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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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