The Conquering Tide – Ian W. Toll

The War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

This is the second volume in a projected trilogy on WWII in the Pacific.  It follows his book “Pacific Crucible” which deals with the early stages of the war – primarily the battles of Coral Sea and Midway.  This book goes from the Guadalcanal invasion to 1944 and the conquest of Saipan.  This would allow the start of the B29 strategic bombing offensive against Japan itself to begin.

This period is the ‘swing period’ of the war.  The Japanese started with a significant advantage in trained pilots and the initiative that let them attack peacetime garrisons and weak and unprepared foes.  After a few months, the Allies started to get their bearings and start to be able to contest the Japanese fleet, especially when divided.  The battle of Midway ended the period where the Japanese could realistically continue expanding in the Pacific, but the US still needed time to collect their forces, get them into the battle.

That is the period discussed in this book – the US seizure of Guadalcanal was risky, as the Japanese could strike hard at the protecting naval forces and the troops, but the air base on the island increasingly took its toll on the Japanese ships and planes.  Surface actions came frequenty, from the disaster at Savo to others that were more even or even victories.  But regardless, the Japanese could not push the US away, and every month brought the arrival of massive US naval forces closer.

The US Navy (with some significant Commonwealth help, especially the Australians) needed time to gain experience meeting the Japanese, and took their lumps.  But every Japanese ship damaged or lost was gone for good, while the US kept getting more ships.

Finally, the US forced the Japanese out of the Solomons, and then began the Central Pacific offensives at Tarawa, Kwajalein and finally Saipan.  By this point, the Japanese Navy is hardly a threat to the assembled fleets – the latest battle was the famed “Marianas Turkey Shoot” where the air force was crushed and the newest Japanese carrier blew itself up from fuel fumes more than US bombs or torpedoes.

The book is big enough to give a more thorough treatment of the campaigns than standard one volume histories.  It has a little of the view of the Japanese side, but it is more the US view of the war than trying to show what both sides were doing equivalently.  Hopefully the third volume continues at this detail rather than slide off when the war gets totally one-sided as often happens.  I look forward to the third volume with some interest, as I am reading more about this part of the war these days.

Islands of Destiny – John Prados

Islands of Destiny is a book about the Solomons Islands campaign from mid-1942 to 1943.  The thesis, which is pretty sound, is that this is the real ‘turning point’ of the Pacific War, where the balance finally shifted from the initial Japanese dominance to the final overwhelming US advantage.

Japanese troops load onto a warship in prepara...

Japanese troops load onto a warship in preparation for a Tokyo Express run sometime in 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even after the defeat at Midway, the Japanese were still on the strategic offensive in the South Pacific, threatening to cut the trade route to Australia, or strain it by requiring a huge diversion.  This ended with Operation Shoestring, the snatching of Guadalcanal’s Henderson field from the Japanese.  For months after that, the battle for the island continued on more or less even terms between the two sides.  There were surface ship actions, carrier battles, and ground and air combat.  Both sides were straining to supply this combat far from either sides’ bases.  Both sides were trying to learn how to conduct a war on the job.

Unlike most books, this one goes into the combats after Guadalcanal fell and the US moved up the island chain toward the base at Rabaul.  This was also the period where the production of the US really started to come on line and dominate the theater.  At the start, the Japanese had dreams of strangling the Marines on one island.  By the end, the Japanese were themselves cut off and bypassed as the US moved on toward Japan.

U.S. Army soldiers on Bougainville (one of the...

U.S. Army soldiers on Bougainville (one of the Solomon Islands) in World War II. Japanese forces tried infiltrating the U.S. lines at night; at dawn, the U.S. soldiers would clear them out. In this picture, infantrymen are advancing in the cover of an M4 Sherman tank. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book does not go into huge detail on any one action, as it is a more strategic view. There is a lot of information on the code breaking efforts on both sides and its effects.  It tends to be more even-handed in its coverage, following the US and its problems and the Japanese and theirs.  The problems of each side often had a counterpart on the other.

