Thursday, April 8, 2021

Recent Reads: The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance by Thomas Buell


Admiral Raymond Spruance seen in April 1944 (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Reviewed by Lee Duckworth
HRNM Docent

The impetus for writing The Quiet Warrior was a 1963 interview with Admiral Raymond A. Spruance and follow on work at the Naval War College in the early 1970s. Author Thomas B. Buell, CDR USN (Ret.) used extensive interviews with the Spruance family and members of the admiral’s staff, letters, official reports and oral histories in writing his book. The author spends some time on Spruance’s early years and post-retirement as Ambassador to the Philippines but concentrates on his US Navy WWII career.

Buell alternates chapters chronologically with the preparation and planning for an upcoming battle, followed by the ensuing battle and results. Woven in are vignettes about home life. He makes excellent use of how Spruance applied lessons learned from previous battles into planning for the next battle.

How does a Navy Captain with only a shipboard background make his way in three years to four-star rank and command of the largest naval battle ever fought? The biggest force Spruance ever commanded prior to the June 4-6, 1942 Battle of Midway was a cruiser division of only four cruisers. Yet he accomplished this meteoric rise through his professional competence, intelligence and leadership traits. He was a listener, student of naval strategy and tactics, and a master at delegating work (in fact, he admits to being lazy and wanted others to do the work—and receive the credit). Spruance believed in being at the front and recognized that accurate and timely intelligence was imperative to success. Perhaps most importantly, he had the ability to see the big picture and hired good people to work for him.

Planes of Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6) prepare to launch off USS Enterprise (CV 6) on the morning of June 4, 1942 during the Battle of Midway. Enterprise was Spruance's flagship during the battle. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

With no aviation experience, Spruance was thrust into the role of leading a two-carrier task force in battle with the Japanese Navy at Midway. He was seemingly unperturbed as Admiral Chester Nimitz gave him excellent intelligence and broad guidance: he would be “…governed by the principle of calculated risk” which he was to interpret to mean to avoid exposure of his force without a good prospect of inflicting greater damage to the enemy. With two days advance notice, he set sail aboard USS Enterprise for Midway.

The author doesn’t delve deeply into the details of the Battle of Midway but he addresses the controversy surrounding Spruance and his perceived lack of aggressiveness in this battle, as well as others over the next three years. Buell puts Spruance on a bit of a pedestal and states that he was operating under the principle of calculated risk and his plan was bold, arguing that there was no lack of aggressiveness. The author admits that there were delays in the June 4 aircraft launch and a number of miscommunications during the course of operating the carrier group, but Spruance confidently launched his entire air wing. Another major mistake was Spruance’s failure to launch search planes on June 4 and 5. Spruance made his June 5th decision to turn on shipboard lights to assist aviators in finding the US fleet at night. This was a conscious decision made prior to the mid-afternoon launch, knowing it would be dark on their return. There is still much controversy nearly 80 years later as to whether he should have pressed the attack but in Buell’s mind, Spruance wasn’t being too safety-conscious and deserves the title “warrior.”

Spruance’s task force grew in size and complexity as the war continued and he attacked the Marianas, Gilberts, Marshalls, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa from 1943 to 1945. By the latter battle his command had grown to 1,500 ships (1,200 of them were amphibious) and included 16 aircraft carriers.

Admiral Chester Nimitz (left), Spruance (center), and Marine General Holland Smith (right, with helmet), looking out from a 20mm gun tub while inspecting preparations for the Gilbert Islands campaign in October 1943. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Who was this now four-star admiral who very much avoided the public and publicity and was a private man who rarely let feelings show? Described by one of his staff: “He was like a sphinx…” and thoroughly disliked public speaking and talking with reporters, a real contrast to his counterpart Admiral “Bull” Halsey. His personal quirks included ignoring people when they were talking to him or requesting a decision, and taking random long hikes of ten miles or more nearly every day. He would attempt to bring members of his staff to accompany him, despite the pleas that they had too much work to do.
Admiral William "Bull" Halsey (left) with Spruance aboard USS New Mexico (BB 40) off of Okinawa in April 1945 (Naval History and Heritage Command) 

As WWII progressed, Spruance clearly became a master at seeing the big picture and felt he had to be in the vanguard rather than remain in the rear. He rarely acted as the Officer in Tactical Command as he left that to his junior admirals so he could concentrate on executing the battle plan. Spruance left the planning to his experts and exercised overall command. He refused to become involved in personnel squabbles and let others intervene or just let it fester in the hope it would resolve itself.

How did this “quiet warrior” thrive during WWII when so many (e.g. Halsey, King, and MacArthur) seemingly had to be in the spotlight? Spruance won over his superiors and subordinates with his intellect, hand’s-off approach and total focus on the big picture. He was an advocate of Mahan and felt that surprise and striking first were essential to victory. It is difficult to fault this thinking as he had successful outcomes in every major battle he fought.
Spruance (right) seen with Nimitz (left) and Admiral Ernest King (center) aboard USS Indianapolis (CA 35) in July 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Spruance was superb in his delegation of authority and often took a long time to make decisions and was fearful of making mistakes. His lack of aviation, amphibious and logistics experience didn’t seem to bother him and he became adept at each as the war progressed. He was scrupulous in planning for the concentration of his naval assets and saw it as a force multiplier in offensive military operations.

War for Admiral Spruance become one of a scale and complexity that will not be seen again. The Quiet Warrior provides excellent insight into Spruance’s thought process and how he led naval forces during WWII. He was successful because he didn’t overmanage from afar, trusted his intelligence staff, had faith in those under him, and had the support and confidence of admirals Nimitz and King. Could he have been more aggressive and pressed the attack at Midway and the Philippine Sea? Most certainly, but both battles are regarded as tremendous American victories and Spruance took the more cautious approach to ensure the fleet would survive to fight another day.

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