The Battle of Midway Roundtable
CLOSING THE BOOK:
ADMIRAL FLETCHER AT MIDWAY
by Ronald W. Russell
2 October 2008
From time to time the Battle of Midway Roundtable becomes engrossed in a particular subject to an extraordinary degree. Past topics that stand out include whether President Roosevelt knew in advance that the Japanese would attack Hawaii, whether VT-8 survivor George Gay could have seen everything he claimed while floating in the vicinity of the Japanese fleet, and which way the USS Hornet air group flew on the morning of June 4th. After extensive discussion and occasional debate, each of those matters was brought to a conclusion by using the best evidence our historians could produce added to the recollections of our veterans who were there.
Now, another issue has generated interest and controversy that potentially could surpass any of those earlier debates. The question is, did Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the officer in tactical command (OTC) of U.S. carrier task forces at Midway, operate them in a manner that was inconsistent with the established practice of the day, resulting in unnecessary casualties to his aviators and aircraft? And, in the process, did he violate a direct order from his immediate superior, Admiral Nimitz, causing or exacerbating such losses? Those questions have been debated at length on the Internet, both within and beyond the Roundtable, as well as in major publications on the subjects of Fletcher or the BOM. The assertions
and evidence on both sides of the debate have accumulated in a certain abundance over the past several months, and I think enough is now known about the issue that we can bring it to a definitive close.
In the Beginning
There has been a certain animosity against Fletcher for decades, appearing in books and academic writings well before the advent of the Internet. Basically, he has long been reviled for allegedly abandoning the Marines on Wake Island in 1941 and again at Guadalcanal in 1942. He was the commander of TF-14, built around the Saratoga, heading for the relief of Wake Island in late December 1941 when he turned his ships around and returned to Pearl Harbor. The decision wasn’t his and he didn’t agree with it at the time, but he could not disobey a direct order from CINCPAC. Still, as the OTC on the scene, he got the blame in the eyes of many (especially Marines) who were not equipped with all the facts. One of those facts, unknown to the Americans at the time, was that the Japanese invasion of Wake was being supported by both the Soryu and Hiryu. Had the lone Saratoga attempted to intervene, its loss along with TF-14’s vital resources that eventually wound up on Midway would have been very likely.
As for Guadalcanal, the events of that campaign were obviously unknown during the BOM, but what happened there explains the disdain felt for Fletcher by writers in later years. The controversy is centered on his decision to withdraw all American carriers from the combat zone because of the threat of long range torpedo bombers and submarines. That left Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner’s amphibious forces, his partially unloaded supply ships, and the Marines ashore without fighter cover. Turner, a bombastic voice in every billet he occupied before, during, and after the war, bitterly railed at every opportunity against Fletcher, ignoring the facts that (a) pre-invasion planning agreed to by Turner himself specified that the majority of his transports were to be unloaded and withdrawn within 48 hours, and (b) when that didn’t come to pass, he failed to communicate to Fletcher that anything was amiss with the unloading schedule. The tribulation then endured by the Marines on Guadalcanal added their condemnation of Fletcher to that of Turner’s, driving a final stake into the heart of his reputation and career as a carrier admiral. (In a supreme irony, Admiral Spruance has been praised for his decision to do the same thing for essentially the same reason at Midway on the night of 4 June 1942.)
But again, Guadalcanal has no relevance to Fletcher’s decisions at Midway. Nevertheless, what occurred there is the primary catalyst to the virulent criticism of him in modern literature and on the Internet.
Allegations against Fletcher in the BOM take four interrelated forms: (a) that he failed to launch Yorktown’s strike at the same time as those of Enterprise and Hornet, thereby missing a clear opportunity to disable all four of the Japanese carriers (“Kido Butai”) at the outset, (b) that he conducted ill-advised searches from his flight decks, (c) that he deliberately placed his ships excessively distant from the expected Japanese track, causing the loss of many of his aircraft due to fuel exhaustion, and (d) that he violated explicit orders from CINCPAC in connection with one or more of the above charges. The rest of this article will look at the pro and con of each charge, followed by a summation that should bring closure to this issue.
Holding Back the Yorktown Strike Group
Fletcher is often condemned for failing to throw everything he had at Kido Butai as soon as it was found instead of sending only the TF-16 strike. The thinking goes that anything that would put more simultaneous striking power over the enemy carriers would likely result in Hiryu’s early demise as well as its three counterparts, thereby obviating Hiryu’s deadly attacks against Yorktown. While that’s always an interesting what-if speculation, Fletcher had no such option. The CINCPAC operations plan for defending Midway (OP29-42) told Fletcher to expect Kido Butai to join the battle in separate task groups, at different times and possibly from different directions. His experience in the Coral Sea just four weeks previously had painfully demonstrated that they might do exactly that. It certainly seemed to be the case when PBY pilot Howard Ady dramatically reported only “two carriers.”
