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“The Fleet at Flood Tide” – A Conversation with Author James D. Hornfischer

The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer
The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer.

By Christopher Nelson

A passionate naval historian, Jim Hornfischer finds time in the early morning hours and the weekends to write. It was an “elaborate moonlighting gig” he says, that led to his latest book, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

The Fleet at Flood Tide takes us back to World War II in the Pacific. This time Hornfischer focuses on the air, land, and sea battles that were some of the deadliest in the latter part of the war: Saipan, The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, Tinian, Guam, the strategic bombing campaign, and the eventual use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

The battles Hornfischer describe share center stage with some of the most impressive leaders the U.S. placed in the Pacific: Admiral Raymond Spruance, Admiral Kelly Turner, Admiral Marc Mitscher, General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, and Colonel Paul Tibbets. It is quite a cast of characters.

Hornfischer, to his credit, is able to keep this massive mosaic together – the numerous battles and personalities – without getting lost in historical details. His writing style, like other popular historians – David McCullough, Max Hastings, and Ian Toll immediately come to mind – is cinematic, yet not superficial. Or as he told me what he strives for when writing: “I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type.”

The Fleet at Flood Tide is his fifth book, following the 2011 release of Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Gudalcanal. Hornfischer — whose day job is president of Hornfischer Literary Management — also found time to write The Ship of Ghosts (2006), The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (2004; which won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award), and Service: A Navy SEAL at War, with Marcus Luttrell (2012). Of note, Neptune’s Inferno and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors have been on the Chief of Naval Operation’s reading list for consecutive years.

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Jim Hornfischer about his new book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did the book come about? Was it a logical extension of your previous book, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal?

All these years on, the challenge in World War II history is to find books that need writing, stories that need telling with fresh levels of detail, or in an entirely new frame. After Neptune’s Inferno, I was looking for a project that offered expansive territory in terms of geography, people and operational terrain, fresh, ambitious themes, and massive amounts of combat action that was hugely consequential. When I realized that no single volume had yet taken on the entirety of the Marianas campaign and followed that coherently to the end and what it led to, I had something. I wrote a proposal for a campaign history of Operation Forager, encompassing all its diverse operations on air, land and sea, as well as the singular, war-ending purpose to which that victory was put. The original title given to my publisher was Crescendo: The Story of the Marianas Campaign, the Great Pacific Air, Land and Sea Victory that Finished Imperial Japan. In the first paragraph of that proposal, I wrote, “No nation had ever attempted a military expedition more ambitious than Operation Forager, and none had greater consequence.” And that conceit held up well through four years of work. Everything I learned about the Marianas as the strategic fulcrum of the theater fleshed out this interpretation in spades.

As you said, in the book you focus on the Marianas Campaign, and there are some key personalities during the 1944-45 campaign. Namely, Raymond Spruance, Kelly Turner, and Paul Tibbets are front and center in your book. When scoping this book out, how did you decide to focus on these men?

As commander of the Fifth Fleet, Raymond Spruance took the Marianas and won the greatest carrier battle in history in their defense along the way. Spruance, to me, stands as the finest operational naval commander this nation ever produced. After all the ink spilled on Halsey and the paucity of literature on Spruance, it was, I thought, time to give him his due. Kelly Turner, Spruance’s amphibious commander, has always fascinated me. After his controversial tour as a war plans and intelligence guy in Washington in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and then in the early days of Guadalcanal, surviving a dawning disaster (and did I mention he was an alcoholic), it’s incredible that Turner retained Spruance’s confidence. Yet he emerged as the leading practitioner of what CNO Ernest J. King called “the outstanding development of the war”: amphibious warfare. He has been poorly credited in history and deserved a close focus for his innovations, which included among other things an emphasis on “heavy power”—the ability to transport multiple divisions and their fire support and sustenance over thousands of miles of ocean—as well as the first large-scale employment of the unit that gave us the Navy SEALs.

As for Paul Tibbets, he and his top-secret B-29 group were the reason for the season, so to speak, the strategic purpose behind all the trouble that Spruance, Turner, and the rest endured in taking the Central Pacific. Without Army strategic air power, the Navy might never have persuaded the Joint Chiefs to go into the Marianas in 1944. And without Paul Tibbets and his high performance under strenuous time pressure, the war lasts well into 1946. Did you know that it was his near court-martial in North Africa in 1942 that got him sent to the Pacific in the first place?

General Carl Spaatz decorates Tibbets with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission/USAF Official Photo
General Carl Spaatz (l) decorates Colonel Tibbets (r) with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission (USAF Official Photo)

Early in the book you say that naval strategy was driven more by how fast the navy was building ships and not by battle experience. How so?

Well, of course the naval strategy that won the Pacific war, War Plan Orange and its successors, was drawn up and wargamed in the 1930s. But at the operational level, nothing prepared the Navy to employ the explosion of naval production that took place in 1943 and 1944. Fifteen fast aircraft carriers were put into commission in 1943. Thus was born the idea of a single carrier task force composed of three- and four-carrier task groups. The ability to concentrate or disperse gave Spruance and his carrier boss, Marc Mitscher, tremendous flexibility.

They realized during the February 1944 strike on Truk Atoll that it was no longer necessary to hit and run. There had been no precedent for this. Instead of hitting and running, relying on mobility and surprise, they could hit and stay, relying on sheer combat power, both offensive and defensive. That changed everything.

By the time the Fifth Fleet wrapped up the conquest of Guam, the carrier fleet was both an irresistible force and an immovable object. That was a function of a sudden surplus of hulls, and the innovations that the air admiralty proved up on the fly in the first half of 1944. Most of these involved making best use of the new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, fleet air defense, shipboard fighter direction, division of labor among carriers (for combat air patrol, search, and strike), armed search missions (rocket- and bomb-equipped Hellcats), the concept of the fighter sweep, adjusting the makeup of air groups to be fighter-heavy, night search and night fighting, and so on.

Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight/Wikipedia
Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight (Wikimedia Commons)

Just as important was the surge in amphibious shipping. In 1943, more than 21,000 new ‘phibs were launched of all sizes. The next year, that number surpassed 37,000. That’s the “fleet at flood tide” of my title. As Chester Nimitz himself noted, the final stage of the greatest sea war in history commenced in the Marianas, which became its fulcrum. Neither Iwo Jima nor Okinawa obviated that. And that concept is the conceit of my book and its contribution, I suppose—the centrality of the Marianas campaign, and how it changed warfare and produced America’s position in the world as an atomic superpower.

Spruance, King, Halsey, Tibbets, Turner ––  all of them are giant military historical figures. After diving into the lives of these men, what surprised you? Did you go in with assumptions or prior knowledge about their personalities or behavior that changed over the course of writing this book? 

I had never fully understood the size of Raymond Spruance’s warrior’s heart. I just mentioned the Truk strikes. Did you know that in the midst of it, Spruance detached the USS New Jersey and Iowa, two heavy cruisers, and a quartet of destroyers from Mitscher’s task force, took tactical command, and went hunting cripples? This was an inadvisable and even reckless thing for a fleet commander to do. He and his staff were unprepared to conduct tactical action. But he couldn’t resist the chance to seize a last grasp at history, to lead battleships in combat in neutering Japan’s greatest forward-area naval base.

Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo/Wikipedia
Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Wikimedia Commons)

Also, I hadn’t known how much Spruance exulted in the suicide death on Saipan of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the executioner of the Pearl Harbor strike and Spruance’s opponent at Midway. Finally, I was unaware of the extent of his physical courage. Off Okinawa, in the space of two weeks in May 1945, two of his flagships, the Indianapolis and New Mexico, were hit by kamikazes. In the latter, he disappeared into the burning wreckage of the superstructure, to the horror of his staff, and turned up shortly afterward manning a fire hose. That’s a style of leadership that the “cautious” COMFIFTHFLT is seldom credited for.

Regarding Tibbets, I mentioned his near court-martial in North Africa. Few people know this happened, or even that he served in Europe at all, but he was among the finest B-17 squadron commanders in the ETO in 1942. The lesson of his near downfall is: Never mess with a line officer whos destined to become a four star. This would be Lauris Norstad, Tibbets’s operations officer in North Africa, who went on to become one of the most important USAF generals of the Cold War.

You touch on this in your book, but the war stressed all of these men greatly. And each of them handled it in their own way. Taking just Spruance and Tibbets as examples, how did they handle the loss of men and the toll of war?

Spruance, in his correspondence, often described war as an intellectual puzzle. He could be hard-hearted. Shortly after the flag went up on Mount Suribachi, he wrote his wife, “I understand some of the sob fraternity back home have been raising the devil about our casualties on Iwo. I would have thought that by this time they would have learned that you can’t make war on a tough, fanatical enemy like the Japs without our people getting hurt and killed.” That’s a phrase worthy of Halsey: the sob fraternity. And yet when he toured the base hospitals, he felt deeply for the wounded in war.

It was for this reason that Spruance opposed the idea of landing troops in Japan. He favored the Navy’s preference for blockade. But those were perfectly exhausting operations at sea, week after week of launching strikes against airdromes in Western Pacific island strongholds, and in the home islands themselves. By the time Admiral Halsey relieved Spruance at Okinawa in May 1945, Spruance was exhausted both physically and morally.  

Paul Tibbets suffered losses of his men in Europe, but in the Pacific he was stuck in a training cycle that ended only at Hiroshima on August 6. Later in life, he considered the mass death and destruction he wrought as an irretrievable necessity. Responding to those who considered waging total war against civilian targets an abomination of morals, Tibbets would say, “Those people never had their balls on that cold, hard anvil.” I don’t think the moral objectors have ever fully credited either the tragic necessity or the specific success of the mission of the atomic bomb program: turning Emperor Hirohito’s heart. Tibbets was always unsentimental about it. 

Why is Spruance considered a genius?

Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN/Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute
Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN (Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute)

He was the ultimate planner, and through his excellence in planning, naval operations became more than operational or tactical. They became strategic, war-ending. It was no accident that Raymond Spruance planned and carried out every major amphibious operation in the Western Pacific except for the one that invited real disaster, Leyte. He was in style, temperament, and talent a reflection of his mentor, Chester Nimitz. The Japanese gave him the ultimate compliment. Admiral Junichi Ozawa told an interviewer after the war that Spruance was “impossible to trap.”

Switching gears a bit, what is your favorite naval history book?

It’s a long list, probably led by Samuel Eliot Morison’s volume 5, Guadalcanal, but I’m going to put three ahead of him as a personal matter: Tin Cans by Theodore Roscoe, Japanese Destroyer Captain by Tameichi Hara, and Baa Baa Black Sheep by Gregory Boyington. This selection may underwhelm your readers who are big on theory, doctrine, and analytical history, but I list them unapologetically. These were the books that set me on fire with passion for the story of the Pacific War when I was, like, twelve. If I hadn’t read them at that young age, I don’t think I would be writing today. It is only a bonus that all three were published by the company that’s publishing me today, Bantam/Ballantine. We are upholding a tradition!

What is your research and writing process like?

It’s all an elaborate moonlighting gig, conducted in relation to, but apart from, my other work in book publishing. It takes me a while to get these done in my free time, which is stolen mostly from my generous and long-abiding wife, Sharon, and our family. But basically the process looks like this: I turn on my shop-strength vacuum cleaner, snap on the largest, widest attachment, and collect material for 18 to 24 months before I even think about writing. Having collated my notes and organized my data, I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type. I stay on that task, early mornings and weekends, for maybe 18 more months. Then, in the case of The Fleet at Flood Tide, my editor and I beat the draft around through two or three revisions before it was finally given to the Random House production editor. Then we sweat over photos and maps. History to me is intensively visual, both in the writing and in the illustrating, so this is a major emphasis for me all along the way. I never offload any of this work to a research staff.

