Admiral Frank Jack "Black Jack" Fletcher, 1885-1973

Frank Jack "Black Jack" Fletcher was an American admiral who played a major part in the early naval battles in the Pacific during the Second World War, but who gained a reputation for being over-cautious and was sidelined after the battle of the Eastern Solomons.

Fletcher attended the naval academy at Annapolis, graduating 26th out of 116 in 1906. He took part in the US occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914, where he won the Medal of Honor. When the United States entered the First World War he was gunnery officer on the battleship Kearsarge, and during the war commanded the destroyers Allen and Benham, winning the Navy Cross during the fighting.

Between the wars he became a cruiser specialist, and at the time of Pearl Harbor had command of the cruiser USS Minneapolis. On 7 December 1941 the Minneapolis was at sea, and thus escaped from the Japanese attack. Fletcher was promoted to Rear Admiral, and appointed to command Task Force 14, based around the carrier USS Saratoga.

Fletcher's first mission in his new command was the relief of Wake Island, then under attack by the Japanese. Unfortunately on 22 December, while still 500 miles from the island, Fletcher stopped to refuel, and on the following day a second Japanese task force attacked Wake. The island quickly fell to the Japanese, and Fletcher was ordered back to Pearl Harbor.

In February 1942 his carrier task force took part in the first raids on Japanese held islands. With the Japanese moving into the eastern Solomons and threatening Port Moresby, Fletcher was appointed to command Task Force 17, with his flag on USS Yorktown, and with orders to attack Tulagi, then rendezvous with the Lexington.

The attack on Tulagi took place on 4 May 1942. Fletcher then met up with the Lexington and the two American carriers moved west into the Coral Sea, to the north east of Australia. The Japanese had an invasion fleet heading for Port Moresby, on the southern shore of New Guinea, covered by the carriers Shoho, Shokaku and Zuikaku. On 7 May aircraft from the Yorktown sank the Shoho, but on 8 May in an exchange of air-raids, the Japanese sank the Lexington and damaged the Yorktown, while the Americans were only able to damage the Shokaku. Despite their successes, the Japanese invasion fleet was forced to turn back. The Japanese would not make another attempt to capture Port Moresby from the sea, but instead would become involved in the costly, and eventually unsuccessful campaign to cross the mountains from the north of New Guinea. The battle of the Coral Sea was a tactical draw, but a significant American strategic victory, and the first major setback suffered by the Japanese navy.

The damage to the Yorktown was so severe that it was believed that she would be out of action for up to three months, but Nimitz knew that he would need her around Midway, where Task Force 16 under Admiral Spruance (standing in for the ill Halsey) was preparing to ambush a Japanese fleet expected to attack the island. By employing a huge number of dock workers, the Yorktown was repaired in time, and on 2 June he joined the fleet off Midway. He was senior to Spruance, and was thus in overall command of the American fleet when the first three Japanese carriers were sunk, and it was VB-3, the Dauntless dive-bomber squadron from USS Yorktown that would sink the Akagi and the Soryu. Despite this Fletcher is often not given his fair share of the credit for the victory at Midway, for the Yorktown was herself soon badly damaged by Japanese bombers, and Fletcher chose to hand command over to Spruance, who was thus in command at the end of the battle.

After Midway, Fletcher was appointed as overall commander of the naval forces involved in the invasion of Guadalcanal. The command structure for this invasion was confused. While Fletcher had command of the carriers (Saratoga, Enterprise and Wasp, forming into Task Force 61) , command of the amphibious forces involved was held by R.K. Turner while overall command was held by Admiral Ghormley. Fletcher was worried that his carriers would be isolated off Guadalcanal, and so only agreed to remain off the invasion beaches until 11 August 1942 (D+4). In the event he did not even stay this long, for on 9 August he discovered that a large Japanese naval force was close by, and having already lost a number of aircraft Fletcher withdrew on 10 August. Although this was probably the correct decision, preserving his crucial carriers, Fletcher was widely criticised for having left the marines exposed to Japanese attack.

Fletcher's final battle came at the East Solomon Islands on 23-25 August 1942. This saw the Japanese attempt to reinforce their garrison on Gualalcanal, while at the same time attack the American carriers. Fletcher's fleet sank the Japanese light carrier Ryujo, but the battle was most notable for large number of Japanese aircraft shot down - a total of 90 were lost while the US Navy suffered comparatively lightly. Despite stopping the Japanese from reinforcing Gualalcanal, Fletcher was criticised for not chasing the main Japanese carrier force.

On 31 August Fletcher was one of twelve men wounded when the Japanese submarine I-26 torpedoed the Saratoga. In the aftermath of the incident he was given leave, and on 18 October 1942 was officially replaced in command of the fleet off Guadalcanal. In November 1942 he was appointed to command the 13th Naval District and as Commander Northwestern Sea Frontier at Seattle. He commanded bombardments of the Kurile Islands in 1944 and 1945, and by the end of the war was commander of the entire North Pacific area.

After the war Fletcher served as Chairman of the General Board. He was promoted to full Admiral when he retired in May 1947. Fletcher died at Bethesda Naval Hospital on 25 April 1973, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Midway: Dauntless Victory, Fresh Perspectives on America's Seminal Naval Victory of World War II, Peter C. Smith. A very detailed and well researched account of the battle of Midway and of the historical debate that still surrounds it, supported by a mass of original documents and interviews with participants. An invaluable look at this crucial battle. [see more]
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In Bitter Tempest: The Biography of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, Stephen D. Regan. A much needed biography of one of the most important American admirals in the year after Pearl Harbor. Regan had rare access to Fletcher's papers, as well as to a wide range of interviews given before his death, and has produced a very valuable work on a neglected figure.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 May 2008), Admiral Frank Jack "Black Jack" Fletcher, 1885-1973, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_fletcher_frank.html

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