S.E. Morison and the History of US Naval Operations in WWII

At the start of WWII, Samuel Eliot Morison was a professor of history at Harvard. He convinced President Roosevelt that the naval war should be documented by historians on site from the start. The result was the highly readable History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, fourteen volumes, almost 5000 pages, of active, informative prose, with a fifteenth volume as an index and general reference. Originally published in the 1950’s, it is currently being reissued in paperback form.

Night Battle off Guadalcanal

I had a chance to reread the entire series last summer. Even now, fifty years after its initial publication, it still reads well. Morison doesn’t pull any punches. This isn’t one of those ‘official’ histories, where everybody gets mentioned, and nobody is incompetent. In the Solomons Campaign, in particular (where the Navy’s pullout left the Marines, including my father, without adequate support for months), he details the errors that led to a situation where we could only put surface ships in the area at night, and where we lost a number of the surface actions — before learning how to win. I learned a lot from reading the full set in one sitting, as it were.

1. In the Pacific, the different phases of the conflict had totally different characters. The Solomons campaign “in which the US Navy saw more fighting than in any three previous wars” was mostly surface actions within the restricted waters of island groups. The Central Pacific was mostly set piece amphibious landings wherein overwhelming firepower was brought to bear against restricted target areas. The Western Pacific saw opposed force landings against enemies close enough to their home islands to get air support. The feel of each of these campaigns, and others I haven’t mentioned (like the shore to shore coastal movement of the New Guinea campaign), was totally different, one from the other. In that context, the big carrier battles that everyone thinks of when they think of the Pacific war were exceptional occurrences. In fact, four of the five took place during 1942, and both sides were so battered that it would be another eighteen months before the fifth and last carrier battle took place.
2. In the Atlantic, on the other hand, the US Navy was concerned with two things: ASW, and amphibious operations against continental targets. This is not to say that the range of naval operations in the European war was limited to those to topics, just that the US Navy didn’t participate in the others — they happened before we entered the war. The ASW war changed only in style as we went from backs-to-the-wall to sea-supremacy. The amphibious operations were all pretty much alike — lodgement of large forces against an enemy capable of maneuver and reinforcement. What made the amphibious operations different was the tension between the fact that the lesson of the Pacific war was that you wanted to put as much firepower as possible onto the beach before you sent in your landing force, and the reality of continental warfare, that the longer you waited before landing, the more troops the enemy could bring to bear.
3. The incredible fragility of ships. It was a relatively rare happening that a ship was hit by enemy fire (bombs, shells, or torpedos), was not sunk, and was able to return to the war within a year. I was reminded of Churchill’s description of a fight between battleships — eggs attacking each other with hammers.
4. The impressive effectiveness of the kamikaze campaign. Using kamikaze tactics, the Japanese put more US ships out of the war, with fewer losses to themselves, per ship sunk or damaged, than they did with any of their more conventional campaigns. What is scary is that they had stockpiled enough aviation fuel to fly another 6,000 kamikaze sorties in the event of a US attempt to land on the Home Islands. That was just one of the reasons dropping the atomic bomb was a good idea.
5. The relatively small size of the ground forces the Japanese committed in the Pacific. Most of the Japanese Army spent most of the war in Manchuria, awaiting a Russian invasion, or in the CBI theater, trying to break into India. Relatively few divisions were committed to defense of the Pacific perimeter. Morison, by the way, had a much higher opinion of Japanese soldiers as defenders than he did of German soldiers. There were a number of landings in Europe that he thought would have been failures if the defenders had been Japanese.
6. Finally, the overwhelming importance of air power in the naval war. Our island-hopping campaign in the Pacific was designed to bypass Japanese strongpoints. The length of the hops was dictated by the range of land based air support. The ASW operations against Germany became most effective once we had built enough escort carriers to provide air cover the entire width of the Atlantic.

This is a good series, and I’d strongly recommend buying it, now that the books are available in a more affordable paperback form.

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3 Responses to “S.E. Morison and the History of US Naval Operations in WWII”

  1. Paul Schumacher Says:

    I just recently completed my second reading of this 14 vol. set. The first was 25 years ago as an fan (if you will) of the naval pacific campaign. I started the second reading in mid april and finished on fathers day (the kids let me finish before they bothered me). I started the second reading because I now work (after retirement) at the National Naval Aviation Museum in the restoration hanger and I’ve had my hands on a bucket full of history for the last 2 years. If you are a WW2 history buff, you need to read this series. Ain’t no love stories or any of that dribble, just very good documentary accounts of naval action through out WW2. Atlantic and Pacific. Surprisingly good reading!

  2. A.Besems Says:

    Where to buy these books

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      In the US, Amazon has them. I have also found them in Amazon outlets in the UK and Germany. You have to search on Morison History. The hardcopy series is expensive, but the paperbacks are more reasonable.

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