Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara

The war memoirs of Japan's "Unsinkable Captain"

Japanese Destroyer Captain

Naval Institute Press, 1961, 310 pages

This highly regarded war memoir was a best seller in both Japan and the United States during the 1960s and has long been treasured by historians for its insights into the Japanese side of the surface war in the Pacific. The author was a survivor of more than one hundred sorties against the Allies and was known throughout Japan as the Unsinkable Captain.

A hero to his countrymen, Capt. Hara exemplified the best in Japanese surface commanders: highly skilled, hard driving, and aggressive. Moreover, he maintained a code of honor worthy of his samurai grandfather, and, as readers of this book have come to appreciate, he was as free with praise for American courage and resourcefulness as he was critical of himself and his senior commanders.

The evidence suggests that Tameichi Hara really was one of Japan's greatest naval officers; granted, most of this evidence comes from him, but he does a splendid job of humbly describing his own exploits in such a way that the reader cannot help but come to the conclusion implied, that the Imperial Japanese Navy might have done a lot better if Captain Hara had been in charge.

He never actually suggests that he should have been, of course, nor admits to even aspiring to fleet rank. Hara was a true captain's captain, and most of his concerns are about his men, his ship, and his country, more or less in that order. A rural lad of samurai lineage, he managed to obtain a slot at the IJN's academy at a time when Japan was just beginning to become a modern military power. He speaks quite harshly about his days at Etajima, which involved regular beatings of cadets by upperclassman, and rigid training that allowed no independent thought. Throughout the book, Hara gives the impression that he was a bit of an iconoclast, more willing than his peers to question doctrine, doubt his superiors (despite loyally following orders), and rock the boat.

While a destroyer captain, he single-handedly revolutionized Japanese torpedo doctrine, after making a personal study of the problem for five years. Then the war broke out. Hara was opposed to going to war with the United States, but not surprised when it happened.

The rest of the book is a meticulously detailed account of his battles, and the overall progress of the war, from the beginning, when Japan was trouncing the Allies across the Pacific, to the slow, grinding attrition that led to Japan's defeat. Hara's memory for details — exactly which ship fired which weapons at which target at what time — is vivid enough that one could practically simulate the battles on a map from his descriptions alone. His technical details are kept simple enough for the non-naval reader, but they really convey how much depended on timing, judgment, sharp eyes, instincts, and luck in every encounter. Above all, one definitely comes away with the impression that men made almost as much of a difference as technology — there were definitely good commanders, brilliant commanders, and tragically inept commanders, on both sides, and Hara is polite but opinionated in his post-game analysis of all the battles he participated in, pointing out what he thinks he did right and wrong and what the Americans did right and wrong.

Most notably, especially for the time when the book was first published, Hara reserves his strongest criticisms for many of Japan's admirals, including Admiral Yamamoto, who directed the attack against Pearl Harbor. After the war, Yamamoto was regarded with reverence by his countrymen, and with respect even by his former adversaries. Hara's book was one of the first published accounts to actually criticize Yamamoto, and Hara lays out a fairly convincing case that Yamamoto made a series of bad strategic decisions that contributed greatly to Japan's inevitable defeat.

Of course, it's always easy to criticize military decisions after the fact, and Hara would not be the first front-line warrior to believe that his superiors back in the rear don't know what they're doing. Among Hara's complaints were the inflexibility of Japanese doctrine, the lack of air support, and repeated failures to press an advantage. He describes several battles in which the Japanese won a tactical victory but a strategic loss because the admiral in charge failed to commit to pursuing the defeated American ships, and as Hara and his more knowledgeable peers were aware, the U.S. could lose many battles and still win the war, while Japan couldn't afford to lose any.

Hara also bemoans the schism between the army and the navy — Japan's services operated almost as separate kingdoms, so "joint operations" were dominated by political considerations, and the Imperial Japanese Army regarded the IJN as basically transport for its troops and not much else.

So, what did Hara think about Japan's cause, on a moral level? Here, he keeps his thoughts mostly to himself. He was against the war; he had visited the U.S. before the war, and he never seems to harbor hatred for the enemy, even when he loses men. But he describes the ships, planes, and submarines he destroys dispassionately, as targets, as one would expect from a military officer at war. A few times he mentions feeling sympathy for U.S. sailors, such as when he sees survivors of a battle floating in the ocean calling for help, and later those same survivors as POWs. But while he may have doubted the strategic judgment of his superiors, if he ever questioned the righteousness of Japan's actions, he does not mention this.

Perhaps he was just a military man who didn't feel it was his place to pass judgment on decisions made far above his pay grade (though that certainly didn't stop him from passing judgment on their military decisions), or perhaps he was carefully balancing his opinions for a post-war audience, to include American readers.

I was quite impressed by Tameichi Hara, who clearly was a gifted leader and a very intelligent man, and whose exploits as a destroyer captain, later the commander of a destroyer squadron, and finally captain of a cruiser that got sunk out from under him, made him a remarkable survivor. I think he was an honorable man whose loyalty to his country was no more than what you'd expect, and his memoir is justifiably considered a classic and has long been required reading at Annapolis.

Verdict: Japanese Destroyer Captain is a great book for any World War II aficionado, full of tense and exciting battles and an honest Japanese perspective on the war in the Pacific. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in WWI or naval combat. 9/10.

I particularly enjoyed it in anticipation of playing the second edition of Empire of the Sun.

Empire of the Sun

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, highly recommended, history, non-fiction, reviews

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