Consequently, Fletcher’s plan from the outset was to keep TF-16 primed for whatever enemy carriers were first detected, reserving TF-17 for the anticipated following threat. But as the hours dragged by on the morning of June 4th with no word from TF-16 concerning strikes on Ady’s two carriers, he felt that he had no choice but to assign more assets to the attempt. He launched Yorktown’s TBDs and half the SBDs for that purpose, reserving just VS-5 for whatever Japanese carriers were yet to be found. Doing so was entirely consistent with his orders from CINCPAC and with his own recent combat experience.
That Fletcher unnecessarily tied up various squadrons of his SBD dive bombers with searches from his flight deck is a common allegation. The primary contention in that regard is that the search flown by VS-5 from the Yorktown at dawn on 4 June 1942 denied that ship a third of its dive bomber striking power when the enemy carriers were located a short time later. Attendant to the charge is a claim that all searching was to be done by land-based PBYs, leaving all three carriers exclusively primed for strike missions and ensuring that any of their planes flying a search would not be prematurely spotted by the enemy. (The problem with that is assumed to be that if the Japanese had seen an SBD hundreds of miles from land, they would conclude that an American carrier was nearby.)
The challenge, then, is to determine if carrier-borne searches were a standard procedure aboard U.S. carriers in early 1942, and if they were, whether doing so was appropriate during the days and hours immediately prior to the start of the BOM. That such searches were customary in that era cannot be disputed: the Navy designated and embarked whole squadrons for that very purpose. In theory, the scout bomber squadrons (VS) would conduct armed searches by enough aircraft that they could initiate an attack on any target they encountered. In actual practice, though, the bombing squadrons (VB) were equipped with the same aircraft and weapons as their VS counterparts, with the result that routine 200-mile searches were flown interchangeably by both VS and VB squadrons. That they were routine is evidenced by our own Roundtable SBD aircrew veterans who report flying a great many such searches during 1942 (Clay Fisher flew 39 of them).
That established routine was carried out in the normal fashion during the BOM. Initially, TF-16 rotated the duty among its two carriers. Hornet had the duty on June 1st and Enterprise on the 2nd. Upon joining TF-17 that afternoon, Yorktown assumed the search duty so that TF-16 could maintain full deckloads of strike aircraft, ready for rapid launch the instant the Japanese carriers were found.
As to whether such searches were advisable, two factors suggest that they definitely were. First, the range of operations of the carriers took them outside the areas in which Midway PBYs could provide both timely and thorough coverage. Each PBY was assigned a specific course, and while it had a nominal 700-mile range, its pie-shaped search area rapidly expanded with each additional mile from Midway. After a few hundred miles, blanketing every inch of its assigned wedge gradually became impossible. Even more important, any takeoff from Midway would require two to three hours flying time just to reach the vicinity of the U.S. carriers. If a search beyond them was necessary at first light when the Japanese would be launching, Fletcher could not control where the PBYs would search and he couldn’t get them there on time. His own search aircraft were on board, under his control, and where they needed to be upon takeoff.
Second, recall from Shattered Sword that Japanese intentions, well known to the Americans thanks to communications intelligence (ComInt), were actually to assault Midway on June 3rd, not the 4th. The Americans had every reason to believe that the enemy was on schedule when the invasion force was found by Reid’s PBY on the morning of the 3rd. But where were their carriers? Why didn’t the PBYs find them on the 3rd as they should have? The answer is that Kido Butai had sailed a day later than intended due to provisioning delays, but no one on the American side knew that.
By the morning of the 4th, Fletcher had kept Hornet and Enterprise locked and loaded over 24 hours with no word from the PBYs as to where their targets were. The time for the assault on Midway was well beyond the expectation provided by ComInt, so it had to be forthcoming at literally any minute! But since the Japanese carriers hadn’t been found when and where intelligence said they would, where were they? If Kido Butai wasn’t found quickly, would they instead find the American fleet themselves, with armed and fueled strike aircraft crowding Fletcher’s flight decks?
It had to be a maddening and critically dangerous situation. Under those specific circumstances (plus the standard search doctrine explained above), a search on Fletcher’s flank early on June 4th was not only reasonable, it arguably was seen as an operational imperative in spite of any concern about the enemy prematurely spotting an SBD. That’s very likely how Fletcher and his eminently capable air staff aboard the Yorktown must have viewed it, and they reacted accordingly. Everyone with a contrarian opinion is free to second-guess that decision, but doing so with the benefit of hindsight rather than with the limits of knowledge existing aboard the Yorktown at that crucial moment is applicable only to alternate history fantasizing rather than to what actually happened.
