Kelly Turner, the commander of Task Force 62, the amphibious force, was forged from the same hard brass as his mentor, Ernest J. King, whom he had served as director of war plans in the war’s first months. Turner was hard on subordinates, and carried himself with an edgy intensity. “Whenever he became disgusted,” a sailor who knew him wrote, “he would emit a small spitting sound, stamp his foot lightly and say ‘Balls!’ ”
But he could show warmth when he needed to. “I have seen him ‘blow up’ a junior officer and I was taken in,” a magazine reporter said, “till I saw the look in his eye and the smile that finally came.… He is aware of men’s sensitivities and he recognizes their abilities even when they occasionally annoy him. His men admit he is tough—he admits it himself—but they love to work for him.”
Given the problems that plagued the supply effort at the beach, Turner was fortunate that ground resistance was so light. His cargo ships did not have enough men embarked to haul crates and equipment for forty-eight hours straight. Without the benefit of docks, cranes, or other cargo-handling facilities on the virgin beach, it was impossible to unload directly to shore. Small boats had to ferry the cargo in, and when they reached the beach, hundreds of them gunwale-to-gunwale, human hands did the heavy lifting. Beyond the backbreaking nature of the work itself was the problem of organization and triage. According to the commander of the transport Hunter Liggett, “After dark, conditions reached a complete impasse.” It took waiting boats up to six hours for a chance to land.
The tremors of the interservice argument that would define the first two weeks of the operation arrived quickly. “No small share of the blame for this delay,” the commander continued, “which prolonged by nearly twenty-four hours the period when the ships lay in these dangerous waters, would seem to rest with the Marine Corps personnel and organization. The Marine Corps Pioneers, whose function it was to unload the boats and keep the beach clear, were far too few in numbers.” An officer from the transport Barnett described men “lounging around under the palm trees eating coconuts, lying down shooting coconuts from the trees; also playing around and paddling about in rubber boats. All of these men were Marines that should have been unloading boats.” Even Kelly Turner, whose fondness for his seagoing infantrymen was peerless, pointed to “a failure on the part of the First [Marine] Division to provide adequate and well organized unloading details on the beach. The Marine officers on my staff feel very strongly on these matters—as strongly as I do.”
Time was of the essence, but speed faced many obstacles. Many of the small craft used to bring in supplies were loaded so deeply by the head that they couldn’t make it all the way up the beach. When their ramps were lowered, they filled with water and their straining engines drowned. Compounding the trouble was the way the big transports offshore had been loaded in Wellington: for commerce, efficiently and in volume, not for combat, enabling quick access to food and ammunition. In the Chesapeake Bay area and on the West Coast, the Navy was still establishing specialty schools to teach these skills to their beachmasters. At Guadalcanal, on-the-job training would have to suffice.
Early in the evening of August 8, in his flagship McCawley, Turner was wrestling with these frustrations, minding the possibility of further attacks, when Frank Jack Fletcher did what Turner had been dreading for two weeks. In a message to Admiral Ghormley, Fletcher was requesting permission to withdraw his three aircraft carriers, now serving as Task Force 62’s umbrella and shield, from their supporting positions near Guadalcanal.
The reasons Fletcher cited were various—that his F4F Wildcat fighter force had, after two days of action against Japanese bombers, been whittled from ninety-nine planes to seventy-eight; that his ships’ fuel reserves were dwindling; and that the presence of torpedo-armed enemy aircraft posed a threat to his carriers. Fletcher’s reasoning was never clear or consistent. When he asked Admiral Noyes, the tactical commander of the carrier force, for his opinion about a withdrawal, a shortage of fuel was not among his expressed concerns. But when Ghormley notified Nimitz of the decision, fuel was the only concern he mentioned.
Turner never forgot the contentious planning conference on the Saratoga, where he and General Vandegrift pushed for the carriers to remain on station through August 9. Fletcher’s defenders say he only ever promised two days of air support—through August 8. Either way, the argument continued. Passions about the use of the carriers ran so high that they even got to the gentlemanly Marine commander. Vandegrift would be moved, in his memoirs, to accuse Fletcher of rank cowardice: “This was the Koro [Saratoga] conference relived, except that Fletcher was running away twelve hours earlier than he had already threatened during our unpleasant meeting. We all knew his fuel could not have been running low since he refueled in the Fijis.”
Though Ghormley approved his request solely on the basis of a fuel shortage, Fletcher’s carriers had enough fuel for several additional days at cruising speed. His destroyers were at about half capacity, with enough fuel for about thirty-six hours of high-speed operation. The larger ships on hand could have topped them off. Since he had yet to receive Fletcher’s final operations plan, Ghormley had no independent knowledge of the actual risks to the carriers and felt bound to take Fletcher at his word. “All knew that the enemy could arrive in force and catch our Task Forces short of fuel,” Ghormley wrote. “This had to be considered very seriously. When Fletcher, the man on the spot, informed me he had to withdraw for fuel, I approved. He knew his situation in detail; I did not.”
Weeks earlier, in joining MacArthur’s call to delay the invasion, Ghormley had expressed the need for a continuous presence by carrier aircraft. As MacArthur put it to King, “It is the opinion of the two commanders, arrived at independently and confirmed after discussion, that the initiation of this operation at this time without a reasonable assurance of adequate air coverage during each phase would be attended with the gravest risk as has been thoroughly demonstrated by the Japanese reverses in the Coral Sea and at Midway.” The Navy’s successes were also cautionary tales. If “assurance of adequate air coverage” was indeed essential, one might wonder why Ghormley did not more closely monitor the carriers’ actual fuel needs or simply insist they stay on hand, within range of shore.
