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J. ARNOLD, S. SINTON, illustrated by DARKO PAVLOVIC
Frank Fletcher was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, in 1885. He graduated from Annapolis in 1906 and received his commission two years later. His gallant participation in the Vera Cruz occupation in 1914 earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Fletcher commanded a destroyer during World War One. During the interwar years he held a variety of staff positions and graduated from both the Naval War College and the Army War College. Promoted to rear admiral in 1939, Fletcher served with the Atlantic Fleet as commander of Cruiser Division Three from 1939 to 1941.
When the Pacific War began, Fletcher commanded the effort to relieve Wake Island. However, he had never before led carriers. Consequently, the relief effort was badly bungled. The high command at Pearl Harbor ordered Fletcher to turn back from Wake Island as its American defenders foundered. Although some members of Fletcher's staff argued that he ignore the recall, Fletcher dutifully obeyed orders. In the words of navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "the failure to relieve Wake resulted from poor seamanship and a want of decisive action."
Frank Jack Fletcher was an admiral of the old school who had trouble adjusting to fast-paced, carrier warfare. His orders for the May 1942 battle in the Coral Sea were to "destroy enemy ships, shipping and aircraft at favorable opportunities in order to assist in checking further advances in the New Guinea-Solomons area." Given that he commanded only two carriers, such daunting orders would have challenged anyone. In the event, Fletcher proved reluctant to utilize his radio intelligence and made several tactical blunders. Nonetheless, his planes sank the first Japanese carrier of the war - the American pilot jubilantly radioed, "Scratch one flattop" - and gave the first check to the Japanese advance in the Pacific. (National Archives)
Fletcher commanded the carrier task force that intercepted the Japanese thrust into the Coral Sea in May 1942. This confused fight was the first sea battle in history fought entirely by air. Although the Lexington was lost, Fletcher's carriers repulsed the Japanese and prevented them from moving against Port Moresby, New Guinea. Next came the decisive sea battle of the Pacific War at Midway. As he steamed into position near Midway, Fletcher faced an enormous responsibility. At Pacific Fleet headquarters, an analyst noted, "The whole course of the war in the Pacific may hinge on developments of the next two or three days." On June 3, 1942
Fletcher received reports that search planes had found the main Japanese fleet. He correctly judged the reports to be wrong and instead trusted his intelligence reports regarding the more likely location of the Japanese carriers. He also correctly judged that the Japanese had no idea that his carriers were in the area. When, the next day, search planes did find the enemy carriers, Fletcher ordered an attack. Fletchers aviators sank four Japanese carriers. The Japanese managed to damage Fletcher's flagship, Yorktown, so severely that Fletcher had to transfer to the heavy cruiser Astoria. The Yorktown later sank. Still, the four-to-one exchange rate was hugely favorable to the Americans.
Fletcher showed that he had learned from his experience at the Coral Sea and did well at the Battle of Midway. Promoted to the rank of vice admiral, Fletcher next took charge of the impending counter-offensive in the Solomons. When he met with the principal commanders to discuss the operation, Fletcher was openly skeptical. Worse, he had a public row with Admiral Richmond Turner, the newly arrived commander of the transports and cargo ships that were to land the marines at Guadalcanal. Having lost the Lexington at Coral Sea and Yorktown at Midway, Fletcher was afraid to risk his three remaining, priceless carriers, particularly if they had to operate within range of Japanese land-based aircraft. Consequently, Fletcher announced that he would keep his carriers within supporting range of the landing forces for only two days, half the time needed to land all the troops and supplies. In the event, Fletcher abandoned the marines 12 hours earlier than even he had planned, claiming that he was short of oil and weak in fighter planes. He retired without authorization from his superior. Admiral Ghormley. Turner and the marines felt this desertion unwarranted. Historians have concurred, exposing Fletcher's claims about oil and fighters as flimsy excuses to hide his real concern: his unwillingness to risk his carriers.
Sudden bursts of brief, intense combat characterized carrier warfare in the Pacific. A battle's outcome could hinge upon the precise location of a bomb strike. For example, had the bomb that hit Fletcher's Yorktown at Coral Sea struck 20 feet toward her centerline, thereby damaging her flight deck instead of penetrating the comparatively unused lee of her island, she would have been disabled for Midway. Here, a Japanese dive-bomber descends on the Hornet at the Battle of Santa Cruz while a torpedo plane approaches from the left. (US Naval Historical Center)
Based upon intelligence reports about another major Japanese operation in the Solomons, on August 23, Fletcher's carriers were operating about 150 miles from Guadalcanal. The next day he received contact reports and hurried his carriers, including his flagship Saratoga, to intercept the Japanese. At the ensuing Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the war's third great carrier engagement, he hurled most of his air power against the first target his scouts detected. His planes sank a Japanese light carrier, a ship the Japanese had designated as "bait." This left the enemy's two fleet carriers intact and able to retaliate. However, Fletcher showed that he had learned from previous battles and retained 53 fighters for combat air patrol over his carriers. A ferocious aerial combat took place, with the Enterprise absorbing three bomb hits. Thereafter, both sides cautiously withdrew. Overall, Fletcher's handling of this battle was timid, but because the Japanese were even more cautious and had lost a carrier, the Americans could claim victory. Admiral Nimitz observed, "The Japanese had shot their bolt and with air forces seriously reduced were retiring." For the next two months, both sides sought to reinforce Guadalcanal and a naval war of attrition ensued. Fletcher's flagship Saratoga was torpedoed on August 31 by a Japanese submarine. Fletcher himself received a wound.
After the Guadalcanal campaign, the high command, responding to widespread criticism of Fletcher's performance as a carrier task force commander, reassigned him to command of naval forces in the North Pacific. He held this position from 1943 until the war's end. After the war, he became Chairman of the General Board until his retirement in 1947. He died in 1973.
Fletcher possessed unquestionable personal courage. However, he was unable to adjust to the stress of fast-moving carrier warfare. The loss of Lexington at Coral Sea and Yorktown at Midway made him extra cautious during the Guadalcanal campaign. Nonetheless, Fletcher commanded the carriers that gave the Japanese their first important check, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and was in charge of the vessels that turned the tide of battle in the Pacific at the Battle of Midway.