Saturday, August 3, 2013

This book focuses attention on the hostility held by the ‘black shoe’ battleship admirals during the 1930s and 1940s for the upstart ‘brown shoe’ officers of carrier aviation who fought for recognition of naval air power before WW ll. The title alone was a challenge to the aviation community, and it is difficult for me to understand why anyone would want to revive the old animosities.

 In effect the book would shift responsibility for all the chaos and sacrifices our Navy suffered in the Battle of Midway from the ‘black shoe’ battleship Admiral Fletcher who commanded our Task Forces to the ‘brown shoe’ aviation contingent.

The book attempts to glorify Admiral Frank Fletcher as a pioneer in the development of aircraft carriers and Task Force tactics at the beginning of WW II.

To begin Mr. Lundstrom admits below that Admiral Fletcher had no previous experience with aviation or aircraft carriers when the senior admirals who ruled the US Navy moved the command of our battle forces from their sunken Pearl Harbor battleships to the bridges of the aircraft carriers. As he states:

"... Fletcher, a trusted flag officer who nevertheless totally lacked naval aviation experience, stepped into carrier command that afforded him an extraordinary opportunity to be among the first U.S. admirals to fight a new form of naval war."
Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, Page 3.

On-the-job training! Admiral Fletcher had played no significant role in the Fleet Problems of the 1930s where the role of carriers was really introduced and perfected year after year as aircraft performance improved.

Mr. Lundstrom completely ignores the fact that our carrier operations and task force tactics were really pioneered by Admirals like Reeves, King, Towers, Mitscher, Bellinger, Davis and Halsey. He does not recognize the ‘brown shoe’ pilots who risked and lost their lives during decades of these warlike exercises, experimenting with the use of airplanes from ships, while the ‘black shoe’ admirals practiced endless variations of War Plan Orange at the Naval War College, board games which called for a decisive battle between American and Japanese surface forces in keeping with the doctrines of Alfred Mahan.

Admiral Joseph Reeves, center
As early as the Fleet Problem X in 1929, and Fleet Problem XI in 1930, the importance of getting in the first blow was proved. This was to be of major importance in the 1942 plan to ambush the Japanese carriers as they were attacking the islands of Midway.

“Of even greater consequence was that the lesson of Fleet Problem X as to the importance of “getting in the first blow” against enemy carriers was clearly reaffirmed in Fleet Problem XI.”
To Train the Fleet for War, by Albert A. Nofi

However, as the Battle of Midway opened Admiral Fletcher abandoned the aggressive first strike ambush station 200 miles north of Midway in favor of defensive moves, with nearly catastrophic results.

 Still this 600 page book reaches the unsupported conclusion that Admiral Fletcher was a pioneer of carrier aviation, and glorifies his role in perfecting task force tactics. This when at Midway he had only six months on the job, and in that time he lost the carriers Lexington and Yorktown, and almost lost the Battle of Midway.

Three months after the Battle of Midway Admiral Fletcher was relieved of sea going duties and given command of the Navy’s Northwest Sea Frontier, based in Seattle. History awarded the mantle of victory for the Midway battle to Admirals Nimitz and Spruance. Little attention was paid to Admiral Fletcher until this 2006 publication of Black Shoe Carrier Admiral.

I can sympathize with the intent of Mr. Lundstrom to salvage the reputation of a worthy career officer like Admiral Fletcher, but not when he does so by disparaging equally worthy ‘brown shoe’ shipmates.

At the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942, our navy planned to launch a surprise ambush attack on the four aircraft carriers of the Japanese strike force. At dawn three American carriers, Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown would poise at a point 200 miles north of Midway ready to pounce on the Japanese as their aircraft were occupied attacking the islands. This plan was laid out to all concerned on May 27th 1942.


In the evening of May 27, the CinCPac and task force staffs held a joint conference under the direction of Admiral Draemel to hammer out battle plans. Present, among others, were Admirals Fletcher and Spruance, Com­mander Layton, and the operations officers: Captain McMorris from CinCPac, Commander William H. Buracker from Task Force 16, and Commander Wal­ter G. Schindler from Task Force 17. The guiding principles were that the Americans, with inferior forces but presumably better information concerning the opposition, must achieve surprise, must get the jump on the enemy, and must catch the enemy carriers in a vulnerable state. It was assumed that the Japanese Striking Force would begin launching at dawn - attack planes south­ward toward Midway, search planes north, east, and south. At that hour the American task forces, on course southwest through the night, should be 200 miles north of Midway, ready to launch on receiving the first report from U.S. search planes of the location, course, and speed of the enemy. With good timing and good luck they would catch the Japanese carriers with half their planes away attacking Midway. With better timing and better luck they might catch the enemy carriers while they were recovering the Midway attack group. That the Americans might catch the Japanese carriers in the highly vulnerable state of rearming and refueling the recovered planes was almost too much to hope for. 

