Baltimore-born admiral gained fame in the Battle of Midway

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

June 02, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

It's probably the only time in history that a case of psoriasis was a contributing factor in a naval battle.

As a Japanese armada of 80 ships -- including four carriers -- steamed toward Midway Island in early June 1942, Rear Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey, Pacific commander, was forced to the sidelines because of a severe case of psoriasis that left him itching all over.

He turned to Adm. Raymond Ames Spruance, who had no previous combat experience, to command one of two carrier task forces that successfully thwarted Japan's plans of invading Hawaii and destroying what remained of the U.S. fleet.

Described by a fellow officer as a "cold-blooded fighting fool," Spruance was given the command of Task Force 16, which also included the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet.

The Battle of Midway commenced early in the morning of June 4.

As he walked the bridge of his ship, Spruance ordered: "Attack at once."

By 10:30 a.m., ?.S. dive bombers had turned three of the Japanese carriers, Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, into flaming wrecks that later plunged to the bottom. A fourth carrier, Hiryu, met a similar fate.

The Japanese admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto, ordered his fleet to withdraw after issuing his famous order -- "The Midway Operation is canceled" -- while Spruance's aircraft kept pursuing the remnants of the fleeing enemy navy.

By the end of the three-day attack, the Mikuma, an enemy cruiser, had sunk, 275 aircraft were destroyed and 4,800 Japanese sailors were killed.

U.S. losses included the carrier USS Yorktown, a destroyer, the USS Hammann, 147 planes and 307 men.

Historians credit Spruance's coolness under fire and his tactical decision to launch all available aircraft against the enemy fleet with contributing to what has been described as the turning point of the war in the Pacific -- a naval engagement no less significant than Salamis, Lepanto or Trafalgar.

Samuel Eliot Morrison, the noted naval historian, wrote that Spruance emerged from the Battle of Midway as "one of the greatest fighting and thinking admirals in American naval history."

He added: "Power of decision and coolness of action were perhaps Spruance's leading characteristics."

"If there was going to be a fight with Japanese surface ships," Spruance once said, "it was my job to be there."

In 1944, Spruance's forces destroyed hundreds of enemy aircraft and several ships during the Truk and Palau Islands campaign. In June 1944, without firing any naval guns, his aerial forces destroyed 360 carrier-based planes during the battle for Saipan.

Spruance directed the successful campaigns that resulted in the capture of the Gilberts, Marshalls, Marianas, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

"Nothing you could say about him would be praise enough," said Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who commanded the Pacific fleet during World War II.

Spruance was born in Baltimore and moved as a child to East Orange, N.J., and later Indiana. His father wanted his son to attend West Point but instead he entered the Naval Academy in 1903.

Known as "Sprew," he was 26th in his class at graduation in 1907. During World War I, he was assistant engineer officer at the New York Navy Yard, and held posts in London and Edinburgh in 1918.

He was on the staff of the Naval War College until being given command of the battleship USS Mississippi in 1938.

Spruance was commandant of the 10th Naval District when he was sent to the Pacific in 1941 and named commander of a division of cruisers that were under the command of Nimitz.

"All of his fellow officers know of his liking for symphonies -- when he has a tough problem to solve, he relaxes to symphonic music and the problem seems to iron itself out," reported The Evening Sun in 1944.

"His former mess boy told of the weakness for hot chocolate. The admiral never smokes, doesn't drink -- although he has a reputation as a perfect bartender for guests -- but does insist on a cup of steaming chocolate for breakfast daily," said the newspaper profile.

By 1944, he was the youngest full admiral in Navy history.

After the Japanese surrender, he replaced Nimitz as commander in chief of the Pacific fleet and retired from the Navy in 1948.

In 1952, President Harry S. Truman appointed Spruance ambassador to the Philippines, a post he held until retiring in 1955.

He died in Pebble Beach, Calif., in 1969.

Last month, the Navy announced it had named a new guided-missile destroyer after Spruance. The ship will be built at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine.

This is the second vessel named for Spruance. The first Spruance was a destroyer that was built in 1975 and decommissioned in 2005.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Find previous columns at baltimoresun.com/backstory

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