A favored saying among historians is that our failure to learn the lessons of history condemns us to repeat it. There are several variations of this, of course, most are a misquotation of the original by George Santayana (1863-1952), who in Volume I of The Life of Reason, wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While the statement has a negative connotation, there are many positive things to learn from history and the people who made it.
Among the on-going discussions within the Navy and Marine Corps is how to best prepare for the next international conflagration. In his 2007 professional article published in the Marine Corps Gazette, Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Sinclair noted, “The greatest challenges and most far reaching opportunities of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) commander will lie in his ability to orchestrate and synchronize the efforts of numerous, diverse entities along a single path toward an overarching campaign adjective.” Sinclair was not the first to make such an observation. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance isolated the “single naval battle” in the Pacific during World War II. In 2012, Admiral John C. Harmony explained , “’The Single Naval Battle’ is a framework, or lens, for thinking about, planning for, and executing naval operations. Everything that occurs in the maritime battlespace affects everything else in that battlespace —so every aspect of Navy and Marine Corps doctrine and operations must consider the impact across the whole naval force.”
There is nothing simple about warfare. Quadruple that statement when it comes to naval warfare. Before World War II, Raymond A. Spruance began to train his mind to imagine the single battlespace. He was part of an organization that created and maintained the extraordinary culture in which learning, experimenting, and innovation was demanded and then rewarded through promotion and assignments. Admiral Spruance was an engineer; a man thoroughly knowledgeable of the technologies of the day: radar, processing combat information, air power —and how to effectively employ it. He thought long and hard about what his enemy was thinking and what they were likely to do. Spruance may have been the most intellectual of all senior naval officers of his day; his mental capacity back then may even dwarf that of modern-day admirals and generals. Something to think about because we haven’t seen the end of war.
Raymond Ames Spruance (1886-1969) became one of the greatest admirals in United States naval history. Although born in Maryland, he was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1907 and later pursued advanced degrees in electrical engineering. Typical of the Navy, Spruance had to learn about sea service from the bottom rung of the officer rank structure. He initially served as a junior officer aboard the battleships USS Iowa and USS Minnesota. He later transferred to the destroyers USS Bainbridge and USS Osborne, and then back to the battleship flotilla. In 1916, Spruance helped to fit out USS Pennsylvania and served aboard that ship during its initial voyages. He later served as the Assistant Engineering Officer at the New York Naval Shipyard (1917-1918).
As an officer in command, Spruance was known for maintaining a quiet bridge. Chit-chat was prohibited. Whatever was spoken in the performance of duty must be said in clear and concise language. There was never any room on the bridge for confusion or lack of focus. Given the several recent at-sea mishaps involving our navy’s ships, this would seem to be a policy that contemporary commanders should be reimplement.
Spruance graduated from the Naval War College in 1927. He subsequently served as the executive officer of the USS Mississippi, several engineering assignments, staff intelligence, and as an instructor at the Naval War College. He later commanded the battleship USS Mississippi (1938-1939), receiving his promotion to rear admiral in 1939. His first flag assignment was as Commandant of the Tenth Naval District in Puerto Rico through August 1941. In the first few months of World War II, Admiral Spruance commanded Cruiser Division Five making his flagship the USS Northampton. His force was constructed around the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which was then commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey. Halsey’s task force conducted a series of hit and run raids against the Japanese in the Western Pacific —notably in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands in February 1942, Wake Island in March, and facilitating the Doolittle Raid in April. In reality, the raids achieved little more than raising the morale of the people of the United States, who were devastated by Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor —but they also set the tone for a more aggressive stance by naval commanders in the Pacific.
In late May 1942, naval intelligence confirmed Japan’s intent to invade Midway Island. The attack was the brainchild of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto , who intended his combined fleet to expand the Japanese Navy’s outer perimeter in the Central Pacific. Yamamoto was convinced that an overwhelming attack at Midway would threaten the United States at Hawaii and cause the United States to sue for peace with Japan. For all of Yamamoto’s exposure to American culture, his thinking revealed that he did not know the American people. Commanding the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz realized that his primary task was to destroy Japan’s air power in the Pacific. To do that, he would need to destroy the Japanese carrier fleet. This would become Vice Admiral Halsey’s mission.
