AT WAR AT SEA: SAILORS AND NAVAL WARFARE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Lee Gailiard is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in defense issues and military technology. His articles and reviews have appeared in Naval Institute Proceedings, The SUBMARINE REVIEW, The Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine, Defense News, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other newspapers, magazines, and journals throughout the country. His review of At War At Sea: Sailors and Naval Watfare in the Twentieth Century first appeared in the Books section of the San Diego Union-Tribune on Sunday, May 6, 2001.
The ceremony was unprecedented. Date: April 12, 2001. Place: deck of USS MISSOURI, moored in Pearl Harbor. Exactly 56 years earlier, the MISSOURI’s captain buried at sea with full military honors the body of the Japanese kamikaze pilot who had crashed onto the ship the day before. Many of the battleship’s crew had objected. Now William M. Callaghan was being honored for his compassionate act-and the Japanese pilot commemorated for his bravery. Keynote speaker Senator Daniel K. Inouye asked, “Was it at that moment that [the captain] saw not his enemy but simply a man?”
Just published, Ronald K. Spector’s At War At Sea includes a superb account of the relentless and stupefying waves of kamikaze attacks that characterized the ferocious battle for Okinawa. The author also reveals how these suicide pilots retured to naval warfare that almost medieval sense of personal combat. (Roughly 1900 suicide planes sank 57 Allied ships and incapacitated more than 100 others.) Quoted from the memoir of a destroyer sailor: “When a [kamikaze] approached my ship and I was his target[,], then it was between me and the other man. One of us had to die, that was on my mind.”
Such highly focused approaches to naval history come naturally to Spector, a Marine veteran and professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The first civilian appointed as Director of Naval History and head of the Naval Historical Center, he also served as senior Fulbright lecturer in India and Israel and Visiting Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College. His book, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan, was a recent best seller.
Specter’s current book often examines historic events from new angles. Beyond crossing his enemy’s T, for example, what enabled Admiral Togo to wreak such havoc on the Russian fleet at Tsushima in 1905? While treatment of 1916’s climactic Battle of Jutland gives the requisite nod to the German tactical victory and British strategic dominance, Spector goes on to examine differences in armor, gun sizes, and fire control systems, commenting on the more stable gun platform offered by German battleships’ wider beams. (Other sources remark that while the British built their ships to fit their drydocks, the Germans built drydocks to accommodate their ships.) He describes destruction witnessed by surviving sailors, laments faulty Royal Navy communications, and cites British failure to use wireless and other new technologies effectively.
Unlike the British, the Gennans learned from experience. Perhaps we should be reminded that after the battlecruiser SEYD-LITZ endured hits and nearly catastrophic turret fires during the Battle of Dagger Bank in 1915, Gennan shipyards installed interlocking antiflash doors in the Imperial Aeet’s main ammunition hoist shafts and across magazine and ammunition handling room entrances. The Royal Navy made no such changes. Result at Jutland? Spector describes how a shell penetrating one of INVINCIBLE’ s turrets caused “the same gigantic explosion that had destroyed INDEFATIGABLE and QUEEN MARY. “INVINCIBLE blew up, splitting almost exactly in half so that the bow and stern rested vertically on the bottom of the [North Sea] and could be seen protruding out of the water.”
During World War II, aircraft carriers replaced battleships as the new technological paradigm, bringing with them a steep learning curve. (Indeed, until 1942, U.S. carriers LEXINGTON and SARA TOGA both mounted four turrets of twin 8-inch guns more befitting a cruiser.) Spector shows that admirals with no previous carrier combat experience would quickly have to teach themselves-about tight coordination of torpedo plane and dive bomber attacks against an enemy fleet, about proper distancing of defensive combat air patrols.
After his discussion of the crucial Battle of Midway in which Admiral Nagumo lost his four carriers, their aircrews, and trained mechanics, Spector insightfully observes that Japan kept its remaining experienced fliers at the front, whereas U.S. aces, before returning to combat, rotated home to train new pilots. (Aces like Commander John S. Thach, whose famous two-plane Thach Weave enabled heavier Wildcats to defeat more nimble z.ero’s.) Result? As the dwindling cadre of experienced Japanese naval pilots was replaced by novices, the U.S. rotation system provided increasingly experienced aircrews.
