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Revolution in the Pacific

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

The final conquest of Saipan in July of this year marked not only the end of the deployment stage of our naval campaign in the Pacific but also the con- elusion of a complete revolution in the strategy and tactics of the Pacific war. The difference between Saipan and Guadalcanal argued more than an increase in American naval power. It revealed also a changed conception in the use of modern fleets—a conception which combined wholly novel methods of execution with a return to the classic principles which Mahan had so brilliantly elucidated and popu-

larized two generations earlier.

Up to the end of World War 1 it had become axiomatic that the first step in gaining command of a given maritime area was to keep concentrated in that area, or available for quick concentration, a force capable of dealing with the largest single force which the enemy could bring to bear. The force retained for this purpose was known as the “battle fleet.” This idea of concentrating one’s major ships into a unified battle fleet which was able to secure dominance had been developed at least as early as the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century, when it was found that the nec-essarily dispersed operations involved in the convoying of one’s own shipping and in the throttling of the enemy’s commerce could be carried on securely only behind the cover of such a force. For reasons which are not entirely clear this idea, which was basic to the whole principle of “command of the sea,” was apparently rejected as outmoded by both sides in the first year of the Pacific war. I Even in the summer of 1943 a senior naval officer testifying before a Congressional committee had declared: “The fleet as such has ceased to exist!” By that he meant, as he himself explained, that the operation of whole battle fleets in the style of World War I or earlier wars had become obsolete. The modern system of fleet operations involved the use of widely distributed “task forces,” that is, groups of vessels gathered round one or more heavy units but in no case representing the combined strength of the entire fleet. Yet the naval force which a year later dominated the approaches to Saipan during the crucial campaign ashore, and which hurled back with heavy loss the best opposition which the Japanese Navy could offer, was a battle fleet in everything but name. It was a battle fleet which was decisively superior to the entire Japanese fleet, and which roved about in enemy waters with all the insouciance which superior fleets had been wont to display in days long since past. And it exhibited a freedom of action among enemy-held archipelagoes which many had predicted would never again characterize war at sea.

The strategic problems which had faced us in the early months of the war in the Pacific were in large part without precedent. The vastness of the area of conflict—the fact that the main sources of strength of the contending fleets were almost on opposite sides of the world—-was the dominating element in the struggle. The existence of numerous, widely-dispersed archipelagoes which had to be fought over and won; the insufficiency of means, which for a time was common to both sides and which prevented the realization of decisive strategic ends (an insufficiency which only we, and not the Japanese, were ultimately able to overcome); and the ascendancy of completely new weapons and ways of fighting further confounded the issues.

These and other factors moved each side to organize its fleet with a flexibility permitting the operation of separate formations. Each of these formations or “task forces,” while it could be combined with other task forces if occasion arose, was conceived fundamentally as an independent tactical unit. It went out to execute a specific mission, and in doing so it was likely to act as a replacement for another task force which had accomplished a similar mission. The task-force system was thus a means of rotating units of strength in areas where it was impossible to maintain continuous operations. And at a time when enemy air attack was a menace of very large proportions, it presented a means of accomplishing one’s ends without exposing to air attack any more ships than it was absolutely necessary to expose.

There was nothing essentially new in the task-force principle except the name. In World War I there were in- numerable convoy escort groups which were in effect task forces, and squadrons of varying size and composition were frequently detached from the fleets of both sides for independent and sometimes distant missions. What was new, however, was a situation in which the fleet as an operational unit almost ceased to exist, its whole body being dissolved into the many task forces which carried out its purpose. In the First World War the British task forces operating far afield reduced only by very slender margins the dreadnought capital ship strength concentrated in the Grand Fleet at Scapa. Flow and Rosyth. At the time of Jutland, for example, the only British dreadnought which was neither in the battle nor available at Scapa Flow (several newly commissioned ships remained at that base during the battle) was the battleship Queen Elizabeth.

During the first year and a half of the Pacific war, on the other hand, the opposing fleets functioned mainly as a sort of strategic reserve or pool, from which forces were fed out from time to time as the need arose. From Pearl Harbor, for example, forces could be sent directly against objectives in the central Pacific or in the Aleutians, or they could furnish relief or reinforcement to those already based in the South Pacific for operations in the Solomons or the Bismarck archipelagoes.


