The Fleet at Flood Tide

America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The extraordinary story of the World War II air, land, and sea campaign that brought the U.S. Navy to the apex of its strength and marked the rise of the United States as a global superpower

Winner, Commodore John Barry Book Award, Navy League of the United States • Winner, John Lehman Distinguished Naval Historian Award, Naval Order of the United States

With its thunderous assault on the Mariana Islands in June 1944, the United States crossed the threshold of total war. In this tour de force of dramatic storytelling, distilled from extensive research in newly discovered primary sources, James D. Hornfischer brings to life the campaign that was the fulcrum of the drive to compel Tokyo to surrender—and that forever changed the art of modern war.

With a close focus on high commanders, front-line combatants, and ordinary people, American and Japanese alike, Hornfischer tells the story of the climactic end of the Pacific War as has never been done before. Here are the epic seaborne invasions of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, the stunning aerial battles of the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, the first large-scale use of Navy underwater demolition teams, the largest banzai attack of the war, and the daring combat operations large and small that made possible the strategic bombing offensive culminating in the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From the seas of the Central Pacific to the shores of Japan itself, The Fleet at Flood Tide is a stirring, authoritative, and cinematic portrayal of World War II’s world-changing finale.

Illustrated with original maps and more than 120 dramatic photographs

“Quite simply, popular and scholarly military history at its best.”—Victor Davis Hanson, author of Carnage and Culture
“The dean of World War II naval history . . . In his capable hands, the story races along like an intense thriller. . . . Narrative nonfiction at its finest—a book simply not to be missed.”—James M. Scott, Charleston Post and Courier
“An impressively lucid account . . . admirable, fascinating.”The Wall Street Journal
“An extraordinary memorial to the courageous—and a cautionary note to a world that remains unstable and turbulent today.”—Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO, author of Sea Power
“A masterful, fresh account . . . ably expands on the prior offerings of such classic naval historians as Samuel Eliot Morison.”The Dallas Morning News

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Fleet at Flood Tide


Engine of Siege

Almost two years underway, the war in the Pacific, the Navy’s war, was not yet total. Indeed, some were calling it a phony war. Such a term had been applied to the eight-­month period of stasis in Europe between the declaration of war by the Allies and their first major operations on Germany’s Western Front in 1940. In the Pacific, the year 1943 had been, for the Navy, a year of rebuilding and waiting.

The invasion of Guadalcanal, the first Allied offensive of the war, launched in August 1942, had been carried out on a shoestring, using a back-­of-­the-­envelope contingency plan. The six-­month campaign of attrition ended in U.S. victory in February, but nine more months would pass before the Marine Corps attacked another Japanese-­held island. While General Douglas MacArthur’s troops wore down the Japanese in New Guinea and the Army’s Kiska Task Force retook the Aleutians, the Navy endured an interval of gathering and adjustment, of preparation and planning, recruitment and training, construction and commissioning. Mostly the latter, and the shipyards would tell an epic tale.

The lead ship of the Essex class of aircraft carriers joined the fleet on New Year’s Eve 1942. The 34,000-­tonner would emerge as the signature ship of the U.S. Navy’s combat task force. Four more would be launched before 1943 was out. A pair of Iowa-­class battleships reached the Pacific that year, too, as four more of the 45,000-­ton behemoths took shape in the yards. A horde of new destroyers and destroyer escorts—­more than five hundred of them—­were launched in the year’s second half alone. But the greatest economies of scale revealed themselves in the building of merchant ships. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had directed the Maritime Commission to produce twenty-­four million tons of cargo shipping in 1943. The surge was so great that it might have strained the wine industry’s capacity to make bottles to smash against prows on launching day. Surprising shortages cascaded through the supply chain. When grease was rationed for the exclusive use of combat units, a shipyard in Beaumont, Texas, found a substitute to use in lubricating the skids of their ramps: ripe bananas. Personnel officers, short on applicants, hired women and minorities to work in the yards and looked inland from the traditional recruitment fields of the coasts on the hunch that farmers with wits enough to survive the Dust Bowl might be useful in building ships. Coming out of the Depression, no one missed the chance to earn a better wage.

It was this outpouring of manpower and industry that enabled the Navy’s long-­envisioned drive through the Central Pacific to begin. Since 1909, the “Pacific problem” had been an important object of study, premised upon the Navy’s need to retake the Philippines after a Japanese attack. Since 1933, Ernest King had favored a path through the Marianas, which he considered the “key to the Western Pacific.” As commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, based in Washington, Admiral King had been pressing the Joint Chiefs to approve an invasion of the islands ever since the end stages of the Guadalcanal campaign. The size and difficulty of the island objectives seized to date—­mere apostrophes of coral with little elevation or terrain—­paled next to the Marianas, which lay within what Japan considered its inner defensive perimeter.

