Frank Jack Fletcher Got a Bum Rap, Part One

By John B. Lundstrom

The unfavorable portrait of Fletcher that largely endures to this day has resulted mainly from an acceptance of Morison's interpretations without much questioning or deeper analysis. In the opinion of this writer, most of the criticisms of Fletcher do not stand up because they originated largely from ignorance of the total picture, arrogant hindsight, or simply outright prejudice. Fletcher seems to have had a multitude of enemies, many of whom were not Japanese. Often what is particularly interesting about the historiography of Frank Jack Fletcher is not only what has been said or written about him, but why.

Born in 1885 in Iowa, Fletcher came from a naval family; two uncles were naval officers. He graduated from the Naval Academy 21st out of 116 members of the class of 1906. His classmates included Robert L. Ghormley, Leigh Noyes, John S. McCain, and Aubrey W. Fitch, all of whom would play prominent roles in the 1942 campaigns, as well as John H. Towers, one of the pioneer U.S. aviators.

Learning his trade, Fletcher steadily advanced through a normal succession of duty assignments afloat and ashore, with much experience in destroyers (skipper of a destroyer during World War I) and battleships. Yet, unlike the average officer, the personable and well-connected Fletcher seemed to have had ready access to the centers of power and maintained a high profile. In April 1914, while serving as an aide to his uncle, Rear Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher, he earned the Medal of Honor during the landings at Vera Cruz, Mexico. In 1930-31 he studied at the Naval War College and the Army War College, and from 1933 to 1936 was Aide to Claude A. Swanson, the Secretary of the Navy. After command of the battleship New Mexico (BB-40), Fletcher served as Assistant Chief in the Bureau of Navigation under rear admirals James O. Richardson and Chester W. Nimitz.

Promoted to flag rank in November 1939, Fletcher proceeded to the Pacific first to command a division of four old light cruisers and later the four heavies of Cruiser Division Six; his flagship was the Minneapolis (CA-36). By December 1941 he became one of the senior cruiser commanders in the Pacific Fleet, deemed able and ready to command a task force on an independent mission. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, assigned Fletcher to deliver reinforcements to beleaguered Wake Island. Another carrier force was to raid the Marshall Islands as a diversion, while a third was to be in support near Midway.

To relieve the Wake garrison, Fletcher received Task Force 14: the Saratoga (CV-3), with a Marine fighting squadron on board; three heavy cruisers; eight destroyers; the seaplane tender Tangier (AV-8), loaded with troops and supplies; and the elderly oiler Neches (AO-5), which had a maximum speed of 12.75 knots. Coordinating the operations of the three carrier task forces, Kimmel set the date of Task Force 14's arrival at Wake as 24 December, local time. Fletcher proceeded westward and held to the schedule despite fueling on 22 December and early on the 23rd. Unfortunately for the relief forces, the Japanese— supported by the carriers Soryu and Hiryu— hadinvadedWake early on the morning of 23 December. Kimmel's interim successor, Vice Admiral William S. Pye, decided not to risk a battle between the Saratoga and possibly superior forces and recalled all his forces to Pearl.

Among the earliest and most influential treatments of Wake Island, Morison's The Rising Sun in the Pacific declared in biting terms the "failure to relieve Wake resulted from poor seamanship and a want of decisive action, both on Fletcher's part and on Pye's." For the actual relief attempt, Morison castigated Fletcher for fueling when he did. The historian counted the number of gallons of fuel oil on hand and loftily declared refueling to be unnecessary. He quoted an unnamed naval officer who blasted Fletcher for not disobeying Pye's categorical orders and rushing ahead on his own in a Nelsonian gesture to attack the Japanese. This was brave talk indeed for a naval historian.

In the case of the Wake relief attempt, Morison accepted the opinions expressed by some of Kimmel's disappointed staff members, including Captain Charles H. "Soc" McMorris, the war plans officer, and Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton, the fleet intelligence officer. In their loyalty to their disgraced boss and their great dismay over the Pearl Harbor surprise, they entertained exaggerated notions of the real possibility of victory off Wake. Kimmel's original Wake Island relief plan, a complicated effort by three widely separated single carrier task forces, was designed to "lure the Japanese into a trap."

The morning of Wake's fall, McMorris passionately argued for sending in the Saratoga to "ambush" Japanese forces off Wake. In his memoirs, Layton referred to "springing the trap" against the Soryu and Hiryu. Success there might "redeem Admiral Kimmel's damaged reputation" and revenge Pearl Harbor. Layton broadly hinted that Fletcher's supposedly laggardly advance was not due to the slow oiler or the need to fuel just outside enemy air search range, but deliberate malingering that resulted from a "yellow streak down his back." Actually, Fletcher was right where Pye expected him to be.