The campaign for Guadalcanal presents a good illustration of the task-force principle in operation in the conquest of new territories. The convoy which made the initial landing on August 7, 1942, was, to be sure, covered by a very sizeable force—considering the strength then available to us. One portion of this force (the aircraft carrier group) lay to the south of the island on the opposite side from the disembarkation, while the other acted as an immediate screening group. The force as a whole included all the aircraft carriers (three), most of the heavy cruisers, and one of the only two modern battleships then available to us in the Pacific. Based on New Caledonia, too far away to offer much support, was a land-based air covering force comprising some 280 aircraft of all types.

On the night of August 8 the American carrier group and the one battleship were withdrawn for their own security. This left the invading force without air cover even before disembarkation had been completed. During the same night the Japanese in a surprise surface attack destroyed one Australian and three American heavy cruisers and damaged a fifth heavy cruiser and two destroyers, but retired without attacking our transports.

This, the disastrous Battle of Savo Island, was followed by a series of small and large engagements both in the immediate vicinity of Guadalcanal and to the east of it. Among the latter were the aircraft carrier engagements of the Eastern Solomons (August 23-25) and the Santa Cruz Islands (October 2G), in the first of which a large Japanese force including transports was repulsed. On October 11 occurred the Battle of Cape Esperance, the first of three important night surface engagements in which we destroyed a good many more Japanese ships than we lost. The latter two of these actions were those of November 12-13 and 14-15, in which battleships participated and in which we sank the only two Japanese battleships destroyed by us up to this writing. Meanwhile, activity of land-based aircraft was almost continuous and exercised an enormous influence, both directly and indirectly, on the naval campaign.

Our possession of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal not only enabled our land-based planes to carry out attacks of their own but provided us also with a valuable medium of reconnaissance for our surface units. Our planes could scout far to the north of the island, over waters which Japanese naval forces and transports had to traverse in approaching Guadalcanal, while the Japanese were largely denied similar reconnaissance in the direction of our own approaches. In the night actions of October 11, November 12-13, and November 14-15, our forces came to the spot with the deliberate intention of intercepting enemy forces whose composition and estimated hour of arrival had been reported by our air scouts.

Thus we were able to bring our available ships to the scene when needed, and upon arriving there they were likely to enjoy all the advantages of surprise. In that way our surface forces were able—together with our land-based bombers and torpedo planes—to exercise a continuity of pressure, though not always of control, out of all proportion to the total time which they spent in the disputed waters. On the morning after the night action of November 14-15, 1942, in which battleships participated on both sides, the U. S. destroyer Meade was the only warship remaining on the scene. She completely dominated the area, leisurely shelling some Japanese transports which had been beached on the preceding day.

None of the main naval actions was in itself decisive, though those of November 12-15 were as close to being so as any. Roth sides continued throughout to send more men and supplies into the island, although the Japanese could do so only with much greater difficulty than ourselves and at an inordinate cost in fighting units and transports. Roth sides also carried out numerous bombardments.

mostly at night, of opposing land forces. Even after mid-November the Japanese continued to come. On November 30 occurred the Battle of Tassafarona, a near-disaster for us. In that battle we lost the heavy cruiser Northampton, the fifth United Nations heavy cruiser lost in the area, and suffered extremely severe damage to two other heavy cruisers. On December 7, 1942, a force of six Japanese destroyers escorting a large transport was met by nothing greater than a handful of motor torpedo boats, which, however, proved sufficient to rout the Japanese with the loss of one destroyer.

Thus, real naval command was never in any sense established, and any local superiority was likely to be evanescent in the extreme. What won the naval campaign, thus bringing victory in the campaign ashore, was our superior fighting and staying power in a simple contest of attrition. The Japanese saw that they were losing more ships than we were, and far more than they could afford to expend for just one remote island. They saw also that we had gathered enough strength in the area to continue the competition indefinitely. In fact, we had gathered in the area enough force (including three new battleships, four old ones, five aircraft carriers, and twelve cruisers) to enable us to meet in a show-down match the whole of the Japanese fleet then available for action-—a fleet which had still not recovered from the loss and damage suffered at Midway.

The combination of these facts finally persuaded the Japanese to quit. And the most tangible advantage we reaped from the fight over Guadalcanal was precisely that in waging it we induced them to engage in a contest of naval attrition—a contest in which, because of our qualitative superiority and our immeasurably greater naval building program, the odds were in our favor.

