Table of Contents

Is counterfactual history a legitimate academic tool?

  • Jon Parshall: My participation in this project is somewhat ironic in that I generally hate counterfactual history and consider it largely a waste of time. Having been subjected to reams of it on the Internet, my feeling is that counterfactual scenarios are generally advanced for biased reasons to 'prove' a point that can never be proven, rather than actually seeking wisdom on a subject.

    Furthermore, the vast majority of counterfactualists seem unable to grasp the fact that by changing one variable in history they may as well change a bunch of them, the results of which are absolutely unknowable. As a result, my bitterness and sarcasm regarding the mode of inquiry may occasionally leak through in my responses to these questions (although I mean it all very nicely, you may be assured). Notwithstanding the foregoing, though, in certain cases, if the questioner has the good sense to carefully scope his/her question, and if they limit their time horizons sufficiently, counterfactual history can actually lead to interesting insights into matters which might not otherwise have been apparent. Only time will tell if my answers to these questions has provided something of the latter.
  • Douglas V. Smith: I certainly hope counterfactual history is a legitimate tool as it is an integral and important part of the methodology we use in teaching the Strategy and Policy and Strategy and War courses here at the Naval War College. The purpose of those courses is to place the Officers and senior Department of Defense civilians we have as students in the position of analyzing, evaluating and critiquing the strategies used by all major civilian and military leaders in selected wars from the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (from 431 to 404 B.C.) to the present war against terror. The reason for doing this is to put our students in the position of examining alternative strategies (i.e., counterfactual strategies) which may have served the belligerents better in terms of their likelihood of achieving their policy objectives. Only by analyzing a variety of alternative strategic options can we prepare those in the Navy, Marine Corps, and other Services to undertake the same type analysis of competing strategic options in future crises. As anyone who has contributed to this book will attest, thinking through the counterfactual questions posed by Jim Bresnahan is mind-expanding with respect to forcing us to focus on all of the important considerations attendant to assessing the situation posed. Yet we have had the advantage of retrospective knowledge of the actual outcome of those situations, at least for the most part.

    Leaders in war never have that advantage. Thus, the only productive way to prepare them to make good decisions in the heat of battle is to allow them to make similar decisions in the classroom first. Focused use of appropriate counterfactuals is a key part of the process.
  • Stephen D. Regan: The study of history is not merely a collection of data, nor is it singularly for the purpose of finding truth; rather, history is a usable and necessary inquiry into understanding the multifaceted issues confronting people in sundry events of the past. By examination of various angles, perspectives, opinions, thoughts, and behaviors, we can develop better reactions for the future. Invariably, as each facet is inspected other facets become exposed.

    The military attempts to use historical analysis to avoid future mistakes, to comprehend complex issues, and to formulate different behaviors and reactions or to emulate previously successful actions. For example, sailing captains knew little about scurvy, but apt observation and discussion with other seafaring folks suggested that fresh fruits seemed to keep their crew from getting ill. That is appropriate use of history. Had skippers not observed, recorded, and discussed the issue, many additional seagoing crews would have succumbed.

    Whether in business, academe, or military, good leaders try to be prepared for every conceivable problem. Advance training and preparedness are essential for mission success. Failure to anticipate potential difficulties has resulted in catastrophic failures from the Titanic sinking to space tragedies. To fully prepare for the future we must understand the past, and an element of understanding the past is the examination of the "what ifs" in our history.

    By using counterfactual history, scholars and leaders gain an awareness of details that could have been easily missed in only an investigation of the actual results. Some counterfactual history has been seen in the question of "what if Kennedy had not been killed" and the impact on the War in Vietnam. This particular issue proffers an understanding of decision-making processes of presidential successors after an assassination. One counterfactual thought is that had John F. Kennedy lived there would have been no escalation in Vietnam. Another is that Lyndon B. Johnson felt he had no choice but to act as a Kennedy substitute rather than as a fully vetted and elected President, and he made choices on what he thought JFK would have done instead of following his own instincts. Study into such subjects provides cues for future individuals who are suddenly promoted to the highest office in the land.

    In academic administration, it is important to know one's institution, its history, what seemed to work in the past, and what will probably work in the future. In a fast-paced world, unforeseen problems arise instantly and demand immediate response. Without a "what if" orientation, continued existence is in jeopardy. Colleges dissolve annually simply because of unforeseen trials that could have been avoided or dealt with. Good deans and college presidents must have an unadulterated vision of a college's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Deans must constantly look at unforeseen and previously unidentified obstacles or they shall fail.
  • Ronald W. Russell: When discussing a historical event and postulating on how it might have played out differently, there are three differing techniques that can be employed, depending on whether one wishes to literally change history, or to simply ruminate on what circumstances might have brought a differing history.

    The first of those is Revisionist History, which advocates a significant re-evaluation of an important historical event with a view toward asserting that it actually happened in a manner or for a reason that is at odds with commonly accepted understandings.

    The second, Alternative History, does not contest how a historical event occurred, but presents it in a manner that didn't happen but reasonably could have, for the purpose of stimulating one's imagination as to what might have been.

    The third, Counterfactual Analysis, is different from either of the above. Like Alternative History, Counterfactual Analysis looks at what might have occurred if something had not happened the way it actually did, but the intent and focus is entirely different from that of Alternative History. Instead of speculating on variant events in order to develop an alternative line of history, we analyze a key occurrence in order to understand its own intrinsic significance. That is, we take an in-depth look at what it contributed to the overall picture of the day, and in that process we give consideration to what would have happened had the event not turned out as it did.

