Sinking the “Fellowship of the Sea:” Lessons from Nuremberg for Future Naval Warfare

This article was submitted in response to the call for articles on the law of naval warfare jointly issued by CIMSEC and the Stockton Center for International Law at the Naval War College.

By Dennis E. Harbin, III

The “Fellowship of the Sea” and the Law of Naval Warfare

“…may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet.”—Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson’s prayer prior to the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805

One of the main purposes of the law of war is “protecting combatants, noncombatants, and civilians from unnecessary suffering.”1

Given the uniqueness of the operating environment, this purpose takes on a special meaning for the conduct of operations at sea and informs the body of international law known as the law of naval warfare. These laws codify and bind belligerents to restrain their use of violence with principles of military necessity, honor, humanity, distinction, and proportionality.2

In particular, that the principle of humanity animates the law of naval warfare has a lot to do with what Professor L.F.E. Goldie described as the “fellowship of the sea.”3 If humanity as a law of war principle “forbids the infliction of suffering, injury, or destruction unnecessary to accomplish a legitimate military purpose,”4 then the law of naval warfare — whether in the age of sail or the cyber age — must conform to this special fellowship. 

 How conflict in the future maritime security environment, with technological advancements such as artificial intelligence and unmanned robotics, will stress historical interpretations of the law of naval warfare is worth discussing. However, this concern isn’t new. As Professor Goldie reflected 31 years ago, “[s]hould a contest for mastery of the oceans come about under contemporary conditions, it would be awesome in its magnitude…[and] may also challenge their humanity.”5

In 2018, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford declared that “[w]hile the fundamental nature of war has not changed, the pace of change and modern technology, coupled with shifts in the nature of geopolitical competition, have altered the character of war in the 21st century.”6

While the character of war may have changed, its violent nature and challenge to virtues of humanity has not. Therefore, despite new technologies that allow access to new domains, academics and practitioners should also reexamine historical situations as well. The intent of this article is to renew focus on the law of naval warfare related to submarines and their ability to preserve the “fellowship of the sea.” 

Specifically, whether modern armed conflict at sea has modified the submarine’s obligation to rescue survivors of targeted merchant vessels is worthy of consideration. This legal issue is unique in the law of naval warfare because it has been examined under the scrutinous light of litigation, yet remains “one of the least developed areas of the law of armed conflict.”7 To aid in understanding this 20th century legal issue in light of the 21st century maritime security environment, this article will call upon a historic milestone — the 75th anniversary of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg. 

Naval Warfare on Trial at Nuremberg

“Over the last six decades, the word ‘Nuremberg’ has become synonymous with humankind’s highest ideals and aspirations — a measuring stick against which all subsequent humanitarian ventures have been measured.”8 This year marks the 75th anniversary of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), when 21 senior German political and military leaders were put on trial by the Allied Powers for violations of international law.9 

“There is no doubt that, with the benefit of over six decades of hindsight, we can say that the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (IMT) was an event of world-historical importance. It was the first successful international criminal court, and has since played a pivotal role in the development of international criminal law and international institutions.”10 From November 1945 to October 1946, testimony was heard and documents produced that ultimately resulted in judges from the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union finding 19 defendants guilty of some or all of the charges of crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Herman Goering would commit suicide the night before he was to be executed. Ten would hang. 

At first glance, the Nuremberg experience may have little to do with naval warfare, especially submarine warfare in the future maritime security environment. After all, most view the atrocities committed by the Nazis through the lens of the devastation of an aggressive war on the European continent and the horrors of the Holocaust. The trial of Grand Admirals Raeder and Doenitz, however, are particularly informative to understanding the law of naval warfare – especially submarine warfare in the case of Grand Admiral Doenitz.

Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz began the war as the commander of the Kriegsmarine’s submarine fleet and would end the war as Hitler’s successor as Germany’s head of state for Germany. After the dissolution of the German government on May 23, 1945, Doenitz was arrested, imprisoned, and later charged on all three counts under the Nuremberg Charter — crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.11 Despite succeeding Hitler at the end of the war, Doenitz would be sentenced to only ten years in prison. He was found guilty of, inter alia, breaches of the international law of submarine warfare.