In November 1943, as Admiral William F. Halsey’s South Pacific forces attacked Bougainville, Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Central Pacific Force began its oceanic march, falling upon the tiniest and humblest of objectives: Tarawa, a coral atoll in the Gilberts. The sharp, bloody fight was won quickly by the men of the Second Marine Division. The Marshall Islands campaign was next. Spruance took the fleet there in January, delivering the Fourth Marine Division and elements of the Army’s Seventh Division to conquer Kwajalein, an infamous prison island that had been the site of many executions of captured Allied pilots and sailors.

When Nimitz, delighted, asked Spruance for his thoughts about what to do next, Spruance proposed jumping ahead immediately to capture Eniwetok, an anchorage in the western Marshalls. It would be the farthest advance by American forces in the whole war. Spruance said he could do it, but only if the carriers handled an important preliminary matter first. Any ships assaulting Eniwetok, he said, would come within aircraft striking range of the greatest Japanese base in the Central Pacific. Spruance proposed sending the fast carrier task force to strike it. Its name was Truk.

The stronghold had never before been glimpsed, much less attacked. Located in the Caroline Islands, Truk was a massive, multi-­island lagoon. Its gigantic outer barrier of coral heads traced a triangle that held eighty-­four coral and basaltic islands, most of which were substantial enough to mount antiaircraft artillery. Four of the inner islands had airfields. The lagoon’s harbors and anchorages were deep enough for major warships, and the base’s capacity to support such assets, and its location on the boundary of the Central and South Pacific areas, recommended it as a forward naval base, fleet headquarters, air base, radio communications hub, and supply base as well. From Truk, the Imperial Navy could muster in defense of almost any point on the perimeter of its so-­called Southeast Area, all the way into the deep South Pacific.

The question of how finally to deal with Truk would be decided only after Spruance’s raid was over. Two options were on the table. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved two offensive paths across the Central Pacific: Either the Navy would assault Truk directly and seize it by June 15, to be followed by landings in the Marianas on September 1; or the Navy would bypass it, leaping straight to the Marianas, with D Day on Saipan set for June 15.

Nimitz thought Truk would have to be taken, but his amphibious planners considered it beyond their means. Truk’s barrier reef was a dangerous obstacle to assault, and its enormous radius kept the inner harbor out of range of naval gunfire from outside. The atoll’s principal islands themselves, Eten, Moen, Param, Fefan, and Dublon, were within mutually supporting range of each other and thus formidable objectives. The more Nimitz and his people looked at it, the less they liked the odds.

On February 12, Spruance and Mitscher led nine aircraft carriers to sea from Majuro, an anchorage in the Marshalls. Their mission was to stick an arm into the hornet’s nest that was Truk and rate the potency of its sting. If the raid, code-­named Operational Hailstone, went well, no Japanese planes would remain on Truk to interfere with the landings on Eniwetok. The results would bear, too, on the choice of the next strategic objective.

Though Spruance had a reputation as a battleship man, he had won his greatest fame leading carriers. In June 1942, in the Battle of Midway, he exercised tactical control over the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown while their aviators destroyed four Japanese carriers. For the loss of the York­town, the United States won a victory that would resound in history. Elevated thereafter to serve as Admiral Chester Nimitz’s chief of staff, Spruance commanded a desk at Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t until August 1943 that he returned to sea to command the Central Pacific Force. Its fast carrier element acquired its muscular size nearly coincidentally with Spruance’s rise. It dwarfed in every dimension the carrier group he had led at Midway. The Essex-­class carriers were made mighty by their association with an air group of ninety planes, made up of a fighter squadron, a dive-­bomber squadron, and a torpedo bomber squadron. By 1944 these squadrons used best-­in-­class aircraft, the F6F-­3 Hellcat, the SB2C-­1 Helldiver (or the older SBD-­5 Dauntless), and the TBF-­1c Avenger, respectively.

The argument about how to employ the Navy’s multiplying roster of carriers—­singly, as in the past, or in groups—­was settled not so much by persuasion or battle experience as by the surging output of the yards. As far as combat tactics went, the standard assumption that they had to hit, then run, because they were impossible to save against a determined air attack, was yielding to a new reality. Quantity was not merely a luxury but a revolution. By concentrating their aircraft and flak defenses, the carrier task force could hold an air attack at bay. Their planes had radio transponders that enabled specially trained fighter direction teams to recognize them and direct them using long-­range search radars. New shipboard combat information centers collated and communicated this critical information. With common doctrine governing the use of combat air patrols, ship formations, and air defense tactics, the carrier task force acquired a flexibility that multiplied its reach and staying power. Several groups of three or four carriers, operating together, could quite well take care of themselves. Approaching Truk, Spruance and Mitscher were about to prove it.

They had arranged their nine carriers in three task groups, each steaming just over the horizon from the next. Spruance flew his three-­star flag in the battleship New Jersey, riding in a great circle with the carrier Bunker Hill and the light carriers Monterey and Cowpens. Over the horizon to his north was the group built around the Enterprise, the Yorktown, and the light carrier Belleau Wood. To his south came the Essex, with the Intrepid and the light carrier Cabot. Deployment in groups allowed concentration or dispersion as a mission might require. Typically the force could be seen in its totality only in an anchorage. At sea, such a spectacle required a few thousand feet of altitude.