200 Miles from Midway
The next favorite issue for Fletcher’s critics is the assertion that he was supposed to be not more than 200 miles from Midway in order to assure decent proximity to Kido Butai when it was located. How that idea came about is an interesting study of how history can be twisted in order to advance an agenda.
In fact, OP29-42 contains no such directive, nor does it appear in the radio message traffic from Pearl Harbor to TF-17 before the battle. The only thing remotely close to it in the op-plan is a recommendation for initial operating areas for TF-16 and -17 after their linkup at “Point Luck.” There is also a clear statement, always ignored by Fletcher’s detractors, that the recommendation was “not intended to restrict the operation of either force in any manner,” and that it was only offered to ensure that the two task forces did not make inadvertent contact with each other while seeking the enemy.
So what is the source of the “200 mile” notion? It’s Fletcher himself. That was his own choice, shown in his after-action report as well that of the Enterprise and confirmed by Morison after the war. The decision was made late on June 3rd when it appeared darkness would preclude a Japanese air attack on Midway until the following morning at the earliest. He (not Nimitz) directed his carriers to head in that direction as the sun set on the 3rd. Why the two task forces were not in that precise position when the time came to launch TF-16’s strike was ably explained by Jon Parshall in this message to the Roundtable:
“No one on the American side, HYPO and Rochefort's brilliant work notwithstanding, had a crystal ball revealing the exact time and place the Japanese were going to show up off of Midway. What the Americans had was a sense that the Japanese carriers would approach from the northwest, probably sometime during 2-4 June.
“Mind you, even that level of specificity was...certainly actionable information, and good enough to build a general operational plan (as events showed). But it's hardly the sort of information wherein someone can sit back at their leisure 60 years hence and build a detailed "what-if” or “should have” operational plan for the American carriers that somehow would have maximized their hypothetical damage output against the Japanese. That's clearly second-guessing.
“In the vast expanses of the Pacific, just getting your own carriers within a couple hundred miles of the enemy's on roughly the same day was doing well. Likewise, in 1942, no one had the ability to gauge their own or the enemy's movements down to a granularity measured in single-digit miles. Not only that, but given the slow transit speed of the flattop itself in relation to the aircraft it carried, depending on the carrier to be in exactly the optimal position to launch...at such-and-such a time was a fool's hope anyway. Any errors of timing, navigation, initial placement, or faulty reconnaissance were going to have to be made good by aircraft.
“Those of us sitting here in the age of modern satellite surveillance, near-instant telecommunications, and smart weapons...would do well to remember (1) just how inexact naval warfare during WWII actually was, and (2) how slow the WWII carrier weapon system was to react to changed circumstances.”
In brief, then, the “200 miles from Midway” canard is nothing more than a gross distortion of the historical record that the anti-Fletcher conspiracy has twisted into something not even remotely similar to what really happened. As such, any claim that Fletcher’s task forces were deliberately placed in a non-optimal position on the morning of June 4th can be hardly more than a whole-cloth fabrication.
Verbal Orders to Spruance
But the capstone of the Fletcher-botched-Midway charge is the assertion that he violated two direct orders from CINCPAC: (a) that he didn’t put his carriers where Nimitz told him to in order to engage the enemy, and (b) that he was explicitly ordered not to fly searches from his carriers in order to avoid premature detection by Kido Butai. The first of those two has been dealt with above: there was no such order. But the second one has better credence and appears to enjoy support from at least a couple of our BOM veterans. Of the two, it deserves the most thorough and balanced evaluation, and here it is.
First, the veteran testimony. VS-6 pilot Dusty Kleiss told me the following:
“...our top admiral [Nimitz] gave oral instructions of specific measures he wanted done, although they might be contrary to ‘Washington’ regulations. I could recite several examples, before WW II, and several months later.
“Dick Best [VB-6 squadron commander], and possibly Earl Gallaher [Dusty’s VS-6 squadron commander] listened intently on what Admiral Nimitz wanted us to do in our ambush attack. Nimitz recorded the expected dates, ships, courses and sequences he'd learned from his code group. He pointed out the most vulnerable spot for us to attack the enemy carriers, and even their most likely course while heading to Midway. Only SBDs were involved; our other planes lacked enough range for a surprise attack. Sending out our SBDs on searches to find enemy carriers would make any ambush impossible...searches by some other means was essential. Earl Gallaher talked with us section leaders about all he had learned, either from Nimitz or from Dick Best.”
