Fletcher was the US admiral in command of several of the early campaigns in the Pacific, but he was blamed on more than one occasion for being overcautious, and maybe he was also just unlucky. Despite his reputation for caution and the loss of the carrier USS Lexington, he nevertheless stopped the Japanese from taking Port Moresby at the Battle of the Coral Sea, which could be said to have been a tactical victory for the Japanese, but a strategic victory for the United States.
Known throughout the United States Navy as ‘Black Jack’, Fletcher was born in Marshalltown, Iowa. He came from a naval family with an uncle who was an admiral. He attended the US Naval Academy at Annapolis from 1902 until 1906. On graduating, he served aboard the battleships USS Rhode Island, Ohio and Maine. In November 1909, he was posted to the destroyer Chauncey, part of the Asiatic Torpedo Flotilla and his first command was the Dale in April 1910. In March 1912, Fletcher returned to the Chauncey as her commanding officer. Posted to the battleship Florida in December 1912, he was at the occupation of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in April 1914, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor for distinguished conduct.
During the First World War, he was a gunnery officer until September 1917, when he took command of the Margaret and later was posted to the Allen in February 1918 before taking command of the Benham in May, escorting convoys across the Atlantic, for which he was awarded the Navy Cross. From October 1918 to February 1919 he stood by the Crane at San Francisco as she fitted out, afterwards becoming commanding officer of the Gridley on her commissioning. Returning to Washington, he was head of the Detail Section, Enlisted Personnel Division in the Bureau of Navigation from April 1919 until September 1922.
After serving in the Philippines, he returned to the USA for a posting at the Washington Navy Yards in 1925. He completed the Senior Course at the Naval War College, Newport in June 1930, and afterwards became Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief, US Atlantic Fleet in August 1931. In 1933 he was transferred to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, before becoming an aide to the Secretary of the Navy from November 1933 to May 1936. He took command of the New Mexico, flagship of Battleship Division Three in June 1936. In December 1937 he became a member of the Naval Examining Board and was appointed Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation in June 1938. Promoted to rear admiral and returning to the Pacific on the outbreak of war in Europe, until December 1941 he commanded a succession of cruiser divisions. When Japan entered the war, he was commanding Task Force 11 with the carrier Saratoga and was sent to Wake Island, which was under bombardment by Japanese warships. On 22 December, Fletcher was recalled by a nervous Admiral Pye, who was acting as a replacement for the disgraced commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Rear Admiral Husband Kimmel, until Nimitz arrived.
For his part, Fletcher’s arrival at Wake Island was delayed by his frequent sending away of his destroyers to refuel so that they would be ready for high-speed action. It thus happened that in the early stages of the Pacific War Fletcher acquired an unwanted reputation for being overcautious, as TF11 was late in arriving at Wake Island, and allowed the Japanese to take the island unopposed. In some ways his caution can be understood with hindsight, as this was a war that was fought at sea in a way that few senior officers of his generation could have envisaged, and given the vast distances of the Pacific and the unknown demands of steaming at high speed in combat, the worry about running low on fuel in mid-battle can be understood.
Nevertheless, in May 1942, it was Fletcher who turned back the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and while they inflicted heavier losses on the USN than he managed against the Imperial Japanese Navy, the strategic victory overall was his. One of the largest Japanese aircraft carriers, the Shokaku, was so badly damaged that she was not available for the next major move by the Japanese, against Midway. It also showed that the Japanese were no longer invincible, being fought to a standstill. The head of the USN, Admiral Ernest King, wrote to the British First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, that ‘On the whole we had rather the better of it and we seem to have stopped the advance on Port Moresby for the time being.’
Fletcher was still in command at the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942, but when his flagship, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, was unfortunately lost, Spruance took over tactical command and in the end also took the credit for the victory, which saw four Japanese aircraft carriers lost in a single day. This was sheer bad luck for Fletcher as the battle marked the turning point in the war at sea in the Pacific. From this time onwards, the Japanese had lost all hope of victory, or even fighting to a negotiated settlement, and Japanese strategy became defensive.
