He spoke in a low voice and used few words. Yet, so great was his concern for his people—for their training and welfare in peacetime and their rescue in combat—that he was able to obtain their final ounce of effort and loyalty, without which he could not have become the preeminent carrier force commander in the world. A bulldog of a fighter, a strategist blessed with an uncanny ability to foresee his enemy’s next move, and a lifelong searcher after truth and trout streams, he was above all else—and perhaps above all others—a Naval Aviator.
On 17 May 1919, the NC-1 was down off the Azores in a heavy sea and a thick fog. Lieutenant Commander Mitscher was second in command—one of the two pilots of the huge, 126-foot-wing-span, fabric-covered, wooden-framed flying boat. One of the first naval pilots, he had won his wings four years before. Now his plane was lost and breaking up. An awareness of the hazards of that pioneering flight of three NCs across the Atlantic with no instruments other than a magnetic compass did not lessen his disappointment in failing to reach Portugal. However, one of the planes did make it—Lieutenant Commander “Putty” Read with his crew in NC-4. For the first time, man had flown the Atlantic.
Marc Mitscher would never forget what it was like to be lost at sea, nor what it was like to be rescued. He would always remember that instruments fail, as the crude radio direction finder in NC-1 failed. He learned that careful preparations must be made ahead of time to carry on should failures occur.
Twenty-three years later, on 18 April 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle and his gallant Air Corps pilots were launched from the Hornet (Captain Mitscher, commanding) in their B-25 bombers on the famous Tokyo raid. The raid created panic in Japan. It caused the Japanese to be more wary. It was successful primarily because of the heroic performance of duty of the Air Forces’ pilots, but it was also successful because of the care taken in the preparation to launch land-based bombers from a carrier. For example, Captain Mitscher instructed Frank Akers, the Hornet’s navigator, to train those pilots in the use of aircraft direction finders on Japanese radio stations to locate themselves. Captain Mitscher’s ship was selected for this unusual task because her captain had a well deserved reputation of competence. He was not only a skilled pilot, he knew the variables in the performance of aircraft. He was an expert technician and would test and check and double check to insure that the operation would be successful. It was.
And then came the battle of Midway. Commander Stanhope Ring with his Air Group Eight had embarked in the Hornet in December and in the five intervening months that excellent commander, with the supervision, advice, and help of Mitscher, had done all that could be done to train his pilots for battle. But, they had not been in combat before that day of 4 June when they were launched against Admiral Nagumo’s carrier force. Just before the launch, Jack Waldron, his lean face in repose, bounded up to the chart house to shake hands with his friend, Frank Akers, and say “Goodbye, Frank, I’ll take them in. You can count on us”. En route to the enemy, Lieutenant Commander Waldron with his Torpedo Squadron Eight, VT-8, separated themselves from the rest of the air group on a hunch he could locate the enemy carriers. He did, and vt-8 conducted one of the most heroic attacks of the war. They attacked without air cover and the slow, low, torpedo planes were all shot down on their way in. They made no hits. Twenty-nine men died; one, Ensign Gay, was rescued days later. Other squadrons lost heavily—but not one plane of Torpedo 8 came back. Mitscher was a quiet, undemonstrative man and he said little, but all the rest of his life he thought of young Waldron and his squadron mates who sacrificed themselves with conspicuous courage against known odds. He sorrowed, but thereafter he knew the valor of his pilots, and he measured all men against their standards.
The battle continued. Carriers operated singly in those days. Captain Mitscher’s proposals for carrier group operations had not yet been accepted, so each carrier had only the fighter protection she herself could furnish. The Yorktown was heavily hit by enemy aircraft from the Hiryu, later to be sunk by a Japanese submarine. Maybe the tactics Mitscher developed later would have saved her.
At 1803, Mitscher launched VB-8 to attack the Hiryu in coordination with Enterprise dive bombers. The planes returned after a successful attack but darkness had overtaken them. They needed deck lights to land by. Mitscher had them turned on with full regard of enemy submarines known to be in the area. The battle ability of a carrier rests in its embarked pilots. They are the striking power of a carrier—heroic efforts must be made to save heroic men who have demonstrated their skill and courage in battle.
The battle of Midway was won by such men.
