Raymond Ames Spruance (1886-1969)

Raymond Spruance was one of the most important American naval commanders of the Second World War, taking command of the American carriers part of the way through the battle of Midway and then going on to command the Fifth Fleet for the campaigns in the Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas as well as planning and implementing the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Spruance was born in 1886 in Baltimore. He attended the naval college at Annapolis, graduating 24th from 209 in 1906. He entered service as a midshipman, serving on the world cruise of the Great White Fleet, before being promoted to ensign in 1908. In 1911 he was promoted to lieutenant jg, and given command of the Bainbridge (DD-1), the US Navy's first destroyer, commissioned in 1902 and by 1911 serving with the Asiatic Fleet. Spruance remained in destroyers between the world wars, before serving as captain of the battleship Mississippi (BB-41). He also served at the Naval War College and in intelligence and staff postings.

Three months before Pearl Harbor, Spruance was given command of Cruiser Division 5 (some sources say 3) in the Pacific. After the Japanese attack, he became second-in-command to Admiral Halsey with Task Force 16, taking part in the early carrier raids on Japanese bases. This meant that he was the obvious person to take command of the task force in May 1942 when Halsey was hospitalised with a skin disease. Despite not being an aviator, he was familiar with Halsey's staff and with the task force itself.

This should have meant that Spruance was in command at the start of the Battle of Midway, but the miraculously rapid repairs to USS Yorktown meant that Task Force 17 under Admiral Fletcher was able to reach Midway on 2 June, and as the senior man Fletcher took overall command. The American fleet would be under Fletcher's command when the first three Japanese carriers were sunk, but after Yorktown was herself badly damaged Fletcher handed command of the fleet over to Spruance. He can thus claim the credit for the destruction of the Hiryu, which completed the American victory.

Soon after Midway Halsey returned to resume command of Task Force 16, and on 18 June 1942 Spruance became Nimitz's chief of staff. He spent the next year based at Pearl Harbor, planning the American campaign in the central Pacific.

On 19 June 1943 Spruance was promoted to vice admiral, becoming Nimitz's deputy, and on 5 August he became Commander, Central Pacific Force (renamed as the Fifth Fleet in September 1943), with orders to implement his own plans. His first target was the Gilbert Islands. American troops landed on Makin and Tarawa on 20 November 1943, and within a week the islands were secured.

Spruance's next targets were in the Marshall Islands. Nimitz had decided to bypass all of the smaller islands and concentrate on capturing Kwajalein atoll. Spruance felt that this was too risky, and so a number of smaller atolls would be captured to support the main attack. The campaign started with a naval bombardment which lasted from December 1943 to January 1944. On 31 January the Marines captured Majuro, which was used as a base for a devastating bombardment of Kwajalein, and the atoll fell within a week. On 17-18 February Spruance's ships attacked the Japanese base at Truk, sinking two cruisers, four destroyers and 130,000 tons of merchant shipping. This attack also covered the Marine attack on Eniwetok on 18 February, and that island fell in four days. On 21 February 1944 Spruance was rewarded with promotion to full Admiral.

In the summer of 1944 the US Navy in the Pacific was dramatically restructured. Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet was moved from the South Pacific to the Central Pacific, and merged with the Fifth Fleet. Halsey and Spruance would alternate in command of the combined fleet, which changed its designation to reflect the commander. The first such transition would take place in August 1944, so Spruance was still in charge for invasion of the Mariana Islands and the Battle of the Philippine Sea of 19-21 June 1944. Although Spruance was much criticised for failing to take a chance to destroy the Japanese fleet, the Americans did sink three Japanese carriers (Shokaku, Taiho and Hiyo) and shoot down around 300 Japanese aircraft, in what became known as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot". Japanese naval aviation never recovered from the loss of so many of its best pilots in this battle.

Spruance returned to the fleet to command the attack on the Caroline Islands in September 1944, this time operating together with Halsey, who had command of the West Pacific Task Force. Supported by the fleet, the Marines landed on Peleliu (15 September 1944) and Anguar (17 September). While Anguar fell relatively quickly, fighting on Peleliu continued to the end of November 1944. On 23 September Ulithi atoll was captured without resistance.

Spruance then returned to the planning roll, before returning to take command of the Fifth Fleet for the invasion of Iwo Jima (19 February 1945) and Okinawa (1 April 1945). In May 1945 Spruance returned to Pearl Harbor to work on plans for the proposed invasion of Japan, leaving Halsey to take command of what turned out to be the final operations of the war, at Okinawa and in the seas around Japan. He was present during the Japanese surrender ceremony on USS Missouri on 2 September 1945, and on 20 September replaced Halsey for the final time.

On 24 November he replaced Nimitz as commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, holding that post for a short period, before on 1 March 1946 becoming president of the Naval War College, a post he held until 30 June 1948. He retired on the next day, returning to public service for a spell as ambassador to the Philippines (1952-55). He died at home on 23 December 1969.

Spruance was described as a calm scholarly man and one of the most talented American naval commanders of the Second World War, an assessment that is supported by his role in planning a large part of the successful American advance across the Pacific. He had also played an important role in developed the fleet train, a dedicated supply system that dramatically enhanced the endurance of the American fleet in the Pacific.

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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The Quiet Admiral, A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Thomas B. Buell. This is widely considered to be the best biography of Spruance, currently available in this reissued edition. Buell nicely contrasts Spruance with Halsey, his co-commander of the combined third and fifth fleets from 1944, as well as looking at his handling of Midway, the battle that made his name.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 May 2008), Raymond Ames Spruance (1886-1969), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_spruance_raymond.html

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