While in the end the US and its production and development would have overcome the Japanese, this ‘swing period’ before that could happen was difficult – the Japanese had more skilled pilots and good weapons, and their Navy was better handled.  Although the cost was high, this campaign kept the Japanese busy here and wore down the edge.  By the end of the campaign, superior radar, aircraft and swarms of carriers and support ships made all the other campaigns a foregone conclusion.

Pacific Crucible – Ian W. Toll

As you can tell on this blog, one of the subjects I’m reading up on these days is WWII in the Pacific. There was Shattered Sword, a new view on Midway. and a book on Leyte Gulf.  Whichever one started the process, the good books on the campaigns  led me to get another and another.

The Pacific has three phases. There is the early period where Japan ran wild, a ‘swing period’ where the two sides contended on more equal terms, and then the island hopping advance once the US Navy had overwhelming force.  Most histories I’ve seen tend to follow the winners, talking about Japan up to Midway and the USN after that.  I have three books that cover Midway, but none that cover the Battle of Coral Sea or any battle before that.

This book drops right into that gap and it is a good book as well. It follows the Navy as it recovers from Pearl Harbor and tries to learn how to contend with the Kido Butai, the Japanese Carrier Force.  While no carriers were lost at Pearl Harbor, the USN was outnumbered in carriers substantially, they did not have the elite training in operating as a  unit, and the US aircraft were inferior to the point of obsolescence.  This is even aside from the inferior and defective torpedoes that often did not detonate,, due to differences in the sea conditions from where they were tested.

Trying to find ways to hit back and restrict the Japanese advance without losing too many carriers and men in the process was difficult.  If you sat and did nothing, the ships would be just as inexperienced at the next meeting.  If your forces were crushed, there wouldn’t be anyone left to learn from.  It is a difficult balancing act.

So the carriers were sent out to attack bases where the Kido Butai was absent to gain some experience without undue risk.  Then a pair of carriers were sent on the Doolittle Raid.  Again all of these were aimed at hitting where resistance was known to be light.

This period ended with the Japanese plan to invade Port Moresby.  A base there would threaten the link to Australia, and code breakers determined that the two US carriers that could get there would only be met by 2 large Japanese carriers, and the least experienced ones at that.  So the Lexington and Yorktown were sent to face the Shokaku and Zuikaku at the battle of Coral Sea.

As you might expect, it was something of a mess.  Yorktown opened the battle by pasting a base at Tulagi.  This brought the Japanese out to hunt.  Bad spotting reports for both sides led to the US planes to attack the light carrier Shoho and sink her.  This mistake was matched by the Japanese sending a massive strike to a single tanker and destroyer.   The Japanese attempted a second strike at sunset that missed spotting the carriers in the overcast and darkness.  In trying to return, some of these planes tried to land on the US carriers!   Many planes and pilots were lost in the raid to no effect.

English: Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho is to...

English: Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho is torpedoed, during attacks by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft in the late morning of 7 May 1942. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next day each side launched a full strike, which passed each other on the way.  The US flights scattered, each carrier separate from the others and the torpedo bombers separate from dive bombers.  Partly this was inexperience, partly due to the differing performance of the planes which made it hard to keep together.  The US damaged Shokaku.  The Japanese hit the Lexington and damaged the Yorktown.  Each side retired, and the invasion was cancelled.  So the US force gained its objective.

The two Japanese carriers were out of action for the battle of Midway – Zuikaku due to aircrew losses.  The Japanese did not shift squadrons from carrier to carrier as the US did.   The Lexington sank due to additional damage from exploding gas fumes.  This taught damage control how to minimize this danger going forward.  Yorktown alone was able to be repaired in time to be present at Midway, beefed up by a fresh torpedo squadron.