In April 1943 Rear Admiral Mitscher flew to Guadalcanal as Commander, Air Solomons. He took with him men who had proved their skill in combat—men with perseverance under long term battle conditions, like Commander Stan Ring—men with loyalty and devotion to duty, like Gus Read and Everett Eynon, men who could perform—and inspire others to innovate and fight with what they had, like those two Marines, Brigadier General Field Harris, Chief of Staff, and Lieutenant Colonel Frank Dailey.
comairsols commanded all kinds of Navy, Marine, Army, and New Zealand Royal Air Force planes manned by pilots with different doctrines and training. Guadalcanal itself was secured, but the air above was filled with savage combat for months after. The Japanese were tenaciously holding the islands to the north. They had no intention of giving them up or letting Guadalcanal remain secure.
Operating conditions were abominable—heat, rain, mud, foxholes, leaky tents, mildew every place, bad food—and then, more mud. The new comairsols asked for materials to correct that and Admiral Halsey, comsopac, sent them. comairsols also surveyed his people. He fired those who did not want to fight. He sent home those who tried but couldn’t take it. He required enthusiasm, skill, and high performance, for he had a job to do and only enthusiastic professionals could do it. Halsey had sent Pete Mitscher to that job because he knew “Pete was a fighting fool” and could handle that tough job. He did, for in air battle after air battle we got better—the Japanese took more losses. The Japanese airfields at Munda, Kahili, Vila, and others were taking increasing punishment as the plans made by Commander Ring were put into effect.
In mid-April, Mitscher was informed that Admiral Yamamoto, Supreme Japanese Naval Commander, who had commanded at Pearl Harbor and Midway, was to land at Kahili at a specific time in a specific aircraft and that Mitscher’s command was to nail him. The only fighters Mitscher had with the range to fight over Kahili were Army Lightnings, P-38s. If any plan was ever perfected, that plan was, and the execution by the Army pilots was perfect. Captain Thomas Lanphier, U. S. Army, shot down the twin-engined Betty and Yamamoto shortly after 0934—on schedule. Admiral Yamamoto was Japan’s great sailor, a staunch fighter, and a great leader. His loss was a heavy blow to our enemy.
The air battles continued. On 16 June, 107 enemy planes were shot down over Guadalcanal. Under the demanding but compassionate Mitscher, the effectiveness of AirSols increased and so did the pilots’ affection and respect for their commander. The man knew what to do and how to do it—and they appreciated that he also knew what would enable men to meet the high performance required. He was proud of them and supported them with everything he had because he knew they could and would do their jobs well. They were proud of him and supported him for exactly the same reasons.
In mid-July Admiral Mitscher turned his command over to another great commander and leader, General Nathan F. Twining, U. S. Army Air Forces. Nate Twining had a good team turned over to him and he too used it well.
Carriers were coming off the production line in 1943 and Nimitz and King needed a battle-wise man knowledgeable about naval air warfare and carrier operations to command them in the big, rough battles that were bound to come. Mitscher was that man, but he was dead tired; he had malaria; he was all in. So he was sent to Fleet Air, West Coast for a rest. However, six months later, in January 1944, he took command of the outfit he made famous, the most powerful naval combat force the world has ever known, Task Force 58.
Task Force 58 had 12 carriers then, four carriers in each task group with an experienced rear admiral aviator in command of each. Task Force 58 sortied to strike the Marshalls, then Truk, then the Marianas, and wrought havoc on these islands, but only after terrific air battles and some surface action.
Identification of approaching forces is always difficult in any war and quite often we had mistaken friendly forces for enemy and opened fire on them. Surface forces had been attacked with torpedo and bomb by friendly aircraft who thought the surface forces were enemy. The reverse was true, too—sometimes the approaching force was thought to be friendly and it turned out to be enemy as our forces found out when an attack was driven home. In the Marshalls area, U. S. land-based aircraft were to be operating at the same time Task Force 58 was in the area. This was necessary and Admiral Mitscher had the foresight to order Don Griffin, of his staff, to fly in to Vice Admiral John Hoover’s headquarters to brief the land-based pilots on Mitscher’s plans. Especially, he was to warn them never, never to fly towards a friendly force low and out of the sun—a very good attack tactic. The next day three aircraft came towards the force, low and out of the sun. It was impossible to identify them. The screen opened fire—the aircraft turned—and Don Griffin saw the twin tails of B-25s. He ordered “cease fire,” but it was too late. Two aircraft were shot down.
