- Historic Sites
The Biggest Theater
Revisiting the seas where American carriers turned the course of history, a Navy man re-creates a time of frightful odds and brilliant gambles.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Nimitz was, of course, fully aware of the intelligence deficiencies that had contributed to the Japanese success at Pearl Harbor. Very soon after arriving at Pearl Harbor, he issued a verbal order, never written but fully understood by Layton, who transmitted it, and Rochefort, who received it: “Wherever else you send any intelligence information, if it concerns me in any way, if there is anything—anything—affecting the Pacific Fleet or the ocean areas under my responsibility, I, too, must be instantly informed. You may not keep anything from me that bears on my Fleet, no matter what your instructions!” This was exactly what the two commanders wanted to hear. Thereafter, unlike Admiral Kimmel, Nimitz received raw intelligence as it came off the line, hand-given to his own intelligence officer by the man who just happened to be the best the Navy had.
Late in March Nimitz began to receive Rochefort’s estimates that something was afoot regarding Port Moresby and the Coral Sea. Within days after the Tokyo raid, Layton informed him of Rochefort’s conclusion that the Port Moresby attack had been pushed up in time.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet commander’s great disadvantage lay in forces available. He had only four operational aircraft carriers, two in the South Pacific under Adm. Frank John Fletcher and two based at Pearl Harbor under Adm. William Halsey. Yamamoto had ten. Though Nimitz had carefully pointed this out in early March, when the Doolittle raid was ordered, he could not refuse the commander in chief even though the operation took Halsey’s whole force. The threat to Port Moresby began to become worrisomely evident, however, even as Doolittle and his planes were being embarked on board the Hornet at Alameda Naval Air Station, California. Nimitz was at least figuratively gnawing his fingernails while the Hornet and the Enterprise raced across the Pacific to the launching point, and had he understood what effect the raid would have on the timetable for New Guinea, his anxiety would probably have been beyond containing. But when Rochefort’s latest communication arrived, the near-supernatural calm with which he went about dealing with the situation was the clearest possible evidence of the depth of his concern.
The bare sequence of events illuminates the point: The Tokyo raid was on April 18. A week and a half later, the Japanese invasion force departed Rabaul for Port Moresby. The four-day Battle of the Coral Sea took place during the first week of May, and the Battle of Midway took place less than a month after that. During the month and a half between Tokyo and Midway, our four big aircraft carriers steamed at top speed four times across the Pacific: west, then east, then south, and finally north—in all, a distance equal to halfway around the world. They fought two big battles with enormous consequences, plus numerous skirmishes. Two of them were sunk. In the process they made history for all time, but it was a very near thing indeed.
A waterborne invasion of Port Moresby, of course, constituted an emergency. It had to be defeated if at all possible—and yet, with hints at a coming attack on Midway becoming ever stronger, what might be the cost of diverting even a small portion of our strength to the south? Naval doctrine ever since Horatio Nelson, and later our own Alfred Thayer Mahan, extolled the principle of the concentration of force. History had proved it the only way to achieve victory at sea. This long-tested principle could be disregarded only at national and historical, not to mention personal, peril. To all of us looking back with the hindsight of half a century, whatever else might be said about Admiral Nimitz’s stewardship of his trust, the way he handled the double whammy he faced at this moment must always rank as one of his finest hours.
As our air-conditioned cruise liner traversed the calm Coral Sea in the near-equatorial heat, I tried to visualize the dilemma in Nimitz’s headquarters—in his mind—five decades ago. What to do? What more could he do? He radioed Admiral Fletcher, commanding the Lexington and Yorktown in the South Pacific, to be ready for action in the Coral Sea by May 1, and he ordered Halsey to return to Pearl Harbor at full speed with the Enterprise and Hornet once the Doolittle fliers were off (they were to land in China). When Halsey’s two big carriers arrived, they were greeted with the news that the promised short R&R period would have to be postponed once again; after minimum turnaround time they were to set off, again at full speed, to join Fletcher in the South Pacific, a fifth of the earth’s circumference away.