    An example of Counterfactual Analysis vs. Alternative History might be consideration of the submarine USS Nautilus at the Battle of Midway. The Nautilus attempted an attack on the Japanese strike force, drawing an aggressive pursuit by the destroyer Arashi. Arashi chased Nautilus a considerable distance from the carriers, thus putting itself in a position where it was eventually spotted by USS Enterprise dive bombers. Arashi then inadvertently led the Enterprise group to its own fleet, resulting in the destruction of the carriers Kaga and Akagi. Thus, in analyzing the importance of Nautilus's attempt to attack the Japanese ships, it's fair to say that, despite being unsuccessful, the attack indirectly brought about the sinking of two enemy carriers. And more importantly, had Nautilus not attempted its attack, those two carriers very likely would have survived the day, bringing about a dramatic change in how the battle unfolded from that point.

    Here then, we are not speculating on the changes in history that would have occurred in the absence of the Nautilus-Arashi episode for the sake of stimulating our imagination, but rather we are underscoring the importance of the fact that it happened as it did.

    It's been suggested that Alternative History or even Counterfactual Analysis is somehow a pointless exercise-all we need to be concerned with is what really happened. That might be true in some regards, but clearly, seeking full understanding of a key occurrence in history is definitely not pointless, and a fundamental means for doing so is to thoughtfully consider all aspects of the event's impact upon subsequent history.

    Revisionist History is doomed to failure unless its advocates bring forth previously unknown or ignored facts that would literally alter the record, a daunting challenge. Alternative History may or may not be pointless, depending upon one's intent in speculating on what might have been but will never be. But Counterfactual Analysis, as herein described, is an essential element in the thorough examination of any major historical event.

I thought it would be interesting to hear what the experts have to say about other aspects of the Pacific War, including how they rate American and Japanese commanders. I also wanted to give the participants a chance to travel back in time to witness an intriguing battle and to discuss tactics with a Pacific War notable.

Surveying the Experts

  1. Who were the most overrated U.S. and Japanese commanders during the Pacific War?
    • H. P. Willmott: MacArthur, Halsey and Yamamoto.
    • Jon Parshall: Mitscher and Yamamoto.
    • Lex McAulay: MacArthur and Nagumo.
    • Peter Smith: Douglas McArthur, Frank Jack Fletcher, Nagumo.
    • Donald Goldstein: Halsey and Yamaguchi.
    • Nick Sarantakes: For the United States, it was Douglas MacArthur, but William F. Halsey, Jr. is a close second. For Japan, it would be Yamamoto.
    • Michael Barnhart: MacArthur and Yamamoto
    • Alvin Kernan: Douglas MacArthur for the Americans, a grandstander who deserved the name the troops gave him, "Dugout Doug." Yamamoto for the Japanese for conceiving of the attack on Pearl Harbor knowing that Japan could not win the war he was starting.
    • Douglas V. Smith: William F. Halsey and Isoruku Yamamoto.
    • Ronald W. Russell: MacArthur. General Short got blindsided by the Pearl Harbor attack, lost most of his AAF planes, and became a scapegoat along with Admiral Kimmel. But MacArthur, with twelve hours advance warning had the same thing happen to his planes in the Philippines, and he got the Medal of Honor. The worst travesty of the entire war.

      MacArthur's fabled island-hoping offensive in the south Pacific, for which he gets so much credit, was an obvious stratagem that could have been figured out by any competent sergeant. On the other hand, he did very well as the administrator of Japan after the war and his Inchon invasion in Korea was a master stroke (his one legitimate military triumph). But he did virtually nothing in WWII that merits his sainted image, and a lot for which he should have been cashiered.

      For the Japanese, Yamamoto. He was fixated on a single "decisive" battle, a la Tsushima Straits in 1905, which would instantly win WWII in the Pacific. Worse, he divided his overwhelming Midway force into widely separated, decidedly underwhelming task groups that the U.S. Navy was able to meet and defeat on more or less equal terms. Midway would clearly had fallen if Yamamoto had been smart enough to put his entire fleet at the point of the spear. And that would have brought profound changes to the course of the war and indeed, to all history that was to follow.
    • Barrett Tillman: MacArthur and Yamamoto. MacArthur was given a wholly political-cynical Medal of Honor and lionized thereafter. Plain fact is that any competent general could have done what he did, especially given the growing disparity of forces after 1942 into 1943.

      Most over-rated U.S. Admiral: slam-dunk. Halsey.

      Yamamoto fought three battles: Pearl Harbor (win), Midway (major loss) and Guadalcanal (major loss). However, even among knowledgeable readers, comparable Japanese commanders are largely unknown.
    • John Burton: I would definitely say that General Douglas MacArthur was the most overrated U.S. general officer of the Pacific War, and probably all of WWII. Although he was a political master, who managed diplomacy well, close examination of his record and communications on strategy and tactics (especially in exchanges with General Marshall) reveals that MacArthur barely had a grasp on the situation, let alone the leadership capability to win the war. It is fortunate that he recognized some key leadership traits in others - such as General George Kenney - and gave these subordinate leaders the support to make things happen. Sadly, much of the credit publicly accorded to MacArthur really belongs to men in the shadows of his command. MacArthur's greatest legacy would ironically turn out to be his role in the postwar reconstruction of Japan.

      On the Japanese side, my assertion would be that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is the most overrated commander of the Pacific War. He is generally given credit by history as having been a brilliant strategist. However, in clear retrospect, most of the operations that he "masterminded" were really disasters for Japan. Midway stands as the only clear example, but one can argue that Yamamoto's support for the Indian Ocean foray and the Solomons campaign was flawed. It can also be argued that the ultimate outcome of his Pearl Harbor operation was counterproductive. Undoubtedly, the attack on Hawaii achieved its tactical objective, but strategically it was a blunder. Physically, the raid failed to permanently disable most of the targets, and failed to neutralize Oahu as an American base. Psychologically, the assault on "U.S. territory" raised the ire of the American public to such a degree that one can say Yamamoto actually helped mobilize his enemy.
    • Stephen D. Regan: William "Bull" Halsey, a vastly popular sailor who held a reputation for being task oriented, was very high on everyone's list for high command in the Pacific. While his "tougher than nails" personality and quick wit made for great press coverage, his actual record is questionable.