All of this could be defended or attributed to misfortune, the sad fortunes of war, but in August, with the Americans on what they called the ‘offensive-defensive’ and starting the long island-hopping advance to victory, what happened at Guadalcanal could not be explained away.
Promoted to vice admiral, Fletcher was put in command of a carrier force to protect the Guadalcanal landings. Code-named Operation Watchtower, the landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 7 August 1942 followed an inter-service spat between the USN and the United States Army over which service should take the lead in the Pacific War. In the end, the USN and USMC were given the lead in the Pacific War, a wise move given that amphibious landing succeeded amphibious landing, while in North Africa and Europe, the Army would have enough to occupy its planners. ‘Operation Watchtower’ was prepared in considerable haste, causing some to describe it as ‘Operation Shoestring’, but it was necessary to act quickly before the Japanese could complete the air base, Henderson Field, and deploy aircraft there.
At Guadalcanal, Vice Admiral Ghormley took overall command of the operation, while Fletcher was in command of Task Force 61 with three aircraft carriers, the USS Enterprise, Saratogaand Wasp, as well as the battleship North Carolina, six cruisers and sixteen destroyers. At stake were the landings by 19,000 men from Major General Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division. A British officer, Rear Admiral Victor Critchley, commanded a force of cruisers to defend the transports.
The makeshift nature of the arrangements had been essential if the Americans were to act quickly and the Japanese were to be prevented from developing the defences of Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Had the enemy sufficient time to complete airfields, the invasion of the islands would have been much more difficult and costly. Initially, most of the fighting was on Tulagi, and at first the operation on Guadalcanal went well, but a steady war of attrition developed, especially around the key objective of Henderson Field, an airfield under construction. After losing twenty-one aircraft in a single day, Fletcher sought permission to withdraw, which Ghormley allowed, but the gap left in the US defences led to the Battle of Savo Island, which started during the early hours of 9 August. Allied warships under the British Rear Admiral Critchley, screening the transports, were surprised at midnight and defeated in little more than half an hour by a Japanese force of seven cruisers and one destroyer, commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa. After inflicting initial heavy losses on the US and Australian force offshore, sinking four cruisers, HMAS Canberra, USS Astoria, Vincennesand Quincy, and circling Savo Island, Vice Admiral Mikawa did not continue to attack the US transports for fear of being attacked by USN carrier-borne aircraft, not realizing that Fletcher had withdrawn. Fletcher is sometimes criticized because his carriers were at the far end of their nightly withdrawal, and although steaming back ready for the morning, were still too far to away to provide protection. Had the Japanese realized the disposition of the Allied ships, an attack on the transports and on troops ashore could have resulted.
When the Japanese attempted to reinforce their garrison ashore on Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands developed. After the Japanese managed to land reinforcements on Guadalcanal on 18 August, Henderson Field became the scene of intense fighting. The first batch of Japanese reinforcements – just 915 men – showed that the Japanese had seriously underestimated the strength of the US forces, and was wiped out in a battle on 21 August. A steady war of attrition was then started by the Japanese, with reinforcements being landed under cover of darkness in an operation dubbed the ‘Tokyo Express’ by the Americans. A more determined effort to reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal came in late August when the Japanese sent four transports to reinforce their troops on the island, but the four ‘transports’ were really just elderly destroyers and again the total number of troops to be landed totalled just 1,500 men, as the Japanese were still underestimating the size of the US forces.
The Japanese move found Vice Admiral Fletcher with TF61, still including the carriers Enterprise and Saratoga, but with the Wasp away refuelling, and a total of 176 aircraft available. His opponent was Vice Admiral Nagumo, who had survived the Battle of Midway and had retained his command. Nagumo, who was now responsible for ensuring the safe arrival of the transports, had three aircraft carriers, Zuikaku and Shokaku, with 131 aircraft between them, and the smaller Ryujo, with thirty-one aircraft which, with a cruiser and two destroyers, was to act as a diversionary force. Given the small size and number of the transports, Nagumo had a considerable number of surface vessels to protect these and his carriers, with three battleships, ten cruisers and twenty-one destroyers in addition to those with Ryujo, compared with Fletcher’s single battleship, four cruisers and eleven destroyers.