Two days before Admiral Halsey was to set sail from Pearl Harbor, he was hospitalized with what we today refer to as Shingles. Halsey recommended that Spruance replace him as commander of the task force. Spruance had no prior experience employing carrier-based air combat. At first, Nimitz questioned Halsey’s choice, but Halsey was adamant, even insistent, but he also advised Spruance to rely on his chief of staff, Captain Miles Browning , a battle-tested expert in carrier warfare. Despite his personal trepidations, Admiral Spruance assumed command of Task Force 16, which included USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. In this capacity, Spruance served under the overall command of Vice Admiral Jack Fletcher, whose flagship was the USS Yorktown; Yorktown had been badly damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea but was quickly repaired and returned to active service in time for the defense of Midway.
The navy’s intercept force consisted of the three carriers, seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, fifteen destroyers, 233 carrier-based attack aircraft, 127 land-based aircraft, and sixteen submarines. The battle group would face off against a two-battle group Japanese invasion force. The first group consisted of four carriers, two battleships, two heavy-cruisers, one light cruiser, twelve destroyers, 248-carrier based aircraft, and sixteen float planes. The surface support force (second group) involved four heavy cruisers, two destroyers, and twelve seaplanes. Japanese occupation forces served under Admiral Nobutake Kondo. Yamamoto exercised over-all command from the IJN ship Yamato.
Admiral Yamamoto devised a complex plan for seizing Midway. What made this scheme complex was the coordination of multiple battle groups over several hundred miles. He named his scheme Operation MI. Yamamoto’s plan, however, was based on erroneous assumptions —specifically that the Americans would field only two carriers. He knew that Lexington was sitting at the bottom of the Coral Sea, and assumed that the Americans had lost the Yorktown, as well. Admiral Yamamoto also underestimated American morale.
Yamamoto dispersed his attack force to mask their presence from the American navy. He then sought to lure the Americans into a trap, defeat the US Navy and land-based aircraft by overwhelming air power, and then bring up his second group to place the final nail in the coffin of what remained of the American navy. It was a doctrinal tactic popular among the major navies of the world at the time. It might have worked had the US Navy not broken the Japanese Naval Code (JN-25), which allowed Admiral Nimitz to read Yamamoto’s mail. Moreover, Yamamoto’s dispersal plan precluded one battle group from supporting the other. Additionally, Yamamoto’s light carriers and battleships were unable to keep up with his fleet carriers.
Yamamoto’s plan also involved a compromise with the Japanese Army. The IJA would support Yamamoto’s Midway operation if Yamamoto agreed to support the army’s invasion of the Aleutian Islands. The Army felt that their invasion was necessary in order to keep mainland Japan out of the range of US land-based aircraft in Alaska. Japan’s invasion of the Aleutian Islands was the first time a foreign nation had occupied American territory since the War of 1812. The Americans had no choice but to confront the Japanese in the Aleutians for the same reason: to prevent Japanese bombers from attacking the West Coast of the United States. The invasion of the Aleutians (designated Operation AL) reduced Yamamoto’s combat fleet by two carriers, five cruisers, twelve destroyers, six submarines, and four troop transport ships. Accordingly, Admiral Nagumo’s Carrier Division Five was two-thirds short of his original carrier fleet. Beyond this, the Japanese fleet suffered from what some historians have identified as a glass jaw. The Japanese could throw a pretty good punch, but it couldn’t take one.
At Midway on 4 June, the U. S. Navy had four squadrons of PBY aircraft (31 birds) for long-range reconnaissance, six TBF Avengers, nineteen Marine Corps  SBDs, seven F4F Wildcats, seventeen SB2U Vindicators, and twenty-one Brewster F2As (Buffalos). Army aircraft included seventeen B-17s, four B-26 Marauders equipped with torpedoes. Overall, 126 aircraft. Piloting a PBY, Ensign Jack Heid spotted the Japanese force at about 0900. He plotted their position as 580 miles west of Midway. What Heid observed was the occupation force, not the main battle force. Nine B-17s departed Midway just after noon to attack the force identified by Ensign Heid. Three hours later, the B-17s found their target and released their bombs. None of these munitions struck a Japanese ship. In fact, the only successful hit was from a PBY that delivered a torpedo into a Japanese oil tanker at 0100 on 5 June. Bombarding navy ships from the air was no easy task.