      His habit of always looking for a fight led to his leaving the scene at Leyte Gulf to chase a task force of worthless Japanese carriers without planes or pilots. His orders were to protect the Gulf and to defend the amphibious assault forces. Halsey felt he also should attack enemy carriers so he felt justified in leaving the area. His "lets find a fight" attitude was clearly ill conceived because the Americans knew that Japan's carrier planes were virtually annihilated at the Great Mariana's Turkey Shoot, and that the only ships protecting the Army were small and punch-less destroyers. When the Japanese battleship and cruiser task forces entered the Gulf and commenced raising havoc, Halsey denied it was truly as helpless as those in the battle said. Had the Japanese taken a more offensive stand, the landings would have failed and the Navy would have faced the worst loss in U.S. Naval history.

      Halsey's second great failure was his running smack into a hurricane that damaged his entire fleet and cost the Navy three destroyers with almost total loss of the crews. While many contend he relied too much on his meteorologists, Halsey clearly took an imprudent course that killed and injured hundreds of personnel and sank three ships. He should have been court-martialed and relieved of command. His popularity within the Navy and his public esteem saved him.

      Isoroku Yamamoto was the best and the worst of commanders in the Pacific. His recognition that Japan could not defeat America in a war but could place Japan in a position for a negotiated peace allowing them free rein in Asia was astute. His planning and execution of the Pearl Harbor attack was absolutely brilliant. However, by Christmas of 1941 Yamamoto's brilliance fails.

      He allowed internal squabbling (admittedly a cultural issues) between the Army and the Navy to create an environment of chaos and poor planning. The Japanese had no real plan of action in the Pacific post-Pearl Harbor. The bickering strategists started with a South Pacific campaign that was stalled at the Battle of Coral Sea and then switched to a Central Pacific orientation. Yamamoto should have realized that a six month to one-year strategy was essential before the commencement of hostilities.

      Yamamoto's second great failure was seen at the Battle of Midway. His duel objectives were to take control of Midway Island and/or lure the American carriers into battle stuck Nagumo with either arming his planes with bombs or torpedoes. Ultimately, Nagumo ended up with contradictory objectives.

      Additionally, Yamamoto kept his battleships too far in the rear to provide any support to his hapless carriers. Had he been closer he might well have saved his four lost carriers. Sitting two hundred miles away, he served no purpose what so ever.

      Worse, Yamamoto and the Japanese Navy did not believe in massing superior forces in a single-minded attack. He preferred splitting his ships into two groups in a pincer-like fashion catching his prey between the two prongs of his fleet. This is the direct opposite of American naval philosophy.

      To add insult to injury, the Japanese battle plans included an incongruous feint to bewilder the U.S. military. Yamamoto approved an Aleutian Islands attack and landings to occur simultaneously with Midway. He reasoned that this would split American defenders, cause fear in the United States, and allow Japanese control on the North American continent. This concept simply diluted his forces, obtained a worthless set of islands that provided no military or strategic advantage, and did little to raise the already paranoid fervor of the Northwestern states that were in a panic already. It was a total waste of men and ships.
    • C. Peter Chen: In my opinion, the most overrated Japanese tactical commander in the Pacific War was Chuichi Nagumo. He had a track record that probably no other admiral could match, having scored victories all across the Pacific and Indian Oceans and destroyed five battleships, one carrier, two cruisers, seven destroyers, and many other vessels, all within a six-month span of time. But ultimately, he was a battleship admiral who, like most admirals across all navies at the time, did not truly believe that naval aviation had already made surface warships nearly obsolete. Not far behind Nagumo on the list is Isoroku Yamamoto, who on the strategic level also shared credit for the wild success in the early months of the war, but ultimately it was his inability to prepare Japanese Navy's naval aviation arm for a long-term war that set a foundation for the demise of that naval branch years later.
  2. Who were the most underrated U.S. and Japanese commanders during the Pacific War?
    • H. P. Willmott: Frank Jack Fletcher.
    • Peter Smith: Tamon Yamaguchi, Richard H. Best.
    • Alvin Kernan: Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher for the Americans. He got a bad name for not relieving the marines at Wake with the Saratoga at the beginning of the war and for withdrawing carrier support from the marine landings at Guadalcanal at the beginning of the campaign. He also lost a number of ships in fleets he commanded and by the end of 1942 was burned out and withdrawn from the main Pacific action. This first year of the war was, however, a bad year for American ships generally and Fletcher made what in retrospect seem the only reasonable decisions he could have made.

      For the Japanese, Chuichi Nagumo, commanding at Pearl Harbor, got a bad press from his failure commanding at Midway and at Santa Cruz later in the year. In charge on land at the battle of Saipan, he chose to commit suicide, along with many others, when the Americans overran the island.
    • Donald Goldstein: Jack Fletcher and Kurita.
    • Michael Barnhart: George Kenney for the U. S.
    • Douglas V. Smith: Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher
    • Ronald W. Russell: (a) Frank Jack Fletcher. Reviled occasionally by Nimitz and King and continuously by Richmond Kelly Turner, he was blamed for everything from deserting the Marines at Wake and Guadalcanal to causing the sinking of the Lexington, Yorktown, and Wasp. Yet an unbiased and thorough analysis of his actions without the benefit of hindsight brings a far more favorable picture.