In spite of all of this effort, the result is usually, maddeningly, imperfect in the end. But it is always the best I can do, using this hand-tooled approach under the time pressure that inevitably develops.


What’s next? Are you already thinking about what you want to write about after you finish the book tour and publicity for The Fleet at Flood Tide? Do you have a specific subject in mind?

One word and one numeral: Post-1945.

Last question. A lot of our readers here at the CIMSEC are also writers. What advice would you give to the aspiring naval historian?

Think big. Then think bigger. Then get started. And focus on people and all the interesting problems they’re facing.

James D. Hornfischer is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune’s Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award. A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, he lives in Austin, Texas.

Christopher Nelson is a naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters. A regular contributor to CIMSEC, he is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the U.S. Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The questions and comments above are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Marines on the beach line during the invasion of Saipan in 1944.  (USMC)

Breaking the Curse of Zheng He: The Enduring Necessity of a Strong American Navy

The following article originally featured on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.b

By Roger Misso

Once upon a time, there was a great and powerful nation. With booming trade, strong defense, and unparalleled pride, this land stood apart from all others as the finest in the world. As others struggled with disease, conflict, and stagnant economies, this country shone as a beacon in a storm. And importantly, its Navy was the envy of the world, protecting trade and sailing the high seas.

Monument to Admiral Zheng He in Melaka, Malaysia (Hasaan Saeed/Wikimedia)
Monument to Admiral Zheng He in Melaka, Malaysia (Hasaan Saeed/Wikimedia)

This nation was China, during the Ming dynasty in the 14th Century. The leader of its Navy was the quasi-mythical Zheng He, a palace eunuch who rose to glorious power, but was eventually erased from the history books.The rise and fall of Zheng He has striking parallels to the rise and fall of the United States Navy today. To avoid repeating the unfortunate history of seafaring superpowers, the United States must embrace the role of its Navy as an essential instrument of a successful, enduring nation.

THE RISE

In the middle of the fourteenth century in China, at the end of a line of harsh Mongol rulers, the Ming dynasty rose to power. One of the first acts of the new emperor, Zhu Di, was to build a massive naval armada. Rather than rely only on overland routes, he intended to exercise trade, diplomacy, and prove the sheer awe of Chinese power through his navy.

He nominated a palace eunuch who had risen in favor with the new regime, a Chinese Muslim by the name of Zheng He, to lead this force. Zheng was rumored to have “stood seven feet tall,” and his ability to speak both Chinese and Arabic was seen as a prudent choice for an expedition that would sail the Indian Ocean and interact with other Arabic-speaking peoples.[1]

Zheng He’s fleet boasted more than 300 vessels. Unlike the typical European ships of the day, his were of enormous, complex construction and opulent adornment. Each ship housed more than sailors—doctors, soldiers, engineers, and statesmen made Zheng He’s fleet a floating arm of Chinese influence. Indeed, for more than 30 years, China dominated the sea lanes to its west, ensuring safe passage of its trading vessels and even engaging in limited conflict to secure favorable bases of support for its large fleet.[2]

THE CURSE

China’s dominance of the seas was short lived, however. New emperors came to power who viewed naval voyages as “extravagances.”[3] Rather than respect the value of a navy to a great power, rulers began to look inward. Political power was legitimized by building things Chinese subjects could physically see and attribute to the greatness of the emperor, as opposed to a Navy that operated far from China’s shores.

It is a historical irony that the Ming dynasty traded what was the world’s greatest naval power, and used their treasure to connect and finish the Great Wall into what it is recognized as today. Soon, internecine conflict and pride erased nearly any mention of Zheng He and the grand Chinese armada from the national memory.[4] For much of the next 600 years, China’s focus would remain within, even as their relative global power all but evaporated.[5]

THE PARALLELS

The lessons of Zheng He’s China teach a great deal about how a global superpower maintains its own geopolitical interests in the face of shifting domestic priorities. A strong Navy is a decisive component of the military instrument of national power, based on its unmatched ability to project power around the globe.

From John Paul Jones to The Great White Fleet to today’s Navy, it is easy to view the lens of America’s Navy as another incarnation of Zheng He’s: an awe-inspiring representation of the nation’s technological and economic might. The founders of the United States recognized the importance of a Navy to a prosperous nation, specifically enunciating in the Constitution that Congress must “provide and maintain a Navy.”

Yet, as in Zheng He’s time, competing policy choices and uncertainty as to America’s role in the world has eroded the commitment to maintain a naval force representative of the country’s geopolitical interests. Austerity and sequestration have slashed budgets with scant regard for shipbuilding, maintenance, and future fleet architecture. 650 years later, the United States Navy has fewer ships to its name than Zheng He’s armada.[6]

THE LESSON

The decline in quantity and quality of America’s ships-of-the-line will do great harm to the American people. The United States Navy is the bellwether of American power, protecting the nation from harm and safeguarding global commerce. The tragedy of both Zheng He and contemporary American navalists is their failure to adequately convince the population of the necessity of its Navy.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “industry, commerce, and security are the surest roads to the happiness and prosperity of people.”[7] The Navy has been the guarantor of American happiness and prosperity since the nation’s earliest days. Yet, as the visible vestiges of American commerce have transformed from small markets and shops to massive online storefronts with inventory shipped by robots from warehouses, the average citizen’s concept of how commerce is enabled may be declining.

To this citizen, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and online commerce might seem to suggest that modern military forces are becoming obsolete in the face of digital citizenship. Few people think about the steps between pressing “purchase” and receiving a good at their doorstep. In a tumultuous political climate, this leads many to clamor for decreased military spending and a more insular focus on domestic affairs. Yet this sentiment erodes the very naval service that ensures massive online commerce can thrive in the first place.

