Below is a re-posting of a blog piece I wrote for USNI in August of 2011. A bonus is a spirited exchange between the author of the blog (yours truly) and Jim Hornfischer. Few elements of the Navy-Marine Corps rivalry engender as much emotion as the Marines’ utter contempt for Frank Jack Fletcher. In fact, I had a long and enjoyable conversation with a RADM a couple weekends ago about the very incident described below, and he was entirely in agreement with my assessment of Fletcher’s blunder. As the 72nd anniversary of the beginning of the epic struggle for the Solomons approaches, I suggest Hornfischer’s books highly. Despite our differences regarding Fletcher, his books are a must-read to a serious historian of the Pacific War. And he portrays brilliantly how thin the line was between success and failure in the struggle for the Solomons.
The medal above is the “George Medal”, which was an unofficial award commemorating the early struggles of the Marines on Guadalcanal. The image depicts, legend has it, the sleeve of Frank Jack Fletcher, with his hand dropping a hot potato onto the Marines ashore. The inscription is “Facia Georgius“. “Let George do It”.
Let me state that, in my opinion, James D. Hornfischer is unquestionably one of the finest writers of Naval history in the last half-century. His books, especially Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, are iconic works that tell superbly the tales of the US Navy in the Second World War in the Pacific. However, during a recent episode of MIDRATS, Mr. Hornfischer’s assertions about the US Marines’ history of the Guadalcanal campaign are entirely incorrect. The issue at hand in those assertions is the decision of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to depart the Guadalcanal area on the morning of 9 August 1942, after just two days of supporting the amphibious operations ashore.
Fletcher was concerned with the risk to his carriers, Saratoga, Wasp, and Enterprise, by having them tied to support of operations ashore. While understandable, what Fletcher refused to acknowledge was that with amphibious operations, once the landing takes place and forces are ashore, a commander is all in, and must support the forces ashore. The landings by the Marines were the entire reason for having Task Force 61 in the waters of the Solomons. Admiral Turner (commanding the amphibious task force, TF 62) and First Marine Division Commander General A. A. Vandegrift argued the point heatedly in a conference aboard Saratoga, but to no avail.
Chapter 5 of the splendid History of the First Marine Division, “The Old Breed” (Infantry Journal Press, 1949), begins:
The feeling of expendability is difficult to define. It is loneliness, it is a feeling of being abandoned, and it is something more, too: it is as if events over which you have no control have put a ridiculously low price tag on your life.
When word got around Guadalcanal in the second week of August that the Navy had taken off and left the Marines, the feeling of expendability became a factor in the battle.
“I know I had a feeling” says a man who was there, “and I think a lot of others felt the same way, that we’d never get off that damned island alive. Nobody said this out loud at the time. I was afraid to say it for fear it’s come true”.
“But”, says a Captain, “there was an awful lot of talk about Bataan.”
Even the greenest Second Lieutenant in the Division knew enough to understand that an amphibious operation cannot be sustained without Naval support.
The Guadalcanal Campaign, the official historical monograph published by the USMC History Division, is somewhat more matter-of-fact, but still states:
The withdrawal of the supply ships, therefore, was, from a troop standpoint, little short of a catastrophe, but Admiral Turner’s decision was not changed.
And sums up the situation of the Marines ashore this way:
The withdrawal of the transports had left the Marine forces with only a part of their initially scanty supplies ashore. Ammunition supply was adequate, but the situation in the matter of food was serious. Even with the acquisition of a considerable stock of rice and canned food from the captured Japanese area, supplies were so short that it was necessary on 12 August to begin a program of two meals per day. There was a similar shortage of defensive material, barbed wire (of which only 18 spools were landed), and entrenching tools and sand-bags.
The most serious shortage of all, however, from the point of view of the engineers who were charged with the completion of the airfield, was that of specialized equipment necessary for the task. No power shovels had been landed, nor dump trucks.
