Out of the Jaws of Victory

By Alan Rems

Born into a socially prominent family, Browning entered into a useful first marriage to the socialite stepdaughter of a vice admiral. Armed with a quick mind, quicker tongue, tall frame, and strong hawk-like features, he projected power, useful for attracting susceptible women and bullying others.

With the rest of the class of 1918, Browning graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy a year early to join the wartime fleet. After five years of diverse assignments on battleships, cruisers, and destroyers in the postwar years, Browning took up flying. Showing much aptitude along with a penchant for risk taking, he qualified as a naval aviator in 1924. Assignments in the fledgling naval air service included duty on board America’s first carrier, the USS Langley (CV-1), service with the U.S. Fleet’s Scouting Force; design and testing of aircraft at the Bureau of Aeronautics, command of carrier fighters, study at the Naval War College, and a stint as a naval air instructor. Thus, Browning emerged ideally prepared for the new era in naval warfare when battleship supremacy gave way to the aircraft carrier.

During these years, a style of adventurousness, leading at times to recklessness, arrogance, and insistence on perfection from others, fully emerged. Obsessed with having his squadron excel at the 1936 National Air Races, he rejected with insults six prospective number-two wingmen before finding one he could tolerate. All caution was cast aside during one nighttime flight when, with minimal visibility, his fliers—who lacked radios—were required to follow him in close formation in a maneuver so hazardous they were forbidden to ever mention it. Browning later became enraged when, within just days of the races, he was transferred and his pleas for a deferral were denied. 3

Assignment to the staff of still little-known Rear Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. presented Browning with his great opportunity. Beginning there as air tactical officer, Browning later departed to lead the air wing of the Yorktown (CV-5), then returned to become Halsey’s operations and war plans officer, and finally in June 1941, his chief of staff.

Opening Fights—On and Off the Battlefield

Outwardly, Halsey and his chief of staff were very different types of people. While Halsey was ebullient and enormously popular, Browning was cold, aloof, condescending, sarcastic, and prone to lecturing rather than discussing issues. So intent was he on winning, he even used his superb knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order to tie a conference in knots when the argument went against him. 4 But Halsey and Browning were much alike in their high capacity for risk, dislike for administration, and inattention to detail.

The outbreak of war found Browning and Halsey at sea on board the Enterprise (CV-6) after delivering aircraft to Wake Island. With American forces throughout the Pacific in retreat, the U.S. Fleet commander-in-chief, Admiral Ernest King, pressured his Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, for a bold counterstroke. Although members of Nimitz’s staff strongly opposed such ventures as too risky, Halsey undertook to raid the Marshall and Gilbert islands.

During the Marshalls operation, Browning convinced Halsey to extend the attack by striking the heart of the enemy position—Kwajalein. One morning, 21 air strikes were executed while the Enterprise cruised in a tight area surrounded by Japanese air bases. Morison observed, “Surely some kind angel was guarding them from submarines and air bombers.” 5 And Halsey would write, “It was one of those plans which are called brilliant if they succeed and foolhardy if they fail.” 6 Given America’s slender resources then, it is debatable whether Browning’s extra flourish was worth the added risk.

These operations, followed by strikes against Wake and Marcus Island, turned hitherto unknown Halsey into a national hero, and Browning shared the glory. Earning recognition from Life magazine as a master of naval air warfare, Browning gained spot promotion to captain.

Browning later accompanied Halsey to San Francisco to meet Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle and hear his ideas for a raid on Tokyo using Halsey’s carriers, whose movements Browning would plan. During the return voyage after launching Doolittle’s Army bombers, Browning had one of his explosive episodes. After Flag Lieutenant William Ashford reported sighting a periscope, Browning loudly denounced him, rejecting his suggestions that the course be changed and that a scheduled refueling be delayed until nightfall. Halsey sided with Ashford, causing Browning to stalk off and sulk while the flag lieutenant’s suggestions were implemented. After a photograph proved the submarine threat was real, Halsey made Browning apologize, which was done with ill grace. 7

A Rendezvous with Destiny

Shortly after the Doolittle Raid, Halsey was sidelined with dermatitis and a replacement was needed to take over Task Force (TF) 16, built around the carriers Enterprise and Hornet (CV-8). Halsey’s surprising recommendation was Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, commander of the warship screen during the Central Pacific raids. Although Spruance had no experience leading carriers, Halsey was so confident in the expertise of Browning and his staff that he convinced Nimitz to make that choice.

After American intelligence discovered that the Japanese planned to invade Midway Atoll, Spruance positioned TF 16 to surprise their forces. At about 0600 on 4 June, Japanese aircraft were observed winging toward Midway and, soon after, the enemy carriers were spotted.