NIMITZ, by E.B Potter, Pages 86-87

“After sundown Fletcher swung southwest intending to be 200 miles north of Midway at dawn on 4 June, and again ready to fight according to plan.”
                                               Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, Page 239

Obviously CinCPac Op- Plan 29-42, the operations plan that the author cites in his defense of Admiral Fletcher, was ancient history as the day of the Battle approached. The ‘calculated risk’ decision had been made… the United States Navy was going ‘all in’. Once our carriers came within range to attack the Japanese carriers they were necessarily exposed to Japanese counterattacks, more so because the Japanese aircraft enjoyed longer ranges.

If the first strike ambush attacks failed the three almost defenseless American carriers would have faced imminent retaliation from the most powerful and experienced naval task force in the world. It was  awareness of this that drove Annapolis trained ‘brown shoe’ officers like Lt. Commanders McClusky and Waldron to heroic efforts to immobilize the flight decks of the Japanese carriers. It was “kill or be killed” for the United States Navy.

However, at 4:30 AM Admiral Fletcher abandoned the planned first strike ambush attack location to take defensive precautions, launching CAP fighters, and SBD scout planes to search 100 miles to his north. Many writers have speculated about the Admiral’s reasons for this departure from the plan, without arriving at a conclusion.

It should be noted here that Admiral Fletcher abandoned the Ambush Station and initiated his defensive actions prior to the receipt of Ady's sighting report. The report of two carriers was not the reason for his caution.

Discovery of the Japanese carrier fleet came with radio reports from the PBY search plane of Lt. Howard Ady between 0503 and 0540 on June 4th.  “…two carriers and main body ships bearing 320, course 135, speed 25, distance 180.”

“Meanwhile, weaving in and out of rain squalls in the area, Ady turned his Catalina around. There, through a break in the clouds, he saw an awe-inspiring sight, which gave him the sensation of “watching a curtain rise on the biggest show in our lives”. Below him was spread out, not all, but enough of the Nagumo Force to make the eyes of two young fliers pop.”
Miracle at Midway, by Gordon Prange, Page 190

 Admiral Nimitz immediately discounted this report as
a partial sighting.
(NIMITZ, by E.B Potter, Page 93).

                                             Lt. Howard Ady

PBY Catalina

Mr. Lundstrom embraces the speculation that Fletcher believed that the Japanese had separated their four aircraft carriers into two separate task forces. The Battle of Midway chapters in this book are based entirely on the existence of two phantom Japanese carriers. 

As the source for this belief Mr. Lundstrom gives Notes 31 and 59 referring to his earlier book, The First Team.

What he does not disclose is the original source of the information. The source for The First Team was the unsupported theory of Major Bowen Weisheit:

 8. Students of Midway are greatly indebted to Bowen P. Weisheit of the Ens. C. Markland Kelly, Jr. Foundation. A Marine aviator in WW II, Weisheit set out a few years ago to learn as much as he could about the Hornet Air Group in the Battle of Midway. His conclusions, based on all available documents and lengthy personal interviews with key participants present a totally new picture of the Hornet’s participation at Midway. Mr. Weisheit most generously shared his research with the author.
Note 8, The First Team, by John Lundstrom.

So all of the Midway narrative created by Lundstrom to explain Admiral Fletcher’s actions on the morning of the battle requires the reader to accept Major Weisheit's research, which was conceived 60 years after the Battle, and runs counter to testimony by veterans of the battle, and to masses of recorded history from impeccable sources. The chapters in Black Shoe Carrier Admiral about Midway are not based on historical fact, but on the ruminations of one man with his own agenda, Major Weisheit, and an 88 page vanity press publication of the Kelly Foundation. 

This questionable source is analyzed in detail in the blog below.

 Mr. Lundstrom embellishes his version with so much authoritative detail supported by an impressive 80 pages of source notes that the reader is led to accept it as factual. In fact younger authors such a Jon Parshall and Craig Symonds seem to have already published accounts of the phantom two carriers as factual. This is an example of how doubtful material becomes embedded in history if repeated often enough.

