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Fletcher, Frank Jack (1885-1973)


Photograph of Admiral Frank Fletcher

National Archives #80-G-14193

Frank Jack Fletcher was born in Iowa, the son of a middle-class Union Army veteran and nephew of Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher, who inspired him to join the Navy. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1906 and commanded a destroyer with the Asiatic Fleet by 1910, where he won the gunnery trophy in spring battle practice. He won a Medal of Honor at Vera Cruz in 1914 for his rescue of refugees on the S.S. Esperanza. He commanded a destroyer in World War I, saw brief action in the Philippine Uprising of 1924, and served in variety of posts thereafter. He was a graduate of both the Naval War College (1930) and the Army War College (1931). Though he had a reputation as an extremely capable officer among those with whom he most closely served, he attracted the envy of others for his connections in high places and his repeated postings in Washington. He enrolled for flight training in early 1928, but was rejected on account of inadequate eyesight.

Fletcher played a prominent role in the early days of the Pacific War, but historians have not been entirely kind to him. At the outbreak of war, he was in command of Cruiser Division 6, and was on maneuvers south of Oahu with a task force built around Minneapolis. Already tapped to become Commander, Cruisers, Battle Force, he was given command of the Lexington force by Kimmel in January 1942. Kimmel thought highly enough of Fletcher that he was on a short list of three admirals that Kimmel recommended to Stark as his own replacement. Fletcher commanded U.S. forces in more carrier battles than any other admiral, and lost none of them: Midway was a decisive American victory, and Coral Sea and Eastern Solomons probably count as marginal American victories. In so doing, Fletcher was pioneering a new form of naval warfare, with all the uncertainties  involved, in the face of a superior opponent. In spite of this record, King removed Fletcher from combat command by making him commander of 13 Naval District in Seattle. King felt that Fletcher had been insufficiently aggressive in his battles, but it is less than clear that the record supports this.

Wake. Fletcher commanded the Saratoga task force in the Wake relief expedition, but was limited by the speed of his oiler, which was just 12 knots. A further delay was incurred when Fletcher paused just outside air search range of the Japanese to refuel his escorting destroyers. He encountered considerable difficulty doing so: Sea conditions were poor, with moderate winds and a long cross-swell. Navy crews were still relatively inexperienced at underway refueling, and seven oil lines were parted and only four destroyers were refueled in ten hours. Fletcher clearly was still surface-oriented in his thinking: He flew his flag in Astoria and did not conform his movements to Saratoga, leaving her behind when she turned into the wind to conduct air operations.

Morison (1948) suggests that Fletcher should have left his destroyers behind and made a high-speed run in to attack with Saratoga escorted by his cruisers, but Lundstrom (2006) counters that even Fletcher's cruisers needed refueling before they could engage in high-speed operations. Fletcher's conduct in this operation does not otherwise suggest a lack of aggressiveness. A junior gunnery officer remembered Fletcher throwing his cap to the deck in disgust when the recall order was received, but Fletcher sensibly assumed that Pye knew something he didn't, and he did no more than linger in the area for several hours, while continuing to refuel, in hopes that Pye would have a change of heart. But because of the tremendous influence of Morison's history of the Pacific War, his criticisms became entrenched in postwar historiography. Admiral Vincent R. Murphy, who was one of McMorris' planners in 1941, described Morison's treatment of the relief expedition as "not even a reasonable facsimile of history" that "does grave injustice to Admiral Fletcher ... [The] failure to relieve Wake was due, not to poor seamanship and want of decisive action, but to the presence of two Jap first line carriers" (Lundstrom 2006.)

Fletcher showed ample willingness to fight in subsequent operations, including the early strikes against the Marshalls. At the Battle of the Coral Sea, Fletcher charged north to launch strikes at the Japanese occupation force at Tulagi and west to strike at the Shoho. Ironically, the strike at Tulagi gave away the element of surprise, and the strike at Shoho prevented a strike at the Shokaku and Zuikaku. The loss of Lexington and damage to Yorktown led Fletcher to withdraw, which drew criticism from King but ensured that Yorktown would be available for the battle of Midway.

