An Interesting War: #Reviewing The Fleet at Flood Tide

The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944–1945.  James D. Hornfischer. New York, NY: Bantam, 2016.

"The story begins with [him] because the event turned on his personality as the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing."
—Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny [2]

Hagiography is for myth-making; history is for lesson-learning.[1] One is the commemorative DVD showing a team’s heroic march to victory, the other is the coaches’ film showing the strengths and weaknesses of the coaches’ and players’ actual performance. Seventy-five years after the Pearl Harbor attack plunged the United States into World War II, the national recollection of that war has begun to confuse hagiography for history. And as every sports fan knows, the final score of the last game is a poor predictor of outcome of the next one. As the Pacific continues to grow in strategic importance to the United States, it is time to take our eyes off the scoreboard and attempt to learn something from the raw footage of the United States and Imperial Japan locked in the desperate and uncertain conflict of what we now know to be the fourth quarter: the central Pacific campaign of 1944–1945, when the U.S. spiraled into the madness of total war and learned the tyranny of distance across the world’s largest ocean.

The central Pacific offensive saw the maturation of U.S. naval and amphibious operations, enabled by all the industrial might of the home front, where the shipbuilding industry ramped up to launch eight full-size and 37 escort carriers, 630 auxiliary ships, and 37,724 landing craft in 1944 alone. The Pearl Harbor attack was a devastating blow to the pre-war battleship navy, but the survival of the carriers allowed the Navy to fight another day By May 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea had made clear that battleships themselves were no longer the sine qua non of sea power, and by August 1945, the full enormity of the U.S. Fifth Fleet extended like a lance all the way from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo, preparing to strike the final blow.

But Operation Downfall—the planned amphibious invasion of Japan—did not occur. Instead, Col. Paul W. Tibbets, USAAF, and the crew of the Enola Gay, the gleaming silver B-29 Superfortress Tibbets had named after his mother, delivered the Little Boy uranium bomb on the city of Hiroshima, ushering in the age of atomic warfare.

Like Willie Keith in The Caine Mutiny, Tibbets is the “jewel bearing” of James D. Hornfischer’s sweeping new naval history of WWII, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944–1945. Not surprisingly, based on its author and title, The Fleet at Flood Tide is a naval history first and foremost. The “narrative is generally fixed at the level of How Things Work," including studies in the character and command of the naval pantheon of Adm. Raymond Spruance, Adm. Kelly Turner, marine Gen. H. M. Smith, and (less directly) the fleet admirals Chester Nimitz and William “Bull” Halsey.[3] But the first and last words of the book belong to the pilot, for whose strategic bombers the Navy and Marine Corps captured the islands of the central Pacific.

The great strength of Hornfischer’s work is to show, at the political, operational, and individual levels, the great bloody crescendo of the war from “phony” to total as it progressed from Midway to Tokyo Bay. He also weaves together the various lines of effort in “the Navy’s war:” the Army’s march through the South Pacific; the Navy’s inexorable push from Hawaii to Tokyo; and, overshadowing all, the great silver stream of the Army Air Forces’ B-29s that unleashed truly total war in the strategic bombing (incendiary and atomic) of Japan’s major cities.

The central battle of the book is for Saipan, the heart of the Marianas. On that island, the Underwater Demolition Teams proved their worth; the marines learned the horrors of jungle and urban warfare; Spruance (the Spartan battleship admiral) restrained his carrier men from wanton pursuit of the Japanese fleet; and the entire chain of command from the lowliest marine to the President of the United States learned the full barbarity of the Imperial Japanese “death cult” as soldiers and civilians launched midnight banzai attacks, grenaded the wounded in hospitals, and ultimately hurled themselves from Saipan’s northernmost cliffs to avoid capture or liberation by the Americans.

The realization born on Saipan of the depravity of Imperial Japanese “dead-enders,” referred to in official communiqués from the Big Three as “barbarians of the Pacific” and “human animals,” hardened U.S. resolve to develop and deliver atomic weapons. Throughout the text, Hornfischer frequently refers to the central Pacific islands as “buzzing airdromes,” for that is exactly what they became. The Department of the Navy did not need or want Saipan and other islands for their own sake; rather, staggering numbers of marines were landed in order to create a chain of airfields for the freshening stream of B-29s that would culminate with Tibbets’s 509th Composite Group.

U.S. soldiers at the Saipan air base watched as a B-29 Superfortress took off for an air raid on the Japanese mainland in December 1944. (AP Photo)

U.S. soldiers at the Saipan air base watched as a B-29 Superfortress took off for an air raid on the Japanese mainland in December 1944. (AP Photo)

Biographical details of Tibbets from beginning to end—his first experience in an aircraft as a child, the pragmatic dressing down of a superior that almost ended his career in North Africa, the resulting assignment to transport flying that made him a superlative all-condition multi-engine pilot, and finally the steely will that forged the 509th Composite Group and delivered the first atomic bomb—make clear that the bomber pilot was the jewel bearing on which the naval campaign turned. Without him, the door would not have swung shut on Imperial Japan as quickly or completely as it did.

