Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Pacific War Trilogy, by Ian W. Toll

A review of the three-book trilogy Pacific Crucible, The Conquering Tide, and Twilight of the Gods

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945

Being a bit of a Pacific War grognard, I have read quite a few books about the Pacific War, including John Toland's excellent The Rising Sun. Until now, Toland would gotten my unreserved highest recommendation, but Ian W. Toll's Pacific War trilogy has edged Toland out of that spot.

Each volume of this trilogy covers 2-3 years of the conflict. The war lasted for four years; Toll took almost nine years to finish the third volume. I read the first two, and had the final one on preorder when it was announced. This is a lot of reading, but it's never dry. All three books read like epic novels.

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, 597 pages

The planning, the strategy, the sacrifices and heroics - on both sides - illuminating the greatest naval war in history. On the first Sunday in December 1941, an armada of Japanese warplanes appeared suddenly over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and devastated the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Six months later, in a sea fight north of the tiny atoll of Midway, four Japanese aircraft carriers were sent into the abyss.

Pacific Crucible tells the epic tale of these first searing months of the Pacific war, when the U.S. Navy shook off the worst defeat in American military history and seized the strategic initiative. Ian W. Toll's dramatic narrative encompasses both the high command and the "sailor's-eye" view from the lower deck. Relying predominantly on eyewitness accounts and primary sources, Pacific Crucible also spotlights recent scholarship that has revised our understanding of the conflict, including the Japanese decision to provoke a war that few in the country's highest circles thought they could win. The result is a pause-resistant history that does justice to the breadth and depth of a tremendous subject.

Pacific Crucible covers the Pacific War from 1941 until 1942, beginning with Pearl Harbor and ending at Midway.

Toll's thick, detailed, but never-boring account of the first couple of years of America's entry into the war covers it from all angles — the political factors leading up to Japan's decision to go to war, the cultural issues that made them choose a course of action many of their leaders knew was doomed to failure, and then compelled them to double down. The courting of FDR by Churchill, who desperately wanted (needed) the US to join the war against the Axis, and regarded Pearl Harbor as the salvation of Britain. But these high-level politics, including an assessment of Emperor Hirohito and his participation in the planning for the war, then take a backseat to the story of the fighting men on both sides.

Toll gives brief biographical sketches of all the major admirals and generals, both the famous and some of the less well-known.

Everyone with any knowledge of World War II knows about Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Yamamoto (Time Magazine)

A revered war hero even after the war (which he did not survive), and respected even by his enemies, Yamamoto is described in detail from second-hand and documented accounts by Toll as an ethical, not unflawed man who had great perceptiveness and played the political game well. Several times he forced the rest of the Japanese high command to let him have his way by threatening to resign, but he made some critical mistakes which even some of his subordinate officers commented on. Yamamoto was an early opponent of going to war. He had been to America and seen what its industrial and manpower potential was. He knew there was no hope of Japan winning a prolonged war against the US. Yet when war was declared, he served the Emperor.

On the American side, Admiral Chester Nimitz has most of the fame as the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, replacing the hapless Admiral Kimmel, who watched his command (and his career) burn outside his window at Pearl Harbor.

Nimitz (Time Magazine)

But Admiral Ernest King, as Toll points out, has somehow remained almost a non-entity in post-war historical accounts, despite being Nimitz's boss, the Commander in Chief of the entire US Navy.

Admiral Earnest King (Time Magazine)

Like his counterpart, Admiral Yamamoto, King was a gruff and authoritarian commander with probably more humanity and sense of humor than most of his peers gave him credit for. Like Yamamoto, King was also fond of extra-marital dalliances (Congress was at one point annoyed that the COMINCH was allegedly using his personal yacht as a place for trysts). King was an old-school officer who was not easily persuaded of the value of newfangled developments like communications intelligence and cryptography, unlike Nimitz, who made great use of the work of Naval cryptographers like Captain Joseph Rochefort, in command of Station Hypo which cracked many of Japan's codes.

Joseph Rochefort

Rochefort was very poorly treated by the Washington establishment, which took credit for his work, and actively lied about his accomplishments and fitness, because he had angered some of his superiors by being right when they were wrong.

