Morison and Fletcher's Reputation

Thomas Wildenberg's picture

Morison, in volume 3 of his HIstory of U.S. Naval Opertions in WWII, was highly critcal of Fletcher's abortive attemp to relieve Wake, going so far as to suggest that Fletcher should have made a 20-knot run in without his destroyers (which needed to be refuelded).  As I wrote in Gray Steel and Black Oil:

"Although the round-trip voyage from Pearl Harbor to Wake Island was well within the cruising range of the destroyers, they would have had vertually no reserves for battle.  They would need to take on oil en route to insure sufficient fuel for engaging the enemy. . . By the evening of 21 December, [Fletcher's] task force was . . . close enough to the battle zone to begin topping off the accompanying destroyers on the next day.  Unfortuntely for Fletcher's reputation, the ensuing operation was hampered by moderate winds and a long cross-swell that made fueling extremely difficult.  'Several towlines parted, seven oil hoses were ruptured, and only four destroyers were filled during a ten-hour period.'  The fource was still 425 miles from Wake on the morning of 23 December, yet four of the destroyers still had to be fueled.  By then it was too late to save the island and Fletcher's force was recalled." [Fletcher's advance was also hampered by the slow steaming speed ot the oiler Neches, which could make no more than 12 3/4 knots.]

Morisons ignored both Fletcher's orders "to fuel at his discretion," and the prevailing doctrine on the operational use of carriers.  If an action had materialized around Wake, Fletcher would have been in dire need of his destroyers and  would not have left them behind under any circusmstanes.

Thomas Wildenberg

[ED NOTE:  This comes as a follow up to this discussion thread]

Thanks Tom and everyone else,
Tom Wildenberg's post speaks also to Will's mention of Fuquea and the US Navy's clear inferiority systemically in underway refueling as compared to the Japanese in both doctrine as well as in numbers of ships, especially fast oilers. The US simply didn't have a system in place with enough redundancy to conduct this type of last minute operation vis-à-vis refueling (for Wake relief). Also, contingency played its role with the weather as you noted. I've done carrier refueling (as conning alongside and safety alongside) in those long swells, not fun, even with modern ships today. We even delayed refueling two at a time on an AOE because of sea states like that.

I would add one caveat, which I will preface with this from Fuquea (Jan 2020, Journal of Military History)
"Japanese naval planners were prescient in their understanding of the need for underway refueling to support a Pacific war against the United States." (220)
In contrast Fuquea also presents evidence of US Navy neglect in education and doctrine about development of this capability.
However, there was early recognition of the need for oilers in the USN that Fuquea does not mention. A key work in this regard is the Frost, Pye, Yarnell ONI study of 1920 entitled "The Conduct of an Oversea Naval Campaign."
In this document (about 60 pages) the need for oilers is specifically recognized, on page ten a requirement for "30 AO" as part of the fleet base force is articulated.
Later the study says this:
"Destroyers will be very suitable reinforcements [for advance bases with aircraft]; boats for this service, those having the longest steaming radii, should be chosen; they may be accompanied to within 2000 miles [!] of their objective by a tanker, from which they may fuel at sea preparatory to the last part of the many cases they will have sufficient fuel to regain their home bases or the Black fleet; should this not be the cases, arrangements could easily be made to have a tanker meet them at a prearranged rendezvous at sea for fueling them."(24)

The 2000 mile restriction sort of blew my mind--obviously they were thinking of the Carolines (for warplane orange) and going into a very hostile environment, but still, they did not seem to have grasped yet the need for integral oilers as part of what they called the cruising fleet (later the scouting fleet).

I continue to look at this report, but it is clear that refueling was not only forecast but that a doctrinal method we call "delivery boy" today is also suggested. However, doctrine was clearly undeveloped as this was simply a concept paper, not doctrine, a framework to build doctrine on if you will.

Bottom line, more research needs to be done, especially asking the question of why was not more done AFTER 1920 given that requirements for 30 oilers had been identified as early as 1920 if not earlier? I think Appendix F to Warplan Orange (WPL9) of 1923 might be worth looking at again, it is on MY do list (an extensive list).

Finally, I hope the irony escapes no one that one of the authors (the principal author was HH Frost), was Bill Pye, the guy who was in nominal overall command of the Wake relief effort and who ordered Fletcher to return.

vr, John T. Kuehn (from his virtual office at home)


I strongly suggest that you obtain a copy of Gray Steel and Black Oil (Naval Institute Press, 1996) which documents the development of USN UNREP.  Unlike the IJN, which relied on astern refueling, which is a slow process that can only be accomplished in a calm sea, the USN pioneered the use of alongside oiling at sea.  Furthermore, the 10 prewar Japanese fleet oilers of the Shiretoko-class were limited to 14 whereas the 8  Cimarron-class oilers in commission at the start of hostiles  were rated at 18 knots to enable them to keep up with the fleet at a speed that made it much more difficult for a successful submarine attack.  As for the supposed lack of oilers, in  August 1941, the Base Force (the Pacific  Fleet’s logistic arm) had 8 oilers assigned (AO-1, AO-3, AO-4, AO-5, AO-12, AO-20, AO-21, AO-25, AO-27).  

Peter V. Nash, The development of mobile logistic support in Anglo-American naval policy, 1900-1953,University Press of Florida, 2009, well worth a look as well for those interested in sustainment at sea and ops. issues.

Tom (and Greg), Your books on my list! I think I have Dillon and Goldstein, but will check my personal library at work for it, Fuquea uses it extensively.

