Best Defense

An old salt picks his 4 favorite American admirals—and explains why (Part I)

The four flag officers on my personal list of great American naval leaders have, in addition to the usual attributes, two odd things in common.


By Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.)
Best Defense officer of maritime affairs

The four flag officers on my personal list of great American naval leaders have, in addition to the usual attributes, two odd things in common.

First, each of them was steeped in technology, to the point that Raymond Spruance and Arleigh Burke had to fight the naval engineering community to get to the Pacific War. Their technological background and prowess were value adds in different ways because technology and tactics are two sides of a single coin. The second oddity is that none came from a coast nor grew up in a seagoing family. You may take that for what it is worth, but in my own case, growing up in Illinois I was caught up in the romance of the sea and dreamed of winning battles. Perhaps fortunately, I was only shot at twice, once by friendly forces.

Only a whisker separates the rankings of my dream team, but I present them in order of my love for each. I start with Spruance.


In the short description of The Fleet at Flood Tide, which includes contributions from Raymond Spruance, author James Hornfischer closes with this declaration: “Spruance should forever be remembered as the greatest operational naval commander of World War II.” I agree and believe he meant the greatest in any navy.

I think Spruance’s greatness first struck me when, as a lieutenant teaching naval history, I read about his arrival at Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s office just before the Battle of Midway. Nimitz told Spruance that William Halsey was sick, that Halsey had recommended him to take command of Task Force 16, that there would be a battle with 100% certainty, and the U.S. warships would be outnumbered four to one by the Japanese fleet. On the way back to his flagship Spruance said to his aide, “It appears . . . I have two sets of orders. [First] a written order to meet and defeat the Japs. [Second] My oral orders are not to lose my force. If things go badly I am to withdraw and let them have Midway, because they can’t hold it and we will get it back.” Spruance made his name on June 4, 1942, by sinking four Japanese carriers. But there were many heroes in that battle, so I’m going to describe a different one in which Spruance was unequivocally in command.

First, some background. One foundation to prepare Spruance for his wartime exploits was his technical experience. As an ensign he wangled a year at General Electric. Recognized for his aptitude for electrical engineering, he served in three engineer officer tours afloat and three other technical tours in the Bureau of Engineering.

Almost too late, Spruance had to argue his way back to his first love, command at sea.

A second foundation to prepare Spruance for war was two tours at the Naval War College. In the second tour under Rear Admiral Edward C. Kalbfus he felt compelled to tell the president that his pet project, the doctrinal publication Sound Military Decision, was an elaborate cookbook of form over substance. Kalbfus wanted a recipe of a universally applicable decision process. Captain Spruance told him a process could not be an end in itself, but was an aid to apprehending both the breadth and essence of each operation in all its distinctive complexity. Strange to say, Kalbfus neither lost his respect for Spruance nor changed his mind.

The third foundation of Spruance’s greatness was his experience in command at sea. He commanded six ships. The first was the destroyer Bainbridge as lieutenant junior grade, and the last was USS Mississippi when he was promoted to rear admiral. In between, Spruance learned high-speed shiphandling under Commander William F. Halsey, his destroyer squadron commander, and it was then that Halsey first learned to respect young Spruance.

I cannot dwell on all of Spruance’s prewar connections with Halsey and Nimitz, though they were serendipitous and important. I must hasten on to illustrate his greatness when the decisions were all his as Commander of the Fifth Fleet in June 1944 at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Spruance led more operations later at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where he also would exhibit his famous coolness under pressure, his reliance on strong-willed subordinates of his own choosing, and a reluctance to mediate their heated disputes. But his decisive victory in the Philippine Sea was a climax that ended all hope in Japan they could stop the American advance after our successful landings in the Marianas.

Some historians, including Hornfischer, express doubts about his key decision to stay on the defensive and protect the beachhead. Marc Mitscher and Mitscher’s Chief of Staff, Arleigh Burke, knew that all the 1942 carrier battles had been won by getting off the first decisive attack. What Spruance saw, or so I believe, was that by 1944 our CIC for fighter direction, our five-inch guns with VT fuses, and our scores of 20mm and 40mm guns in every ship made it impossible to penetrate our defenses. By striking down all scout and torpedo bombers to the hanger decks each carrier captain could concentrate on dispatching and recovering nothing but fighters flown by experienced pilots well-schooled in ACM. We actually had more fighters in the air from our fifteen fast carriers than all the attacking aircraft launched from nine Japanese carriers. The result was the famous Marianas Turkey Shoot. The Japanese lost 435 of 450 aircraft and never recovered.

Much more could be said about Spruance’s perspicacity, and when the need arose, his daring in facing the enemy. I’ll sum up with the words of historian J. B. Lundstrom in the introduction to Tom Buell’s biography, The Quiet Warrior. In response to critics who said Spruance might have done better at Midway, at Tarawa, or in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Lundstrom wrote, “The constant was that every time Admiral Raymond A. Spruance commanded an operation against the Japanese, they lost.” He never let the Japanese Navy, Army, kamikazes, typhoons, or logistical impediments defeat him, even under the direst circumstances. Naval War College historian and strategist George Baer offers that Spruance perfectly characterizes Carl von Clausewitz’s notion of military genius.

Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr. (Ret.), during his 30 years of active duty, held three commands in the surface Navy. He also was an operations analyst afloat and ashore. He is the author of the naval classic Fleet Tactics. Since retiring some 34 years ago, he has been a teacher and administrator at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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