James Holmes

John Wayne, The U.S. Navy and ‘Change’

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James Holmes

John Wayne, The U.S. Navy and ‘Change’

Can ‘The Duke” teach a lesson or two when it comes to dealing with radical change and defeat? Perhaps.

Awhile back my friend Robert Farley and I agreed to do a series of posts on sea power in film and literature. Well, friend might be a tad strong; Rob teaches at the University of Kentucky, my beloved Vanderbilt’s basketball nemesis. In any event, he forged ahead with the series while I shamefully let it drop. Until now! Herewith, sea power goes InHarmsWay.

This is a World War II epic starring John Wayne—yep, you can count me among TheDuke’s legion of admirers; hence my well-known proclivity for cowboy diplomacy—and Kirk Douglas. The film is hard to do justice in a short item. Small details enrich the narrative. Just one example: it offers a reminder that you don’t just turn the keys and ring up All Ahead Full in steamships. Steam propulsion plants have to be babied. The commander at Pearl Harbor is thunderstruck when informed that zero of nine battleships moved from their berths under aerial assault. (USS Nevada did managetogetunderway, only to have its crew deliberately run the battlewagon aground to avoid blocking the channel.)

Apart from Pearl Harbor, the battles shown on screen are amalgams of legendary engagements like Midway, Guadalcanal, and Leyte Gulf. Curiously, the makers also saw fit to fictionalize well-known figures like Admiral Husband Kimmel (“CINCPAC I”), the aforementioned Pacific Fleet commander who had the misfortune to be in charge on December 7, and his successor, Admiral Chester Nimitz (“CINCPAC II”), who oversaw the Central Pacific counteroffensive against Japan.

My favorite part of In Harm’s Way is that it captures a navy at a time of wrenching change. As someone once said, yougotowarwiththearmyyouhave. In 1941 the U.S. Navy went to war with the fleet it had—except that the Pacific Fleet the United States had on December 8 looked radically different than the one moored near Ford Island at dawn on December 7. The maimed navy had to wage war with the implements that remained to it until 1943, when the entirely new fleet Congress had authorized in the 1940 Two-Ocean Navy Act had been fitted out and began arriving in the theater. Battleship engagements were out; unrestricted submarine warfare and aircraft-carrier raids on Japanese outposts were in. Methods changed while the battle line remained ablaze in Pearl Harbor.

How did a big institution like the U.S. Navy manage change of this magnitude? For one thing, it cut junior personnel enough slack to exercise leadership. For instance, Lieutenant “Mack” McConnell, the command duty officer in the destroyer Cassidy, rings up 20 knots within Pearl Harbor, where slow speeds are the norm. McConnell and his watch team pretend not to see the ship’s captain chasing behind in a launch, in an attempt to board and resume command. Unthinkable in peacetime, this bit of insubordination saves the ship. A “zerodefectsmentality” is a luxury few combat services can afford in wartime.

Similarly, Wayne’s character, Captain “Rock” Torrey, accepts severe tactical risk in an effort to engage the Japanese battle force that struck Hawaii. Short on fuel, he directs his ragtag task force not to zigzag to avoid enemy submarines. Steering a straight course conserves fuel but exposes the flotilla to attack. An opportunistic Japanese skipper capitalizes, pumping torpedoes into the flagship. Torrey is court-martialed—navy captains may be the world’s last absolute despots, but the establishment holds them absolutely accountable when things go wrong—but is exonerated for putting the mission above prudent self-defense. What appears reckless in times of peace is commonly prized in times of war.

There are other subplots to this account of a “gut-busting, mother-loving navy war,” as Douglas’s character labels it. Sometimes, for example, admirals and generals are appointed out of political expediency rather than merit. One such officer in the South Pacific suffers from the wages of indecision. Savvy commanders learn to work around political appointees, whether by artfully promoting them into harmless posts or by assigning the incompetent more able assistants and empowering them to act as the power behind the throne. Such measures keep up appearances while bolstering combat effectiveness.

Check it out to see how naval services improvise after a crushing defeat.