In his recent book, War Plan Orange, Edward S. Miller expertly deduced and described in detail Kimmel's actual war plan, WPPac-46. A product of the so-called strategic "thrusters," it involved using the carriers to entice the Japanese into a general fleet action off Wake Island, to take place about "D16J," or the 16th day of the war. Its principal creator was none other than Soc McMorris, who remained its chief advocate. His hastily conceived plan for the Wake Island relief appears nothing more than a watered-down rehash of WPPac-46. How bitter must it have been to him on the real Day 16 of the war, or 22 December (23 December, Wake local time), when Pye recalled Task Force 14. How convenient to use Fletcher, who only followed orders, as a scapegoat for the bitter disappointment.

With obvious recourse to hindsight, Morison also decried Fletcher's lack of aviation experience and condemned Kimmel even for giving him the carrier task force instead of passing him over in favor of Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch, Commander Canier Division One on board the Saratoga, but junior to Fletcher. Interestingly, Morison never made such a recommendation when dealing with other non-aviators who commanded carrier forces in 1941-42, i.e., Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, and Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid. His treatment of them is far more favorable. In fact, Kimmel (a "black-shoe" to the bottom of his soles), and even his successor Chester Nimitz, did not believe an admiral had to be an aviator to command carrier task forces.

In this case Morison revealed another phalanx of Fletcher's enemies, the aviators, who strongly disagreed with that particular naval policy. Led by Rear Admiral Jack Towers, then Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, they insisted that only aviators should ever command carrier task forces. The problem in 1941-42 was the lack of admirals or even senior captains wearing the golden wings. Most who did had become enmeshed in administering the massively expanding naval aviation establishment they labored so long to create. They were disgusted that Fletcher—and not one of them—happened to be the man on the spot. In their critical eyes, he could do nothing correctly; he became a convenient scapegoat to be ridiculed. A former member of Nimitz's staff described Fletcher to Gordon Prange as "a big, nice, wonderful guy who didn't know his butt from third base." Prange did not name that individual, but the evidence strongly points to Captain Arthur C. Davis, in 1941 the only aviator on the Pacific Fleet staff. At any rate, the quote sums up perfectly the attitude of the aviators toward Fletcher.

To point out the enmity of the aviators does not deny the justice of their viewpoint. Aviation knowledge, if not through personal experience but through the presence of sound advisers, was absolutely essential for a carrier task force commander. Fletcher evidently had not worked closely with a carrier force before December 1941, and it showed during the relief attempt. He flew his flag from the heavy cruiser Astoria (CA-34) rather than the Saratoga. Commander Alfred M. Pride, Saratoga's executive officer in late 1941, described Task Force 14's westward advance to Wake. He said Fletcher would not turn the screen to conform to the carrier's movements whenever she swung around into the prevailing northeasterly wind to handle aircraft. In his eagerness to get to Wake (something Layton and Morison certainly failed to credit), Fletcher repeatedly left the carrier behind and exposed her to possible submarine attack. Consequently, according to Pride, "the cruisers and our screen of destroyers would go over the horizon and we would be out of formation for hours catching up." In his next assignment, Fletcher transferred his flag to the Yorktown (CV-5) and set about consulting closely with her aviators. The record shows he learned quickly.

Incidentally, in later editions of The Rising Sun in the Pacific, Morison amended his verdict toward Fletcher's performance during the abortive Wake relief. He changed the quotation cited above (note 3) to read: "the failure to relieve Wake resulted from Admiral Pye's decision not to risk the loss of any of his three precious carriers, and not from any lack [on Fletcher's part] of aviation knowledge." Few took notice of Morison's changes, however, and the initial dismal impression remained of Fletcher as the one who abandoned the Marines at Wake.

By the end of December 1941 two officers with dramatically different attitudes toward Fletcher took command. Admiral Ernest J. King, the new Commander-in-Chief U.S. Fleet (CominCh), was Fletcher's nemesis, while Admiral Chester Nimitz, the new Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet, was his strongest advocate. The available sources do not reveal specific reasons for King's strong animosity toward Fletcher, but there are hints. Proud of earning his wings at age 48, and rising to the senior prewar carrier command, King looked down on non-aviators in his former domain. Ironically, the "true" naval aviators, headed by Towers, did not think all that much of King's aviation expertise. King's principal beef, however, more likely arose from Fletcher's choice prewar tours of duty in Washington, hobnobbing with the luminaries. Certainly King strongly distrusted Nimitz and others from the Bureau of Navigation, whom he characterized as "fixers," string pullers, and purveyors of favoritism. Fletcher would certainly draw his ire. Conversely, Nimitz had served with Fletcher and appreciated his qualities for high command.

