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National Archives #80-G-225341
In 1924, as Bill
Halsey was preparing to turn over command of destroyer Osborne to Ray Spruance, he advised
the bridge crew that they should not let Spruance's quiet
manner deceive them into thinking they were getting anything but an
competent commander. The crew soon learned that Spruance liked a quiet
bridge, without extraneous chit-chat or the use of first names, and
with orders given concisely and clearly. Tuohy (2007) recounts a
Once in the harbor of Bizerte in French Tunisia, Osborne was anchored in 6 fathoms, or 36 feet, of water. A distraught torpedo officer rushed to the bridge and reported, "Captain, we've just dropped a depth charge over the stern!"
"Well, pick it up and put it back," was Spruance's measured response.
The brainy officer later served three tours at the prestigious Naval
War College, one as a student and two as an instructor. As a student,
he wrote admiringly of Japanese
Admiral Togo, victor of the Battle of Tsushima,
who kept his patience and cool head in battle and whose
command style was to give his subordinates considerable freedom of
action and let them exercise their initiative. These were the qualities
that would characterize Spruance himself as a flag officer.
Things move so fast in naval actions, and the consequences that hang on the results of these actions are often so momentous, that fast teamwork is essential. Teamwork is something that comes best from associations, training and indoctrination. There are too many variables possible in war for everything to be foreseen and planned for ahead of time. Our plans can be made out in great detail up to the time we hit the enemy. After that, they have to be flexible, ready to counter what the enemy may try to do to us, and ready to take advantage of the breaks that may come to us. To do that, the man on the spot must know where he fits into the operation, and he must be able to act on his own initiative either without any orders at all, because radio silence may be in effect, or on very brief orders because there is not time for long instructions.
After war broke out in Europe, Spruance was named commandant of 10
Naval District, covering the
Caribbean Sea. The destroyers-for-bases
agreement in September 1940
focused attention on 10 Naval District, and Spruance received frequent
visits from the upper brass. This
included Ernest King, future
commander of the U.S. Fleet, and the two officers developed a mutual
respect. When the Marines
held landing exercises at Culebra,
Puerto Rico, King invited Spruance to observed the exercises from
King's flagship, where Spruance became acquainted with "Howling Mad" Smith, the Marine amphibious landing expert.
Spruance concluded that Smith was a man who knew his business.
By the time war broke out in the Pacific, Spruance was a rear
admiral and commander of Cruiser Division 5.
When Nimitz took over Pacific Fleet,
he assigned a second junior admiral to each of his carrier task forces
to command its screen and lead any surface attack group that might be
detached from the task force. Spruance was assigned to screen Halsey's carrier task force, and
led its surface attack group in the bombardment of Wotje during the Marshalls raid of 1
February 1942. When Halsey fell ill before the
asked him to name his own
Halsey named Spruance.
Nimitz had already
decided to appoint Spruance as his chief of staff, but delayed the
until after the victory at Midway.
Spruance had no aviation experience, but he was to be assisted by the brilliant if erratic Captain Miles Browning, Halsey's chief of staff. This did not work out well. "Halsey had the facility of taking the best advice of Browning and overruling him when his own judgement came into conflict", and he was sorely missed at the battle. Spruance's inexperience left him little choice but to let Browning run the air show, and Browning "did a terrible job" (Lundstrom 2006). Fortunately Nimitz had given Fletcher and Spruance a sound operational plan, which called for Fletcher to provide cover while Spruance launched a full deck load strike as soon as Japanese carriers were sighted and within range. The Japanese would presumably be preoccupied with striking at Midway, giving Spruance the opportunity to ambush the Japanese as they were refueling and rearming their aircraft. As it turned out, the Japanese had not divided their carrier force the way Nimitz expected, and Fletcher launched his own strike after a search failed to detect a second Japanese carrier force. The results were devastating. Spruance's and Fletcher's strikes chanced to arrive over the Japanese force at almost the same moment, and in just seven minutes the Dauntlesses knocked out three of the four fleet carriers in Nagumo's force.
After Fletcher's flagship, Yorktown, was badly damaged by a counter strike of Japanese dive bombers, Fletcher turned tactical command of the American force over to Spruance, whose carriers launched a second strike that destroyed the fourth Japanese carrier, Hiryu. Spruance then made the controversial decision to sail east during the night. Spruance was criticized for letting so much of the Japanese Navy escape, but destruction of the Japanese fleet was never an expectation for this battle, and postwar analysis confirms that Spruance would have run directly into Yamamoto's powerful surface force, which was superbly trained for night actions, had he chosen to pursue the enemy.
Following the battle of Midway, one of Spruance's staff read aloud a radio news report of a particularly gruesome murder in the United States. Another staff officer wondered how anyone but a madman could be capable of such a thing. Spruance quietly replied, "What do you think I have been doing all morning?" Spruance would later speak against the fire bombing of Japanese cities.
