Home / Sunday Maritime Book Review: The U.S. Navy Against the Axis: Surface Combat, 1941-1945

Sunday Maritime Book Review: The U.S. Navy Against the Axis: Surface Combat, 1941-1945


Over the break I finished Vincent O’Hara’s U.S. Navy Against the Axis. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Pacific War, and in surface naval combat in the 20th century in general.

O’Hara makes the argument that surface combat in the Pacific is tremendously understudied, and that it contributed far more to the eventual decision that is commonly given credit. Carrier battles were consequential but rare; especially in the Solomons, surface combat made the difference between victory and defeat. As a strategy for emphasizing the relevance of the subject matter this makes sense, and I’m willing to go along with it up to a point. Certainly the surface battles of the second half of 1942 helped determine the fate of the Solomons; had the early Japanese advantage been more pronounced, or if they had made better operational decisions and accepted some additional risk, the IJN might well have driven the USN from the Solomon Islands simply with surface units. However, I’m not sure just how far that goes. To consider the relative impact of surface and carrier engagements, imagine an alternative scenario in which the Japanese win a resounding victory at Midway. Such a victory would, in all likelihood, have “decided” the Solomons campaign such that no campaign would have taken place. The larger point is that the carrier battles in 1942 and 1944 may have been rare, but their outcome set the strategic and operational terms under which surface combat would be conducted. I don’t think that O’Hara would disagree with any of this, but it’s nevertheless important to emphasize that carrier combat set the terms for the rest of the war.

For academic purposes the book is a godsend. That is, it’s a godsend for anyone who’s ever thought about putting together a research project based on an analysis of Pacific theater naval battles, a population which probably amounts to me and a small handful of other academically inclined naval enthusiasts. The battles are divided into campaigns, and each battle is accompanied by a table listing the launch date, major armament, speed, and fate of every major combatant. As the book is about all USN surface combat, not just that which took place in the Pacific, he includes a chapter on the action against the French fleet at Casablanca during Operation Torch. The carrier battles aren’t included, although they are briefly summarized in the campaign histories. I found this a trifle jarring, but it made sense in context of what he was trying to do with the book.

The book gives a good overview of Japanese and American surface doctrine throughout the war. Early in the war, of course, the 24″ Long Lance torpedo proved a great advantage for the Japanese, although not as much of one as is commonly supposed. American surface effectiveness increased considerably when a) effective torpedoes became available, and b) when commanders developed an effective torpedo attack doctrine. Both of these developments were critical, and helped turn the tide in the Solomons campaign. American gunfire, especially as provided by the 5″/38 gun, also eventually proved to be a great asset. Japanese tactical and operational doctrine, although advanced at the beginning of the war, was less flexible than that of the USN. In particular, O’Hara notes that the Japanese successfully conserved their major surface units (battleships and heavy cruisers) through 1942 and 1943 to no great effect; the units that might have been decisive in 1942 were overwhelmed in 1944. Also, in spite of what has become their historical reputation, Japanese commanders demonstrated considerable tentativeness in battle, and in many cases pursued risk-averse tactics that precluded them from following up major opportunities. The USN officer corps proved far more flexible, aggressive, and capable than its IJN counterpart.

O’Hara has only a minimal discussion of the role of the older US battleships, apart from the action in Surigao Strait and the strategic situation following Pearl Harbor. Earlier this year, an LGM correspondent forwarded me this article, in which David Fuquea argues that the older battleships were underutilized in the Pacific campaign, particularly towards the latter part of the Solomons campaign. Fuquea suggests that the older ships had enough speed to intercept Japanese ships in the Slot, and enough firepower to tip the balance strongly in the US favor. The major objections to using the battleships seem to have regarded fuel efficiency and vulnerability. The former makes sense, but apparently does not apply by the late 1942 portion of the campaign. The latter does not make sense; it seems that the older battleships were simultaneously considered too valuable to risk, yet to useless to use. Given that the USN (and the Allied navies in general) was lousy with old slow battleships by 1943, it seems to me that the use of the older ships would have been worth the risk. Had the Second Battle of Gualdalcanal gone differently, and had USS Washington been sunk or seriously damaged, the use of the older ships in the Slot may have been forced in any case.

O’Hara also briefly discusses some tantalizing missed engagements. In his review of the battles of Leyte Gulf, he mentions three; Hyuga, Ise, and the surviving surface elements of Ozawa’s force against American cruisers in a night action, three of Oldendorf’s battleships (California, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania) against Kurita off Samar, and the Iowa, New Jersey, and attendant cruisers and destroyers against Kurita following the latter’s retreat towards San Bernadino Strait. It is of course beyond the scope of O’Hara’s work to discuss battles that never happened, but it’s nevertheless interesting to think about how the engagements would have played out, especially the latter two. I’m inclined to think that in both cases the American ships would have prevailed against Kurita’s battered, disorganized, and demoralized force, but either would probably have been tight in spots. Evan Thomas recently published a book on Kurita, Halsey, and Leyte Gulf which I’ll review at some point; it’s more readable than the O’Hara for a non-specialist, but isn’t as strong overall.

I was extremely happy with the book, and heartily recommend it. Here and there I could quibble with various points (was the USS Washington really the most powerful battleship in the world in November 1942? Advocates of the Duke of York, the Yamato, and the South Dakota class might have cause for complaint…), but overall it’s an outstanding piece of work.

