Book review: The First Team

The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway
by John B. Lundstrom
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0870211898, Naval Institute Press, 1984.

This is a 500+ page book, and it is chock-full of details.  There's even a table that lists every American carrier pilot who fought at the outset of the Second World War in the Pacific. Not just their names, but also the number of Japanese planes that each shot down, when and where some of them were killed, and — for those who survived — their date of retirement and final rank. There are quite a few Captains and Admirals on this list.

But it’s not just facts and figures.  The profuse level of detail extends to the history of the fighter squadrons, which is recounted almost on a day-by-day basis. After all, wars is not just a matter of great battles and turning points. In-between the battles comes the daily routine of continual inner-air patrols, for there was always a reconnaissance threat from Japanese scoutplanes. Every once in a while, there would be minor engagements that do not decide the outcome of the war, but cumulatively advance the cause of victory.

Carrier aviation is a very dangerous field in which high-performance aircraft are flown off minuscule shipborne airfields. During the early days of World War II, it was even more hazardous, for the planes had shorter ranges and flew more slowly. Returning home from a mission and flying slow to conserve fuel, the pilots depended on the carrier's own 30-knot speed, for it was a sufficiently-substantial fraction of the airplane's own speed that it affected the navigational calculation. It was not uncommon for a routine scouting mission to run out of fuel and end up with the crew “on the beach,”, waiting to be rescued by the next passing destroyer.  And that was if you were lucky, and your radio worked. If nobody heard from you, then the search party had to guess at your position. It was also hazardous on deck. A grizzled veteran may survive numerous encounters with the Japanese, only to be killed by a mechanical accident on a day that saw no combat.

Victory through flexible logistics

You might think that so much detail would be boring, but I found it to be quite the opposite. Actually, it gives a much more accurate picture of the War, for a great share of the credit for victory had to go to administration and logistics.  An army marches on its belly, and an aviation unit runs on supplies and equipment.  Greatly outnumbered by the Japanese during the first year of the War, the American squadrons were receiving equipment in dribs and drabs, straight off the assembly line. They had to flight-test the planes, integrate them into the routine of the squadron, and keep them in a state of good repair.

In fact, the Americans were so short on equipment that they didn't have enough for all the squadrons. When a front-line unit returned to port with its carrier, if often traded its best planes to the unit that was taking its place. And this flexibility wasn't limited just to machinery. Squadrons often departed on a different carrier than the one they were assigned to. Men were also traded between squadrons to fill out gaps. At one point, “Jimmie” Thatch finds himself in command of a squadron that had plenty of planes, but no pilots. All of the pilots had been loaned to other squadrons. He amused himself during this interlude by personally test-flying each of the planes, so that he could assess their individual mechanical quirks.

In this way, the Americans managed to face the Japanese with their best equipment, and with their squadrons at full-strength. In contrast, the Imperial Japanese Navy stuck to peacetime practices in allocating resources. They had a three-to-one numerical advantage over the Americans, but squandered much of it by tying their squadrons to the ships. When a carrier was damaged in a battle, its air squadron also laid up in home port, waiting for its ship to be repaired.

Beyond the large-scale logistics of keeping the squadron supplied, the day-to-day logistics also had to be worked out. How do you maintain communications when a mission requires radio silence? By flying men off to Australia with documents to transmit by undersea cable. What happens when a squadron loses some airplanes to mechanical failure, and needs to borrow some from another carrier that has a surplus? You use the Devastator torpedo bomber as a passenger ferry to get pilots over to the other carrier. As a three-seater bomber, it permitted two planes to be transferred over for each round-trip flight.

But it was slow — very slow. Fully-laden with fuel, torpedo, bombadier, and gunner, it could cruise at just 110 knots. While escorting Devastators, the fighter planes had to throttle down and fly S-curves to avoid getting too far ahead of their charges. Its slow speed made it particularly difficult to attack a Japanese carrier from astern, a 110-knot airplane chasing a 30-knot carrier. Returning to base after combat, Devastator pilots would throttle back to 85 knots to conserve fuel! After immense losses at Midway, the surviving Devastator bombers would be withdrawn from service.

Little things that made a difference

There are also questions of morale that depend a great deal on personal traits. For example, Sarotoga pilots found a more tightly-run ship when they transferred to their sister ship, the Lexington. On-board the Lady Lex, portholes were kept open during the day to get fresh air into the ship, and officers wore whites when taking their meals in the wardroom. According to Lundstrom, the Hornet’s flight organization was a mess, which played no small role in the troubles it had when it went into combat.

The book does not skimp on battles, which are described in as much detail as the routine patrols.  The book also tackles larger questions of strategy and tactics.  The famous "Thatch Weave" became famous as a way for the heavier and less-maneuverable American fighter planes to go up against the lighter and wildly-maneuverable Zero. Lundstrom also gives great credit to the American pilots’ skills in deflection shooting.  The U.S. Navy sytematically taught deflection shooting to its pilots, more so than other air forces of the time.  It was the ability to count on accurate deflection shooting that made the anti-Zero tactics effective for the Wildcats, for they had to dive in and zoom out, with only a split-second to make those guns count.

But of course, what really sets this book apart from most other military histories is the fact that it tells the story of the 90% of war that isn’t usually described.  This is the same effect that makes the 6-hour Das Boot miniseries so much more engrossing than the 3-hour Director’s Cut or the 2-hour (bang! bang!) theatrical cut.  Wars are not fought just as a neat progression of battles, but consist of long stretches of routine operations that lay the groundwork for those decisive battles. This is perhaps a less exciting account, but it is also much more realistic.  And it gives you a better sense of how the war was actually experienced by the American carrier aviators who bore the brunt of the early fighting in the Pacific.