Battle of Midway
June 3 - 6, 1942
SPRUANCE OR HALSEY:
WHO WAS THE BETTER MAN FOR THE JOB?
Spruance or Halsey: Who
Was the Better Man for the Job?
"Spruance was the right man for the job at Midway."
EDITORS NOTE: This is a dynamite answer by B. K. (Bill) Vickrey to a straight forward question posed by Dick Keefer concerning the personality traits of the two Admirals. Since I have been asked many times either to compare and contrast Spruance and Halsey, or if the US would have been better off had Halsey been in charge at Midway, I asked Bill if I could post his answer. Bill speaks on Midway several times a year, to veterans groups, civic clubs etc, around the country. He deals with this subject at each gathering which he speaks and has come up with one basic speech. This outstanding answer should put to bed any doubts that Raymond Spruance was not that man.
To go back a bit, Raymond Spruance was NOT the OTC at Midway...this distinction went to Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. After YORKTOWN was abandoned Admiral Fletcher moved his Flag to ASTORIA. Spruance signaled Fletcher along these lines "have you any instructions for me?" to which Fletcher responded "none, I will conform to your movements." Fletcher turned over tactical command to Spruance but this was about noon on 04 June well after AKAGI, KAGA and SORYU had been destroyed. Thus, for much of the battle, Fletcher was OTC. For whatever other good things Fletcher did for his country, none was more valuable than his turning over tactical command to Spruance. Fletcher, by the way, had the Medal of Honor for action at Vera Cruz. Of all the Medals of Honor given to Navy personnel, half of them were given for this insignificant action. Fletcher was a Lieutenant at the time and his uncle, Rear Admiral Friday Fletcher, was in command.
There were several major factors involved in our winning the Battle of Midway:
1. We had broken the IJN
2. Admiral Nimitz was CinCPAC and had the guts to support Rochefort (OIC of HYPO at Pearl) in his conviction that AF was Midway. Admiral King thought that the upcoming attack was another one on Pearl, General Marshall and General Arnold felt that it might be an attack on the West Coast.
3. The IJN had a bad case of "Victory Disease" having swept everything before them from Pearl Harbor through the Dutch East Indies, the Indian Ocean etc. without losing a major vessel.
4. The IJN not getting their submarine line in place until 01 June after our carriers had crossed that line.
5. Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McCluskey's decision to search beyond the rational range of his aircraft (SBD's) and thus finding the IJN carriers with their aircraft all on deck...fully fueled and armed. McCluskey was Air Group Commander on ENTERPRISE. He lost over half of his aircraft due to fuel starvation.
6. Spruance being in command of TF 16 rather than Halsey.
Now, I will deal with this latter subject which is the subject of your question (how would things have been different had Halsey been at Midway instead of Spruance).
Admiral King...the arrogant and brilliant CNO...claimed that he (King) was the second smartest officer in the Navy...second only to Raymond Spruance. Spruance himself claimed to be very lazy and, in this context, chose able subordinates, gave them general instructions and insisted that they run with the ball. He made a stellar - and "ballsy" - decision at Midway when he decided to launch all ENTERPRISE and HORNET aircraft at once and at maximum range expecting to catch the IJN while they were rearming and refueling their planes from the early morning attack on Midway Island. He was successful in this but did lose a goodly number of planes and pilots. However, we lost only 307 Men in the Battle of Midway while the IJN lost about 2,500. While one American life is too many to lose, this was a small price for the victory at Midway.
We are not very clear on the input that Captain Miles Browning - Halsey's irascible Chief of Staff which Spruance inherited - had on this decision. Spruance never voiced any criticism of Halsey's staff...in fact, to the contrary, he thanked Nimitz for loaning him "Halsey's fine staff" for Midway. Some writer once characterized Browning as "having a slide rule brain and the personality of a snapping turtle." King tried to push..rather than force..Halsey to get rid of him but Halsey was too popular for King to be able to force him to do so. Finally King was able to have his way but only by giving Browning a carrier command. Admiral "Jocko" Clark had his flag on HORNET (CV-12) and relieved Browning in short order. Browning then went to an obscure command at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The word went around the fleet that "it is about time the bastard went to jail."
