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Frank Jack Fletcher

Discussion in 'Naval Warfare in the Pacific' started by Tristan Scott, Jul 22, 2010.

  1. Tristan Scott

    Tristan Scott Member

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    In his book The Eagle and the Rising Sun, Alan Schom is highly crirical of Vice-Admiral Fletcher's behavior during the early days of the Guadalcanal campaign, up to and including the Battle of Santa Cruz. He, in fact, calls the Admiral's actions (the infamous "bug-out") cowardly. Schom is also critical of Fletcher's command of the Yorktown group at Midway.

    Morrison is also critical of Fletcher's actions, and is also somewhat critical of his actions during the Wake Island fiasco, although Schom puts most of the blame for that action on Pye and the general confusion at Pearl.

    Frank Jack Fletcher was a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient for his heroic action during a battle at Veracruz in 1914.

    It's always been my feeling that we must be careful throwing out the word coward when referring to our warriors, as Schom has in regards to not only Fletcher, but MacArthur as well. These men are in harms way, on the flag bridge of a carrier under attack I don't believe you will find any "cowards". In Fletcher's case we must recall the circumstances he was in. The fleet was almost completely destroyed at PH. All we had left were the carriers. When He left PH for Coral Sea the last thing Nimitz said was "don't lose my carriers". If he was overly cautious, which I believe he was, only because if you are not going to use your carriers when they are needed the most, then why are they worth protecting? But, having said that, I will repeat, I wasn't there, I wasn't in his shoes, so it is very easy to be critical.

    Anyway I believe it would be ok to criticize his tactics, as many have done, but not his courage.

    What do you all think?
     
  2. Glenn239

    Glenn239 Member

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    The US Navy during the era was rabidly political in nature and FJF's reputation during and after the war suffered greatly from his fall from grace. In 1942 the IJN was superior to the USN, but FJF does not seem to gain credit in some circles for the difficulty of the circumstances in which he fought.

    See Lundstrom Black Shoe Carrier Admiral for a long-overdue defence of Fletcher. Lundstrom, IMO, fails to exonerate Fletcher's actions at Guadalcanal but he provides ample input to bring the reader to understand Fletcher's decison making processes.
     
    Tristan Scott likes this.
  3. Tristan Scott

    Tristan Scott Member

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    Thanks Glenn! I will pick that book up.
     
  4. Glenn239

    Glenn239 Member

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    In the meantime, if you have any specific questions I can reference my copy when I get a chance. Lundstrom's account is, like everything he does, painstakingly detailed.
     
  5. Falcon Jun

    Falcon Jun Ace

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    John Keegan's book "The Second World War" has a description of the situation in the beginning of the campaign.
    On page 291, he wrote:
    "Guadalcanal, in the Solomons, committed the US Navy and the US Marines to a desperate struggle. Though safely approachable from New Zealand, the departure point of the operation, it was surrounded on three sides by other islands in the Solomons group, which together formed a confined channel that was to become known to American sailors as the 'The Slot.' Once troops were ashore, the Navy was committed to resupplying them through these confined waters and so to risking battle with the Japanese in circumstances where manuever was difficult and surprise all too easy for the enemy to achieve."
     
  6. Slipdigit

    Slipdigit Good Ol' Boy Staff Member WW2|ORG Editor

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    Tristan, I'm not ignoring your good thread, as it is a subject that interests me. I've just not had the time to add anything of substance.
     
  7. Triple C

    Triple C Ace

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    Hi Tristan,

    I am not a soldier. I have never fired a shot in anger nor have I ever been shot at (thank God). They say, however, there are two kinds of courage required of a commander: physical courage, which is the ability to confront mortal danger and keep one's presence of mind; the other is moral courage, which is the ability to accept risks and act, when the responsibility for victory or defeat rests on the soldier's decision.

    My understanding of the Pacific War is to be frank quite shallow. I too am mystified by the polarized opinions that engendered any discussion on Fletcher's ability to command. However, it appears to me that his piecemeal commitment of the aircrafts in Midway without synchronization in order to neutralize the Japanese aircraft carriers as quickly as possible was characterized by qualities quite the opposite of cowardice. Since we are not talking about his tactical ability but courage, this does not support the argument that Fletcher was cowardly. Conversely, his retreat from Guadalcanal was arguably the correct course of action, as even some of his critics conceded that the Guadalcanal Operation was conducted with a margin of superiority that argued a more cautious strategy, as the USN did not in fact possess a superior fleet, but fighting under the expectation that far more warships would be completed at the end of 1943 than the Japanese could replenish their losses.

    MacArthur was another story entirely. Murray and Millett's A War to Be Won has a fascinating monograph on Mac's ability to command and the larger than life stature he abstained by demagoguery and his astute political sense. I have never read a more scathing critique of a commander's generalship, and I do not believe it is possible to write a more scathing critique. MacArthur was not a front-line commander; he was too far removed from his soldiers to understand the hellish conditions he put them into by extremely ambitious maneuvers that his forces were often inadequate to execute. The fact that he had Ultra as well as Magic intelligence at his disposal made his habit of attacking superior Japanese forces strongly entrenched more inexplicable, and the virtual paralysis of his command earlier in Philippines should have ended in a censure and an early retirement, not a Medal of Honor.
     
