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In the Highest Degree Tragic: The Sacrifice of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the East Indies during World War II

In the Highest Degree Tragic: The Sacrifice of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the East Indies during World War II

by Donald M. Kehn Jr.
In the Highest Degree Tragic: The Sacrifice of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the East Indies during World War II

In the Highest Degree Tragic: The Sacrifice of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the East Indies during World War II

by Donald M. Kehn Jr.

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In the Highest Degree Tragic tells the heroic story of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet’s sacrifice defending the Dutch East Indies from the Japanese in the first three months of the Pacific War. Donald M. Kehn Jr.’s comprehensive narrative history of the operations involving multiple ships and thousands of men dramatically depicts the chaotic nature of these battles. His research has uncovered evidence of  communications failures, vessels sinking hundreds of miles from where they had been reported lost, and entire complements of men simply disappearing off the face of the earth.

Kehn notes that much of the fleet went down with guns blazing and flag flying, highlighting, where many others have failed to do so, the political and strategic reasons for the fleet’s deployment to the region in the first place. In the Highest Degree Tragic rectifies the historical record, showcasing how brave yet all-too-human sailors and officers carried out their harrowing tasks. Containing rare first-person accounts and anecdotes, from the highest command echelons down to the lowest enlisted personnel, Kehn’s book is the most comprehensive and exhaustive study to date of this important part of American involvement in World War II.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612349183
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 680
Sales rank: 1,001,610
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Donald M. Kehn Jr. is the official historian for the USS Houston (CA-30) Survivors Association and the official historian of the Naval Order of the United States, Texas Commandery. He is the author of A Blue Sea of Blood: Deciphering the Mysterious Fate of the USS “Edsall.” 

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Hart Assumes Command

For some thirty months prior to war, the Asiatic Fleet was under the command of Adm. Thomas C. Hart (USNA 1897), an officer with over forty years of service and one of the U.S. Navy's senior admirals. Almost sixty-two, Hart was nearing retirement after several years on the General Board when he was appointed to the Asiatic Fleet's top position (CINCAF, or Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet) in early 1939. He had hoped to be offered the command of the entire U.S. fleet. However, President Franklin Roosevelt would not accept Hart — who had previously displeased him — when his name was put forward as the next chief of the Big Fleet. It may have been that Roosevelt thought Hart would retire at this setback. If so, he had misjudged his man. Hart's sense of duty and his willingness to face a challenge soon overcame his reluctance. CINCAF was a job Hart never coveted, but he told himself that he was probably "lucky to get what [he was] getting," and a return to sea for two more years appealed to the veteran sailor who did not much care for shore billets. To the Far East and its "not very large command" Hart chose to proceed.

For Thomas Hart was no shrinking violet — with a nickname like "Tough Tommy" he hardly could have been. Hart — described by Samuel Eliot Morison as "small, taut, wiry, and irascible" — was known as a no-nonsense officer and a strict disciplinarian. But he was also fair-minded and knew how to delegate authority. What Hart wanted, and expected, was competence at the very least, from blue-water ship handling to desk-bound administrative matters. Yet when it came to the Asiatic Station, whether concerning base support at Cavite or basic support from Washington, he found little of either that he deemed satisfactory.

All would have agreed that Thomas Hart was his own man — even a "lone wolf" — by any reckoning. And given his seniority he was not much troubled by issues of authority, even if Washington often kept him in the dark regarding strategic thinking in the last years of peace. Thousands of miles from home, and with his new "exalted rank" (as he jestingly called it in his diary), Hart found that, like his small but self-contained fleet, he would often be required to fend for himself.

In matters of national policy he was at times surprised by Washington's decisions — as, for example, when it was announced in the summer of 1939 that the commercial treaty of 1911 with Japan was to be abrogated. However, in his new position he was quickly thrust into such a maelstrom of social activities ("seeing peoples," as he put it) that it muted any second thoughts he may have entertained about such revelations. Meanwhile, international relations in the Far East between the Western powers, China, and the Japanese — always at loading point — would have tested the character of anyone. Many leaders, before and after Hart, would be found wanting.