      (b) Tamon Yamaguchi (IJN ComCarDiv 2 at Midway), who is generally regarded as an intelligent and aggressive commander. Had he been in charge at Midway instead of Nagumo, Japanese fortunes there would surely have improved dramatically (he was incensed at Nagumo's delay in rearming his attack aircraft). It was fortunate for the Allied cause that his Bushido pride caused him to needlessly die aboard the Hiryu instead of living to fight another day. He doubtless would have risen to a major fleet command, possibly changing the outcome of key battles in the Solomons and beyond.
    • Nick Sarantakes: For the United States, it was Gen. George C. Kenney. For Japan, it was ADM Yonai Mitsumasa, but the most underrated commander of them all was British: General Sir William Slim.
    • Barrett Tillman: Spruance might be the most under-rated considering the criticism he received for accomplishing the mission at Midway and Saipan. In any case, he won major victories and never had a loss.

      Most under-rated Japanese? Wow, hard to say. Maybe Ozawa, given the lopsided odds he faced at Saipan and Leyte.
    • John Burton: By the very nature of underrating, it is difficult to decide who might be the most underrated. For the underrated, visibility is usually a problem. History does not always help in that regard. I would say that General George Kenney is not exactly a household name, at least not among the more casual observers of the Pacific War. Yet, Kenney was one of the most influential officers assigned to the Pacific theater. In many ways, as MacArthur's air officer, Kenney even changed how MacArthur thought of and conducted the war. For those who study his actions, General Kenney proves to be a shrewd operator, who managed to get much done with just a little resource and a lot of ingenuity.

      When considering the performance of Japanese officers, a language barrier to accessing their record of achievements naturally inhibits Western historians from knowing these men as well as they might otherwise. I am certain that the un-translated record probably carries a story, still untold about Japan's most underrated leader. I do suppose that without strong leadership, the IJN air fleets that were so successful during December of 1941, and throughout 1942, could not have managed the feats they accomplished with such apparent ease. For this, it would seem that Admiral Nishizo Tsukahara - commander of the 11th Air Fleet - should get some credit. It may be entirely coincidence, but once Tsukahara fell ill at Rabaul in October 1942, the Japanese naval air effort led by his successor, Admiral Kusaka, turned onto a path of fatal decline.
    • Stephen D. Regan:As the biographer of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, I would be remiss not covering him as one of the least appreciated task force commanders of the Pacific War. Fletcher was the most battle-experienced admiral at the commencement of the war. His background included heroic action at Vera Cruz (he won a Medal of Honor), destroyer captain in World War I, action in the Philippines against rebels, and combat ashore in Haiti. Like Raymond Spruance, Fletcher was not a certified pilot and his command of carriers at Coral Sea and Midway rankled the Brown Shoe fliers. Fletcher, the nephew of a prominent Admiral, had great political friendships including Chester Nimitz and Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson. Unfortunately, he had his detractors too such as CNO/ COMINCH Ernest King and J.J. "Jocko" Clark.

      Fletcher, who detested historians and the press, recognized that the Navy had too few oilers in the Pacific and too few carriers to be unabashedly offensive. He agreed with Nimitz that the Navy had to inflict as much damage as possible without risking his ships. Fletcher firmly understood that America would quickly raise a vast and incredible fleet that would defeat the Japanese. His years in the Asiatic fleet gave him a perspective of Japanese military strategies, and he knew that victory was only a matter of time. His successes at Coral Sea and Midway were well executed, nay, outstanding, considering his limited resources.

      Fletcher's actions at Guadalcanal have been much maligned; however, he was de facto Commander in a poorly planned assault. Like Chuichi Nagumo, Fletcher was on the horns of a dilemma with contradictory orders: preserve the carriers, defend the Marines. Stuck in shallow and narrow waters, Fletcher, who had lost the Lexington and Yorktown, was fearful of losing another carrier. Secondly, he believed his defense of the Marines ended upon successful completion of the landings. Two days after the attack, he pulled his carriers to seek deeper waters in which to maneuver. The Marine Corps never forgave him.

      Fletcher was given the North Pacific fleet (a fleet in being). He made major contributions in the Lend-Lease program with Russia, regained the lost islands in the Aleutians, and attacked the Northern islands of Japan. While the Japanese empire surrendered to McArthur, the northern islands and large segments of the Japanese Army and Navy surrendered to Frank Jack Fletcher. That surrender photo is never seen in the history books.

      For the Japanese, I fear that few important naval commanders were underrated. Matome Ugaki, Nagumo, and Yamamoto all have been recognized for their excellence and for their failures. If any officer is underrated it must be the poor island commanders who were forced into hopeless battles on Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Tarawa, Guam, Saipan, and a multitude of other specks of land. Without supplies, ammunition, or hope for survival they led their men bravely to certain death. The atrocities of the Japanese in China, the Philippines, Guam, and other sites make it difficult to feel much sorrow; but militarily those officers on lonely islands trying to led men into certain suicide demands some semblance of respect.
    • Hal Friedman: Based on the primary evidence presented by John Lundstrom, I would have to say that Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher was the most underrated. I still don't see him as the best American commander in this war, but the fact that he did have to deal with so much at a time when the U.S. simply did not have the heavy naval forces needed to adequately fight speaks volumes about his actions then and the unfair nature of the criticism heaped on him, then and after the war.