It is also interesting to note that the author must have considered the theory of two separate Japanese task forces so important that he reiterates his attack on 'brown shoe' Admiral Mitscher and Commander Miles Browning on the final page of the book’s text, Page 515. 

Mr. Lundstrom also uses the phantom enemy task force to malign Cmdr. Stanhope Ring and Admiral Mitscher by asserting that they conspired without orders to dispatch the Hornet Air Group due west to search for the two phantom Japanese carriers, causing all the tragic events that followed, including the sacrifice of Torpedo Squadron 8 and the ditching of the entire squadron of VF-8 fighter planes. Is it conceivable that these two experienced career officers would have decided on their own to abandon the Midway ambush plan, and to divert our most powerful attack force to search westward for two phantom enemy carriers?

What is the real story?

Below is the May 31st signal from Admiral Nimitz to all task force commanders confirming the composition of the Japanese task force, the Kido Butai. Full details of the Japanese attack plan were known to our Navy’s commanders. As an experienced ship handler Admiral Fletcher would have known that, with only twelve destroyers, Admiral Nagumo could not divide his carriers into two separate task forces.

 Prime Minister Churchill and eyewitness reports of Australian RAF pilots informed President Roosevelt that the Kido Butai had employed the same composition of forces in a compact box formation of 5 carriers shielded by destroyers during the entire time they raided Ceylon, and trounced Allied forces in the Indian Ocean two months earlier.  inconceivable that Nimitz and Fletcher would not have known that this was the case.
 (Email from Peter Smith, English Author)

For the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor the Japanese had all of their carriers included in one task force. There would be no reason to change a successful tactic.

John Lundstrom knew that Admiral Fletcher had all this information.
In his own words:

“On 30 May after Task Force 17 sailed, CinCPac radioed the task force commanders his latest and most detailed take on the composition of the enemy forces. The Midway Striking Force comprised the familiar four formidable carriers but the screen numbered only two fast battleships, two heavy cruisers and twelve destroyers- a correct estimate.”

Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, Page 233

Still he and the Naval Institute would have us believe that Fletcher alone was ignorant of the composition of the Kido Butai and that he would he have been so concerned about the threat of two phantom carriers to his north that this was the reason he abandoned the ambush station 200 miles north of Midway? During his lifetime Admiral Fletcher himself never offered this as a reason for his action. However, 64 years later it was the best rationale a historian could suggest to explain his actions.
This attempt to put a positive spin on a disastrous theory reminds me of the way Edward S. Miller massaged events in his book, War Plan Orange, published a few years earlier.

The author offers no explanation for Admiral Fletcher’s failure to employ the float planes carried aboard his cruisers for the morning search. Instead of leaving the Enterprise and Hornet lying in wait to ambush the Japanese the admiral took all three of his aircraft carriers eastward at high speed, using his SBD dive bombers as scouts.

 Admiral Fletcher launched his search planes at 0420, so Ady’s message an hour later sighting only two carriers could not have been a factor in his decision to use seven of his SBD dive bombers to search north instead of keeping them ready to attack the expected Japanese carriers off Midway.

 The Japanese attack developed exactly as the code breakers Rochefort and Layton had predicted. It had been verified the day before by the sighting of the Japanese invasion fleet and the opening of the Aleutian phase by the Japanese.

Everyone but Fletcher seemed to know that the Japanese would be northwest of Midway that morning within striking distance to launch and recover their attack aircraft. Pilots standing by in the Enterprise ready room knew the names and plan of the attacking Japanese carriers, according to dive bomber pilots Dusty Kleiss, Dick Best and others.

for full article email me

Even a Chicago Tribune reporter embarked on a cruiser had the details before the Battle and the details were published in the Tribune on June 7th, three days after the Battle. Included were highly classified messages providing the Japanese order of battle, and U.S. Naval Intelligence estimates of the Japanese battle plans.

“The Tribune's scoop was crucial because of what savvy readers saw between its lines: Such detailed descriptions of Japan's plans, movements and even specific ships — the most important identified by name — had to mean the U.S. somehow had broken the Imperial Japanese Navy's secret code.” (Chicago Tribune Editorial

All of the various attack groups based on the island of Midway navigated over the vast ocean to find the Japanese carriers without difficulty.

