September 13, 2019 at 02:45 #email@example.comParticipant
“Mastering the Single Naval Battle” by BGen Bowers and Dr. Murray is an outstanding article and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. But I respectfully disagree with the authors’ contention that Spruance’s decision to keep TF 58 near Saipan to protect the beachhead, due to his concern about an end run by a Japanese heavy force (battleships); vice allowing TF 58 to aggressively go after Ozawa’s Mobile Fleet (carriers), was the correct one. I would also like to make four other points, expounding on what the authors’ say.
As a kid growing up reading US military history, the Battle of Midway was (and still is) my favorite battle; I was fascinated by carriers and carrier aviation, and Admiral Raymond A. Spruance was my favorite historical figure. Everything I know about Spruance and understand about his thinking leads me to agree completely with the authors that Spruance felt his overriding mission was “to protect the landing force”. This decision was not due to faint-heartedness. Spruance was not a timid commander. At the Battle of Midway, Spruance launched every plane from the Enterprise and Hornet at once in hopes of catching the Japanese carriers in a vulnerable state with their decks full of aircraft. This kind of command decision — staking everything on a single roll of the dice with disaster staring you in the face if your plan fails — takes great strength of character.
However, in the case of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, I believe Spruance was in the highly unusual, but enviable position, of a commander who could focus on winning a bigger, more decisive victory; vice just gaining a victory — which was certainly true at Midway. This was because Spruance had enough combat power to both protect the beachhead and aggressively move westward against the Japanese carriers. The authors correctly point out that Spruance “ordered the amphibious forces” out of the area (to Eniwetok, the Navy’s advance fleet base in the Marshalls). But 12 escort carriers (CVEs) and 7 pre-war battleships (BBs) were left behind to cover the landing area. The CVEs and old BBs could not have been expected to defeat a Japanese heavy gun (battleship) force by themselves. But I believe they would have been able to prevent the disastrous consequences the authors are (rightly) concerned about and which they feel were instrumental in informing Spruance’s decision to keep TF 58 near the beachhead.
I respectfully disagree with Spruance’s decision — and the authors’ support of it — but acknowledge that it’s easier to look at a battle after the fact, vice being in command with the responsibility Spruance had.
In my opinion a Marine Officer needs character and intellect. Raymond A. Spruance had ample supplies of both and should be studied and emulated.
Point #1: Any criticism of Spruance for not pursuing “a beaten Japanese fleet” fails to take into account two pertinent facts: First, the largest surface combatants Spruance had screening his carriers were heavy cruisers with 8” guns. Between Yamato’s Main Force and the battleships with Nagumo’s carriers and the Midway Invasion Force, the Japanese had four BBs with 14” guns; two BBs with 16” guns and the super battleship Yamato with 18.1” guns. Second, while Spruance had 2 carriers, he essentially had no torpedo bombers and less then full complements of Dauntless dive bombers. Realistically, if you wanted to sink a battleship, you had to “let the water in” with a torpedo. Spruance’s course of action was correct.`
Point #2: During and after the Battle of the Philippine Sea, “the aviators” believed that it would be impossible for a heavy gun force to make an “end run” around Task Force 58. As I stated above, I believe Spruance was too cautious by not taking advantage of the opportunity he had to gain a more decisive victory. But the aviators — and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by carrier aviation since I was a kid — were wrong to think an “end run” was impossible. During the Battle of Midway, a search plane from the IJN heavy cruiser Tone launched an hour late. Given the “victory disease” the Japanese had and their attitude that no American carriers were (or were supposed to be, per their plan) in the vicinity of Midway, this was not considered a serious problem. However, unknown to the Japanese, this plane’s search sector had the American carriers Enterprise and Hornet. Result: if the plane had launched on time, the Japanese would have known US carriers were in the area an hour before; conceivably changing the outcome of the battle. In his memoirs, Admiral Sandy Woodward, who would command British forces at the Falkland Islands in 1982, recounts the time in 1981 in the Indian Ocean that he maneuvered his flagship into missile firing range of the USS Coral Sea, theoretically “sinking her”. And this was against a carrier battlegroup with E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning aircraft. An “end run” around Task Force 58 was not likely; but possible.
Point #3. Any discussion of Halsey’s options for how he might have more effectively deployed Task Force 38 (his fast carriers and battleships) to engage the Japanese during the Battle of Leyte Gulf — protecting San Bernardino Strait and/or going after the Japanese carriers — needs to take into account the fact that Halsey, by his own command decision, did not have all 16 of his carriers present at the battle. When it became apparent that there would be a battle, Halsey recalled one of the two task groups of Task Force 38 headed to Ulithi Lagoon (the Navy’s new advanced fleet base) for replenishment, back to Philippine waters; but allowed the other one, the biggest one, consisting of 5 carriers, to proceed to Ulithi. Before anyone bemoans the “divided command” arrangements for Halsey’s actions and/or makes other excuses for the poor conduct of the battle; they should first take into account his inexplicable decision of not fighting with all the carriers at his disposal. I agree with the author’s contention that “the extraordinary bravery of the tin-can Sailors and escort carrier pilots” and “Kurita’s decision to turn away at the last moment…saved Halsey’s reputation”.
Point #4. “Battleship Admirals” versus “Aviators”. In a footnote the authors state that there used to be a “false narrative that posited a brave set of aviators being suppressed by the battleship admirals”. True enough — that’s what I believed as a kid. But following the signing of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, there was an interesting dynamic. The battleship admirals were not anti-aviation. In fact, they wanted aviation to make their long range battleship gunnery more accurate. And that meant float planes on the battleships for spotting and carriers with “land planes” to gain and maintain air superiority so the float planes could operate unopposed. Since the Washington Treaty mandated a “holiday” on building battleships, money was freed up to invest in aviation, which the battleship admirals supported. And, as the decade of the 30s progressed and the Fleet Exercises progressed, carriers were given more freedom to operate independent of the battle line. But until the bombs started to fall on Pearl Harbor the US Navy was controlled by the battleship admirals. In 1940 or 1942, Rear Admiral John H. Towers, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, gave an interview with newspaper reporters. In that interview, he said the next war would be fought with both battleships and aircraft carriers; vice battleships alone as the primary capital ships. The reporters gave Towers a chance to walk back his remark because they knew how controversial that view was in the Navy. Towers did not retract his remark. Notice that Towers didn’t claim that carriers had superseded battleships; only that in the coming war they would be on a more or less equal basis.
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