Japanese aircraft and shipboard anti-aircraft fires were intense, resulting in the defeat of several waves of US aircraft —at Midway and at sea en route to the Japanese task force. American dive bombers from Spruance’s air wing located the Japanese carriers at a most-inopportune time. Japanese fighter-bombers were in the process of refueling on the decks of carriers; planes detailed to provide air cover were overwhelmed with American torpedo bombers. It did not go well for the Japanese.
True … Admiral Spruance’s attack was a gamble —but not a foolish one. The United States Navy was at the time led by intellectual warriors. In June 1941, 83 of the Navy’s 84 admirals had completed the Naval War College. Through training and study, the US Navy-Marine Corps team had foreseen everything that in fact transpired during World War II. Admiral Spruance was one of these men. What set him apart from his peers was his display of intellectual independence and the courage to call a spade and spade. Admiral Spruance displayed his exceptional talent at Midway. If we could break it down, then we should observe that the outcome at Midway was a combination of luck, hubris, and exceptional leadership. The Americans were lucky to break the Japanese Naval Code (JN-25); Japanese national pride and ethnocentric arrogance got in the way of common sense, and Admiral Spruance was an extraordinary leader at a most critical moment in history.
After the task force’s initial success, Spruance was challenged by the question, “What next?” He knew that Japanese carriers had been gravely wounded. Should he exploit this success by pursuing the Japanese to take advantage of their diminished capability? Should he withdraw his task force back toward the east, beyond the reach of the Japanese fleet? The U. S. Navy had three aircraft carriers in the entire Pacific Ocean area; two of these were under Spruance’s command. Spruance knew as well as anyone that the U. S. Navy remained inferior to its Imperial Japanese counterpart both in numbers and in efficiency at sea . Admiral Nimitz’ directive to Spruance was two-fold: Protect Midway and its land-based aviation capability; inflict maximum damage to the Japanese carrier force. He did that … but what next?
Spruance withdrew toward the east while maintaining a watchful eye over Midway Island. Despite scathing criticism from senior admirals , Spruance made the right decision. He knew that the Japanese were bloodied, not beaten. Defending Midway had been a risky endeavor; should Spruance have risked a night engagement with IJN forces that were still in the area? It would have placed limited assets at an unacceptable risk. Where Admiral Spruance stood out is his ability to see the “single naval battle.” Admiral Spruance ignored his critics. He was comfortable in his own skin; he had confidence in the capabilities of his subordinates.
Following the Battle of Midway, Rear Admiral Spruance was pulled back to Pearl Harbor to serve as Admiral Nimitz’ chief of staff and later, as Deputy Commander in Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet. Nimitz needed someone of Spruance’s intellectual capacity to advise him. Spruance remained in Hawaii until August 1943 when he was appointed to command of the Central Pacific Force —later designated US 5th Fleet .
In August 1943, Admiral Nimitz instituted a plan that was designed to make maximum use of his limited naval forces. Nimitz called it his “Big Blue Fleet.” Naval assets were alternated between Admiral Halsey (designated Third US Fleet) (Task Force 38) and Admiral Spruance (designated Fifth US Fleet) (Task Force 58). When not in command of their designated fleets, the admirals and their staffs were assigned to Pearl Harbor where they planned future operations.
The differences between Halsey and Spruance were as night and day. “Bull” Halsey  was aggressive and brash; Spruance was calculating and cautious. The rank and file were proud to serve under either of these men, but the senior officers preferred the leadership style of Spruance. Under Admiral Spruance, the senior staff knew what they were going to do, and when they were going to do it. Halsey, on the other hand, made his senior officers nervous. They never knew from one moment to the next what he would order them to do. For this reason, Admiral Spruance became known as the “admiral’s admiral.”
