WW2, Pacific War, the Early Years
In mid-September Fletcher returned to the States for leave and the fleet organization was shuffled from defensive to offense. In the Battle of the Coral Sea, he had saved Australia and damaged two of the six enemy carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor so that they could not join in at the Battle of Midway, where he destroyed the other four. He stopped the major enemy thrust to retake Guadalcanal in the Eastern Solomons before returning home. He was assigned as Commander Northwestern Sea Frontier, Nov 1942, to lend his prestige to defense of the U.S. from a northern attack.
Fletcher's great battles took place in the early months of World War II, during a period when great victories were not yet possible, where success was measured in stopping the enemy, rather than pushing him back. The popular naval heroes came later in the war : Halsey, Spruance, Mitscher, Kinkaid - are remembered more clearly for their victories than are the early heroes. They had a hundred carriers available for the invasion of Japan, Fletcher never had more than three. His enemy had ten.
Adm Kimmel was Naval Commander at Pearl Harbor. He
immediately laid plans for attack against the Japanese including
setting a trap at Wake Island for the aircraft carriers that had
destroyed his battleships. The Marines on Wake Island had
successfully fought off an invasion force on Dec 11, sinking two
destroyers. Kimmel expected the Japanese to try again, this
time with aircraft carrier support. He selected, over more
senior admirals, RAdm Fletcher to head the Wake Island relief
portion on Dec 15. The plan consisted of all three US aircraft
carrier task forces. Lexington (VAdm Brown, TF 11 ) to make a
raid in the Marshall Islands, south of Wake, from where the invasion
troops would come ; Saratoga (RAdm Fletcher, TF 14, aboard
cruiser Astoria (CA-34) to escort Tangier (AG-4) with
relief supplies ; and Enterprise (VAdm Halsey, TF 8) to stand
guard west of Johnston Island.
Washington decided Kimmel was to be replaced by Adm Nimitz, but was relieved prematurely (and later made a scapegoat), with an interim commander, VAdm Pye, the Pearl Harbor battleship force commander, who botched the plan. Pye, having already lost his battleships, was mainly concerned with conserving the carriers to turn over to Nimitz. In addition, messages from Washington said Hawaii was more important to defend than Wake Island. Pye recalled Brown to join Fletcher and had Fletcher wait for Brown over 400 miles from Wake Island, out of air support range. When the Japanese detached two aircraft carriers from the Pearl Harbor raid to support the invasion of Wake Island on Dec 23, none of the three US carriers were able to assist. Pye sent contradictory orders in rapid succession. In a day he told Fletcher to attack, then to send in Tangier alone, half hour later told Fletcher to evacuate Wake, and in another half hour told him to withdraw. Later, Adm King, Chief of Naval Operations, is reported to have blamed Fletcher for the loss of Wake Island.
Nimitz had been Chief of Bureau of Navigation (personnel) in Washington. He took over the Pacific Fleet on Dec 31, retained Kimmel's staff, including Layton and Fletcher, and set to work to most effectively block Japanese expansion, establish a secure supply line to Australia, and to defend the Midway-Pearl Harbor line. It was a time of confusion, of impossible demands from Washington, and of prioritizing. With insufficient strength to reach the Philippines, those reinforcements were diverted to Australia, he established a goal to extend the Hawaii-Samoa line to Fiji, and planned raids to keep the Japanese away from Midway-Pearl Harbor.
Marcus, Wake, the Marshalls (Kwajalein) and Gilberts (Makin) form a line of advanced holdings that allow the enemy an early warning of approaching US fleets. The later two lie near the shipping lanes to Australia. This eastern line complimented the major Japanese defensive line of the central Pacific bases in the Marianas (Saipan), Caroline Islands (Turk) and Bismarcks (Rabaul).
Fleet in Being. This is a technical term that means, just
by its existence, a fleet imposes defensive measures and extra
support for offensive operations on the opposing force.
Example: As long as Germany had a fleet, the British had to maintain a battle force in readiness, to provide escort to every maritime activity, to plan attacks and defense, and in general tie up large forces just because they never knew when the enemy ships might sail.
