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The Battle of Cape Esperance: “One Learns More from Adversity than Success

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Winston Churchill noted:

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

These words are as true as the day that he penned them. Individuals, as well as organizations often learn more from failure than success. Failure, real or perceived often proves more valuable to ultimate success than being successful and never having failed. In the case portrayed in this article, the lessons apply to the military, specifically the Navy, but they are applicable to individuals as well as organizations. As General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell noted:

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. 

Failure is a great teacher. I know that I have learned more from failure than success. Success often made me complacent and led to failure. I have learned more from the difficult times than the good times. So, on to the article…

Naval battles between U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy surface forces around Guadalcanal in 1942 were almost always brief and bloody. The number of ships from both sides sunk in the waters around Guadalcanal, and the islands near it: Tulagi and Savo Island, led to the area being nicknamed “Iron Bottom Sound.” Over fifty ships and craft would be interred in the waters around Guadalcanal by the end of the campaign. These numbers included 2 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 22 destroyers.

The battles around Guadalcanal occurred in a time of technical transition for the United States Navy as its radar became better at detecting ships and fire direction systems advanced in their accuracy and targeting ability. While almost all U.S. warships had radar primarily the SC search radar and FC Fire Control radar, not many U.S. Navy warships had the advanced SG surface search radar. But it was not just a matter of technology, it was a matter of training and experience. Their opponents, the Imperial Japanese Navy had very few ships equipped with radar, but their training for surface actions, especially night fighting where their superior optics, gunnery skills, and torpedoes proved deadly during the first year of the war before U.S. Navy crews mastered their technology edge.

By October 1942 the U.S. Marines battling on Guadalcanal were fighting an enemy growing in numbers on the ground even as they felt the effects of the the predatory Japanese surface raiders that routinely bombarded their positions and endangered U.S. resupply efforts.

                                                  USS Helena

Since the Marine, Navy and Army Air Force Squadrons based on Guadalcanal maintained air superiority in the nearby waters during the day the Japanese were limited to night surface operations against the island. These operations involving the reinforcement and resupply of Japanese Forces on the island as well as offensive naval gunfire operations to aid the land forces in which Japanese warships attempted to destroy or degrade Henderson Field.

                                              Henderson Field

The first major operations mounted by the Japanese was in early August when a Japanese cruiser destroyer force ravaged the U.S. cruiser forces off Savo Island. The Japanese inflicted the worst defeat of an American naval squadron, sinking 3 American and one Australian Heavy cruiser while damaging another. The battle was a disaster for the U.S. forces and led to the early withdraw of transport and supply ships of the invasion force before many could finish unloading the equipment and supplies that were critical to the operation. In that operation radar played no role for U.S. forces, and sets were either turned off or not relied upon by commanders. Admiral Richmond Turner noted:

“The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise”

Despite this admission it would take several more engagements in the waters around Guadalcanal before the U.S. Navy fully appreciated the superiority of Japanese optics, training in night fighting, and their deadly 24″ “Long Lance” torpedoes. It would not be until 1943 that the U.S. Navy began to exploit its advantage in radar and use it to their advantage in night surface actions.

                        The Tokyo Express Route along the Slot

Japanese resupply and reinforcement operations to Guadalcanal were so frequent that the Japanese forces were nicknamed the Tokyo Express by the Americans. Knowing that the Marines who had been in bitter combat with the Japanese needed reinforcements the U.S. sent a convoy to land the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division on October 13th.  To protect the convoy the U.S. Navy dispatched a surface task force, TF-64composed of the Cruisers USS San Francisco, USS Boise, USS Salt Lake City and USS Helena and 5 destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott to protect it from any Japanese surface threats.

                        IJN Heavy Cruiser Aoba after the battle

The U.S. move to reinforce Guadalcanal coincided with a Japanese effort to reinforce their forced on the island. They Imperial Navy sent a covering force of three heavy cruisers, the Aoba, Furutuka and Kinugasa and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Arimoto Goto. In addition to protecting the landing force, the Japanese cruisers were to bombard Henderson Field. Since the Japanese were not expecting any American surface forces to oppose their effort, their plan would go awry.

