Thursday, January 19, 2012

What We're Reading: Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942,
by Ian W. Toll

This is popular narrative history at its best. While this book does not represent significant new historical scholarship, it synthesizes information from a variety of first-hand narratives and historical studies into an account that is vivid, exciting, and superbly written. It is a perfect introduction for those who have little or no previous knowledge of this important period of WWII history and the vital role of the U.S. Navy in the early years of conflict in the Pacific theatre.

Toll’s decision to limit the focus of this book to a particular military service and the major events that occurred in the opening of the years of the war against Japan contributes significantly to the power of his narrative. This is not to say that he doesn’t provide the reader with a good understanding of the general context of the events he relates, but he doesn’t diffuse his story by attempting to present a comprehensive picture of what developed militarily throughout the region. He presents just enough, and moves on to a detailed account of the major naval engagements: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo (executed, incredibly, by bombers launched from an aircraft carrier), the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway in 1942.

Pacific Crucible contains interesting biographical sketches of some of the major participants on both sides of the conflict: Japanese admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, the man who essentially directed Japan’s navy and who had planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chuichi Nagumo who commanded the major Japanese carrier forces, Chester Nimitz who commanded the U.S. Navy Pacific fleet out of Honolulu, Raymond Spruance who directed a significant portion of the U.S. action at Midway, and Ernest King who was in charge of the U.S. Navy in Washington. Toll also gives us a sketch of Navy commander Joseph Rochefort, a somewhat neglected but critical figure in the events of this period who headed the Navy Intelligence and code breaking operations in Honolulu. Toll presents deftly the inter-relationship between intelligence breakthroughs, military strategy, and ship movements, and presents convincing evidence that intelligence breakthroughs provided the U.S. with the critical strategic advantage at Midway.

Toll enlivens his narrative by presenting first-hand accounts of important battles told by enlisted men and officers on both sides of the conflict. We get from them descriptions of the fateful flashpoint between aircraft and ships and are able to listen in on the arguments and concerns of those in high command who monitored and directed the local action from a distance. But certainly the heart of this book and the thing that most engages our interest is the remarkable clarity with which Toll explains the military strategy of both the Japanese and the Americans and the understanding he is able to give us about the extraordinary nature of naval battle during this period. It is much the story of modern war, where planning and resources flounder in the fog of war and chance and luck creep in to upset the balance of things. The ocean is vast, and very often no one knew where the enemy was located. A lot depended on guesswork and air reconnaissance. Important engagements took place without the naval ships of either side ever coming within sight of each other. Ships were sunk not by battleship guns but by the aircraft that were launched from aircraft carriers and land bases. planes that often flew from distances of hundreds of miles away. The fueling of ships and the fuel ranges of aircraft were constant and critical variables. But when dive bombers, torpedo-dropping planes, and fighters attacked an enemy fleet the results could be stunning and catastrophic. Toll’s description of these engagements is the major achievement of his narrative. As Toll observes, piecing together what actually happened in a naval battle of this sort, and why it happened, is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. No single person engaged in the battle of Midway had anything but a very partial and localized notion of what was happening at the time, and putting together a comprehensive history of the battle afterwards was a painstaking process. It involved sorting through bad reconnaissance reports and overly optimistic assessments of enemy damage, finding missing information, and unraveling deliberate obfuscations.

In his conclusion, Toll explains how the engagements at sea and particularly the battle at Midway guaranteed that the war between Japan and the United States would be a war of attrition. That was a war the Japanese were doomed to lose, and they knew that. Many key Japanese leaders, including Yamamoto, knew this even before the decision was made to attack Pearl Harbor. But like all decisions to go to war, there seem to be pressures that force leaders to miscalculate, to explain away the stubborn facts and believe in their own unique character, luck, or skill to neutralize facts that in hindsight always seem to have been so apparent, compelling and irreducible. The key to victory in WWII was the latent capacity of America’s industrial production. Between 1940 and 1943 Britain tripled its war production; Germany and Russia doubled theirs. Japan increased its war production fourfold. In that same three year period the United States multiplied its war production twenty-five times. The number of aircraft and naval vessels manufactured was simply astonishing. The story of how this was accomplished is as much part of the story of victory as what happened on the battlefield. That story might be less exciting than the one Toll tells here, but it should not be far from our minds as we read Pacific Crucible.

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