian has inherited many areas south of the Equator by the awards committee after WWI.
- The French had some islands in the South Pacific: New Hebrides and half of New Caledonia and far to the east, out of the war area, the Society Islands which included Tahiti. But to whom were the French loyal? And there was DeGaul who wanted administration of the U.S. troops sent to the New Caledonia.
Japan's goal was to dominate Asia. They had already acquired Korea, Formosa, and Okinawa in the prior century. To this vision they attacked portions of China and setup puppet governments -- Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, then the coast of China and Shanghai. Starting in 1937 they, like Hitler in Poland, stages a phony justification for outright attack of China proper. The western powers objected through the weak League of Nations. Japan simply withdrew; the U.S. had never joined.
Japan is a resource-poor island nation. They were an importer of oil and iron from the United States ; rubber from IndoChina ; and tin and oil from the Dutch East Indies. They has an increasing need for strategic military supplies. The Axis were winning in Europe, so Japan joined with them to intimidate England (Singapore), the Netherlands (Dutch East Indies) and the U.S. (Philippines) from interfering with their goals. England and Holland had some survival issues at home. Only the objections of the U.S. were of possible concern.
If we look at an Asia-Pacific map, all that transpired becomes almost obvious, after the fact.
Germany had captured most all of Europe, North Africa, and was deep into Russia. Japan signed up with the winning time. The Tripartite Pact aligned Japan with Germany and Italy, a military alliance, The Axis, was against England, Russia, and China. The U.S. was allied with England and the USN was in at undeclared war with the Kriegsmarine in the Atlantic -- we depth charged their submarines and they torpedoed our destroyers. FDR had transferred 1/3 of the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic for Neutrality Patrols. This made the U.S. and Japan on opposite sides in an globe straddling war such that Washington cut off strategic materials to Japan. Japan decided to take what they needed from the Dutch East Indies without bothering with negotiations. This mean taking out the British, Dutch and U.S. fleets and occupying Java and the rest of what is now Indonesia. The Territory of the Philippines was on their shipping routes and the U.S. fleet in Hawaii would certainly charge across the Pacific to defend the Philippine Islands. Therefore the Philippines had to be occupied and the remaining U.S. fleet disabled.
Japan was not seeking war with the US, they just wanted U.S. to let them take the resource rich East Indies. They though the U.S. would be smart enough not to get embroiled with Japan because, (1) they were stronger militarily. (2) they had taken out what little offensive capabilities we had, and (3) we would not risk open war with their partners, the successful Axis powers. They simply planned to take what they needed and then grant the American pacifists their desire for peace, while retaining what they had taken, and to get on with their conquest of China.
Japan had ten battleships and ten aircraft carriers. After Pearl Harbor we had no battleships, zero, active in the Pacific and three aircraft carriers. 20 to 3 odds in capital ships. Surely we could do nothing more then make diplomatic noises until they had completed their six months of planned acquisition program, then they would graciously stop and accept the thanks of the world.
The Japanese Plan was twofold.
To take the resources of Java and the Dutch East Indies.
British and American supporting facilities on the periphery had to be neutralized: Pearl Harbor, Ceylon, and Australia. And they did so in that order.
To establish a defensive perimeter.
On the East, the International Dateline: .
It is easy to see that American bases in the Philippines and British bases, principally Singapore, had to be taken to protect their acquisition of Southern Resource Area of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, Japan's names for their new empire expansion.
In the South: Timor, New Guinea and Solomons, to the Gilberts.
On the West : Sumatra, Andaman Islands, and Burma
To the North they already occupied much of China and had a treaty with their traditional opponent, Russia, which was honored because the Soviets were occupied in Europe.
In late November 1941, the Japanese carrier fleet disappeared, -- there were no satellites back then. But the Intelligence services made estimates from radio traffic. Washington headed by a fellow named Turner, said they were going to attack Russia for a move to clear out this bit of eastern China.
Another assessment was that the Imperial Japanese Army was going to attack Malaya, Philippines, or East Indies,. A series of “war warnings” were issued from late November, . so many in fact that they became unalarming. Yet, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Kimmel, put 1/3 of ship's guns on alert, a condition unheard of in port where responsibility for protection fell to the Army and Air Corp. Thus the naval ships started firing on enemy planes with the drop of the first bomb, whereas ground anti-aircraft gunners first had to unlock and retrieve ammunition from storage bunkers.
The Commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, Adm Hart in Manila, recalled the gun boats from China and dispersed his small fleet of 3 cruisers, 13 destroyers, and 29 submarines to various ports in the Philippines. They knew the Japanese were amassing a fleet at Cameron Bay, IndoChina, that they had just gotten from the Vichy French.
The primary tasks of for Adm, Kimmel was to
The day after the war warning, Kimmel dispatched Adm Halsey in carrier Enterprise to reinforce Wake Island with naval aircraft. Halsey issued orders to shoot any unidentified ship or sub they encountered. He left his usual battleship escort in Pearl Harbor because they were too slow to keep up with his fast carriers.
- reinforce MacArthur in the Philippines,
- to set up flying boat bases on the outlying islands, and
- to upgrade weapons on ships and to increase training so as to be able to rush battleships across the Pacific to resist the expected invasion of the Philippines.
Dec 1. The Japanese changed their naval codes, shutting off our insight into their messages.
The President of the United States, about who Churchill is to have said, “To understand him, you
had to think like a young boy.” Roosevelt ordered the Asiatic fleet yacht, Isabel, armed with a machine gun and sent to stand in the way of the Japanese Cameron Bay fleet if it should sail, to allow Japan to fire the first shot. When the Japanese put to sea, Admiral Hart ordered this suicide mission to be recalled.
Four U.S. submarines were ordered to the north and south of Midway and Wake islands.
On Dec 4th,
The Japanese convoy of 30 troopships with strong naval escort departed no-longer-French IndoChina for British Malaya and the key port of Singapore.
Halsey flew of the Wildcat fighters from Enterprise to Wake Island and started his return.
Carrier Lexington sails to deliver planes to Midway Island.
Japanese boarded and scuttled a Norwegian ship that detected their invasion convoy.
The British shot down a Zero fighter.
The international date line separates Asia from America, the attack on Pearl Harbor we know as “December 7,1941, a date that will live in Infamy”, is Dec 8 out there.
The Japanese Invasion fleet jumped the gun and opened bombardment on Malaya before the target hour for all Imperial Forces to attack. They were landing troops while Japanese planes were bombing Pearl Harbor
Singapore, Malaya's chief port, was a fortress impregnable from the sea. The Japanese invasion fleet
landed up the peninsula, got on bicycles to reach city, and walked in the back door.
The two large battleships in the harbor sortied to intercept the all ready landed Japanese invasion force. The Repulse and Prince of Wales were sunk by Japanese navy bombers from IndoChina in an afternoon.
Admiral Hart had sent a squadron of four destroyers to provide escort for that foray, but they arrived only in time to search for survivor and found none.
Little Known Facts
A convoy of 20,000 British troops on six American ocean liners departed Halifax November 12, 1941, escorted down the Atlantic coast by Navy Task Force 14, an eleven ship escort built around aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4). The USN turned back on news of Pearl Harbor, the troop convoy rounded South Africa and landed at Singapore as that fortress was falling. The American ships were shelled, but escaped and returned by way of Capetown to New York. The British troops marched into prison camps and then on to build the Bridge over the River Kwai in Burma or to work in mines in China. Alex Guinness and his men later drowned when their prison ship was torpedoed, just in case you wondered how the movie ended.
Another aside : a characteristic of British warships, they carried big guns to attack big ships and small guns to defend against small ships. They could not elevate these guns to defend against aircraft. When the war ended in Europe and England sent a task force in 1945 to join Nimitz in the attacks on the Japanese home islands, they first had to be fitted with modern anti-aircraft guns. As the individual ships completed refurbishment in England, they arrived to victory rallies in Australia then gathered at our supply base at Manaus to use as a home port; we had moved up to Ulithi, in the Carolines.
The Americans had an amazingly large submarine fleet based at Cavat near Manila. Two problems,
they were manned by peacetime officers – and the selection criteria were not for war fighting ability.
The torpedo warehouse that held 2/3 of the torpedoes for the entire Pacific was destroyed. The replacement, our newest torpedoes were nonoperational. More on that later. The submarine fleet relocated to the south west coast of Australia, at Freemantle, suburban Perth. A typical one month submarine patrol took one week to get to the operating area, two weeks shooting bad torpedoes and trying to survive the resulting depth charge attacks, and then one week to return.