It must be pointed out that the two Enterprise squadron commanders obviously were not directly privy to oral instructions from Nimitz. Anything of that nature would have been heard only by Spruance himself when Nimitz briefed him at Pearl Harbor on May 27th. He would have first relayed any such verbal orders to Browning and Murray, who would pass it to McClusky, who would then pass it to Best and Gallaher. Did Gallaher then tell his pilots that there would be no searches by SBDs before the enemy struck Midway? Dusty says that’s what Gallaher told him; he was there and I wasn’t, so I believe him. But if so, one cannot help but wonder if some of his fellow pilots were a bit confused when
ordered out on multiple searches prior to June 3rd.
In any case, oral instructions from Nimitz, relayed sequentially through Spruance, Browning, Murray, McClusky, Best, and Gallaher obviously would have opened opportunities for varying interpretations on what each officer thought he had heard. For that reason, it is entirely credible that Gallaher could have told his pilots on May 28th that they wouldn’t be flying searches before the Japanese struck, which can explain Dusty’s recollection above. But how closely that conforms to anything Nimitz actually said to Spruance can never be more than an interesting conjecture. And as will be shown below, the likelihood that Nimitz told Spruance any such thing is extremely remote.
Testimony from HYPO
An even less ambiguous statement from a BOM veteran that CINCPAC prohibited Fletcher from conducting carrier-borne searches came from HYPO analyst Mac Showers, a longtime Roundtable stalwart. On the Navy’s 2007 DVD production Destination Point Luck, Mac said the following:
“The orders to Admiral Fletcher and Admiral Halsey were not to launch any aircraft or searches toward the Japanese until we'd had an attack on Midway."
This statement was seized upon by one Internet poster as proof positive that Fletcher violated an order from Nimitz against carrier-borne searches. But alas, it turns out that Mac had no intention to say or imply any such thing. Here is his retraction, in an e-mail sent on 10 July 2008:
“As the ‘boot ensign’ at HYPO, I was in no position to be part in any of the planning or conduct of U.S. forces, but I did hear things like this from Holmes or Rochefort....Nimitz had directed his task force commanders to take no actions against the Japanese fleet until they (the Japanese) had initiated their attacks on Midway in order not to compromise the fact that our forces were out there. By the term ‘actions’ I had in mind ‘attacks.’ I said nothing about searches.”
After re-reviewing the Navy’s DVD, I pointed out to Mac that he actually did say searches were not to be launched. This was his reply:
“What I heard at the time about the Nimitz instructions, as told me probably by Jasper Holmes, was that no attacks were to be launched until the Japanese had attacked Midway, so as not to alert the Japanese to our presence. I heard nothing about searches, and I should not have included that.”
Unfortunately, that does not end this matter because it is an illustration of a favorite technique of those promoting an agenda: the careful use of selective evidence. It is clear that Mac’s informal verbal comment during his extended video interview included two, not one inadvertent misstatements in the same sentence. The second of the two is the search issue, now moot. But the first is his little mental mistake of confusing Spruance with Halsey. If you find Mac’s quote on the Internet somewhere other than here (as of today), you won’t find the Spruance-Halsey slip because it inconveniently demonstrates that the admiral was vulnerable to an off-the-cuff remark that wasn’t entirely accurate. That’s “selective evidence” in its basest form.
What Nimitz Really Said About Searches from Carriers
Now, to put a final closure to assertions that Nimitz ordered Fletcher to refrain from conducting searches from his flight decks, here’s a quote from OP29-42 in the section concerning carrier operations:
“3. (a) Striking Forces
... (3) Initially establish air search in the northeast sector from Midway to eastward of bearing twenty degrees true from that place.”
Here, all ambiguity is absent. Nimitz expressly ordered Fletcher, in writing, to conduct carrier-borne searches, starting with the initial operating area assigned upon the rendezvous at Point Luck. If you want to stretch the argument that this quote permits only a single search area rather than anything Fletcher might like to do in addition, you’re choosing to ignore the ample evidence at the beginning of this article that discretionary searches were normal in general and highly advisable in specific circumstances. Now you also know that they were mandated by Nimitz himself, which ends this part of the debate with utter finality.
At best, we are left with a possibility that some of the Enterprise pilots believed that Nimitz had prohibited carrier-born searches due to certain verbal instructions that came to them via a circuitous route. But beyond that, all real evidence concerning orders from CINCPAC to Fletcher is utterly devoid of anything concerning positioning his carriers 200 miles from Midway and prohibiting searches from his flight decks. In the latter case, the written record provides incontrovertible testimony that the exact opposite is true.
These facts are easy for anyone with sufficient interest to uncover if it’s done with an open mind and a moderate ability to discern what’s real and what’s contrived. But when personal bias or sometimes even a blatant conspiracy gets in the way of accuracy, an article like this becomes necessary in order to set the record straight.
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