Sunk: America's 5 Worst Naval Defeats

Yes, America's navy today is the world's best. However, at times it has been forced to learn from some terrible losses. 

It’s crucial to remember and learn from defeat. People and the institutions they comprise commonly tout past triumphs while soft pedaling setbacks. That’s natural, isn’t it? Winning is the hallmark of a successful team, losing a hateful thing. And yet debacles oftentimes have their uses. They supply a better reality check than victories. Defeat clears the mind, putting the institution on “death ground”—in other words, compelling it to either adapt or die. Nimble institutions prosper.

Winning, on the other hand, can dull the mind—reaffirming habits and methods that may prove ill-suited when the world changes around us. As philosophers say, past success and the timber of humanity predispose individuals and groups to keep doing what worked last time. Or as the old adage goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Problem is, we have a habit of discovering it is broke at the worst possible time—when fixing things gets dicey.

Despite its record of victory, the America’s navy is far from exempt from the universal proclivity to celebrate success. Failure? Fuggedaboutit. Now, we shouldn’t wallow in long-ago defeats: strategist Bernard Brodie cautions that major fleet duels are “few and far between even as centuries are reckoned.” When sample size = small, it’s best not to read too much into the results of any individual encounter. Change a variable or two and you may get an entirely different outcome.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remain mindful of the low points—if only to ward off hubris while reminding seafarers that institutions must keep up with changing times or find themselves irrelevant. In that spirit, what follows is my list of America’s Five Worst Naval Defeats. These being the dog days of summer, with the Narragansett Bay bathed in hazy sunshine, I’m casual about what constitutes defeat. Strategic, operational, tactical: all losses are fair game.

Now, losing a war is worse than losing a tactical action. The former ranks higher, but both varieties of ignominy make the list. The tactical defeats presented here, however, meet Carl von Clausewitz’s standard for “operations that have direct political repercussions”—namely outsized, negative, self-defeating repercussions. Such thrashings brought disrepute on the navy or the flag, damaged America’s diplomatic standing vis-à-vis other nations, or biased the political scene toward future conflict.

Or all of the above. One defeat that’s conspicuously absent from this list is Pearl Harbor. The battle line was moored around Ford Island on December 7, not underway. Stationary fleets accomplish little in combat. Pearl Harbor qualifies as a naval victory for Japan. Indeed, it was a masterwork. From the American standpoint, though, it was less a naval defeat than a failure to mount a joint offshore defense of military installations on Oahu. Plenty of blame to share.

December 7 will live in infamy, to be sure. But it constituted an across-the-board collapse for the U.S. Navy … and Army, and Army Air Forces. These forces were all entrusted with holding Oahu. That puts Pearl Harbor in an altogether different category. With that proviso, onward.

Bainbridge at Algiers:

Minor tactical failures can beget major humiliations for the individual, the service, and the flag. Take for instance the strange case of Captain William Bainbridge. In 1800 the skipper of the frigate George Washington neglected a time-honored axiom of naval warfare, namely that a ship’s a fool to fight a fort. Fortresses have lots of space, and thus heavier guns, greater striking range, and bigger ammunition magazines. Seldom do ships match up well.

Ordered to carry tribute to the dey of Algiers, George Washington stood in under the guns of the fort. Outgunned, Bainbridge was ordered to carry gifts, an ambassador, slaves, harem women, and a menagerie of animals to the Ottoman Porte in Constantinople—and to do all of this while flying the flag of Algiers. Otherwise, the dey’s emissaries let it be known, the frigate would be smashed to splinters, its crew enslaved.

The upside to this outrage: President Thomas Jefferson resolved to act against the Barbary States by naval force rather than pay tribute for temporary maritime freedom. Lesson: minor tactical miscues can spawn major diplomatic headaches. Mariners, then, must think of themselves as naval diplomats as well as sea warriors—and try to foresee the strategic and political import of their actions, missteps, and foibles.

Ironbottom Sound:

The Battle of Savo Island (August 9, 1942) was—as Samuel Eliot Morison puts it—“probably the worst defeat ever inflicted on the United States Navy in a fair fight.” In brief, U.S. Marine expeditionary forces had landed safely on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, in the Solomon Islands, in order to evict Japanese forces that were constructing an airfield from which warbirds could cut the sea and air lanes connecting North America with Australia.