There are so many stories here, beyond the lists of ships and battles. For example, inter-service rivalry was a severe problem that plagued both the US and Japan. You would think that during an all-out war for survival, the Army and the Navy would be able to confine their rivalry to the annual football game, but in fact, combined operations were the exception, rather than the rule. Army airmen and Navy pilots came to blows after battles, over recriminations and blame-taking and credit-stealing. Press reports after the battle of Midway, for example, credited Army bombers with destroying the Japanese aircraft carriers, because it was the Army flyboys who made it back to the States first to regale reporters with their exploits. In fact, the Army planes didn't hit a single ship — it was all the Navy.

Battle of Midway

On the Japanese side, it was even worse — the Navy admirals and Army generals were like old-fashioned Daimyo in command of rival clans. The Army regarded the Navy as nothing more than a troop delivery system. The Navy regarded the Army as grunts trying to steal their glory and curry favor with the Emperor.

Of course, the lesson both sides would learn, and learn hard, was the ascent of air power as the determining factor in naval warfare. Toll discusses this a great deal, starting with the naval doctrines of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who wrote what was to be the Bible of naval strategy for every seagoing nation from its publication in 1890 right up to World War II. American and Japanese naval officers alike had learned Mahan's doctrines by heart, and his principles of sea power advocated, among other things, the preeminence of battleships — massive firepower concentrated into large, unsinkable floating fortresses.

As the fate of the Battleship Yamato would demonstrate, this would prove to be utterly wrong in the age of aircraft carriers. (But that story is told in the third volume.)

Pacific Crucible covers the early Pacific War, during which Japan seemed unbeatable. They were prepared, they had more ships and planes, they had a highly dedicated and highly trained military — and one whose competence they had very deliberately hidden from the Western powers, allowing the arrogant British and Americans to believe their racist assumptions about the pathetic abilities of Japanese pilots and soldiers. When the Japanese pulled off a brilliantly executed attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by operations across the Pacific that virtually kicked the British and Dutch right out of the South Seas and soon threatened Australia, Hawaii, and Alaska, it came as a nasty shock. In particular, Western airmen had never encountered the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

Mitsubishi Zero

These things terrorized the skies. Lacking features that most fighter planes had, like armor and larger engines and self-sealing fuel tanks, they were pure maneuverability, and no Allied plane was a match for them until American pilots started devising tactics for taking them on.

Despite Japan's many early successes, though, the clock was running from the moment they attacked Pearl Harbor. They had limited resources, and (as Yamamoto and others had predicted) they badly underestimated American resolve and military power. Midway, that great battle in which, armed with superior intelligence, Admiral Nimitz committed the US fleet and sank four of Japan's prize carriers, is historically seen as the turning point in the war.

Burning carriers at Midway

The reality is that while the Battle of Midway really was a coin flip which could have gone either way, even if the US had lost, it would only have prolonged the war, not changed the final outcome.

Pacific Crucible tells the story of the men, the ships, the planes, and the battles in that crucial early period when the outcome really did seem uncertain to both sides.

The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, 622 pages

The devastation of Pearl Harbor and the American victory at Midway were prelude to a greater challenge: rolling back the vast Japanese Pacific empire, island by island.

This masterful history encompasses the heart of the Pacific War?the period between mid-1942 and mid-1944 — when parallel Allied counteroffensives north and south of the equator washed over Japan's far-flung island empire like a "conquering tide," concluding with Japan's irreversible strategic defeat in the Marianas. It was the largest, bloodiest, most costly, most technically innovative and logistically complicated amphibious war in history, and it fostered bitter interservice rivalries, leaving wounds that even victory could not heal.

Often overlooked, these are the years and fights that decided the Pacific War. Ian W. Toll's battle scenes — in the air, at sea, and in the jungles — are simply riveting. He also takes the reader into the wartime councils in Washington and Tokyo where politics and strategy often collided, and into the struggle to mobilize wartime production, which was the secret of Allied victory. Brilliantly researched, the narrative is propelled and colored by firsthand accounts — letters, diaries, debriefings, and memoirs — that are the raw material of the telling details, shrewd judgment, and penetrating insight of this magisterial history.

The Conquering Tide is the second book in the trilogy and covers the bulk of the Pacific campaign after Midway. From 1942 to 1944 Japan's position deteriorated. At the height of their ascendancy, America was reeling, the Dutch East Indies were under Japanese control, and Commonwealth nations from India to Australia were threatened by invasion. But only a couple of years later, the Japanese were in dire straights, with attrition and America's vastly superior industrial might combining with frankly stupid and outmoded attitudes among the Japanese high command to bring about the defeat that Admiral Yamamoto foresaw from the beginning.

