Academic journal article Naval War College Review

CLEAR PURPOSE, COMPREHENSIVE EXECUTION: Raymond Ames Spruance (1886-1969)

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

CLEAR PURPOSE, COMPREHENSIVE EXECUTION: Raymond Ames Spruance (1886-1969)

Article excerpt

As operational commander of hundreds of ships and aircraft, Admiral Raymond A. Spruance had the capacity to distill what he observed-and sometimes felt-into its essence and to focus on the important details by a mental synthesis.He would then charge his staff with comprehensive planning to achieve his purpose. Often the plan would be rent asunder, but it would retain its "tyranny of purpose"-roughly, the mission-as Spruance's staff and commanders adapted to the circumstances. Although this seems always to have been the case from the battle of Midway to the extended battle of Okinawa, his first test, fought over Midway Island, foreshadows his wartime leadership. In part this is because we see his strategic acumen in the critical year of 1942; in part because we see his grasp of the decisive factors in the battle; in part because we see him as a "lucky" admiral; and in part, and not least, because the battle is well known and oft-studied.

What did Rear Admiral Spruance see and feel as he arrived on the station that Admiral ChesterW.Nimitz had selected for his tiny, two-carrier Task Force (TF) 16? How did he deal with the disorganized staff he had inherited from Admiral William F. Halsey? What ran through his mind when Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher joined on 2 June and assumed command to execute the explicit plan Nimitz had detailed for Fletcher and Spruance just six days before? How did he deal with the disparate and inconsistent scouting reports?How did he team with his inherited aviator chief of staff, the difficult and sometimes overwrought Captain Miles Browning? What ran through his mind as he watched the cumbersome effort to dispatch the Enterprise and Hornet air wings in a compact pulse of power, the goal of every carrier commander but unachievable at this early stage of carrier warfare?1

Imagine Spruance as he walks into Nimitz's office on 26May 1942, only to be told that Halsey is hospitalized and Task Force 16 is his. Within minutes Spruance learns that in forty-eight hours he will sail to fight, with 100 percent certainty, the first naval battle of his life, outnumbered eighty ships to twenty-six, against an enemy who has not lost a battle since 7 December 1941. Nimitz says that his mission will be to take calculated risks to attack and punish the Japanese, yet without losing his own force.2 Spruance learns that if Yorktown's damage at the battle of theCoral Sea can be patched up,Fletcher will join on the very eve of battle and assume tactical command. It is a mission demanding exquisite responsibility and adaptability. "Elated," says one historian of Spruance's reaction to the news. If you think like Spruance, "sobered" is a better term.3

The intricacy of the battle is instructive. Regarding Spruance's leadership, historians have paid excessive attention to whether it was Spruance or Browning who selected the moment to launch TF 16's portion of the decisive strike. In truth, Spruance expected the two to be a team. More important, the American and Japanese navies both had to solve extraordinary problems of carrier-deck management, the weight, range, and geographic direction of their scouting efforts, and the execution of a concentrated air attack-problems imperfectly solved on both sides but in the case of the Japanese fatally so. Each problem was multifaceted, and each in its own way was decisive.

Most important at the operational level was the cooperation between Nimitz, Fletcher, and Spruance. Spruance was entirely justified in his trust of Fletcher as tactical commander of TFs 16 and 17. Fletcher, in turn, had no hesitation in turning over tactical command to Spruance at 1800 (that is, six o'clock in the evening) on 4 June after his single carrier, Yorktown, was attacked and crippled. The outcome cannot be properly understood without recognizing that Nimitz, the theater commander, was on this occasion in effect his own tactical commander. 4 Nimitz told his two subordinates where to position themselves northeast of Midway and passed on his best estimate of the timing of the Japanese attack. …

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