Recently I read a fascinating book, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the US Navy’s Finest Hour, by James D Hornfischer. It details the Battle off Samar, easily one of the most extraordinary naval victories of all time, one to rival Trafalgar, Gravelines, or Salamis.
And almost no one has ever heard of it.
The basic story is that a tiny flotilla of US ships, Taffy 3 (Task Unit 77.4.3) faced a Japanese contingent representing one of the largest waterborne battle forces in the history of the world; the battleship Yamoto alone displaced almost as much tonnage as all the American ships together. Although most of Taffy 3 spent the engagement trying to evade the Japanese, a few ships launched suicide efforts, turned and attacked. Through sheer pluck and many deaths, the Americans harried the enemy and inflicted enough damage that the Japanese aborted their mission.
At the very beginning of the battle, the aircraft carrier escorts scrambled their planes with whatever armament they might be carrying, and used them in whatever way they could. The planes without weapons simply dove at the Japanese, force them to take evasive action, thereby slowing them down.
After he was out of ammunition one pilot, New Orleanian Lt (JG) Thomas J. Lupo, actually threw a clipboard at the Japanese as he dove at them. One can only imagine the surprise of the Japanese sailors who watched it bounce across the deck.
Later on, Lupo landed his plane on Tacloban and told the Army Major there – who clearly outranked Lupo – that his pilots needed fuel & weapons. The Major refused, saying that the Army was preparing for a major offensive and needed all the fuel and munitions it could get.
Lupo pulled his revolver on the Major, called his startled radioman over, gave him the gun, and called in the other pilots. When the Major saw how many planes were landing, he capitulated and let them have the munitions.
When the US entered WWII, the Japanese and Germans saw us as undisciplined, and therefore weak. Our liberties – libertine liberties, the Axis countries believed – were proof of how feckless we were, and how easily we would be defeated.
And they were right, we were much less disciplined than the Axis militaries. What well-trained German or Japanese pilot would dare pull a weapon on a superior officer?
Discipline is fine for coordination, and for overcoming fear. But war is chaos. What does a well-disciplined soldier do when the original plan isn’t working? What do he do when his commanding officer is incapacitated?
He sticks to his orders. And he often fails and dies.
We know what the “weak,” undisciplined American servicemen often did in those situations. Over and over throughout WWII, and in many other wars, they did what Lt. Lupo did. They spit out an expletive about orders, ignored authority, and began thinking for themselves.
As the world becomes more complicated, as our problems expand, that’s what we need in the US military, in industry, in government, and everywhere.
We need people who constantly look at problems anew, who are unafraid to jettison authority and dogma when necessary, and think for themselves.
Tomorrow: When the Strongest Isn’t the Strongest
Picture: Courtesy National WWII Museum
PS The Lupo family sent me this photo, from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.