Midway. At Midway, Fletcher faithfully carried out the operational plan developed by Nimitz. This gave Spruance the role of striking at the first Japanese carriers sighted while Fletcher provided cover against any additional Japanese carriers. However, this did not prevent Yorktown from making a crucial contribution to the victory. Lundstrom (2006) argues that Fletcher handled carrier operations more expertly than Spruance, Mitscher, or Halsey's staff. However, the loss of Yorktown was the second time Fletcher had lost a carrier under his command, and Fletcher's unselfish decision to turn tactical command over to Spruance at 1811 on 4 June, after Yorktown had been badly damaged, has led many historians to emphasize Spruance's role in the victory at the expense of Fletcher.

Guadalcanal. Fletcher made the most controversial decision of his career on the evening of 8 August 1942, the day after the Guadalcanal landings, when he radioed Ghormley for permission to withdraw his his carrier forces due to increased enemy submarine and land-based air activity. This decision was denounced as craven by Turner, though Fletcher's withdrawal was approved by Ghormley and in keeping with Nimitz' instructions to be governed by the principle of calculated risk.

Lundstrom (2006) has analyzed Fletcher's decision and concludes that it was much more prudent than his critics acknowledged, given the information available to Fletcher at the time. Turner had told Fletcher that his transports would be unloaded and away from Guadalcanal by the end of the second day, leaving five cargo ships to finish unloading. Communications between Fletcher and Turner were terrible, and as a result the only progress report that Fletcher actually saw from Turner indicated that things were going smoothly. In fact, they were not, and unloading was taking far longer than anticipated. Fletcher was also concerned about his fuel supply, based on estimates by Kinkaid that were probably too pessimistic, but Lundstrom concludes that fuel was a more serious concern than Morison (1949) acknowledged. When Fletcher arrived at his refueling rendezvous on 10 August, some of his destroyers were down to 12 to 15 percent of fuel capacity.

Perhaps the most crucial element of Fletcher's decision was his expectation, which ultimately proved quite correct, that Japan would react very strongly to the Guadalcanal landings. Fletcher had already lost 20% of his fighter strength, a larger number of aircraft than at either Coral Sea or Midway, and there were no replacements nearer than Pearl Harbor at this point in the campaign. He felt a strong need to conserve his force for the carrier battle he was certain would shortly take place. He was under the impression that the Marines had all been landed and most of the transport force was already clearing the area. There was no question of his loitering in the area for the entire length of time required to get Henderson Field in operation, and he had been told by Nimitz that the Marines were prepared to dig in and absorb air attacks. Loitering an extra day with his precious carriers to protect five cargo ships as they unloaded supplies did not seem prudent when he had a carrier battle to prepare for. However, this action earned Fletcher lasting enmity from the Marines as well as Turner and King.

In the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, Fletcher came out marginally ahead, but the victory might have been more decisive if Fletcher had not been short a carrier due to a decision to send the Wasp south to refuel at the crucial moment. However, Fletcher was acting on erroneous intelligence that the Japanese carriers were still a thousand miles away, and his decision to refuel in anticipation of the big battle was a reasonable decision given what he knew at the time. He was further hampered by poor reconnaissance both by his own carrier aircraft and by the ground-based forces of McCain. Nimitz was highly critical of Fletcher's failure to pursue the retreating Japanese, based on further erroneous intelligence that Nagumo had suffered catastrophic losses to his air groups. In fact, while Nagumo's losses were not insignificant (he lost about 24 percent of his aircraft on the day of the carrier duel) they were hardly crippling, and the Japanese withdrew out of a mistaken belief that they had crushed the Americans and completed their mission.

Relieved of sea duty. On 31 August 1942, Saratoga was hit by a single torpedo from submarine I-26 that flooded a fire room, knocked out the turboelectric drive, and shook the ship like a "house in a severe earthquake." Fletcher "banged his head against something" (Lundstrom 2006) and suffered a bloody cut that forced him to call a pharmacist's mate to bandage his forehead. He was duly entered into the casualty list — eleven others had been injured, none fatally — and, to his considerable embarrassment, he was later awarded the Purple Heart. Though the wound was minor, there is no question it met the criteria for the decoration.

