World War II: Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher

Frank J. Fletcher during World War II
Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was an American naval officer who played a key role in the early battles of World War II in the Pacific. An Iowa native, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the occupation of Veracruz. Though he had little experience with carriers, Fletcher directed Allied forces at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and at the Battle of Midway a month later. That August, he oversaw the invasion of Guadalcanal and was criticized for withdrawing his ships leaving the Marines ashore unprotected and under-supplied. Fletcher later commanded Allied forces in the northern Pacific in the final years of the conflict.

Early Life and Career

A native of Marshalltown, IA, Frank Jack Fletcher was born April 29, 1885. The nephew of a naval officer, Fletcher elected to pursue a similar career. Appointed to the US Naval Academy in 1902, his classmates included Raymond Spruance, John McCain, Sr., and Henry Kent Hewitt. Completing his class work on February 12, 1906, he proved an above average student and ranked 26th in a class of 116. Departing Annapolis, Fletcher began serving the two years at sea that were then required prior to commissioning.

Initially reporting to USS Rhode Island (BB-17), he later served aboard USS Ohio (BB-12). In September 1907, Fletcher moved to the armed yacht USS Eagle. While on board, he received his commission as a ensign in February 1908. Later assigned to USS Franklin, the receiving ship at Norfolk, Fletcher oversaw drafting men for service with the Pacific Fleet. Traveling with this contingent aboard USS Tennessee (ACR-10), he arrived in at Cavite, Philippines during the fall of 1909. That November, Fletcher was assigned to the destroyer USS Chauncey.


Serving with the Asiatic Torpedo Flotilla, Fletcher received his first command in April 1910 when ordered to the destroyer USS Dale. As the ship's commander, he led to a top ranking among the US Navy's destroyers at that spring's battle practice as well as claimed the gunnery trophy. Remaining in the Far East, he later captained Chauncey in 1912. That December, Fletcher returned to the United States and reported aboard the new battleship USS Florida (BB-30). While with the ship, he took part in the Occupation of Veracruz which began in April 1914.

Part of the naval forces led by his uncle, Rear Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher, he was placed in command of the chartered mail steamer Esperanza and successfully rescued 350 refugees while under fire. Later in the campaign, Fletcher brought a number of foreign nationals out of the interior by train after a complex series of negotiations with the local Mexican authorities. Earning a formal commendation for his efforts, this was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 1915. Leaving Florida that July, Fletcher reported for duty as Aide and Flag Lieutenant for his uncle who was assuming command of the Atlantic Fleet.

Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher

World War I

Remaining with his uncle until September 1915, Fletcher then departed to take an assignment at Annapolis. With the American entry into World War I in April 1917, he became the gunnery officer aboard USS Kearsarge (BB-5) Transferred that September, Fletcher, now a lieutenant commander, briefly commanded USS Margaret before sailing for Europe. Arriving in February 1918, he took command of the destroyer USS Allen before moving to USS Benham that May. Commanding Benham for most of the year, Fletcher received the Navy Cross for his actions during convoy duty in the North Atlantic. Departing that fall, he traveled to San Francisco where he oversaw the construction of vessels for the US Navy at Union Iron Works.

Interwar Years

Following a staff posting in Washington, Fletcher returned to sea in 1922 with a series of assignments on the Asiatic Station. These included command of the destroyer USS Whipple followed by the gunboat USS Sacramento and submarine tender USS Rainbow. In this final vessel, Fletcher also oversaw the submarine base at Cavite, Philippines. Ordered home in 1925, he saw duty at the Washington Naval Yard before joining USS Colorado (BB-45) as executive officer in 1927. After two years of duty aboard the battleship, Fletcher was selected to attend the US Naval War College at Newport, RI.

Graduating, he sought additional education at the US Army War College before accepting an appointment as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, US Asiatic Fleet in August 1931. Serving as chief of staff to Admiral Montgomery M. Taylor for two years with the rank of captain, Fletcher gained early insight into Japanese naval operations following their invasion of Manchuria. Ordered back to Washington after two years, he next held a post in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. This was followed by duty as Aide to Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson.

In June 1936, Fletcher assumed command of the battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40). Sailing as flagship of Battleship Division Three, he furthered the vessel's reputation as an elite warship. He was aided in this by the future father of the nuclear navy, Lieutenant Hyman G. Rickover, who was New Mexico's assistant engineering officer.