In writing about what followed, most historians have followed Morison, who wrote: “Spruance had originally intended to launch his planes at 0900 when there would be less than a hundred miles of ocean for them to cover. . . . But, as reports came in of the strike on Midway, he decided, on the advice of his chief of staff [Browning], to launch two hours earlier in the hope of catching the carriers in the act of refueling planes on deck for a second strike on the atoll.” 8 On this basis, Browning has been hailed for his brilliant decision, including by historian Clark G. Reynolds, who wrote, “Captain Browning made one of the shrewdest calculations in naval history.” 9

Disagreeing with Morison, Spruance’s biographer, Thomas Buell, maintains that no persuasion was involved, as it was Spruance’s intent all along to launch at the earliest possible moment to gain surprise. 10 Buell is supported by John B. Lundstrom, who has explained how Morison could easily have been misled. 11 It might be fairly concluded that Spruance and Browning independently recognized it was essential to attack as soon as possible. If Browning had the additional insight that such action could catch the enemy carriers at their most vulnerable, that perception did not materially change the response.

As events unfolded, a series of uncoordinated, mostly low-level attacks by Midway-based aircraft, and planes from the two TF 16 carriers plus the Yorktown from TF 17, all failed with heavy losses. But in repelling those attackers, the defending Japanese fighters descended to sea level, leaving the ceiling wide open for the American dive bombers to form up and hurtle down to their targets. With fully gassed and armed aircraft making their decks virtual tinderboxes, three of the four enemy carriers—the Kaga , Soryu , and Akagi —were set ablaze in minutes.

During the return of the American aircraft, an inexcusable communications failure occurred for which Browning, as chief of staff, must be held primarily responsible. Carrier pilots need to know “Point Option”—where they can expect to rejoin their vessels. Because the Enterprise and Hornet did not travel as fast and far as expected, Point Option changed without anyone informing the pilots. Not finding their carriers where expected and running out of gas, many returning pilots were forced to ditch or settled for any available deck, causing loss of life and precious aircraft, and impairing cohesion for later operations. 12

And there would be another unforgivable lapse that day. After the fourth enemy carrier, the Hiryu , was spotted, Spruance ordered a dive-bomber attack. Although the Hornet ’s dive bombers were expected to join the Enterprise ’s in a coordinated attack, Browning failed to pass on Spruance’s instructions. 13 Consequently, the Hornet ’s planes departed a half-hour after the Enterprise ’s, arriving only after the “Big E’s” fliers had left the Hiryu aflame. Throughout the three-day battle, Browning was similarly negligent in issuing instructions to the Hornet . 14

That night, Spruance sailed away from the Japanese to avoid ambush by their still-powerful surface forces. The next day, after waiting until afternoon to be satisfied the Japanese would not press their attack on Midway, he decided to pursue the burning Hiryu , observed with other ships northwest of the island.

Browning’s plan called for arming the dive bombers with 1,000-pound bombs for an attack at a range of 275 miles. That stunned the Enterprise ’s squadron commanders, who, given the distance and bomb weight, doubted they would have enough gas to return. Gaining support from the carrier’s air group commander, Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, who was in sick bay recovering from wounds suffered the day before, they rushed with him to the bridge.

Confronting Browning, McClusky questioned if he had ever flown such a mission in this dive-bomber model. Browning admitted he had not. McClusky then proposed delaying the launch an hour to close the range and also suggested lightening the load by substituting 500-pound bombs. This was unacceptable to Browning, leading to a shouting match that drew in Spruance. One of the aviators told Spruance: “Admiral, we will go if you tell us to. But, if we go, we won’t be coming back.” Spruance responded, “I will do what the pilots want.” Humiliated at being overruled, Browning stormed away weeping and screaming to sulk in his cabin. 15 As for the mission, the Hiryu had long since slipped beneath the waves and little else was achieved.

Although Spruance withheld criticism after Midway, he retained no confidence in Browning and refused to recommend him for a medal. 16 However, on return to duty, Halsey obtained a Distinguished Service Medal for Browning, the citation claiming, “by his judicious planning and brilliant execution, [he] was largely responsible for the rout of the enemy Japanese fleet in the Battle of Midway.” 17

In fact, the victory probably owed more to luck than Browning’s “judicious planning,” as there was no way to anticipate that the defending enemy fighters would find themselves so out of position when the dive bombers arrived. As for “brilliant execution,” those words were far removed from the uncoordinated carrier attacks and the unforgivable wastage of airmen and aircraft during their return. For historian Craig L. Symonds, “the citation claim[ing] that Browning was ‘largely responsible’ for the American victory at Midway, an assertion that some historians have taken seriously . . . is manifestly untrue.” 18 The fact that the Distinguished Service Medal awarded to Spruance gave him credit for such relatively mundane attributes as “seamanship, endurance, and tenacity” while Browning won praise for his “judicious planning and brilliant execution” was considered by Buell one of “the ironies of war.” 19

