Wednesday, February 08, 2017

What We’re Reading: The Last Great Naval Battles

When I was a boy growing up in San Diego, my father, a former World War II U.S. Navy officer, would take me down to the harbor to tour ships in port. I didn’t understand at the time that we were doing this less than 15 years after what would come in time to be viewed  as the glory days of the United States Navy, but I felt the afterglow as I explored battleships, destroyers, and submarines. These two books are about the final great naval engagements in World War II in the Pacific during 1944 and 1945, battles that made possible the United States victory over Japan. These triumphs were the culmination of the Navy’s renaissance after the crushing setback at Pearl Harbor. These books have been published at the same time as new books for the recent 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and are an appropriate complement to the story of the disaster that occurred there on December 7, 1941.

Readers should know that these books fall more into the genre of military history, its character and conventions,rather than functioning as popular narrative history, although Hornfischer’s book has content and treatment that perhaps would not be found in books written by genre purists. This is not to say that these books aren't interesting, enjoyable, or comprehensible reading--qualities that some military history books often lack to we less expert and less recondite readers--but I want to let you know that readers will find here a greater concentration on the military details of specific battles and the deployment of forces in tactical settings than is likely to be found in more general and popular narratives.

A U.S. bomber takes off for Japan from the airfield
Americans built on the captured island of Saipan.

A Marine on Saipan takes a break sitting
on a huge unexploded battleship shell
that was fired during the pre-invasion
naval bombardment.
The Fleet at Flood Tide is about World War II in the Pacific, and it is hard to think about the war in this theater without being reminded of the bitter ironies that frequently are created by international conflict. The most tranquil and remote places on earth, the smallest of islands surrounded by a vast expanse of ocean, became strategically important. These islands sustained an astonishing loss of life, and then receded after the war into geographical obscurity. The islands that are the fulcrum of The Fleet at Flood Tide are the Marianas, principally the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. Hornfischer has focused on the Marianas because both the battle for the islands, and the use that the United States made of them, delineate the nature of what he refers to as “total war” in the conflict between the United States and Japan. The U.S. wanted the islands because they would provide air bases that would put B-29 bombers within range of the Japanese homeland, and it is from the captured Marianas that the Army Air Force under Curtis LeMay launched the devastating fire bombing of Japanese cities, an operation that killed more people than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those bombs were dropped from the Enola Gay, which took off from an airfield on Tinian. This book will give you an understanding, too, about how the Saipan invasion was accomplished and why the role of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theatre was central to all of these island battles.

Admiral Raymond Spruance, who commanded naval forces at
the invasion of Saipan, shown here with his staff aboard his 
flagship U.S.S. Indianapolis
Hornfischer believes that the capture of the first of the Marianas islands, Saipan, was an event that defined for Americans the nature of the war they would be fighting against Japan. What was unsettling to Americans was the Japanese ethos of no surrender, of fighting to the last man, something that Americans saw as frightening and irrational, and costly to American lives. Japanese troops were able, as well, to convince the civilian population on the islands to engage in mass suicide. Americans were taken aback, finding this deeply tragic and sinister, and it caused them to become convinced that defeating the enemy was going to involve a more brutal type of warfare, one that required complete extermination of Japanese forces. The experience on Saipan lead directly to the mindset that the Japanese would not surrender and that Japanese defeat, if it were not to involve the tremendous loss of American lives in an invasion of the Japanese homeland, would depend on the use of dire measures, the firebombing of Japanese cities and the use of the atomic bomb.

Hornfischer weaves the memoirs of a Japanese nurse and a Japanese soldier with U.S. military accounts to give us a view from both sides of the battle for Saipan, which adds an emotional dimension to his narrative. He takes a close look at the role of three or four principal American officers in his account, but his portrait of Admiral Raymond Spruance is central to The Fleet at Flood Tide. Spruance’s rational and temperate character is used as counterpoint in the narrative to the senseless excesses of Bushido military culture.

Pilot Paul Tibbets commanded the
mission that took off from Tinian and
dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.
The conclusion to the Fleet at Flood Tide is a little disappointing. The disciplined account of the military events gives way to a rather discursive discussion of the reasons for using the atomic bomb, complete with some inelegant quotations from Harry Truman and Paul Tibbets, the commander of the Enola Gay mission. It seems unnecessary.  The author’s fine account of the battle for Saipan and its horrors has already established for us the context in which this decision was made. We understand. In fact, it makes it hard for us to imagine that any other decision would have been possible to those involved in deciding what to do.

Storm Over Leyte: The Philippine Invasion and the Destruction of the Japanese Navy is written in a style that is perhaps more true to the conventions of the military history genre than The Fleet at Flood Tide: the no-nonsense and careful sequential recitation of the facts, the absence of emotive embellishment or the attempt to try to understand the “feelings” of the principal players, the focus on action, the review of military hardware and the minutiae of armament, the disposition of forces, and the critical explication and analysis of tactics and strategy. The first thing that should be noted is that this is not a book about the actual Philippine invasion, or not at least as it refers to the land battles for the recovery of the Philippines. The invasion itself is here only incidental to the great naval battle in Leyte Gulf that it precipitated. This book also has a rather curious feature: It is told mostly from the perspective of the Japanese navy, something made possible by the research Prados did in Japanese archives. This creates the interesting sensation that you are thinking and acting and encountering things as the Japanese navy might have as the battle unfolds.

The iconic photo of MacArthur wading ashore at Leyte island in the Philippines.

The Japanese Navy risked all on a gamble to destroy the landing transports
and the U.S. naval ships that protected the landing.

Prados includes deft summaries of the character of the Japanese commanders--both their strengths and shortcomings--and the nature of their interactions with each other. As we come to understand, the infighting between the service branches, long standing but exacerbated by the growing desperation of Japanese military fortunes, was devastating. The discussion of the role of Allied intelligence and the guessing that went on about what the Japanese navy might do in the event of a Philippine invasion is interesting.

This account includes much well-informed second guessing and cataloging of tactical and strategic mistakes (made by both sides), the kind of thing that enthusiasts of military history enjoy. Storm Over Leyte is a succinct and well written account of a specific military engagement that adds significantly to what we know from previous accounts. The book includes a modest selection of photos related specifically to the engagement, but better maps would have been appreciated by those of us largely ignorant of South Seas and Philippine island geography.

The nature and tools of modern warfare have changed, and the navy will probably never again be so central to our conduct of war as it was in the war in the Pacific in World War II, but there is something powerful and inspiring in the story of its glory days, a story that is well told in both of these books.

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