That was why Mitscher was so insistent that his units, both ships and aircraft, operate in accordance with a known doctrine—and why he also worked so hard to get all U. S. forces to be knowledgeable and skilled before they entered combat operations.
Admiral Mitscher used weather, especially fronts, to great advantage in the Philippine operations, in the attacks on Japan, and in the Okinawa campaign, but the first time was in the first attacks on Saipan-Tinian.
We were getting coded Japanese weather reports and kept a constant weather plot of the operating area. As Task Force 58 was approaching its launching position, Admiral Mitscher ordered Don Griffin to hold the launch because the weather over the target area would prevent any useful attack. A couple of hours later the Admiral ordered the launch while the weather was still foul, but just as the attacking aircraft reached the target area the front cleared and the enemy were caught completely by surprise.
Admiral Mitscher’s ability to predict exact changes in weather conditions drove the aerologists up the wall for they couldn’t do it. At first they argued—and when it turned out the Admiral was correct—they declared it was luck. After several such “lucky” decisions they conceded he had a weather instinct. The admiral called it a seaman’s eye based on a lifetime of weather watching.
During these operations, Mitscher quietly, softly, firmly imposed his mode of operations on his flag officers, his captains, his pilots, and on the whole tremendous task force. The objective of all his tactics was effective combat. That sounds obvious but throughout history commanders, and especially planners, have made serious and frequently fatal mistakes because they forgot or neglected to operate on that clear fundamental. It soon became known that every officer in the force must know how to fight and, above all, must be eager, willing, and able to attack aggressively, using the forces at his disposal with skill and precision. Of course, the more senior the officer, the more important is this maxim—not just because he has larger forces under his command with a greater potential for failure, but because of the importance of his example and of the standards he sets. A senior officer who failed to fight aggressively or who had not the necessary skill was sent home—pronto. There was no room for a man who lacked courage or skill.
The Task Group Commanders operated independently within broad limits. There were no detailed orders from ctf-58. Events happened much too fast in that force for the big boss to direct how any single aspect of the battle was to be fought, let alone several aspects. Yet he had to know what was happening so if the battle started to go badly, or if some element in the battle needed support, he could take corrective action quickly—which means right now. Furthermore, each Task Group Commander had to know what all the other Task Groups were doing to avoid interference with each other and to provide mutual support when that was needed. Too much happened too fast for this to be done by radio or any other exchange of messages system. The only way left was the best—each Task Group Commander would operate his Task Group so all the others would know what he would do—and that meant operate by doctrine. That’s just what Admiral Mitscher intended to develop—and fast—for events were happening fast.
Doctrine can not be developed without experience. Large numbers of carriers had not been operated ever before, so formations, procedures, and operational methods were forged in battle and improved in each succeeding operation. The first systems had to be loose to avoid critical errors. This was at the expense of some efficiency but, as experience was gained, each system was tightened a bit. Mitscher believed in full delegation—both responsibility and authority. A Task Group Commander or a flight section leader could deviate from doctrine whenever he thought it would help his operational effectiveness without jeopardizing some other group. That required good judgment. If a man failed to exercise good judgment too often, he was relieved and sent back to the States where he could do less harm to his associates.
He instituted fighter sweeps, the laying of delayed action bombs on enemy fields on the last bombing strike of the day, more photography of enemy damage near the end of battles. He established air coordinators, increased night carrier operations, and added other innovations as he experimented with formations and maneuvers.
Things were going nicely, and then Admiral King threw a left hook. He ordered all aviation Task Force Commanders to have a surface officer as Chief of Staff. Mitscher wanted none of that. He had an excellent Chief of Staff Captain Truman Hedding, an outstanding aviator. Finally, he was persuaded he had to, he had no choice, but King did let him have one choice—he could select one of several men the Bureau of Naval Personnel nominated. Mitscher was so outraged by the whole idea that Hedding was left to pick one who had been in quite a bit of combat. Hedding knew that without that background no surface officer could possibly last.