By the time the Guadalcanal campaign was ended, the tonnage of sunken warships lying off the island was considerably greater than that lost on both sides at Jutland, Many other naval vessels had suffered severe damage in the area. The Japanese had lost more heavily than we, and had been forced in the end to acknowledge defeat; but the cost of our victory had not been small. We had been obliged to enter a number of battles with quantitatively inferior forces, particularly in the night action of November 12-13. Under the existing circumstances it was probably the best we could do. But our experience was not such as to encourage a continuation of the “task force” strategy. Had we been able to begin the campaign with all the forces which we dispatched to that area before it ended, the results would undoubtedly have been far different.

The weakness of the task-force theory lies simply in the fact that each task force can as a rule be beaten by a larger task force, and in penetrating enemy waters the invading force is always beset by the anxiety that the enemy will interpose just such a superior force. The only conclusion to this endless chain of matching big by bigger is a showdown match of maximum strength, in which one side stands ready at all times to intervene in the active theater with a force larger than the largest available to the enemy. Such a force, wherever it can be maintained, gives true command of the sea, and the achievement of command has always been visualized as the first aim of the naval offensive.

The conclusion of the Guadalcanal campaign inaugurated a fundamental change in policy on both sides. In later fights the Japanese showed more caution. Though we continued throughout 1943 to advance up the ladder of the Solomons, taking also Attn and Kiska in the Aleutians, we were given little opportunity to sink or damage important Japanese ships. By the end of 1943 the Japanese had clearly withdrawn the bulk of their fleet to home waters, where it was concentrated and held in reserve for some decisive issue or occasion of opportunity. The enemy meanwhile attempted to stay our progress as best he could with aircraft, submarines, and occasional light surface forces— besides, of course, his land garrisons, which being isolated were considered expendable.

This change in policy had no doubt been in large part dictated by the breath-taking expansion of our strength. The vast armament production program in the United States was making available ships, planes, and weapons in unprecedented volume. And when the Battle of the Atlantic swung in our favor in the spring of 1943, and the net increase of merchant ship bottoms began later in the year to exceed 1,000,000 gross tons monthly, the chief bottleneck to our offensive effort was pushed wider. While an all-out effort against Japan required large numbers of troops and therefore had to await the progress of events in Europe, it was nevertheless possible for us to shift to an unqualified naval offensive in the Pacific.


When in November, 1943, we descended upon the Gilberts and took Tarawa and Makin, we opened a new phase of the Pacific war. The conduct of naval war by the operation chiefly of small task forces had proved to be a negation of strategy. So long as the Japanese had been willing to commit substantial naval forces—which were nevertheless only portions of their whole fleet—for the defense of every island outpost they possessed, task-force warfare was likely to go in our favor. But when the Japanese served notice that they were no longer inclined to play our game, we were already in a position to quit that game jubilantly.

At the Gilberts for the first time we began an operation with a “task force” which was really an entire battle fleet, one capable of engaging and defeating the whole Japanese Fleet. And in its concentration of carrier-borne aircraft and ship’s anti-aircraft armament it had the means not only of resisting but of overwhelming the local air forces of all the Japanese-held archipelagoes, save perhaps the Japanese homeland itself.

The latter development represented a tactical revolution of the first order, comparable to the strategic revolution marked by the return to the use of the whole fleet. Until the series of operations which began with Tarawa, the aircraft carrier was considered merely as a vessel which redeemed the airplane from one of its chief limitations, that of brief range and endurance. In fact, there was a considerable school of thought in this country which regarded the carrier as at best a clumsy makeshift, useful only in filling the gap until we adopted land-based planes of “adequate” range.

Once we began to use carriers in large numbers, however, it became apparent that by means of aircraft carriers, navies (and particularly the United States Navy) had incorporated within themselves the only truly mobile air forces, where air bases as well as aircraft could be not only moved but ako concentrated. The planes of the land-based enemy, on the other hand, were generally distributed over a number of widely dispersed air strips. His ability to combine or coordinate these separate groups of aircraft therefore depended entirely on the distances between the air fields. Hence, given enough aircraft carriers, we could assure ourselves of air superiority in the locality of any of the archipelagoes we chose to attack. When we descended upon the Gilberts, for example, the planes based on the Japanese-held Marshalls could be of little or no assistance to the enemy, and those based on other areas, as for example the Carolines, were out of the picture entirely.

