- Carrier Battles: Command Decision in Harm’s Way
During World War II, American and Japanese aircraft carrier task forces met in battle at the Coral Sea, Midway, the Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, and the Philippine Sea. Douglas V. Smith, a professor of strategy at the U. S. Naval War College, examines these battles and uses them to assess American military decision-making and the efficacy of pre-war doctrine and education. In his analysis of these battles, he rates American commanders for their ability to formulate and execute battle plans, willingness to deviate from doctrine, communication with subordinates, strategic understanding, and several other categories that appeared in Sound Military Decision, the Naval War College's primary text on combat decision-making during the interwar years. Smith makes frequent reference to this text, and argues that it fundamentally shaped how American admirals approached battle. Perhaps influenced by his years as a Naval War College professor, Smith assigns the commanders letter grades for their performance in each of his categories.
Frank Jack Fletcher commanded American forces in the first three of these battles, and Smith continues the process of rehabilitating his reputation. Agreeing with John Lundstrom, Smith rejects Samuel Eliot Morrison's critique of [End Page 604] Fletcher, and argues that Fletcher's decision to withdraw the aircraft carriers and leave the Marines on Guadalcanal without adequate naval or air support was correct, given the need to safeguard the nation's few aircraft carriers. In fact, Smith heaps considerable praise on Fletcher, crediting him with consistently sound judgment and decisions, and near brilliance in his planning and conduct of battle. His assessments of Thomas C. Kinkaid in the Battle of Santa Cruz, and Raymond Spruance in the Battle of Philippine Sea are also laudatory. Smith credits the superb performance of these admirals, and most of their subordinates, to Naval War College pedagogy.
Unfortunately, the book is unusually plagued with typographic errors, missing words, and similar problems. One map is missing and another lacks explanatory text. The assignment of letter grades distracts from more substantive issues and often seems strained. The author's remark that a B+ was the "expected minimum grade" (p. 241) for the Battle of the Philippine Sea required more explanation, as did his comment that it "is unfair to judge a commander after the fact for the consequences of his adherence to existing doctrine" (p. 206).
Nonetheless, Smith provides an interesting evaluation of these five battles and of how the U. S. Navy learned its lessons and improved its performance in the first years of the war. More assessment of Japanese commanders would have improved this book, provided a better basis for comparisons, and supported Smith's argument that the Japanese "lacked the foresight to provide for the intellectual refinement of their officer corps" (p. 244). Smith also needed to reconcile the poor grades of some admirals, such as Richmond Kelly Turner (consistently assigned D's and F's), with those receiving A's. Was a Naval War College education and adherence to Sound Military Decision really all that separated the best American admirals from the worst?