In late March, the unfortunate captain came on board the Lexington. Admiral Mitscher’s flagship, at sea north of Bougainville en route to strike Palau, and reported to the Admiral on the flag bridge. The Admiral was courteous, offered his new Chief of Staff his own quarters, and ended the conversation. He made it clear enough then that he had no use for any surface sailor as his Chief of Staff, and since his Chief of Staff did not want the job anyway, relationships were not exactly cordial. Evidently the Admiral was not going to give any instructions to the newcomer, probably because he felt the lack of a base of aviation experience would make it useless. Hedding was temporarily on another staff filling in for a Task Group Chief of Staff who had just been killed. After a few minutes in that silent, chilling atmosphere the new Chief of Staff got the word—all of it. He’d better learn that job fast, and he’d have to learn it from somebody else. He had his first rapid reading course as he read all the orders, dispatches, instructions, aircraft operating manuals, and everything the staff could think of that might help. He asked questions, hundreds of them, of the staff, the squadron commanders, the ship’s officers, and everybody else he could corner except the ship’s cook. Everybody helped, but it didn’t do much good. Several days went by and the whole business was nearly incomprehensible—and somewhat unpleasant.
Task Force 58 kept a large combat air patrol over the force in daylight and flew a lot of recon flights as it steamed towards Palau where the Japanese had a sizeable force of land-based aircraft. The Task Force had been sighted by Japanese search planes on 25 March, so they knew where it was, and Mitscher knew he would have to fight his way in to attack position. This was new in those days but his command had such confidence and faith in their Admiral that everybody was sure it could be done—if not easily.
In late afternoon of 29 March, Japanese snoopers appeared on the radar scopes—then came harassment attacks. At dusk a group of Japanese dive-bombers appeared, followed by low torpedo planes. The new Chief of Staff stood on the flag bridge, watching. Nobody appeared to be doing anything about it—so he grabbed the TBS, changed course towards the attack to thread the torpedoes. A lot of Japanese aircraft were splashed with no damage to the Task Force. When it was over he went over to the port wing of the bridge near Mitscher and waited for his dressing down. Mitscher looked at him a moment and said “Well, it was about time, Captain Burke.”
Things were a little better on the flag bridge thereafter—but not much.
The dawn fighter sweep knocked the airborne Japanese out of the sky. Heavy, continuous bombing got their aircraft on the ground. Fighter sweeps suppressed the antiaircraft fire while the attack aircraft ruined the harbor installations before the harbor was mined. But the antiaircraft at those low-level, straight-flying, mining aircraft was still intense. More than two dozen downed carrier pilots were rescued by float planes, submarines, and destroyers. The attack was successful.
Hedding rejoined at Majuro and the discouraged new Chief of Staff described the situation, ending with the remark he’d had enough and was going to ask to go back to a surface job he knew. Hedding explained that Mitscher was the best air admiral in the world, he knew how to fight, he was also a great man, a good man, and that I would like him eventually, when I understood naval aviation and got on top of the job. Both seemed impossible, but when Hedding said he would be staying for a couple of weeks and would help all he could, I decided to try it awhile longer. Hedding did—he instructed me in details I would not have otherwise ever learned. I realized I had to get a lot of flying hours in to get the feel of the thing and Hedding arranged all of that. I owe him much.
I had no desire to serve on Mitscher’s staff, no liking for him in the first months of that service—and, yet, he was so good I came to admire and respect his great ability and within a year I had more affection for him—my demanding, reticent, biased boss—than I ever had for any man.
Character, experience, judgment, knowledge, with his devotion to naval aviation gave Admiral Mitscher the background the professional naval officer requires. In his earlier experiences in the war he acquired battle-mindedness, an appreciation of the vagaries of war, the necessity for timely decisions, an understanding of the courage of dedicated men, the skill to use his power to best advantage; all of this enabled him to become one of the foremost naval battle commanders of all times.
There were many incidents in the subsequent naval battles that demonstrate why the people with whom he served believed him to be supreme in so many different categories of performance.
Every U. S. naval officer has studied the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, the “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” fought on those clear, bright days and nights of 19-21 June 1944, Sea State 1, wind from the east, 12-15 knots. The results of the battle were so one-sided, our success was so great, that in reading the accounts of that largest of all naval air battles, it would appear to have been easily won. It wasn’t easy.
