Ian W. Toll's "Pacific Crucible"
Ian Toll’s Pacific Crucible is a well told narrative of the first year of the American war in the Pacific. It is not very poetic but does provide good set pieces on aircraft carrier pilots preparing for battle, the carnage in the bowels of an aircraft carrier that has been successfully bombed, and the pomp and ceremony that accompanies military life. It reviews some of the old stories about Churchill’s visit to the White House but offers what it thinks is important about the joint decision making between the British and the Americans about how to conduct the war. There is a discussion of the appointment of theatre commanders who will be in charge of all forces in the area so as to avoid competition between British and American forces, though that decision had been foreshadowed by the need to rectify what had occurred when American forces were first sent to Europe in World War I and wanted to fight as a single army rather than have the French command use them to fill in the line. Toll does not tell the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor for the umpteenth time; he sets his scene mostly in the Navy Department in Washington. Toll is very good at selecting which incidents to report and what vantage point to use in telling them so that the stories, mostly well known, come across freshly. As I say, not exactly poetry; rather, well crafted prose that reads easily. The Second World War is still a page turner.
Added to the pleasure of reading one more time this wonderful story of war at sea that culminates with the Battle of Midway, an event that stands up there with Lepanto and Trafalgar, is an interpretation of Midway that the author adds and an inference about the Pacific War that the author does not make. First off, the usual explanation of the victory at Midway is that intelligence and surprise was on the American side, but that the outcome of the battle came down to good fortune. A great many planes are sent out to destroy enemy capital ships; only very few get through to the target, and then whether their torpedoes and bombs are successful is a matter of luck. The entire first group of American torpedo bombers was shot down. But there were two or more other squadrons launched by the American aircraft carriers, and some of their bombs meet their marks and the Americans bagged four carriers over the course of two days. The Americans were very brave and daring and the Japanese ships had poor fire control mechanisms and the Japanese were caught in a situation where they were switching back and forth from land bombs to torpedoes to be used against aircraft carriers and so they were left with insufficient air cover when the planes from different American carriers happened to arrive over the Japanese carriers at the same time.
Toll tells the story differently. He points out that the Japanese had been frazzled by the immediate situation of having to cope with so many planes, that they were tired, their crews overworked ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor, that they had lost planes at the Battle of the Coral Sea just a month before, and that they had lost planes during their initial attack on Midway Island. In short, aircraft carriers are fighting a war of attrition. The longer the battle goes on, the side with the most resources will win and the American disadvantage (three carriers to four Japanese carriers) was offset by the ferocity of the American attack. The battle could have gone the way because of a number of imponderables. The Japanese aircraft might not have been caught flatfooted; their reconnaissance planes could have had a bit better luck. The cause of American victory, however, like as not, should it be considered possible to ascribe causes in these matters, is that they got there firstest with the mostest and saw this battle as a must win for them, while the Japanese were overconfident because of their previous successes.
The second issue, which the author does not explicitly go into, is why the Americans thought Midway so important a battle, even up to being the turning point of the war. What would have happened if Midway Island had been occupied and two of the three American carriers sunk? Not much. There was nowhere for the Japanese to go from Midway, as Toll agrees. Occupying Midway just stretches the Japanese communications lines and does not directly interfere with the American lifeline to Australia. Perhaps Oahu would have come under attack, but there was no basis for the Japanese trying to occupy Hawaii. They didn’t have the resources in men or ships. They needed to negotiate a peace, which would not have happened, before American war production gave the United States enough aircraft carriers to take Midway and the rest of the Pacific back. The end of the war would have been delayed a year or two, and perhaps not even that if you throw in that the development of the Atomic Bomb spelled the end of the war anyway.
Midway was not the equivalent of Normandy. If Eisenhower’s invasion had failed, the Germans could have had a year to deal with the Russians before facing who knows what kind of invasion that would then have been launched against them. Perhaps there would have been no new invasion; instead, there might have been a greater investment of forces in the push north in Italy. Germany would have had time to prepare its fleet of jet planes and rockets. But, then again, the Atomic Bomb would in that case have been used against the German targets it had been designed for. The A-Bomb was always the trump card.
The more interesting question is why, in the light of the ocean distances they could fall back, Nimitz and King did not adopt a less aggressive naval policy. They could have acted like as the Russians did with their land mass. The Americans could have traded ocean for time to rearm while continuing to harass Japanese forces. The Americans could have acted more like the British and the Germans in World War I, each unwilling to commit their fleets to an all out engagement because that would mean risking too much on one roll of the dice. The trouble with the Mahan doctrine of the decisive naval battle is that you can lose it. Better to fight battles to more or less a draw, as at Jutland, rather than have your nation go down with your ships.
Nimitz and King would have none of that. The important part of the famous order to Fletcher was not the part to be prudent in his use of his forces but that he should go after the enemy constrained only by prudence. Nimitz and King put their forces at risk repeatedly during 1942. They launched Doolittle, and who would have considered that worthwhile if an aircraft carrier had been lost? They went after the Marshall Islands, protected Port Moresby, and saved Midway. Why? The reason is psychological in that the Americans had to do something lest their population become defeatist, and the other reason is existential in that American Admirals could not think of doing anything else than going after the enemy. It is the Americans more than the Japanese who showed their martial spirit. You don’t have to descend from a warrior race to be a warrior.
All of these considerations seem quite different, a description of battles 600 years ago rather than 60 years ago, because naval warfare has so changed. Blocking the Straits of Hormuz or opening them up, which is the use of naval forces most plausible in the near future, doesn’t seem all that realistic. It is unlikely that the Iranians could take out the American fleet. And even if they did, an attack on Iran could then be carried out by other means. Large scale naval operations seem a thing of the past precisely because of the Mahan principle that navies project power anywhere in the world that is near open water. We could get cruise missile ships off Iran for a launch, or make the launch from the Mediterranean, or from Israel, “the aircraft carrier”.
But people always discount the importance of the Navy until you need it. The Navy was important for more than blockading the Confederate coast during the landlocked American Civil War. It waged a war for the rivers and the bays. You can always find something for a navy to do. They got MacArthur out of the Philippines and they delivered soldiers and supplies to Guadalcanal. Maybe that is what the Mahan principles really add up to. Navies use the water for a great many purposes other than as the playing field on which fleets battle it out with one another.