Charles Pownall was not a bad carrier admiral. In James H. Belote and William M. Belote’s Titans of the Seas, he appears as a solid administrator and a tactically sound but overly cautious commander, who commanded the main American carrier task force in the Pacific WWII Theater--Task Force 50--for a short time. With the awesome power of six heavy and five light aircraft carriers under his tactical command to defend amphibious landings on Betio (Tarawa) and Makin islands in the Gilbert Islands, he did so adequately. The subsequent raid on Kwajalain with a six-carrier task force cost him his job.
Pownall did not lose a battle; he merely did not win one. He saw the carriers as raiders, which they had been on both sides until that point in the war. Their job was to get in, drop bombs and torpedoes, and get out before the land-based air counterattacked.
In the words of the Belotes:
“The Air Plan devised by Pownall was the product of a cautious nature and defensive-mindedness. In it Pownall specified that the Cowpens and Belleau Wood [light carriers] air groups should be reserved entirely for defense. In addition the plan withheld nearly a third of the embarked Hellcats on the big carriers for CAP [Combat Air Patrol]… The Task Force, he thought, would not achieve surprise and probably would be attacked. Therefore, ‘We will plan for the worst and hope for the breaks’. “ (246)
The first American air strike was inconclusive, destroying 32 Zeros (fighters) and 9 Bettys (bombers) and damaging 20 more aircraft, but the runways were left intact and plenty of planes remained. Pownall cancelled a planned second strike and hit one of two secondary targets instead. The Americans got away at the price of a torpedo hit on one carrier.
Pownall’s losses were moderate and his results equally so, but in the philosophy of a world war, cautious, moderate men are not winners. He was canned after the battle for “his apparent predilection for seeing the dangers inherent in a carrier strike rather than the opportunities”. (249) He was replaced by Marc A. Mitscher.
Mitscher was a winning admiral, a “pilot’s admiral”, a man who believed that the best way to win battles and keep one’s ships safe was to destroy the enemy. “To him carriers were primarily offensive weapons, and he believed in neutralizing enemy planes by making sure they never left the ground. Command of the air as a prelude to bombing strikes was to Mitscher as sound a principle as command of the sea to an amphibious landing.”
Mitscher’s first carrier raid for the next invasions in the Gilberts was devastating. He planned to hit three airfields simultaneously, making significant tactical changes as well. “A fighter sweep would strafe first, bombers would then shatter the fields, and standing fighter patrols would continue to orbit and strafe until every last grounded airplane had been destroyed.” (252) That way, the carriers wouldn’t have to run away; they could seize control of the airspace and hold it! This was done, and the Americans maintained absolute air supremacy for the remainder of the invasion. A similar plan worked soon afterwards in a devastating raid on Japanese base Truk, destroying over 150 planes on the ground. After the task force had “shattered aerial resistance” (262), Mitscher’s planes wrecked what shipping and warships remained in the bay.
Mitscher would continue in command of the fast carrier force right through to the end of the war. The outstanding record compiled by his pilots and crews has to be attributed in some part to increasingly superior American tactics, weaponry, training, and numbers, but some credit must go to the man. Commanding the same carrier task force with largely the same people in it just a few months after Pownall, Mitscher got far more out of it. If Pownall was a shield, Mitscher was a sword; instead of merely defending, he crushed the enemy! This is why Pownall is forgotten today and Mitscher is one of the great American admirals’ names in the Pacific War.
We don’t remember the timid generals or the conservative ones, except when listing the minor players that passed before the great men entered the scene. Having just reread the first book in Bruce Catton’s The Army of the Potomac trilogy, Mr. Lincoln’s Army, one cannot help but think of George McClellan, who always demanded more men and additional surety. Robert E. Lee was bold, daring, willing to do outrageous things when necessary with ragged, footsore soldiers, and beat the stuffing out of McClellan’s well-shod troops everywhere but at Antietam because he had a penthouse suite in McClellan’s head, just as the threat of Japanese retaliation occupied Pownall.
You need aggressiveness to win wars; not mindless violence, but controlled violence, for a purpose (to quote Robert Heinlein). Bull Halsey, George Patton, Troy Middleton—the list goes on. Catton wrote a long ode to the Confederate generals that is worth quoting from:
“There was a crippling deficiency in the [Army of the Potomac] command… a lack of the hard, grim, remorseless, driving spirit that must be on tap if wars are to be won.” (200) Later, he calls it “the indefinable something which can best be summed up as a positive taste for fighting” (203) and “the driving, slashing, fighting type of general” (206). Mitscher was aggressive with purpose and brought out the best in his subordinates, say the Belotes, even though he was the quietest and least bullheaded of men. Having this type of general does not guarantee final victory—the decorated list of strong, creative Confederate generals is proof enough of that—but a lack of it all but guarantees defeat.
I’m currently studying Thomas E. Ricks’s massive but very readable The Generals: American Military Command from WWII to Today. It tells the story of how in the prewar and WWII years, George Marshall canned or transferred dozens of generals and hundreds of lesser officers not because they were corrupt, stupid, or lost battles, but simply because they were more Pownall than Mitscher, more McClellan than Lee. I’m only in the WWII section (75 pages in), and it promises to be depressing—as the years and wars slope towards the present, apparently the US Army grows less and less willing to can the middle-management generals in favor of bringing fighters to high command. There may be another post on this topic when I’m done.