December 19, 2010

What If...? #4: Admiral Fletcher's "Deaf Ear"

On December 11th, 1941, a Japanese invasion force assaulted US-owned Wake Island and was repulsed.  Shortly thereafter, a relief force consisting of Task Force 11 (Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, commanding, aboard USS Astoria), based around the USS Saratoga and the USS Tangier set out from Pearl Harbor.  The Tangier was a seaplane carrier, but had embarked the 4th Marine Defense Batallion as well as a vast amount of ammunition for the besieged island garrison.  The Saratoga carried her air wing and VMF-221, a Marine fighter squadron, which was to reinforce Wake's VMF-211.  As planned, TF11 would reach Wake Island on December 23th.

They never got there.  American intelligence sources thought that there was at least one Japanese carrier in the area, and possibly two.  Early on December 21st, planes from the IJN carriers Soryu and Hiryu, detached from the Pearl Harbor raiding force, appeared over the island.  While opinions back at Pearl were mixed, acting Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) Admiral William Pye, thought the risks too high and cancelled the reinforcement mission.  

There was quite a bit of anger over this among the ships and crew of the US Navy.  The unofficial war diary for "Fighting Six" (VF-6) aboard the USS Enterprise, providing distant cover for TF11, reads "Everyone seems to feel that it's the war between two yellow races."  On board the Saratoga, the bridge crew reportedly was so angry that Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch was forced to leave the bridge so he couldn't hear the near-mutinous talk.  Her commanding officer, Captain Douglas, nearly begged Fitch to contact Fletcher on the Astoria to ask for permission to raid Wake.

But What If....

"Sir, flash message traffic for Admiral Fletcher," said radioman Jack "Sparks" Wheeling to his boss, Lieutenant Fred Ambrose.  "Looks like we're not going to Wake."

"Give it to me, I'll take it up to him."  A few minutes later, Ambrose walked into the rarified air of the Flag Bridge of the USS Astoria.  "Comm traffic for the Admiral," he said, handing the message to a member of Fletcher's staff.  He sketched a salute to the man and headed back to the radio shack.  It was another minute before the typed message reached the commander of Task Force 11.  He scanned it quickly.  Involuntarily, his left hand clenched into a fist, crushing the sheet of paper as he slammed his gold-braided cap to the deck.

"Goddammit!"  He glanced at the plotting table.  Just over 400 miles from Wake.  At daybreak tomorrow he'd be in range of the island, able to pummel the invaders as the Tangier made its run into the beach... or in range of the Jap carriers.  But orders were orders.  He flattened the message form and re-read it...  no wiggle room whatsoever.  Or was there?  Thoughtfully stroking his chin, he walked out of the Flag Bridge and headed to the radio shack.

On paper, the Battle of Wake Island that never was would have been fairly equal.  The Saratoga could carry 90-some aircraft, just a few planes fewer than the Soryu and Hiryu combined, and had VMF-221 to supplement her fighter squadron to boot.  TF11 had two other cruisers to go with the Astoria, as well as ten destroyers.  While the Japanese had two flight decks, their escorting force was actually weaker than that of TF11, even if one includes the ships supporting the Wake Island invasion.  They did have land-based air support from the Marshall Islands, but proper positioning of TF11 would nullify that advantage.  By the time TF11 was recalled, the Marines on Wake had surrendered, but the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force units had yet to get the base working.  It would have come down to the aircraft carriers, and the planes and pilots aboard them.  Admiral Fletcher could have scrapped the operational plan when it was learned that the Japanese had carriers in the area and gone in a day early, so to surprise them.  Indeed, Rear Admiral Samuel Eliott Morrison criticized Fletcher for exactly that reason in his "semi-official" history written after the war.  Of course, Fletcher wasn't the sort of officer to disobey a direct order, but What If...?

Fletcher walked into the radio shack unannounced, causing Wheeling and Ambrose to jump to their feet in surprise, saluting as they did so.  "Have you acknowledged receipt of this message?"

The two men shook their heads, Ambrose adding "No sir, radio silence is in effect." 

"Good.  We're going in, " said Fletcher as he stalked out of the radio room.  "'I have a right to be deaf sometimes,'" he muttered, deliberatly misquoting Admiral Nelson.