The Americans were expecting increased Japanese activity and spotted Ryujo early on, but lost track of the Japanese ships by 21 August. On 23 August, American reconnaissance aircraft once again located the Japanese transports, but a strike launched from the US carriers failed to find them. The next day, Saratoga’s aircraft found the Ryujo at 1000 hrs some 300 miles north of TF61; this time the strike aircraft found her and promptly sunk her using bombs and torpedoes. Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft from Shokaku and Zuikaku found and attacked the USS Enterprise. The absence of the Waspmeant that, for the last time in the Pacific War, the Japanese had overall air superiority. Fighters from the Enterprise and the carrier’s AA defences fought off the first wave of Japanese torpedo-bombers, but a second wave of dive-bombers managed to hit the Enterprise three times, starting fires, although these were soon extinguished and the ship remained capable of limited operations. Nevertheless, Fletcher took the blame for the absence of one of his carriers and the lack of local air superiority.
On 25 August, United States Marine Corps aircraft based ashore on Guadalcanal and Esperitu Sanctu attacked the Japanese troop transports, sinking the largest one and a destroyer escort, while a cruiser was also badly damaged. By this time, in addition to the ships lost, the Japanese had lost a total of ninety aircraft against just twenty US aircraft, and Nagumo decided to withdraw.
The United States had won yet another battle in the Pacific War, the Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands. It is hard to see why the Japanese, having put so much effort into escorting such a pitiful reinforcement convoy, had not assumed a more aggressive role, and the only justification can be that the strategy was one of tying down US forces. Nor did the Japanese cut their losses and abandon the islands as, despite losing the battle, they continued to maintain the ‘Tokyo Express’, while the destroyers engaged on these runs also took the opportunity to shell Henderson Field. On 31 August, a more substantial force of 3,500 Japanese troops were landed on Guadalcanal, building up their forces to a total of 6,000 men by early September, by which time the Americans had 19,000 men on the island. These Japanese troops were defeated in a night battle on 13/14 September.
Later, in a rare offensive by Japanese submarines, the 1-19 attacked the Wasp with three torpedoes on 15 September, with the ship catching fire and eventually sinking. In the end, the US forces prevailed, but could not prevent the Japanese from successfully evacuating some 13,000 troops. A more determined bid by the Japanese to retake Guadalcanal saw the Combined Fleet escorting Japanese reinforcements from Rabaul on 11 October, with the Battle of Cape Esperance following that night, although this was inconclusive. The USMC forces ashore were subjected to heavy bombing by Japanese carrier aircraft after the battle, and Vice Admiral Gormley took the blame for failing to stop the Japanese landing reinforcements and bombing the American forces ashore; he was replaced by Vice Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey.
Nevertheless, Fletcher was criticized for the premature withdrawal of his carriers, leaving the USMC units ashore without adequate air cover at a time when the Japanese Vice Admiral Nagumo had arrived with his aircraft carriers, the repaired Shokaku, her sister Zuikaku and the smaller Ryujo.
Fletcher was moved out of the way. In November 1942, he became Commander, Thirteenth Naval District and Commander, North Western Sea Frontier to calm fears amongst US and Canadian citizens of invasion from the north. A year later, he was placed in charge of the whole Northern Pacific area, remaining there until after Japan’s surrender, when his forces occupied northern Japan.
Post-war, Fletcher was appointed chairman of the General Board of the Navy, but he was not promoted until he retired in May 1947, when he was given the four-star rank of Admiral. He had lost much of his naval records in combat and in retirement he refused to reconstruct them or collaborate with the official US naval historian for the war. Many believe that in return he received an inadequate appraisal and that this attitude was picked up by later authors.