When a book starts out following the career of Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, you know what may be coming – a biased diatribe against other admirals Turner disliked. It shouldn't – a historian should make their own judgments – but sadly Schom fails the test. As soon as Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher enters the scene, he character assassination starts. Fletcher's performance at Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal is not only denigrated and his performance ridiculed, avoiding all analysis of why he made the decisions he did, but Fletcher himself, someone who'd won a Congressional Medal of Honor over a quarter of a century previously, is accused of simple personal cowardice, without a shred of factual support.
In fact the only instance where Fletcher isn't accused of at least stupidity is when Schom narrates an exchange of signals between he and his subordinate at Midway, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance. But it's not because of an attack of objectivity, but because Schom for some reason wants to attack Spruance for not being aggressive during the battle (it wasn't Turner's idea – he, Nimitz and Spruance were such friends that after the war they arranged to be buried near each other, along with their wives). According to Schom, Fletcher asked Spruance if he had any orders for him at one point in the battle, and got back merely "None. Will conform to your movements," which Schom blithely cites as a lackadaisical approach on Spruance's part. But the problem is that Schom, has it backwards and out of context, apparently cited only to make Spruance look bad.
In 1967, over 35 years prior to this book, Walter Lord related the same exchange of signals in Incredible Victory. They came after Fletcher's carrier Yorktown had been knocked out of the battle, and he had transferred his flag to a nearby cruiser. It was Spruance, operating nearly with the still undamaged carriers Enterprise and Hornet, who then sent the signal asking if Fletcher – who as the senior officer was in tactical command – had any orders for him. Recognizing that he had no carriers and Spruance had two, Fletcher passed tactical command to the admiral standing on the flag bridge of a carrier by responding "None. Will conform to your movements." This gave Spruance as the man of the scene with an intact staff the ability to make decisions without routing them through Fletcher, who was an orphan on a cruiser crammed with Yorktown survivors.
By reversing the signals, Schom has a commanding admiral inexplicably asking a subordinate for orders, and makes crystal clear his reading hasn't extended to one of the seminal histories of the key battle in his book (Lord's book doesn't show up in his bibliography). It is simply a mistake, but the characteristic of attacking decisionmakers without analyzing the decisions adequately recurs through the book.
Schom faults Fletcher for the loss of Lexington at Coral Sea, blaming him for inadequate air cover, and at Guadalcanal - as expected – for abandoning the Marines at Guadalcanal by withdrawing before Turner had completed landing the necessary supplies. First of all, Fletcher's responsibilities as commanding admiral didn't extend to the details of CAP, which I think had actually been given to his co-admiral Aubrey Fitch, an aviator on the Lexington.
But Guadalcanal is a far larger story. It is unclear whether Fletcher, who was responsible for preserving the Navy's four remaining carriers at (almost) all costs, made sufficiently clear to Turner at the planning stage that he was withdrawing whether supplies had been landed or not. Turner thought he had, and that he should have stayed. But regardless of that, and regardless of whether he should or could have stayed, accusing Fletcher of withdrawing dozens of ships from the active combat zone because of personal cowardice is a ridiculous and offensive statement. He withdrew the carriers because of the risk if they stayed around (two carriers would be torpedoed off Guadalcanal in the subsequent weeks, underscoring the risk of carriers remaining on station off of a landing site) as well as the risk of being caught in battle with the Japanese carriers in an unfueled state. Those were not problems the Marines on Guadalcanal nor Admiral Turner had responsibility for, and while it is not unexpected that they deeply, deeply resented Fletcher's withdrawal, accusing him of personal cowardice in doing so is in my view a fatal flaw in the book. It would have benefitted from a thorough analysis of why Fletcher actually did what he did, and whether that decision was the correct one. Unsupported personal attacks are lousy analysis.
The book does provide interesting facts and stories about the Pacific war, many of which I had never seen before, and I enjoyed that part of the state. But Schom's attacks on Fletcher and Spruance left me with a bad taste, and I couldn't wait to finish the book and get it off my bookshelf.