Apr 11

Out of the Jaws of Victory

Monday, April 11, 2016 12:01 AM


Highly decorated for his role in gaining victory over the Japanese at Midway, Captain Miles Browning was defeated by his most implacable enemy--himself. (National Archives)

Highly decorated for his role in gaining victory over the Japanese at Midway, Captain Miles Browning was defeated by his most implacable enemy–himself. (National Archives)

Like a character in classical tragedy, blessed by the gods with nearly every advantage, Miles Browning also possessed fatal flaws that ultimately brought him down.

Endowed with striking looks, high intelligence, slide-rule brain, useful marital connections, exceptional flying ability and the patronage of America’s favorite admiral, Browning seemed perfectly poised to achieve high command as aviation emerged at the cutting edge of naval warfare. And yet, not until his retirement was it deemed safe to raise Browning to flag rank. Historian Samuel E. Morison, who knew him, called Browning “one of the most irascible officers ever to earn a fourth stripe,” a considerable achievement given the many fearsome personalities who achieved high rank. Intemperateness, especially toward those he regarded as his inferiors, along with overindulgence in alcohol, a penchant for risky behavior, and inattention to detail, provided a recipe for self-destruction. Yet all went well—at first. Highly reliant on Browning as his chief of staff, Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey acted like an overindulgent parent when it came to Browning’s troubling behavior.

The opportunity of a lifetime occurred when Halsey was sidelined before the Battle of Midway, and Browning became principal adviser to Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. According to Morison’s analysis of the battle, which more recent study has questioned, Browning enabled the victory by launching his aircraft earlier than Spruance planned, thereby catching the Japanese carriers when most vulnerable. The citation accompanying his Distinguished Service Cross praised Browning for “his judicious planning and brilliant execution.” But that award was obtained for Browning by Halsey, not by Spruance, who felt very differently about his performance. Through carelessness, there had been serious lack of cohesion during the main action, with needless loss of aircraft and lives. And the following day, only revolt by the airmen, including their successful appeal to Spruance, prevented Browning from sending them on a suicidal mission.

Browning basked in the glow of victory as he rejoined Halsey, who now commanded all forces in the South Pacific. But, abruptly, Browning’s fortunes changed. Caught in flagrante delicto with the wife of a Navy commander, he suffered the further ignominy of a thrashing by the wronged spouse, a skilled boxer. In addition, Browning’s decisions as Halsey’s chief of staff were now being questioned by the top command. And, most damaging, after brief exposure to Browning, Navy Secretary Frank Knox judged him a “psychological basket case” who needed to be replaced. Assigned to command a carrier, Browning sowed misery there until, after mishandling a fatal incident, he was ordered home—permanently.

Viewed today, Browning’s career serves as an object lesson in how far the accepted limits on personal conduct can be challenged with impunity.

Click here to read Alan Rems feature article about Captain Miles Browning in the April issue of Naval History magazine.