The first book included a great deal of political background. What led Japan to its fateful, catastrophic decision to go to war with the U.S.? How did the entire country transform from a rising modern nation to a nationalist imperial power forswearing all the civilized principles they had previously subscribed to? Everyone knows, or should know, about Japanese atrocities committed during the war, a subject Toll refers to only in passing for the most part in this volume, but what was also mentioned in the first volume was that up until World War II, and during the Sino-Russian war in particular, the Japanese scrupulously adhered to international rules of war, and were known for treating their POWs with the utmost respect. So what happened?

Hideki Tojo (Time Magazine)

There's less about Anglo-American politics in this book, the relationship between FDR and Churchill being largely covered in the first, but as the situation on the Japanese homefront becomes more dire, Toll describes how it affected the Japanese population. By nature accustomed to trusting and obeying their leaders, the Japanese people nonetheless were neither stupid nor passive sheep, and while the military dictatorship strictly controlled the press and allowed only stories of glorious victories, then "strategic withdrawals," then "luring the enemy closer in order to destroy them once and for all" to be broadcast, the civilian population eventually realized that the war was not going well. The authorities also couldn't cover up all the bodies coming home, and while returning sailors, soldiers, and airmen were expected to keep their mouths shut, word got out. As Japanese propaganda became increasingly detached from reality, it only undermined trust, especially as deprivations became more severe and civilians were told to eat less and work more, even while it was common knowledge that the army ran the black market and high-ranking officers were still enjoying fine dining and geishas.

But that's only part of the book — most of it is about military campaign, and while there is still plenty of ship-to-ship and air combat action, in '42 to '44 we enter the bloody island-hopping phase of the war, and American Marines and Japanese Imperial soldiers dying by the thousands on tiny atolls none of them could name or locate on a map. Their living conditions are terrible, the climate and native flora and fauna makes life miserable, and the fighting is horrific.

Skull on a tank at Guadalcanal

You can also see here the seeds of the eventual decision to use atomic bombs on Japan being planted. This debate is addressed in the third book, but one of the primary justifications of the use of atomic weapons is the purported belief that Japan would never have surrendered otherwise, and that an invasion would have been even more horrifically costly, to both sides. After reading accounts of how Japanese soldiers threw themselves at the Americans in suicidal "Banzai" charges, how over and over again they chose to die rather than surrender (Japanese sailors whose ships had sunk would typically refuse rescue from American ships), how they had to be dug out of caves and bunkers the hard way, with bombs and flamethrowers, how they would booby-trap bodies or even call to American medics and then pull the pin on a grenade, and how even Japanese civilians threw themselves off cliffs after the battle of Saipan, mothers holding onto their babies, and were praised for their dedication and patriotism — it is easy to see how the US came to that conclusion.

Japanese civilians at the Battle of Saipan

Japan never had a chance of winning the war — its fate was sealed on the morning of December 7, 1941. But one can imagine, in an alternate history, how they might have had a chance to end the war differently, perhaps with the negotiated peace that was their original plan. This volume and the one preceding it traces how and when things went wrong for Japan, leading to their inevitable utter capitulation. Several key battles, had they gone slightly differently, had luck favored one side a little more, or had commanders not made a few understandable errors, would have significantly altered the course of the war, at least in the short term. Japan was always fighting an enemy that simply had the power to replace ships and planes and men at a rate far greater than they could ever match, with American's production growing and her military technology ever improving even as Japan's resources dwindled, but with better intelligence, and better decisions, and better use of their forces, Japan would have been an even more difficult adversary to defeat than they were. The fighting spirit of the Japanese soldier was impressive, but over the course of the war they went from being despised, untrained savages held in contempt to feared jungle ninjas with supernatural powers, until eventually the Americans realized they were just men, like themselves, capable of great bravery and fortitude but also capable of being demoralized, starved, and exhausted. In the end, it was the Japanese high command that did in the IJN and the IJA with bad decision after bad decision. Starting with attacking the U.S. in the first place, of course, but also things like maintaining a cumbersome inter-service separation, and refusing to rotate their best pilots away from the front to let them recover, and telling overworked and underfed civilians to do calisthenics to keep up their spirits.