The percentage and volume of global trade by sea has shown no signs of slowing down. Whether iPhones, oil, or automobiles, most of the imported items belonging to a typical household have come to this country by sea. These items are carried on ships without guns or inherent self-defense measures. These ships transit through chokepoints controlled by nations with their own interests, who would rather leverage their own power at the expense of America’s supply of Apple devices.

World shipping routes (T. Hengel/Wikimedia)
World shipping routes (T. Hengel/Wikimedia)

The importance of a Navy is not a difficult concept. For example, if a saboteur has blocked both ends of the street on which you live, you may think of three potential responses: 1) stay home; 2) find another way out, though you are likely to leave the house less often and bring fewer things with you; 3) fight back. For businesses and nations who ship goods by sea, the first two options are unprofitable and untenable. It is only through a strong Navy that the third option is possible.

The consequences of a declining Navy are perceptible and stark. Though it took a few centuries, China’s inward focus eventually led to the crumbling of their sovereignty and, eventually, occupation by a foreign power. More contemporary examples, such as Great Britain and Spain, are instructive as they show nations on the declining slope of naval power dependent on a foreign power—the United States—to maintain freedom of the seas in accordance with its own interests.

If the United States abdicates its role as global naval power, either deliberately or through unchecked erosion of capability and credibility, she risks a radical plummeting of national and economic might. Nature and the sea both abhor a vacuum; in yet another irony, if the United States cannot maintain the global sea lanes, China may take its place as guarantor. An American economy and national security dependent on Chinese interests and the application of Chinese naval power would be weak and brittle, bringing extreme hardship to the American people.

THE MANDATE

U.S. Navy ships and aircraft. (Navy.com)
U.S. Navy ships and aircraft. (Navy.com)

More than ever, a strong Navy is required to protect the millions of tons of shipping that make possible American economy, infrastructure, and the basic political lives of her people. A citizenry may grow weary of land wars, but it cannot forsake trade and security. Nations that cannot protect open, unfettered access to the sea will fail. For these reasons, the United States Navy is not a nicety; it is a necessity.

History provides clear channel markers for decision makers today. The United States cannot repeat the curse of Zheng He; she must clearly articulate and re-prioritize a strong Navy that is present, capable, and credible.

Roger L. Misso is a naval officer, aviator, and speechwriter. He is currently a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a featured contributor to The Strategy Bridge. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

NOTES:

[1] Stockwell, Foster. Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient times through the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Publishers, 2003.

[2] Suryadinata, Leo. Admiral Zheng He and Southeast Asia. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Turturici, Armando Alessandro. “China Across Sea in Early Ming Dynasty – the Figure of Zheng He.” Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies, no. 3 (Spring, 2016): 111-114.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Status of the Navy.” Navy.mil. Accessed online 4 Nov 2016. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=146

[7] “From Thomas Jefferson to Francisco Chiappe, 9 September 1789.” National Archives Online. Accessed online 4 Nov 2016. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-15-02-0386

Featured Image: Treasure fleet of Admiral Zheng He (Caravan Daily) 

Themistocles: The Father of Naval Warfare

By David Van Dyk

“My boy, you will be nothing insignificant, but definitely something great, either for good or evil.” – School teacher of Themistocles

Since he was only a child, he knew he had always wanted the respect and recognition of his fellow citizens. He hungered for it, dreamt of it, and prepared for it. While all the other kids would play and laugh, he would study and write, spending countless hours practicing speeches in his home. His parents were of no special heritage, and royalty did not flow through his blood. In its place, determination coursed through his veins. Themistocles, an Athenian, knew he was meant for something great. History would show that Themistocles, when he became archon, encouraged a naval policy in Athens, and helped drive off the Persian Empire and secure a place of strength and resolve for Athens in the world. Ancient scholars and historians, like that of Plutarch and Herodotus, have documented his life, allowing a glimpse into the magnificence of his achievements. Modern day scholars have shed even more light, suggesting that it was Themistocles himself who saved the future of western civilization. Themistocles, the commander of the Athenian fleet, should be bestowed the title of the Father of Naval Warfare due to his understanding of the Persian Empire, the importance of naval supremacy, and his involvement in the political process.

If we are to understand the rise of Themistocles, then we must first understand the impacts of the Ionian Revolt. R.J. Lenardon, in The Saga of Themistocles, says the Ionian Revolt “was to have momentous consequences for all of Hellenes, not least the Athenians and Themistocles, during the first quarter of the fifth century.”1 How this revolt would shape both Athens and Persia would set the stage for the incredible life of the aspiring, but young, Themistocles.

In the year of 499 B.C., the Hellenes of Asia Minor realized they had experienced enough. The Ionians grew restless of the oppression of the Persian Empire, and decided to fight back. For over 30 years, the superpower of the world, Persia, had subjugated the Greek cities of Asia Minor under numerous tyrannies, forcing the Greeks to build the cities of Persia and further the dominion of their empire. Under the rule of King Darius, he “undertook a thorough and systematic political and financial reorganization of the Persian Empire.”2 With these sweeping changes now taking effect, Darius thought it a no better time than to expand the land and influence of the Persian Empire. Under his guidance, the Persians blazed their way through Europe, “campaigning successfully against the Thracians and even securing the allegiance of Macedonia.”While these accomplishments were impressive, the rising discontent of the Ionians against Persia grew. After failing to convince the Spartans to join their cause against Darius, the Ionians looked toward, as Herodotus says, “the next most powerful state” after Sparta, that of Athens.4