With Pearl Harbor, came the writing on the wall that the day of battleships had passed and carriers were the only surface navy left.
On Sunday Dec 7th, or on Monday Dec 8th in Japan and those places across the dateline, they simultaneously attacked : Malaya, Pearl Harbor, Guam, Wake Island, the territory of the Philippine Islands, and invited themselves to cross Siam towards Burma. And, the next day destroyed the British Far East Fleet.
In the next week
● they invaded our Territory of the Philippine Islands and the British mandated, Gilbert Islands of Tarawa, and Makin,
● moved across thru independent Siam (now Thailand) into British controlled Burma,
In coming weeks they
● they destroyed the Dutch East Indies Fleet around the Java Sea and captured the entire Dutch East Indies,
● isolated Chinese supply lines by taking Thailand and Burma thereby cutting the Rangoon to China railroad,
● destroyed the British Indian Ocean fleet in a raid on Ceylon forcing the British out of the Indian Ocean all the way back to Africa here they fought the French in Madagascar before moving to the Mediterranean.
● took Rabaul from Australia, landed on the north coast of New Guinea, and moved into the Northern Solomons with a goal of their Navy to isolate Australia into inactivity.
Note : the Australian Army was busy fighting in North Africa, they were the backbone of British Commonwealth resistance to Rommel. They wanted to pull their troops back : to Australians, the Far East, was the Near North. This would have given Africa to the Axis. Churchill hit up Roosevelt to assure the defense of Australia. Hence, the high-profile MacArthur – who might have been cashiered for loss of the Philippines -- was instead recalled to take command of American troops in Australia. After his famous escape from Corregidor by PT boat, he arrived in Australia to find -- there were no U.S. troops.
To understand the Pacific we must note the distances involved.
· Hawaii was our chief base, 3,900 miles from San Francisco. Many warships were required to escort traffic of supplies to Pearl Harbor and civilians back to the mainland.
· Shipping from Eastern factories and troops were by rail to San Francisco and on to the Pacific because German U-boats were in the Caribbean route thru the Panama Canal.
· Notice that the shipping distance from San Francisco to Melbourne is exactly three times the distance from Halifax Canada, to Bristol, England. That means three times the weeks to get there, and back again, and three times the number of cargo ships, three times the number of naval escorts.
The Imperial Japanese Navy understandably succumbing to victory disease and expanded their goals in the Pacific
Their Navy were physically moving down the Solomons establishing bases and to the south side of New Guinea when they met Fletcher. It was our Frank Jack that stopped the Japanese expansion in the South Pacific.
- North -- to take a reconnaissance outpost in the North Pacific, Attu Island in the Aleutian chain;
- Central -- to take Midway in the Central Pacific; and
- South -- the many island chains of South Pacific – Santa Cruz, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa to completely isolate Australia. Tho the Japanese Army was not prepared to occupy Australia. Remember their objective was China.
American policy was supportive of England. Japan was a formal member of the Axis by the Tripartite Treaty from September 1940. Therefore, the U.S. stopped strategic trade with Japan and tensions, already high, got worse.
The Pacific Theater, including China, Burma, and India, was relegated to a holding action while we concentrated on Germany. Eighty-five percent of our military production went across the Atlantic. Fifteen percent was left for the rest of the world. Consider that we were starting from a depression era deficit in which politicians had bragged to their constituents that “I have cut military spending to the bone and then have cut some more." Slogans included: "Schools not ships."
[Does that sound like sequester?]
Then came Pearl Harbor in which the U.S. battle fleet was destroyed in a surprise attack. The enemy was experienced from several years of warfare in China in which the had polished their men, their weapons and techniques and were able to move around the Pacific at will. Next they sank the British Far East Fleet. Then they destroyed the U.S. offensive forces in the Philippines, the aircraft were destroyed on the ground even after half a day's warning from Pearl Harbor and three days from monitoring a Japanese invasion fleet on the move. The U.S. Asiatic Fleet was destroyed, along with the English Far East fleet, and the Dutch East Indies fleet in the Java Sea over the next month. The Japanese First Mobile Fleet, that is, their six newest and largest aircraft carriers operating as a unit, ranged from Hawaii to India, from Alaska to Australia. In five months they conquered all they had planned and then expanded their plans because it had been so easy. They extended their attacks to the Indian Ocean where they sank a British carrier (the fourth of five carriers that England lost in the war), two heavy cruisers, and 28 merchant ships. That forced the British all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa (where they fought the French for Madagascar and then to the Mediterannian.