Two weeks after Midway, Spruance relieved Draemel as Nimitz' chief of
staff. He thus escaped "the Solomons
vortex that consumed so many careers" (Lundstrom 2006). Here
Spruance worked in an office with a stand-up desk and no chairs
whatsoever, which discouraged visitors from staying too long. It seems clear
that Nimitz was grooming Spruance to be the second
admiral in the Pacific and the commander of the fighting fleet, but
Spruance could never get out from under Halsey's shadow. In the last
two years of the
war, the two men took turns commanding the main combat elements of the
Fleet. These were known as 3 Fleet when Halsey
command and 5 Fleet
when Spruance commanded. Captain George Dyer said of the two leaders
My feeling was one of confidence when Spruance was there. When you moved into Admiral Spruance's command from Admiral Halsey's ... you moved from an area in which you never knew what you were going to do in the next five minutes or how you were going to do it, because the printed instructions were never up to date.... He never did things the same way twice. When you moved into Admiral Spruance's command, the printed instructions were up to date, and you did things in accordance with them.
Spruance was strongly criticized by
aviators for failing to
aggressively pursue the Japanese
fleet at the Battle of the Philippine
Sea. Spruance understood
his primary mission to be supporting the invasion of Saipan,
and he took no chance of a
Japanese force slipping
in behind him. His fear was not unreasonable. Prados (1995) reports
that Spruance had an intelligence
digest, based on documents captured from Combined Fleet chief of staff Fukudome by Filipino guerrillas, indicating
for such an end run. King supported Spruance, telling him that
"Spruance, you did a damn fine job there. No matter what other people
tell you, your decision was correct" (Tuohy 2007). Spruance's fast
carrier commander, Marc Mitscher,
told Arleigh Burke that (ibid.):
You and I have been in many battles, and we know there are always some mistakes. This time we were right because the enemy did what we expected him to do. Admiral Spruance could have been right. He's one of the finest officers I know of. It was his job to protect the landing force....
Ironically, Halsey would later take criticism for aggressively pursuing a Japanese carrier force and leaving the Leyte invasion forces vulnerable to Kurita's surface force, which slipped in behind him. Halsey later commented that it might have been better if he had been in command during the Philippines Sea battle and Spruance in command at Leyte. However, both battles were decisive American victories. Captain Watanabe Yasuji, who had served on Yamamoto's staff, said of Spruance in his imperfect English (Larrabee 1987):
He had an air admiral's best character — strong, straight thinker, not impulsive fluctuating thinker; he aims right at main point and go, no stop. This is good admiral.
Halsey and Spruance were polar opposites in many respects.
Unlike Halsey, who
was an aggressive, flamboyant, and vulgar aviator, much beloved of his
Spruance was an admiral's admiral – cool,
intellectual, and calculating, with
no aviation experience and no love for publicity. He was a nonsmoker
and could often be found exercising on the deck of his flagship, and he
insisted on an undisturbed night's sleep when not actually conducting
I believe that making war is a game that requires cold and careful calculation. It might be a very serious thing if we turned the wrong way, just once.
Notwithstanding their different personalities, Spruance and Halsey were close friends, which helped make this unusual command arrangement work. In fact, Spruance had a knack for getting along with difficult people, including his friend Kelly Turner, the hotheaded commander of 5 Fleet's amphibious force. One exception was John Towers, a constant critic of Spruance, who Spruance came to despise for his naked ambition. Spruance also took some time to warm to Mitscher, who he believed (with some cause) had performed poorly at Midway. However, Spruance gave Mitscher considerable freedom to command the carrier force his own way, and the two men eventually developed a great respect for each other.
Unlike Halsey, Spruance never received his fifth star. Congress had only authorized the Navy to recommend a limited number of officers to become fleet admirals, and it came down to a choice between Halsey and Spruance. Halsey, the hero of the popular press, was the perhaps inevitable choice. However, Spruance was voted retirement pay for life at the full rate for a four-star admiral.
After the war, Spruance served as president of the
Naval War College, a post this
enthusiastic autodidact had long
coveted. He served as ambassador
to the Philippines and
had a hand in covert U.S. efforts to help Magsaysay become president of
the Philippines. The death of his son in 1969 seems to have put
Spruance into a depression that lasted until his death from stroke
later that year. He
was buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery alongside his close
companions in the Pacific War, Nimitz, Turner, and Lockwood.
||Born in Baltimore
||Graduates early from Naval
Academy, standing 24th in a class of 209. Assigned to BB Iowa.
||Electrical engineering studies,
General Electric Company, Schenectady, New York
||Commander, DD Bainbridge
||Assistant Inspector of
Machinery, Newport News
||New York Navy Yard
||Executive officer, Agamemnon
||Commander, DD Aaron Ward
||Bureau of Engineering
||Commander, DD Osborne
||Naval War College
||Executive officer, Mississippi|
||Instructor, Naval War College
||Chief of staff, Commander,
Destroyers Scouting Force
||Head, Tactics Section, Naval War
||Commandant, 10 Naval District,
||Commander, 10 Naval District /
Caribbean Sea Frontier
||Commander, Cruiser Division 5
||Chief of staff, Pacific Fleet
||Deputy commander, Pacific Fleet
||Commander, 5 FleetLarrabee (1987)|
||Commander, Pacific Fleet
||President, Naval War College
||Retires from the Navy
||Ambassador to the Philippines
||Retires as ambassador
||Dies at his home in Pebble Beach, California|
DANFS (accessed 2008-1-12)
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