Fuquea makes the case that the real situation was the reverse of what you say, that the Japanese side-by-side capability was superior to that of the US during the period 1932-1942.
I found a number of errors, mostly minor, in Fuquea's otherwise interesting article.
First, Fuquea, on page 223 confuses the reader by implying there was no real detailed planning for War Plan Orange (WPO) until 1927 and seems to conflate that year with earlier problems with race-relations and segregation legislation in 1907-08 as well as just after World War I in California.
WPL-9 (one version of WPO) was written mostly in 1922 and published in 1923, it is over a hundred pages in length and even more once you add its appendices, including appendix F which has all the planning for the mobile base and the oiler support for it, it s easily several hundred pages. BTW, the binder for WPL 9 is Orange colored, got it from Barry Zerby, it was like holding the holy grail.

I think Fuquea got carried away in making his point that the Japanese had better capability, and so downplayed wherever he could (perhaps unintentionally) similar things on the US side. And, as I mentioned, he seems completely unaware of the Frost Yarnell Pye study of 1920 for ONI.

Too, he mislabels the Bureau of Construction and Repair as "Construction and Architecture" on page 224, but this is a minor error, but it shows that his reliance on some secondary sources did not serve him so well. But hey, we all make mistakes of this sort.

My own take on the issue for the US is parsimony combined with building programs. The AO requirement was "on the books" for the US Navy, in multiple places. But getting money to build ships was difficult until FDR was elected.
Too, I always thought the Washington Treaty loophole on auxiliary tonnage would have been exploited more aggressively by the General Board as to oiler construction. A.H. Van Keuren was just the guy to notice this opportunity as he did with so many other ship and dock designs. So I find it odd that perhaps more was not done, but I don't know what I don't know for much of this.

It does seem likely the doctrinal piece was underdeveloped relative to the Japanese as Fuquea argues, but again I am not so well-versed. As I researched the General Board the dearth of discussion of oilers as compared to something like floating dry docks, and even tenders, was a bit odd, but again perhaps I missed a number of hearings on that score. I have always been meaning to have a student look at that for a masters project, but ideally one needs the studies (which are separate from the hearings) to get a more complete picture along with the correspondence between the bureaus and war plans and the fleet.

I look forward to your own response to Fuquea, are you considering one in JMH or here beyond what you have already written?
He wrote of _Gray Steel_:
"gives a brief account in first chapter [of early underway refueling developments]. [Wildenberg] includes a detailed discussion of ...Nimitz's role in the early development and execution of this critical skill during World War I." p.215.
Thanks again, this has been a very enlightening thread.
vr, John T. kuehn

I am providing the following in response to John Kuen’s latest comments with regard to the above subject, and in particular to his reference to the Fuquea article, a copy of which I do not have.  I don’t believe this is a reliable source based on the information in John’s post.  In my opinion, misrepresenting the name of the Bureau of Construction and Repair is not a minor error.  With regard to side-by-side fueling . . . this requires special booms and rigging.  To my knowledge no such photograph of an IJN tanker with this rig exists, nor have I located any descripton of the doctrine or procedure used by the IJN in any source. As for USN planning:

In early 1934, the War Plans Div. prepared a comprehensive list of the merchant ships required by the navy in the event of a major war. The list included the need for 14 18-knot tankers, 50 15-knot tankers, and 30 12-knot tankers. See “Policy in Regard to Merchant Vessels,” General Board File 433, RG 80, NA.


The design of a fleet oiler was initially laid on by the General Board in its memorandum to the CNO on 21 December 1933.  See General Board Serial No. 1629, 21 December 1933, GB File 420.5, RG 80, NA.


In 1937, the Bureau of C&R began developing plans for a fleet oiler to be included in the Auxiliary Building Program of 1937 for which there was only enough money for one oiler.


Continued budgetary problems within the administration lead to an economy drive forcing the Navy Dept. to reevaluate its spending priorities. The acting director of war plans advised CNO Leahy that “the need for an oiler in no way compares with the more urgent need of the other tenders and its construction should await further appropriations. See J.S. Woods, “Construction of Auxiliary Ships,” 24 August 1937. File AA/A1-3, SecNav SC Files, RG 80, NA. 


The recommendation to delay funding for one oiler was based in part by a study made in 1936 by war plans showing it would be advantageous for the navy to use commercial tankers.  This led to the fast-tanker program conceived by the Maritime Commission to provide high-speed commercial tankers that could be transferred to the Navy in time of national emergency and quickly converted to fleet oilers.  This resulted in the 12 Cimarron-class oilers constructed for the Standard Oil of New Jersey and the 6 Kennebec-class oilers constructed by for Socony-Vacuum Oil Company.


Broadside Refueling (side-by-side)  Although this method of underway refueling had been perfected by USN in WWI, it was discontinued during the depression as a money saving measure under the tight  budgetary restrains during that time as no captain wanted to be responsible for incurring damage to his ship that would necessitate unbudgeted repair charges.  This changed in the fall of 1938 when the CNO issued a memorandum requesting the necessity for fueling BBs. CVs, and CAs from a tanker while under way.  Tests of the broadside method were conducted by Rear Adm. Chester Nimitiz in the spring of 1939.  Nimitiz recommendatins as to the necessity of the Broadside method is quite revealing of his awareness of the calculated risk and its value in achieving necessary objectives (as demonstrated at Midway):

“While this type can undoubtedly be fueled at sea at low rates by the OVER THE STERN method it is considered important to determine whether these ships can be fueled at sea under favorable condition by the BROADSIDE method.  Greater risk to material will undoubtedly exist than when fueling destroyers of light cruisers by the BROADSIDE method but such risk must be accepted if the desired information is to be obtained.” See Nimitz to CinCus,"Fueling at Sea-Large Vessels," 13 December 1938, Base Force File S55.  [Note: I was unable to locate any records of the tests.  Evident suggests that these records would have been send to the flagship, the USS Pennsylvania, and were destroyed when the ship was struck during the attacm on Pearl Harbor.]