Relevant to this article, the IMT found that Doenitz violated the 1936 London Naval Protocol for ordering his submarine commanders not to rescue the crews of targeted merchant vessels.12 British prosecutor Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe intended to prove that Doenitz violated international law when, in early 1940, Doenitz prohibited his U-Boat commanders from rescuing after their attacks any civilian survivors in the water. Known as Standing Order 154, Doenitz was convicted for issuing the following:

“Do not pick up survivors and take them with you. Do not worry about the merchant ship’s boars. Weather conditions and the distance to land play no part. Have a care only for your own ship and think only to attain your next success as soon as possible. WE must be harsh in this war. The enemy began the war in order to destroy us, so nothing else matters.”13

For readers that may think decisions made by the Nazi Admiralty three-quarters of a century ago has little bearing on the operations of the United States or its Allies, consider one of the reasons why Doenitz — again, Hitler’s successor — was given such a relatively light sentence.

Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander during World War II, is well known for his leadership and strategic contributions in the Pacific theater. His contribution in the European theater — and specifically his impact on the punishments adjudicated in Nuremberg — is much less known and is one of the more fascinating stories of the consequential IMT.

How Nimitz came to be involved in the IMT was in no small part due to the litigation skills of Doenitz’s defense counsel, Otto Kranzbuehler. Looking closely at the photos taken during the trial, one may notice a German naval officer, in uniform, but not sitting in the defendant’s box. Otto Kranzbuehler served as the Kriegsmarine’s Fleet Judge Advocate (Flottenreichter) at Germany’s surrender. In an interview for the 50th anniversary of the IMT, he told the story of his discovery of a small book about the pacific war in an American library, and how it inspired him to involve Nimitz.14

After intense litigation, it was the American judge, Francis Biddle, who ultimately insisted that the interrogatories go to Nimitz and that his answers be entered into the record in defense of Doenitz. Through his forceful arguments and creative thinking, Flottenreichter Kranzbuehler was able to produce proof for the IMT that the 1936 London Naval Protocol was, in practice, operationally deficient. 

Specifically, when Kranzbuehler asked via interrogatory whether U.S. submarines were “prohibited from carrying out rescue measures toward passengers and crews of ships sunk without warning…,”15 Nimitz responded that “on general principles the U.S. submarines did not rescue enemy survivors if undue additional hazard to the submarine resulted or [if] the submarine would thereby be prevented from accomplishing its further mission.”16 Nimitz’s sworn response not only proved that the Allies were acting similarly to the Germans on this matter, but more importantly proved the impracticality of the law itself.

Despite what Doenitz declared as the “code of hardiness,” “which forswore every principle of the sea’s fellowship – mutual help in the face of nature, instant assistance to the shipwrecked, magnanimity in victory and fair play at all times,”17 the IMT did not include the waging of unrestricted submarine warfare when calculating his sentence due, in part, to Nimitz’s answers to Kranzbuehler’s interrogatories.18 When examined under the bright light of adversarial litigation, violating the 1936 London Naval Protocol which sought to enforce the “fellowship of the sea,” became an unpunishable offense.

State of the Law of Submarine Warfare

Before discussing how submarines will likely play a critical role in the future maritime security environment, it is helpful to examine the current state of the law by examining three relevant sources related to the law of naval warfare and submarine operations.

1. 1936 London Naval Protocol

A history of the 1936 London Naval Protocol is outside the scope of this article.19 The critical takeaways are threefold. First, the IMT used the Protocol to determine Grand Admiral Doenitz’s criminality. Second, submarines in their operations against merchant ships are obligated to adhere to the same visit and search, as well as rescue, rules for surface vessels. Specifically, the Protocol states: 

“In particular, except in the case of persistent refusal to stop on being duly summoned, or of active resistance to visit or search, a warship, whether surface vessel or submarine, may not sink or render incapable of navigation a merchant vessel without having first placed passengers, crew and ship’s papers in a place of safety. For this purpose the ship’s boats are not regarded as a place of safety unless the safety of the passengers and crew is assured, in the existing sea and weather conditions, by the proximity of land, or the presence of another vessel which is in a position to take them on board.”20

The final takeaway, particularly relevant to this article and for the application of the law of naval warfare in the future maritime security environment, is that while the United States remains legally bound to the terms of the 1936 London Naval Protocol, China does not. It neither signed the 1930 London Treaty nor the 1936 London Naval Protocol. 

