Streetwise Professor

February 13, 2011

A Different Kind of Miracle

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 5:06 pm

I just finished a marvelous history, James Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno, a chronicle of the naval battles for Guadalcanal.  Most histories of the Guadalcanal Campaign focus on the grueling, bloody struggle between the US Marines (later augmented by Army units) and the Japanese defenders of the island.  But the US Navy actually suffered 4 times the number killed as the Marines and Army groundpounders.

The narrative itself is gripping, but the book raises some broader issues that have meaning beyond the narrow confines of The Slot.  Here are a few at random.

One relates to my earlier blog post on the fate of Enterprise XO Capt. Honors.  In that post, I mentioned that the characteristics that advance careers in peacetime are all too often positively detrimental in wartime commanders. Hornfischer’s history provides many examples of that phenomenon.  Many captains and flag officers at the beginning of the campaign, men who had been comers in the pre-war Navy, were tested and found sorely wanting in the crucible of battle.

Sometimes the critical weaknesses were psychological.  For instance, the commander in the South Pacific, Admiral Ghormley, was not mentally or psychologically suited to the stresses of a fluid, desperate campaign against at redoubtable and skilled enemy.

Other commanders were ineffectual because of their traditionalism, and the resulting blindness to the potential of new technologies, most notably radar.  The courage of Admiral Callaghan at the Night Battle of November 12-13 is beyond cavil, but he completely wasted his only advantage over the Japanese–radar–by his deployment (with radar equipped ships at the rear of his line), his choice of flagship (the San Francisco, his old command did not have the most advanced radar like that on the Portland), and the resulting confusion in communications as Callaghan tried to get information from the radar-equipped ships.

In contrast, the next night, Admiral Willis “Ching” Lee won a virtually single-handed victory in USS Washington because of his flawless use of the ship’s radar.  Lee was a close student of ballistics and gunnery, and unlike most of his peers he had understood the potential of the new technology of radar and mastered it.  As a result, Washington became the only battleship to sink another (the Kirishima) in WWII.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is how it makes plain the differences between sea and land combat.  Hornfischer points out that in naval combat, in contrast to modern land warfare,  the highest commander runs the same risks as the lowest rating.  Indeed, given the exposed nature of the bridges where captains and admirals stood, they were arguably at greater risk.

There are other differences.  Land warfare is often long stretches of tedium punctuated by horrific minutes of violence.  But this was even more extreme in the naval battles off Guadalcanal.  The Marines and soldiers ashore, and their Japanese adversaries, were under some risk almost continuously, but the sailors were in mortal danger for mere minutes.  The Friday the Thirteenth battle, for instance, raged for a mere 40 minutes.  But what minutes they were.  The intensity of the violence that occurred in those brief moments is hard to comprehend.  Massive shells crashing into small ships with horrific explosions.  The unexpected explosions of torpedoes that ripped ships into pieces.  Even one’s own guns wreaked havoc on one’s own ship: the concussion of the firing guns, especially the 8″ cruiser batteries and 16″ battleship guns, knocked men off their feet, knocked some senseless, and knocked about the interior spaces, strewing equipment everywhere.

And so many ways to die.  The sailors faced some of the same risks as the men ashore–death by small arms or artillery fire.  But they faced others.  Drowning.  Scalding.  Asphyxiation.  And burns.  The number of flammable things on a ship almost defies numbering: explosive shells, powder, ship fuel, the fuel and fabric of scouting planes, torpedo fuel, paint, solvents, cooking oil and fat, and even mattresses and bedding and life preservers.  Fighting fires is deadly difficult, because the best way to fight one kind of fire can be the worst to fight another. For a ship, the explosion of a shell or a torpedo is often the beginning of a trip to hell, rather than the end.

And yes, sharks too.  They killed hundreds of Americans in the waters of Guadalcanal: no doubt they killed hundreds of Japanese too. After a Japanese submarine torpedo demolished the USS Juneau as it limped away from the apocalyptic night action, many observers thought that no one could have survived the horrific explosion.   But many did, only to die over the following days of exposure, madness–and sharks.  (The Sullivan brothers, all five of them, died on the Juneau.)