                                    Rear Admiral Arimoto Goto

The Japanese were detected by aerial reconnaissance on the afternoon of the 10th when they were still about 200 miles from Guadalcanal. Scott, whose forces lacked experience in night surface combat made a simple plan to “cross the T” of the enemy force in a single line formation with three destroyers in the van, the cruisers in the center and two destroyers in the rear.

                                  Rear Admiral Norman Scott

U.S. floatplanes from the American cruisers detected the Japanese at 2300 hours. At 2322 the radar of the USS Helena picked up the Japanese force at a range of about 27,000 yards. However misunderstandings of Scott’s orders aboard his flagship broke his formation and put the van destroyers out of position in the poor visibility of the moonless night. The confusion caused Scott to believe that the radar contacts were his own destroyers.

The Japanese still did not realize that an American force was near them and continued on. At 2345 the ships were only about 5,000 yards apart when Helena radioed Scott asking permission to fire. The message was received by Scott who acknowledged his receipt of the message did not grant permission open fire. However, his response of “roger” was mistaken as permission to open fire by Helena. The American cruiser opened fire on the Japanese aided by her SG and FC radars. She was followed by the other cruisers which opened a devastating fire on the Japanese force.

The Japanese task force was completely surprised, they had not expected to encounter American surface ships and failed to be on alert. Goto’s lookouts had sight the Americans at 2343 but assumed that they were friendly Japanese ships. The result was that the Americans inflicted heavy damage to the Japanese flagship, the heavy cruiser Aoba and left Goto mortally wounded.

                                 IJN Heavy Cruiser Furutaka

Scott was taken by surprise by the action of his cruisers and ordered ceasefire at 2347 thinking that he was shooting at his own destroyers. Four minutes later he ordered his ships to resume fire at 2351. At 2349 the heavy cruiser Furutaka was heavily damaged by American fire and at 2358 she was was hit by a torpedo fired by the destroyer Buchanan. The Japanese destroyer Fubuki was mortally wounded about the same time and began to sink. The U.S. destroyers Duncan and Farenholt were both damaged in the crossfire with Duncan so badly damaged that she would be abandoned and sunk.

                                                      USS Duncan

Instead of continuing to rely on radar the American cruisers turned on their searchlights which provided the last Japanese cruiser, Kinugasa the opportunity to hit them hard. Kinugasa’s gunners heavily damaged Boise and but for a certain amount of luck would have sunk the American ship. One shell hit the number one turret setting fires in it, while another hit below the waterline and detonated in the forward 6″ magazine threatening to blow the ship to pieces but the onrushing water from the hit doused the flames and saved the ship. Despite that Boise was out of action with over 100 casualties, all of the forward magazine and handling crews were all killed.

As Boise sheared away from the action, Kinugasa and Salt Lake City exchanged fire, each hitting each other before the Japanese cruiser broke off the action.

The commander of the Japanese reinforcement group, his mission completed dispatched his destroyers to assist Goto’s force at it withdrew and rescue survivors. However these ships were caught by U.S. aircraft from Henderson Field as the light of the dawn lit the sky. The destroyers Murakumo and Natsugumo were heavily damaged, abandoned, and scuttled by the Japanese.

On the 13th the American reinforcement convoy arrived, as did Japanese reinforcements later that night. On the night the 13th, the Japanese battleships Kongo and Haruna  conducted an attack which most destroyed Henderson Field. However, the resilient Marines kept the airfield operational as the Marines of the 1st Marine Division and the nearly arrived soldiers of the 164th Regiment held off a major Japanese assault from 23-26 October, known as the Battle of Henderson Field or Bloody Ridge.

Scott’s Task Force 64 lost one destroyer sunk and two cruisers damaged while the Japanese lost one cruiser and three destroyers sunk, with two cruisers damaged in the action.

The Japanese flagship Aoba was severely damaged by nearly 40 6” and 8” shells fired by the American cruisers. Her bridge was shattered and her number three turret destroyed. The damage knocked her out of the war for four months and the number three turret would not be replaced. On the American side the heavily damaged Boise was sent to the East Coast for repairs while Salt Lake City was repaired at Pearl Harbor. The battle had lasted less than 50 minutes from the time Helena picked up the Japanese force on her radar.