The two radio men stared at each other for a few moments in silence before breaking into grim smiles.  "The Old Man has more guts than I thought," said Wheeling.

On paper, the two sides were nearly equal.  In reality however, the numbers were quite lopsided.  The Saratoga's airgroup consisted of 13 F4F Wildcats, mostly of the -3 type, 42 SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers and 11 TBD Devastator torpedo bombers, for a total of 66 aircraft.  Further, VMF-221 had another 14 fighters.  However, these were F2A Buffaloes, and their pilots were completely unused to carrier operations.  The Japanese carriers had 32 Zero fighters, 32 Val dive bombers, and 36 Kate torpedo bombers, for a total of 100 planes.  To make matters worse, these pilots were well-trained, highly experienced men, fresh off their successes at Pearl Harbor and the China conflict.  In contrast, the American pilots were all green in the art of war, and while they had experience in their aircraft, they had no idea what it was like to be shot at. 

In the stretch of time between Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea, historically the US Navy staged a series of single-carrier raids against Japanese bases.  These had the effect of "blooding" the US air groups, gaining them valuable experience in the violence and confusion of war.  At this time however, the pilots had nothing to work from.  They were outnumbered, outgunned, and out-experienced... and didn't realize it.

Ensign Bill Petty guided his Dauntless over the emptiness of the Pacific ocean.  He was hunting the Japanese carriers that were out here... somewhere.  The rest of Scouting 3 were spread over a 90-degree arc to either side of him, doing the same thing.  This weakened TF11's striking force, but what good was a big strike if you don't know where your targets are?  Petty slipped into a cloud, flying blind for a couple of seconds until he exited the other side.  Below him, he was suddenly surprised to see the wakes of a half-dozen ships... and two carriers.  Petty stared for a second, then yelled into his intercom for his radioman to transmit a sighting report. 

He had broadcast the message twice before the Dauntless was jumped by a pair of Zeros.

Aboard the Astoria, Wheeling called out to Lt Ambrose.  "We got 'em!"  A mile or so to the West, the Saratoga's flight deck came to life.

There's little doubt in my mind that TF11 would have found the Japanese force first.  After all, they knew the Hiryu and the Soryu were out there, but the opposite wasn't the case.  There's also little doubt that the Japanese would react swiftly to the arrival of the SBD over their fleet, cancel whatever mission they had laid on for Wake, and stand by for their own scouts to turn up the Americans.  Still, the Saratoga had the initiative and would be attacking before the Japanese knew where they were.  I'm sure that confidence would be high.

But would that confidence be well-founded?  The attack would consist of the 16 Dauntlesses of Bombing 3, the 11 Devastators of Torpedo 3, and six Wildcats from Fighting 3.  Of course, the planes of Scouting 3 were out looking for the Japanese and were unavailable.  What of VMF-221?  I'm assuming they'd be used for Combat Air Patrol, along with the other seven F4Fs of Fighting 3.  It's possible they'd stay aboard Saratoga unused, since the Marine pilots were unfamiliar with carrier operations.  In this case though, I have them ready for CAP use.

Ensign Jim Flynn sat in the cockpit of his Devastator, in the middle of the right side of Torpedo 3's formation.  He flew low over the ocean, concentrating on finding their targets.  A glance at his fuel gauge told him that they'd be turning back for the Sara pretty soon, else they'd all be swimming for Hawaii.  Seemingly in response to his thoughts, he noticed the skipper making the hand signals for the squadron to spread out into a line-abreast formation.  This would make it easier for Torpedo 3 to see the Japs... if they were out there. 

He was surprised when his radio burst to life with calls for help.  High above and ahead of him, dark smears of smoke began arcing down towards the sea.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw something like an aldis lamp flickering at him, just before his cockpit shattered and the TBD was engulfed in flame.  He had a brief glimpse of a white wing with a red circle on it flash by, then all he could see was blue water.  Then nothing at all.