Herodotus writes, “After the Athenians had been won over, they voted to dispatch twenty ships to help the Ionians and appointed Melanthion, a man of the city who was distinguished in every respect, as commander over them.”5 Herodotus goes on to write in a flare of foreboding that “these ships would turn out to be the beginning of evils for … the barbarians.”6 After the allied contingent of the rebellion sailed to Sardis and burned the Persian city to the ground, the Athenians, due to heavy losses, withdrew from the fighting, and “they refused to help the Ionaians any further.”7 Yet their actions, with the help of the Ionians, would send Darius into a rage against the Athenians. Herodotus recounts a chilling tale:

“When it was reported to Darius that Sardis had been taken and burnt by the Athenians and Ionians and that Aristagoras the Milesian had been leader of the conspiracy for the making of this plan, he at first, it is said, took no account of the Ionians since he was sure that they would not go unpunished for their rebellion. Darius did, however, ask who the Athenians were, and after receiving the answer, he called for his bow. This he took and, placing an arrow on it, and shot it into the sky, praying as he sent it aloft, ‘O Zeus, grant me vengeance on the Athenians.’ Then he ordered one of his servants to say to him three times whenever dinner was set before him, ‘Master, remember the Athenians.’” 8

With the Athenian fleet now out of the picture, the Ionian Revolt began to wane. The final Persian push came at Miletus, where the Persian army and navy decided to disregard the more minor cities. Attacking the source of the rebellion, the Persians overtook the Ionians at Miletus and brought them under subjugation once again. The Ionian Revolt virtually ended, and the Persian Empire set about re-conquering the rest of the rebellious cities. This revolt had two major effects: The Persian Empire grew vastly in military power, and the wrath of Darius was now directed toward the Athenians. After all, how could he forget when he was reminded of their actions every time he sat down for dinner?

The Rise of Themistocles

After the successful defeat of the Ionian Revolt in 494 BC, Darius began his march toward Athens. Herodotus’ first mention of Themistocles comes on the heels of the advance of the Persian Empire on all of Hellas after its crushing defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Around 480 BC, after attempting to discern a prophecy from an Oracle, the people of Athens were disturbed as to its cryptic meaning, fearing the gods had predicted their end. “But among the Athenians was a certain man who had just recently come into the highest prominence; his name was Themistocles, and he was called the son of Neokles.”9 Themistocles convinced his fellow Athenians that the Oracle, in summary, was urging them to meet the Persians at sea. According to several ancient sources, the Oracle had spoken of “wooden walls,” and Themistocles used this interpretation to his advantage in his advising of a naval policy.

However,  around 483 BC when Athens was receiving large revenues from lucrative silver mines, Themistocles spoke to the government urging them to spend the increased revenue on their naval fleet. For a long time, Athens was at war with Aegina, who had sided with the Persian Empire in providing them “earth and water.”10 Themistocles saw Aegina as the perfect pretext to build up the Athenian fleet, knowing full well that Athens would need this fleet to face the coming onslaught of the Persian Empire. Plutarch, in his biography of Themistocles in Lives, recounts this tale as well:

“And so, in the first place, whereas the Athenians were wont to divide up among themselves the revenue coming from the silver mines at Laureium, [Themistocles], and he alone, dared to come before the people with a motion that this division be given up, and that with these moneys triremes be constructed for the war against Aegina. This was the fiercest war then troubling Hellas, and the islanders controlled the sea, owing to the number of their ships.”11

Plutarch, in the text above, points out one of the earliest examples of Themistocles’ lobbying for a powerful navy. Calum M. Carmichael, in Historical Methods, makes note of the importance of the Athenian navy as a whole from the years of 480 – 322 BC:

“Of all the public services, the naval [public office] … was arguably the most important. It directly served the strategic and commercial interests of the state: the duties centered on the command and maintenance of the trireme warship for a year. It involved a large outlay: maintaining a single ship could require expenditure in excess of one talent, whereas other liturgies required half as much or less. And, more than any other public service, the naval liturgy was an object of reform throughout the democratic period.”12

As a result of Themistocles’ lobbying, Athens devoted their increased revenues to the building up of the Athenian navy, thus establishing themselves as a powerhouse among the Greek city-states. However, his policies were not met with unanimous praise. Plutarch makes note of it, saying, “…he made [Athenian warriors], instead of ‘steadfast hoplites’ – to quote Plato’s words, sea-tossed mariners, and brought down upon himself this accusation: ‘Themistocles robbed his fellow-citizens of spear and shield, and degraded the people of Athens to the rowing-pad and the oar.’”13

Themistocles was adamant in the construction of a large Athenian fleet, built up mainly of the Trireme class, pictured above. (Creative Commons)
Themistocles was adamant in the construction of a large Athenian fleet, built mainly of the Triremes, pictured above. (Creative Commons)

Yet Themistocles continued with his naval buildup. As he spoke to the Athenians concerning the Oracle’s cryptic message, he convinced them that rather than run and hide from the coming enemy, their salvation would come from the sea. Having just recently built up their naval power through the increased revenues from the silver mines, Themistocles capitalized on the moment, understanding that it was through naval power and not ground forces that would drive back the Persian Empire. Yet to fully grasp the sharp intellect of Themistocles as a naval advocate, we need to go back in time to 493 BC, when Themistocles found himself as archon of Athens, a perfect time to begin his march to the ocean.

