Friday, January 31, 2020

SHIP NAMES--AGAIN



As they say, what goes around comes around.  This column in July 2011 noted the U.S. Navy’s atrocious record for naming its own ships.  Much of that posting is duplicated here, with a current wrinkle.

The U.S. Navy is institutionally incapable of following its own rules. In recent years Secretaries of the Navy have ignored historic conventions regarding appropriate names for different classes of ships, repeatedly catering to political factions.

The situation was recently summarized by a retired chief petty officer. He says, “The Navy has a system for naming submarines. They’re named for cities, states, politicians, and fish.” 

That’s an apt description of the “system.”

Naval purists recall the long-gone era of logical ship names: battleships were states; carriers were battles or historic ships; cruisers were cities; destroyers were people; submarines were fish, etc. No more.

The essence is rule of man rather than law, as new ships are named by the Secretary of the Navy—a political appointee. A congressional summary notes, “The Navy states that while ‘it has attempted to be systematic in naming its ships, like all institutions it has been subject to evolutionary change…’”

That’s one way of putting it. But for a reality check, exchange “evolutionary change” with “politics.”

The Navy was not always so political. In the 19th century four living people saw their names on naval vessels. Ten ships were named for living people in the 20th century (six since 1980) and there have been eleven since 2002 (five since deceased).

At Tailhook ‘87 Secretary John Lehman was asked about ship names. He responded that sometimes the Navy has to play the name game to get funding. A retired CPO exclaimed, “SecNav, are you saying that Congress will shell out $3 billion for a carrier named Vinson but not for a carrier named Essex?” Lehman replied, “That’s about it.”

Controversy also involved naming a Lewis and Clark class supply ship for labor activist Cesar Chavez. Reportedly Chavez described his Navy service as the two worst years of his life, but rather than continuing to honor pioneers, SecNav—somebody named Mabus—opted for a Democrat Party figure in a totally unrelated field. 

In 2016 a new replenishment oiler was announced for San Francisco homosexual politician Harvey Milk, a navy veteran assassinated by a city supervisor in 1978.  He was known for his preference for juvenile boys.  The same Mabus person made that decision, too.

Then there are aircraft carriers.

For decades the most important ships afloat were named for battles or historic ships. However, two carriers have been named for presidents who died in office: Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42) and John F. Kennedy (CV-67).  USS Forrestal (CV-59) honored another naval veteran, the first Secretary of Defense.

After Nimtiz (CVN-68) in 1972, every subsequent carrier has been named for presidents and politicians, including Senator John Stennis and Representative Carl Vinson. Both were Navy supporters who, like Nimitz, should have been honored by naming of destroyers or frigates.  (Both were southerners and devoted segregationists.)

Hardcore naval aviators disapproved of USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) and George W. Bush (CVN-77). Truman slashed naval aviation, seeking to transfer its mission to the Air Force, and tried to disband the Marine Corps.  Bush presided over the 1991 Tailhook witch hunt that denied thousands of innocent officers due process. But partisan politics won.

Interest in christening a new carrier Enterprise—the most storied of all flattops—brought a brief resurgence of optimism among purists. With CVN-65 due for retirement, the lead ship of the CVN-79 class could become “Big E III.”

However, Republicans insisted on honoring Gerald Ford with CVN-78, who was never elected president, and whose primary naval duty was a ship’s athletic officer.  His namesake, lead ship of the class, has turned into an open-ended sinkhole: perennially late with enormous costs at very little return.  It was delivered incomplete and may not deploy for years to come.

Then the Democrats intervened, and the Obama administration favored John F. Kennedy for CVN-79, even though CV-67 was only decommissioned in 2007. As long as “a real carrier name” was ignored, rather than recycling Kennedy the Navy might have considered another WW II naval officer: Richard M. Nixon.  And good luck on that one!

The Enterprise name was bestowed upon CVN-80, much to the satisfaction and amazement by the dwindling crew of the World War II “Big E” vets.

But naval purists will continue their critique. As long as SecNav makes the decision, the process will remain subject to political favoritism. The only way to change it is to enact a law requiring adherence to convention, but guess what? That decision would have to be made by politicians.

Now apparently the interim SecNav, somebody named Modly, makes the decisions.  He’s a former naval officer and D.C. denizen who was executive director of the Defense Business Board.  Whatever that is.  He seems to be a space holder until his full-time successor is approved, somebody named Braithwaite.  Presumably Braithwaite is supposed to sort out the USS Ford mess, which had only worsened under his predecessor, somebody named Spencer.  (The Ford is still a mess and likely to remain so indefinitely.)