Ninety minutes before sunrise on February 16, the fleet closed to within ninety miles of Truk and, on order from Mitscher, as tactical commander of the carriers under Spruance, turned into a force-­five wind and began launching planes. One by one, with the release of chocks and the roar of Wright radial engines, a swarm of F6F-­3 Hellcats took wing over the spray of onrushing whitecaps.

At the break of morning light, the leaders of each of the five participating fighter squadrons led their flights in a wide turn to the west and circled, allowing the others to join up. After the seventy Hellcats had gathered, they turned out on a heading that would take them west, harbingers of a two-­day operation to neutralize Truk as a threat to U.S. ambitions in the Pacific.

The swarm had droned along for less than an hour when their target appeared before them. Illuminated by the sun just above the eastern horizon, it resembled a cluster of mountains contained in a huge coral-­fringed tub. Truk’s barrier reef, a round-­cornered triangle, encompassed a lagoon. As they came nearer, twelve planes from the Bunker Hill flew high cover at twenty thousand feet, while two divisions of four ranged more widely as scouts. Two dozen Hellcats from the Enterprise and the Yorktown, Mitscher’s flagship, formed the low-­attack group. Like-­sized contingents from the Intrepid and Essex came in at medium altitude. The boss of the Bunker Hill air group, Commander Roland H. “Brute” Dale, flew separately as the strike coordinator. His job was to make sure the remaining forty-­eight planes, his strikers, found the right targets to strafe, assisted by three other air group commanders who served as target observers.

Twelve planes from the Intrepid’s Fighter Squadron Six circled the atoll at a distance, waiting for their high cover to reach its station. A pilot from this group, Lieutenant (j.g.) Alex Vraciu, was mystified to find no Japanese planes in the air to intercept. Little did the U.S. pilots know that the base’s naval commander had just relaxed his guard, a decision that was almost coincident with the arrival of enemy carriers off his shores. For the previous two weeks, Truk had been on high alert, ever since American search planes reconnoitered it on February 4. Knowing that his pilots were exhausted, Vice Admiral Masami Kobayashi, commander of the Fourth Fleet, had ordered most of them to shore leave in the barracks district located across a causeway from the main airfield at Dublon. The subsequent lapse in air search allowed Spruance to approach Truk undetected and left a sizable portion of the available fighters on the ground when the American swarm arrived overhead before sunrise.

On a fighter sweep, U.S. Navy tactical doctrine boiled down to this: Keep your Hellcats high. Concentrate them in force. Clear out the enemy fighters first. Then get after the airfields. Don’t circle and tarry; it only gives the enemy a chance to scramble. Save for the initial five or so minutes of circling necessary to allow the Hellcats assigned to high cover to take station, this was exactly what Dale and his pilots did, if not necessarily in that order. It wasn’t until Fighting Six was pushing over to strafe that they discovered that some enemy fighters were airborne after all. Pacific Fleet intelligence had estimated that not fewer than seventy-­five fighters would be on hand to defend Truk, along with twenty-­eight scout bombers, twelve torpedo planes, twelve medium bombers, five large patrol planes, and fifty-­eight floatplanes, a total of 190 aircraft. “Not less than” proved to be the operative word. The Japanese pilots indeed did in the end get to their planes. U.S. fliers would count more than three hundred of them in the air and on the ground during the day.

As flak puffed the sky around him, Alex Vraciu, with his wingman, Lou Little, found himself in the tail of a spiral of Hellcats bearing down on Moen Island, the site of one of Truk’s principal airfields. Ten Hellcats ahead of him were into their dives when, to be safe, Vraciu looked back over his shoulder. No rookie, he knew the clouds offered nooks and crannies for enemy pilots to use as cover for ambush. His caution likely saved his life. There he saw it at last, the dim form of a Mitsubishi A6M Model Zero, known as a Zeke, diving, its cowling and wings twinkling with gunfire.

Vraciu pulled back his stick, and Little followed him into a climb. Turning sharply toward the enemy plane, Vraciu maneuvered to bring the plane into his gunsight, then fired a burst that forced the pilot to break off and dive. That’s when he noticed the enemy planes above him—­a gaggle of dozens that included every model the Japanese flew. The fight was on.

Alex Vraciu was just one among many similarly situated young pilots, full of ambition, in thrall of their tribe, in the grip of their squadron’s logo and mojo and full of stories about the wise old hands who had forged them. He entered pilot training while he was still a senior at Depauw University in Muncie, Indiana. Joining his first squadron at North Island, San Diego, Vraciu was singled out as a talent by the commander, Butch O’Hare, who made the rookie his wingman. The skipper proceeded to hand down the lessons of air combat as they had been taught to him—­via the “humiliation squad.”

From the Hardcover edition.

- About the author -

James D. Hornfischer is the author of The Fleet at Flood Tide, Neptune’s Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature. All of his books have been New York Times bestsellers and selections of the U.S. Navy’s professional reading list. A native of Massachusetts, he lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

More from James D. Hornfischer

The Fleet at Flood Tide

America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945


The Fleet at Flood Tide

— Published by Bantam —