It is for the landings in the Solomons (7-9 August 1942), in which Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was the expeditionary force commander, that he has received his severest censure. He is almost universally condemned for his timidity in retiring the three carriers prematurely for no apparent good reason, thereby leaving the incompletely unloaded invasion force exposed to air and surface attack. The Japanese response came early on 9 August in the Battle of Savo Island, which cost the Allies four heavy cruisers. If not actually culpable for the surprise off Savo, Fletcher is held responsible for the easy escape of the enemy raiding force. Samuel Eliot Morison called Fletcher's retirement of the "three-carrier task force from its covering position…the worst of all blunders that night."
Just how does this scenario stand up to a careful examination of these complex events? Nowhere has the unfair use of hindsight been applied with more vigor than for the opening of the Guadalcanal offensive. It is vital to strip away the myths, and add things conveniently forgotten by some of Fletcher's greatest detractors, to understand the reasons behind his actions.
These days, with such massive logistical efforts as Operation Desert Storm, it is hard to imagine how quickly the United States improvised and unleashed its first amphibious offensive of World War II. From 23 June—when Admiral Ernest J. King first alerted Admiral Chester W. Nimitz—only 45 days elapsed until 7 August, when the troop stormed ashore on distant Tulagi and Guadalcanal, 3,500 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor. Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley's newly organized South Pacific Area (SoPac) conducted the offensive with forces provided by CinCPac and General Douglas MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA). Important among them would be three of Nimitz's four remaining aircraft carriers. In light of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey's continued convalescence, Nimitz chose Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the victor of Coral Sea and Midway, to command the carriers in the South Pacific. He finally persuaded a reluctant Admiral King to promote Fletcher to vice admiral.
What was to be the role of the carriers in the Tulagi-Guadalcanal operation? In early July Fletcher joined Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, the SoPac amphibious force commander, for some preliminary planning at Pearl Harbor. Because of the efficient Japanese air-search network, they could not count upon surprise, but expected to fight their way to the objectives. The key appeared to be neutralization of Japanese land-based air power at Rabaul and Buka by MacArthur's New Guinea-based air force. "If this operation is a success, the task is a cinch. If not, we may lose a carrier," opined CinCPac planners. Remaining in close proximity to the invasion convoy, Fletcher's carriers were to provide the close air support for two days prior to the landings and on D-Day itself. Turner declared he would unload and with draw the transports the night of D-Day. In turn, Fletcher would cover Turner's retirement, if possible, but in reacting to enemy counterattacks, he was free to move the carriers around. Only later were a defense battalion and heavy equipment to be brought to the invasion sites.
Fletcher left Pearl Harbor on 7 July, embarked in the carrier Saratoga (CV-3) with orders to gather the three carrier task forces in the South Pacific. Isolated at sea, he was not privy to a message on 8 July from Ghormley to King and Nimitz. After conferring with MacArthur, Ghormley had decided Japanese air strength in the region was too strong and advised that the whole operation be postponed. Unlike Turner, he estimated the invasion convoy required from 36 hours to four days to unload and thought it would be "extremely doubtful" that the carriers could offer close air support during this whole time. But fearful of a Japanese buildup in the Solomons, neither King nor Nimitz would brook any delay.
On 9 July Nimitz formally designated Ghormley as senior task force commander to exercise command "in person." On the 16th, however, Ghormley's Operations Plan 1-42 unexpectedly assigned Fletcher the entire expeditionary force (Task Force 61), as well as direct control of the carrier covering force. In essence, Ghormley was saying to Nimitz, if you do not agree with my estimate of the situation, then your man can take command on the spot. At that time, Fletcher was proceeding south under strict radio silence. Obviously, he could contribute little to the planning busily under way by Turner and Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift's 1st Marine Division staff.
Fletcher's first opportunity to discuss the upcoming operation in person with his newly assigned subordinates occurred on 27 July in a conference off Koro Island in the Fijis. This was only 11 days before the scheduled landings on 7 August (D-Day). Significantly, Ghormley chose not to be present, but was represented by his chief of staff, Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, whose notes remain the only original record of the event.