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)

This turned out to be the difference at Midway.  Yorktown’s planes sank the Soryu, and it took the brunt of both Japanese attacks.  Damage control was so good the second strike thought she was undamaged and struck her again with what turned out to be fatal damage.  Enterprise and Hornet would have been met by two carriers after the first US strike without Yorktown present, and the loss of both would have been likely.

This would have made subsequent operations harder to face with a 2-1 carrier advantage.against us.  As it was, the Guadalcanal operations reduced the fleet down to 1 carrier before the Essex class units arrived in 1943.  The Japanese would have been a lot harder to face in this period without the losses they took in this period and the learning we did in the process.

With the Old Breed – E. B. Sledge

“If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.” With privilege goes responsibility. —  E. B. Sledge

This is an excellent book on the life on the firing line in the Pacific in WWII.  Sledge was a recruit who joined the 1st Marine Division after Guadalcanal, and served with the unit during the capture of Peleliu and Okinawa.  He fought with the old Marines from the pre-war period and later was the veteran trying to emulate the help they gave him in the later battles.

These were savage battles.  Peleliu cost about 50 percent casualties in the riflemen on the front line, while the enemy had to be killed to nearly the last man.  Sledge lists the 26 remaining men of the 65 veterans of Peleliu who landed at Okinawa that were still with the unit.  There was time for numerous replacements to be brought into line and knocked right back out.  The replacements didn’t have the same luck or survival skills that the veterans had.

The book doesn’t try to make the battles pretty, but rather the reverse.  Not every book on warfare has to stay down in the mud and blood with the line troops, but every reader needs to keep in mind that the cost of war is paid by the front line soldier.

Wings of War – Peter Harclerode

Subtitled “Airborne Warfare  1918-1945, this fat 650 page tome details the growth and use of airborne troops by every nation and their use in detail.  Want to know all about the Russian use of airborne troops in 1941?  It’s in there!

I suppose the general lesson is that these kind of operations – mass air landings take a lot of resources and tend to have disappointing results.  So even if the original smaller scale drops seem to work, the translation up to dropping a brigade or division tends to fail.

The downside of having these forces at all is that you spend the time to make some elite infantry, then you have them sit about waiting to fight, drop them off with limited heavy weapons behind enemy lines and have them ground to powder.  Losses tend to be high even for successful operations – 30-50 percent.  Failed ones, such as the British 1st AB Division near Arnhem in 1944 are even worse, since airborne units are dedicated enough to fight and take losses longer than your average unit.

Almost every nation followed a similar trajectory of early small-scale use, followed by some big operations and then retrenchment for the rest of the war.  The Germans did virtually no operations after Crete.  The Russians did a lot of drops early in the war and trailed off later. The Allies in Europe ramped up to Market-Garden and then trailed off.  Their final drop, Varsity, was an almost comically limited operation,  Montgomery dropped a bunch of paratroopers just over the Rhine, within sight of his lines.  They still took a pounding, and you can’t help but wonder if they would have done just as well crossing in rubber rafts as dropping down.

Probably the best use in the war of airborne and air supported operations was the Chindits in Burma.  These troops were landed in the far rear to interrupt the Japanese supply lines so they did not have the usual problems of being surrounded and continually attacked by reserves that drops nearer a front line usually had.  They were supported by air and lived off the land, and kept continual pressure on the Japanese.  They were so useful that they were kept out there until disease and exhaustion wrecked the units about as severely as sustained combat would have.

Smaller scale operations, like we have Special Forces do today, seem like the best use.  These tend to be fast, so that the units get out before mass reaction can be made or the units exhausted.   The operations where large numbers of troops were expected to hold a front for long periods were much less successful and had a high cost for everyone.

Shattered Sword – Parshall and Tully

Subtitled ‘The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway’, this is a Japanese-centric view of the battle.  By looking at how the Japanese fleet conducted itself, the authors are able to show that the Midway operation was in trouble from the start, rather than a triumphal parade that was overturned by a single stroke of luck.

