The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia
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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
Force in January 1944, alternating command with "Slew"
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
planning and direction of most of the major U.S. carrier operations
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
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
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
commander, who both Prange and Tillman bluntly assess as having been
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
||Born in Hillsboro, Wisconsin
||Graduates from Naval Academy,
standing 106th in a class of 130. Assigned to BB Colorado
||Flight training, North Carolina
||Pensacola Naval Air Station
||Seaplane Division 1
||Executive officer, LangleyAircraft, Solomon Islands|
||Bureau of Aeronautics
||Executive officer, Saratoga
||Commander, Patrol Wing 1
||Assistant chief, Bureau of
||Commander, Patrol Wing 2, Noumea|
Air Command Noumea
||Commander, Aircraft, Solomon
Air, West Coast
||Commander, Carrier Division 3
Carrier Force (Task Force 38/58)
Fast Carrier Task Force
||Deputy chief of naval operations
||Commander, 8 Fleet
||Commander, Atlantic Fleet
Dupuy et al. (1992)
Historical Center (accessed 2008-1-26)
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