In any case, Modly is the culprit behind naming CVN-81 for Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller, the black sailor aboard the battleship West Virginia portrayed by Cuba Gooding in the egregious 2001 movie Pearl Harbor.  Miller received a deserved Navy Cross and died aboard the escort carrier Liscome Bay (CVE-56), sunk in November 1943.

Here’s the thing: “Dorrie” Miller already had a ship named for him, the frigate FF-1091 between 1973 and 1991.  That was entirely appropriate, as destroyers and frigates historically have been named for naval heroes.  But of the 190 aircraft carriers owned by the U.S. Navy since 1922, none have been named for any individual below the rank of fleet admiral (Nimitz, CVN-68). 

Unfortunately, the legacy of Doris Miller has come down to racial politics.  The PC police were in full enforcement mode with CVN-81, not only emphasizing Doris Miller’s ethnicity, but making the announcement on Martin Luther King Day.  

Perhaps even more to the point, consider the huge list of war-fighting, war-winning naval heroes who have no ships named for them.  If you’re unfamiliar with them, all are easily googled:

Joe Foss, John L. Smith, Marion Carl, Richard C. Mangrum,  Robert L. Galer, Jeff DeBlanc, Kenneth L. Walsh, and James E. Swett.  All were recipients of the Medal of Honor and/or Navy Cross; all contributed significantly to the Guadalcanal and Solomons campaign, America’s first offensive of WW II.  

Shame on the United States Navy for its institutional abandonment of Marine Corps aviators who made a difference in the greatest of America’s wars. 

Thursday, December 5, 2019

MIDWAY MOVIES

The movie of the season is Roland Emmerich’s revistation of the Battle of Midway, released last month.  Being more than somewhat familiar with that historic event, and a  sometime reviewer, I’m devoting this month’s blog to Hollywood’s treatment of the epic WW II naval battle.

Background: 

In June 1942 the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a major effort to capture Midway Atoll some 1,200 miles northwest of Oahu.  Occupying two sand spits was less important than destroying America’s remaining aircraft carriers and thereby—presumably—forcing a settlement with Washington.  Never mind that it was never-ever going to happen.

Short version: the operation turned to hash for the Japanese.  They lost all four aircraft carriers committed to the effort, plus a large cruiser, versus one U.S. flattop and a destroyer.  Midway was one of the significant battles of history, as it ended Japan’s strategic initiative and set the stage for America’s oceanic trek ending in Tokyo Bay three years later.

Hollywood’s first treatment of Midway remains the best in some ways.  Task Force debuted in 1949 with full Navy cooperation, tracing the development of carrier aviation from 1922 into the jet age.  The perspective is two fictional fliers: Walter Brennan (a thinly disguised Admiral Marc Mitscher) and Gary Cooper representing a tailhooking everyman.

Director Delmer Daves was a versatile writer-director whose credits included Pride of the Marines, (John Garfield and Eleanor Parker, 1947) Dark Passage, (Bogart and Bacall, 1947) and Spencer’s Mountain (Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara, 1963.)  The Midway portion of Task Force is relatively short and somewhat condensed to the point it’s hard to distinguish USS Enterprise from her sister Yorktown, sunk in the battle.  But the film was shot aboard real-live carriers with real-live airplanes: a Dauntless dive bomber and a Wildcat fighter.

Brennan delivers the movie’s best line.  While awaiting a contact report on the enemy fleet, he turns to Cooper and asks, “Do you know any satisfyin’ profanity?”

Coop of course did not, but events unfold in the film pretty much as in fact.  Largely lost on the audience is appearance of Wayne Morris, a genuine navy fighter ace, as a torpedo bomber pilot who barely survives the Midway massacre.

Lapse-dissolve, fade in three decades later…

If there’s a worse navy film than Midway 1976, I’ve not seen it.  Writer Donald Sanford’s previous credits included Submarine X-1 (1968) and The Thousand Plane Raid (1969) so presumably he knew something about World War II but it’s not evident on screen.  

Reputedly director Jack Smight flew with the Army in the Pacific but again, there’s no proof.  Mainly he worked on a variety of TV programs though he directed an early disaster movie, Airport 1975.

Midway ’76 remains a different type of disaster.

Despite the all-star cast with Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford and Robert Mitchum, the plot is convoluted, folded, spun and mutilated.  The carrier phase of the battle stretches into two days for no apparent reason. 