For Fletcher's detractors, the Koro conference foreshadowed his supposedly craven conduct off Guadalcanal. Vandegrift, one of the participants, thought Fletcher "seemed nervous and tired" and "appeared to lack knowledge of or interest in the forthcoming operation." At one point, Fletcher asked how long it would take to land the troops, and Turner replied, "about five days." According to Vandegrift, Fletcher said that he would leave in two days "because he re fused to risk air attack against his carriers for a longer period." Vandegrift protested the lack of air support and added, "even the five days mentioned by Turner involved a tremendous risk. Although Turner heatedly backed me, Fletcher curtly announced that he would stay until the third day."
The accepted version of the Koro conference is that Fletcher's carriers would remain only until D+2, or 9 August, while all the other ships necessarily stayed behind at great peril to complete the vital unloading. How does this compare to the record? Callaghan's notes show that nearly all of Task Force 61, not just the carriers, were to pull out prior to 9 August.
"2. Task Force must withdraw to South from objective area (i.e., general advance position) within two days after D day! [Callaghan's own exclamation]
"3. Plan to send transports out evening of D day. This sounds too sanguine to me, but they believe it can be done."
Callaghan added that the cargo ships, which might need three or four days to unload, were to be anchored as near to shore as possible. Rear Admiral Victor A. C. Crutchley’s Task Force 44 (three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers) would remain behind to screen them. Turner's Task Force 62 OpPlan, dated 30 July, reflected these arrangements to remove almost all of the amphibious force by the end of the second day of the landings. Not a single participant or historian of the Guadalcanal campaign has stressed the importance of this salient point, and much of what happened on 7-9 August cannot be understood without it.
At the Pearl Harbor conference mentioned earlier, Turner had informed Fletcher that his transports would unload and depart on the evening of D-Day itself. On 25 July, after more reflection, he confirmed for Fletcher that if the landings proceeded well, he would, by the night of D+ 1 (8 August), have sent to the rear all of the transports and "about all of the Pacific Fleet combatant ships." Their numbers would include an occupation force slated for the Santa Cruz Islands and tentatively set to depart Guadalcanal the evening of D-Day. Turner added, however, "The great difficulty is going to be with the five cargo vessels." Yet he could give no definite time for unloading them other than three to six days with the promise to do his best. Turner concluded, "We will need air protection during this entire period."
How long should the carriers linger within air-strike range of Rabaul? The amphibious force commander advised he would have all the transports out by the night of D+ 1. Under the circumstances Fletcher agreed at Koro to keep Task Force 61 in the area for three days, i.e., to D+2. The situation would dictate whether protecting the five remaining cargo ships was worth risking the carriers further. At Koro, Turner argued vehemently for the flattops to remain at least five days (D+4, or 11 August), while they off-loaded supplies and equipment. But Fletcher would not bend. Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, one of the carrier task group commanders, well described the set-to: "Turner asked for a lot of things, much of which he didn't get, because they were not in the realm of the possible."
This was not just some arbitrary decision on Fletcher's part. It is important here to stress some things that weighed heavily on his mind. He certainly felt his carriers to be the major strategic asset of the Pacific Fleet, with no new construction available until mid-1943. Under the existing circumstances, he would expose them far ahead of any real land-based air cover with no immediate prospects for aircraft moving up to Guadalcanal. The greatest threat to his carriers at the outset would be Japanese land-based aircraft operating out of Rabaul and possibly Buka, but he must also preserve his strength to deal with Japanese carriers certain to rush down from the homeland. The Tulagi-Guadalcanal operation required close air support from the carriers. To accomplish this would pin the carriers to a narrow arc 80 to 100 miles south of Tulagi and render them vulnerable to air attack and also prey to submarines certain to flock to those waters.
Quite unexpectedly, the expeditionary force avoided enemy air searches on 5 and 6 August and did surprise the Japanese on the 7th. For the most part, the landings proceeded well. The night of the 7th, Turner advised Ghormley and Fletcher that he had disembarked all troops at Guadalcanal, where there was virtually no enemy contact, but that heavy fighting still raged at Tulagi. He reiterated his goal of sending out most of the transports on 8 August.