It had theretofore been generally accepted that carrier-borne air forces should not be opposed to land-based air forces if it could be avoided. The popular doctrine was that the carrier-based planes were likely to be inferior in performance—due to the restrictions imposed on design by the requirements of carrier operation—and also that the base of the floating air force could be sunk while that of the land-based air force could at most be dealt an easily repairable injury. American aircraft engineers overcame the one disability by designing planes which were more than equal in performance to the best land-based planes our enemies could put against them. The other disability was overcome by the very fact of concentration itself, which gave our roving fleets air forces large enough to keep dangerous concentrations of enemy planes away from our ships. Additional immunity was provided by the magnificent anti-aircraft artillery which had been built up in the United States Fleet in the two years following December, 1941.

The new anti-aircraft shield of our fleet, immensely superior in accuracy and volume of fire to anything the Japanese could offer, constituted the realization of still another tactical revolution—and one which the public has almost entirely overlooked. In recent battles a great many more enemy aircraft have been downed by our carrier-based aircraft than by anti-aircraft guns, but it should be noticed that those downed by our ships’ guns are disproportionately important since they are the planes which have succeeded in penetrating our fighter screen and arriving where they are most dangerous. The anti-aircraft defenses of our ships may be likened in function to the goal-keeper of the soccer team, while the carrier-based aircraft are the field players. In the American Navy the team thus developed has proved an unbeatable one vis-a-vis Japanese aviation.

The most important single result of this great growth in aerial defensive as well as offensive strength is that our Navy has had restored to it its old freedom of movement. Throughout most of the Solomons campaign our ships had generally been careful not to approach hostile shores in daylight. Waters over which the enemy was able to put a few aircraft were approached stealthily in the darkness, and the area was usually quit in time to permit putting a good safe distance behind the retreating ships before the first light of dawn. The utility of a warship which could operate effectively against the enemy only at night was not such as to inspire confidence in its ability to command vast seas. But by the time of the Gilberts campaign our fleet had thrown off the incubus and proved itself not only able to penetrate enemy waters during all hours but to maintain itself in them until a decisive conclusion had been reached. And it was shortly to show that there was no area in the central or south Pacific in which it dared not make such a demonstration.

The advantage of the principle of concentration, as applied both to gun-firing ships and to aircraft carriers, was proved even more decisively than in the Gilberts attack by the still larger force which later assaidted and took Kwaja-lein Atoll in the Marshalls and which then proceeded to destructive raids of Truk in the Carolines and of Saipan and other points in the Marianas. These events of January-February, 1944, were followed at the end of March by the most conclusive demonstration of all—the attack upon the Palau Islands, over 4,000 sea miles west of Pearl Harbor, by the great striking force now marshalled in the Pacific. In that expedition the American fleet had to proceed up and down the whole length of the Carolines and against one of the strongest enemy bases in the western Pacific. Yet it met no resistance save from a relatively few Japanese aircraft, which were disastrously defeated and repulsed. It was wholly useless for the enemy in any of these actions to attempt surface resistance with anything less than his whole battle fleet, which he shrewdly refrained from committing.

One of the most striking features of these several offensives was the almost total absence of loss or even damage to our surface units. The escort aircraft carrier Liscome Bay, torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off Makin, was the only combatant ship lost in operations which included the taking of all the Gilberts, all the Admiralties and St. Matthias group, and most of the Marshalls, and which included also landings among the Bismarck Archipelago and Dutch New Guinea and destructive attacks against bases in the Carolines, the Marianas, the Palaus, and against Rabaul and Kavieng. In some of the most daring of these operations, including that of Palau, our ships came through without any damage whatever, as was true also of the British-American-French fleet which carried out the strikes against Sabang and Soerabaja during the same time. This was the simple and normal reward of operating in definitely superior strength. The enemy was persuaded to avoid action with his surface units, which wherever they were trapped were quickly destroyed before they could inflict any retaliatory damage, and the small air groups he sent into the fight were immediately overwhelmed. At this writing, a year and a half has passed since an American warship of cruiser size or greater has been lost to enemy air attack. The cruiser Chicago, sunk off Rennell Island on January 30, 1943, has been the last such vessel so destroyed.


Thus, after two years of war, really profitable enterprises were found to depend on the operation of whole battle fleets, and smaller forces proved best able to accomplish useful ends when covered by such fleets, however remote in space the latter might be. And this affirmation on a strategic level of the old principle of concentration had been attended by a comparable demonstration on a tactical plane. The aircraft carrier operating in large concentrations proved to be a very different thing from the carrier operating singly or in small groups. Large aircraft carrier forces proved their ability both to maintain their own security against enemy air attack and to command passage for the fleet through and among the island groups of the Pacific, despite all possible opposition from the necessarily dispersed land-based aircraft of Japan’s vaunted “unsinkable aircraft carriers.” And the combination of carriers with new, fast battleships, both functioning integrally as offensive agents, produced a force able to assert itself anywhere on the seas against any kind of enemy opposition whatever.