The Conquering Tide ends in 1944, leaving Toll's third volume to cover the end of the war, the planning for an invasion of Japan that never happened, the atomic bombs, and the aftermath.

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945

W. W. Norton & Company, 2020, 944 pages

The final volume of the magisterial Pacific War Trilogy from acclaimed historian Ian W. Toll, "one of the great storytellers of war" (Evan Thomas).

Twilight of the Gods is a riveting account of the harrowing last year of World War II in the Pacific, when the US Navy won the largest naval battle in history; Douglas MacArthur made good his pledge to return to the Philippines; waves of kamikazes attacked the Allied fleets; the Japanese fought to the last man on one island after another; B-29 bombers burned down Japanese cities; and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vaporized in atomic blasts.

Ian W. Toll's narratives of combat in the air, at sea, and on the beaches are as gripping as ever, but he also takes the listener into the halls of power in Washington and Tokyo, where the great questions of strategy and diplomacy were decided. Lionel Barber of the Financial Times chose the second volume of the series (The Conquering Tide) as the preeminent book of 2016, calling it military history at its best. Readers who have been waiting for the conclusion of Toll's masterpiece will be thrilled by this final volume.

The third volume is as good as the first two. It's also a lot longer. The author acknowledges in his foreword that what was originally supposed to be a single book became a trilogy that took him longer to write than the war lasted.

Twilight of the Gods covers the end stages of the Pacific War - 1944 and 1945. By this point, it was obvious to everyone, even the Japanese hardliners, that Japan could not hope to win the war. They could only hope to negotiate the terms of their surrender, and eventually even that hope was all but gone.

Which did not prevent those final years from being the most horrific and bloody of the war, with more casualties on both sides than in all the years preceding.

Toll describes many of the great battles of the Pacific War in great detail. He examines them in strategic terms (how did they affect the course of the war?) and in political terms (how did they affect the calculus of leaders on both sides?). He also examines the leadership qualities of all the admirals and generals in charge, finding quite a few wanting in many respects. And without being overly gruesome, he describes the human cost, the horror, the bloody carnage, the shattered and broken men, the hell they endured, on the shores and aboard ships being attacked by kamikazes, and beneath the waves, where submarines played deadly cat and mouse with Japanese destroyers.


Japanese soldiers suffered as well, and possibly more so, because their leaders treated their lives far more expendably than the Allies treated their own forces. It's easy to see the Japanese as the "villains," and Toll points out repeatedly that they earned their bad reputation. Other atrocities committed by the Japanese (notably in China) don't get as much coverage here because this series is primarily about the Pacific theater, but in the Philippines, when MacArthur returned and American forces crushed the abandoned and unsupplied Japanese defenders, the Japanese carried out brutal massacres of civilians in Manilla and elsewhere, and their atrocities escalated as their final defeat became inevitable. Yet we also learn that even in the beginning, Japanese soldiers, sailors, and airmen were not all obedient, fanatical Samurai willing to casually throw their lives away. As the corruption and ineptitude of their leaders, and the disaster it had brought to their country, became obvious even to the most loyal, dissent and even disobedience grew in the ranks. Some of the most tragic passages are towards the very end, where Toll collected letters written by kamikaze pilots. There were sensitive university-educated poets, Marxists, and even Japanese Christians, expressing how much they hated the war and what they were being asked to do... before they went out and did it and died. It's both inexplicable and not — they knew what they were doing was wrong and futile, and yet, how do you become a deserter and a coward, forsaking your country, knowing that all of your comrades will go and die in your place?

Kamikaze pilots

Toll talks quite a lot about the kamikazes. The doctrine was misunderstood, then and now, as motivated by "Bushido" and the assumed fanaticism of the Japanese. But in fact it was only adopted late in the war out of desperation. There were very few skilled Japanese pilots left (in part because of the decision to keep their best pilots on the front lines until they died, rather than rotating them back to train the next batch like the Allies did). Japanese pilots being turned out of flight school by this late stage were just barely able to fly their planes, and had no hope of conducting accurate bombing missions or dogfighting with by now much more skilled Western pilots. So their leaders made a cold-blooded calculation that treating them as expendable resources was the most effective way to make use of their dwindling air power.