      For the Japanese, at least in terms of tactical skill, I would say it would be Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka. His handling of destroyers and his mastery of night surface gun and torpedo was simply second to none, especially at engagements such as the Battle of Tassafaronga.
    • C. Peter Chen: Raizo Tanaka was not well-known, but he was without a doubt an extremely capable tactician of the Japanese Navy. As a destroyer squadron commander, he whipped his overworked ships and crews into top-notch fighters, routinely defeating larger American task forces or escaping from deadly engagements with the bulk of his forces intact. He was a key player in the actions in and around the Solomon Islands, playing a critical role in blocking the American advance up the Solomons chain for so many months.
  3. If given a chance to spend the day discussing strategy with any Pacific commander, who would you choose?
    • Jon Parshall, Donald Goldstein, Douglas V. Smith, Michael Barnhart: Chester Nimitz
    • Lex McAulay: George Kenney
    • H. P. Willmott: Spruance and Yamashita
    • Nick Sarantakes: Easy: ADM Raymond A. Spruance.
    • Peter Smith: Admiral Yamamoto.
    • Hal Friedman: It would still be Admiral Spruance, especially his idea that the Pacific War was really an amphibious assault operation in which naval and air forces were merely support.
    • Barrett Tillman: Perhaps Mitscher, because he's never been called to account for his miserable performance commanding Hornet at Midway, and his worshipful biography glossed over so many failings.
    • John Burton: I would most like to spend the day with Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. In addition to gaining his perspective on Admiral Yamamoto, I'd like to understand his views about the opponents he faced and how that affected the on-the-spot decisions he made in several of the key engagements of the war. Very little has been written about Nagumo's thought process, yet his decision-making was a major factor in the outcome of many war-changing events.
    • C. Peter Chen: Douglas MacArthur. As a strategist, his entire campaign from Australia to the eve of the Philippine Islands invasion incurred as many fatalities as the single Normandy Campaign; that same campaign also saw fewer lives lost as the Battle of the Bulge. Although he had to bear the shame of losing the Philippine Islands at the start of the war, his subsequent actions in the South Pacific reflected that, when given proper resources, he had the strategic vision to carry out complex campaigns. As a politician, he also achieved a great deal, for example courting Australia to become closer to the United States rather than the United Kingdom in order to advance goals of the Pacific War a bit more than those to the west in the interest of the United Kingdom. In fact, his political prowess was so formidable that both Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman attempted to dissuade MacArthur from ever entering Washington politics. His megalomania made him an unpopular figure in certain circles, but he is undoubtedly the person whom I would like to meet and learn from.
    • Alvin Kernan: Admiral Marc Mitscher, captain of the carrier Hornet at Midway. His air group under the command of Lt. Commander Stanhope Cotton Ring had the right course to the enemy fleet carriers but flew a course far to the north, 265 degrees. The dashing Lt. Commander John Waldron argued with Ring about the course and broke off with his torpedo squadron and flew to obliteration, but the remainder of the air group, one-third of the American striking force that decisive day, never sighted the enemy. The fighters with the group all crash-landed in the water. Mitscher then proceeded to write the only after action report the Hornet submitted, in which he covered up the disaster with false or ambiguous information on critical points. I think that careerism lay behind these deceptions, and Mitscher went on to become "the Magnificent Mitscher" leading huge carrier forces that destroyed Japanese sea power. But I would like to ask Mitscher how much he knew and why he broke every rule of his profession in signing a false report.
    • Ronald W. Russell: John Waldron, commander of Torpedo Squadron 8 at Midway. It would be very interesting to get an in-person understanding of a man who (a) seemingly knew exactly where the Japanese fleet would go when others on his carrier were clueless, and (b) would have the incredible fortitude to brazenly defy his immediate superior in the midst of a war in order to take his squadron there. That he did so had a very profound effect on the outcome of the battle. Had he simply obeyed his orders (sensible in the midst of combat!), the outcome at Midway may have been completely different. And virtually anything different than what actually happened would most likely be unfavorable to the American side.
    • Stephen D. Regan: The epicenter of all activity in the Pacific during World War II was the Commander in Chief of the Pacific (CINCPAC)/ Commander in Chief Pacific Ocean Area (CINCPOA). Chester Nimitz was the brilliant selection for such a position in spite of the constant and chronic Washington interventions, suggestions, concerns, and oversights. Certainly, he alone is the one commander who had the Big Picture of all activities from San Francisco to Tokyo and Alaska to Australia. Nimitz's early war greatest achievement was his acceptance of his own Intelligence over the best guess from Washington regarding the proposed Japanese invasion of Midway. Risking his reputation, his position, and his fleet, Nimitz sent Frank Jack Fletcher and Raymond Spruance to bushwhack the Japanese carriers. The selection of Spruance as a replacement for William Halsey, the ignoring Yorktown's battle-worthiness, and the overall gamble were staggering in significance.