The Japanese battle fleet never lost a ship ! Their entire navy never lost a ship larger than a sub or an axillary destroyer. They defeated five fleets of three nations in five months.
Until they met Fletcher.
The U.S. response to war was to clean out military leadership and send in new blood with newly frocked Admirals Ernest King in Washington and Chester Nimitz in the Pacific. King held Nimitz under his thumb until after Nimitz' success at Midway.
Chester Nimitz assumed command of the Pacific on December 31st at Pearl Harbor after Kimmel was and removed in mid-December made a “scape-goat” for the success of the Japanese.
Nimitz' charge was to :
Our Pacific plan could be no more than to protect what we had and to weaken the speed of Japanese advance. Recall, Germany First was our national policy. The Pacific was a holding action only -- with little funding. The Navy would perform hit-and-run raids with the few remaining resources we had – a form of guerrilla warfare to which the underdog always had to resort. Japanese submarines damaged one of our carriers, Saratoga, and the Yorktown was returned from "Neutrality Patrol" in the Atlantic. So we still had three active carriers. Vice Admirals Halsey and Brown had two. Fletcher, one rank lower, was given the Yorktown task force on Jan 1, three weeks after Pearl Harbor. The immediate task was to transport of a convoy of the 2nd Marine Brigade from San Diego to Fiji (Bora Bora) and American Samoa (Pago Pago) with the Yorktown Task Force commanded by our Frank Jack Fletcher.
1. Defend the Hawaiian Islands, including Midway.
2. Extend the U.S. defense zone from Pearl Harbor to American Samoa.
3. Protect the shipping route to Australia.
Who was Fletcher? (1885-1973)
[Note, this talk was prepared for the Marshall County Historical Society (Iowa) that is headquartered in the former Fletcher home.]
Frank Jack Fletcher grew up in this very home. He was called Jack by the Family.
As the oldest child, Jack possibly had the military history room directly over your head and he may have done homework on a table in this grand dining room after playing Bobcat football. His uncle was a commander in the Navy. In that spirit, Jack obtained an appointment to Annapolis Naval Academy and graduated in 1906, 26th in his class with strong points in seamanship. As to leadership, he was third in rank in the midshipman corp. The leadership of the Pacific War were his classmates. He had a succession of small ship commands in the Asian fleet; had been brought home to service at Vera Cruz as a junior officer where he went ashore to rescue civilians and was awarded a Medal of Honor for bravery. He commanded a destroyer in WWI in Europe and was highly decorated. His political skills were polished in peacetime Washington, intermixed with fleet service. He was one of the Navy's picked stars, identified for higher command, and sent to the Navy graduate school and then to the Army staff college where he prepared in strategic thinking and leadership, was promoted to Rear Admiral and went to the Pacific for squadron commands. He was at sea leading training exercises that Sunday when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. [pics Maggie ; PH]
Frank Jack, called Jack by the family, married up with Martha Richards in February 1917, in New York City, just before the U.S. entered WWI. Stephen Regan in the wonderful biography of Admiral Fletcher,
"In Bitter Temptest" says of her, “Martha was a cross between an elitist socialite and a warm, nurturing mother figure.”. She was from Kansas City and I don't know how they met, but it must have been while he was part of the staff of the Naval Academy at Annapolis Maryland. We have pictures of her at public events. They remained married for 56 years, having a home in Maryland outside Washington, D.C., from the Revolutionary period. It was called “Araby”, and is now a state historic site. They lived there until 1973 when Jack died at Bethesda Naval Hospital a few days shy of his 88th birthday. She passed on a year after him and they are buried side by side in Arlington National Cemetery on the hill near where JFK was buried. [pics Martha, graves]
Jack was a surface commander. Nimitz had been a submarine specialist. Fletcher had once commanded the big submarine base in the Philippines. Neither had air experience. There were so few aircraft carrying ships that there were few promotion opportunities. As part of general preparation Fletcher had applied for flight training, but did not pass the physical. Halsey had gone through flight school in his middle-aged years and was the senior aircraft carrier commander. Fletcher was the first non-flying admiral to receive one of the few carrier task forces in combat.
