15 April, 2009
Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher
Frank Jack Fletcher was an admiral in the United States Navy during World War II. Fletcher was the operational commander at the pivotal Battles of Coral Sea and of Midway. He was the nephew of Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher.
Fletcher was born in Marshalltown, Iowa on April 29, 1885. Appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy from his native state in 1902, he graduated from Annapolis on February 12, 1906 and commissioned an Ensign on February 13, 1908 following two years at sea.
The early years of his career were spent on the battleships Rhode Island, Ohio, and Maine. He also spent time on USS Eagle and USS Franklin. In November 1909 he was assigned to USS Chauncey, a unit of the Asiatic Torpedo Flotilla. He assumed command of USS Dale in April 1910 and March 1912 returned to Chauncey as Commanding Officer. Transferred to USS Florida in December 1912 he was aboard that battleship during the United States occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, in April 1914. For distinguished conduct in battle at Veracruz he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Fletcher became Aide and Flag Lieutenant on the staff of the Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet in July 1914. After a year at this post, he returned to the Naval Academy for duty in the Executive Department. Upon the outbreak of World War I he served as Gunnery Officer of USS Kearsarge until September 1917, after which he assumed command of USS Margaret. He was assigned to USS Allen in February 1918 before taking command of USS Benham in May 1918. For distinguished service as Commanding Officer USS Benham, engaged in the important, exacting, and hazardous duty of patrolling European waters and protecting vitally important convoys, he was awarded the Navy Cross.
From October 1918 to February 1919 he assisted in fitting out USS Crane at San Francisco. He then became Commanding Officer of USS Gridley upon 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.
He returned to the Asiatic Station, having consecutive command of the USS Whipple, USS Sacramento, USS Rainbow, and Submarine Base, Cavite. He served at the Washington Navy Yards from March 1925 to 1927; became Executive Officer of USS Colorado; and completed the Senior Course at the Naval War College, Newport in June 1930.
Fletcher became Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet in August 1931. In the summer of 1933 he was transferred to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Following this assignment he had duty from November 1933 to May 1936 as Aide to the Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Claude A. Swanson. He assumed command of USS New Mexico, flagship of Battleship Division THREE in June 1936. In December 1937 he became a member of the Naval Examining Board, and became Assistant Chief of Bureau of Navigation in June 1938. Returning to the Pacific between September 1939 and December 1941 he became Commander Cruiser Division THREE; Commander Cruiser Division SIX; Commander Cruiser's Scouting Force; and Commander Cruiser Division FOUR.
On January 1, 1942, Rear Admiral Fletcher took command of Task Force 17 built around the carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5). He, a surface fleet admiral, was chosen over more senior officers to lead a carrier task force. He learned air operations on the job while escorting troops to the South Pacific. He was junior TF commander under tutelage of the experts: Vice Admiral William Halsey during the Marshalls-Gilberts raids in February; Vice Admiral Wilson Brown attacking the enemy landings on New Guinea in March; and had aviation expert Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch with him during the first battle at Coral Sea.
In May 1942, he commanded the task forces during the Battle of the Coral Sea. This battle is famous as the first carrier-on-carrier battle fought between fleets that never came within sight of each other.
Fletcher with Yorktown, Task Force 17, had been patrolling the Coral Sea and rendezvoused with Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch with USS Lexington (CV-2), Task Force 11, and a tanker group. Fletcher finished refueling first and headed West. On hearing the enemy was occupying Tulagi, TF 17 attacked the landing beaches, sinking several small ships before rejoining Lexington and an Australian cruiser force under Rear Admiral John Gregory Crace on May 5.
The next day, intelligence reported a Japanese invasion task force headed for Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and a Carrier Strike Force was in the area, The morning of May 7 Fletcher sent the Australian cruisers to stop the transports while he sought the carriers. His combat pilots sank Japanese aircraft carrier Shōhō, escorting the enemy troop ships, — "Scratch one flat top." radioed Lt. Commander Robert Dixon flying back to the USS Lexington. Meanwhile, Japanese carrier planes of Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara found the American tanker USS Neosho (AO-23), and severely damaged (days later sunk by USS Henley (DD-391) it after several all-out attacks, believing they had found a carrier, and sinking her escorting destroyer USS Sims (DD-409).