Given command in January 1942 of Task Force 17 with the Yorktown, Fletcher escorted transports to Samoa and then participated, under Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., in the first carrier raid of the Pacific War. On 1 February, while Halsey's Task Force 8 with the Enterprise (CV-6) battered the northern Marshalls, weather and the lack of targets rendered the Yorktown's air strikes on the southern Marshalls and the Gilberts largely ineffective.

The raid spawned another calumny against Fletcher. Captain Joseph J. "Jocko" Clark, another vehement aviator and former Yorktown executive officer, accused Fletcher of deliberately abandoning the crew of a torpedo plane that ditched 20 miles astern, supposedly despite his repeated pleas. Clark related, "When later in Washington I told this story to Ernie King and Jack Towers, they both agreed that the rescue should have been effected." In fact, Fletcher was deeply concerned about his pilots. The morning of 1 February he had immediately detached three destroyers to look for the downed air crews, lost in the midst of severe rain squalls. They diligently searched the area, endured attack by an enemy flying boat, but found no trace of the aviators. For another example of Fletcher's efforts, 4 May 1942 in the Coral Sea, even Morison accords him "great credit for initiating efforts to rescue aviators downed in combat."

After a rest at Pearl Harbor, Fletcher's Task Force 17 headed to the South Pacific. There, on 10 March, under Wilson Brown's command, the Lexington (CV-2) and the Yorktown launched a big air strike against Japanese invasion forces off Lae and Salamaua. Brown returned to Pearl, leaving Fletcher and Task Force 17 to patrol the Coral Sea under the direct oversight of the distant CominCh in Washington. The Japanese gradually reinforced their bastion of Rabaul on New Britain, but made no large-scale advances to the south. On 29 March, U.S. Army aviators reported sighting 30 transports at Rabaul and placed Task Force 17 only 228 miles south of there.

Both reports were grossly in error; enemy forces were small, and Task Force 17 was actually more than 800 miles southeast of Rabaul. The next day Fletcher radioed his real position, reiterated he was heading to Noumea to reprovision, and added that if the enemy indeed moved south, he would return north to deal with them. On the 31st, the imperious CominCh, totally misunderstanding the situation, responded with a sharp message implying Fletcher was fleeing from the combat. Yet there was no enemy. Angered, Rear Admiral William W. Smith, Task Force 17 cruiser commander, signaled to Fletcher, "That is the stinkingest message I have ever read," to which Fletcher replied, "I am not perturbed." Smith said such calm restraint revealed Fletcher's "strength of character." Search reports soon showed that the enemy threat never existed, and Fletcher later explained his position. The incident, however, left suspicious King with still more unfounded doubts about Fletcher's aggressiveness, which he voiced during his next meeting with Nimitz (25 April 1942).

It is not possible here to go into detail into the complicated Battle of the Coral Sea, the first carrier-versus-carrier duel in history. Despite losing the Lexington, a fleet oiler, and a destroyer, Task Force 17 repulsed the enemy advance on Port Moresby, sank the light carrier Shoho, and so roughed up the big carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku that neither participated in the upcoming Midway offensive. Fletcher's men provided the Allies their first strategic victory of the Pacific War. Morison chronicled a list of Fletcher's supposed shortcomings and lapses of judgment and condescendingly referred to the action as the "Battle of the Naval Errors." He felt it fortunate the Japanese committed more of them. Subsequently, a great deal of new information on radio intelligence, from personal recollections of and papers by participants, and from Japanese sources has largely superseded Morison's initial treatment of that complex series of actions.

Ironically, some of the criticisms leveled at Fletcher after the battle did not concern carrier aviation at all, but his real expertise: surface warfare. On 11 May King questioned whether Fletcher should have used his destroyers in night attacks against the Japanese carrier force. On the 16th, Fletcher replied at length explaining the circumstances—mainly unfavorable opportunities and too few ships—as to why he did not turn loose his screening ships the nights of 7 and 8 May. Besides, he reported that on the morning of 7 May he did detach his Support Group (three cruisers and three destroyers and Rear Admiral John G. Crace, Royal Navy) to go after the Japanese transports in Jomard Passage.

Following the lead of the Naval War College analysts, Morison criticized Fletcher's decision to send Crace on ahead, sarcastically dubbing the event "Crace's Chase," which "may have served no useful purpose."16 Fletcher felt the impending air battle might bloody both contending carrier forces and wanted another force to bar the way to Port Moresby. Learning of Crace's force JOO miles ahead, the Japanese convoy commander reversed course to await the results of the carrier duel. Crace's force accomplished its mission, but drew Japanese search planes like a magnet and (fortunately for Task Force 17) monopolized their attention. Acutely aware of the lack of air cover, Crace skillfully avoided damage that afternoon from two land-based air attacks. Fletcher had intended to follow and render support, but events forced him to hang back. When asked in 1957 by British official historians, Crace agreed with Fletcher's decision to detach his force and noted that the "advantage to be gained by possibly catching the Moresby Invasion Group in the Jomard Passage far outweighed that gained by increasing the anti-aircraft screen [of the U.S. carriers] by the ships of my force."

