Category Archives: Pacific Theater

Micro-Review: Neptune’s Inferno


Neptune’s Inferno was superior. Fair warning: Hornfischer’s superb style makes you feel like you were fighting each of those battles. I could damn near smell the cordite and feel the concussion of every hit on the Atlanta.

I was exhausted when I finished, but nobody brings a naval engagement to life like Hornfischer. If you have any interest in understanding World War II combat from the deckplates to the cockpit, put this book at the top of your list.

The Military and Hawai’i in World War II

Hawai’i, The Military, and the National Park: World War II and Its Impacts on Culture and the Environment
William Chapman
The American Society for Environmental History
The National Park Service, Department of the Interior
2014, 501pp

Watching Tora! Tora! Tora! for about the thirtieth time recently, I was struck by the scene where the Army radar operators trying to set up their radar on a hill on the grounds of Hawai’i National Park were stuck on the beach, thwarted by the people from the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS). That scene strikes a chord in anyone who has ever been frustrated by petty bureaucrats.

But there are two sides to every story, and it is worth noting that in the history of the American armed forces, there have been occasions when junior officers, impressed with their own authority, have added fuel to the fire by being a tad more high-handed than their more experienced superiors might have been. So whom to believe?

My older sister and Hawaiian resident Marcia Jaconi (who is, by the way, the widow of a decorated Army officer) sent me the link to a book compiled by William Chapman and the folks at the NPS. Chapman and his team went back through the records in an effort to frame the relationship between the NPS and the military during the war years.

This is not a narrative, but a methodical yet readable cultural and environmental history of the war era in Hawaii from well before the Pearl Harbor attack until after V-J Day, focused on Hawaii’s national parklands. Chapman makes clear that the NPS – and specifically the park’s superintendent, Edward Wingate – walked a fine line between protecting the park and obstructing genuine military needs.

Chapman, unsurprisingly, delivers an account that is highly sympathetic to Wingate, who comes across as a valiant guardian of the Island’s cultural and natural legacy while still doing his part to win the war. Reading between the lines, Wingate was a clearly a skillful player of the bureaucratic game, and proved a worthy foil to the territory’s military leadership. If nothing else, he compelled the defenders of Hawaii to consider the genuine military necessity of each incursion on park lands, and when it was proven, he usually (but not always) relented.

The fascinating subtext is that Washington allowed this to happen at all. Even in the face of possible invasion, no blanket authority came down to Pearl Harbor that would have allowed the military to run roughshod over the Park. In the darkest days of the war, someone very high up in Washington – likely either Harry Hopkins or FDR himself – had decided that accession to the necessities of war did not mean handing the keys to Hawaii to the military.

Which leads me to the other reason to recommend this book. Well illustrated and documented, some two-thirds of the book focuses on the park’s context, and thus paints a picture of life in Hawaii before the war, and of the islands as battleground and home front during the war that are often missing in popular histories. Of all aspects of the war, the Home Front has received short shrift from scholars, so Chapman’s work is a welcome addition to the literature on how the war was fought from behind the lines.

As an institutional history coming from the Department of the Interior, Hawai’i, the Military, and the National Park is no more the final word on the story of Hawaii during World War II than would be the official histories published by the Army, the Navy, and the Army Air Forces. It is, nonetheless, a valuable addition to those works, and opens the door to fuller, more comprehensive accounts of Hawaii’s role in the Pacific War.

How Intelligence Turned the Tide in the Pacific

On April 17, 1942, Imperial Japan seemed invincible. The nation’s armed forces were virtually undefeated in battle. All of East Asia, including much of China, lay under the boot of Dai Nippon; Australia and India looked to be next; and with the Allies focused on Europe first, the U.S. looked to be at least a year away before being able to take the offensive against even an overextended Japan.

Within 50 days, that had all changed.

While her armies were still rampant on mainland Asia, Japan’s Navy had suffered a sequence of defeats. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo ended the myth of Japanese invincibility, the Battle of the Coral Sea had halted Japan’s drive into Australia, and the Battle of Midway destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy as a strategic offensive force.

Damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft ...

Damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Shokaku sustained on May 8, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That turning point was enabled by a range of factors, but it surely would not have happened had there not been a series of coups in signals intelligence in the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. In A Priceless Advantage: U.S. Navy Communications Intelligence and the Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and the Aleutians, Frederick D. Parker gives us a look at the facts behind the legends, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the unconventional team that enabled those (and many other) victories.

If the work leaves one wondering why, in contrast, the history of US intelligence over the last six decades reads like the annals of the Keystone Kops, it also offers the beginnings of an answer. Superior intelligence organizations are often not the conscious product of organizational science, but of brilliant, directed operators who are completely focused and left unhampered in their work.

A superb read for lovers of history and anyone interested in intelligence.

The MacArthur Version

English: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur...

English: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur smoking his corncob pipe, probably at Manila, Philippine Islands, 2 August 1945. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are histories aplenty of World War II in the Pacific, and the biographies of General Douglas MacArthur would fill a long bookshelf. Anyone interested in the man or the period, however, would do well to read The Campaigns of MacArthur in the Pacific, Volume 1.