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                                             USS Salt Lake City

The battle was a tactical victory for the U.S. Navy. However, the Navy did not learn  but the lessons of the battle about the power of Japanese torpedoes and effectiveness in night combat. While he Scott maintained a cool head and reacted to the situation with great courage he assumed that his deployment of his ships in a line formation coupled with superior American gunnery had won the battle. However, his ignorance on the proper use of the various types of radar used by the U.S. Navy meant that he and other American commanders would continue to misuse it and rely on searchlights and recognition lights during night surface actions. Likewise, he made the false assumption that Japanese torpedoes were no longer a threat.

This caused other U.S. task forces to have to learn the hard way in the subsequent engagements of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Tassafaronga. Rear Admiral Scott would not long survive his victory. He was killed in action aboard the USS Atlanta during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal just a month later. The great American naval historian of the Second World War, Samuel Elliott Morrison wrote:

“So, because we won the Battle of Cape Esperance, serious tactical defects were carried over into subsequent engagements with unfortunate results. One learns more from adversity than from success.” 

While the battle helped inspire American confidence, it was not a strategic victory. Japanese forces nearly destroyed Henderson Field on the night of the 13th, and the the most decisive battles were yet to come.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under history, leadership, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

Success & Happiness


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

W.P. Kinsella, who wrote the novel Shoeless Joe which became the classic film, Field of Dreams wrote, “Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get.” 

Yesterday was  an interesting day, a day about winning, losing and finding happiness even when the system says that you should be disappointed. I found out today on Facebook of all places that I was not selected for promotion to Captain in the Navy Chaplain Corps. I think about five years ago I would have been disappointed, maybe even crushed; but today I’m not. I’m actually thankful. I was afraid that promotion might mean more separation from Judy, as the last time I was promoted I was yanked out of my assignment and given what were basically no-notice, take them or leave them orders that entailed a family separation. That was difficult on both of us, the tour was good, but career progression wise it did nothing for me as a back-to-back tour in Navy Medicine. Followed by my current tour teaching at the Joint Forces Staff College, I knew that having no operational assignments in the past seven years that I would most likely not make Captain. So I began to re-prioritize my life. Family, friends, and stability matter more than another promotion. 

I have been successful and I am happy. I have served over thirty-five years in the military evenly split between the Army and Navy. I left the Army Reserve as a Major in 1999 and went back on active duty in the Navy, taking a reduction in rank to do so. I have been blessed to serve all over the world, including tours in Europe, the Far East and combat the Middle East. When I retire at the end of my last tour I will have spent nearly thirty-nine years serving this country, and to me, finishing well matters and helping young men and women succeed is more important than getting promoted. 

Judy is relieved, as this means stability for my last years in the Navy, and for that I am happy. Right now I get to teach, research and write. My last assignment will be managing a chapel program and hopefully being able to continue teaching. No matter what I will continue writing and doing research.

I can live with that as the rest of my life is not defined by making Captain. Sadly I have known quite a few people who end up bitter because they didn’t get promoted, some with good reason, and likewise I have known some people that when they reach high rank or high office are consumed by a lust for power and control. When it happens to ministers, as it does all too often, and not just in the military; it is tragic. They often not only destroy themselves, but those around them; their families, their subordinates, and those that depend on them for spiritual care. 

I called to congratulate a good friend who was selected for promotion on this board after being passed over for promotion before. His attitude was much like mine, he knows that the promotion will also bring added burdens, as his wife is very sick, and has been chronically ill for years. I am happy for him as well as some others that I know who were selected. At the same time, as much as it would have been something to be proud of, I am glad that I was not promoted, it was a relief. Judy has gone through too much in supporting my career. 