Lenardan, in Saga of Themistocles, says, “Dionysius of Halicarnassus tells us that Themistocles was archon at Athens in 493 BC, and the chronographic tradition recorded by Eusebius lends particular support to the assumption encouraged by other evidence that it was as archon in that very year that he began the fortifications of the Piraeus.”14 Themistocles was familiar with the advantage of the Piraeus. This natural harbor provided three ports that had far more strategic value than the smaller Bay of Phalerum that the Athenians were using at the time. Tom Holland, in Persian Fire, says this of Themistocles’ genius:

“Drawing up his manifesto, he began to argue for the urgent down-grading of the existing docks and their replacement by a new port at Piraeus, the rocky headland that lay just beyond Phalerum beach. The shoreline there afforded not one but three natural harbors, enough for any fleet, and readily fortifiable. True, it lay two miles further from the city than Phalerum, but Themistocles argued passionately that this was a small price to pay for the immense advantages that a new harbor at Piraeus would afford: a safe port for the Athenians’ ever-expanding merchant fleet; a trading hub to rival Corinth and Aegina and immunity from Aeginetan privateers.”15

Themistocles understood that trading the convenience of Phalerum for the strategic position of Piraeus was well worth the trade-off. Whether Themistocles began this project during his archonship, or if he started it later, possibly around 483 or 479 BC, is debated among modern-day scholars. Cornelius Nepos, a Roman historian who lived from 110 BC to 25 BC, says this of Themistocles’ involvement with the building of the port at Piraeus: “Themistocles was great in the war [at Salamis], and was not less distinguished in peace; for as the Athenians used the harbor of Phalerum, which was neither large nor convenient, the triple port of the Piraeeus [sic] was constructed by his advice, and enclosed with walls, so that it equaled the city in magnificence, and excelled it in utility.”16 Nepos dates the building up of Piraeus after the Battle at Salamis in 480 BC, and makes no mention of it being started during the time of Themistocles’ archonship. Plutarch also writes “After [he built the walls of Athens] he equipped the Piraeus, because he had noticed the favorable shape of its harbors, and wished to attach the whole city to the sea; thus in a certain manner counteracting the policies of the ancient Athenian kings.” 17

However, there is no reason not to suggest that Themistocles initiated the building of the Piraeus while he was archon. Having desired to build up the naval prestige of Athens as soon as he could, he very well could have looked to the promising port during his early days in office. The National Hellenic Research Foundation appears to solidify this belief: “Thus, within only one year, Athens and the northern part of Acropolis received new fortifications, which incorporated the older building’s pieces and offerings, even tombstones, while beginning the completion of the fortification of the Piraeus port, already launched by Themistocles himself as the 493 BC ruler.”18 The building of the Piraeus port allowed the Athenians a superior advantage in their conquest to become masters of the sea. By encouraging the Athenians to move their current harbor to a more secure one, Themistocles once again proved his intellect in understanding the multiple facets of naval power. He had built up a strong fleet through the use of increased revenue from the state, and moved the focus of their sea power to a safer, more strategic area.

Map depicting Piraeus fortifications. Themistocles thought it prudent to move Athen's main port from Phalerum to Piraeus. This shift would allow Athens three natural harbors, all effectively sheltered from storm and invader.
Map depicting Piraeus fortifications. Themistocles thought it prudent to move Athen’s main port from Phalerum to Piraeus. This shift would allow Athens three natural harbors, all effectively sheltered from storm and invader. (Creative Commons)

What may be more impressive than anything else was his foresight. During the time after the Battle of Marathon, many believed that the Persians were defeated and would not come back. Lenardon makes mention of this: “Most of the Athenians believed that the defeat of the Persians at Marathon meant the end of the war; but Themistocles realized it was only the beginning of greater struggles.”19 Themistocles understood that after the death of Darius, Xerxes would seek vengeance, and it would come swifter and stronger than the last battle at Marathon. Themistocles had his fleet, and the construction of the Piraeus port was nearing completion. Now, he would test the resolve and courage of his fellow allies in battle at Salamis.

At the Battle of Salamis, we encounter first-hand the intellect and courage of Themistocles, now the commander of the Greek allied fleet. His exploits here are perhaps what has made him become the legend he is today.

Manipulating the Enemy

When the Greek allied fleet converged at Salamis, it was the largest contingent to have assembled. Thucydides accounts for the navies present:

“For after these there were no navies of any account in Hellas till the expedition of Xerxes; AeginaAthens, and others may have possessed a few vessels, but they were principally fifty-oars. It was quite at the end of this period that the war with Aegina and the prospect of the barbarian invasion enabled Themistocles to persuade the Athenians to build the fleet with which they fought at Salamis; and even these vessels had not complete decks. The navies, then, of the Hellenes during the period we have traversed were what I have described. All their insignificance did not prevent their being an element of the greatest power to those who cultivated them, alike in revenue and in dominion.”20

Yet the admirals that were also in command of the Greek allied fleet were nervous and unsure. They believed that rather than fight the Persian fleet at Salamis where the Persian army was gathering, they would turn and sail toward the Isthmus at Peloponnese, and defend the city-state of Sparta from there. But Themistocles understood that the only way to defeat the Persian navy was to use their vast numbers against them. The straits and narrow passages at Salamis would force the Persian navy to thin their numbers in order to pass through the waters. From this vantage point, the Greek allied fleet could inflict serious damages on the Persians. Knowing this, Themistocles sent a messenger in secret to the Persian commanders. Herodotus narrates the story, writing that the messenger, acting as a defector, informed the Persian commanders that the Greek fleet was in disarray and unsure of themselves. Encouraging the Persians that now was the time to strike, he “made a quick departure” from the Persian navy.21 

The Persian generals, eager to crush the Greek allied fleet and sail through to Athens and then Sparta, chomped on the bait, hoisted the sails, and sliced through the waters to Salamis. Themistocles was then alerted by a scout that the Persian navy was upon them, and the Greek allied fleet would need to make their stand at Salamis. Themistocles’ plan had worked. The fate of Athens, and the future of Greece, would rest at Salamis.

A Fitting Father Figure

Because of the cunning and intellect of Themistocles, the Greek allied fleet won a decisive victory at Salamis. The Persian navy found an organized and battle-ready Greek fleet, and the narrow passages of Salamis proved too narrow for the great numbers of Persian ships. The Greeks drove back the advance of the Persian Empire once again, reminding Xerxes of an earlier time, when his father, Darius, was defeated at Marathon.   