Even by the time of our Gilberts invasion the Japanese Navy had already been forced into a fleet-in-being strategy, which seemed subsequently to grow ever more passive. Yet it could hardly be doubted that the Japanese would never surrender in the end with an intact battle line, so that somewhere along our line of advance their fleet was sure to be thrown in. Perhaps the Japanese were hoping for some opportunity to use their whole battle fleet against some portion of our own. Failing that, the most they could do in the defensive war to which they were at last committed was to hold it as a last desperate counter against our eventual invasion of their homeland. But meanwhile our margin of superiority kept growing constantly, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The growth in our quantitative superiority entailed in itself a growing qualitative advantage, since accretions to our naval strength always meant an increasing proportion of new ships and planes in our fleet. And since our rate of construction has been immeasurably greater than that of Japan, our fleet already by the beginning of 1944 had become predominantly new while the Japanese fleet remained predominantly old.

For a few days in June, 1944, it seemed that the test had at last come. The Japanese fleet was reported out in force, determined to intervene against our operations on the Island of Saipan, which the Japanese simply could not afford to lose. But neither could they afford to lose their fleet in defending it. The Japanese force which took part in the Battle of the Eastern Philippines turned out to be only a portion of the main Japanese fleet, though an important one. It naturally could not consider engaging our vast force in a surface action, and even its air attacks were carried out at extreme range. Obviously intending to use some of the Mariana group as advanced operating bases—in the same manner in which planes of the Enterprise had used Henderson Field during one phase of the Guadalcanal campaign— the Japanese launched their attacks while some 500 miles distant from our fleet.

The battle which followed turned out to be less than the show-down action which the American public had been led to anticipate, but a good deal more than a disappointed press later acknowledged it to be. Since Americans at this time generally overestimated the residual strength of the Japanese fleet, they did not realize that the best part of the Japanese aircraft carrier force had been committed and that it had suffered a disastrous blow. Japanese strength in aircraft carriers is so much less than ours that losses which we would regard merely as regrettable would be crushing to the Japanese. The fleet carriers sunk and severely damaged probably represented a greater amount of tonnage than was left available to the Japanese for immediate further action. The more than 700 Japanese planes lost entailed a severe blow in itself, since the enemy was already desperately short in trained naval pilots as well as aircraft, and those losses could be considered as having deprived the Japanese fleet for some time of its remaining offensive strength.

Another feature of the battle which generally escaped public attention was the fact that of the Japanese planes lost, some 350 were sacrificed in direct attack upon our ships; and at this terrific cost the enemy succeeded only in inflicting superficial damage upon three of our large warships. Our own attack upon the enemy ships, on the other hand, cost us 49 planes, and the results were at least one large fleet carrier and three fleet oilers sunk; one large fleet carrier, three destroyers, and two oilers severely damaged; and a battleship, a light carrier, and a cruiser lightly to moderately damaged. This does not count a carrier probably sunk by three torpedo hits from one of our submarines on the preceding day. The disparity in costs and accomplishments between the two sides is simply representative of a disparity which has been maintained ever since the battle of Midway. Japanese planes have proved almost impotent against our ships, while our planes have continued to enjoy a deadly effectiveness against their ships. This is the modern answer to the old controversy of ships versus planes. It is a question of whose ships and whose planes one is talking about!

For the fighting on Saipan our fleet provided a steady bombardment and air cover lasting over three solid weeks. And this is an area which had previously been considered Japanese home waters. Less tangible but even more pervasive and decisive, however, was the steady command maintained by our fleet over the sea approaches to the island— a command which prevented the enemy either from reinforcing or evacuating his garrison. Our naval losses were practically nil, and our losses in troops cannot be regarded as high in view of the strength and determination of the enemy’s defense. Our gain was not merely the possession of an island which brought us several thousand miles nearer Japan. It was the possession of a base which completely consolidated our control of the whole western and southern Pacific; which automatically isolated important Japanese garrisons and even naval bases in the Carolines; and which placed us in a position not only to operate in force and in support of our gallant submarines against the vital lines upon which the life of the Japanese Empire depends, but also to move directly upon those lands which lie next to the heart of Japan itself.


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