And they were effective. Kamikazes were basically the first guided missiles — with humans as the guidance system. You could put a barely-trained 17-year-old pilot with less than a hundred hours of flight training into a plane whose range had been doubled (because there was no need to return to base) and send him out laden with bombs. It didn't take much skill to point your plane at a ship. They didn't change the course of the war, or even the outcome of any individual battles, but they terrorized Allied sailors and inflicted horrific casualties.

Kamikaze attack on the Bunker Hill

But this was never a standard part of Japanese military doctrine. While the "banzai charges" of the IJA were suicidal and tactically unsound, they were intended with victory in mind. Sailors and pilots had never been taught that their lives were supposed to be expendable and that suicide attacks were honorable.

Many senior officers were appalled when the idea was first proposed, and some commanders refused to order their pilots to do it. There were also many smaller acts of mutiny, such as the pilots who bailed out, hoping to swim to a nearby island and survive, and many who kept turning back because of "mechanical difficulties." Toll tells of one kamikaze pilot who was finally executed after he returned to base nine times.

But there were also many officers and airmen who embraced this glorious new way to die for Japan. Some begged for the privilege. Japanese newspapers began valorizing them, and according to Toll, at one point nearly half the space in every Japanese newspaper was taken up by stories about kamikazes. Schoolgirls sent them love letters and care packages. Kamikaze pilots lived in the best barracks and ate the best food and were treated almost like senior officers until they went out on their final missions.

Peleliu and Okinawa

One of the few weak spots in Twilight of the Gods was chapter three, and it's weak only because I had already read Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed, so I recognized that Toll was basically just summarizing Sledge's book, about the brutal battles on Peleliu and Okinawa.

Thousand Yard Stare

Most of what I'd say about this part I already said in my review of that book, so click the link, but Toll adds some context, about Okinawa in particular.

Iwo Jima

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima was really just the beginning of some of the worst fighting in the war. Iwo Jima was a staging point for the invasion of Okinawa, which was the final stop before the invasion of Japan itself. The battle for Okinawa lasted for five weeks, during which soldiers and Marines slept and fought on beaches that were open-air cesspools.

The Japanese continued to behave atrociously. The native Okinawans were not really considered "Japanese" and weren't treated much better than the Japanese had treated any of their other colonized peoples. Herded, starved, conscripted, and massacred, the few who were still around to witness the arrival of American troops were terrified, as they'd been told that the Americans were monsters who would rape and torture them all.

On Eternal Patrol

Toll devotes a lengthy chapter to submarine warfare. Sub captains were competitive and rated by how much tonnage they sank. It is astounding how many thousands of tons of ships and cargo, oil and materials, and men, were sent to the bottom of the ocean.

There are a lot of rich technical details here, and also a glimpse at politics and defense contracting. The Mark 14 torpedo was developed by the Bureau of Ordnance at the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island. It was insufficiently tested, and submarine captains complained repeatedly about faulty torpedoes that missed their targets, even at point blank range, failed to detonate, or in some cases, actually circled around to sink the sub that launched them!

Newport's response was to insist that the torpedoes were being improperly or carelessly handled. Sub crews proceeded to handle their torpedoes delicately and strictly by the book, and meticulously documented the results, but the much better Mark 18 still didn't come along until 1944. It was developed by Westinghouse, no thanks to the Bureau of Ordnance.

Despite their faulty torpedoes (which by some estimates malfunctioned as often as 1/3 of the time), American submarines wrecked Japanese supply lines, and hunted ships until towards the end of the war, they were searching for anything to launch a torpedo at.

Toll gives a history of some of the captains and their missions, the most notable of which was Commander Dudley Morton. He was one of the best hunters in the sub fleet. The USS Wahoo sank 19 ships and 55,000 tons before it failed to report back from its final mission. As submariners say, it is now on "Eternal Patrol." Its wreck was finally discovered in 2006.

The USS Wahoo

The B-29 Superfortress

Several chapters are devoted to aviation. By the height of the fighting, as Japan was running out of planes and pilots, the U.S. was churning out so many new planes every month that older planes that just needed minor repairs would simply be junked or tossed over the side to be replaced with a shiny new one.

Later in the war, for the Allies it was not so much about dogfighting and all about bombing.