The story of Guadalcanal also illustrates the aphorism that amateurs talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics.  All of the cataclysmic naval battles were part of a broader campaign to supply troops on the fetid jungle island or to deny the enemy the ability to supply his troops.  Both sides were fighting at the very end of their logistical tethers, thousands of miles from their home bases and hundreds of miles even from their forward facilities.  In the end, American logistics were barely enough, and Japanese logistics fell short.

In the end, it was a close run thing.  The Americans prevailed, but just.  In its own way, this was as miraculous as Midway.  At Midway, though, the miracle took about five minutes to complete–the time it took for American SBD Dauntless dive bombers to turn three carriers into burning hulks.  At Guadalcanal, the miracle took six months to accomplish.  In that time, an American fleet that was tactically and technologically and numerically inferior to an enemy that had won numerous smashing victories held on by its fingernails before prevailing.  It survived numerous mistakes–from the beginning at Savo to near the end at Tassafaronga.  It prevailed more by a bloody minded refusal to accept defeat than by smashing its enemy decisively.  It was a victory of will and courage and logistics, rather than tactical or operational virtuosity. It was a victory of survival.

Naval warfare gets short shrift, compared to the land campaigns of WWII.  Midway and Pearl Harbor and to a lesser extent the Battle of the Atlantic against Nazi submarines get most of what attention is directed to naval combat.  But all but forgotten campaigns like Guadalcanal were as decisive, and make fascinating reading on both operational and human levels as well.

I have only a couple of quibbles.  Although Hornfischer does not shy from criticizing the judgment of combat commanders on both sides, he seems to shy away from an analysis of the actions of Admiral Callaghan on 13-14 November.  Yes, Hornfischer criticizes Callaghan’s dispositions, his failure to use radar, and the defects in his communications.  But he does not render a judgment on Callaghan’s launching of his force into the midst of Abe’s huge bombardment fleet.  Was it a reckless, insane gambit?  Was it the result of Callaghan’s failure to plan in advance?  (He made no plan.)  Or was it the only way that an inferior, undergunned, thrown together force with a few heavy cruisers could have turned back a task force with as many cruisers, more destroyers, and two battleships?

Hornfischer seems to be following in the footsteps of Samuel Eliot Morrison, who in the Navy’s official history hailed Callaghan’s intrepid bravery, but did not delve deeply into the wisdom of the way he fought.

Hornfischer also does not discuss the role of US submarines in the campaign.  In some ways, that’s fair, because the US submarines played virtually no role.  But why not?  Hornfischer does not say.  Japanese submarines played a crucial part.  They sunk the carrier Wasp and the Juneau.  Their mere threat in “Torpedo Alley” affected American operations.  Why didn’t the US provide a symmetric threat to Japanese fleet operations?

Elmer Potter’s Sea Power (dubbed “Z Power”–“Z” as in zzzzzzzz by generations of USNA Midshipmen) attributes this to fear of friendly fire incidents.  Maybe so.  But deployments between Guadalcanal and Rabaul and Truk would have posed limited risk of fratricide.  One elderly US boat–the S-44–did sink a Japanese capital ship outside of Rabaul.*  What could several more modern Gato-type fleet boats have done?  Could they have disrupted Japanese operations as effectively and efficiently as a few Japanese I-boats did American operations? This deserves some discussion, which Hornfischer does not give.

But as I said, these are mere quibbles.  This is a fantastic book that serves as a fitting tribute to the Americans who fought, and who died horrific deaths and suffered grievous, gruesome injuries, in the narrow waters of Ironbottom Sound.