2. The San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea

Prepared by a group of “legal and naval experts…the purpose of the [San Remo] Manual is to provide a contemporary restatement of international law applicable to armed conflicts at sea.”21 Although non-binding, the San Remo Manual reiterates the foundational position that submarines are obligated by the same rules as surface ships.22 In practice, a submarine may only target an enemy merchant vessel if:

(a) the safety of passengers and crew is provided for; for this purpose, the ship’s boats are not regarded as a place of safety unless the safety of the passengers and crew is assured in the prevailing sea and weather conditions by the proximity of land or the presence of another vessel which is in a position to take them on board;

(b) documents and papers relating to the prize are safeguarded; and

(c) if feasible, personal effects of the passengers and crew are saved.23

3. The U.S. Navy Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations

The U.S. Navy’s interpretation of the law of naval warfare related to submarine operations against merchants are consistent with the 1936 London Naval Protocol and the San Remo Manual. As a baseline, the Handbook still requires submarines to “search for and collect the shipwrecked, wounded, and sick following an engagement.”24

Although at first glance this may seem extreme relative to the realities of modern submarine warfare, the caveat to the rule is expansive. The Handbook continues, stating “If such humanitarian efforts would subject the submarine to undue additional hazard or prevent it from accomplishing its military mission, the location of possible survivors should be passed at the first opportunity to a surface ship, aircraft, or shore facility capable of rendering assistance.”25 Given that the purpose of the Handbook is to be of more practical usage to non-lawyer naval commanders, its discussion on these basic rules discussed above are particularly informative. Attempting to define circumstances that would “subject the submarine to undue additional hazard,” the Handbook lists the following examples: 

    1. The enemy merchant vessel persistently refuses to stop when duly summoned to do so. 2. It actively resists visit and search or capture. 
    2. It is sailing under convoy of enemy warships or enemy military aircraft. 
    3. It is armed with systems or weapons beyond that required for self-defense against terrorism, piracy, or like threats. 
    4. It is incorporated into, or is assisting in any way the enemy’s military intelligence system. 
    5. It is acting in any capacity as a naval or military auxiliary to an enemy’s armed forces. 7. The enemy has integrated its merchant shipping into war-fighting/ war-supporting/ war-sustaining effort, and compliance with the London Protocol of 1936 would, under the circumstances of the specific encounter, subject the submarine to imminent danger or would otherwise preclude mission accomplishment.26

Submarines and Merchant Vessels in the Future Maritime Environment

Upon examining the law of naval warfare related to submarines, an author in the U.S. Naval War College’s International Law Studies concluded more than 20 years ago that “it is highly probable that in any World War III belligerents will again find reasons why the 1936 London Submarine Protocol should not be applied…[and] in any future armed conflict of lesser extent than a World War III, the pressure of neutral Powers may be sufficiently strong to cause the belligerents to comply with the provisions of the 1936 London Submarine Protocol.”27

The reliance on submarines in future naval warfare is a cornerstone of the U.S. Navy’s plan to implement integrated, all-domain naval power. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday has recognized that “the advantage we have in the undersea [environment] is an advantage that we need to not only maintain, but we need to expand.”28 His 2021 Navigation Plan acknowledges that, in order to “deliver the all-domain naval power America needs to win…the Navy requires a greater number of submarines….”29 Moreover, the Navy’s Battle Force 2045 reflects the importance of submarines in the changing character of war as well.

Then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper remarked that “there was clear consensus over months of study and war-gaming and analysis that we need to build more submarines, more attack submarines. And if we do nothing else we should invest in attack submarines, because of the lethality that they can deliver under the sea and the survivability that they have in clear overmatch that we have when it comes to the under sea domain and submarines in particular.”30 This focus has transferred across Presidential administrations as well. As reported recently, “as the [Biden] White House positions itself to argue on behalf of its budget proposal, new attack submarines apparently are a top priority.”31

The United States is not the only great power investing in its submarine force.32 The Chinese are also investing heavily in their future submarine fleet as well.33 As reported in October 2020, satellite images showing expansive building at a Chinese naval shipyard confirms the Office of Naval Intelligence’s forecast that “China’s submarine fleet [will] grow by six nuclear-powered attack submarines by 2030.”34

In addition to the likely critical role submarines will play in the next maritime war, its impact on commerce and trade will be tremendous. As an American naval officer testified during the IMT 75 years ago, “commerce and trade are now so identified with military power in total warfare that merchant ships, armed or unarmed, are in effect warships to be attacked and sunk without warning.”35

One-third of global commerce transits the South China Sea, arguably the world’s most contested maritime security hot spot.36 “As the second-largest economy in the world with over 60 percent of its trade in value traveling by sea, China’s economic security is closely tied to the South China Sea.”37 Given China’s and the U.S.’s reliance on commercial shipping in that area, it is not difficult to imagine that merchant vessels will once again be the targets of submarines in future maritime warfare. 


