Crisis Communications: Assuming

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Recently, I posted about context and clarity in communication. As I was reading The Admirals (an excellent biographical overview of the four WW II Fleet Admirals, Leahy, King, Nimitz and Halsey) by Walter Borneman, it occurred to me that the exchange of messages surrounding a major WW II battle provided an excellent historical example of what can happen with the lack of clarity and context.The Admirals

Let me set the stage. In the fall of 1944, Admiral Spruance was commanding the Fifth Fleet in support of the U.S. invasion of the Marianna Islands. The Japanese Navy sortied to repel the invasion. Spruance defeated the Japanese air assault on the U.S. forces but remained covering the invasion forces and did not pursue the Japanese naval combatants as they fled. He was criticized, at the time, for a failure to destroy the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Jump forward several weeks to the end of October, and General MacArthur is invading the Philippines. Again, the Japanese Navy commits to repelling the U.S. and sorties with three separate naval thrusts – the Southern Force, the Center Force and the Northern Force (these clever names were assigned by American historians well after the battle). The Southern and Center Forces were comprised of battleships and cruisers with the aim of destroying MacArthur’s landing force and its associated shipping. The Northern Force was comprised of aircraft carriers and was intended to decoy the powerful U.S. Third Fleet, under Admiral Halsey, north and away from the landings, leaving only Vice Admiral Kincaid’s Seventh Fleet to defend the landing. Seventh Fleet was structured to provide overwhelming gunfire support to the landings and not to engage in naval combat. Its battleships were old Pearl Harbor survivors, and its aircraft carriers were small escort carriers with a dozen or so aircraft each.

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With that background, here’s what happened:

  • S. forces discovered all of the sortie-ing Japanese forces and that information was provided to all the fleet commanders and to Admirals Nimitz (overall naval commander in the Pacific, working in Pearl Harbor) and King (Chief of Naval Operations in DC).
  • Admiral Halsey created a plan to protect the landing areas by establishing the composition and tasking for a task force of carriers and fast, new battleships, Task Force 34. This plan was transmitted to all his task force commanders and to Admirals Nimitz and King. But, Admiral Halsey explicitly did not execute that plan, and reserved its execution to himself.
  • The Japanese Southern Force steamed into one of Vice Admiral Kincaid’s task forces, commanded by Rear Admiral Jesse Olendorf . In a classic example of surface naval warfare, Admiral Olendorf’s forces annihilated the Southern Force.
  • Simultaneously, the Japanese Center Force (the strongest of the three Japanese groups) came under air attack and turned back.
  • Admiral Halsey, receiving the intelligence about the destruction of the Southern Force and the Center Force’s being repelled, ordered Third Fleet to steam north to engage and destroy the carriers of the Northern Force (exactly what Admiral Spruance was criticized for not doing). He did not execute his plan to stand up Task Force 34.
  • As Third Fleet sped off to the north, the Center Force again reversed course intent on destroying the now unprotected landing forces.

    Guy Higgins, Firestorm Principal – Firestorm Colorado

  • Here’s the perspective of the various commanders:
    • Admirals Nimitz and King assumed that Halsey had executed his plan to protect the landings and that Task Force 34 was guarding the landing zones with fast battleships and fleet (big) aircraft carriers. I’ll assert that this was the result of a lack of clarity.
    • Admiral Halsey assumed, in the absence of intelligence to the contrary, that the Center Force had been severely damaged and repelled. I’ll assert that this was due to a lack of context (Admiral Halsey’s situational awareness was incomplete).
    • Admiral Kincaid assumed that Task Force 34 was guarding the landing zones (note: the landing zones were in Leyte Gulf, protected from the open ocean by surrounding islands but approachable through either the Surigao Strait (Southern Force) or the San Bernadino Strait (Center Force). Vice Admiral Kincaid’s strength was focused on countering the Southern Force, leaving the way clear for the Center Force). I’ll assert that this was due to both a lack of clarity and a lack of context/situational awareness.
    • Admirals Nimitz and King assumed that Admiral Halsey was aware of the course reversal of the Center Force and they were not inclined to dictate tactics from thousands of miles away.
    • General MacArthur assumed that the Navy (preferably the extremely strong forces under Halsey, but either Halsey of Kincaid) was covering his landing forces.

Admiral Halsey has been criticized for leaving the invasion forces unprotected. However, the criticism dumped on Admiral Spruance for not destroying the Japanese carriers weeks before and Halsey’s understanding of the situation supported his decision to steam north with overwhelming force and wipe out the Japanese carrier forces. Since Admiral Halsey had explicitly said that Task Force 34 would be stood up only on his broadcast orders, he assumed that everyone knew that all of Third Fleet was headed north.

This was a high-stress, high tension situation, but a focus by Halsey on providing both context/situational awareness (“Given the destruction of Japanese forces in Surigao Straits and the repulse of Japanese forces in the San Bernadino Straits…”) and clarity (“Task Force 34 has not been activated and Third Fleet is in pursuit of Japanese carrier forces in the vicinity of Cape Engano”), could have allowed the various commanders to coordinate, and Admiral Halsey could have still left Task Force 34 in place to close the San Bernadino Straits or made other arrangements to protect the landings.

The lessons, as applicable today as they were in October, 1944, are:

  • If it takes a few more messages (emails, texts, etc.) to ensure clarity, it’s worth it.
  • Good leaders don’t dictate tactics from thousands of miles away, but they can ask questions to clarify situations for themselves.
  • Assuming that planned actions have been taken, even in the absence of evidence to that effect, is dangerous.

Leadership today is no easier than it was 75 years ago and the stakes, while different, can be just as critical. Clarity and context are important.


OBTW, for those Noble Readers who are interested, here’s what happened:

  • As mentioned Rear Admiral Olendorf’s forces (under the overall command of Vice Admiral Kincaid) destroyed the Japanese Southern Force but was out of position to engage the Japanese Center Force.
  • Admiral Halsey was about to engage the Northern Force when he learned of the re-emerged threat from the Center Force and reluctantly reversed course to protect the landings. He detached part of his forces to attack the Japanese Northern Force.
  • A pitiful handful of destroyers, destroyer escorts and escort or “jeep” carriers (these were all very small ships, completely outnumbered and outgunned by the ships of the Center Force) engaged the Center Force battleships and cruisers in one of the greatest David and Goliath battles in naval history – and they repelled the Center Force Goliath (at the cost of several ships and hundreds of lives – the story is superbly told in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer).
  • Admiral Halsey and Third Fleet arrived back at the landing area too late to engage the surviving Center Force ships.
  • The carriers that Admiral Halsey left to engage the Northern Force sank four of the Japanese carriers.
  • The Imperial Japanese Navy no longer existed as a viable naval force.
  • General MacArthur’s return to the Philippines was successful.
  • Admiral Halsey felt chastened but was not criticized by either Admiral Nimitz or Admiral King.
  • Commander Ernest Evans, the Commanding Officer of USS Johnston (2,700 tons), one of the “David” destroyers that repelled the Center Force “Goliath,” led the surface attacks on Center Force cruisers and battleships (up to 68,000 tons). Commander Evans, continuing to fight even though critically wounded, was killed in the battle and awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
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