The B-29 "Superfortress" was a monster that allowed the U.S. to bomb the shit out of anyone, anywhere, and bomb they did. It was also an enormously expensive program ($2B dollars in 1944!), and a huge windfall for Boeing. Like the chapter on submarines, the rapid innovation of new planes and pilot training programs, and the fearsome power of the B-29s, and the terror of flying in them under fire, is worth a book in itself.

B-29s were used to firebomb Japanese cities, inflicting far more death and damage than the atomic bombs did. Toll describes the political and moral calculus here: early in the war, all the Allies spoke against bombing civilian targets. The firebombing of Tokyo happened two weeks after the similar bombing of Dresden, Germany. Word of what the Japanese had been doing to civilians and POWs had an impact on the public's (and politicians') willingness to do what was once considered unthinkable, but even when they did bomb cities, they claimed the targets were "munitions and production centers," not civilian populations. This was a pretty thin rationale, especially when bombing Japanese residential neighborhoods was justified by the claim that much of the Japanese war industry was being produced by home workers. But they did avoid bombing the imperial palace itself, and places of great cultural significance like Kyoto.

The Battleship Yamato

The mighty battleship Yamato, one of the biggest ships ever built, was a tragedy that in some ways summarized Japan's entire wartime record. It was built to rule the seas using the old Mahan playbook, but that playbook was thrown out with the arrival of air power. It only ever fired its main guns in battle once, and without effect.

The Battleship Yamato

Her final voyage, during the battle of Okinawa in 1945, was a suicide run, and everyone aboard knew it. They were essentially ordered to perform a naval "banzai charge." Not because they thought they'd survive, and not because anyone thought the Yamato would even slow the Americans down, but because the idea of the ship being sunk or captured without ever having fought was unthinkable.

So the Yamato plowed into the American fleet without air cover, and putting up a magnificent barrage of AA fire, went down beneath a storm of carrier-based planes. The battleship era was over.

Her sister ship, the equally enormous Musashi, had gone down in a similar fashion six months earlier.

The Commanders

Toll spends a lot of time talking about the men in command.

FDR (Time Magazine).jpg

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ran for an unprecedented four terms and would not live to see the end of the war, figures prominently only in the first part of this volume, though American politics were a bigger part of the first book in the trilogy.

A point that will seem very familiar to modern readers is FDR's relationship with the press. During WWII, the government imposed censorship that would never be accepted today. Some was "voluntary" — American newspapers were unabashedly on America's side in the war, even if they were willing to criticize how it was being conducted, so of course they didn't want to publish anything that might help the Axis. But gradually they stopped accepting this as an excuse, as censors took a very broad view of what might constitute "helping the enemy." Journalists started pushing back on restrictions, and the chummy atmosphere FDR had cultivated with the press began to deteriorate. He would publicly call reporters and columnists who published things he didn't like liars.

Admiral King

We met Admiral Earnest King in the first volume, but he figures prominently in the last act as well. As Commander in Chief of the US fleet and Chief of Navy Operations (COMINCH), he was second only to Admiral Leahy, and he was the one who primarily gave Nimitz and the other admirals their orders.

King, like most high-ranking naval officers at the time, considered the press a scourge. Their formative years as junior officers had seen a scandal in which rival admirals had washed the Navy's dirty linen in public; henceforth, most officers considered journalists to be pests if not actively hostile, and not to be spoken to. King took the job as COMINCH on condition that he would not have to do press conferences.

Ironically, King would eventually cultivate personal relationships with some members of the press, setting up a little "boys club" where they'd drink and shoot the breeze, and by so doing, King began playing them like a fiddle, selectively leaking information he wanted to disseminate while manipulating how they covered the Navy. He initially had no use for the press, but learned to have a lot of use for them.

Admiral Halsey (Time Magazine)

Admiral William "Bull" Halsey's nickname of "Bull" was rarely used to his face. He was blunt and belligerent and the press and the American public loved it. One of his most popular dictums was "Kill Japs, kill Japs and keep on killing Japs."

Halsey was put in charge of Task Force 58, the largest assembled naval force the world has ever seen. TF 58 was a flotilla of carriers, cruisers, and their accompanying destroyers, and they could sail anywhere they wanted to and swat whatever they wanted to.