I have always felt humbled and awed when I step into Memorial Hall in Bancroft Hall at Navy, knowing what I did about the sacrifices made by the men memorialized there.  Those feelings will only be more intense when I return, after having read Neptune’s Inferno.  For the book makes plain how all the failings in command–which are ubiquitous in war–were redeemed by the tenacity and courage of average men who really had no business winning–but did.

* To give you an idea of the antiquity of S-boats, my grandfather served on a K-boat, USS K-2 in 1921.  He tells of watching the sea trials of the newfangled S-boats.  As I recall, in one story, the K-2 was detailed to follow an S-boat undergoing trials to provide assistance in case the newer vessel needed it.  And it did: the K-2 had to tow in the S-boat on one occasion.

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  1. “What could several more modern Gato-type fleet boats have done?”

    Not a lot. The Gatos were using the pre-fix truly terrible Mk 14 torpedoes so couldn’t hit a barn door (and if they did found the torpedoes wouldn’t explode). S-44 only managed to get a kill because her ancient torpedo tubes were too short for the new Mk 14; she had to use the older Mk 10 torpedoes that actually worked.

    In summary; The USN couldn’t provide a sub threat at Guadacanal because it’s submarines (at the time) weren’t a threat to anyone but their crews.

    Comment by Phil — February 14, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

  2. I know all about the torpedo problem. They ran erratically (depth) and their detonators were faulty.

    But subs would have put some–arguably not a lot, but some–pressure on the Japanese resupply efforts. And given how tenuous those efforts were, even modest pressure could have been helpful.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 14, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

  3. Hi SWP, here is a link to info on one of the successful anti-sub ops by Allied ships, the destruction of the Japanese sub I-1, which was heavily damaged and tun aground by HMNZS Kiwi and HMNZS Moa, which at a combined tonnage of 1200 tons were far smaller than the 2100 tons of the I-1.

    The capture of the I-1 was a major bonus to the Allied cause, as the complete set of naval codes on the sub was captured.

    As a result of this action,Lieutenant Commander Gordon Bridson RNZN was awarded the DSC and the United States Navy Cross.

    Hope you enjoy the read.

    Comment by Andrew — February 15, 2011 @ 1:11 am

  4. Thanks, Andrew. It was an interesting read.

    More generally re US sub ops. . . despite the torpedo problems, the US did not suspend sub operations. Indeed, Navy commanders were reluctant to acknowledge the problem and continued to send out subs. Those operations were definitely hampered by the torpedo failures, but they did divert some Japanese resources.

    And it is interesting how even a little thing can have a big impact. US submarines were almost completely ineffective at Midway, but nonetheless played a key role in winning the battle. The Nautilus stalked the Japanese fleet but was spotted, and a destroyer (the Arashi) was tasked to hunt it down. The Arashi (unsuccessfully) depth-charged the Nautilus, and then high-tailed it back to catch up with the Japanese carrier. The speeding Arashi’s wake pointed like an arrow to where the fleet was located. Unable to find the fleet where it was reported to be, LCDR McCluskey of Enterprise saw the wake and followed it, right to the Japanese carriers. Thus began the most stunning 5 minutes in naval history.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 15, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

  5. You are quite correct, for example at Guadalcanal, prior to the arrival of the Hudson equipped maritime recce squadron of the RNZAF, No.3 Squadron, the allied forces were forced to use Dauntless dive bombers as recce which, once they had spotted Japanese ships carrying reinforcements had to return to base to rearm.

    Now if the USN had deployed submarines, even if their torpedoes were noneffective, they could have been used to patrol the likely routes of reinforcements, give early warning, and shadow the convoys until they came within range of land based air power.

    And the combination of Subs with the RNZAF long range patrols would have given much more warning of the arrival of reinforcements.

    In addition, despite the problems with the torpedos, US fleet subs would have been very effective at night on the surface using their guns, as the RNZN ships Moa and Kiwi were.

    Comment by Andrew — February 15, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

  6. Craig, even though you left Annapolis more than 30 years ago, you remain a naval officer to the core.

    Comment by Roger — March 22, 2011 @ 2:10 am

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