The Japanese, having destroyed the US Pacific battle fleet, the ABDA fleet, the British defeated and expelled; required the US to play a defensive role to retain a "fleet in being". The Japanese had to retain a large fleet in home waters, to send fleets to investigate every reported sighting, to provide escorts, and to always remain wary of an attack. The US raids on Kwajalein, Makin, Wake, Lea, and Tulagi, although doing little direct material damage, and Doolittle's raid on Tokyo, all involved moving the few available ships around the Pacific showing that the US Fleet still had teeth. This forced the Japanese to insist on one big battle to eliminate the remaining US fleet (Battle for Midway). The US had to conserve her ships to maintain this threat of an American fleet ; they could only engage in battle when the odds of damage to the enemy exceeded the risk to our ships. Fletcher was the admiral at sea that had to execute this policy and to make the decisions to interpret this policy on the spot.
While Yorktown patrolled the Australian sea lanes, an Allied reconnaissance plane reported Fletcher off Rabaul. This was taken by King as an offensive by Fletcher. In fact, the sighting was of a Japanese force sailing to join their Port Moresby attack fleet. When Fletcher reported he was approaching Tongatabu for replenishment, Washington's excitement turned to disappointment. Fletcher had been following orders to patrol and attack when conditions were favorable. He rushed to intercept the Japanese probe, but it was not found. Once again, Fletcher was innocently considered a disappointment by those in Washington who expected a quick victory over the slanty-eyed toymakers by the weakened, depression era American fleet.
We have seen in Wake Island Relief that RAdm Fletcher was following orders ; the problem was VAdm Pye's conflicted indecision caused by Washington's premature removal of Kimmel. Pye had been told by Washington that Wake was secondary to the defense of Hawaii. However, after the fact, Roosevelt is said to have considered the fall of Wake a worse blow than the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Fletcher had been appointed by Kimmel, making him suspect by Adm King, the new CNO.
VAdm Halsey was senior to Fletcher and made pithy remarks. RAdm Fletcher was not a public speaker and attracted less press coverage.
Halsey raided Kwajalein, Marcus and Wake, escorted Hornet on the Doolittle raid of Tokyo - all made for popular press.
Fletcher's sinking of Shoho was the first loss of a major Japanese ship in the war. And the enemy invasion force turned back. The secondary explosion on Lexington was a fact of battle, witness how few bombs sank four Jap carriers at Midway. And seven English carriers in 1939-42.
Yorktown was the only carrier attacked at Midway and was finally sunk by a submarine two days later.
Fletcher's attacks sank all four Jap carriers at Midway and was withdrawing for the night when he released RAdm Spruance to independent operations. When information was released to the press, Spruance was then commanding the remaining carriers and was reported erroneously with credit for the navy victory. Later, Spruance became a great admiral, his biographers came back to his first engagement and further credited him with victory in Fletcher's battle.
The plan at Guadalcanal called for the carriers to be released from the confines of the island when the landing was secured and to defend at sea from expected counter-attack. Fletcher's primary responsibility was to fight enemy carriers. The landing at Guadalcanal was unopposed and the Marine goal to capture the airfield was completed the first day. Marines had finished fighting at Tulagi on the 2nd day. With the landing secure, Fletcher went to prepare to fight carriers.
Savo Island was a disaster. The USN was unprepared to fight a night action ; the IJN were expert. However, the enemy withdrew without attacking the transports -- the defense was accomplished.
Fletcher's carriers were out of range to punish the enemy cruisers which embarrassed desk-bound officers already shamed for being unprepared for night fighting.
The Japanese could not land reinforcements until ten days later, and then with only 1,000 men, who were wiped out by the 11,000 marines.
RAdm Turner was delayed in unloading and made the decision to save his transports from air attack and withdrew from Guadalcanal.
All Marine accounts mention Fletcher's withdrawal ; none mention that it was that same Fletcher who protected them with those same ships when the Japanese Combined Fleet came calling two weeks later.
