Category Archives: U.S. Navy

How Intelligence Turned the Tide in the Pacific

On April 17, 1942, Imperial Japan seemed invincible. The nation’s armed forces were virtually undefeated in battle. All of East Asia, including much of China, lay under the boot of Dai Nippon; Australia and India looked to be next; and with the Allies focused on Europe first, the U.S. looked to be at least a year away before being able to take the offensive against even an overextended Japan.

Within 50 days, that had all changed.

While her armies were still rampant on mainland Asia, Japan’s Navy had suffered a sequence of defeats. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo ended the myth of Japanese invincibility, the Battle of the Coral Sea had halted Japan’s drive into Australia, and the Battle of Midway destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy as a strategic offensive force.

Damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft ...

Damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Shokaku sustained on May 8, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That turning point was enabled by a range of factors, but it surely would not have happened had there not been a series of coups in signals intelligence in the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. In A Priceless Advantage: U.S. Navy Communications Intelligence and the Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and the Aleutians, Frederick D. Parker gives us a look at the facts behind the legends, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the unconventional team that enabled those (and many other) victories.

If the work leaves one wondering why, in contrast, the history of US intelligence over the last six decades reads like the annals of the Keystone Kops, it also offers the beginnings of an answer. Superior intelligence organizations are often not the conscious product of organizational science, but of brilliant, directed operators who are completely focused and left unhampered in their work.

A superb read for lovers of history and anyone interested in intelligence.

Eastern Approaches: Task Force 24

Escorts and merchant ships at Hvalfjord before...

Escorts and merchant ships at Hvalfjord before the sailing of Convoy PQ 17 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As much as the U.S. Army’s role in the Pacific War somewhat unjustly fades behind that of the Navy and Marines, the Navy’s role in the victory in Europe is too-often overlooked. Samuel Eliot Morrison tried to rectify that somewhat in his multivolume histories of the U.S. Navy in World War II, but there is precious little grist available to us amateur historians to learn more about the US Navy’s Atlantic fight.

One of the most critical of those fights was the Battle of the Atlantic, the six year effort to thwart Germany’s plan to win the European war by severing the Allies’ transatlantic supply line. Our hindsight makes it easy to forget that the matter was often in doubt, especially after German U-Boats were organized in Wolf Packs, began operating off the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and shredded convoys like the infamous PQ-17. Indeed, the U.S. applied the same strategy to Japan with huge success.

Navy Task Force 24 was the U.S. unit charged with the safe conduct of merchant convoys from U.S. ports to a point where British escorts could assume escort duties. The official account of the Admirals who commanded that unit, Commander Task Force 24, is thus a critical primary source for anyone with an interest in that period.

As with many such government-produced documents, the narrative can be a bit dry, more of a chronology than a thematically-organized work, and it is focused heavily on administrative matters rather than operations themselves. Nonetheless, this is essential background, and anyone familiar with or interested in the conduct of the war in the Atlantic will find the work enlightening.

The U.S. Navy’s Intramural Battles

English: Main Navy Building (foreground) and t...

English: Main Navy Building (foreground) and the Munitions Building were temporary structures built during World War I on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The buildings remained in use for several decades, and the Secretary of War was headquartered in the Munitions Building from 1936 until the Pentagon opened in 1943. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Administrative histories of military forces rarely make for scintillating reading. Accounts of the activities of command bureaucracies are, however, treasure chests for the military historian. Without taking from the fighting men and women or their commanders, it is usually the force that has its stuff together in the rear and in the higher echelons of command that wins the battles. Administrative histories show us the terrain on which the bureaucratic battles were fought.

Some of those fights were spectacular and were felt on the battlefield. The fight between the OSS, the FBI, and the armed forces, for example over control of strateic intelligence; the denial of the Navy bureaucracy that there was something seriously, fatally wrong with the Mark 14 torpedo; the Army Air Corps’ struggle for independence from the ground forces that made tactical air support and battlefield interdiction permanent poor cousins to strategic bombing and air superiority; and the countless internal fights that determined the way the war would be fought and by whom. These conflicts not only dictated the nature of the battle, but cast the shape of the US armed forces for the remainder of the 20th century. And they are all chronicled in so-called “administrative histories.”

Thus, the Guide to United States Naval Administrative Histories of World War II is a bibliography of the internal accounts of these battles in the Department of the Navy. They serve, therefore, as glimpses into the birth and early growth of modern naval forces, as well as the conduct of the war itself. The resource is indispensible for the serious historian, and, if nothing else, serves as a guide when pursuing research into any significant naval topic.