Book Review

In Bitter Tempest: The Biography of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher
by Stephen D. Regan
Published Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1994

Reviewed by Tim Lanzendoerfer

Frank Jack Fletcher commanded aircraft carrier task forces from mid-December 1941 to late September 1942, without so much as a shore leave or long rest. He fought the battles of Coral Sea, Midway and Eastern Solomons, sinking four large Japanese carriers and two small ones, and losing two of his carriers. In final review, he had inflicted more than twice the damage he took and never clearly lost a battle. Surprisingly, his career has lacked thorough examination, Quite to the contrary, superficial and highly biased reporting of his actions especially by the Dean of U.S. Navy historians, Samuel Elliot Morison, has resulted in him being generally regarded as a very mediocre commander.

Stephen D. Regan, professor at the Upper Iowa University and author of one previous naval book -- The Big 'I': The U.S.S. Iowa Story -- has turned some ten years of research into this biography of Fletcher, in which he seeks to redress some of faulty information so long spread about the Admiral's service.

Regan begins his story of Fletcher's life in Fletcher's hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa, and follows him through his academy years at Annapolis, through his initial service in battleships and in destroyers to his first wartime command in World War I, a converted, unseaworthy yacht. He traces Fletcher's career through his running of battleship New Mexico and two cruiser divisions into World War II. He shows how Fletcher ran the Wake relief and clearly attests why Fletcher could not be held responsible for the failure of the effort. He then describes the battles of Coral Sea and Midway (with quite an emphasis on Coral Sea). He describes Fletcher's decisions and answers to the critical comments made by Morison and other writers. Following this, Regan evaluates Fletcher's role in the Guadalcanal operations, his often-criticized decision to remove his carriers from the area two days into the landing, his handling of the carriers during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, and his eventual relief in September.

Regan, after briefely summing up Fletcher's career to this point, goes on to describe his service as Commandant of the 13th Naval District and COMNORPACFOR, up to the war's end; then finally on two pages ends his story of Fletcher's life with his post-war years.

Stephen Regan's attempt at a Fletcher biography, to start off with that comment, is a fairly well-researched piece of writing with some good moments and a goodly number of revelations. Although not going into great detail, possibly for a lack of sources but, given that Regan is an independent writer, probably mainly for a lack of funds and time, it offers first glimpses of Fletcher at the Naval Academy and during the formative years of the 1920s and 1930s when Fletcher gained experience as a ship's exec and captain. However, it is nowhere near the scholarly book that would be required to do total justice to Fletcher. Three fundamental flaws make it less than that: firstly, it is much too short for a full-size biography of a man of Fletcher's format and importance (at a mere 248 pages of text). Secondly, it is singularly unable to detect a flaw in Fletcher's behaviour or actions (the most "critical" comment made about him being "The criticism that Frank Jack Fletcher was a battleship skipper through and through is justified." (p.63)). When blame is given to Fletcher, one sentence of blame is excused by a paragraph of commentary. And thirdly, it contains a series of inconsistencies and rightout errors of fact that would make any naval historian wince.

This last point demands some elaboration, as it is what makes this book the most flawed. One is prone to accept a biographer that does not find much flaw in his subject's behaviour, as one is going to accept an independent writer's inability to conduct as through research as a professional historian can. But flaws such as corrupt this book are, to use a plain term, embarrassing.

Inconsistencies include the mention of people by name that had not previously been mentioned at all; and then by their surnames only, without any identifier. For the most part, one is able to find out who and what they were. For example, in the part on Fletcher's performance at Vera Cruz in 1914, Regan mentions, once, one "Craddock", who, by some careful reading and some clever reasoning, can be proven to be British; and with some knowledge of naval history might be guessed to be Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock, later the loser of the Battle of Coronel. But for following Regan's narrative, such lack of information is profoundly disturbing.

Similarly, deep in the Savo Island debate, Regan states that Fletcher "had kept him [Rear-Admiral V.A.C. Crutchley, RN, commander of the cruisers in support of the Guadalcanal landings and in charge at Savo island] out of the way at Coral Sea..."(p.202), without noting anything of this obviously important fact (not only for their relationship, but also for the question why Fletcher accepted Crutchley for his important job) in the discussion of the Coral Sea battle. Similar problems with coherency plague most of the later chapters.

More embarrassing are the obvious errors of fact in the narrative that are quite inacceptable in any current writing. Suggestions such as that Nautilus was indeed responsible for the sinking of Kaga at Midway (on page 162), that a carrier and a cruiser could be "sister ships" (a term reserved for ships of the same class), and that Admiral Turner's flagship at Guadalcanal, the transport McCawley, was a destroyer transport, are all the more inexcusable as Regan cites sources in the text and the biography that clearly contradict these statements of fact (save the sister ship problem, which, as a former Navy man, he should know). Other faults are in Regan's logic: in explaining Fletcher's refusal to engage the Japanese by surface ships at night, he gives as reason number one a refusal to divide his forces, and that when in the next sentence he admits that Fletcher already had "violated one of the most sacred tents of naval warfare: thou shalt concentrate thy force" (Regan's words, p 146) when he sent RADM Crace away with his cruisers.

A final criticism fits none of these categories, but is important in its own right: namely that Regan often does confuse relevant and irrelevant information. We are, for example, told the names of the four final Japanese dive-bomber pilots to dive on Yorktown during the Battle of Midway, but we are not told when Fletcher was made Rear-Admiral, nor why he would shift from CruDiv 3 to CruDiv 6 in the space of just one year, or what Fletcher did in the three years he commanded cruiser divisions.

In that same vein, Regan thrice tells us how S.E. Morison in his United States Naval Operations in World War II failed to correctly judge the endurance of a destroyer: once, in the description of the Wake relief; then, in the description of the Coral Sea battle; and finally, in the Guadalcanal landings. A full page is devoted, to exactly the same information, for each of these explanations, a distinct waste of time and space, and also not really giving the impression of the author having been very careful in reviewing his manuscript.

What can be said as a final assessment and to those who prefer short one-line reviews? Regan's book is an entertaining read and modestly informative, though utterly useless for areas already covered by historians ready to give a new analysis. Unfortunately for Regan, Wake, Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal have already been so treated: up to Guadalcanal, H.P. Willmott's The Barrier and the Javelin and John Lundstrom's The First Team are already using much the same arguments that Regan uses. For Guadalcanal, Richard Frank's Guadalcanal and John Lundstrom's The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign give a fair treatment to Fletcher and a much more factual overview over the events. Also, Regan is threatened to be outclassed by another biography of Fletcher due to be published by Lundstrom. At best, Regan is currently useful for Fletcher's career before December 1941 and after September 1942; and the question whether this overpriced book is a good buy right now, in face of the impending publication of Lundstrom's biography, must be answered a clear "No".