Assuming 16 Zeros would fly CAP over the Japanese carriers, I'd fully expect the American attack to fail terribly.  Nobody really knew what the Zero could do at this time, nor had the pilots come up with ways to fight them.  This isn't conjecture; at the Battle of the Coral Sea the Dauntlesses were savaged, and the TBDs were massacred at Midway.  In this case, I'm assuming that the Japanese would be ready for the coming attack... and that at best, one of the carriers would have been hit, but not sunk, much like at Coral Sea.  Even that is generous.  None of the Dauntless pilots had dropped a bomb in anger let alone while being shot at, while the Hiryu and Soryu were almost fast enough to outrun an American torpedo once it had been dropped.

And what of the inevitable counter-attack?

The seven F4F-3s of Fighting 3 drove their planes towards the incoming Japanese formation.  Lieutenant Ambrose stood just outside the radio shack, a pair of binoculars pressed to his eyes.  He was surprised by the speed and manueverability of the Japanese fighters, and winced when he saw one of the Wildcats burst into flame.  To his left, he saw a Buffalo start to fly off the Saratoga and wondered if it'd get into the fight in time.  He staggered when the Astoria began a hard turn to starboard, her guns hammering as fast as they could.  Startled, he looked around and above him, wondering what they were shooting at.  He saw guns on the Sara firing as well.  He got a glimpse of a dive bomber attacking the flat-top, then the cruiser's turn took the carrier out of his field of view.  A few seconds later, the sound of a loud explosion rolled over him, and he realized that Fletcher's gamble had probably failed.  When someone screamed "incoming," Ambrose ducked back into the radio room; he'd be out of the way of the bullets there.

When the 550-lb bomb hit the Astoria's superstructure, Ambrose never knew what hit him. 

The cream of the Imperial Japanese Navy's air arm would likely overwhelm the defending fighters.  Looking at the Battle of Coral Sea again, I'm sure the Saratoga would be mortally wounded, then the planes would fall upon the escorting cruisers.  The Astoria being hit is merely a conceit on my part.  The remaining ships of TF11 would probably be able to get away before another attack struck.

What effect would the loss of the battle have on the rest of the war?  In the real history, the Saratoga survived the entire Pacific war, though she didn't do much particularly important.  She was in drydock for much of 1942 after taking a submarine torpedo hit.  1943 saw her in the Eastern Solomons, launching attacks in the area.  She did have one sterling moment when she hit Rabaul in November, disabling a number of Japanese cruisers in harbor.  In 1944, she essentially became a training carrier, working with the British Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean, giving the British experience in carrier operations.  1945 saw her training night-fighter squadrons until she joined the main fight with the Enterprise to form a specialized night-fighter task force.  Then she was crippled by five bomb hits in late February and never fought again.

VMF-221 wound up being taken to Midway Island instead of Wake.  Their Buffaloes would prove to be no match for the Zero there.

The death of Admiral Fletcher however would have been the worst harm possible.  He was in command at the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, and the Eastern Solomons, during which his forces sank six carriers and crippled three others.  Arguably, all three could be considered US victories.  Losing Fletcher would have desperately changed the situation in all three battles.  

The US still would have won the war in the Pacific.  It may very well have taken a longer time with a loss at Wake Island... a battle that never happened.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 11:40 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
Post contains 2208 words, total size 16 kb.

1 Another aspect of this what-if: if Fletcher had disobeyed orders in such a way, and lost part of his force as a result, he would have been relieved of duty and would not have been  available to command at Midway, or later in the war.

Fletcher wasn't the best admiral the US had, but it's a matter of record that he commanded five carrier-versus-carrier battles and won three of them, and that's pretty significant.

Going into Midway, with Halsey in sick bay and Fletcher relieved of duty, who would Nimitz have turned to for overall command? Though Spruance ultimately performed well, I can't believe Nimitz would have given him overall command, for instance.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at December 20, 2010 12:46 AM (+rSRq)

2 Yep yep.  He could either win or go home.  I considered writing the aftermath, but it was already late, I'd been writing all evening, and I didn't want to add another thousand words.  *chuckle*

Spruance would have been the logical choice; he was already in command of Halsey's Task Force, after all.  I'm not sanguine with his chances, but there you are.

Posted by: Wonderduck at December 20, 2010 07:23 AM (W8Men)


I wish you had added the 1000 words - your take on historical alternatives is interesting, to say the least.

WRT Spruance, "ya gotta dance with the gal ya brought".

Posted by: The Old Man at December 20, 2010 11:22 AM (+LRPE)

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