Fletcher put his mind to learning what he needed to know.
As an example of what not to do: The Army base commander at Clark Field near Manila put all his fighters in the air right away. They all landed to refuel when the Japanese attacked and were wiped out. MacArthur refused to release his bombers to attack Japanese airfield in Formsa until they had proven their intentions to attack the Philippines. They did so by destroying the majority of the entire U.S. stock of B-17 Flying Fortresses on the ground. It takes years to understand the intricacies of a specialty.
His study of carrier operations followed a near perfect learning curve. His first task was to escort a Marine battalion convoy to the South Pacific. He had a long haul from San Francisco to Fiji in the South Pacific which gave him had a month to study flight operations. Fletcher's practice was to go to the ready rooms and talk with pilots, as well as with the air wing commanders.
On the way back to Pearl, he and VAdm Halsey, chief of all carriers, were tasked to raid Makin and other sites in Gilbert Islands to let this pilots and him have some live practice.
[Chart of our carrier movements]
His next chance was when he took Yorktown to join VAdm Brown, in Lexington, a senior air commander of aircraft carriers for another attempt to raid Rabaul, the expanding Japanese naval headquarters for the South Pacific. But while en-route, the Japanese invaded the north coast of Borneo and both Admirals headed to interdict that landing where they damaged 14 ships, but the enemy had already landed and stayed.
Lexington went back to Pearl while Fletcher and Yorktown stayed to patrol the Coral Sea's sea lanes alone. He had studied, practiced, and made a raid under a senior. The book on aircraft carrier warfare had not been written and Frank modestly said he often felt as if he were grouping in the dark, ... but all warfare is that way and Fletcher had very good instincts. He was ready when the Japanese made their push into the lower Solomons with three separate task forces.
The Japanese six-month plan did not take that long, they had accomplished most of it in five months : in Southeast Asia their army simply walked across borders to shut off Chinese supply lines ; they occupied all of Pacific west of the international dateline. They expanded their goals to establish a larger protective ring to include the South Pacific islands to assure that Australia was shutoff from military supplies. Recall that the Australian army was off fighting in Rommel in North Africa with the Commonwealth, but the Japanese goals did not include occupying Australia, just isolating it by establishing airbases in New Guinea and the Solomons to shut off ocean traffic from the air and
under the sea. The new, expanded plans went as far to the southeast as Samoa.
The Japanese advance was ready to progress to the south side, the Australian side of New Guinea, which is closer to Australia than Cuba is to the U.S. And into the southern Solomon Islands to most easily interdict sea traffic from the U.S. to Australia.
The Japanese attack with three pronged. An invasion fleet towards Port Moresby on the south, Australian, side of New Guinea ; an occupation force to Taluga, southern Solomons, to establish air bases ; and a carrier strike force to hit installations in Australia.
Fletcher rushed to attack the landing at Taluga and disrupted, but did not stop, setting up of a seaplane base. He was joined by carrier Lexington and an Australian cruiser squadron. He set off to stop the invasion fleet. First he wiped out the carrier that escorted the enemy troop transports. This, the was the first Japanese loss of a capital ship -- ever. On getting a report of the carrier strike fleet, he send the Australian cruisers ahead to stop the invasion convoy while he turned to seek the carrier strike force. He had weakened his own defenses by sending off the Australian cruisers, but the task included stopping the invasion. When he and the Japanese carrier force found each other, it was an even fight, two carriers on two. However the Japanese were more experienced having already defeated five fleets. They had better equipment -- the Zero fighter and the Long Lance torpedo. Our fighter planes were slower and our torpedoes were garbage and would be for another year.
And it turned out they also had weather on their side : they had cloud cover to hide under whereas Fletcher was in bright sunlight. Both sides attacked at the same, early morning time, the squadrons passed in the air. Fletcher's fliers almost sank one carrier, but could not find the other through the cloud cover, Yet, miraculously they destroyed most of the aircraft of the other. Our tactics worked and the light, fast maneuverable Zero, if hit, would flame and go down. Up until that time, Japanese pilots were so confidently arrogant that they did not wear parachutes. They lost not only planes, but their most experienced pilots. When all the planes were recovered, we were the winners. Both Yorktown and Lexington were damaged, but still afloat. Then ...a fuel line exploded on Lexington and the fire spread, setting of ammunition and she had to be abandoned.