Herodotus recounts, “Thus it was concerning them. But the majority of [Xerxes’] ships at Salamis were sunk, some destroyed by the Athenians, some by the Aeginetans. Since the Hellenes fought in an orderly fashion by line, but the barbarians were no longer in position and did nothing with forethought, it was likely to turn out as it did.”22

Xerxes’ final push came with the culmination of the land battle at Plataea and the naval battle at Mycale around 479 BC. There, the Greeks destroyed the advances of the Persian forces, and Xerxes retreated back into his homeland.

The Battle of Salamis was crucial in deciding the direction of the Greco-Persian Wars. Above, Wilhelm von Kaulbach's romantic painting of the Battle of Salamis. (Creative Commons)
Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s romantic painting of the Battle of Salamis. The Battle of Salamis was crucial in deciding the direction of the Greco-Persian Wars. (Creative Commons)

Modern day scholars, like that of Victor Davis Hanson, an internationally recognized military historian, have credited the battle at Salamis as “one of the most significant battles in human history.”23 Thucydides, in his landmark work of History of the Peloponnesian War, has this to say of Themistocles:

“Themistocles was a man who exhibited the most indubitable signs of genius; indeed, in this particular [war], he has a claim on our admiration quite extraordinary and unparalleled. By his own native capacity, alike unformed and unsupplemented by study, he was at once the best judge in those sudden crises which admit of little or of no deliberation, and the best prophet of the future, even to its most distant possibilities.”24

In earning such praise and admiration from his peers, Themistocles was made a legend. His knowledge and wisdom in naval warfare gave Athens the upper hand against the Persian Empire and, as scholars have argued, saved the future of western civilization. Should the Persian Empire have sacked Athens and Sparta, it would have immediately halted the advance of the Greek city-states. From there, Xerxes would have swept into Europe. But, “among the Athenians was a certain man who had just recently come into the highest prominence; his name was Themistocles.” It would only be fitting then that Thucydides, the Father of Scientific History, would write of the exploits and glories of Themistocles, as this author proposes, the Father of Naval Warfare.

David Van Dyk is a graduate of Liberty University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Communications Studies and a member of the Lambda Pi Eta honor society. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy with a focus in International Affairs at the Helms School of Government. He can be reached at dvandyk@liberty.edu.

References

1.  Robert J. Lenardon, The Saga Of Themistocles, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Herodotus: the Histories, New York: Anchor Books, 2009.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Lives: Themistocles And Camillus, Aristides and Cato Major, Cimon and Lucullus, 1 Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1914.

12. Calum M. Carmichael, “Managing Munificence,”Historical Methods 42, no. 3: 83, 2009.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Cornelius Neps, Cornelius Nepos: Lives Of Eminent Commanders, The Tertullian Project, 1886. 

17. Ibid.

18. “The Walls Of Athens” National Hellenic Research Foundation, October 27, 2009, http://www.eie.gr/archaeologia/gr/02_deltia/fortification_walls.aspx.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage And Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, New York: Doubleday, 2001.

24. The Peloponnesian War, London, J. M. Dent: New York, E. P. Dutton, 1910.

Featured Image: Statue of Themistocles in Piraeus, Greece. (Vassilis Triantafyllidis – www.LemnosExplorer.com)

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

Kilmeade, Brian, and Don Yaeger. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History. New York City: Sentinel, 2015, 256 pp. $21.00

Book Cover photo

By Commander Greg Smith, USN

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates is an exciting account of an often overlooked but formative chapter in the history of American foreign policy and U.S. naval heritage. While even amateur naval historians recognize the names of heroes like Decatur and Preble, and every Marine sings the words “to the shores of Tripoli” while standing at attention, few recall the decade-long struggle and humiliations endured before achieving the honorable outcome that is taken for granted today. As the world’s sole superpower with a naval force of nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines, it is often difficult to examine the early struggles of the United States Navy without assuming that victory was a foregone conclusion. Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, however, convincingly convey the narrow margin by which the victory over the Barbary pirates was gained and the many diplomatic, military, and personal setbacks that were overcome along the way. They also capture the bravery and determination of the American Sailors, Marines, and Statesmen who ensured a favorable conclusion of the Barbary Wars for the nascent United States. For these reasons alone, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates deserves to be on every commander’s recommended reading list for all ranks, especially in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.  

The book also explores several themes that are of recurring interest to CIMSEC’s readership: from justifications for force structure and naval presence, to the need for judgment and initiative in naval leaders, and to the role of the Navy in diplomacy. The thoroughly enjoyable book makes strong arguments for U.S. naval presence and the need for the United States to a “play a military role in overseas affairs,” without significant discussion of counter-arguments or allusions to alternative analyses. Although this may ultimately leave military historians and other scholars and theorists unsatisfied, these shortcomings seem to be by design, enabling the authors to maintain an exciting pace and to focus on the heroism of the characters from whom “the world would learn that in America failure is not an option.”  

Naval Presence and the Size of the Fleet

Kilmeade and Yaeger make a strong case that Thomas Jefferson was among the first American officials to recognize the need for a strong and persistent forward naval presence to protect American interests.  In his role as American minister to France in 1785, Jefferson was an official advocate for Americans enslaved by Algerian pirates. He recognized that the United States could neither afford the tribute demanded by the Barbary States, nor could they cease trading with nations of the Mediterranean. Jefferson’s solution was patrols by armed American vessels in the Mediterranean; that vision would not be realized for another sixteen years. Initially, Jefferson did not convince fellow diplomat John Adams, Congress, or the President, who were pursuing a policy of neutrality and willing to pay the price (i.e. annual tribute to Barbary pirates) for peace. It was not until ten American vessels were captured in 1793 that there was enough support to pass the Naval Act of 1794 to build six frigates to respond to the “depredations committed by Algerine corsairs.”