He had a temper to go with his brashness. In one of the most notorious incidents of the war, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Halsey had taken TF 34 (part of TF 58) and gone in pursuit of what later turned out to be a decoy Japanese force. The lightly armed escort carriers he left behind desperately radioed for support when the real Japanese force of battleships came after them. Fleet Admiral Nimitz sent a radio query asking for TF 34's current location:


The details of this require some explanation of cryptography (which Toll explains in the book), but basically, random words and phrases were added at the beginning and ending of messages to make them harder to decode. "The World wonders" was just padding that wasn't meant to be part of the message, but by mistake, Halsey was delivered a message from Nimitz that read "Where is Where is Task Force Thirty Four the world wonders?"

Halsey interpreted this as a sarcastic rebuke sent over the airwaves, and had a four-star meltdown. His chief of staff had to calm him down and get him off the bridge, and Halsey sulked until finally turning TF 34 around... far too late to join the Battle of Samar.

Nimitz, in his memoirs, would later admit that he knew where TF 34 was and that he was pointedly chiding Halsey — though the addition of "The world wonders" really wasn't his doing.

Halsey comes off in this book as quite an interesting character, maybe second only to MacArthur for being an irascible, temperamental glory-hound. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf, he made what most considered to be a tactical blunder, but his counterpart, Admiral Kurita, made a mistake that canceled it out. Halsey would deny until the end of his life that he'd made a mistake, and would even rally his friends to dogpile any historian or journalist who said otherwise.

Admiral Spruance (Time Magazine).jpg

Admiral Spruance was, like most of his peers, a "black shoe" admiral. The "brown shoes" were the aviators, and the new hotness, but black shoe admirals still mostly ran things. Spruance was a genius, so much so that Admiral Halsey named him as his stand-in. The descriptions of Spruance's rather odd personality, his flat responses to military engagements, his habit of pacing decks, sometimes in bathrobe and slippers, his idiosyncratic brilliance, made me think that nowadays he might have been considered "on the spectrum

MacArthur (Time Magazine)

General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz's counterpart in the Army, was enormously popular back home, and not nearly as popular with his own troops. Hagiographic biographies full of fanciful embellishments were being published about him before the war was even over. Toll describes him as an egotistical, thin-skinned glory hound who wouldn't tolerate any of his subordinates sharing his spotlight. He became a celebrity, and he knew how to pose for the cameras. Quite a few photo ops depicted him as "riding with the troops on the front lines" when he was actually just riding a jeep in Australia.

He meddled in politics, both American and Australian, and he sometimes bordered on insubordination. At one point, he was seriously considering making a run for President, before he got slapped down.

For all that, no one could say he lacked courage. He stood on the decks of warships watching kamikaze pilots blazing in, and he walked on beaches within range of potential Japanese snipers, much to the dismay of his staff.

His military genius may have been overestimated (Toll does not judge directly, but points out several of his contemporaries who claimed MacArther made numerous mistakes and was only a mediocre general), but as a symbol he was the United States to much of the Pacific Theater.

As the US began determining how it was going to launch the final siege against Japan, there was a big debate between the Luzon (Philippines) approach, or using Formosa (Taiwan) as the launching point. MacArthur favored Luzon, of course, because he wanted to keep his promise to the Philippines that he would return. Eventually he won this battle, and he did indeed return.

Unconditional Surrender

"Unconditional Surrender," the only terms the US would accept, seems pretty unambiguous, right? But it turns out there was quite a lot of nuance to it. While in the popular imagination, this meant the Japanese would bow before their conquerors and accept a boot on their necks or whatever else the Americans saw fit to subject them to, there were back channel negotiations going on even as the Americans publicly demanded unconditional surrender and the Japanese declared they would fight to the last bamboo spear-carrying civilian.

The negotiations were complicated and delicate, especially within Japanese circles. Toll does his best to dig out what can be known about these inner circle deliberations, given that few records were kept and after the war, few high-ranking Japanese would speak about what was said behind closed doors. He repeatedly describes the process as "Nemawashi" — literally "digging at the roots," a laborious process by which a consensus is eventually arrived at without any individual ever making a command decision, let alone something as coarse as "voting."

There was a "peace faction" that could never openly say they wanted to surrender, even though everyone knew they were going to have to. The militant faction openly claimed they would fight to the death (and that the indomitable spirit of the Japanese people would propel them to victory despite American numerical superiority and, uh, Japan running out of oil, planes, money, and food), even while they tried to reach a consensus about the terms of their surrender.