Decline and Fall

The esteem that accrued to Browning after Midway was soon flagrantly squandered. Unsurprisingly ill-suited to a settled domestic life (Browning married four times), with considerable indiscretion he pursued the wife of a Navy commander. Caught in bed with her, Browning suffered a severe beating by the commander, a skilled boxer, and was widely abhorred by officers offended by the betrayal of one of their own. 20 Yet Browning retained the support of Halsey. When the admiral was appointed commander, South Pacific in October 1942 during a crisis at Guadalcanal, Browning accompanied him as chief of staff.

Working closely with Halsey at Noumea on New Caledonia, Browning headed a staff of 15 officers and 50 bluejackets that planned operations and issued orders affecting all Allied armed forces in the wide operations area. The succeeding months would see a series of great naval actions, most important the three-day Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, fought in the words of Halsey’s biographer in the “Nelsonian spirit.”

At the same time, certain actions during the Guadalcanal campaign did not sit well with Nimitz and King. One was the decision to risk America’s two remaining Pacific carriers against superior Japanese forces at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, resulting in the loss of the Hornet and damage to the Enterprise . Another was removing in disgrace a highly decorated cruiser captain for not rendering assistance to the survivors of the USS Juneau (CL-52), a far from clear-cut situation whose harsh settlement, at Browning’s urging, Halsey would regret and later attempt to reverse. 21

To Nimitz and King, who retained great confidence in Halsey, Browning was responsible for what went wrong. King would say later: “Browning was no damn good at all. He had no brains and no understanding.” 22 Well aware of Browning’s situation and fearing he would be removed, Halsey wrote to Nimitz at the end of 1942 emphasizing his indispensability. Then came the fatal event for Browning, a visit to the South Pacific in January 1943 by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox.

E. B. Potter vividly described what ensued. “Miles Browning had been up to form, offending Knox and others repeatedly. Officers closely associated with Browning and recognizing his abilities learned to shrug off his temperamental vagaries, but Knox in a few hours of astonished observation had tagged him as a psychological basket case and, in his current post, a clear and imminent danger to the national security. . . . Knox returned to Washington [resolved] to provide Halsey with a sane and competent chief of staff.” 23

That couldn’t be done until the admiral, still fiercely loyal to Browning, could be bought off. In the meantime, Halsey submitted five separate recommendations for Browning’s promotion to rear admiral that, predictably, were dead on arrival. Nevertheless, Halsey obtained a Silver Star for Browning covering the entire war through Midway, for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action.” Finally, in July 1943, King was able to offer Browning a highly desirable command that Halsey could not reasonably block: captaincy of the new USS Hornet (CV-12).

Browning’s appointment did not sit well with the carrier airmen who coveted that command, but as King said later, “the idea was to get rid of him at once.” 24 Most unhappy would be the Hornet ’s complement, particularly the officers. The carrier’s chief clerk remembered Browning as a “hard driver,” “martinet,” “fanatic,” and “hardest on the officers.” 25 To a member of the carrier air group, “every order was a snarl, and his subordinates reacted to him with fear and hatred.” 26 Even Heggen’s fictional Captain Morton was no worse.

Browning ruled the ship undisturbed until March 1944, when Rear Admiral Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark arrived and raised his flag on the Hornet as carrier division commander. Now Browning’s every movement and utterance would be under scrutiny. Tensions between the two men had long existed, and Clark was thoroughly disgusted with Browning’s wife-poaching. Still, Clark assured Browning that the past would be set aside if he performed well.

As Clark would write, in the space of a few months he saved Browning on three occasions. Two instances involved shiphandling, in one case preventing Browning from running the ship aground, and in the other averting a ramming. In the third case, Clark intercepted an insubordinate message Browning had written to the task group commander that likely would have resulted in Browning’s removal had it been delivered. 27

Clark and Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, commander of the fast carriers, wanted to be rid of Browning but needed to wait for a serious misstep. It happened one evening during the showing of a movie while the ship was anchored at Eniwetok. An accidental release of air from a fire extinguisher touched off a panic that there was a live bomb on board. In the tumult, a sailor fell overboard but was rescued. Browning then rejected Clark’s suggestions that a boat be dispatched to look for any others who might have fallen overboard and that a muster be held to determine if anyone was missing. Unhappily for Browning, the body of a sailor was recovered two days later. Clark told Mitscher, “Here is the overt act I have been waiting for.” 28