 We are left with a scenario where at 0600 that morning, pitifully small, disorganized and  ill-fated groups of Army, Navy, and Marine land based aircraft from Midway are flying to attack the powerful Japanese carriers northwest of Midway while our fully loaded aircraft carriers are steaming southeast at high speed away from the enemy. The Yorktown’s Dauntless dive bombers futilely searching for a phantom Japanese task force rather than attacking the actual targets.

At this point Spruance’s Chief of Staff, Captain Miles Browning, must have been frantic. He had vast aircraft carrier experience and he had been Admiral Halsey’s chief tactician. He understood the importance of getting in the first carrier attacks, and he would have been aware of the range limitations of our attack aircraft. He could see the planned ambush victory slipping away, and disaster looming. He is reported to have had strained relations with Admiral Spruance that morning. No wonder.

 At 0700 the carriers Hornet and Enterprise launched their planes at extreme range. Too far and two hours too late.

 The Enterprise squadrons led by Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky fared better than the Hornet’s… his VB-6 and VS-6 dive bombers sinking the Japanese carriers Kaga and Akagi. This was accomplished because McClusky risked his life and his squadron’s in a relentless search for the Japanese, taking his group beyond the point of no return.  It was this decision by McClusky that compensated for the extreme range the air groups faced when Admiral Fletcher took the Task 16 and Task 17 eastward at dawn.

The Yorktown attack was launched at 0900, far east of the ambush station north of Midway and over two hours too late. Fortunately for Admiral Fletcher and the Yorktown pilots the Japanese carriers had changed to a northeast course at 0917, shortening the distance the Yorktown pilots had to fly to deliver their coordinated attack and return without exhausting their fuel.

Here again Admiral Fletcher demonstrated his cautious nature. Although late to strike, he still did not commit his full strength to the attack on the Japanese carriers. To defend the Yorktown he held back half of his dive bombers and fighters at the last minute without informing the strike leader Lt. Cmdr. Maxwell Leslie.  

His timidity cost Admiral Fletcher the opportunity to disable the carrier Hiryu in the morning strike. Untouched, the Hiryu was able to strike back and Fletcher lost his flagship carrier, the Yorktown.

“Under the impression that Lt. Wallace Short’s VS-5 was nearby, Leslie radioed Short to hit the carrier to westward. It was not until much later that he learned that VS-5 had been held back.”
Miracle at Midway, by Gordon Prange, Page 269.

 The Yorktown dive bombers led by Max Leslie destroyed the Siryu but the Hiryu went untouched. While the Yorktown air group now had all four Japanese carriers in view, we are led to believe that Admiral Fletcher was still in the dark. In the author's words:

By 1100 Fletcher, highly frustrated over not having additional contact reports, sat on the seventeen VS-5 SBDs for nearly two hours. As far as he knew Midway’s planes and the carrier strikes found only the same two carriers, not the second group. The wait grew intolerable.
Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, Page 257

Mr. Lundstrom’s narrative would have us believe that Admiral Fletcher was still waiting for the appearance of the two phantom Japanese carriers, 4 hours after the Midway aircraft had attacked the Kido Butai in the morning, and an hour after his own Yorktown squadron had destroyed the Soryu.

According to the author’s narrative the Yorktown VS-5 dive bombing squadron sat there uselessly for three hours until the approach of the Japanese dive bombers from the Hiryu threatened the doomed Yorktown! He does not explain why during this time the admiral did not use these planes or the cruisers' float planes to search for his two phantom carriers. The author reports that he finally did again take up the search for the imaginary two carriers at 1135, and cleared  his decks of the fully loaded dive bombers. He writes:

The need to land the Yorktown strike group assembling overhead, coupled with certain knowledge that the enemy found Task Force 17, demanded Fletcher swiftly deploy the seventeen VS-5 SBDs held in reserve the past three hours. As far as he knew the search and the several land-based and carrier-based attack waves only found two of the four enemy carriers… It was crucial to ferret out the second carrier group, now believed to be north or northwest of the lead pair.
Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, Page 253

The ‘black shoe’ author makes no effort to explain what the phantom Japanese two-carrier task force might have been doing from 0430 when Fletcher launched his first search for them and this 1135 search. Fortunately this last search discovered the Hiryu closing in on the Yorktown, and planes from the Enterprise attacked, completing the destruction of all four of the Japanese carriers by our ‘brown shoe’ dive bombers. It was too late to save the Yorktown. 