      Without question or pause, Chester Nimitz is the one person I would love to discuss strategy and tactics about the War in the Pacific. In my humble opinion, Nimitz ranks alone as the greatest U.S. Naval commander of all times.
  4. If given an opportunity to witness one Pacific War battle, which would you choose?
    • Donald Goldstein, Douglas V. Smith, Jon Parshall, Peter Smith: Midway.
    • Nick Sarantakes, Lex McAulay: Leyte Gulf.
    • Michael Barnhart: First Guadalcanal (naval battle).
    • John Burton: I suppose my answer really depends upon the viewpoint from which one would be observing the battle in question! I'm also thinking that my choice of which battle I would have liked to play a role in commanding is different from the one I'd choose to simply witness. I had an uncle who was aboard Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Based upon his experience, I'm sure I'd have preferred the vantage point of Yorktown, but I'd definitely like to have been a witness on the bridge of one of those carriers at Coral Sea. As the first carrier-to-carrier sea battle, Coral Sea set the stage for all subsequent Pacific War surface engagements. It would have been interesting to see history in the making as the admirals came to realize just how powerful their ship and aircraft striking teams could be.
    • H. P. Willmott: Philippine Sea.
    • Barrett Tillman: One battle: Midway. One campaign: Guadalcanal.
    • Ronald W. Russell: Midway, particularly the five-minute attack on the morning of 4 June 1942 that took three Japanese carriers out of the war, sealed the fate of a fourth, and instantly converted the Japanese from offense to defense for the rest of the war.
    • Alvin Kernan: The participants, on the bridge or in the engine room, see very little or nothing of the battles they fight. The broad overviews that make sense of everything are the province of the historians, and after years of work, their views of the great battles become the memories of even those who were there. I would want to see the battle of Leyte Gulf, but I would want to see it with a master historian's eye, from above. The last battle of ironclad battleships at Surigao Strait, the charge of the Japanese surface navy on the "Jeep" carriers providing support for the troops on Leyte, their frantic defense in the teeth of surface fire and air attack, the first kamikaze attacks from air forces on Luzon. Halsey's massive Third Fleet decoyed to the north where they destroyed the last four aircraft carriers of the Japanese navy, one of which, the Zuikaku had been at Pearl Harbor. The battles have different names but Leyte Gulf is at their center. It must have been a wonderful panorama of naval warfare, as it would never be fought again.
    • C. Peter Chen: The Battle of Midway, from any one of the fleet carriers. There is something to be said about the brotherhood of a ship's crew, and in the heat of battle the camaraderie really shines. The final conversation between Joichi Tomonaga and Tamon Yamaguchi aboard the Hiryu, the final attack wave over the Yorktown, and Akagi's valiant but unsuccessful attempt to deal with the simultaneous attack by torpedo and dive bombers are only some of the events that I would like to witness from the Battle of Midway if given the chance.
    • Stephen D. Regan: For very personal reasons I would have chosen the invasion at Bougainville by the Third Marine division as the battle I would love to have witnessed. My father was a corpsman with the Ninth Marines, a teenager who had never been away from Waukon, Iowa, and as green as Iowa corn. The Third Division had learned great and significant lessons from the battles at Guadalcanal, and this was a first opportunity to put those lessons in place. Every aspect of amphibious assault changed after Guadalcanal from load and unloading transports to combat medicine. While this particular battle is not one that arouses much interest around a university's history department lounge, it was about as good an assault that could be made at that time. Compared to Tarawa, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima, this battle is quite modest; but it was one that affected me personally. A picture of my father moments after landing as he works on wounded marines sits above my desk. I believe I would have liked to see that in real time.
  5. What was the best battlefield decision from the Pacific War?
    • Jon Parshall: Dick Best' decision to attack the Akagi.
    • H. P. Willmott: Lee at second Guadalcanal.
    • Lex McAulay: A sort of double-barrelled one: to deceive the Japanese about the Allied intention to attack Rabaul and to go to Hollandia instead.
    • Douglas V. Smith: Nimitz sending all of his strategic assets to Point Luck.
    • Michael Barnhart: To commence unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan. A close second would be Japan's commencement of ICHI-GO against China in mid-1944.
    • Peter Smith: McClusky's decision to turn north at the end of his outward search leg on Day 1 of Battle of Midway.
    • Nick Sarantakes: ADM Raymond A. Spruance's decision not to be drawn away from covering the amphibious force invading Saipan. He understood the inter-relationship between operational success and strategic success. The destruction of the Japanese naval aviation basically gave the U.S. Navy control of the sea, sinking a few more ships would have done nothing to improve that situation and only had the potential to jeopardize American ground forces.
    • Alvin Kernan: Lt. Commander Clarence Wade McClusky led Air Group Six off the Enterprise at the battle of Midway. McClusky was given and flew a course to the south of the Japanese carrier fleet, but kept on and when he saw a Japanese destroyer below him decided to follow it to the north and the enemy carriers. Once overhead he and his dive bombers put two Japanese carriers out of action. A third was destroyed by Maxwell Leslie and his dive bombers from the Yorktown. Fire and explosions later sank all three. Another carrier was finished off later in the afternoon. McClusky's persistence and his split-second decision to follow the destroyer were high points in the war.
    • Hal Friedman: I agree with those arguing about McCluskey's decision to a great extent, but I still have to go with Spruance's decision to sail in a box and keep Midway covered on 4-6 June 1942. If he had charged west that night, it might have made McCluskey's decision earlier that day mute by having the Enterprise and Hornet lost to long-lances by daybreak of 5 June.
    • John Burton: Traditionally, a battlefield decision is tactical, made on the scene, by a local commander. The Pacific War records are filled with accounts of reasoned choices, brilliant maneuvers, and just plain lucky guesses by officers in the field. Singling out one of these as a "best" hardly does justice to the others. At the strategic level, I would risk the provocation of much controversy to suggest that - short of not having had a war at all - the decision to utilize the Atomic Bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the best call of the conflict. Although General Curtis LeMay's nightly AAF fire-bombing campaign - conducted by hundreds of B-29 bombers - arguably caused more damage, and more casualties, than the "Bomb", the incredible threat posed by even a single "Atomic" B-29 finally provided the overwhelming influence necessary for Japan's leadership to end the war. The new "godlike" power of the Americans was finally enough to match the godlike power of the Emperor - and only godlike power could convince the Japanese people to accept the loss of face they would endure under the terms of an unconditional surrender. True, thousands were killed, but millions were undoubtedly saved - and the postwar world had its tangible example: even while the arsenals of mass destruction continued to grow, it was easy to see that nuclear war was something to be avoided.
    • Barrett Tillman: Wade McCluskey's decision to initiate an expanding square search at Midway.
    • Ronald W. Russell: Factoring in all tactical, strategic, and logistic decisions made at all levels, I'd go with President Truman's decision to use the A-bombs. That clearly tipped the emperor toward surrender, thus saving the lives of multiple thousands of U.S. troops who otherwise would have been fed into a homeland invasion meatgrinder. It also saved the lives of millions of Japanese who would have been sacrificed in the process.
    • Stephen D. Regan: Midway stands out as the greatest battle of World War II in the Pacific. Japan calls this the Battle that Doomed Japan for good reason because it indeed was the turning point for their aspirations militarily, economically, and governmentally. Nimitz fought huge internal battles with his Washington superiors, those who believed in a more conservative approach to the war, and those who thought it prudent to protect Hawaii. He staked his fleet and his reputation on this bold stroke, and he won. His decision suddenly turned the entire outlook on the Pacific. It changed Roosevelt's mind about the "Europe first" concept, it restored a beleaguered nation's pride, it bought time for America to re- tool for war, it brought retribution for Pearl Harbor, it spot-lighted Spruance's brilliance, and it cemented his own authority in the Pacific. Nimitz's decisions regarding Midway are the essence of greatness, the kernels of history.
  6. What was the worst battlefield decision during the Pacific War?
    • H. P. Willmott: The Japanese decision to go to war with the United States, end of conversation.