But I keep straying from the subject at hand. In the afternoon of 04 June, Spruance refused to launch his aircraft until the last carrier - HIRYU - was definitely located. At about 1400 hours Lieutenant Sam Adams - of VS-5 from YORKTOWN - located her. As soon as this was done, Spruance launched SBD's from both ENTERPRISE and HORNET. ENTERPRISE found her shortly after 1700 hours and left her a burning hulk in just a few minutes. HORNET's SBD's got there after ENTERPRISE had attacked and went after the vessels in her screen.
Once all the aircraft had gotten back to ENTERPRISE and HORNET, Spruance turned the fleet to the East, gave instructions as to what they were to do during the night and was in bed and sound asleep by 2200 hours. This was a major decision which, I feel, Halsey would have made differently. Had Spruance moved westward, he would have run head long into the heavy battleships of the IJN. One of the things we did not know, is that Admiral Yamamoto, with the "MAIN BODY" was about 300 miles behind the IJN carriers. Once he found out about the loss of Nagumo's carriers, he brought his fleet to the scene at flank speed. The IJN was very skilled at night fighting and we were not..as we proved at the Battle of Savo Island. Yamamoto was looking for a night battle. If Spruance had accommodated him we would have likely lost ENTERPRISE and HORNET and possibly the war in the Pacific. Spruance is still criticized for this movement but he was absolutely right. On 08 June 1942, Spruance wrote a personal letter to Admiral Nimitz giving him a report on the Battle. He later wrote an official report. In his personal letter, he said:
"I did not feel justified in risking a night encounter with possibly superior enemy forces, but on other hand, I did not want to be too far away from Midway on the next morning. I wished to have a position from which either to follow up retreating enemy forces or to break up a landing attack on Midway. At this time the possibility of the enemy having a fifth CV somewhere in the area, possibly with his Occupation Force or else to the northwestward, still existed."
He was right...there was a small carrier with the Main Body of Yamomoto's fleet. Yamamoto had his flag on YAMOTO which was the biggest battleship ever built and which was armed with 18 inch guns. ENTERPRISE and HORNET would have had a hard time with this opposition!
Perhaps he made his most courageous decision on 05 June. His SBD's were launched late in the afternoon and did not get back until after dark. Without knowing how many IJN subs were lurking nearby, he had ENTERPRISE and HORNET turn on their lights so that their aircraft could land aboard. I am giving Jim Forbes and Don Kirkpatrick copies of this message as both of them were HORNET pilots and may be alive today because of the fact that Spruance turned on the lights that night. He did this for two very good reasons:
1. He did not want to
sacrifice the lives of the young Americans who were aloft, and;
2. He did not want to lose those precious SBD's and their pilots.
In June, 1944 Vice Admiral Mitscher was praised for making this same decision at the Battle of the Philippine Sea (the "Great Marianna's Turkey Shoot). Taking nothing away from Mitscher, his was not as courageous a decision as the one Spruance made at Midway. On 05 June 1942 we had only three carriers in the Pacific...ENTERPRISE and HORNET were with Spruance and SARATOGA was on her way from the West Coast to Pearl. In June, 1944 we had more than a dozen carriers with Mitscher...and, by the way, Spruance was at the Philippine Sea and was in overall command there. I do not know if he had anything to do with the decision to turn on the lights at that battle. Without checking, I believe that Don Kirkpatrick was on LEXINGTON in June, 1944.
One needs only to look at the cool, calculating actions Spruance took to say "he was the right man for the job at Midway." Admiral Halsey was a great sea going Admiral but was inclined to "charge to the sound of the guns". There are places in Naval warfare for such action but Midway was not one of those. To Halsey's discredit, he lost many men, aircraft and warships because of his impetuous action at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
This is probably more than you had asked for but Spruance is a special favorite of mine and I am happy to praise him.
B. K. (Bill) Vickrey
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