Then who won? We lost a big carrier, they lost a small one. But, they retreated and never got any closer to Australia.
This Battle is famous for being the first between ships that never were within sight of each other. Fletcher was our featured hero.
Just before this battle, Corregidor in the Philippines had fallen to Japan and Jimmy Doolittle led the famous raid on Tokyo. That raid did little physical damage but so upset the Japanese such that they activated a plan to bring the whole U.S. fleet to one big battle that the Japanese were sure to win, thus leaving the Pacific as safe as a Japanese lake. This was to be the Battle of Midway.
Those admirals senior to Fletcher were all out of the picture by this time : one was too frail for sea duty, one was promoted to senior staff ; Halsey came down ill, probably with shingles, and was in the hospital. Fletcher was the senior task force commander. He got his damaged Yorktown to Pearl Harbor three days before he had to leave for the big battle. Halsey's two carriers were given to the man Nimtiz had selected for his new chief of staff. Spruance needed the experience and Halsey's staff was there to guide him. Fletcher, in partially repaired Yorktown, followed the next day and took command of the two task forces north-east of Midway Island. The plan was to wait for the Japanese to show up and to ambush them. The plan was a huge gamble that never should have worked. But Nimitz was from Texas.
The Japanese had one intelligence failure after another and never saw the U.S. Navy coming. There were five enemy carriers expected. Fletcher had only three. When two enemy carriers showed up where the code breakers had predicted, Fletcher sent Spruance off to hit them while he continued to look for the others with his lonesome Yorktown. Halsey's staff, under Spruance, was anxious and violated Fletcher's instructions and launched the attack without knowing the exact location of the enemy and used up fuel for an hour over empty sea. Meanwhile Fletcher decided it was a “use-them or lose-'em” situation and sent half his dive and torpedo bombers to help out with the two known enemy carriers. His people went directly to the enemy and arrived at the same time as half of the lost bombers found them and all attacked at the same time. Three bombers squadrons attacked three - not two – carriers and all three were left in flames. There was a fourth or fifth out there. Fletcher continued to search. There was another carrier and its planes followed the Americans back to their carrier and attacked the first one found, Fletcher's Yorktown. The ship was back in service by the time a second wave of Jap attackers arrived and she was hit again. The enemy thought they had sunk two American carriers. At the same time, Yorktown scouts had found the fourth enemy carrier and 14 Yorktown planes that had landed on Enterprise and ten surviving Big-E bombers attacked and destroyed her, too. But the fact was, Yorktown was badly hurt by the two attacks and was abandoned, but she was still afloat the next day and a repair party went aboard and she was placed under tow, back towards Pearl Harbor.
Fletcher had released Spruance in Enterprise with Hornet for operations the next day. They found nothing, but on the third day found two damaged enemy cruisers that had collided while avoiding a U.S. submarine. One was sunk. At this point, Fletcher had sunk four enemy carriers and Spruance sank an enemy cruiser with no American ship loses. A great victory. On that third day a submarine found Enterprise under tow and put two more torpedoes into the damaged ship and she finally up-ended on the fourth day. This ended the shutout Fletcher had going.
The Battle of Midway did not win the war, but it destroyed the overwhelming power of the Imperial Navy. In two confrontations, Fletcher had sunk five of the ten aircraft carriers with which Japan had started the war.
Fletcher was promoted to Vice Admiral, three stars and given multiple task forces.
Action now returns to the South Pacific. Specifically, the Solomon islands. The seaplane base at Taluga that Fletcher had tried to destroy had grown and a land based airfield was being built across the sound on Guadalcanal Island.
Part of the one U.S. Marine Division was training on New Caledonia. Plans had been to begin offensive operations the next year. These men had to be rushed to stop that construction. The rest of the division was hurriedly boarded in San Diego and sent south for an August attack. The various parts of the division met at Fiji for a practice landing exercise. All reports say it was a failure. Never-the-less the entire division boarded ships escorted by just about the entire U.S. Pacific fleet, 28 ships, set sail for the Solomons. We lucked out this time. Bad weather hid the convoy. The simultaneous landing on Taluga by 6,000 Marines overwhelmed the 1,000 Japanese defenders in two days of hard fighting. A construction party of about 1,000 Japanese and Korean men on Guadalcanal saw a thousand armed Marines land and ran to hide in the jungle. They did not see an additional ten thousand more Marines land after them. For weeks the Japanese command thought they were up against only 1,000 Marines on each island.