This account of Douglas MacArthur’s World War II, published by the U.S. Army and compiled by MacArthur’s staff, is excellent source material, but should not be seen as a definitive history. Indeed, the work seems a tad more biased than both contemporary and recent works by distinguished historians, and there are those who would read into the portrayal of some of the events and battles a overly flattering picture of MacArthur, his generalship, and the performance of his staff.

That said, the account of the war against Japan could use a little bias away from the accepted narrative, if only to prevent important campaigns from vanishing from memory. As the saying goes, there were two wars being fought in the Pacific, the one between the Allies and Japan, and the one between the US Navy and the US Army. If history is written by the victors, the Navy won the latter, and as a result the role of the US Army in the region has been minimized by a focus on the Navy by academic and popular historians alike.

This begs for some rectification without taking from the sacrifices and achievements of the Navy/Marine Corps team. MacArthur’s account, although compiled by men intensely loyal to the general personally, is a first step in that direction.

Using this account as a starting point, it is also worth studying the experiences of General Alexander “Sandy” Patch with the Americal Division and XIV Corps on Guadalcanal and Walter Kreuger’s Sixth Army in New Guinea and the Philippines. The U.S. Army did a lot of brutally hard work in the Pacific and deserves its place in the sun.

The Smartest Man in the Navy

The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance
Thomas B. Buell
Naval Institute Press
January 1987
518 pages

“There are two kinds of people in this world,” a Chinese executive told me once. “The kind of people who speak for themselves, and the kind who let their deeds speak for them.”

This insight not only compelled me to look at my own life (which one am I?), it also forced me to re-evaluate my heroes. Who among my pantheon was a doer, and who did some good things but was really exceptional at tooting his own horn (or paying others to toot if for them?) What does it say about an individual who crafts his or her life after one type or the other? And what does it say about nations that make heroes of narcissists?

Old “Electric Brain

Picture of from

Admiral Raymond Spruance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations in World War II, thought Raymond Spruance was the single most intelligent U.S. naval commander in the war. Given the competition – Nimitz, Turner, Halsey, McCain, Leahy, and King himself – this was high praise. Yet Spruance today is largely unknown outside of the relatively small circle of mariners, historians, and history buffs. Why?

Thomas Buell, himself a naval officer, offers an answer with his definitive portrait Spruance, the enigmatic commander who made the critical decisions at Midway and led the US Navy-Marine Corps team in their legendary drive across the Central Pacific. Throughout his life, his subordinates and superiors all came in turn came to rely on his quiet intellect, his preternatural calm under fire, and his ability to size up a situation and act with deliberation, neither vacillating like Ghormley nor impetuous like Halsey.

Working from a relatively small number of sources on Spruance, Buell gives us no great insights that will change the way we think of war, but it will change the way we think of warriors, their flacks, and their biographers. Buell paints a credibly human picture of Spruance, and rather than inflate him to larger-than-life size, offers us the spartan, taciturn, stone-faced career officer whose deeds remain greater than the man himself. It would have been easy for the author to write a panegyric, but you can almost hear the ghost of Spruance whispering over his shoulder, telling Buell not to go down that path. While ably defending Spruance against criticism of his actions at Midway (later proven to be correct), Buell uses the same historiographical care to excoriate the admiral’s actions during his tenure as Ambassador to the Philippines.

The Smartest Man in the Navy

Buell also points out more sublime examples of Spruance’s leadership that resonate today. Spruance led his fleet with a staff that was a fraction of the size of Halsey’s, demonstrating an economy that the brass-bloated navy of today has forgotten: he was early to recognize and defend geniuses like Kelly Turner and Carl Moore against the capricious politics of the Navy; he was a battleship officer who never learned to fly, yet absorbed so much about carrier aviation that he became one of the country’s ablest commanders of airpower; he oversaw the reinvention of naval logistics, a factor the Japanese navy recognized as the keystone to the US victory in the Pacific; and he grasped early that American bases in postwar Asia would be an irritant that would lead to further conflict.

And then there was that intellect: rebelling against the provincial, trade-school approach the navy had taken to professional education, he spent the last years of his career turning the Naval War College into an outstanding graduate school with unparalleled programs in strategy, national security, and world affairs. While nothing he did will surpass his feats as a commander, in terms of its importance to the nation, to sea power, and to global security his two years as President of the College are unmatched.

Buell also offers us an illustration as to why, seven decades after the end of the conflict, we are still unearthing truths that compel us to reevaluate how we understand the war, history, power, and leadership. As we do, we are finding that many of the lessons our fathers learned from their victories are wrong, and many of the right lessons have been forgotten. The time has come for a reappraisal of that conflict: as we watch the rise of a new set of world powers, now more than ever we need to understand why World War II was won (or lost), and we need to find the people who were really responsible, not just the heroes and villains our fathers’ textbooks served to us. Raymond Spruance offers us a timeless model of leadership in crisis. We would be wrong if we did not go looking for more.