Now a full four-star admiral, he and Mrs. Hart traveled from the West Coast — leaving July 1, 1939 — on board the liner President Coolidge. They reached the Far East via Honolulu and Yokohama. In Japan for the first time since 1922, he and his family spent a few days sightseeing before sailing on to Shanghai. There he would assume command of the fleet that was "known as a hard working, hard playing, non-regulation force."

Although the Asiatic Fleet was actually based in Manila, the cooler climate of northern China gave the men and ships a well-earned respite from the torrid Philippine summers. Also the perennially unsettled situation in China had demanded American attention for many years. As such the Asiatic Fleet usually had units moving along the length of the China coastline. Each year submarines and tender went up to Tsingtao, about 350 miles north of Shanghai on the Yellow Sea, with the destroyers generally going on to Chefoo, which was situated on the northern side of the Shantung Peninsula about 100 miles farther on.

However, with the international situation since 1931 deteriorating throughout China and Manchuria — and overt Japanese military operations metastasizing since that time — Shanghai became the focal point of Western diplomatic efforts to counter, or at least stymie, Japan's steadily increasing aggression. While in Shanghai, the Asiatic Fleet was expected to provide the steel backbone to America's occasionally slouching diplomatic posture. Therefore, it was at "dirty, smoky" Shanghai that Hart took command. He broke out his flag aboard the heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) on July 25, 1939. The ceremony on the fleet flagship went off correctly, he noted in his diary, only marred by the light rain falling that day.

When serving aboard ships of the Asiatic Fleet,
In Shanghai, that polyglot metropolis called "the Mistress of Cathay" by some and "Sodom on the China coast" by others — the largest and wealthiest city in the Orient south of Tokyo — the outgoing commander in chief of the Asiatic Fleet Adm. Harry Yarnell awaited Hart. Yarnell was of the same generation as Hart, and an officer for whom Hart had nothing but respect. Hart also recognized with uncomfortable lucidity the stressful and isolated situation in which Yarnell had performed during his three trying years in the Far East. Yarnell was at times too much the plainspoken sailor for his own good as far as the State Department was concerned, but he was no jingoist.

As for relations with their own allies, Yarnell had on July 20, 1939, written what Kemp Tolley described as a "farewell analysis of the Far Eastern situation," in which the departing admiral remarked of British cooperation: "Her foreign policy in the Far East has been dictated by her imperial and economic interest to a marked degree. She has been willing to support the United States when it was to her advantage to do so, and to support other nations at the expense of the United States, regardless of the ethics of the case, when she felt it the better economic procedure." This trenchant commentary — which was read "with interest" (if little else) by Secretary of State Cordell Hull — says much about the prevailing state of U.S. relationships with other Western powers in the Orient during the prewar years.

As CINCAF since 1936, Yarnell had faced a variety of "incidents" following Japan's expansion of the war in China, notably in the wake of the so-called Marco Polo Bridge Incident near Peking in the summer of 1937. This was a war that the leader of the Nationalists, Chiang Kai-shek, might have avoided, but he at last chose to resist the Japanese in strength. His decision came from a combination of realism and fantasy. First, at Shanghai he enjoyed greatly superior numbers initially, with some 45,000 men deployed against 3,500 Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops. Second, Chiang clung to the somewhat desperate hope that Japan's aggression would compel the governments of Western investors to intervene. But the Western powers wanted no part of what they knew would become a blood-drenched quagmire. Chiang eventually moved seventy-one divisions totaling half a million troops into the fight, but the Japanese swiftly reinforced their own forces in enormous numbers. A full-scale campaign ensued.

Aerial bombings of Shanghai came in August, with some of the most destructive executed by inept Chinese planes that dropped their own ordnance so haphazardly that they slaughtered thousands of their countrymen, mostly refugees. One salvo of heavy bombs alone killed over seven hundred civilians along Nanking Road, as described by an appalled Western observer, Rhodes Farmer: "Yellow, slowly lifting, high explosive fumes exposed the terrible scene. ... Heads, arms, legs lay far from mangled trunks. ... It seemed as if a giant mower had pushed through the crowd of refugees, chewing them to bits. Here was a headless man; there a baby's foot, wearing its little red-silk shoe embroidered with fierce dragons. Bodies were piled in heaps by the capricious force of the explosions. Women, still clutching their precious bundles. One body, that of a young boy, was flattened high against a wall, to which it clung with ghastly adhesion." Ultimately the campaign was a disaster for the Nationalists (KMT), and Chiang lost almost two-thirds of his troops "including 10 percent of the entire trained officer corps."