Early on the 8th, however, Turner changed his mind. Because of severe Marine casualties, he committed the last of the reserve troops to Tulagi. Thus, he effectively canceled, without advising his superiors, the occupation of Santa Cruz. To Ghormley and Fletcher, he radioed that, "Owing to reinforcements Florida area [I] will not commence retirement as planned." Unfortunately, Turner's communications were especially poor, and neither Ghormley nor Fletcher copied this message. Unforeseen difficulties in landing the supplies certainly dismayed Turner and caused him to change plans radically. Now he decided none of his ships would depart until all had completed unloading. There is no evidence he ever advised Ghormley or Fletcher of this development. Later, neither he nor the Marines considered what responsibility they owed Fletcher to unload as expeditiously as they could and clear the area.
How did Fletcher's carriers fare during the first two days of the landings? Surprisingly, enemy search planes never did find them; Japanese air commanders thought they might lurk east of Tulagi rather than south of there. Conducting flight operations at a frenzied pace, the Task Force 61 air groups handled two vital tasks: supporting the invasion and protecting their own flattops.
Against three fierce air raids, Turner's force emerged with relatively light damage (two destroyers damaged, one transport sunk), but the combat air patrol suffered grievous losses. The carriers faced great difficulties not appreciated by the critics. The short-range fighters needed to fly 60 to 100 miles merely to get to the transports, and the land-locked radars on board the screening ships performed poorly. Of the 18 Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats that intercepted the enemy's first strike of 27 medium bombers and 17 Zeros, nine failed to return and five others suffered severe damage, for claims of seven bombers and two Zeros [actual Japanese losses: five bombers and two Zeros].
Fighting against Japanese pilots of the quality of Saburo Sakai and Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, one U.S. flight leader likened the combat air patrol's piecemeal commitment on 7 August to scraps dropped into a meat grinder. Although the second raid cost the Japanese five dive bombers shot down (with four others later ditched), they managed to evade radar detection completely. On the 8th, they reprised with 23 torpedo-armed mediums and 15 Zeros. Because Turner's radars again failed to detect the incoming raid even after a coastwatcher warning, 15 combat air patrol F4Fs turned back, low on fuel, leaving only three Wild cats to fight. Turner's ships reported repulsing 40 torpedo planes, and, unknown to Fletcher, did hurt them badly.
The 8 August raid demonstrated to Fletcher that despite MacArthur's bombing campaign against Rabaul, the enemy could still strike hard and far. He thought his carriers were particularly vulnerable to follow-up air and submarine attacks. Certainly he realized that, given the circumstances, his fighters could not do all that much to protect the distant transports anyway. Because he had every reason to believe that Turner was proceeding with his plans to pull out most of the ships that night, he reconsidered the plans to keep the carriers off Guadalcanal through 9 August (D+2).
Late on the afternoon of the 8th, he radioed Ghormley: "Total fighter strength reduced from 99 to 78. In view of large number of enemy torpedo and bomber planes in area, recommend immediate withdrawal of carriers." In the event his request was approved, he asked that tankers be sent to rendezvous with him, "as fuel running low." Until he received Ghormley's permission, the carriers would remain southeast of Guadalcanal and still in position on the 9th to support the five cargo ships and their screen. Thus, Fletcher was not "running away" 12 hours early, as Vandegrift charged.
Fletcher referred the decision to Ghormley, whom he believed would have a wider view of the situation. After Koro, Callaghan told Ghormley that Fletcher "hoped you would not hesitate to change tactical disposition if you thought it necessary, and he would not take it amiss, as you might be in much better position to see the whole picture." Fletcher certainly was not getting "the whole picture" from Turner. The next day he described to Ghormley how the reception of Turner's messages had been "very poor," and that he was "missing most of his transmissions." Unfortunately, so did Ghormley, who, like Fletcher, believed that Turner was following the plan.
At 0330, 9 August, Fletcher received Ghormley's permission to withdraw, so he turned the carriers southeast for the fueling rendezvous set for late on the 10th. Not for some two hours did he begin to learn of trouble off Savo Island. Around 0100 on the 9th, a Japanese cruiser force under Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa had surprised and massacred Turner's stronger screening group.
