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Monday, May 30, 2016

Pacific Crucible

Having read Rick Atkinson's trilogy about the war in Europe, I was pleased to find that Ian W. Toll is presently working on a trilogy about the war in the Pacific. The first volume is called Pacific Crucible and it's fantastic.

The book covers Pearl Harbor to Midway, which is only a little over six months of the war but of course a lot happened. He also covers the backgrounds of some of the key participants, but he's smart in that he starts with the attack of December 7, which is told in thrilling fashion. Then he goes back and discusses the root causes of the war, and gives us biographical sketches of important figures such as Admirals Yamamoto, Chester Nimitz, and Ernest King.

Most Americans (one would hope) no about Pearl Harbor, but there's still things to learn. Toll writes that the destruction of all those battleships, while certainly a great loss of life, was strategically a bit of good luck, because it pushed forward the use of aircraft carriers, which was the future, as battleship war was on the way out. Also, Winston Churchill was grateful for it: "Churchill...had the absolute conviction that Pearl Harbor, by jolting the United States out of its isolationist lassitude, would secure ultimate victory for the Allies."

Japan pretty much had its own way early in the war. Not only did they devastate the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, but they scored easy wins in the Philippines, Malaya, and Singapore. Their fighter planes, the Zeroes, vexed American pilots. They had control of almost all the islands of Indonesia. The nation grew giddy, with what is called shoribyo, or "victory disease." They believed they could not be defeated, and what me might call hubris set in. Slowly the Americans reversed the course.

Toll writes brilliantly about the bombing of Tokyo. Bombers couldn't land on carriers, so they couldn't get close enough. But bombers could take off from carriers, so Jimmy Doolittle led the raid in which the bombers would hit their targets and not return, but keeping going into China. It was a complete success and hurt Japanese morale greatly.

Then we get the battle of the Coral Sea, which was sort of a draw, but kept the Japanese out of Australia. This battle saw the loss of the Lexington, a carrier built in 1925. The description of its sinking is very moving. "Coral Sea, it is often said, was something new under the sun--the first naval battle in which the opposing ships never saw each other."

Pacific Crucible ends with the battle of Midway, that turned the tide of the war. Toll indicates that Yamamoto's plan to invade Midway was ill-conceived to begin with. The Japanese, at the same time, attacked a few Aleutian islands, but intelligence, led by an unsung hero named Joe Rochefort, intercepted and decoded Japanese radio communication. The Americans knew they were coming.

The chapter on Midway reads like fiction. Wave after wave of U.S. planes came in at the Japanese carrier group, but did no damage. But all of these defensive moves kept Yamamoto from unleashing the invasion. Finally, dive bombers from the carriers Yorktown and Enterprise broke through, and sank all four of the Japanese carriers, wiping out their ability to harass in the Eastern Pacific. There would be no worries about an invasion of Hawaii.

Since I didn't know much about the battle, it was suspenseful to read about the Japanese counter-attack on the three U.S. carriers. The Japanese only attacked one, the Yorktown, and the other two were unscathed. The Yorktown was limping back to port when it was sunk by a submarine.

It is a complete coincidence that I write this on Memorial Day, but it sinks in just how brave these men were (on both sides). Toll notes that pilots of carrier planes knew they had the toughest job in the Navy and the lowest odds. He writes about how shocking it was for men to return and find out their comrades were wiped out, but with no body to honor, just empty chairs in the meeting rooms. And it's unsettling to note just how something as major as World War II could turn on the five minutes in which those dive bombers sank those Japanese carriers.

"As momentous as it was, Midway did not in itself turn the tide of the Pacific War. The American mobilization was proceeding apace, but would require another six months to take effect on the distant frontiers of the Pacific theater." That will all be in the next book.

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