The whole battle revealed the skill, the character, the mark of Marc Mitscher, as some incidents will demonstrate. As is usual in the affairs of men, the best known incidents are those involving differences of opinion among men. So it was in this battle when Admiral Spruance, Commander of the Fifth Fleet and Admiral Mitscher, Commander of Task Force 58, differed on whether to meet the enemy fairly close to Guam or to go west to meet him. The fleet’s mission was to seize the Marianas. By 18 June tf-58 had finished the heavy bombing of Guam, Saipan, and Rota; the amphibious forces had landed most of the landing forces and supplies were being landed on schedule; most of the enemy air had been knocked out. The Japanese Fleet had transited San Bernardino Strait and were heading generally towards Guam, although we did not know the composition of the enemy fleet or what courses they would take. tf-58 was refueled and rearmed and was operating to the west, leeward, of Guam—waiting—preparing—for attack from the Japanese fleet while attacking enemy shore installations in support of our landing force.
Based on enemy position reports by Cavalla, Admiral Mitscher on the afternoon of 18 June proposed to go west during the night to attack the enemy fleet at dawn on the 19th. There were good reasons for this. tf-58 could not gain westerly during the daytime because carriers had to head east into the wind to launch or land planes. The enemy had the old weather gauge on us for he could operate aircraft and still keep his easterly course. If a prolonged air battle ensued the next day, elements of tf-58 would be forced to thread the narrow channels between the islands and that could be dangerous. There are quite a few things naval aviators don’t like, and one of the situations they dislike most is to have to conduct carrier air operations too close to a lee shore with the possibility of “getting in irons” and becoming unable to recover planes. The enemy also had the wind advantage which gave him a great aircraft range advantage. We wanted to close enough at night to be sure of keeping within range during all the next day to hit him with everything we had, and to destroy the ships we crippled. In essence, we wanted to get ourselves in position to insure complete destruction of the whole enemy fleet.
Admiral Spruance replied that our suggestion did not appear desirable. He and his staff were not certain the enemy fleet would not take a more southerly course and make an end run on tf-58. If they were successful in making an undetected end run, they could raise havoc with our amphibious force and their supporting ships.
We were all extremely disappointed and after the battle was won and over and much of the enemy fleet had escaped as we had anticipated, I took the battle report to Admiral Mitscher to sign. He seldom read any report by that time. He knew what was in it for he had already fought that battle. This time though I asked him to read the last few pages. He asked why and I told him it was an analysis of what would have happened had we been able to go west as we had wanted to, and it contained criticism of Admiral Spruance’s decision. The Admiral first asked if I was certain the analysis was correct, and after I assured him it was, he then asked what I thought of Admiral Spruance as a commander. I replied that I thought Admiral Spruance was a fine commander, he was thorough, competent and effective, but this time he had made a mistake. The Admiral replied, “I agree with all you say. You and I have been in many battles and we know there are always some mistakes. This time we were right because the enemy did what we expected him to do. Admiral Spruance could have been right. It was his job to protect the landing force. Forget the criticism and rewrite the last pages—for Admiral Spruance is a great man.” That was a great man talking, too—a wise, understanding man.
The Japanese fleet lost over 300 aircraft on that 19th day of June. Their bolt was shot but not many of their ships were sunk and unless tf-58 could find and destroy them they would live to fight another day. So on 20 June there were many long searches launched to locate the enemy. We knew they would be a long way off—and when their position was finally reported in late afternoon, Admiral Mitscher knew we had to attack that day or they would escape. tf-58 too was low on fuel and we could not continue that long stern chase another day. At 1624 the strike was launched at maximum aircraft range against the fleeing enemy ships with full realization that we would probably be recovering our day pilots during darkness. The strike was successful. The Japanese carrier Hitaka was sunk. By 2030, in the dark, with the fleet spread out to receive them, our returning planes, low on fuel, were sighted. Then Mitscher gave his famous order “Turn on the lights.” The fleet was suddenly alight—and sitting ducks for enemy submarines. It’s no wonder his homing pilots had confidence in him and his judgment.
There were many facets of that battle which are of interest to naval officers who may themselves fight again at sea. In preparing himself and his command for battle, a commander must have answers to age-old questions that all such commanders have faced.