Critics lambaste Fletcher for leaving Turner and the Marines naked to attack. According to Morison, all Fletcher would have braved on 9 August had he stayed south of Guadalcanal was "sunburn." Morison played down the 20% loss in fighters and noted that Fletcher still had as many Wildcats as during the Battle of Midway. Of course, Fletcher's perception of the risk was a judgment call. Unlike his detractors, he well knew his principal opponents-the Japanese carriers-had yet to put in an appearance, and that he had no source of fighter replacements short of returning to Pearl. How important were the Wildcats? Famed fighter leader Lieutenant Commander John S. Thach summed up the general consensus: "Our aircraft carriers can be kept afloat only by fighters." Fletcher also understood that many naval aviators considered the Wildcat to be grossly inferior to its Japanese counterpart, the fabled Mitsubisbi Zero. Certainly, the drubbing endured on 7 August by the combat air patrol did little to dispel their pessimism.
Fletcher's detractors also decided the supposed fuel shortage was a myth, although Fletcher himself never claimed that it was the primary reason he recommended withdrawing the carriers. As with Wake, the critics eagerly consulted deck logs and counted up the gallons of fuel oil available on the various ships. That was a luxury not permitted Fletcher on 8 August. They ignore the fact that Fletcher's task group commanders, Kinkaid and Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, both reported drastic shortages, the result especially of the prevalent low winds, which required lengthy runs at high speed (25 knots) to handle aircraft. Nimitz questioned Fletcher as to whether he could have retired one carrier task group at a time to fuel, to which the latter responded that two of the three task groups were low on oil.
Could Fletcher have turned back in pursuit of Mikawa's cruisers? In his only official comment on the subject he explained that if his ships had enjoyed "sufficient fuel available to operate indefinitely at high speed," and had he immediately received "definite information,…it is barely possible" the Japanese intruders "might have been located" by a morning search and attacked "if the carriers could get within 200 miles." That, however, would have placed the flattops "much further to the northwest than they would be expected to operate." In fact, Fletcher never did receive a timely and accurate summary of the situation upon which to base any plans. By the time he did learn of the disaster, be lacked the fuel for a high-speed return to Guadalcanal, and anyway, the Japanese were long out of range.
On 9 August a shaken amphibious force gathered its remaining strength and withdrew from Guada1canal and Tulagi. In the face of possible enemy air assault, Turner felt he could not stand alone without carrier air support. He left the 1st Marine Division with barely half of its supplies and without much of its heavy equipment. The Marines quite understandably considered themselves abandoned and put the blame first on Fletcher and second on the Navy as a whole. Yet neither Turner nor Vandegrift accepted any responsibility for the delay in off-loading the supplies.
On 20 August Turner gave two reasons for the "failure to completely unload." First, he castigated the "vast amount of unnecessary impediments taken," and second, "a failure on the part of the 1st Division to provide adequate and well-organized unloading details at the beach." Given everyone's inexperience, and the three Japanese air attacks within 24 hours, the unloading actually proceeded well. Of course, Turner's pre-invasion estimates proved wildly optimistic, but they were the basis upon which Fletcher had to plan.
It is interesting how Fletcher's old adversaries, the naval aviators, view his actions off Guada1canal. Rear Admiral John H. Towers noted in his diary, "He ran away!" Others who took the time to understand the situation sympathized with Fletcher's dilemma. They knew it was best for the carriers to run in to the objective, strike, and immediately get clear. On 9 October 1942 Halsey cogently commented upon a lengthy letter of tactical lessons compiled by Fletcher. "Land plane bases and the operating units thereon should be available in supporting positions before the operation is undertaken at all. It is only by this provision in advance that the risking of carriers in restricted covering positions can be avoided."
The next closest parallel to the Guadalcanal landings occurred in November 1943, with Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance's invasion of the Gilberts (Operation Galvanic). Some comparisons on the handling of the carriers during Galvanic can prove highly instructive for the discussion at hand. First, the attackers enjoyed massive carrier air support: 700 planes on six big and five light carriers, and an additional 218 aircraft (that alone was nearly as many as Fletcher had in August 1942) on eight escort carriers. The Japanese possessed only 46 planes in the immediate area. Before the landings, carriers executed air strikes on all of the enemy airfields within range.
