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