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Mitscher, Marc Andrew (1887-1947)



National Archives #80-G-424169

"Pete" Mitscher was born in Wisconsin and was a 1910 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, graduating near the bottom of his class. He served five years in battleships and took part in the Vera Cruz landing in 1914 before taking flight training in 1915, graduating as Naval Aviator #33. He received the Navy Cross for an attempted transatlantic flight in May 1919 that got as far as the Azores. Because of his obvious ability, and a law passed by Congress that reserved aviation-related commands to aviators, Mitscher was given numerous responsible postings between the wars, culminating in his appointment as captain of the Hornet just weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mitscher's ship took the Doolittle Raiders to Japan and was on its way to Midway when Mitscher was promoted to rear admiral.

Spruance was unimpressed by Mitscher's performance at Midway. The Hornet's air group contributed the least to the victory of any of the three carriers', and Lundstrom (2006) believes this was because Mitscher sent his air group off on a wild goose chase after a nonexistent second Japanese carrier group. Spruance almost certainly shared his criticisms with Nimitz, and thereby nearly derailed Mitscher's career. Nimitz changed his mind about giving Mitscher command of Task Force 17 and instead gave him a shore assignment as Commander, Patrol Wing 2.

Patrol Wing 2 was deployed at Noumea and played an important role in the Guadalcanal campaign. This helped Mitscher regain Nimitz' trust, and Mitscher took command of all Allied air assets in the Solomons in April 1943. During the next four months, his forces claimed 500 Japanese aircraft and dropped 2000 tons of of bombs, but Mitscher himself was wrung dry. When he was rotated back to the States in August 1943, a friend remarked that "Pete doesn't look a day over eighty." Many of his fellow officers doubted he would ever again hold a sea command. But within weeks Mitscher wrote to John Towers, Nimitz's air deputy, saying, "Dear Jack: I am feeling great now. When do I get out of here?" He soon was called on to replace Pownall as commander of the Pacific Fleet's fast carriers when Pownall proved to be an unaggressive commander.

Mitscher first took command of Fast Carrier Force in January 1944, alternating command with "Slew" McCain throughout the remainder of the war. When the fast carriers were operating under Mitscher, they were known as Task Force 58; when operating under McCain, they were known as Task Force 38. Mitscher led Task Force 58 with great skill and was responsible for the tactical planning and direction of most of the major U.S. carrier operations in the last year and a half of the war. Mitscher was under the command of 5 Fleet and his old nemesis, Spruance, and it took a long time for the two men to build any rapport. The controversies around Spruance's handling of the Battle of the Philippine Sea should be viewed in this context. However, it was Spruance's command style to assign missions to his subordinate commanders and then let them carry them out their own way, which gave Mitscher considerable latitude to exercise his impressive talents.

Mitscher had the assistance of one of the best chiefs of staff in the history of the Navy, Arleigh Burke. When King ordered that all aviator commanders have a surface force chief of staff, and vice versa, Mitscher accepted his outgoing chief of staff's recommendation of Burke. By the time the former chief of staff was ready to fly out, several weeks later, Mitscher told him, "Well, Truman, it looks like this Burke's going to turn out real good." So it proved, and Burke eventually became Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy's senior officer, in the postwar Navy.

Mitscher was much beloved by his aviators. At the battle of the Philippine Sea, Mitscher took the risk of having his fleet turn on all searchlights so that his pilots, returning at night after a dusk strike, would have a chance to make it to their ships. He was a small man and almost as ugly as Bill Halsey , so that some observers described him as gnomish. He shared Halsey's loathing for the Japanese, but was anything but loud and flamboyant. His normal speech was barely above a whisper. Tuohy (2007) relates the following anecdote:

In Mitscher's first week in Noumea, a marine orderly, told by the duty officer to wake a junior officer for a midnight phone call, got into the wrong tent and woke up the grizzled rear admiral.

"You're wanted on the phone, sir," said the young marine.

Blinking, Mitscher replied: "Be damned if I'm going to answer the phone, private."

The private reported back to the duty officer that he couldn't find the junior officer but did wake up "a grouchy old chief."

When the marine pointed out the tent in question, the duty officer paled. But Mitscher took it lightly the next morning, pointing out that being mistaken for a chief petty officer was honorable, and besides the South Pacific was no place for stuffy admirals.

Mitscher's inattention to detail led him to rely heavily on his subordinates, with whom he tended to develop a strong mutual loyalty. This sometimes had unfortunate consequences, as when he put too much faith in the Hornet's air group commander, who both Prange and Tillman bluntly assess as having been incompetent. At the same time, Mitscher had a hard time accepting advice and could be stubborn. Jimmy Thatch once said that Mitscher "had his own convictions and he didn't see the need to hear from anybody else much." Tillman (2010) quotes colleagues who bluntly said that Mitscher "wasn't real bright", and claims the admiral was reluctant to try anything new and unproven. Notwithstanding these failings, Bogan said of him (Tuohy 2007):

Pete Mitscher was a consummate master of naval air power. When he ran it, it was a professional outfit, doing a professional job, in a professional way.

Most Navy aviators would have agreed with this assessment.

Service record

1887-1-26     

Born in Hillsboro, Wisconsin
1910-6-10
Midshipman
Graduates from Naval Academy, standing 106th in a class of 130. Assigned to BB Colorado
1912-3-7
Ensign
San Diego
1915-9

Flight training, North Carolina
1916-6

Pensacola Naval Air Station
1919

Seaplane Division 1
1926

CV Saratoga
1929
Commander
Executive officer, LangleyAircraft, Solomon Islands
1932

Bureau of Aeronautics
1934

Executive officer, Saratoga
1937
Captain
Commander, Wright
1938

Commander, Patrol Wing 1
1939-10

Assistant chief, Bureau of Aeronautics
1941-10-20     
    
Commander, Hornet
1942-6-15
Rear admiral     
Commander, Patrol Wing 2, Noumea
1942-12-14

Commander, Fleet Air Command Noumea
1943-4

Commander, Aircraft, Solomon Islands
1943-8-25

Commander, Fleet Air, West Coast
1944-1

Commander, Carrier Division 3
1944-1-6
Vice admiral
Commander, Fast Carrier Force (Task Force 38/58)
1944-8-5

Commander, 1 Fast Carrier Task Force
1945-8-14

Deputy chief of naval operations for air
1946-3-1
Admiral
Commander, 8 Fleet
1946-9

Commander, Atlantic Fleet
1947-2-3

Dies

References

Boatner (1996)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

Lundstrom (2006)
Morison (1953)

Naval Historical Center (accessed 2008-1-26)
Pettibone (2006)

Prange (1982)

Tillman (2005, 2010)
Tuohy (2007)


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