The Japanese responded immediately. Aircraft from Rabaul were sent on a one way mission and hit two transports and two destroyers. A cruiser fleet already at sea was re-tasked to hit the unloading ships on the second night. They ran into an American-Australian guard force of heavy cruisers, unfortunately asleep after being in action for several days, and were wiped it out in 32 minutes. I correspond with a fellow who was junior officer of the deck on heavy cruiser, HMAS Canberra. He said they were just swinging the guns out towards a dark shadow, when he saw torpedo wakes and had only enough time to think, “Oh, this is bad.” But the enemy did not get through to the transports. More sailors were lost that night defending the beachhead than were Marines in the entire 6-month battle of Guadalcanal.
Fletcher had covered the landing on Taluga and the occupation of Guadalcanal for two days and was withdrawing that night, so was out of range to seek revenge on next morning. Thus a clear victory for Japan at sea and a successful American operation on the land.
Two weeks later, the Japanese fleet arrived with troops to counter attack our Marines. Fletcher attacked a naval force more than double his size (actually 7 : 2) and sank his sixth carrier. The Japanese turned tale. The Marines were saved. A few weeks later the carrier Saratoga with Fletcher aboard was torpedoed while escorting more Marines to Guadalcanal and he had to take her back to Pearl Harbor for repair. There he got to take leave back to Maryland after eight months of continuous combat in which he had sunk over half of the Japanese air fleet.
The rest of the Pacific War.
Lets sum up the rest of the Pacific in a last few words. While Fletcher was winning at Midway, the Japanese had taken two Aleutian Islands. Fletcher was sent to calm the American public's fear of attack from Alaska, which was in disarray. His successors in the South Pacific lost two American carriers in six weeks with no offsetting enemy loses. Fletcher had also lost two carriers, but had taken out six enemy. In fact, no more enemy carriers to sunk in the next year and a half.
After the war, the Japanese command says they knew the war was lost with their inability to recapture Guadalcanal and the losses sustained there. Americans agree.
The Battle for Guadalcanal is remembered as jungle warfare fought by brave Marines. In fact, it was a naval battle in which 48 ships went down, half ours half theirs : 3 carriers, 2 battleships, 12 cruisers, 25 destroyers, 6 subs, plus dozens of lesser and merchant ships. The five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo died in this effort. Both sides had to withdrawal from further major naval battles and rebuild for the next year and a half.
In that interim, the Japanese built or converted ten ships as replacement aircraft carriers. We built 119 new carriers, though many were for the Atlantic. After the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November'42 (less than a year after Pearl Harbor), the outcome of the war was not in doubt. The public knows of the glorious victories of the later war, when we overwhelmed the enemy . . . yet knows little of the early days when we were losing to an overwhelming enemy. Men like Frank Jack Fletcher -- from Marshalltown, Iowa ; this very house -- held the line while American industry tooled up to build modern equipment and the nation trained millions of men.
Our offensive began in the Gilbert Islands --Tarawa and Makin -- a year and two months after Fletcher left the South Pacific -- with a fleet of 19 carriers plus 13 battleships. Fletcher never had more than three carriers and had one battleship in his last battle. Yet those names that we remember as heroes -- where at the head of an unbeatable force. Fletcher, who we have not heard of, could have lost, as had five fleets before him, but he did not lose . . . and we won the war.
And that is the story of Frank Jack Fletcher and the early days of the Pacific War.
You may have notes my disparaging remarks about our torpedoes, earlier.
Their torpedo, the Long Lance, had twice the range, twice the speed and twice the warhead explosive weight as ours.
Range. -- one of their subs lined up two of our task forces, hit Wasp with three of a spread of six torpedoes and the misses hit battleship North Carolina and a destroyer almost ten miles behind it.
