The causes of a naval defeat, and why they were covered up

February 21, 1993|By Nathan Miller

DISASTER IN THE PACIFIC:

NEW LIGHT ON THE BATTLE

OF SAVO ISLAND.

Denis and Peggy Warner.

U.S. Naval Institute.

# 320 pages. $26.95. Samuel Eliot Morison, in his massive history of U.S. Naval operations during World War II, described the Battle of Savo Island in the Solomons in the early morning hours of Aug. 9, 1942, as "the worst defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Navy in a stand-up fight."

Three American cruisers -- Astoria, Quincy and Vincennes -- as well as an Australian cruiser, Canberra, were sunk within a few minutes by a fury of Japanese torpedoes and shells. About 2,000 Allied sailors were killed or wounded; the Japanese escaped without serious damage. The U.S. offensive in the Pacific was almost thwarted at birth and the vital sea link between the United States and Australia endangered.

Now, more than 50 years after the debacle, Denis and Peggy Warner, a husband-wife team of Australian journalists, make clear in this thoroughly researched, well-written account how and why this disaster occurred. The Warners argue that the root causes were unpreparedness, overconfidence and a tendency to play down enemy capabilities.

The campaign for the Solomons originally was intended to keep the victorious Japanese off balance and to prevent them from consolidating conquests they had made after Pearl Harbor. Initial Japanese resistance to the landings by the Marines on Guadalcanal and Tulagi was light, and the Americans had little difficulty in seizing an airfield that was key to the control of the Solomons chain and the adjacent seas.

The Japanese struck back quickly. Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa hastily assembled a task force of five heavy cruisers and two light cruisers and in broad daylight raced south from Rabaul on XTC New Britain to attack the Allied ships in Savo Sound. He intended to strike at night, both to surprise the enemy and to capitalize on the training of his crews in night operations.

Blunders on the part of the Allies assisted him. According to Morison's account, the Japanese were sighted by a Royal Australian Air Force patrol plane on the morning of Aug. 8, but the pilot failed to break radio silence and the Allied ships were unprepared for an enemy attack. Adm. Frank J. Fletcher chose this time to withdraw his three carriers, claiming they were short of fuel, thus leaving the transports and beachhead without air cover.

The Japanese cruisers burst into Savo Sound and caught the defenders unaware. Within a few frenzied minutes, the four Allied cruisers were sunk and another badly damaged. Fortunately, the Japanese were unaware that Fletcher had removed his carriers. Losing one of the major opportunities of the war, they withdrew without attacking the helpless transports.

Adm. Richard Kelly Turner, commander of the landing force, abandoned the beachhead, leaving the Marines to face a precarious future on Guadalcanal without air or naval gunfire support until both sides began filtering in reinforcements a week later. In the following months, it was touch and go in the Solomons.

Over the years, Morison's attribution of the surprise to the failure of the Australian pilot to relay promptly the sighting report has been widely accepted.

But the Warners discovered in Japanese files that he did break radio silence to report immediately the sighting of Mikawa's ships, and that the report was picked up well in time for the Allied commanders not only to have gone on the alert but also to have sent planes to attack the oncoming Japanese force.

What, then, was the real cause of the disaster, and why was it hushed up by subsequent inquiries?

The debacle was rooted in the failure of the Allied commanders to credit the intelligence provided to them by the RAAF patrol plane and other sources. Even more important, according to the Warners, some Allied officers were contemptuous of the enemy and failed to appreciate the capacity of the Japanese. In essence, racism had as much to do with the defeat as anything else.

The various inquiries covered up these command failures because it was felt a thorough airing would strain relations between Britain, Australia and the United States -- better to absorb the bitter lessons of defeat and learn from them, rather than give comfort to the enemy by exposing public bickering among the Allies. Thus, the fable of a none-too-bright Australian

pilot suited the needs of the time.

Mr. Miller is the author of several books, including "The Navy Air War 1939-1945." His "Theodore Roosevelt: A Life," was recently published by William Morrow.

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