Film editing is appallingly bad, in no way retrieved by the Sensurround gimmick accompanying explosions and stuff.  Near the end Heston’s Dauntless morphs into a Helldiver (18 months early) into my late friend George Duncan’s F9F Panther (read: jet) that explodes on landing.  There’s also a 1960s Forrestal class aircraft carrier.  Ferpetesake.

Absolutely the worst performance is Hal Holbrook as code breaker Commander Joseph Rochefort.  Holbrook gained acclaim for his Mark Twain one-man shows but in Midway he plays Samuel Clemens playing a hayseed Rochefort lurching toward victory.

There’s also a pointless and unlikely Navy-Nisei romance that only detracts from the narrative flow.  

Short version: I counted something north of 70 factual and technical errors, the huge majority being avoidable.  Yes, in the 1970s computer graphics were unavailable but just a bit of judicious film selection would’ve gone a long-long way.

Now, as to this year’s release: OK, it is not terrible.  Certainly it is immensely better than Smight’s miserable product.

The Battle of Midway community—and there is such—was distraught at Woody Harrelson as Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz.  Part of the reaction was due to Harrelson’s fame as the not-so-bright Cheers bartender.  But while I was prepped to hate the portrayal, I came away admiring the performance. 

Patrick Wilson is excellent as intelligence officer Edwin Layton, and Brennan Brown  is immensely more credible than Twain-Holbrook as crypto genius Rochefort.

I knew four of the people portrayed in the movie: dive bomber squadron commander Dick Best, his daughter Barbara, his radioman-gunner Jim Murray, and Jimmy Doolittle.  Briton Ed Skrein captures Dick’s focused intensity without having known him (Dick died in 2001) although Emmerich owes Dick a posthumous apology for the hyena-gagging introduction when Best dives near vertically on the Enterprise, shuts down his engine, dips below the flight deck, pops up and lands without lowering his flaps.  Not only is that stunt impossible, it gives missions of viewers the impression that one of the most professional naval officers of his era was a hotdogging flyboy.

Dick’s back-seater was Chief Radioman Jim Murray who in the film is demoted to a tense, uncertain newbie rather than the veteran that he was.

Aaron Eckhart is too tall and too hairy to resemble “General Jimmy” but his selection is galaxies better than foul-mouthed Alec Baldwin’s miserable casting in the egregious Pearl Harbor.

Unlike Smight’s version, which tried covering all the bases, Emmerich almost exclusively limits himself to the Enterprise from Pearl Harbor onward.  Having written a lengthy Big E “biography” (see February 2012) and knowing dozens of her veterans, it’s a subject close to my heart.  But history is ill served in Wes Tooke’s script, which barely acknowledges that Enterprise’s sisters Yorktown and Hornet were engaged at Midway, with “Yorky” being sunk.

Emmerich is known for blockbusters dating from Independence Day (1996), often relying on computer-generated imagery.  Midway’s CGI ranges from mediocre to good, with ships better done than planes.  Some of the aircraft perform maneuvers that defy credibility as well as gravity, but that’s not unique.

The Japanese are fairly well portrayed, especially Etsushi Toyokawa as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.  

There are dozens of “gotchas” in the film, many noted by the consultants and obviously ignored.  One of my lesser gripes is based on some 500 hours in open-cockpit airplanes: nobody flies with his helmet's chin strap unfastened.  Yet Kommodore Emmerich’s fliers routinely do so. (Attempting added credibility, I’ll note that I’m probably the only Midway movie reviewer with flight time in a Dauntless.)

Those reservations aside, Midway ’19 helps correct the cinematic record begun so well in 1949 and miserably fumbled in ’76.  Internet comments about the “great” 1976 version merely remind us that some people have no business expressing their opinions but hey—it’s still a relatively free country.


Which is partly what Midway was all about.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

REMEMBERING LEYTE GULF


This month marks the 75th anniversary of the greatest naval battle of World War II.  From October 23 to 26, 1944, the U.S. and Imperial Japanese navies clashed in Philippine waters.  The context was General Douglas MacArthur’s promised Return to the islands when he fled the unstoppable Japanese in early 1942.  Subsequently the Joint Chiefs in Washington decided to merge the Central Pacific and Southwest Pacific offensives in the Philippines rather than Formosa (now Taiwan) thus setting huge forces in motion.