Although the United States attempted to remain neutral, neutrality kept Americans no more immune than any others. One summer evening (August 20) as she lay anchored off Shanghai, a small antiaircraft (AA) shell landed on the well deck of the Asiatic Fleet flagship, USS Augusta. It burst, and a shard hit Freddie John Falgout, S1/c, in the heart, killing him. Almost twenty other sailors were injured as they prepared to set up the evening movie. Later (October 14) Chinese and Japanese air attacks near-missed the flagship, with bomb fragments wounding a signalman on the bridge standing next to Admiral Yarnell. For much of the second half of 1937 and into the beginning of 1938, Augusta's logbook read like nothing so much as a war diary. Over the next three months the navy would see dozens of similar encounters and equally unnerving (or maddening) events, and not only in the Shanghai area.

Throughout this period Yarnell sought to reiterate what he believed were the essentials of American policy in China: protection of U.S. citizenry and their interests. During seemingly endless disputes with the Japanese, he minced no words about these issues and tried to impress on them just how serious America was when it came to looking after its own people. As a result, isolationist elements in the States, which were powerful both socially and politically, felt that the commander of the Asiatic Fleet needed to learn to bridle his tongue. Unfortunately for Yarnell, in what would be an oft-repeated strategy, the State Department continued to issue contradictory remarks.

For example the U.S. government scolded Yarnell for speaking his mind on policy, then saw to it that Japanese contracts with Western oil firms for half a million tons (September 23, 1937) — with which to fuel the Imperial war machine — were honored. But the U.S. government had been working hand in glove with the big oil companies behind the scenes for years, struggling to counter the polite criminality of the Japanese, whose aggressive military enterprises frequently hid beneath the flimsiest of legalistic pretenses. Always under pressure, Washington and the oil industry had been maneuvering between the Scylla of Japanese bellicosity and the Charybdis of Chinese banditry for many years prior to World War II.

American public opinion was ambiguous at this time despite the well-publicized Panay incident of December 1937. Views shifted somewhat but not as drastically as one might expect. And while anger at Japanese military expansion increased, so too did the belief that the United States had no business becoming embroiled in an Asian war. According to a Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans still wanted to get the United States — military, businesses, missionaries — out of China entirely. Yet, as we understand today, such poll numbers are often misleading. The pro-China lobby in the U.S. was powerful, with many connections to mass media. Also, Roosevelt had Far Eastern family and ancestry ties that would color his decision making for some years. This would not be the last time that an American administration gave greater credit (both moral and financial) to a foreign country suffering from profoundly flawed internal political issues.

As for his CINCAF predecessor, Hart may have admired Yarnell's willingness to speak his mind, but he also believed that Yarnell's disciplined approach to the Japanese over the years had served him well: "I think the result of Yarnell's firmness and acumen followed through to my incumbency, and since I tried to carry on the same way he had, the Japanese didn't want to stir us up." Yarnell was accorded a "job well-done" in Hart's opinion after the turning-over function on Augusta. Coming from Hart, an old-school officer not given to encomium, that was high praise: "He [Yarnell] has been a splendid officer and gentleman all these long, difficult years — going back into the preceding century. The last day of such a career is a very sad occasion."

Hart was a northerner and rock-ribbed Republican with a record of opposing many of Roosevelt's policies, and his conservative views had not escaped the president's attention. Hart likewise felt a marked antipathy for Harold Ickes, FDR's obstinate secretary of the interior (an unapologetic New Dealer) who held fast to the conviction that the U.S. must embargo Japan's oil supplies — all the more so when East Coast Americans were then being asked to ration gasoline. Naturally any talk of an oil embargo disconcerted Hart, who, like his boss, chief of naval operations (CNO) Adm. Harold R. "Betty" Stark, believed it would propel Japan into war as "a sure result." Under no illusions regarding his small fleet's feeble strength, Hart regularly criticized administration policies in Washington. But this was done from afar — and generally limited to the pages of his private diary — while maintaining a hard-nosed military posture within his own command.