In February 1944, Admiral Spruance directed Operation Hailstone, the US assault against the Japanese naval base at Truk. Spruance’s Fifth Fleet destroyed twelve Japanese warships, 32 merchant ships, and 249 aircraft. The assault on Truk took place at the same time Admiral Kelly Turner’s amphibious force attacked Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. When Japanese naval forces withdrew from Truk, Admiral Spruance commanded the task group that pursued them. It was the first time a four-star admiral took part in a sea action aboard one of the engaged ships. Spruance commanded his force with deadly precision. In addition to the destruction of Japanese ships at Truk, Spruance sunk the light cruiser Katori and the destroyer Maikaze. In June, while screening for the US invasion of Saipan, Admiral Spruance defeated the Japanese fleet in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, sinking three carriers, two oilers, and an estimated 600 Japanese aircraft. Spruance mauled the Japanese so badly that afterwards, Japanese carriers were used solely as decoys because there were no aircraft or aircrews to fly them. Again, in the aftermath of the battle, Spruance was criticized for not being aggressive enough … but once more, Spruance made the right call.
For most of the war, Admiral Spruance preferred to use the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis as his flagship. It was named in honor of his hometown. After Indianapolis was struck by Kamikaze aircraft off the coast of Okinawa, Spruance moved his flag to the USS New Mexico. On 12 May 1945, two Kamikaze aircraft struck New Mexico; afterwards, the Admiral was could not be located. He was discovered manning a firehose amidships, helping deck hands to fight the fire. As the ship was not too badly damaged, Spruance maintained his flag aboard USS New Mexico. For his actions at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Admiral Spruance was awarded the Navy Cross.
In November 1945, Admiral Spruance succeeded Admiral Nimitz as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet. Spruance was later awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal for his service during the capture of the Marshall and Marianas Islands. After the war, Spruance was not awarded five-star rank due to the limited number of Fleet Admirals authorized in the Navy. Instead, he was awarded five-star retirement pay for life. Admiral Spruance later said that he felt that Admiral Halsey was more deserving of the fifth star and was happy he received it.
From February 1946 to July 1948, Admiral Spruance served as President of the Naval War College. After retirement, Admiral Spruance served as US Ambassador to the Philippine Islands, serving from 1952 to 1955. Raymond Spruance passed away at Pebble Beach, California on 13 December 1969. He was laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery alongside his wife, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Admiral Richmond K. Turner, and Admiral Charles A. Lockwood.
I lament that we no longer have fighting admirals of Ray Spruance’s caliber serving on active duty.
- Marine Corps Gazette, the Professional Journal of U. S. Marines, Marine Corps Association & Foundation.
- Willmott, H. P. The Last Century of Sea Power: From Washington to Tokyo, 1922-1945. University of Indiana Press, 2010.
- Buell, T. B. The Quiet Warrior: a biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. Boston, Little-Brown, 1974.
 Admiral Harvey, J. C. and Colonel Philip J. Ridderhof. “Keeping our Amphibious Edge.” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Annapolis, Maryland, 2012.
 Browning served as a navy surface warfare officer in World War I, later attended flight school at NAS Pensacola, and served aboard the USS Langley. He later evolved into one of the Navy’s most courageous combat pilots. He retired as a Rear Admiral in 1947.
 Marine F2A and SB2U aircraft were already obsolete, but it was all the Marine Corps had at the time.
 There was no better demonstration of this than the Naval Battle of Savo Island. The US Navy lacked the number of surface vessels and the training needed to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy.
 Vice Admiral William S. Pye (1880-1959) issued a stinging rebuke of Spruance for his failure to pursue the Japanese Fleet. Pye was no intellectual and, despite his service in two world wars and his seniority, Admiral Pye had no combat experience. It was Admiral Pye who failed to relieve the Marines at Wake Island in December 1941.
 Admiral Nimitz devised a program of rotating senior officers (and staffs) in and out of the Central Pacific. Nimitz called it the “big blue fleet.” When Admiral Halsey commanded the US Third Fleet (Task Force 38), Spruance and his staff returned to Pearl Harbor to plan future operations. When Spruance activated the US Fifth Fleet (Task Force 58), Halsey and his staff would rotate back to Pearl Harbor.
 On 13 October 1942, William F. Halsey was abruptly ordered to “immediately” assume command of the South Pacific Area and South Pacific Forces. Admiral Ghormley had become reticent and a lackluster senior officer. Halsey’s appointment improved the morale of all naval, air, and ground forces in the South Pacific area … particularly among Marines on Guadalcanal, who suffered under Gormley’s command.