      Halsey's decision to run to the north.

      Halsey's decision to run to the south.
    • Peter Smith: Fletcher's withdrawal of the carriers at Guadalcanal.
    • Lex McAulay: To invade the Philippines.
    • Jon Parshall: Yamamoto's decision to send Carrier Division 5 to Coral Sea.
    • Hal Friedman: Others will probably take me to task for this, but I still think it was the Japanese failure to more decisively damage Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
    • Douglas V. Smith: Admiral Yamamoto's Midway Operation
    • Donald Goldstein: The whole Philippines campaign by Douglas MacArthur.
    • Michael Barnhart: Imphal offensive by Japan, 1944.
    • Nick Sarantakes: VADM Mikawa Gunichi's decision to retreat after his victory in the Battle of Savo Island. He did not understood the inter-relationship between operational success and strategic success. He could have destroyed the transports and the force invading Guadalcanal, ending early what turned out to be a costly attrition campaign. His operational success did little to change the strategic environment of the Guadalcanal campaign.
    • Barrett Tillman: Maybe Halsey's run north from Leyte, leaving the 'phibs' exposed even after his own night fliers located Kurita headed east through San Bernardino Strait the night of October 24th-25th.
    • John Burton: In retrospect, bad battlefield decisions were made on practically every day of the Pacific War, by the armed forces of all nations involved. Determining a "worst" can only be done in the context of a matter of degree.

      One decision-making debacle that the Imperial Japanese Navy would always regret - one that caused its most significant day of loss during the entire war - was the indecision of Admiral Nagumo at Midway. The series of orders and countermands that changed the mission and composition of his air strikes against the island outpost and the surrounding U.S. Navy carrier task forces left Japan's four carriers in the precarious position that allowed for their complete destruction. With open caches of switched weapons left in hangars and on decks, IJN damage control parties never stood a chance once American bombs began to fall.
    • C. Peter Chen: At the start of the Battle of Midway, the Japanese Navy had six fleet carriers in its fleet. When Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were all on their ways down, Tamon Yamaguchi aboard the carrier Hiryu decided to remain in the battle, effectively sealing Hiryu's fate to join the other carriers. Granted that Yamaguchi's belief made a honorable withdraw difficult, but had he been able to make the decision to sacrifice his honor and save his life instead, thus that of Hiryu's, the additional fleet carrier and its experienced crew might had made some difference down the road.
    • Alvin Kernan: Four squadrons of American torpedo planes attacked a Japanese fleet invading Midway, one squadron after another, on the morning of June 4, 1942. In all, fifty-one planes tried to hit four Japanese carriers with torpedoes that day. Only seven landed back at base. This comes to an aircraft loss of over 86 percent. Out of 128 pilots and crew who were in the torpedo planes that day, 29 survived, 99 died. And not one torpedo exploded against the hull of a Japanese ship. The American torpedo planes were almost all obsolete, the pilots had little or no training in dropping torpedoes, the torpedoes were themselves scandalously defective, and torpedo-launching procedure was suicidal. The only chance the torpedo planes had was the all-out attack developed by the navy during the 1930's in which dive bombers would attack first, occupying the attention of the anti-aircraft , while the fighters took on the combat air patrol, and the torpedo planes slipped in at sea level and delivered the ship-sinking blows. But it was difficult to get these three different types of planes, with different air speeds and fuel capacities, simultaneously to a target about 150 miles away on June 4th. No real effort was made to keep the various strikes together and they went to their targets almost entirely separately. The torpedo squadrons arrived first and alone and one after another went to their death, the last being destroyed while the late arriving dive bombers began blasting the carriers, distracted by the torpedo planes rather than the other way round. There were many catastrophic actions in the Pacific War-ignoring the radar at Pearl Harbor, lining the cruisers up like sheep at Savo Island-but none is sadder than the destruction of the American torpedo squadrons at the battle of Midway. If a name is wanted it would be Captain Miles Browning, one of the most disliked men in the navy and the chief of staff of Admiral Raymond Spruance on the Enterprise, who failed to exercise control over her air group and that of the Hornet.
    • Ronald W. Russell: MacArthur again-the return to the Philippines. Yes, the Filipinos and Allied prisoners were suffering there, but it was strategically unnecessary and absorbed a vast amount of U.S. military power that could have been used far more effectively elsewhere. If Iwo Jima had been assaulted in 1944 instead of the P.I., it could have been taken at a fraction of the ghastly losses that actually occurred in '45. That would have brought many more aircrews in shot-up B-29s to safety, and it would have obviated the needless casualties at Leyte and throughout the Philippines. But MacArthur's pride took a hit when he had to retreat in 1942, so 5000 Marines had to die on Iwo in order to assuage his pompous ego.
    • Stephen D. Regan: Pelelui was without question one of the worst decisions of the war, and it remains an open wound for Pacific war Marine veterans. The decision to attack the Palau Islands was made for political reasons rather than military significance. President Roosevelt saw a victory as great publicity immediately before the 1944 elections, taking the press attention away from FDR's Republican opposition and allowing the President to be seen as a great Commander-in-Chief.