Of course the U.S. government had its hands full those last two years before the war. It was attempting to manage a policy and public relations sleight-of-hand act that would have tested the skills of any administration or magician: that of appeasing a belligerent enemy while simultaneously supporting an essential ally (Great Britain) and at the same time publically professing U.S. resolve to avoid any foreign wars. And all of this while Roosevelt was deciding whether to run a third-term reelection campaign against violently opposed anti-Roosevelt partisans.

For his part, and despite being often kept in the dark regarding the U.S. government's position, Hart understood the thankless position into which he — like Yarnell before and much like Husband Kimmel later at Pearl Harbor — was being placed. On July 20, 1939, even before reaching his new command, he wrote in his diary that he was "more appalled than ever at the task." Five days later this initial view had not moderated. His job in the Far East was "an unholy mess anyway one look[ed] at it." In fact the situation all along the China coast had been so fraught with problems and "incidents" during Yarnell's tenure that he had not been able to tour the Asiatic Fleet's Philippine installations for two years.

Over the first year of his command Hart had his hands completely full as he sought to "make do" protecting U.S. interests in the Far East, both economic and military. However, the Asiatic Fleet was little more than the tip of a small, corroded, and weak U.S. spearpoint. Scattered up and down China's immense coastline as well as the length of the Philippines, it had been organized for decades around a few basic (and undersized) components. These were the Yangtze River Patrol — with its subsidiary, the South China Patrol — and its fleet units, which included the flagship (a heavy cruiser from 1931 onward). There were three divisions of old, small World War I–era destroyers plus a squadron leader and tender. These were serviced by the fleet train and augmented by minecraft. The first two organizations consisted primarily of flat-bottomed river gunboats such as Luzon, Oahu, and Panay, and larger seagoing gunboats such as Tulsa (PG-22) and Asheville (PG-21), with the occasional four-stack destroyer thrown in. After 1938 another expendable unit, the antiquated light cruiser Marblehead (CL-12), was assigned to the Asiatic Fleet as well. Then, a year later, the Langley (AV-3) moved to the Far East. With the outbreak of hostilities, the Yangtze River Patrol and the South China Patrol both ceased to exist, and their vessels were redistributed. Few would survive the war.

There was also a variable number of submarines, sub tenders, plus associated support vessels and yard craft. Beginning in 1939 — when the old Langley (converted to a seaplane tender) was sent to the Philippines, along with several lesser tenders (converted flushdeckers Childs [AVD-1] and William B. Preston [AVD-7]) and the much smaller Heron (AVP-2) — a PBY patrol unit began operating out of the Manila Bay area. Based on Sangley Point and Olongapo, the thirty or so PBY Catalinas eventually composed PatWing 10. Last-minute works enlarging various components in Hart's command were under way when hostilities began, but almost all of these activities were undone in the opening days of war. However, for the first year of his tour, Hart saw most of his time consumed by dealing with problems in China.


Excerpted from "In the Highest Degree Tragic"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Donald M. Kehn Jr..
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
1. Prewar: Hart Assumes Command,
2. As Is: The Asiatic Fleet at War's Outbreak,
3. Manila Abandoned: South from the Philippines,
4. Birth of a Nasty, Brutish, and Short Life: ABDA Is Formed,
5. Overtures in Blood and Oil: Tarakan and Balikpapan,
6. First Sortie of the Striking Force: Flores Sea,
7. Abortive Efforts East and West: Bangka Strait Sortie and Timor Relief Convoy,
8. Axidents, Surprisals, and Terrifications: The Battle of Badoeng Strait,
9. Disaster at Darwin: The Fate of Peary,
10. Six Days to Oblivion: The Langley Episode,
11. Chaos and Night: The Battle of the Java Sea,
12. A Death So Valiant and True: The Last Fight of Perth and Houston,
13. They Fled to Bliss or Woe: The End of the Game,
14. Post Diem: In the Highest Degree Tragic,

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