  8. Glenn239

    Glenn239 Member

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    Fletcher did not have tactical control of TF16 at Midway. One might argue that Nimitz put Hornet in the wrong TF; Enterprise should have operated independently and Yorktown should have overseen the ops of CV-8's green airwing. With TF-17, Fletcher maintained a reserve against contingencies but otherwise committed his entire force in one strike.

    Lundstrom explains FJF's withdrawal decision at Guadalcanal but, IMO, falls short of exonerating him on that score. Fletcher retreated without first ascertaining the status of Turner's invasion force even though this was clearly within air strike range of Rabaul.
     
  9. syscom3

    syscom3 Member

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    There was nothing suspect about Fletchers conduct at Midway. And to put the blame on him for Wake when he did not have overall command is a bit underhanded.
     
  10. Triple C

    Triple C Ace

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    Nice to see the knowledgibles on board. So, would you rate Fletcher as a decent admiral who made some mistakes, or his withdrawl from Guadacanal justified his dismissal from command?
     
  11. Falcon Jun

    Falcon Jun Ace

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    Correct me if I am wrong please but somehow I see a certain similarity between Fletcher's decision to withdraw from Guadalcanal and Nagumo's decision when he withdrew from Pearl Harbor without conducting a third strike.
    I think it was a matter of the commander's decision to minimize his possible losses. Certainly that does mean cowardice.
     
  12. yellowtail3

    yellowtail3 Member

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    I think Adm. Fletcher was fine commander.
     
  13. syscom3

    syscom3 Member

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    As long as the carriers were within range of Rabaul, then he had every reason to be concerned about losing the carriers fr no reason.
     
  14. Glenn239

    Glenn239 Member

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    Fletcher should have been cut a break. If left in carrier command it is my opinion that he’d have done as good a job as either Halsey or Spraunce.



    Fletcher had no comparable opportunity at Guadalcanal as Nagumo's at Hawaii. Whereas Fletcher had not a single target of any value within strike radius, Nagumo had ample targets, relatively defenseless and of strategic importance. Fletcher’s decision was far more justifiable than Nagumo’s. However, Fletcher did bug out without checking on Turner’s transports and that was a major no-no. Some sort of private reprimand was in order.

    The problem I think was that King had it in for him ever since Wake Island, and Nimitz was not going to make a stand for Fletcher. The IJN was more than a match for the USN in 1942, and since King was not going to blame himself for that, so Fletcher just had to fit the bill.
     
  15. Tristan Scott

    Tristan Scott Member

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    Actually he was placed in overall command of the task force assembled to relieve Wake by Kimmel. While I agree that blaming Fletcher for the loss of Wake would be unfair, it is hard to understand his insistence on fueling his destroyers at the point where he should have made his run in to reinforce the Marines and pull off the civilians. The records show that his destroyers all had ample fuel for the intended operation.

    However, IMO, the cause for the failure of this operation was more likely in the confusion back at Pearl. Kimmel had planned this operation as a major strike back at the Japanese. He was aware that the Japanese were going to make a second, stronger attempt to take Wake and he desperately wanted to be in a position for a major engagement. Unfortunately, while the operation was underway Kimmel was removed from command and temporarily replaced by Admiral Pye. Pye decided to scrap the mission for several reasons, mostly because of his reluctance to risk the loss of any more major naval units. Fletcher's delay for his run-in may have allowed more time for Pye's indecisiveness.
     
  16. USMCPrice

    USMCPrice Idiot at Large

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    Tristan Scott,

    Your answer is provided in Triple C's response:

    Fletcher was not lacking in physical courage so he could not be called a coward. Where he was lacking at Guadalcanal was in moral courage. The best explaination I have read of this (and I can't remember where, but I think in Morrison), was that Fletcher was tired, he was suffering from mental fatigue, his nerves were shot. It would be accurate to state that he was suffering from combat fatigue, due to "too many, too close for too long". Imagine the enormous strain placed on this man by being responsible for his country's limited carrier assets and during Coral Sea, Midway and now Guadalcanal, the fate of the war in the pacific rested upon his decisions. If you look carefully at his actions you'll see that his aversion to risk taking, increased with each subsequent action. The Fletcher of Coral Sea was not the Fletcher of Guadalcanal.


    Falcon Jun wrote:
    While this is true for the transports/cargo vessels and the surface forces, it was not true for Fletcher. His carriers were operating in open seas 60-100 miles south of Guadalcanal. Rabaul was located 650 miles NNW of Guadalcanal, coastwatchers on Bougainville and other islands up the chain observed and reported on Japanese air and naval movements coming down the slot towards Guadalcanal.