      While this specific thought was not on the agenda at the Roosevelt meeting with MacArthur and Nimitz, it certainly played into the President's hand. MacArthur held gigantic popularity in stateside and immense power in the military. Literally, no one in any branch of the service had the courage to openly oppose MacArthur, and MacArthur wanted an attack on Pelelui. His recent battles in the South Pacific were over. He believed that the means of defeating the Japanese rested on the re-taking of the Philippines and eventually hitting Japan from the south through Formosa.

      Admiral King, a megalomaniac himself, decided that an attack on the Palau Islands would keep MacArthur from interfering in other Navy decisions and strategies. Both King and Nimitz were keenly aware that Roosevelt was wary of MacArthur and did not wish to confront the General; furthermore, the approaching elections needed a bit of boost from the war that was already tiring the American public. FDR was also aware that MacArthur was not above playing some political cards himself during the election campaign. The Palau invasion would keep the General happy and occupied. The Navy recognized that opposition to the plans were wasted energy.

      Peleliu was one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history. Its cost in men and equipment shocked the Marine Corps to their foundations; but more importantly, it served no purpose in the war. Two thousand Marines of the vaunted First Marine Division were killed and many times that were wounded. Over 1500 rounds of ammunition were expended for each Japanese killed in a battle that had no military importance in the Pacific. It was a political game and nothing more.
  7. Which Pacific War participant do you admire the most?
    • Donald Goldstein: Raymond Spruance.
    • Nick Sarantakes: Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay
    • H. P. Willmott: A worker in the yards at Pearl Harbor and on the West Coast.
    • Peter Smith: Takashige Egusa.
    • Douglas V. Smith and Jon Parshall: Chester Nimitz
    • Hal Friedman: It's still Spruance for me, but many of the American squadron leaders at Midway are up there, as are some surface commanders such as Vice Admirals Willis Lee and Jesse Oldendorf.
    • John Burton: I definitely have my favorites among the leaders of the Pacific War commands, at all levels; some because of their personalities, some for their achievements. Forced to choose but one to admire, I would have to say that I'm a big fan of Brigadier General Harold "Hal" George. Hal George was one of the few generals who managed to retain his own shine under the bright, self-illuminating spotlight of General MacArthur. He excelled at getting consistently good results from organizations that were always challenged by a lack of resource. It appears that General George was also quite capable of dealing with the difficult personalities of some of the hidebound senior officers who failed to see the differences between the Pacific War and the previous World War. One can only imagine what Hal George might have accomplished had he not been killed in a tragic aircraft accident upon his evacuation to Australia from the Philippines. Those who served under his command had faith in his ability; they would go wherever he went, and never doubt his commitment to the cause or to them. With such a high degree of determination on the part of his troops, George could always expect to succeed.
    • Ronald W. Russell: Every young U.S. radioman-gunner who got into the rear cockpit of a dive or torpedo bomber in 1942, launched from a carrier in his overloaded 1930s vintage flying machine, then faced swarms of the world's best fighter with one or two machine guns that fired the same size bullet as a deer rifle.
    • Barrett Tillman: Impossible to say, partly because I've known so many great ones. My taste runs toward aviators like Marion Carl, Joe Foss, Bill Leonard, Jig Dog Ramage, Alex Vraciu, Ken Walsh, etc, etc.
    • Michael Barnhart: Hirohito, who took considerable personal risk to shut down the Imperial Army's death grip on Japan in the summer of 1945.
    • Alvin Kernan: Lt. Commander John Charles Waldron, was part Oglala Sioux from Rapid City South Dakota. He graduated from Annapolis in 1924 and commanded Torpedo Squadron Eight, on board the USS Hornet, a new ship, at the battle of Midway. An impulsive man he was convinced when his air group flew out to attack the Japanese at that battle that they were on a course too far north to intercept the Japanese fleet. He and his commanding officer, the air group commander, Lt. Commander Stanhope Cotton Ring, broke radio silence to argue loudly about the right course to the enemy, and when Ring ordered Waldron to follow him on 265 degrees, Waldron told him to go to hell and flew off to his left to hit the Japanese head on about an hour later. His squadron was all alone but Waldron put them into attack formation and bored in. He was shot down in flames on his wing early in the run, and in a few minutes all his squadron, except one man, Ensign George Gay, were dead. Mostly they were killed by Japanese fighters, the deadly Zero, before they dropped, but in any event they did not get a single hit, though the navy gave Gay a hit. Heroism here, as is so often the case, is mixed with rashness and failure. Waldron broke radio silence, disobeyed orders in the face of the enemy, and led his squadron to destruction. But his heroism still blazes bright in the midst of a battle of tragic mistakes and lucky successes.
    • Stephen D. Regan: Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz must be considered one of this nation's greatest heroes. His uncanny ability to work with a menagerie of huge egomaniacs, recognize political as well as military issues in each decision, and make consistently excellent judgments are virtually unparalleled in military history. Nimitz hired and fired with finesse, rendered difficult assessments, and possessed the intelligence and determination to succeed. He certainly was the right man for the position, and absolutely no one else in the Navy could have done as good a job. Victory in the Pacific rest largely on the shoulders of this unassuming sailor from Texas. Without hesitation, he deserves and receives my admiration.

Pritzker Military Library Presents

Jim Bresnahan discusses the Pacific War and counterfactual scenarios with historians Jon Parshall, Elliot Carlson, and John Lundstrom at the Pritzker Military Library on 29 Mar 2012. To watch the video, please visit Pritzker Military Library's website.