It is difficult, however, to imagine a nuclear submarine surfacing to take on survivors. The impracticability of this practice was evident during the IMT proceedings when Flottenreichter Kranzbuehler produced Nimitz’s sworn responses and the Allies failed to punish Doenitz for violating the 1936 London Naval Protocol, which in effect ended the “fellowship of the sea.”

 It is also not difficult to imagine that the “fellowship of the sea,” at least when it relates to submarine warfare, will continue to erode in the future maritime security environment. In fact, Nimitz is believed to have declared during the IMT that the “United States would probably wage unrestricted submarine warfare in future naval wars, based on its success in the Pacific War.”38

Maintaining rules that are impractical and operationally unrealistic undermines the rule-of-law. The IMT experience 75 years ago suggests that, when examining the law of naval warfare in the future maritime security environment, policy-makers must consider how keeping old rules may do more harm than good. As maritime security tensions again arise in the Pacific, where emerging technologies give commanders greater capability while requiring them to think faster, we need realistic rules and expectations that reflect operational realities. However, because the principle of humanity is a cornerstone of the law of naval warfare, policy-makers and commanders must strike a balance and strive to make and interpret rules that continue to uphold the centuries-old “fellowship of the sea.”

Lieutenant Commander Dennis Harbin is a Navy judge advocate currently serving on the Joint Staff. The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.


[1] U.S. Dep’t of Def., DoD Law of War Manual para. 1.3.4, (May 2016).

[2] Ibid. at para. 1.4.2.

[3] L.F.E. Goldie, Targeting Enemy Merchant Shipping: An Overview of Law and Practice, 65 Int’l L. Studies 3 (1993).

[4] U.S. DEP’T OF DEF., DOD LAW OF WAR MANUAL para. 2.3 (May 2016).

[5] Goldie, supra note 3.

[6] Joseph Dunford, The Character of War and Strategic Landscape Have Changed, 89 Joint Forces Quarterly 2 (2nd Quarter, 2018).

[7] U.S. Dep’t of Navy., Navy Warfare Pub. 1-14M, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations para 8.7.1 (2017) [hereinafter Handbook].

[8] Aaron Fichtelberg, Fair Trials and International Courts: A Critical Evaluation of the Nuremberg Legacy, 28 Criminal Justice Ethics no. 1 (2009).

[9] On November 19, 2020, The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School hosted a symposium on the 75th anniversary of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. For articles and presentation recordings regarding the history and legacy of the IMT, See The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg: Examining Its Legacy 75 Years Later

[10] Fichtelberg, supra note 7. 

[11] Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal 310 (1947) [hereinafter Judgement].

[12] Ibid. at 313.

[13] The Trial of Admiral Doenitz, 1 The ONI Review no. 12, October 1946, at 33.

[14] For recording of interview, see

[15] 17 Nuremberg Trial Proceedings (July 2, 1946), 

[16] Ibid. 

[17] Goldie, supra note 3.

[18] Judgement, supra note 10 at 313. 

[19] See Howard Levie, Submarine Warfare: With Emphasis on the 1936 London Protocol, 65 Int’l L. Studies 325-26 (1993). Provides an expert and through history on the development of the 1936 London Naval Protocol.

[20] See Procès-verbal relating to the Rules of Submarine Warfare set forth in Part IV of the Treaty of London of 22 April 1930. London, 6 November 1936.

[21] See Int’l Institute of Humanitarian Law, San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea (Lousie Doswald-Beck ed., 1995) [hereinafter San Remo Manual], 

[22] San Remo Manual, supra note 20, art. 45.

[23] San Remo Manual, supra note 20, art. 139.

[24] Handbook, supra note 6, para 8.7.

[25] Ibid. 

[26] Handbook, supra note 6.

[27] Howard Levie, Submarine Warfare: With Emphasis on the 1936 London Protocol, 65 Int’l L. Studies 325-26 (1993).

[28] Sam LaGrone, CNO Gilday Lays Out Priorities for ‘DDG Next’ Warship, New Attack Submarine, USNI News (Oct. 14, 2020).

[29] U.S. Dep’t of Navy, CNO NAVPLAN (January 2021).

[30] Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense Remarks at CSBA on the NDS and Future Defense Modernization Priorities (Oct. 6, 2020).