Oddly enough, the Battle of Leyte Gulf had little to do with Leyte Gulf, but it was the dominant feature of the campaign.  The scale could only be imagined today: 236 American and about 80 Japanese warships plus U.S. torpedo boats and submarines while both fleets deployed significant support vessels such as tankers and provision ships.  The Americans brought about 1,500 tailhook aircraft aboard 34 fleet and escort carriers while the Japanese Navy had approximately 300 planes in four carriers and ashore.

The U.S. Third Fleet was led by Admiral William F. Halsey, the jut-jawed seadog who had been at war against Japan since December 7, 1941.  His carrier commander in Task Force 38 was Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, a pioneer aviator who relied heavily upon his excellent staff.  The amphibious force was led by Seventh Fleet’s Admiral Thomas Kinkaid.

Leyte Gulf has been told and retold dozens of times, and requires little expansion here.  The Imperial Navy deployed three units: two powerful surface forces transiting the islands from west to east, and a minimal carrier force well to the north, which was bound to draw attention of the aggressive “Bull” Halsey.

Leading four Japanese carriers was Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, who had clashed with Mitscher off the Marianas in June.  “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” all but destroyed Tokyo’s carefully hoarded supply of trained carrier aircrews, leaving Ozawa with a small crop of rookies.

Historians still argue whether Leyte Gulf was a carrier battle.  The previous five, dating from Coral Sea in May 1942, all involved mutual exchange of carrier air strikes.  They resulted in loss of three U.S. flattops (plus one to a submarine) and nine Japanese—totaling fewer than the fast carriers Mitscher owned in October 44.  While a few of Ozawa’s planes flew within range of TF-38, none accomplished anything significant.

The battle began with U.S. submarines stalking Japan’s surface forces west of the Philippines on the 23rd.  Events peaked the next day with continuous air strikes that sank one of the two biggest ships afloat but otherwise did little to deter Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, who continued toward his goal of attacking U.S. shipping in Leyte Gulf.  His passage through San Bernardino Strait was reported by U.S. night owls but was ignored by Halsey and Mitscher with disastrous results the next day.

Meanwhile, Japanese land-based aircraft USS Princeton on the 24th, the first American fast carrier lost since October 1942.

Hours later, Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s southern force was annihilated in the last major surface action of all time, a nocturnal slugfest in Battle of Surigao Strait.  Outnumbered about six to one, he lost his life and his command, only one destroyer surviving.  

Partly due to unnecessarily complex communications, Halsey assumed that his battleships, Task Force 34, were guarding the Leyte side of San Bernardino Strait.  With word of Ozawa’s flattops to the north, he took TF-38 to destroy Ozawa, leaving Kinkaid’s amphibious command vulnerable to surface ships.  The only American force in the way was “Taffy Three,” six small carriers with their escorting destroyers.  During the Battle Off Samar, the immensely outgunned “small boys” fought back with guns, torpedoes, and whatever aircraft could be launched.  Other escort-carrier planes added to the effort, forcing Kurita to disengage.  

Throughout the day the U.S. Navy lost two escort carriers (one to the first kamikaze mission) and three destroyers.  

Halsey’s aviators and “black shoe” surface warriors sank all four of Ozawa’s carriers, but by then his flattops were almost empty shells.  The execution continued into the 26th, raising the toll to 28 Japanese warships.  The Imperial Navy never recovered.

MacArthur’s forces largely secured the Philippines in April 1945, providing another advanced fleet base for the Pacific Fleet.  

Late that year the U.S. Navy owned 6,000 ships including 90 aircraft carriers of all types.  It was two-thirds more than 12 months before and over three times the figure in 1941.  That month more than 3,000,000 men and women wore navy uniforms.

Today the Navy has about 490 ships and submarines with 438,000 uniformed personnel.  Congress mandates eleven carriers but at this writing only two are deployed. The new USS Ford (CVN-78), an enduring boondoggle, was delivered incomplete and may not deploy for another four or five years.  Her primary aircraft, the F-35C stealth fighter, is perennially troubled, and in fact took over two years just to qualify in carrier landings.  The Lightning II remains in low-rate production until it meets required mileposts for operational capability.


There’s still a great deal of misty-eyed sentimentality about “the greatest generation,” though none of the hundreds of WW II vets I’ve known, met or interviewed bought into Tom Brokaw’s unsupportable assertion.  But one thing seems certain: the aircrews and sailors who fought Leyte Gulf represented the greatest assembly of naval talent and capability of the era.