United States Navy research offers valuable insights into the study of leadership. This research into the concept of leadership by the United States Navy has resulted in a rich library of information available to those interested in this area from both historical and academic standpoints. For example, in its book entitled “Nineteen-Gun Salute”, the Naval War College has published a collection of case studies of exemplary naval officers to illustrate operational, strategic, and diplomatic naval leadership during the 20th and early 21st centuries. These case studies provide valuable insights into the planning behind some of the most important victories in U.S. naval history. The unstated but underlying thesis of this book is that effective leadership requires the selection of qualified subordinates. The battle of Midway Island, June 2-4, 1942, is illustrative of this concept.
Midway Island, the most northern island in the Hawaiian archipelago, is situated approximately halfway between North America and Asia. It was considered the second most important area to defend by the United States, ranked right behind Pearl Harbor. Occupation by the Japanese would have provided them with a base to directly attack the Hawaiian Islands as well as threaten the west coast of the United States.
Coming as it did at the outset of World War II, the battle of Midway was a pivotal battle, resulting in the loss of four Japanese aircraft carriers. It was perhaps the U.S. Navy’s greatest victory as the Navy, facing a numerically vastly superior enemy, broke the back of the Imperial Japanese Navy, previously believed by many to be an unstoppable force. It significantly increased the credibility of the United States Navy, not to mention the United States itself, as a world class fighting power.
In 1942, Admiral Chester Nimitz, as Pacific Theater Commander, was responsible for overall management of the war in the Pacific. His wise choice of qualified subordinate officers was critical to the success of the American effort at Midway. Nimitz’s decision to select Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, one of the case studies written up in “Nineteen-Gun Salute,” to replace the recently hospitalized Admiral William Halsey, was profound. Spruance, who had no battle experience but had commanded six ships previously, was highly thought of by Halsey, who recommended him to Nimitz. Spruance has been called the hero of Midway, not without justification.
Author Herman Wouk has been called an American legend, also not without justification. He was a riveting story teller, and his epic novel of World War II, “War and Remembrance”, a thoroughly believeable mixture of fact and fiction, stands out as an example. This work is mentioned here because of Wouk’s insightful description of the battle of Midway and of Admiral Spruance. We largely rely on this book to capture the essence of Spruance’s leadership traits.
Admiral Spruance was in charge of Task Force Sixteen at Midway, including carriers Hornet and Enterprise and a mixture of support ships. This TF lay several hundred miles to the northeast of Midway, while the Japanese task force under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo lay several hundred miles to the northwest. As described by Wouk, Spruance made three decisions which stamped him as a master naval strategist. His first decision, probably the key decision, was to launch all the aircraft from the Hornet and Enterprise at 7am the morning of June 4, 1942, risking everything to get in the first surprise blow. The decision was vital though costly. Many planes could not even find the Japanese, running out of fuel or returning with bomb loads intact. The torpedo planes suffered egregiously, losing 47 out of 58 to Japanese anti-aircraft fire and Zero fighter planes. Yet enough dive bombers reached their target later at about 10:30 that morning to execute the devastating blitz in the space of about 5 minutes that left three Japanese carriers, Akagi, Kaga, and Suryu, ablaze and out of action. A fourth carrier, Hiryu, was later hit by Spruance’s forces and left in flames.
Next, making another important decision, Spruance steamed westward toward the oncoming Yamamoto force just long enough to catch the Soryu and destroy it. After recovering his aircraft he reversed course and headed eastward away from the enemy. After midnight he again reversed course arriving at a position by dawn to protect Midway from a possible invasion. This course of action also enabled Spruance to be in a position where his ships remained safe and secure after having won a crucial battle against far superior forces.
Finally, his third decision was to break off any further battle and return home to Pearl Harbor. With his ships running low on fuel and with exhausted aviators, this final decision sealed the Midway victory.
Midway marked a turning point in the war in the Pacific. Having lost its first line carrier squadrons which could never be replaced, Japan was now on the run with an accompanying change in morale from elan to desperation. The architect of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, had been beaten, not by Admiral Bull Halsey, but by Raymond A. Spruance, an anonymous rear admiral plucked from the ranks of America’s rear admirals whose unknown but ever present leadership traits were paramount.
My new book, “The Pearl Harbor Congressional Cover-Up – A True Account of How a Partisan Congress Misled the American People on the Pearl Harbor Attack, December 7. 1941. Featuring Historic Lessons on the Failure of Leadership to Foresee the attack and to Avert war with Japan,” is now available on Amazon both in print and in ebook.
Arnold G. Regardie