[31] David Axe, Joe Biden Wants To Spend Big On U.S. Navy Submarines, Forbes (Apr. 12, 2021).

[32] Daniel Vegel, A Silent Destabilizer in the Indo-Pacific, Proceedings (March 2021).

[33] H. I. Sutton, Chinese Increasing Nuclear Submarine Shipyard Capacity, USNI News (Oct. 12, 2020).

[34] Ibid. 

[35] Joel Holwitt, Execute Against Japan 178 (2009).

[36] How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?, CSIS China Power Project (last viewed May 13, 2021).

[37] Ibid. 

[38] Holwitt, supra note 34.

Featured image: Artwork of German sailors on the conning tower of a U-boat that has surfaced after sinking a British cargo ship during World War II). Survivors are seen in lifeboats. This 1941 painting is by German artist Adolf Bock (1890-1968) via Library of Congress.

Project Trident Call for Articles: Emerging Technology

Submissions Due: July 26, 2021
Topic Week Dates: August 16-20, 2021
Article Length: 1,000-3,000 words
Submit to:

By Jimmy Drennan

CIMSEC is proud to partner with Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School’s Naval Warfare Studies Institute on the final topic of Project Trident: Emerging Technologies. Lockheed Martin is a global security and aerospace company responsible for many Defense Department programs of record. The Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI) coordinates NPS inter-disciplinary research and education to accelerate and enhance the development of capabilities and warfighting concepts.

The modern world is shaped by few forces as powerful as rapid technological change. As the world becomes ever more advanced, technological change cuts across and interconnects areas as diverse as healthcare, public infrastructure, and security policy. With respect to national security, new technology is presenting opportunities for novel warfighting capabilities, ever more powerful iterations of familiar weapons systems, and unexpected avenues for threats. The maritime community must attentively explore how new and emerging technologies will impact maritime security and naval capabilities.

Computing power, connectivity, data analytics, and machine learning are poised to undergo exponential growth in ways once consigned to the realms of science fiction. What implications do specific technologies like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, or 5G have for maritime security and navies? Which emerging technologies have potential for significant security impacts yet remain underrated? How can a government, a navy, or a shipping company keep pace with global information flows that update in near-real time? How do maritime actors stay abreast of these changes while leveraging them for competitive advantage and avoiding the risks of over-reliance? The spectrum of civil and military emerging technologies have salient overlaps that will present complex challenges to maritime security.

Authors are encouraged to address these questions and more as we contemplate the promise and pitfalls of emerging technologies on maritime security. Send all submissions to

Jimmy Drennan is the President of CIMSEC. Contact him at

Featured Image: A Sailor assigned to USS Mustin stands watch in ship’s combat information center during Exercise Valiant Shield 2014. (U.S. Navy/Declan Barnes)

Sea Control 256 – Reporting from the Sea with Ian Urbina

By Walker Mills

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and investigative journalist Ian Urbina join the program to talk about his recent article in The New Yorker about fish meal and his book The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier. Ian describes his experiences reporting from the sea, the impacts of IUU fishing, sea farer abandonment, and the concept of “sea blindness.” Lastly, Ian talks about how the Outlaw Ocean Project is “breaking the mold” of traditional journalism and increasing their reach to raise awareness of ocean issues. 

Download Sea Control 256 – Reporting from the Sea with Ian Urbina


1. “Fish Farming is Feeding the Globe. What’s the Cost for Locals?” by Ian Urbina, The New Yorker, March 1, 2021.
2. The Outlaw Ocean Project website.
3. Sea Control 225: IUU Fishing and the Evolution of the Sea Shepherd with Dr. Claude Berube, CIMSEC, January 31, 2021.
4. Sea Control 218: Coastal Insecurity, Ansar Al-Sunnah, and Women in Maritime Security with Kelly Moss and Lexie van Buskirk, CIMSEC, December 20, 2020.
5. Sea Control 219: USCG Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz, CIMSEC, December 27, 2020.
6. The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier, Ian Urbina, Penguin Books, 2020. 

Walker Mills is Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact the Sea Control team at

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

CIMSEC was saddened to learn that renowned naval historian James Hornfischer passed away on June 2, 2021. He was 55.

To celebrate his memory, CIMSEC is reposting this interview we published on his latest book, The Fleet at Flood Tide.

By Christopher Nelson

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.

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: First Wave of U.S. Marines landing on Saipan. (USMC photo)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.