Excellent book. Reminiscent of another excellent book about a World War II naval battle: Midway by Gordon Prange.
Sea of Thunder is about the last great naval battle between ships shooting at each other, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October, 1944, as opposed to aircraft carriers hurling aircraft at each other like the Battle of Midway.
The made a great movie of the book Midway. The movie was also called Midway and should be seen by anyone interested in World War II naval warfare.
If Midway deserved a movie, so does Sea of Thunder and I look forward to seeing it, especially one scene in which Lt. Thomas Lupo, out of ammunition, flew his fighter plane right over a Japanese ship to draw fire away from the guys who still had ammo. As he passed over the ship, he threw a Coke bottle at the Japanese sailors on it.
In Sea of Thunder, Thomas focuses on four of the battle’s commanders: two Japanese and two American. Although the four were generally revered and honored by their nations, Thomas does a thorough job of researching the battle and the men and presents the whole truth, not just a glorification of them.
The History Channel used to have a show called Military Blunders. Reading books like the Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, Midway, and a Sea of Thunder remind me of a line from another Thomas: Lowell. He was a long-time journalist. He participated in a TV series called Lowell Thomas Remembers. During an interview about ithe was in his 90s at the timehe commented that a series called Lowell Thomas Forgets would have more material.
I think the same could be said about Military Blunders. There is a sort of assumption that military blunders are abnormal. My impression is that military blunders are the rule, not the exception.
That’s not to put down the rank and file men and women who serve in the military. The reasons most military actions are a series of blunders with the lesser blunderer winning are:
Evan Thomas does an excellent job, mainly just by thorough research, of showing how SNAFUed the Battle of Leyte Gulf was on both sides.
On a front page of Sea of Thunder, Thomas quotes Winston Churchill as saying, “War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.” In addition to leading Britain during World War II, Churchill graduated from Sandhurst, Britain’s West Point, served in the horse cavalry, served in many military actions, was captured by the enemy, escaped from prisoner of war camp, was Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty (Secretary of the Navy) in World War I. So the guy knew war up one side and down the other from first-hand experience.
My point in focusing on all the blunders is to disabuse readers of the notion that the military leaders are experts on war. Few, if any humans, are experts on warfor the reasons just stated. Too much deference is shown to military leaders who claim or imply war expertise.
Thomas brings out the reluctance of naval officers and their civilian leaders to risk their main ships. The Americans were somewhat less reluctant than the Japanese, but all governments tend to build ships that are famous “stars,” then become reluctant to risk them in battle because they are so famous and the loss of themwitness the sinking of the WWI II German battleship Bismarckis too big of a blow to the nation’s prestige.
Fine. So don’t build the darned things to begin with.
Thomas also brings out a fact that I had not been aware of, but which makes sense. Naval battle has a legendary format. Ships approach each other in, “full speed ahead damn the torpedoes” mode. Commanders “go in harm’s way” and “go down with the ship.”
Both Japan and the U.S. naval leaders had, for decades, envisioned themselves leading their ship or many ships in a desperate, huge, decisive naval battle.
Predictably, such a specific image of what they are supposed to be about causes them to seek out this situation. That, is not smart. What they ought to be doing is seeking to apply their strength against the enemy’s weakness. Sink the enemies’ ships at anchor in port with air power and so forth. But that is not the dramatic image of naval leadership depicted on the walls of the world’s naval academies.
The Army, on the other hand, has no such narrow format of battle in mind so they tend to be more opportunistic and common-sensical in their approach to war. The Air Force has a similar to the Navy mental image of themselves in the classic dogfight, which unfortunately seems to make the Air Force overly interested in fighter jets and fighter pilots and relatively uninterested in such perhaps more important aircraft like troop and materiel transports.
As you might imagine, in war, there are times when boldness is warranted and times when caution is warranted. But military traditions and training favor boldness and attack and disfavor caution. Not only can that get men killed unnecessarily, it can lose battles that would have been won had boldness and caution been applied more judiciously.
Thomas does an excellent job of examining Admiral Bull Halsey being bold when he should have been cautious and Admiral Spruance being cautious when he should have been bold. He also discusses objectively whether Captain Ernest Evans of the U.S.S. Johnston overdid the boldness when he engaged in suicide attacks on much larger Japanese ships, losing his life, the lives of many of his crew, and his ship in the process. Evans was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
I would not question that he earned it. But he may have deserved a posthumous letter reprimand as well for getting his men killed and his ship sunk when that may not have been necessary.
This sort of criticism by Thomas of the military is rare and ought to be far less rare. It probably decreases the incidence of unwise blind aggressiveness in future wars.
John T. Reed
Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military