So, on 9 August 1942, the day Admiral Fletcher departs with his warships of TF 61, and the cargo vessels of Admiral Turner’s Amphibious TF 62, the Marines of the First Marine Division are ashore. But not all of them. Vandegrift’s reserve, the 2nd Marines, is still embarked. Those that are ashore have barely 96 hours of ammunition. They are short of food. The enemy strength and disposition is largely unknown. Their lifeline, the airstrip, is not yet repaired and has no aircraft. They are all but defenseless against the frequent Japanese air strikes.
Vandegrift and his staff had agreed to come ashore with an initial load plan that represented significantly less than their minimum requirement due to constraints on cargo space, with the promise that the Navy would surge supplies to them. Now, most of even that small amount was out of reach of his Marines, headed to sea in Turner’s cargo holds, as the latter was forced to withdraw when Admiral Fletcher’s warships departed.
But for three absolutely miraculous occurrences in the fortunes of war, the Guadalcanal landings might have been a disaster comparable to the loss of the Philippines just a few months before.
The first occurrence is that the Japanese commander, caught off guard, underestimate both the strength of the landing force (believing only a few thousand ashore), and the fighting spirit of the Marines, and did not move decisively to reinforce the small garrison on Guadalcanal with elements of the 17th Army that were available. (A single reinforced battalion of the 28th Regiment, about 1,100 Japanese, was given the mission of re-taking the island.)
The second was the fortuitous capture, with slight damage, of a single bulldozer, which the Marines used to maximum effect to complete a 2,700 foot airstrip on the Lunga plain. Without that stroke of luck, several weeks likely would have passed before any aircraft could have operated out of Henderson Field.
The third near-miracle was the capture of large stores of Japanese canned fish and rice, which becomes a staple of the Marines’ diet in the absence of rations still in the holds of the Navy ships.
Meanwhile, the arduous task of building of bunkers and of obstacles to defend the Marine positions and the all-important airfield, was done by hand in the searing jungle heat. The Marines, short of wire and sandbags, improvised as best as possible. By the time the 2nd Marines arrived (22 August) and additional supplies were landed, the Marines had been engaged in a number of short, sharp fights with the Japanese, the first of dozens and hundreds of bloody slugging matches in the rotting heat of the jungle on Guadalcanal.
The fight for Guadalcanal has been well-documented, and by the time last of the First Marine Division embarked for good from the island, the Division had suffered nearly 700 killed, 1,300 wounded, and more than 8,000 sick with malaria and other jungle diseases. For veterans of that time on Guadalcanal, men who didn’t have our perspective of inevitable victory either on Guadalcanal or in the Solomons, their resentment of (at the time) the US Navy and of Admiral Fletcher (which persists to this day) is entirely warranted.
Fletcher’s departure with his carriers, claiming the need to fuel (“always fueling”, wrote Morrison) was an exceedingly poorly considered move. His decision to do so infuriated Admiral Turner, commanding TF 62, who understood that his ships and their cargo were they keys to survival for the Marines ashore. While Fletcher’s aircraft carriers were precious commodities, his decision to minimize risk to those units had the effect of placing the entire of Operation Watchtower in considerable danger of failure. The lack of supplies and support which the Marines ashore endured in the opening weeks of the fight for Guadalcanal negated Vandegrift’s plans for immediate offensive operations (with an expanded airfield) to clear the island, left them all but defenseless to Japanese air and naval forces, and prolonged what became a protracted and savage fight under unspeakably miserable conditions.
In his efforts to protect his carriers, Fletcher inexcusably risked something even more precious and irreplaceable. The only trained and equipped amphibious force that the United States had in the entire Pacific. The loss of the carriers would have had severe operational implications, but defeat on Guadalcanal, resulting in an evacuation, or worse, capitulation, would have been strategic disaster.