At Nimitz's order, Fletcher returned the battered Yorktown to Pearl Harbor after a cruise of 101 days. There she was hurriedly patched up and sent out again on 30 May, this time to Midway. Nimitz had intended for Bill Halsey to command the carrier striking force built around the Enterprise, Hornet (CV-8), and Fletcher's Yorktown. Halsey's sudden illness, however, compelled the Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief to look to Fletcher to exercise command. Nimitz discussed with Fletcher his previous operations and brought up the questions raised by King. The fleet commander's support was unequivocal. To King he wrote on 29 May: "Fletcher did a fine job and exercised superior judgment in his recent cruise to the Coral Sea. He is an excellent, seagoing, fighting naval officer." Nimitz again recommended his promotion to vice admiral and award of the Distinguished Service Medal. King chose not to act immediately on the two requests.

Fletcher's role in the Midway victory is greatly eclipsed by the acclaim accorded Ray Spruance, who brilliantly commanded Task Force 16's two carriers. Most accounts wrongly assign Spruance almost complete freedom of action from the very beginning. 19 At Nimitz's orders, Fletcher positioned the carriers northeast of Midway. He directed that Spruance operate ten miles from Task Force 17. Task Force 16's two air groups constituted the main air striking force to be unleashed at his order when the Japanese carriers turned up. The Yorktown provided searches when needed and acted as strike reserve. In an epic, but costly, engagement on 4 June, aircraft from the Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown attacked the Japanese carriers and mortally damaged the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu.

The Hiryu soon retaliated against the Yorktown with three bomb hits and later two torpedoes which left her without power and listing 23 degrees. To save the crew from what appeared to be imminent capsizing, Captain Elliott Buckmaster ordered abandon ship. Meanwhile, the Yorktown search astutely sent out by Fletcher located the Hiryu, and Spruance loosed a combined Enterprise-Yorktown strike that knocked the last enemy carrier out of the battle. Worried about powerful enemy forces less than 100 miles away, Fletcher's Task Force 17, loaded with Yorktown survivors, closed Task Force 16 to the southeast. Expecting the gallant carrier to roll over and sink, he detached a destroyer to stand guard. As Fletcher approached Task Force 16, Spruance requested orders. In an act of what one author rightly called "selfless integrity and patriotism in action," Fletcher turned over tactical command to Spruance.

Fletcher and Buckmaster endured strong disapprobation for not sticking by the stricken Yorktown and organizing immediate salvage.At the same time, Spruance is justly given credit for withdrawing Task Force 16 the night of 4 June to avoid possible contact with enemy warships. Yet critics state that Fletcher should have stayed with the Yorktown, which was considerably closer to the enemy than Task Force 16! On 5 June Buckmaster managed to get together a party of salvagers and returned to the Yorktown early on the next morning. A Japanese submarine torpedoed her that afternoon, and she sank early on the 7th. Her loss, severe as it was, paid benefits when Pacific Fleet trained special salvage teams prepared to initiate immediate action to keep their damaged ships afloat.

With the victory at Midway, the mostly defensive phase of the war was over. Fletcher's performance in the Guadalcanal campaign, for which he has received the greatest censure, will be covered in part two of this article. In assessing his role in the preceding months—the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor—we must place his actions into a broader context. In war those commanders who happen to be among the first to fight, particularly when using new technology, are in a perilous position. Peacetime doctrine must be adapted to totally new situations. Often these trailblazers do not last long, leaving others to benefit from their accomplishments or learn from their inevitable errors. Those who must start on the defensive with inferior strength—especially after sudden, stunning defeats—face additional trials, often simply the survival of their forces. For one commander to reverse the strategic situation through a series of victories is highly unusual and worthy of particular attention. That was the achievement of Frank Jack Fletcher, an officer who deserves far more acclaim than he has so far received.

John B. Lundstrom is on the staff of the Milwaukee Public Museum and is a widely recognized expert on naval aviation operations in the early part of World War II. He is the author of the acclaimed books The First South Pacific Campaign: Pacific Fleet Strategy December 1941-June 1942 and The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway. His next book, to be published by the Naval Institute Press, will be a detailed study of Japanese and American air operations in the Guadalcanal campaign.

 

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