I received so many wonderful thoughts from friends last night, and that was a blessing. I have no cause for bitterness or to think that I was cheated, the fact it that not everyone gets promoted, and my career has been amazing and I still get to serve for a while longer. Not everybody gets that. As Lou Gerhig said; “today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” 

I was going to write about the results of yesterday’s primararies, but what can I really say that a thousand other pundits haven’t all ready said, except maybe; know when to drop out. 

Have a great day. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Military, philosophy, US Navy

Epiphanies: PTSD, Life, Leadership, Lawrence of Arabia and the Gospel

I have been going through a process lately in preparation for some treatment of my chronic insomnia, nightmares and other PTSD symptoms which has caused me to have to be very deliberate and reflective in examining the various parts of the often tattered tapestry of my life.

Part of this has involved my experiences in military, religious and civilian institutional settings and how those experiences have helped shaped me as a Priest as well as a Naval Officer. Today was one of those days where a convergence of thoughts came together in a number of encounters juxtaposed with some reading of B.H. Liddell Hart’s book about T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

While I was waiting for my doctor late this afternoon I was reading the book on my Kindle and as he came into the waiting room I had just finished marking this passage.

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

Somehow this little passage in a book that I am about halfway through reading and which I have already made numerous other annotations really struck me as profound. It encapsulated close to 20 years of experience as a military chaplain and over 30 years in the military as well as civilian professional work, and it struck me especially in regard to my experiences both in Iraq and after my return. Before, during and after my time in Iraq I had come to see Lawrence as a kindred spirit, someone that thought outside the box and went to places that no one else wanted to go. My job in Iraq to me to those places that few Americans and almost no other chaplains went or had the chance to experience with Iraqi Arabs and the Bedouin.

Those that read my posts regularly know that the impetus for my writing came about during my time in Iraq around Christmas of 2007 in the western Iraqi Al Anbar Province while on the Syrian border. At that time I wrote a short article for my former denomination’s website and a little more than a year after my return to the United States  I began this site I modified that article and published it here under the title of God in the Empty Places. It was a catharsis for me because I going though a tremendously ark period of my life where I had for all practical purposes become an Agnostic struggling to believe in God again. It was published a couple of months after I walked out of a church on Christmas Eve 2008 and walked an hour home in the dark and cold of that night.

During the interregnum of returning from Iraq and now I experienced a number of additional traumatic life events, both personal and professional. Following my assignment to my current post where I supervise a number of chaplains, pastoral counselors and support personnel I made it my goal in life not to let things that happened to me at the hands of some senior chaplains happen to others, especially those struggling with life, health, spiritual or emotional issues.

I have been asked by a number of people in the past couple of weeks, how in light of things that could leave me embittered and cynical could I embody grace to others. I admit that I still hurt and have issues of anger and some bitterness towards some people who I thought used me and betrayed me both in my old denomination as well as some senior chaplains. That is a given, though I try to live in a state of forgiveness toward them there are times that I do get upset the things that happened during that time. It is something that I deal with and I don’t always do well. I have my bad moments in which that grace doesn’t come out well,  but my path to healing has involved a conscious effort to see the good in people and to embody something different than I experienced.

A couple of people made the comment as we discussed these experiences as well as their own that “you do the Gospel it by living it.” I think that is what Jesus did, he taught yes and he did miracles, but the biggest miracles were those that he did when he rocked the religious-political establishment of his day by hanging out and caring for the people it despised. In fact Jesus surmised the entire law in two commandments, love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. The prophet Malachi noted what God required “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Those two passages have been tremendously important as faith returned after what I refer to as Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle faith began to return in a way that I never expected.

So the past few weeks have served as an epiphany to me about wisdom can evade leaders whose “eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success…” My eyes are opening in more ways to the bigness of God, the grace of God, the love of God and the mercy of God. My ambition is simply to care for the people that God allows me to care for and show that grace, love and mercy to those who some would attempt to destroy because they themselves have become prisoners of the institutions and their offices and ambitions.  I have resolved in daily life to do all I can to avoid becoming a prisoner of my office or ambitions and simply to be real. One of the senior leaders of the hospital that I work noted that he saw me as not just as the senior chaplain but a “real person.” I can live with that.

Well that is enough for tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, iraq,afghanistan, Tour in Iraq