Several historians repeat a point of Fletcher's "leisurely" refueling. Others recognize this as preparation to engage the enemy whenever opportunity for combat comes. Fletcher had enough fuel to stay near Guadalcanal, but not enough to fight a battle. Refueling at sea was a new technique, not perfected until mid-war.
Fletcher refueled his carriers in rotation ; otherwise all might have been out of action at once and the US would have lost the Battle of Eastern Solomons and the entire Guadalcanal, Solomon Island, beachhead and again threaten Australia. Instead, Fletcher sank his sixth carrier, Ryujo, and the Japanese invasion fleet was repulsed from Guadalcanal.
Fletcher was at sea carrying out impossible orders ; not in port "communicating".
Fletcher's later orders were to escort and patrol the shipping route to Guadalcanal. This kept his carriers in a limited area south of that island and an invitation to submarine attack, an area later called Torpedo Junction, where his flagship Saratoga was damaged and he returned to Pearl Harbor. His successors lost Wasp with North Carolina damaged ; then Hornet was sunk, all within two months, with no more enemy carriers damaged or destroyed. Fletcher had also lost two carriers -- but he had sunk six enemy ones. Pretty good odds.
It has been suggested that if Halsey had been at Midway, rather than the cautious Fletcher and his second, equally cautious Spruance, we would have lost our carriers in a rush to follow-up the first day's action and have run into Yamamoto's battleships in the night, as was the Japanese plan.
Fletcher was not a "dashing
warrior", but a task force commander who had to husband the few
American resources. He "dashed" to the attack at Tulagi
and again to successfully cut off the Jap invasion of Port Moresby
at the Coral Sea. He raced to Midway and victory. And he was
the first to attack in the Eastern Solomons against an enemy double
his size. Fletcher commented after his success in forcing the
enemy to retreat at that battle, that "he would
receive a message of congratulations on a great victory from Adm
Nimitz and a complaint from Adm King that he should have followed up
the air battle with a destroyer attack -- and that both would be
[Note that the Japanese force escorting their troop convoy included three battleships : Mutsu, Hiel and Kirishima ; 13 heavy cruisers ; 3 light cruisers ; and 31 destroyers; plus submarines and the two remaining fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, plus another light carrier, Jintsu. Admiral King had never fought in a war; he had captained a reserve destroyer after the Occupation of Vera Cruz (where Fletcher won a Medal of Honor) and was a flag assistant in WWI (where Fletcher commanded destroyers in Europe to earn a Navy Cross). King represented Washington-style dreams, not reality.]
If Fletcher had stayed in the South Pacific instead of being moved to the North Pacific, he may have sunk another six enemy carriers and ended the war in another eight months. Nobody had ever fought a carrier war before and everybody could see other ways "they" would have fought -- after the battles had concluded. But Fletcher was there and he won all of his battles -- which no other admiral had done to that time. What more can we ask?
Lastly, Fletcher had retired, most of his papers of the early years of WW2 went down with Yorktown and he chose not to reconstruct his papers from the Pentagon basement and sit for Samuel Eliot Morison's "definitive" History of US Naval Operations in World War II. Therefore, wartime activities were presented without Fletcher's point of view and favored other admirals who personally told their stories. He was presented as a hesitant, if proper officer. In point of fact, Fletcher was our combat commander who saved the Pacific in the first months of the Pacific War while other navies -- US Battle Fleet, British Far East Fleet, Netherlands East Indies fleet, and US Asiatic Fleet -- collapsed and while America had time to built up to a superior fighting force. This included allowing the US to tackle "Germany first", when the American people were most concerned about Japan. He sank six enemy carriers with a loss of two. He performed a nearly perfect balance of caution and aggression. In the two months after Fletcher left, his successors lost two carriers, yet sank no more enemy carriers for almost two years.
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|Fletcher, page 1. - T. F. Commander.||The First Months - In his words|
|Fletcher, page 2. - the Battles.||Fletcher, Page 4. - Q&A.|