Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher was the commander of the American task force at the Battle of Coral Sea in 1942. Fletcher also fought at the Battle of Midway. Fletcher has the distinction of commanding the first carrier-versus-carrier battle whereby no ship from the opposing forces saw one another as planes, primarily launched from carriers like the ‘USS Lexington’, did all the fighting.
Fletcher was born on April 29th, 1885 in Iowa. In 1906, Fletcher graduated from the US Naval Academy and he gained a commission as an ensign. In 1909 he gained his first command on the ‘USS Dale’ in America’s Asiatic Squadron. In 1914, Fletcher won the Medal of Honour for rescuing refugees on the transport ship ‘Esperanza’ during the occupation of Vera Cruz. During America’s participation in World War One, he commanded ‘USS Benham’ – a destroyer on submarine patrol.
During the inter-war years, America retrenched into a period of isolationism at an international level. Therefore, America’s military tended to be relatively dormant. America was not a member of the League of Nations; therefore she did not participate in anything to do with the League.
In 1930, Fletcher graduated from the Naval War College. One year later he did the same from the Army War College. Between 1933 and 1936, Fletcher was an aide to the Secretary of the Navy and between 1936 and 1939, he was on the staff of the Bureau of Personnel. In 1939, Fletcher was promoted to Rear Admiral and given the command of Cruiser Division III, Atlantic Fleet.
In late 1941, Fletcher was given the command of the ‘USS Yorktown’, an aircraft carrier. Many in America believed that war with Japan was very likely and that the most important ships in a naval campaign in the Pacific would be aircraft carriers. Therefore, the naval hierarchy in America must have held Fletcher in high regard to give him the command of the ‘USS Yorktown’.
In February 1942, Fletcher took part in raids on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands – the first offensive American campaigns in World War Two. Shortly after these campaigns, Fletcher was promoted to Vice Admiral and was given the command of Task Force 17, spearheaded by the ‘Yorktown’ for what was to become the Battle of Coral Sea. Chester Nimitz also gave Fletcher overall tactical command of this battle, including over Task Force 11 commanded by Aubrey Fitch on board the doomed ‘USS Lexington’. While America lost the ‘Lexington’, ‘Sims’ and ‘Neosho’, a carrier, destroyer and oil tanker respectively, the Japanese only lost, of consequence, the light carrier ‘Shoho’. The Japanese lost 43 planes in the battle to America’s 33. However, though the material losses for America were high, the battle is viewed as an American victory as the Japanese were stopped from doing what they wanted to do – invading and capturing Port Moresby in New Guinea and thus isolating Australia.
After Coral Sea, Fletcher was with the ‘Yorktown’ at the Battle of Midway fought between June 3rd and June 6th. Planes from the ‘Yorktown’ sank the ‘Soryu’.
It was at Midway that the ‘USS Yorktown’ was sunk – hit by bombs and torpedoes from planes from the ‘Hiryu’ and finished off by a torpedo attack by a Japanese submarine. The loss of two carriers in quick succession was balanced by the fact that the Japanese lost four carriers at Midway. America could replace her lost carriers – Japan had a much more difficult task in doing so.
In August 1942, Fletcher was given the command of a task force that was to attack Guadalcanal. Guadalcanal was a battle that saw heavy US casualties on the island. After this, Fletcher was given the command of a carrier force, which included the ‘USS Enterprise’, the ‘USS Saratoga’ and the ‘USS Wasp’. This force was badly damaged at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in August 1942. Fletcher’s critics believed that he had been too cautious in his tactics.
Between December 1943 and 1945, Fletcher was in command of US Naval Forces in the North Pacific Area. On the surrender of Japan, after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fletcher was put in charge of northern Japan (Hokkaido) and oversaw the occupation there. After World War Two, he served as Chairman on the General Board of the Navy until his retirement in May 1947.
Frank Fletcher died on April 25th, 1973 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.