Fletcher remained with the vessel until December 1937 when he departed for duty in the Navy Department. Made Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation in June 1938, Fletcher was promoted to rear admiral the following year. Ordered to the US Pacific Fleet in late 1939, he first commanded Cruiser Division Three and later Cruiser Division Six. While Fletcher was in the latter post, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

World War II

With the US entry into World War II, Fletcher received orders to take Task Force 11, centered on the carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) to relieve Wake Island which was under attack from the Japanese. Moving towards the island, Fletcher was recalled on December 22 when leaders received reports of two Japanese carriers operating in the area. Though a surface commander, Fletcher took command of Task Force 17 on January 1, 1942. Commanding from the carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) he learned air operations at sea while cooperating with Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey's Task Force 8 in mounting raids against the Marshall and Gilbert Islands that February. A month later, Fletcher served as second in command to Vice Admiral Wilson Brown during operations against Salamaua and Lae on New Guinea.

Battle of the Coral Sea

With Japanese forces threatening Port Moresby, New Guinea in early May, Fletcher received orders from the Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, to intercept the enemy. Joined by aviation expert Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch and USS Lexington (CV-2) he moved his forces into the Coral Sea. After mounting air strikes against Japanese forces on Tulagi on May 4, Fletcher received word that the Japanese invasion fleet was approaching.

Though air searches failed to find the enemy the next day, efforts on May 7 proved more successful. Opening the Battle of the Coral Sea, Fletcher, with Fitch's assistance, mounted strikes which succeeded in sinking the carrier Shoho. The next day, American aircraft badly damaged the carrier Shokaku, but Japanese forces succeeded in sinking Lexington and damaging Yorktown. Battered, the Japanese elected to withdraw after the battle giving the Allies a key strategic victory.

Battle of Midway

Forced to return to Pearl Harbor to make repairs on Yorktown, Fletcher was in port only briefly before being dispatched by Nimitz to oversee the defense of Midway. Sailing, he joined with Spruance's Task Force 16 which possessed the carriers USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8). Serving as the senior commander at the Battle of Midway, Fletcher mounted strikes against the Japanese fleet on June 4.

Frank J. Fletcher
Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, September 1942. US Naval History and Heritage Command

The initial attacks sunk the carriers Akagi, Soryu, and Kaga. Responding, the Japanese carrier Hiryu launched two raids against Yorktown that afternoon before being sunk by American aircraft. The Japanese attacks succeeded in crippling the carrier and forced Fletcher to shift his flag to the heavy cruiser USS Astoria. Though Yorktown was later lost to a submarine attack, the battle proved a key victory for the Allies and was the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Fighting in the Solomons

On July 15, Fletcher received a promotion to vice admiral. Nimitz had tried to obtain this promotion in May and June but had been blocked by Washington as some perceived Fletcher's actions at the Coral Sea and Midway as being overly-cautious. Fletcher's rebuttal to these claims was that he was attempting to preserve the US Navy's scarce resources in the Pacific in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Given command of Task Force 61, Nimitz directed Fletcher to oversee the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

Landing the 1st Marine Division on August 7, his carrier aircraft provided cover from Japanese land-based fighters and bombers. Concerned about fuel and aircraft losses, Fletcher elected to withdraw his carriers from the area on August 8. This move proved controversial it compelled the amphibious force's transports to withdraw before landing much of the 1st Marine Division's supplies and artillery.

Fletcher justified his decision based on the need to protect the carriers for use against their Japanese counterparts. Left exposed, the Marines ashore were subjected to nightly shelling from Japanese naval forces and were short on supplies. While the Marines consolidated their position, the Japanese began planning a counter-offensive to reclaim the island. Overseen by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Imperial Japanese Navy commenced Operation Ka in late August.

This called for Japanese three carriers, led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, to eliminate Fletcher's ships which would permit surface forces to clear the area around Guadalcanal. This done, a large troop convoy would proceed to the island. Clashing at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on August 24-25, Fletcher succeeded in sinking the light carrier Ryujo but had Enterprise badly damaged. Though largely inconclusive, the battle forced the Japanese convoy to turn around and compelled them to deliver supplies to Guadalcanal by destroyer or submarine.

Later War

Following Eastern Solomons, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, severely criticized Fletcher for not pursuing Japanese forces after the battle. A week after the engagement, Fletcher's flagship, Saratoga, was torpedoed by I-26. The damage sustained forced the carrier to return to Pearl Harbor. Arriving, an exhausted Fletcher was given leave.

On November 18, he assumed command of the 13th Naval District and Northwestern Sea Frontier with his headquarters at Seattle. In this post for the remainder of the war, Fletcher also became commander of the Alaskan Sea Frontier in April 1944. Pushing ships across the North Pacific, he mounted attacks on the Kurile Islands. With the end of the war in September 1945, Fletcher's forces occupied northern Japan.

Returning to the United States later that year, Fletcher joined the General Board of the Navy Department on December 17. Later chairing the board, he retired from active duty on May 1, 1947. Elevated to the rank of admiral upon leaving the service, Fletcher retired to Maryland. He later died on April 25, 1973, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).