The sticking point was the Emperor. A majority of the American public wanted Hirohito tried as a war criminal, and removed from his throne at the very least. But ensuring the safety of the Emperor and his family was the one thing the Japanese weren't prepared to yield on, and over which they might have actually fought to the bitter end.

The most accurate thing to say about the unofficial "understanding" reached between American and Japanese negotiators would be that the Japanese "unconditionally surrendered," while having been made to understand that Hirohito would be allowed to stay on the throne, even if this was never promised or written in so many words. This was one of the most interesting chapters in the book, as the process of Japanese decision-making and the many miscommunications between Japanese and Americans, all with the backdrop of a Soviet advance in Manchuria complicating things, made this so much more complex than "The U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan and Japan surrendered."

There are two big questions I always have about the end of World War II: how culpable was Emperor Hirohito, really? And was nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki really the only alternative to an invasion? I discussed this a bit in my review of The Rising Sun. Toll can't answer either question more definitively than Toland, though he does provide somewhat more detail. Like most authors, he relies on a lot of primary sources, but primary sources in the Japanese high council meetings were not particularly forthcoming about any decision-making power the Emperor had, and MacArthur, who managed the occupation and was the defacto American governer-general of Japan, found it useful to depict Hirohito as a puppet of the military junta. What we can glean from discussions in which Hirohito took part is that he was not merely a figurehead. He couldn't exactly command the Japanese military to do something and make it so; Japan's constitutional monarchy limited his role. However, his blessing was needed to go forward, and even the militarists felt an almost religious reverence for the Emperor, so to act against his wishes would have been difficult. Hirohito giving his blessing to an unconditional surrender, even accepting that he would be at the mercy of the Americans, made unconditional surrender possible.

Operation Downfall: The Invasion that Never Happened

As for the atomic bombs, Toll covers the details of the flights over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the events before and after the bombings, and their dreadful effects. But modern readers may be surprised just how little impact the atomic bombs actually had at the time. The Japanese actually had a nuclear program of their own, though it had never gotten very far, so while even after Hiroshima, they were skeptical that the Americans had actually developed a fission bomb, they were not unfamiliar with the concept. But the loss of Hiroshima and Nagasaki really didn't impress them that much — they'd already suffered far more damage from B-29s.

Truman (Time Magazine)

The new President, Harry Truman, was briefed about the existence of the bombs his first day in office. (Earlier, as a Senator, he had questioned the vast amounts of unaccounted money being sent to a "Manhattan Project" and was told it was a secret project for the war effort, which was apparently good enough for him.) Using similar rationales to the firebombings by B-29s (which continued even after the atomic bombs were dropped, unceasing while the Japanese deliberated over surrendering) he claimed that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were "military targets," but obviously he knew they were going to kill thousands of civilians By this point, no one really cared. The Allies had drawn up plans for invading Japan: Operation Downfall, consisting of two main operations, Olympic and Coronet. It would have dwarfed Normandy in scale, and everyone expected it to make Okinawa seem like a cakewalk. Anything that might prevent having to invade the home islands was worth it.

But what really ended Japanese hopes for a conditional surrender was the declaration of war by the Soviet Union. Japan had hoped the Soviets would help them negotiate a more acceptable peace with the Allies, but Stalin was stringing them along, and in an almost Pearl Harbor-like move, ended the Japanese-Soviet neutrality pact and invaded Manchuria the next morning. That was when even the hardliners knew the jig was well and truly up. And it was the Soviet threat that also informed Truman's decision to use atomic bombs on Japan. He knew every day the Japanese delayed surrendering was another day of Russia gaining territory in the Far East, and by now, the West accurately foresaw the Soviet Union being the bigger threat in the future.

This monumental, epic series takes advantage of new research and documents that might not have been available to John Toland in the late 60s, and Ian Toll has written a comprehensive but compelling history of the Pacific War that leaves almost nothing out.

Okay, that's not quite true. One criticism some readers might have is that this series is extremely US-centric. While the Commonwealth forces weren't as big a part of the Pacific war, especially after they were kicked out of the Dutch East Indies, they were certainly in it, especially the Australians. India and China too each made up a mini-theater within the Pacific theater, and while those campaigns are large enough to warrant books of their own, Toll mentions them only incidentally.

That one gap notwithstanding, I give this entire series my highest recommendation.

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