    [​IMG]

    I fully agree, with you, that Fletchers decisions at Guadalcanal, in no way reflect cowardice. I would disagree with Nagumo's and Fletcher's decisions being similar. Nagumo had achieved his major objectives and had to weigh the potential costs vs. potential additional benefits. In retrospect the third strike, had it taken out the fuel storage and repair facilities would have had a great impact, but he could not have known it at the time.
    Fletcher was involved in an ongoing operation, he knew that many Marines and most supplies had not been landed. He chose to risk the amphib fleet and ground forces, in fact the success of the entire operation to protect his carriers. While Rabaul posed a major threat to the invasion forces it was not as big a factor as is commonly stated for the carriers. Rabaul is a 1300mile, 8+ hour round trip to Guadalcanal, add another 120 to 200 miles round trip to where the carriers were operating. Based on intell generated by the coastwatchers the Americans knew, more often than not, the approximate time the airstrikes would be arriving and their composition. It was fairly easy for the Japanese to launch air and surface strikes against the transports and covering forces because they knew where they were and that they would be in the same general area four+ hours later when the air strike arrived (or a day or so later for surface forces). The carriers first had to be spotted, then the strike launched, the when it arrived in excess of four hours later, they had to hope that the carriers hadn't moved too far in the last several hours, they had to find them and they had to fight through the CAP the carriers could launch at their leisure based upon the earliest possible time the strike could arrive based upon coastwatcher reports. In other words it would take a great deal of luck to catch the carriers and even more to catch them unawares. Fletcher was actually very lucky that things didn't turn out worse. Japan was slow to launch efforts to retake Guadalcanal and Adm. Mikawa, fearing retalitory airstrikes from the U.S. carriers (which were already gone), failed to follow up his victory at Savo Island by destroying the transport/cargo fleet. Had either of these two events occurred, the presence of Fletcher's carriers would have been critical.

    Triple C wrote:
    I fully agree.

    Glenn239 wrote:
    I agree and for the reasons explained above.

    Triple C wrote:
    Yes, he should have been dismissed. Not because he wasn't a very good admiral, because he was, but IMHO the strain of command had worn him down to the point that he had become over-cautious and ineffective.

    syscom3 wrote:
    I don't think protecting America's first offensive effort as "no reason" to risk the carriers. As explained above the only thing that saved the Guadalcanal invasion after Fletcher's hasty withdrawl was poor decision making and bad luck on the part of the Japanese.
     
  17. syscom3

    syscom3 Member

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    The only justification for putting the carriers at risk were if other Japanese carriers were around. Fletcher was correct in his assessment that "now is not the time to gamble all".

    It was inevitable that the IJN would contest the invasion and it would be better to have an intact carrier force ready to do battle than to lose them willy nilly for no strategic gain.

    Remember, his withdrawal was only taking his carriers south out of range of the Japanese, not heading home to Pearl.
     
  18. Glenn239

    Glenn239 Member

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    Lundstrom covers this in detail. While it is possible to show from records later in the war that the destroyers had enough fuel, at the time what Fletcher’s command knew was that the logistics tables they were using were wrong and the destroyers were burning far more oil than predicted. Prudence was in order. Attempts to refuel in poor weather exposed the inadequacies of peacetime methods as it became clear prewar training had not prepared the US navy for logistics in heavy weather. Nor did Fletcher or anyone else had an idea an invasion was pending, and therefore did not perceive a time problem.


    Pye ordered Fletcher to recall just as Fletcher was about to make the run in. Morrison's disdain for Fletcher was such that he was openly dishonest in his suggestion that Fletcher disoby orders and initiate a battle. The reason Kimmel ordered Fletcher home was that the invasion had already occurred, the defences of Wake were in shambles, and Kimmel’s original plan left Fletcher isolated with IJN carriers prowling the area.



    Fletcher handily won the Battle of Eastern Solomons.



    This suggests that Nimitz reported to Fletcher and not the other way around. Fletcher’s mission was to protect the invasion force and he did not do so to the best of his ability.
     
  19. USMCPrice

    USMCPrice Idiot at Large

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    Syscom3 wrote:

    How so? His orders were to protect the invasion, he left 12 hours earlier than planned for. The IJN was already contesting the invasion with airstrikes commencing with the 7th and the Savo action on the night of 8-9 August. The invasion is most vulnerable during the initial stages before sufficient power can be built up ashore. When Fletcher fled the scene Vandergrift only had 5 of his 11 infantry battalions on Guadalcanal itself, the other six were scattered across the various neighboring islands. Had Mikawa decided to attack the transports, he wouldn't have been able to attack until around daybreak because of his need to regroup his force and reload expended torpedos, Fletcher's airgroups would have been the only protection, but they were gone. Fletcher was the overall commander of the naval forces but when he withdrew he failed to name someone else to assume overall command, an error that contributed to the Savo defeat. Finally, if the Guadalcanal campaign was sufficiently important to later commit all available naval assets, why was it not important enough to risk the carriers during it's initial and most vulnerable stages? Eventually the US Navy lost 2 aircraft carriers (Wasp and Hornet with Enterprise and Saratoga damaged), 2 battleships damaged North Carolina (torpedo) and South Dakota (surface action), 6 heavy cruisers with a large number of others damaged, 2 light cruisers with several others damaged, 14 destroyers, plus numerous miscellaneous types supporting and reinforcing the land forces.
     
  20. USMCPrice

    USMCPrice Idiot at Large

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    Glenn239 wrote:
    Well stated.
     

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