Although the more academically sophisticated arguments for seapower made by Samuel Huntington[1] in 1954 or more recently by CAPT Robert Rubel (ret) [2] and Seth Cropsey will be more edifying for CIMSEC’s regular audience, the arguments in Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates are self-evident, convincing, and accessible even to those who have shown little interest in strategic or maritime thinking. Thus, the book is a worthy read not only for the naval enthusiast but also for the accountant brother-in-law who balks at the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, to the family isolationist who argues that U.S. naval presence is always provocative and never stabilizing, or for the West Point graduate who just doesn’t get it. 

Naval Leadership

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates provides many case studies on naval leadership. The book examines many successful and unsuccessful commanders and diplomats who must carry out national policies and execute military operations with little communication and guidance. 

LT Presely O'Bannon
LT Presely O’Bannon.

While it is rare to execute any coordinated action today without communication before, during, and after each mission, the authors remind us that orders from the United States to commanders in the Mediterranean routinely took three months to arrive in theater. This made seeking guidance during a crisis, like the grounding of the USS Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor, impossible. Incidents like these formed the basis for naval principles like the absolute responsibility of commanding officers, the requirement to understand the commander’s intent, and centralized command and decentralized execution that continue to serve as the foundation for naval conduct. Looking at the 21st century battlespace, where instantaneous and continuous communications are often assumed for our naval and air forces, it is worth pondering how well we still adhere to these principles and how much decision making and execution would suffer should those communications be disrupted in combat. Kilmeade and Yaeger make clear that in the absence of higher guidance those who represented the country well were those guided by a commitment to personal and national honor. 

The authors also assert that throughout the Barbary Wars, successful naval leaders demonstrated superior judgment and initiative. The authors contrast the risk-averse and lazy Commodore Richard Morris, who brought his wife on deployment and failed to impose a worthy blockade of Tripoli, with the decisive actions of Commodore Edward Preble, who quickly gained an “honorable peace” with Morocco, achieving a “significant victory” in a manner reminiscent of Sun-Tzu—“without firing a shot.” 

Edward Preble by Rembrandt Peale. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection, Public Domain
Edward Preble by Rembrandt Peale. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection, Public Domain.

The authors also recount the bold manner with which Preble overcame the loss of the USS Philadelphia by a subordinate commander.  Preble and the young nation found an invaluable asset in the bravery, skill, and leadership of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur. The leadership, persistence, and vision of William Eaton are credited with the successful execution of the elaborate plan to raise and march an army from Alexandria, Egypt to defeat the Bashaw of Tripoli. The success of Eaton’s 600-mile desert march that resulted in capture of the city of Derne, “one of the most remarkable military assaults in U.S. military history,” was in no small part due to the bravery and skill of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and his seven U.S. Marines. 

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates provides a fresh look at leaders whose actions significantly shaped the character of the nascent Navy and Marine Corps and whose impact is still visible today. The book also recalls some of the earliest collaboration between military power and diplomacy in the implementation of U.S. foreign policy.

Diplomacy and the Military

Kilmeade and Yaeger recount the first attempt to support diplomacy with a display of naval power in 1800, when the USS George Washington became the first American warship to enter the Mediterranean. In spite of the bolstered confidence of U.S. Consul to Algiers, Richard O’Brien, and the clear display of American resolve, the incident resulted in humiliation for the United States due to a combination of insufficient force and naiveté on the part of the George Washington’s commander, the 27-year old Captain William Bainbridge. Still, naval forces represented a level of commitment and national resolve that provides significant leverage for diplomatic efforts.  

As with the U.S. consuls to the Barbary States 200 years ago, diplomats today are often strong proponents of American naval power. In February, a former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore argued that cutting the number of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) would damage U.S. diplomacy. Of course, the requirements for fighting a modern naval battle are often different than those for diplomatic shows of the flag, assurances to allies, and demonstrations of resolve. Still, even when the latter was the primary justification for the existence of the fleet in 1794, getting the right-sized force was a significant challenge. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates also demonstrates that, in addition to the right number of ships, success requires the right policies and military leadership to successfully support diplomatic efforts.  

The book also highlights a natural tension between military and diplomatic elements of national power through its account of the termination of the war with Tripoli in 1805. After achieving an impressive victory at Derne, Colonel William Eaton and Lieutenant O’Bannon prepared to take Tripoli to depose the Bashaw. Before they could do so, however, U.S. Consul Tobias Lear, negotiated a termination to the conflict with terms that were ultimately ungratifying to Eaton, the military commander whose men had sacrificed much blood for a peace that allowed the Bashaw to remain in power.

Although the authors’ treatment of the relationship between military power and diplomacy seems to suggest that the solution to bolstering diplomacy is always more military power, one does not have to accept that premise to appreciate the books’ account of early cooperation to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives. 

Few today recall the risks that were taken by the men of the naval and diplomatic services to defend the honor of the young United States against the extortion of the Barbary pirates, but Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger do a great service by remedying that situation.  At the time that Thomas Jefferson was dealing the pirates from the Barbary States – Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—the confrontation was far from a foregone conclusion. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates details how visionary leadership from Thomas Jefferson, William Eaton, and Edward Preble as well as the bold and daring initiative from Stephen Decatur and Presley O’Bannon enabled the young United States to prevail. The story explores the connection between naval presence and security, illustrates the need for judgment and initiative in executing distributed military operations, and the role of the Navy in foreign policy. It is worth reading and keeping on your bookshelf.

Commander Smith is a career naval flight officer and a former commanding officer of Patrol Squadron 26 (VP-26). He is currently serving as the Federal Executive Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University – Applied Physics Lab (APL). The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of the Navy or APL.

[1] Huntington, Samuel P. “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings. Vol. 50, Number 5. May 1954, 491.

[2] Rubel, Robert C. “National Policy and the Post-systemic Navy,” Naval War College Review Vol. 66, No. 4 Autumn 2013, 12.