“Why Fletcher did what, or didn't do, will always remain a mystery. Sure, many official logs have been altered, held secret, or destroyed... but the truth will someday evolve.”
CAPT N. J. "Dusty" Kleiss, USN Ret.
(Email to Naval History, April, 2012)

Attempts by the author to suggest that the difficulties encountered by the Hornet and Enterprise air groups were due to faulty performance by the ‘brown shoe’ aviation contingent ignore the fact that all of the problems trace back to Admiral Fletcher’s positioning of our carriers too far from the enemy, and that they were launched too late. The author admits this himself. In his own words:

“The plain facts are that the Yorktown was out of effective range of Nagumo until after 0830 and that Fletcher attacked as soon as he reasonably could.”
 Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, Page 249

“Neither Fletcher nor Spruance were naval aviators, they had not grown up in carrier-based squadrons or had command of an aircraft carrier, where all the experience and knowledge is absorbed which would qualify one to command a carrier task force.”
Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Thach,
Naval Institute Oral History

 Admiral Fletcher lived until 1973. In his lifetime he never personally expressed any of the explanations for his actions as supplied for him by the author of Black Shoe Carrier Admiral. His oral history was not recorded by the Naval Institute, although there are many recorded by less important ‘black shoe’ participants in the Battle. The only 'brown shoe' officer so recognized was fighter pilot Jimmy Thach.
Without access to the files still withheld by the Navy’s History and Heritage Command historians will continue to be tempted to speculate about matters concerning the Battle of Midway as Mr. Lundstrom has done.

Certainly if there were anything in the archives to absolve Admiral Fletcher it would have been publicized by now. Since nothing has been released we can only assume the worst.

Admiral Fletcher was a fine man; a patriot, talented, experienced and intelligent. It was not his fault that he was given a job he was not equipped to handle. He gave it his best.

As a loyal and dedicated Navy officer he would have placed the welfare of the United States Navy above himself. For this reason I do not believe he would have approved the publication of this book by the United States Naval Institute; a die-hard pursuit of intra-service rivalries of a generation past.


The summary above is limited to the chapters of Black Shoe Carrier Admiral covering the Battle of Midway. The book is also replete with defense of Admiral Fletcher’s decisions in the Battles of Coral Sea, Savo, and Guadalcanal later in 1942.

Mr. Lundstrom is forced to repeatedly defend Admiral Fletcher from criticism by Commodore Richard Bates, who prepared The Bates Report and Admiral Samuel Morison, editor of The History of United States Naval Operations of WW II.

Other worthies whose criticisms of Fletcher are challenged by Mr. Lundstrom include Fleet Admiral Earnest King; historians Fletcher Pratt, Edwin Potter and Samuel Griffith; Admirals Robert Ghormley and Kelly Turner.

No one would object to a sympathetic public relations account of the career of a distinguished naval officer of Admiral Frank Fletcher’s repute, but when the Admiral is exalted by unjustly disparaging a host of equally worthy officers of the Navy, Marines and Army it calls for a 'brown shoe' response. 
The United States Naval Institute has made every effort to glorify Admiral Fletcher, the black shoe admiral, rather than support the recognition of Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky and  other ‘brown shoe’ heroes who saved the Battle of Midway for the ‘black shoe’ Admirals, Nimitz, Fletcher, and Spruance.


Admiral Towers’ biography by Clark Reynolds was published by the United States Naval Institute but is no longer offered for sale by The Institute. Used copies are available from Amazon!!!

Black Shoe Carrier Admiral, the biography of Admiral Frank Fletcher, was also published by The Naval Institute and has been the most heavily promoted book ever published by the Naval Institute. It is even being offered in paperback and as a Kindle eBook. In my opinion the assumptions the author has made lay a false foundation for the conclusions he has advocated. Why is this questionable book so favored by the Institute while the Towers’ book is no longer offered for sale?

The subtitle of Admiral Towers’ biography tells the story…The Struggle of Naval Aviation Supremacy. Admiral Towers was a pioneer naval aviator who devoted his life to the procurement and development of flying machines for the United States Navy, and adapting them to the needs of the sea going fleet. His 'brown shoe' contributions to the US Navy and to the victory at Midway are far more significant to students of history than the questionable achievements of 'black shoe' Admiral Fletcher. His biography omits any discussion of his opinions about Fletcher's handling of our carriers during the Battle of Midway. A brief quote on Page 399 sums it up: "He ran away".

Unanswered Questions about The Battle of Midway:
August 1, 2013
Revised August, 2014
George J. Walsh
Lt. Cmdr. USNR (ret)

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