Attempts at “reassessment” of Fletcher’s decision to pull support for the Marines on Guadalcanal, and justifying that decision six decades hence as “prudent”, are exercises in revisionism mixed with ample doses of 20/20 hindsight. The Marines’ bitterness at Fletcher is well-placed. Asserting differently dismisses the situation the Marines faced in mid-August of 1942 vis a vis the enemy as well as their own logistics. The Marines would gain a new respect for the Navy once Fletcher and the overmatched and timid Ghormley are replaced, the latter by the legendary William F. Halsey, who immediately visited Vandegrift and the Marines on Guadalcanal. Halsey’s “battle-mindedness” and promise of the support of the Navy was a refreshing and comforting change from his predecessor, and was immediately reflected in the morale of the Marines ashore.
Mr. Hornfischer’s goal in his exploration of Naval history, to put himself (and his reader) in the shoes of the commander, is extremely admirable. He would be remiss, however, if the sets of shoes he places himself in do not include the muddy boondockers of a First Division Marine on Guadalcanal. Were Mr. Hornfischer able to interview the First Marine Division veterans of Guadalcanal forty years ago, he would have gotten their perspective on those weeks without Navy support, expressed in the most colorful of language. Which needs no revision.
Interesting comments from the esteemed author, James D. Hornfischer:
I’m delighted to find this colloquy unfolding in this reputable forum between such well-informed service professionals.
As I tried fervently to convey in NEPTUNE’S INFERNO, I’m sympathetic to the plight of the Guadalcanal Marines who were forced to persevere without air cover or full provisions for a period of time that they could not know at the time. Doing their business under these conditions, they were gallant and resourceful as ever. They are entitled not only to their pride, but also their chagrin. The question is whether the study of this history should end there. Is their heat-of-the-moment rage sufficient to serve as the final word on Frank Jack Fletcher and the Navy’s performance in the campaign? This question pretty well answers itself in the asking.
The blogger labels as revisionist any assessment of Fletcher that does not comport with the partisan, Corps-centric assessments formulated during and immediately after the war and abetted by Samuel Eliot Morison (and never rebutted by Fletcher himself).
The Marines’ resentment of Frank Jack Fletcher was well placed in its day. Our burden today is to see it in light of everything else we know about the complex circumstances that attended the campaign. Most of these, of course, were invisible from the beach. In NEPTUNE’S INFERNO I tried to thread that needle without resorting to the kind of interservice partisanship that characterizes many of the Corps-centric accounts of the campaign.
Admiral Nimitz instructed his commanders at all times to operate under the guiding star of “calculated risk,” that is, to weigh the potential benefits of an action against its potential costs and drawbacks. In choosing how long to expose the Pacific’s only three carriers in direct support of the Guadalcanal landings, Admiral Fletcher determined how much risk he was willing to accept in the opening act of Operation Watchtower. He informed his colleagues in advance of the operation and his decision was extensively debated in advance.
Today, it’s all over but the shouting. History bears out the wisdom of his determination. The Marines were left without carrier air support from the carriers’ withdrawal on August 9 until August 20, when the USS Long Island delivered the body of the Cactus Air Force. The consequences of those eleven days of exposure turned out, happily, to be negligible. The Japanese did nothing to seriously threaten the U.S. position on Guadalcanal during that time. The carriers returned in time to fight the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. (His conduct of the battle demonstrated the sincerity of his caution; he ordered one of his three carriers, the Wasp, out of the battle area to refuel.) Fighting with one hand behind his back, so to speak, he used the Enterprise and Saratoga to deflect the Japanese push. He saved his fleet for that moment and the others that followed. One could well speculate that had he left his carriers near Guadalcanal continuously from August 7, they might have been struck, making the close victory of Eastern Solomons impossible and imperiling the Marine position even more seriously.
This, much like Marine partisans’ complaints of “inexcusable risks to the landing force,” is a fruitless exercise in speculation. It’s only proper to damn Fletcher—or say the “risk” he took was “inexcusable”—by assuming an alternate universe of events where his decisions led to disaster. That’s when you ask the question Why and cast the arrows of judgment at the perpetrators.
It seems reasonable to judge the final wisdom of a particular risk by looking at the results that flowed from it. If we do that, there is no compelling basis for labeling Admiral Fletcher anything other than a winner.