However, Hornfischer also leans heavily on Tibbets to make the moral case for the atomic bombing that is the ur-narrative of the book. From the introduction, Hornfischer states that “a shadow story line” runs through the work: “the story of boundaries being broken at every turn. The question of morality in war is vexing.”[4] Later, as he sets the stage for Tibbets’s dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima, Hornfischer asks, “What methods of warfare does an existential struggle against a cult of death allow, and what restraints might apply?”[5]

In attempting to answer this question, which admittedly lies on the edge of madness, Hornfischer raises and dismisses philosophers hypothetical [6] and real (St. Thomas Aquinas [7]), ultimately concluding that Tibbets, who “slept well, with a clear conscience,” [8] “spoke for his generation in defending what had sprung from his last battle station on Tinian. He knew that certain people would never understand. They lacked, he felt, a certain kind of experience.” [9]

This answer, in the course of the narrative, is not wrong but somewhat unsatisfying: the concept of jus in bello gets a quick treatment in the last few pages, and the final judgment on the usage of nuclear weapons is passed by the first man to drop one on an enemy city. Full treatments of the history and morality of the bomb could each easily occupy 500 pages or more; Hornfischer’s historical narrative is magisterial, but the moral narrative feels short-shrifted for such a weighty matter in which, thankfully, so few are experienced.

The moral tale Hornfischer tells adeptly, through more clinical historical language, is that of total war.

The moral tale Hornfischer tells adeptly, through more clinical historical language, is that of total war. He makes abundantly clear the level of insanity the war had attained by 1944: “In a sense, the war had overthrown civilization...on a scale not seen before, time was death.”[10] The longer the fight went on, the more incomprehensible became the butcher’s bill on both sides. “During the casualty surge of 1944, American forces had been averaging sixty-five thousand casualties a month. During the first several weeks at Okinawa alone, losses ran to seven thousand killed and wounded per week.”[11] Planners assumed the invasion of Japan would result in between 250,000 and 1 million Allied casualties and at least as many Japanese, with estimates continuously revised upward with rising casualty rates as the fighting grew closer to the home islands.[12] In the context of such dizzying casualty estimates and the ongoing (and far more destructive) firebombing of other Japanese cities, the case for using atomic weapons has the grim logic of the morality of the state, no matter how abhorrent it might be to personal morality.


Before leaving the story of the naval campaign in the Pacific, it is worth dwelling for another moment on Hornfischer’s subtitle: America at Total War. In spite—or perhaps because—of the fuzzy, flag-draped national recollection of WWII seven decades later, the war remains a leitmotif for how Americans think about war, even as it appears a poorer analogy for our contemporary conflicts.

To put the casualty figures above into some context, the U.S. has not yet suffered 7,000 dead in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since 2001. In 2017, it is hard to imagine even being in a situation that might create that many casualties every week, never mind grimly continuing such a campaign until victory, while planning for an even bloodier one—often involving the survivors of the present campaign—immediately to follow. The playful term island-hopping, in view of those numbers, appears very warm work indeed, to use Lord Nelson’s phrase.

As the U.S. continues to strategize and scope the ongoing fight against the Islamic State—sometimes described in terms closely echoing “an existential struggle against a cult of death”—and rising tensions with China, The Fleet at Flood Tide provides not only a good yarn but an unflinching history rich with lessons to be learned about truly existential war, the vast expanse of the Pacific, and the lengths to which the country was forced to go to definitively defeat a societal death cult.

Colin Steele is a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is involved with the Fletcher Maritime Studies Program, which co-hosted Mr. Hornfischer for a lunch discussion of this book. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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Header Image: Grumman F6F-3 fighter landing aboard the Essex Class carrier USS Lexington (CV-16), flagship of Task Force 58, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, June 1944. (US Navy Photo/Wikimedia)


[1] Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II (New York: Little, Brown, 1951), xiii.

[2] The description "An interesting war" comes from Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, qtd. in James Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944–1945 (New York: Bantam, 2016), 470. The phrase comes from this interesting passage: “Margaret [Spruance’s wife] disliked her husband’s talk of ‘an interesting war.’ Well acquainted with its terrible details, she asked, ‘Raymond, how can you say that?’...“‘It was my profession and it was an interesting war,’ he always replied.”

[3] Hornfischer, Flood Tide, xviii.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 422.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 501.

[8] Ibid., 493.

[9] Ibid., 503.

[10] Ibid., 422.

[11] Ibid., 423.

[12] Ibid., 494.