As Saratoga struggled back to Hawaii, Fletcher was relieved as Commander, Task Force 61, since he was no longer in the South Pacific to direct carrier operations there. It seems likely that Nimitz intended to turn over the carrier command to Halsey but leave Fletcher in command of the Saratoga task force after she was repaired. However, King had lost all confidence in Fletcher, and he found an excuse to retire Fletcher from combat command when an opening came up for a new commandant for 13 Naval District. Contrary to some accounts, Fletcher was not relieved on account of his minor wound; he had never reported it to his superiors. Fletcher relieved Thomas Kinkaid as the commander of North Pacific Area in October 1943, which, although a combat command, was by then becoming a secondary theater. Fletcher remained here for the rest of the war, receiving the surrender of Japanese forces in northern Japan at Mutsu Bay on 9 September 1945.

Fletcher was well liked by those who served with him. His talker described him as "Very cordial, level-headed and decisive" (Lundstrom 2006). He was somewhat taciturn, rarely smiled, and was disinclined to micromanage. He was fond of iced coffee, Westerns, and smoking a corncob pipe. His first radar operator, on Lexington, recalls that he was pleasantly surprised to find the admiral so interested in the potential of radar, and it was Fletcher who first recommended that carrier task forces be equipped with a battle intelligence staff capable of picking up and interpreting Japanese tactical radio transmissions.

Were it not for Fletcher's actions during the Guadalcanal invasion, he might have gone down in history as a great admiral with an outstanding record. Fletcher's withdrawal, together with the antipathy of aviators for the "black-shoe carrier admiral" (Lundstrom 2006), colored all subsequent histories of Fletcher. One historian (Prange 1982) has described Fletcher at Midway as "a man of talent who had the brains and character to give a free hand to a man of genius." Samuel Eliot Morison was somewhat less generous, allegedly as payback because Fletcher declined to be interviewed by him. One of Fletcher's staff described Fletcher to Prange as "a big, nice, wonderful guy who didn't know his butt from third base." Lundstrom (2006) has done a recent superb study of Fletcher's combat career that throws a more favorable light on his record, concluding that "With Fletcher, truly a fighting admiral who never lost a battle, nothing was forgiven and very little applauded."

Service record

1885-4-29     

Born at Marshalltown, Iowa
1906
Ensign     
Graduates from Naval Academy, standing 26th in a class of 116
1910

Commander, DD Dale
1914
Lieutenant

1917-11

Commander, SP Margaret
1918
Commander
Commander, DD Benham
1927

Executive officer, BB Colorado
1929

Navy War College
1930

Army War College
1931-9
Captain
Chief of staff, Asiatic Fleet
1933

Aide to the Secretary of the Navy
1936

Commander, BB New Mexico
1938

Chief, Burea of Navigation
1939-11
Rear admiral    
Commander, Cruiser Division 3
1940-6

Commander, Cruiser Division 6
1941-12-31     

Commander, Cruisers, Scouting Forces, Pacific/Commander, Cruiser Division 4
1942-2-6

Commander, Cruisers, Scouting Forces, Pacific/Commander, Cruisers, Battle Force Pacific
1942-4-10

Commander, Cruisers, Pacific Fleet
1942-6-26
Vice admiral     

1942-11-21     

Commander, 11 Naval District
1943-10-11     

Commander, North Pacific Area
1946

Chairman of the General Board
1947-6-1
Admiral     
Retires
1973-4-25     

Dies

Photo Gallery


Photograph of Frank J. Fletcher

U.S. Navy

Photograph of Frank J. Fletcher and his pipe

U.S. Navy

Photograph of Frank J. Fletcher at Adak

U.S. Navy

Photograph of Frank J. Fletcher as a young officer in civilian clothes

U.S. Navy

Photograph of Frank J. Fletcher

USMC


References

Dupuy et.al. (1992)

Lundstrom (2006)

Morison (1949)
Pettibone (2006)

Prange (1982)

Spector (1985)
Tuohy (2007)



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