As events actually unfolded, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons marked the beginning of the Navy’s sustained commitment to fight in defense of the Marine position on Guadalcanal, risking its most valuable assets the whole way through. By the time it was over, the Navy had fought seven major naval actions in which its KIA outnumbered infantry KIA by a factor of nearly 3 to 1.
It is entirely coherent to sympathize with the authentic anger of the Marines on Cactus, and simultaneously recognize the balance of merit favoring Admiral Fletcher’s controversial decision. The Marines lacked air cover for eleven days, and a large portion of their supplies, and suffered the bracing uncertainty how long those circumstances would attend.
By the time it was over, the three-to-one KIA ratio stood starkly apparent to anyone who was watching, and victory absolves all sins. General Vandegrift remembered the November 13 deaths of Admirals Scott and Callaghan with his famous dispatch “lifting our battered helmets in deepest appreciation.” To wallow in the bile of interservice partisanship, from a tendentious evaluation of a fragment of events, in spite of the actual outcome of history, is little more than a parlor game that negates the final judgment of the 1st MarDiv commander himself regarding the performance of the fleet. Nearly 70 years after events, we can do better than that.
And response from the “blogger”:
The questioning of Admiral Fletcher’s decision to remove the carriers of TF 61 from supporting the Marines ashore at Guadalcanal is far more than “a fruitless exercise in speculation”, or “bile of interservice partisanship”.
To assert that because the Japanese failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity to interdict the US drive into the Solomons and bring about a potentially crippling strategic setback, the decision Fletcher made to withdraw was correct is to assert that “all’s well that ends well”. Such is a singularly dangerous approach to the study of military history, as it goes great lengths toward the already-prevalent tendency to believe that the winners have little to learn from an ultimately successful outcome.
In any amphibious operation, support from the sea is critical to success, irrespective of the service executing the amphibious assault. Nimitz’ concept of “calculated risk” is in no way sufficient to excuse the willful passing of initiative to the enemy in the very place that was the US main effort at the time in the Pacific. Fletcher left Vandegrift without the forces and supplies to execute his plan ashore, in fact with barely enough to defend a thin perimeter against an enemy whose strength and disposition was largely unknown. That the enemy did not seize that initiative is to our eternal good fortune. We have several bloody examples of what happened in amphibious operations when the initial advantage of the initiative is allowed to pass. At Anzio seventeen months later, Army General Lucas dithered in his beachhead while Kesselring acted, reinforcing the threatened area as fast as he could with every available formation at his disposal. The result was a costly slugging match against what was by then an enemy well prepared to meet the breakout. We should be grateful that Hyakutake was no Kesselring.
It remains speculation, as well, whether Fletcher represented truthfully to Ghormley that both General Vandegrift and Admiral Turner had stated that 96 hours was the time required for full unloading of the transports. Both had done so, and had argued vehemently against Fletcher’s decision while aboard Saratoga.
No, this debate is not “partisan service” anything. Initiative is among the most precious commodities on the battlefield, to be surrendered only at dear cost. Fletcher did so, or rather forced Vandegrift ashore to do so, but the Japanese did not take it. He was, as were the Marines ashore, fortunate in the extreme.
As stated above, the Marines by and large came to respect greatly the efforts of the Navy in the waters around Guadalcanal. It has been a subject of intense study on my part, and worthy of the highest of admiration for the bravery and tenacity of the American Sailor. However, the anger of the Marines and their contempt for Fletcher is understandable. The loss of the transports and the Division reserve crippled the commander ashore, and prevented the undertaking of immediate offensive operations that could have cleared the island before Japanese reinforcements arrived in significant numbers. Instead, Guadalcanal became a protracted and bloody fight on the island and in the surrounding waters that ended only with the evacuation of the Japanese survivors in early 1943.
Fletcher’s decision should be recognized for what it was, a major tactical blunder that could have had severe strategic consequences. That he, and his boss, Ghormley, were removed from command, speaks volumes. That is true, seventy years or seven hundred years after the battle.