“What can be done to prepare my command for battle?”
The way Admiral Mitscher refueled and resupplied his force at the same time he conducted attacks against the enemy ashore was part of his answer.
He positioned the logistic force east of the Marianas with maneuvering instructions so they would be ready for contingencies.
He had previously insisted on high standards of performance of his commanders and he knew they were all able.
By this time everybody in the Force had reacted to his emphasis on training to ensure that every element was battle-ready.
The force was operating by doctrine. Thus, each subordinate knew by experience how to operate his own command to maximum advantage without interfering with other commands.
He disseminated his own complete battle plans early.
He kept his battle plans concise so his subordinates—all of them—would have time to read and understand them.
He disposed his own forces to achieve maximum offensive power with a good defensive posture.
He positioned his own forces to maximum advantage.
“What can be done before the main battle to reduce the enemy’s strength, prevent his reinforcement, harass his movements?”
Admiral Mitscher sent two carrier task groups north to strike Iwo Jima airfields and knock out any air reinforcements that might be coming from Japan and to ensure that no surface forces were coming down from there to maybe catch us by surprise. He did this early enough so those two important task groups could rejoin before the main battle started.
Submarines were stationed to detect the enemy fleet and report their movements.
The airfields in the Marianas were repeatedly bombed to make them as nearly inoperable as possible.
Of course, all enemy air in the area was attacked at every opportunity.
“What can we do if something goes wrong?”
Besides the normal plans for serious casualties to ships he considered what we would do if the enemy did try a southerly end run.
He initiated large numbers of air searches to detect not only the movements of the main enemy fleet but also for other elements—especially enemy submarines.
Plans were made for refueling one task group at a time if the battle was prolonged.
The contingency of weak winds, which would require us to make more easterly than we expected, might require us to go through the channels one group at a time while we were engaged.
This is an incomplete list for this is not the place to analyze a battle, although this particular one is a good one to study. That battle was remarkable because a remarkable naval air commander, by his actions, his plans, and his judgments, caused nearly everything to go well but was prepared just in case that did not happen.
I never fished with Admiral Mitscher, which probably was just as well for he had a reputation of being an expert fly fisherman, and I was a novice. He talked about fishing a lot in the lulls between battles. In spite of that, I was surprised when we landed in San Diego, both en route to Washington, I thought, to report to Admiral King in the lull after the First Battle of the Philippine Sea. Just before we landed he said “There’ll be a plane ready to take you directly to Washington as soon as we land. You report to Admiral King—I’m going fishing.” “But Admiral. . . .” “No but anything—I’m going fishing.” And he did—and wouldn’t tell me where, although he did give me a sealed envelope I was not to open but to give to Admiral King if I thought he was really needed there.
Captain Alexander McDill, after I told him Admiral Mitscher had gone fishing, took me to Admiral King’s office, first explaining in dismal detail the rough time I was to have. I reported and sat down when I was told to, but on the edge of my chair. I explained why Admiral Mitscher was not present, and was dumbfounded to hear that irascible, gruff old sailor say “Good, Mitscher’s got sense.” Then he started to ask questions.
In about two minutes he picked from his desk a copy of Commander Task Force 58’s operation order for the Marianas’ operation. “Look at this thing—it’s unseemly, it’s not in proper form, it’s not even in good English, and look at those cartoons. They have no place in an operation order.”
“But it’s short, Admiral.”
“I’ll hand you that—but it’s no way to write an operation order.”
“Have you read it—and did you understand it?” “Yes, I did, but ....”
“Did you read that long, detailed Amphibious Force operation order, Admiral?”
“That’s how it is, Admiral. Everybody could take time to read this one.” Some more questions and then that rough old Admiral trying to hide his kind-hearted intentions said, “That’s enough—why don’t you take a couple of days leave too?”
Admiral Mitscher not only knew how the people of his own command would react—he could foresee his boss’s reaction as well.
Another notable battle worth some study was the battle of Leyte Gulf fought several months later.