On May 8, at first light, "round three opened." Fletcher launched seventy-five aircraft, Hara sixty-nine. Fitch had greater experience in handling air operations, and Fletcher had him direct that function, as he was to do again later with Noyes at Guadalcanal. Shokaku was hit, but not damaged below waterline; it slunk away. Zuikaku had earlier dodged under a squall. The Japanese attack put two torpedoes into Lexington, which was abandoned that evening. Yorktown was hit near her island, but survived. Hara failed to use Zuikaku to achieve victory and withdrew. The invasion fleet without air cover, also withdrew, thereby halting the Port Moresby invasion. Fletcher had achieved the objective of the mission at the cost of a carrier, tanker, and destroyer. In addition, his Wildcats had beaten Japanese air groups, 52 to 35, and had damaged Shokaku,; neither Japanese carrier would be able to join the fight at Midway the following month.
This was the first WWII battle in which the Imperial Japanese Navy had been stopped. In battles in Pearl Harbor, East Indies, Australia, Ceylon they had defeated the British, Dutch, and Asiatic Fleets, and had not lost a fleet ship larger than mine sweepers and submarines.
In June 1942, he was the Officer in Tactical Command at the Battle of Midway with two task forces, his usual TF 17 with quickly repaired Yorktown, plus TF 16 with USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. Vice Admiral William Halsey normally commanded this task force, but became ill and was replaced by Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance. When aircraft from four Japanese carriers attacked Midway Island, the three U.S. carriers, warned by broken Japanese codes and waiting in ambush, attacked and sank three enemy carriers – Akagi, Kaga, Soryu. Enterprise and Hornet lost seventy aircraft. Return attack damaged Yorktown. Fletcher's scouts found the fourth carrier and Enterprise with Yorktown planes then sank Hiryu. At dusk, Fletcher released Spruance to continue fighting with TF 16 the next day. During the next two days, Spruance found two damaged cruisers and sank one. The enemy transport and battle fleets got away. A Japanese submarine, I-168, found crippled Yorktown and sank her and an adjacent destroyer, USS Hammann. Japan had had seven large carriers (six at Pearl Harbor and one new construction) – four were sunk at Midway. This did not win the war, but evened the odds between Japanese and American fleet carriers.
As the U.S. took the offensive in August 1942, Vice Admiral Fletcher commanded the Task Force 61's invasion of Tulagi and Guadalcanal by the 1st Marine Division. Close air support was provided at Tulagi. The invasion of Guadalcanal was uncontested, Fletcher withdrew his carriers from dangerous waters when they were no longer needed. Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner's offloading of supplies did not go as well as expected, he did not tell Fletcher, and then had to withdraw the transports after Fletcher left. The Marines refer to this as the 'Navy Bugout', but the 17,000 Marines were in little danger from a construction battalion. The few US carriers could not be risked against multi-engine, land based, torpedo bombers, when they were needed for combat against carriers. He chose to withdraw on the third morning to prepare for the inevitable Japanese counterattack.
Fletcher used the carriers he had saved two weeks later when he fought a superior Japanese fleet intent on counter-invasion in the carrier aircraft Battle of the Eastern Solomons. He started the engagement and sank his sixth carrier, Ryujo, The ensuing battle was essentially a giant aerial dog fight interspersed with ship borne antiaircraft fire. The U.S. lost 20 planes, the Japanese lost 70. Enterprise was hit by three bombs and Chitose was nearly sunk, but survived. The enemy withdrew without landing troops on Guadalcanal. They had to resort to the Tokyo Express : overnight delivery of a few hundred troops and supplies by destroyers. Fletcher, as always, was second guessed by non-combatants, and was criticized by Admiral Ernest King, in Washington, for not pursuing the Combined Fleet as it withdrew. This criticism may have affected the decision to not return Fletcher to his command after his flagship, the carrier Saratoga (CV-3), was torpedoed and damaged by a Japanese submarine on August 31, 1942. Fletcher himself was slightly injured in the attack on Saratoga, suffering a gash to his head and was given his first leave after eight months of continuous combat.
In November 1942, he became Commander, Thirteenth Naval District and Commander, Northwestern Sea Frontier to calm the public fear of invasion from the north. A year later, he was placed in charge of the whole Northern Pacific area, holding that position until after the end of World War II, when his forces occupied northern Japan. He also held that command when he ordered the front to bombard the Kurile Islands and other operations as well.
Vice Admiral Fletcher was appointed to the Navy's General Board in 1946 and retired as Chairman of that governing board in May 1947 with the rank of full Admiral. He retired to his county estate, Araby, in Maryland.
Many of Fletcher's papers were lost in combat, he declined to reconstruct his papers from Pentagon archives and sit with Samuel Eliot Morison, who was writing the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, and in return received no consideration by Morison, an attitude picked up by later authors.
Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher died on April 25, 1973, four days before his 88th birthday at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.