All of our torpedoes -- submarine, destroyer and air dropped -- had problems. A torpedo then cost about what a cruise missile costs today. You don't train by firing those expensive things during a depression. Of course, that way you don't find out that they don't work, either. Some torpedoes worked, some didn't. That made it hard to get people to believe you when you said it should have hit. Destroyers in the early battles of the Java Sea made attacks and made no hits. The cause was considered to be poor tactics of the crew in the excitement of battle. There is no time to theorize, just to bawl out the crews. A submarine attack, however, is a different matter. Slow and deliberate, you get one salvo and then dive deep while being depth charged. A miss is carefully considered. It didn't take long before Captains determined they were risking their lives on dangerous approaches with careful calculation and that the poor results were not the fault of the crew. Finally one submarine stopped an enemy tanker with only one hit for his spread.
He lined up the tanker, dead in the water, and carefully fired torpedo after torpedo with no explosions. He brought the remainder directly home with proof that the torpedoes were bad, not the crews.
Speed. -- Japanese warships could outrun American torpedoes until ours ran out of steam and sank.
Explosive weight. -- We tired to sink Hornet when she was abandoned and failed, the Japanese easily sank her a few hours later.
It turns out the old torpedoes worked; it was the new, better ones that didn't. There were three or more distinct problems. While trying to solve one problem, your solutions didn't work because the other problems hid the results. Reports from the field were some hits, some with no joy and no clear pattern.
· First, training was done with dummy warheads and the spent torpedo retrieved to use again. The dummies weighed less than the live warheads. Therefore the live shots traveled through the water with a down angle and passed under the target ship.
· Second, the pressure meters were located in a void in the slip stream, so depth readings were wrong at the higher speeds of the new torpedoes.
· Third, the new magnetic influence detonator were intended to explode under the ship, below any armor belt, and to break the back of the target. They were designed in Rhode Island to
New England latitudes and the magnetic fields at the equator were different.
· Fourth, the firing pin at the new higher contact speeds would deform and not hit the primer. However, a glancing blow with reduced shock would fire properly.
Air dropped torpedoes when tested found only one in three of them travel straight, this under perfect non-combat conditions.
Both the planes and torpedoes were slow. A air attack had to be made from the bow to catch the ship
and a ship can turn away faster than the plane could get ahead of it. Once the torpedo was dropped, the target could maneuver away from those that did happen to head in the right direction.
The fleet had to convince the torpedo designers there was a problem ; memos of inquiry did not work. A fishing net was spread and torpedoes fired at it. The holes in the net showed they averaged 12 feet deeper than the depth settings. High command listened and demanded results.
The factory in Rhode Island repeated the test and issued a recommendation of setting ten feet shallower. Tests with the gauges showed they needed to be moved. Later the firing pin bending was uncovered.
The magnetic influence feature was fine, except that it didn't work. In desperation, the fleet subs working out of Pearl Harbor were told to deactivate them and depend only on direct contact. The admiral in Australia had helped design the magnet detonator, “knew” they worked, and did not allow it to be deactivated on his boats until some months later. It took until mid-1943 for all the problems to be identified and fixed. By then, 50 new submarines had been added to the fleet. Armed with reliable torpedoes, the Japanese fleet rapidly got smaller.
Now you know why Fletcher's dive bombers, not the torpedo bombers, sank the enemy.
On a similar subject. The B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber was sold on the idea of coast defense.
Billy Mitchel had shown that a ship would be found far at sea and that bombs could sink a warship.
The Army Air Corp immediately reported that at Midway they had sunk many ships and the public swooned.
But not one hit was made. In fact, no moving Japanese ship was ever hit by a horizontal bomber,
either Air Corps or Navy. What happened was that any bomb that splashed enough water to obscure the ship was reported as sunk. A bomber had to fly straight for some minutes to align his Norton bombsite and the bomb would fall for some more time. The ship could maneuver out of the way during this period. Several landing ships were sunk while at the beach. One destroyer was sunk at sea, but it was stopped to pick up survivors of a dive bomber attack.
About this page: early.html - A talk about Frank Jack Fletcher and the first year of the Pacific War.
This was prepared for presentation to the Marshall County Historical Society whose headquarters is in the former Fletcher home.
Created : April 11, 2014
Updated : April 13, 2014
Contact us at :
URL : http://www.ww2pacific.com/early.html
Return to WW2Pacific home page