On the night of 24 October 1944 the main Japanese Fleet was fighting their way towards San Bernardino Strait; the Princeton of Task Group 58.3 had been sunk by Mitscher’s orders after she had been badly damaged by Japanese aircraft in the night east of Luzon; a Japanese carrier force had been reported by a search plane several hundred miles northeast of tg-58.3; another Japanese surface force was reported heading towards the Leyte landing force to pass through the Surigao Strait; Admiral Mitscher was in the Lexington in tg-58.3 which had been under heavy air attack all day; and Admiral Halsey had just ordered the three carrier task groups to rendezvous and attack the enemy carrier force to the north.
This order concerned Admiral Mitscher’s staff for it left San Bernardino Strait unguarded with the probability that the heavy Japanese surface force would continue through the Strait and attack our landing forces there. So the staff advised Admiral Mitscher we should send a dispatch to Admiral Halsey suggesting that most of the fast battleships be detached from the carrier task groups and sent to guard San Bernardino Strait. Admiral Mitscher asked “Does Admiral Halsey have all the information we have?” Admiral Halsey did. Then with characteristic thoughtfulness Admiral Mitscher settled the matter. “Admiral Halsey has all the information we have. He may have more. He is a very busy man in the midst of planning and executing a complex operation. Any suggestions we send gratuitously will add to his problems and won’t help him. If he wants my advice, he’ll ask for it.”
Again, he understood the stress and the conditions under which one of his associates was working. If Admiral Halsey had accepted the proposal, there would have been great confusion in reshaping the plans and in reforming the forces. Also, one of Admiral Mitscher’s precepts was timeliness and this suggestion might have arrived too late. Change in plans can be made at the last minute alright, but all too frequently those changes are not understood and are not carried out successfully. The Japanese main fleet did sortie through San Bernardino and only the courageous actions of our jeep carriers and destroyers, coupled with the uncharacteristically timid, irresolute actions of the Japanese, saved the day. What the result would have been if that dispatch had been sent, nobody knows.
Again, on 6 April 1945, the Yamato, Japan’s newest 18-inch-gun battleship left Bungo Channel with two cruisers and eight destroyers, heading south. Obviously it was a valiant and desperate suicide mission. This force had to relieve our pressure on Okinawa. Admiral Mitscher wanted his carrier aircraft to sink that ship. tf-58 was east of Okinawa and we steamed northwest to keep in position to continue strikes on Okinawa and, at the same time, to get closer to the Yamato's future track.
Admiral Mitscher first launched long-range searches with communication relay planes. Shortly afterwards, 386 fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes sortied against the enemy force 240 miles away. The pilots did their usual magnificent job and in a matter of hours all the Japanese force had been sunk except a couple of destroyers. Naval air had done it again and the battleship force which Admiral Spruance had sent from Okinawa returned empty-handed to their routine bombardment of Okinawa.
On 11 May 1945, off Okinawa, after being in combat nearly every day of the two months at sea, Admiral Mitscher’s flagship, the Bunker Hill, was hit by a kamikaze and put out of action. Thirteen members of the staff were killed and many others wounded. Intrepid Admiral Mitscher shifted his flag to the Enterprise and continued the battle. On 14 May, the Enterprise, too, was hit by a kamikaze and she in turn was put out of action. The Admiral with what staff he had left shifted to the Randolph, Rear Admiral Jerry Bogan’s flagship. By that time there were but two experienced watch officers left on the staff to stand duty in flag plot. Jerry Bogan stepped into the breach by lending us his staff, and the combat went on. At the end of May, Admiral McCain relieved Admiral Mitscher as scheduled and the Admiral was ordered back to the States.
If any Commander has ever demonstrated stamina, persistence in battle, courage, and bulldog determination, that boss of mine did in those 90 days at sea in combat. But, he was so very taciturn that few people realized the magnitude of his accomplishments.
Marc Mitscher had fought his last battle.
That war was over.
In December 1945, Admiral Mitscher, then DCNO (Air), telephoned to his old Chief of Staff back in his old trade as Chief, R&D, BuOrd. “Burke,” he told me, “we are going to sea.”
“Good, Admiral, when?”
“What do we do?”
“We form a brand new fleet; the Eighth Fleet and have it ready for combat by June.”
“Good Lord, where?”