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  • Tracy Lightcap

    Well, you are certainly right about the Solomons. The surface units could have made a difference. Still, when you have Nagato class vessels coming down the Slot it’s no place for carriers or, even, state class US battleships. The real difference in the Solomons was made by lighter ships on both sides anyway. Raizo Tanaka, who owned the islands, commanded a destroyer flotilla after all. We were lucky to win; if the Japanese army had been anywhere near as efficient as their navy at Guadalcanal we would have been in a heap of trouble.
    My father was left at Henderson Field by the Enterprise when it left the theater. His mission: test fly the Marine aircraft that were pushed off the cargo ships into the surf and then assembled under fire at Henderson Field. He wasn’t killed at Midway so I suppose he decided that he wasn’t going to get killed by anything either side could do to him. They don’t call it the “Greatest Generation” for nothing. Though, in this case, you have to feel that there was a screw loose somewhere!

  • Mark Centz

    (was the USS Washington really the most powerful battleship in the world in November 1942? Advocates of the Duke of York, the Yamato, and the South Dakota class might have cause for complaint…)
    Obviously, the NCAA needs to institute a playoff.

  • you know, dude, you, like, know a lot about battleships.

  • Rose

    Are there any books about the role of the Army in the Pacific theater? As the daughter of a USMA grad who is INCENSED by the PROPAGANDA spread by the Navy that they won Pacific in WWII, I’m curious if he’s just being a snob or if there’s something to his rant. The Navy is generally way better at PR (see: JAG, NCIS, the uniforms).

  • Using old US battleships in the Solomons?
    I think we had this discussion before, when you battleship-blogged USS Washington or some other vessel.
    IMO, this would not have been a very good idea. Less maneuverable than cruisers, slower than Washington and South Dakota, they would have been large, ripe targets for torpedoes. And slow to retire after daybreak, especially if damaged.
    One also has to consider the ramifications of the loss of those vessels — not only from a material aspect (I wouldn’t say they were useless, more that they were of use in limited roles, like escort and bombardment in amphibious operations) but also from a morale and manpower standpoint. The old battleships were a significant source of cadre for a rapidly expanding fleet. The loss of these vessels with their crews would have had substantial impact on morale as well, since the battleship remained a symbol of power long after its role had begun to evaporate.
    And the primacy of surface vessels in the Solomons campaign was largely the by-product of the carrier battles which attritted both sides carrier strength, both in hulls and wings, which left them with little other choice.
    Even then, the primacy of land-based aircraft dictated the terms of surface engagements, relegating them to night actions.
    Certainly, the Japanese strategic decision to conserve its major surface units for a decisive engagement was ultimately unsuccessful. And a better argument might be made that the use of Nagato or Yamato class vessels in the Solomons might have had a grave impact on that campaign. But the Japanese were slow to recognize how important the Guadalcanal campaign was, and by the time their staff did, it was probably too late.
    Finally, your point with respect to aggressiveness of commanders is well taken — to an extent. In fact, it was a problem at times when US naval commanders aggressively pursued retiring Japanese vessels, right into the tracks of the torpedoes they fired as they turned to make their getaways, Tassafaronga being a prime example.

  • Hogan

    Rose: Maybe not quite what you’re looking for, and maybe you already know it, but William Manchester’s biography of MacArthur (American Caesar) covers the narrative ground very readably. (Manchester was a Marine serving in the Pacific, and he certainly gives the army its due. MacArthur’s general insufferableness may have helped as much as Navy PR to inflate their reputation.)

  • James Angove

    Belle: You’ve made that joke. No, really, you made it more than a year ago; I read the comment threads to several of the linked posts (and several of the posts they link to) last night and in one of them, there you are, making that joke. Or perhaps you always make that joke, and I just missed it.

  • Pffft. Surface craft.
    Simply targets.

  • JTL

    “…was the USS Washington really the most powerful battleship in the world in November 1942?”
    On the larger question, I’m with Alex (mostly). The USN’s operational problems in 1942 were not just mechanical–e.g., bad torpedoes (bad, bad torpedoes!)–but also doctrinal (poor tactics, especially for night surface action) and uneven leadership (an uncomfortably large number of USN admirals simply were not up to their jobs). By late 1944, the USN’s equipment, tactics and leadership had improved enough so that Jesse Oldendorf’s surface warfare TF was a truly formidable outfit, which almost certainly would have won its night surface action even if the IJN had kept its battle force concentrated, and the caliber of its leadership had not declined (e.g., Nishimura and Shima vice Yamaguchi and Tanaka).

  • did I? man, I suck. let’s just pretend I said something funny, in the spirit of broder-esque bipartisanship.

  • mpowell

    Ignoring questions about the accuracy of relative casualty rates in the history I read, it seems to me that the outcome in the Solomons was determined early on by the ineffectiveness of the Japanese Army on Guadalcanal and the superiority of land-based American fighters. The Japanese dominated the early surface actions in that theatre, but it was the airstrip at Guadalcanal the prevented their Navy from effectively supporting the fight on Guadalcanal. In the history I read, the casualty ratios in the land battle were terrible: 10-1 against the Japanese. The air battle was little better. For evey few American plane lost, scores of Japanese planes were shot down. This also completely neutralized the early Japanese superiority in air-surface attacks. They just kept losing planes and pilots at a ridiculous rate. I don’t know if it would have made enough of a difference, but if they had committed more of their carrier based planes, staging from carriers or Rabaul earlier on, maybe they could have evicted the marines from Guadalcanal. Similarly, why did they split up their fleet at Midway? They could have easily turned the tide of that battle and gotten all 3 american carriers.
    But yeah, the early surface actions were an embarassment.

  • wyanaga

    Another point that might provide insight on why the Japanese just didn’t “send down” more BBs…

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