After a court of inquiry found Browning guilty of negligence, he was detached and came ashore, permanently, in May 1944. 29 While morale on board the Hornet soared under her new captain, Browning was exiled to the faculty of a staff college at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Formal and organized cruiser commander Rear Admiral Robert B. Carney had replaced Browning as Halsey’s chief of staff. Although neither Carney nor Halsey was pleased about the arrangement, they eventually became very close. However, for all of Carney’s talents that would lead one day to his appointment as Chief of Naval Operations, he was unable to prevent Halsey’s great errors at Leyte Gulf and during two typhoons that have irretrievably sullied the admiral’s reputation. At least on those occasions, Browning might well have done better and probably no worse than Carney.

Upon Browning’s retirement on 1 January 1947, just before he turned 50, the Navy found it safe to raise him to the rank of rear admiral. In retirement Browning visited Japan and proved himself still capable of raising eyebrows. According to his obituary: “He attacked as a myth the belief that the atom bomb’s radioactive effects were of long duration. He said that gardens were growing where the bomb fell on Hiroshima and 200-foot high chimneys were left standing by the blast.” 30 Afterward, Browning headed the Civil Defense office for the state of New Hampshire, whose citizenry happily never needed to put Browning’s rosy outlook to the test.

More than 60 years after Browning’s death in 1954, something of his unruly spirit lives on—and thrives—channeled in a very different direction by his grandson, comic actor Chevy Chase.

1. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963), 154.

2. Thomas B. Buell, The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 140.

3. VADM Herbert D. Riley, The Reminiscences of Vice Admiral Herbert D. Riley, U.S. Navy (Retired) , interview by John T. Mason Jr. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004), 59–60, 90–97. Then–LT(jg) Riley made the cut as Browning’s seventh number-two wingman.

4. E. B. Potter, Bull Halsey (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985), 139, 148.

5. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific 1931–April 1942 , vol. 3, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), 263.

6. Potter, Bull Halsey , 41.

7. Ibid, 65.

8. Samuel Eliot Morison, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions May 1942–August 1942 , vol. 4, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown, 1949), 113.

9. Clark G. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers: The Forging of an Air Navy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 28.

10. Buell, Quiet Warrior , 494–96.

11. Ibid., xii–xv. According to Lundstrom, Morison misunderstood the time expressed in the TF 16 war diary and “created the fiction of Spruance’s supposed desire to delay the launch. It did not arise from Browning’s wartime reputation or from any recollections by participants.”

12. William Tuohy, America’s Fighting Admirals: Winning the War at Sea in World War II (St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2007), 89–90.

13. Buell, Quiet Warrior , 153. John B. Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 411–12.

14. Alvin Kernan, The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 116–17. Parshall (see next), 173, charges Browning with neglect in not providing the Hornet with detailed instructions in the morning about the outbound route.

15. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington: Potomac Books, 2005), 364.

16. At variance with other historians, Edwin P. Hoyt, How They Won the War in the Pacific: Nimitz and his Admirals (New York; Weybright and Talley, 1970), 208, states, “Spruance had nothing but praise for Browning’s capabilities, as did Halsey.” More reliably, Buell, Quiet Warrior , 498 writes of the “inimical relationship” between them, and gives the many reasons for Spruance’s attitude.

17. Buell, Quiet Warrior , 164.

18. Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 363.

19. Buell, Quiet Warrior , 165.

20. Clark G. Reynolds, On the Warpath in the Pacific: Admiral Jocko Clark and the Fast Carriers (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 322.

21. Walter J. Boyne, Clash of Titans: World War II at Sea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 270.

22. Thomas B. Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), 479.

23. Potter, Bull Halsey , 199. Again dissenting from general opinion (see note 13), Hoyt, How They Won , 208, maintains with respect to Knox’s criticisms that “Browning’s brains more than compensated for any personality deficiencies.”

24. Buell, Master of Sea Power , 479.

25. E. T. Wooldridge, ed., Carrier Warfare in the Pacific: An Oral History Collection (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 278.

26. Harold L. Buell, “Death of a Captain.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 112, no. 2 (February 1986), 92.

27. J. J. Clark, Carrier Admiral (New York: David McKay Company, 1967), 150.

28. Ibid., 157–58.

29. Boyne, Clash of Titans , 270. Reflecting on the irony of Browning’s downfall after he urged the ouster of the captain in the Juneau case, Boyne writes, “Fate has a particular way of settling accounts in the military.”

30. Miles Browning obituary, The New York Times , 30 September 1954.



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