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Saturday, August 05, 2017

The Conquering Tide

The Conquering Tide, Ian Toll's second book in a planned trilogy about the war in the Pacific, could have been called the Turning Tide. After the early successes by Japan in the war, such as taking Singapore and Indonesia, this book, which covers the conflict from Guadalcanal to Guam, showcases one American victory after the next, advancing westward, the Japanese on their heels.

It wasn't easy, though, as Toll describes skillfully the struggle and death tolls. Guadalcanal took months to take, as it became a war of attrition, with the Japanese soldiers starving. As one reads this volume, it becomes clear that for the Japanese people, their reluctance to surrender and fight to the death cost them an entire generation of men

Guadalcanal was a major turning point in the war, and it began a domino effect. Toll writes, "At the end of 1943, Allied victory in the South Pacific appeared certain. What remained in doubt was the cost to be paid in lives, and (relatedly) the time it would take."

The Philippine Sea, the Gilbert Islands. the Marianas Islands. These were taken, bit by bit. The new Hellcat fighter was vastly superior to the Japanese Zero, and Japan began running out of pilots who knew how to fly. The vast superior of American industry was showing, as they churned more aircraft carriers.

While some of the book can be a bit taxing, as there are so many commanders and so many types of ships, planes, etc., The Conquering Tide is eminently readable. Toll brings to life the many characters and some of them stand out. Of course, Admiral Nimitz, who commanded the Navy in the Pacific, is paramount. "Two decades later, following Nimitz’s death, Spruance told a reporter that fear was a near-universal human trait,a condition that even the bravest men labored to keep in check. But Nimitz was out of the ordinary: “He was one of the few people I knew who never knew what it meant to be afraid of anything.”

Also featured are William "Bull" Halsey, Jocko Clark, and especially Dudley "Mush" Morton, the skipper of the submarine Wahoo. Toll devotes a whole chapter to submarines. "Every submariner was a volunteer. The submarine force did not want men who did not directly aspire to wear the twin-dolphin insignia. In most circumstances, any officer or sailor who wanted out was granted a prompt
transfer back into the surface fleet." Morton was a character, who frequently ambled around ship in his bathrobe. But he was tough and aggressive, and told his crew that there mission was to sink Japanese ships. They did so by the score, including sinking some by firing "down the throat," which, if I'm reading it right, is firing a torpedo directly at a ship as its coming toward the submarine and hitting it in the bow.

Toll gives equal time to both sides, and calls out bravery when he sees it. Of the taking of the island Tarawa in the Gilberts, which was an amphibious landing fought by Marines, he writes: "It was the proudest and the most terrible day in the history of the Marine Corps. Men fought with extraordinary
courage, returning to the line of fire even after having been wounded several times."

The superiority in air combat made heroes, too: "Lieutenant (jg) Ralph Hanks, an Iowa pig farmer before the war, became an “ace in a day” by shooting down five Zeros in a single skirmish." Another hero was Edward O'Hare, a flying ace who was shot down, his plane never found. Chicago's O'Hare Airport is named after him.

Toll also writes about the disillusionment of the Japanese hierarchy. The nation had never lost a war, and had trouble believing it could be losing this one. Censorship was high, and the citizens were told that each loss was really a gambit to draw the enemy closer to home. In truth, those Japanese who were on the ball knew the end was near. "The Pacific War had entered its endgame. But another 1.5 million Japanese servicemen and civilians would die before the heart was knocked out of the men who ruled Japan."

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