But as much as DREADNOUGHT and aircraft carriers, the lowly submarine revolutionized the nature of war at sea. In World War I’s opening months, German submarines formed defensive picket lines across the Heligoland Bight, protecting Imperial dreadnoughts against an expected British raid. The Royal Navy never came. Admiral Scheer’s subsequent submarine reconnaissance probes revealed that subs had more range than expected. Germany then rapidly developed submarines into an offensive weapon that, far more than Tirpitz’s battleships and Hitler’s bombers, in two world wars almost defeated Great Britain. Given that grain-and petroleum-laden ships constituted England’s crucial “life lines across the Atlantic,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared “The U-boat attack was our worst evil”-truth in both 1917 and 1942.
“At one time [in World War I],” writes British historian A.J .P. Taylor, “there was less than a month’s supply of wheat in England”; in mid 1942, fuel oil was down to two and a half months’ supply. Then, with nuclear power, submarine evolution accelerated during the Cold War as huge Soviet Kursk class subs patrolled with carrier-busting supersonic cruise missiles and five nations launched ballistic missile subs with city-smashing capabilities once reserved for strategic bombers.
Specter emphasizes that it was the officers and sailors who had made all this technology work-from submarines to code-breaking computers to torpedoes. He includes examples of crucial decryption in both world wars. He mentions frustrating U.S. torpedo problems that were eventually solved. (In fact, it was Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood who bucked the system, running calibrated tests on Mk 14 torpedoes that had never been tested in peacetime. His discovery of defective depth controls and fragile firing pins proved as valuable to U.S. submarine operations as the Thach Weave to carrier aviation.)
Occasional slips will probably be corrected in the second printing: Chapter Eight opens with the Galapagos Islands located in the Atlantic; C02 is credited with causing “fatal carbon monoxide poisoning”; one destroyer officer reports that “our 5-inch machine guns did their best”; but their “little bullets” weren’t much use. (Text should read” .5-inch”-as 50-caliber machine guns are often known.) And regarding MacArthur’s “surprise amphibious attack against the port of Inchon”, historian John Toland (Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950-1953) writes that it had been predicted to the day by Mao Tse-Tung, who relayed the information to Kim II-sung and his intelligence officers.
Surprising, however, is absence of the 20111 Century’s final paradigm shift as reflected in the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent Balkans operations. Here is a technological leap as significant as the Dreadnought revolution of 1906-with ships, submarines, and naval aircraft attacking hostile ground targets with cruise missiles and precision-guided weapons guided by laser beam and global positioning satellite.
First hints of this high tech revolution appear in World War II, perhaps specifically in 1943. In that year: the cruiser HELENA first fired proximity-fused antiaircraft shells at attacking Japanese aircraft in the Pacific; German precision-guided Fritz-X glide bombs sank the battleship ROMA and damaged five other ships off Salerno: Allied technology began to tum the tide against German submarines with aircraft and Leigh lights; sonar. forward-firing Hedgehog depth mortars, High-Frequency Direction Finders, and undetectable 10-cm. radar.
During the Cold War this revolution transformed navies as missile-derived guidance systems metamorphosed into Ship Inertial Navigation Systems (SINS) and as the seminal Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT) streamlined production management for Admiral William Raborn’s Polaris ballistic missile program. The high tech downside, Specter suggests. is that computerization reduces response time to minutes or seconds, raising stress and jeopardizing decision making. Example: the captain of the missile cruiser USS VINCENNES, who. while simultaneously coping with several hostile patrol craft, acted quickly on faulty radar information, initiating the tragic shootdown of an Iranian airliner in 1988.
But when all is said, Professor Sector’s purpose is not to provide a traditional chronological narrative. At War At Sea offers a richer experience-even though we may not encounter World War I’s Adriatic skirmishes or D-Day’s Normandy invasion. Given the author’s aim to “illustrate important stages in the development of naval warfare”, for most of the 20111 Century Specter’s account serves us extremely well, providing evocative and fresh perspectives on cultures, technologies. and innovations that influenced sailors’ lives and shaped naval warfare.