Fletcher was the most battle-seasoned senior officer in Operation Watchtower. The experience of combat had taught him its costs. At both Coral Sea and Midway he had had a great carrier, the Lexington and then the Yorktown, sunk from under him. At a time when the Pacific carrier fleet numbered just four, three of which were assigned to Watchtower, he was fearful of further losses. During the day, the Enterprise, Wasp, and Saratoga operated from a position about twenty-five miles south of the eastern end of Guadalcanal. From there, naval aircraft on patrol were but a quick few minutes from the beaches. Though Japanese planes from Rabaul six hundred miles away would have little capacity to strike them even if they could find them, the danger posed by the Japanese carriers and submarines was considerable. The paramount question was whether the carriers were foremost in Fletcher’s mind, or the overall operation.
In his original July 2 operational order to Nimitz, King had specified the conditions under which the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) could order the carriers withdrawn. “The withdrawal of the naval attached units of the U.S. fleet may be ordered by the U.S. chiefs of staff upon completion of any particular phase of the operation in the event that (1) conditions develop which unduly jeopardize the aircraft carriers (2) an emergency arises in other Pacific areas which dictates such withdrawal” (emphasis added). In King’s view, completion of a particular phase of the operation—for instance, the landings—was a necessary precondition to a high-level decision to remove the carriers. Not even a serious threat to the carriers themselves excused their departure prior to the completion of a phase. Though it is unclear exactly what constituted a “phase,” and while the criteria for a withdrawal ordered by the JCS were not the same as for one ordered by the tactical commander, it does seem unlikely that Admiral King ever envisioned a withdrawal before the initial unloading of supplies was done. The second precondition allowing the carriers’ withdrawal—undue jeopardy to them—required that Fletcher view his losses of fighter planes and consumption of fuel, both rather predictable outcomes of operations, as excessive.
Fletcher was said to be the only U.S. flag officer who understood that Watchtower would provoke the Japanese to a major naval counterattack. “His major job,” wrote author Richard B. Frank, “was to win the carrier fleet action that would decide the fate of the Marines.” If that was the case, it would have been reckless to risk his carriers before that threat actually appeared. He knew he would have to win that battle without ready reinforcement to make up his losses. No new carriers were due from the shipyards until late 1943.
A well-situated referee to the controversy over Fletcher’s decision making was Marine colonel Melvin J. Maas. If his position on Fletcher’s staff makes his sympathy for his boss unsurprising, his status as a leatherneck inclined him to balanced perspective. He believed the only way the Japanese could retake Guadalcanal was through a major amphibious counteroffensive. “Marines cannot be dislodged by bombers,” Maas wrote. Because he saw the carriers as the key to preventing an enemy landing, he favored a withdrawal of the carriers, even at the expense of his brothers.
“To be able to intercept and defeat [Japanese troop landings], our carrier task forces must be fueled and away so as not to be trapped here.… By withdrawing to Nouméa or Tongatabu, we can be in a position to intercept and pull a second Midway on their carriers. If, however, we stay on here and then, getting very low on fuel, withdraw to meet our tankers, and if they should be torpedoed, our whole fleet would be caught helpless and would be cold meat for the Japs, with a resultant loss of our fleet, 2/3 of our carriers, and we would lose Tulagi as well, with all the Marines there and perhaps all the transports.
“It is true, Marines will take a pounding until their own air gets established (about ten days or so), but they can dig in, hole up, and wait. Extra losses are a localized operation. This is balanced against a potential National tragedy. Loss of our fleet or one or more of these carriers is a real, worldwide tragedy.” There is little doubt Fletcher’s view of the situation off Guadalcanal took a serious accounting of the strategic significance of this scarcity of carrier power.
So would go the debate. The amphibious commanders met on the evening of August 8 to discuss what to do, Kelly Turner summoning Vandegrift and Crutchley to his flagship, the McCawley. Vandegrift arrived by launch from the beach. Shortly after 9 p.m., Crutchley, the cruiser force commander, pulled his flagship, the heavy cruiser Australia, out of formation in the southwestern covering force and set course for Lunga Point. This left the other two cruisers in that force, the Chicago and the Canberra, to guard that entrance to the sound. Crutchley left the commander of the Chicago, Captain Howard D. Bode, in interim command of his group.
The Australia anchored off Lunga Point, and Crutchley took a whaleboat to the McCawley. During the meeting, Vandegrift was struck by both Turner’s and Crutchley’s absolute physical weariness. There had been no break in the pressure they faced. Two days of air attacks and continuous difficulties with logistics ashore had worn them down to the threshold of exhaustion. Turner announced a tentative decision that he had been reluctant to make: In view of Fletcher’s withdrawal, he would remove the transports and all of the cargo ships from the area, too. They would leave at sunrise on the ninth. Turner asked Vandegrift if enough stores had been unloaded to last his forces for a while. He asked Crutchley whether the cruiser screen could hold for a day or two without the protection of carrier-based fighter planes. Turner heard their grumbling affirmations and let’s-hope-sos and adjourned the meeting at eleven forty-five.