Cautionary Tale?

So, this was one of my books from last Christmas that I finally got to finish this Christmas...and I am glad I did.

Mr. Toll writes an at times rambling narrative of the first six months of the Pacific naval war, from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway.  Although I felt a little bogged down at times in the the back story of the development of both the Japanese and American navies before the war, these chapters, particularly the Japanese "wartime" mindset and strategic thinking of Yamamoto and others, helps the reader really understand why the Imperial Japanese Navy was so wildly successful for the first six months of 1942.

One of the more interesting highlights of the book was the clear roles that Yamamoto and Nimitz had on their prospective fleets.  Yamamoto was gambler who had a very clear understanding of Japan's industrial and resource deficiencies versus the United States and actually tried to prevent the war he initiated at Pearl Harbor.  Nimitz was a very, very cool customer who was clearly the right man at the right time to resurrect the morale of the US Pacific Fleet and begin the long road that ended with the decisive victory at Midway. 

Another interesting fact the Mr. Toll spent a great deal of time on was the critical role intelligence, particularly the new art (or science) of signals intelligence or SIGINT played in turning the tide.  He makes a very compelling case that without the US Navy being able to read some of Japan's naval codes (but by no means everything), the Battles and Coral Sea and Midway would have likely had very different outcomes.  Good intelligence probably provided the equivalent of another carrier task force to Nimitz at Midway.

In addition, I thought this was an excellent cautionary tale for the US Navy as it prepares to face another potential Oriental adversary, China's People's Liberation Army Navy or PLAN for short.  Here are some interesting observations I made after reading and pondering this volume:
  • Don't let cultural or racial bias get in the way:  Both the Americans and British assumed a smug superiority over the "little yellow Jap" and got their butts kicked by weapons like the Japanese Zero fighter flown by highly trained and battle experienced adversaries.  Other Japanese weapons like the Long Lance torpedo and their superior tactics at night fighting would come as a real shock to Allied naval forces all the way through the Guadalcanal campaign.  The PLAN may not be as good as the USN, but the USN is probably not as good as it once was and it would be a mistake to underestimate them, especially in their home waters of the South or East China Seas.
  • Training and experience matter and new forms of warfare are HARD:  The Battle of the Coral Sea was basically a giant Charlie Foxtrot according to Toll--with both task forces sending airplanes after incorrectly identified ships, missing opportunities, and generally stumbling around in the first pure carrier task force duel in naval history.  Midway was another example of Clausewitz' dictum that Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.  Operating and potentially fighting with a carrier task force at sea takes a lot of practice, trial and error, and unfortunately blood and sweat.  The PLAN has zero experience at this and, unlike technology, experience can't be stolen or bought from the west.  
  • Finally, leadership matters.  Nimitz, Halsey, and Spruance were probably three of the finest admirals in American history, and each of them played a vital role in rolling back the Japanese advance in 1942.  Although Yamamoto was a gifted admiral, probably Japan's finest, he was not served well by his subordinates, especially Nagumo.  Even though the USN was outgunned for six months, Nimitz took a risky opportunity to send out his three available carriers to strike at the Japanese, gain valuable experience for his sailors and flyers and generally let the American people know that all was not lost.  Sometimes military operations have to be done for political purposes, even though their military utility is minimal.  Even in the day of satellites, smart weapons, and unmanned aircraft, leadership matters.  Hopefully the Navy still has a Nimitz and Halsey out there.....
So, this was an excellent book for anyone wanting to understand how the USN could go from the shambles of Pearl Harbor to the triumph of Midway.  Even though the extensive background reading took some effort, it really helped in explaining the military "culture" of these two navies and why the events of those crucial first six months of the Pacific War played out as they did.