“Probably the Mediterranean—you get a staff.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
That was right after the era of “bring the boys home.” All the services were in disarray. Experienced combat people were at a premium. The old reliables still on active duty were ordered to the staff—Don Griffin, Frank Dingfelder, Ernie Snowden, Charlie Mauro, Ev Eynon, Al Fleming, Duke Windsor—we tried to get those two marvelous warriors, Jimmy Flatley and Gus Widhelm, but they were not available. The ships and air groups that were to make up the Eighth Fleet had a few experienced old hands, both officers and enlisted, but mostly they were manned by raw, eager youngsters who were willing but didn’t know how. There is only one way to get such an outfit in shape in a hurry—train them—work them to the limit. That’s not a very popular thing to do in the relaxed “let-down” atmosphere after a long war—but Mitscher did—and the fleet responded, as it always had, to his leadership.
The fleet needed a test to determine its readiness so Admiral Mitscher invited President Truman and other senior officials to witness full scale operations starting on 22 April. The fleet was put through the whole gamut of exercises. It was satisfactory—not really good—but much better than anybody thought possible two months before. The Army Air Forces helped us, for they launched unexpected surprise dummy attacks against the fleet. That wasn’t on the schedule but with a little good fortune and a lot of hard work all of the raids were detected and repelled with the President fascinated by the rapidly changing situations on the radar scopes. The President and his party were amazed and delighted at the fleet’s performance that day, which I rather think may not have been the objective of our sister service.
The Soviets eased up on their aggressions in Europe for a time and it was decided to not send the Eighth Fleet to the Med in June. However, it was evident some fleet would be required there some time soon—Britain and France could not provide the forces. Admiral Mitscher did not know the area, was not familiar with the operating conditions in the Med, and did not know the allies with whom we would be working. So, in August, he took some of his staff to London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, and Naples to talk with naval people and learn the area. The pace was fearful and he became weary and enervated. On the flight from Naples to Malta he was obviously in great pain and I tried to get his permission to radio ahead to call off the ceremonies on landing. Nothing doing. We landed. The Admiral put on his blouse, squared his shoulders, and went down the ladder to meet Admiral Sir Algernon Willis, kcb, kbe, dso, R.N., Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean. The band and a full battalion guard were at attention ready for inspection and I knew Admiral Mitscher intended to inspect the guard in a proper manner, no matter what. I was afraid he would collapse in the process. When I was introduced to Admiral Willis, instead of the usual cordialities, I told him my Admiral was a very sick and stubborn man— could he please cut down the inspection to a minimum without letting Admiral Mitscher know he was doing it. An understanding “righto” and he did. Admiral Mitscher was operated on for acute appendicitis in Malta—just in time. Again, he demonstrated his perseverance and determination to do his duty—even in small things.
In September he was appointed cinclant. He was losing his verve and his enthusiasm. He was running down. He would not admit it to anybody else, but he knew it. One December morning at breakfast in his flagship, the Pocono, he suddenly ordered me to burn his personal papers. Several days later he asked if I had. He knew I had not and when I told him “no,” he asked if I were going to. I said I did not want to do it because they were valuable historical documents. He replied that that might be so, but they contained criticism of some people, the papers could be misinterpreted, and surely they would be if he left them. Many historical writers were looking for controversies, some of them ambitious people who would try to gain notoriety even at the expense of distorting the meaning of the papers. He said he would burn his papers himself. He did.
In late January 1947 he had a heart attack and on 3 February the fragile, exhausted man slipped his cable.
Four things a man must learn to do
If he would make his record true:
To think without confusion clearly,
To love his fellowman sincerely,
To act from honest motives purely;
To trust in God and Heaven securely.
Henry Van Dyke
After graduation from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1923, Admiral Burke served five years in the USS Arizona. He then attended the Navy PG School and the University of Michigan, earning an MS degree. After various staff tours, he served as XO of the destroyer Craven from 1937 to 1939 and then commanded for a year, the USS Mugford. During World War II he commanded, successively, DesDivs 43 and 44, and then in 1943, DesRon 23. In 1944 he became C/S and aide to ComCarDivThree, later TF 58. During the Korean conflict, while commanding CruDivFive in 1951, he served as a member of the Military Armistice Commission. From December 1951 until 1954 he directed the CNO’s Strategic Plans Division and then commanded CruDivSix (1954) and Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet (1955). From August 1955 until his retirement in August 1961, he served an unprecedented three terms as CNO.