Yet listen to Towers, then Commander Air Pacific, scream about the employment of the carriers. Turner, the amphibious force leader, again wanted all of the carriers tied down in "defensive cruising sectors" off the invasion beaches. Towers vigorously disagreed, stressing that the flattops would be "sitting ducks for enemy planes, submarines." On D-Day, 20 November 1943, Towers saw his "worst fears" come to pass, with the carriers "immobilized off shore" in "very limited areas." He forecast the "likelihood of great damage from submarine and aircraft attack." In the first six days, the Japanese managed one air strike of consequence, but on D+4 the escort Liscome Bay (CVE-56) was sunk with great loss of life by a submarine off Makin. The Army troops on Makin received the blame for not prosecuting their offensive swiftly enough, although they were on schedule. If Towers was justified for all his criticism of Galvanic, how much more so was Fletcher in 1942 for Guadalcanal. Towers and others of his generation who enjoyed such terrific materiel superiority never realized what it was like for those who fought in 1942.
In the two weeks following the Savo disaster, Fletcher's handling of his carriers supposedly degenerated from "prudence to paralysis." The critics complain that he remained on the periphery, only to respond feebly on 23-24 August to a Japanese reinforcement operation bent on landing troops at Guadalcanal. After what some have characterized as a lackluster performance in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, Fletcher hung on south of the Solomons doing nothing of use until the torpedoing of the Saratoga on 31 August 1942 mercifully ended his carrier career.
In fact, Fletcher did not withdraw all the way to San Francisco as some would seemingly have it, but temporarily to safer waters 500 miles south of Guadalcanal. After refueling his ships, he contrived to operate out of enemy air-search range, but still not more than 12 hours away from strike range of Guada1canal, while he awaited the approach of the Japanese flattops. Flirting with enemy snoopers, his carriers covered the approach of the escort carrier Long Island (ACV-1), bringing 31 Marine aircraft to Guada1canal. On 21 August he advised Ghormley he would have to fuel beginning the 24th and was told to do it one carrier task force at a time.
On 23 August shore-based aircraft sighted a Japanese troop convoy north of Guada1canal, but it immediately withdrew. Ultra intelligence received that day clearly placed all of the Japanese carriers north of Truk, so Fletcher detached the Wasp (CV-7) group to refuel, retaining the Saratoga and Enterprise (CV-6) groups. In the meantime, he took up a good position east of Malaita to be able to strike that convoy if it resumed its advance. Three Japanese carriers (Shokaku, Zuikaku, and Ryujo) did indeed prowl far south of Truk. They engaged Fletcher in battle on the 24th at the cost of the Ryujo, but the Enterprise also suffered severe bomb damage. Aware that strong forces were bearing down on him, Fletcher withdrew. Ultimately, the two carrier forces canceled each other out, and the "Cactus Air Force" from Guadalcanal turned back the convoy on 25 August.
Two criticisms in particular dogged Fletcher regarding the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. The first concerned his retirement of the Wasp (63 planes) to fuel. That reduced the relative carrier-plane ratio to 153 U.S. to 177 Japanese. Somehow, according to the critics, Fletcher should have divined that the enemy carriers were present, although nothing, including Ultra, pointed to that fact. Indeed, the cryptanalysts were appalled that a Japanese carrier task force could have reached the Solomons without being detected by radio intelligence. Unfortunately for the Allies, increasing Japanese radio security rendered Ultra virtually impotent until early November 1942. Second, Fletcher suffered from the wildly inflated claims of his air groups and ships, unable to be tempered by Ultra. On that basis, Nimitz felt the Saratoga should have stood pat the night of 24 August and dealt with the incoming surface ships. Actually, the situation was far less sanguine for Task Force 61, and Fletcher did right to scram.
On 31 August, when the Saratoga was torpedoed, the carriers were where Ghormley wanted them, in the waters south of San Cristobal, later known as "torpedo junction." Only after the Wasp was sunk under similar circumstances did Ghormley relent and allow the ships to seek haven in port. Fletcher rode the damaged Saratoga back to Pearl Harbor and was reassigned. As his friend Rear Admiral John McCain said of him, "Two or three of these fights are enough for anyone man. A rest will do him good." Unfortunately, because of King's enmity, Fletcher was never able to get back to the carriers. By the time he had recovered, he was the odd man out, with only the stalwart support of Nimitz keeping him in the picture. From late 1943 to the end of the war, he commanded the North Pacific Force and orchestrated attacks on the Kuriles. He had the satisfaction of participating in the occupation of Japan.
History has come down hard against Frank Jack Fletcher's competence as a carrier commander. Yet once his decisions are studied in light of what he himself knew at the time, a far different picture emerges.
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.