One of the things the US military did right during WWII is that they made a concerted effort to document the war, going so far as to embed professional historians in combat units to record what happened for posterity. Some, such as Clive Howard and Joe Whitley, stayed with one particular unit throughout the war. Samuel Eliot Morison, OTOH, offered his services to President Roosevelt and the Navy to document the operations of the US Navy as a whole. No armchair historian, Morison went to sea, serving on assorted destroyers, cruisers, and battleships, even a Coast Guard cutter, and as a result had a first hand look at many of the actions he recounts. The result of his effort and experience was the 15 volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.
But I haven't read that set yet. What I did read was The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War, Morison's abridgement of his monumental work. I've read it a couple of times in the past, but not for decades. It is a book I like a lot, but I have to admit to skimming most of the chapters on the war in the Atlantic this time through. Although the Navy had quite a lot to do in that theatre, it wasn't all that interesting. It was all chase some U-boats, then invade someplace in Africa or Europe, lather, rinse, repeat. The only ship-to-ship action of any note was the gunfire duel between Massachusetts and Jean Bart while the latter was sitting at anchor in Casablanca harbor, not a particularly awe-inspiring battle. (Although if you visit the Massachusetts at its berth in Fall River, there's a display with an example of some the battle damage it suffered in the action.)
The Pacific is where most of the interesting stuff occurred, partly because the whole campaign was about islands, but also because the Japanese had arguably the best (though not the largest) navy in the world in 1941, a fact that neither the Americans nor the British completely comprehended at the time. Pearl Harbor and the operations that immediately followed were a rude awakening, as the Japanese, with a fleet smaller than either the US or Britain (although most of the British nave was otherwise occupied), kicked the crap out of both of them at every opportunity. The big surprise, of course, was how vulnerable capital ships were to air attack. It wasn't just that the Japanese were able to sink a bunch of battleships at anchor in Pearl. It was also that three days later Japanese planes caught two British capital ships (Prince of Wales and Repulse) maneuvering freely at sea, and sank both of them. The Americans and British were stunned.
After that, no fleet went anywhere unless there were friendly carriers or an airfield nearby, and the whole Allied strategy of the war began to revolve around the idea that islands were unsinkable, albeit unmoving, aircraft carriers. From a tactical point of view, it was as if there were two separate wars going on. By day, the carriers fought each other at long distance, with each force out of sight of the other. By night, cruisers, destroyers, and even the occasional battleship engaged in the nastiest surface actions since the Napoleonic wars. Here again the Japanese had a surprise for the Americans. The IJN had the best torpedo in the world, the Long Lance, and all IJN ships carried them. American torpedoes were shorter ranged, unreliable, and the USN never saw the need to install them on anything bigger than a destroyer. The Long Lance, coupled with better night optics for aiming them, gave the Japanese the edge in the fierce night battles off Guadalcanal. The Sealark Sound, between Guadacanal and Tulagi, became known as Ironbottom Sound in testament to the number of ships sunk there.
Japan couldn't maintain this, not when faced with Yamamoto's awaked giant, the US. The IJN couldn't replace the ships or air crew it lost, while the US could build two or three carriers or more for every carrier lost, and had new squadrons to man them. The US began to outstrip the IJN technically, as well. Wide spread deployment of shipboard radar (even on PT Boats) eliminated Japan's night advantage. For whatever reason, the Japanese command never thought much of radar as a detection device. Instead, once their fleet was mostly gone, in desperation they adopted the kamikaze. Morison spends quite a bit of time on these, particularly the havok they wreaked on the smaller vessels in the US fleet.
Morison is at his best in describing the battles, especially those he was present at. He sets the stage for the Battle of the Eastern Solomons thus:
Poseidon and Aeolus had arranged a striking setting for this battle. Towering cumulous, constantly rearranged by the 16-knot southeast tradewind in a series of snowy castles and ramparts, blocked off nearly half the dome. The ocean, two miles deep at this point, was topped with merry whitecaps dancing to a clear horizon, such as navigators love. The scene—dark shadows turning some ships purple and sun illuminating others in sharp detail, a graceful curl of foam at the bow of each flattop, the long bow of North Carolina, Atlanta bristling like a porcupine with anti-aircraft guns, heavy cruisers stolid and businesslike and the destroyers thrusting, lunging and throwing spray—was one for a great marine artist to depict. To practical carrier seamen, however, the setting was far from perfect. Those handsome clouds could hide a hundred vengeful aircraft; that high equatorial sun could provide a concealed path for pouncing dive-bombers; that reflected glare of blue, white and gold bothered and even blinded the lookouts, and made aircraft identification doubtful. Altogether it was the kind of weather a flattop sailor wants the gods to spread over the enemy's task force, not his own.
He also displays a certain grim humor at times, such as during his account of the Battle of the Java Sea, when a ragtag band of American, Dutch, and British ships attempted to block an enemy invasion force:
Electra, which had received this latest order at 1725, scored a hit on Jintsu, but in return was stopped dead by a shell exploding in a boiler room. [Admiral] Tanaka now drove in to try to finish off limping Exeter, but was frustrated by the nimble footwork of destroyers Jupiter, Witte de With and Encounter. The enemy then doubled back to gang up on Electra. She fulfilled the tragic implication of her name at 1800.
It's a terrific, artful book. If there's a weakness, it may be that Morison occasionally turns fanboy in praising a few of the officers he served under, but for the most part he does dole out praise and criticism on merit. Well worth it for anyone interested in naval warfare.
Next post, the rest of recent reading.