The first major issue was the plan itself.  Why Midway? If they took the island, there was virtually no way it could be defended against counterattack.  It was hardly useful as a springboard to Hawaii, since Hawaii could not be taken, and the civilians could not be fed by Japanese resources if the had taken it.   If the plan was to lure the Americans to battle, then there was little need to carry along the large battleship and troop train that played no part in the battle except to alert the Americans a day or so sooner.

And if the Midway adventure was bad, the Coral Sea and Aleutian expeditions were even sillier – dissipating the carrier force without return.

The authors do a great job in showing how the time needed by the Japanese to mount a strike, by analyzing how they reloaded and moved planes to the deck shows that the fleet needed a considerable amount of free time to get a major strike launched.  After the first strike, aimed at Midway Island, the scattered and ineffectual US attacks first from Midway, then from the torpedo bombers of the fleet, kept the Japanese from launching any second strike until after the dive bombers found and devastated three of the four Japanese carriers.

While Japanese damage control was nothing to write home about, in at least two of those three carriers, the damage on the first strike was severe and would have been enough to render the carrier useless, if not sink it.  The Akagi, hit by just one bomb, might have been kept serviceable with better damage control.  But the real problem for the carrier force was that, pinned in easy range of the US Fleet and Midway, it did not have the time to launch the large coordinated strikes the Japanese favored.

There was no real need for the fleet to press that close.  Japanese planes had a range advantage over most US planes.  Keeping the range open made all kinds of sense.  Shielding the carriers with surface forces also had some merit – and would even be Japanese doctrine in a year or so.  But the main problem was that there was no good reason for the Japanese to try to take Midway, and not much reason for the US to defend it, aside from the chance getting a shot at the carriers.

Ironically, the Japanese, who had produced the best carrier fleet in the world, didn’t value it as much as the US did, once their battleships were ravaged at Pearl Harbor.  They scattered it, and risked it in campaigns of little to no value.  At Coral Sea two carriers were put out of service for months, and at Midway four were sunk.  The remainder was not enough to keep the offensive, and by the time the US started producing its massive fleets of fast carriers in 1943 and 1944 the Japanese could not hope to compete.


Red Sun Setting – William T. Y’Blood

This book is about the Battle for the Philippine Sea, the 1944 battle between the US and Japanese navies.  It was the last true carrier battle in the war, as the losses incurred here made the carriers useless for real attacks.  In the last battle at Leyte Gulf, the surviving carriers were used as bait to lure Halsey away from protecting the transport fleet, as they had few planes or pilots.

The Japanese plan was tempered by the realities of their position.  Their aircrew were inexperienced, and fuel was difficult to get due to the ravages of US submarines.  The carrier fleet had to travel to Borneo to fill its tanks with raw unrefined oil.  It would not have the fuel for the fancy tactics that they liked – a single thrust at the US fleet was all they could do.  Another part of the plan was to move aircraft from other bases to Guam and catch the US between two fires.

The action was triggered by the US invasion of Saipan.  While the invasion proceeded, the US carrier task force bombed the airfields of the islands, and even sent part of the fleet to bomb the bases at Iwo Jima.  This did not knock out the airfields, but many of the aircraft that were supposed to attack the fleet were damaged or destroyed.

The Japanese fleet was spotted by US submarines en route, and the US fleet prepared for the action.  The recovery of the last missions to the island bases required the carriers to steam into the wind, away from the Japanese fleet.  The Japanese expected this and were staying beyond normal range of the US search planes.  When Admiral Spruance decided not to spend the night steaming towards the Japanese, this pretty much assured that he would be taking the first blow.

This advantage was lost due to Japanese inexperience.  Radar picked up the strikes very far out.  Instead of coming in at full speed, the flights had to orbit for a time to receive final strike orders from the flight leader – inside radar range.  This gave the defending fighters plenty of time to reach the strike and attack it well away from the carriers.  Most of the planes were shot down and never returned to the Japanese fleet. The results were so lopsided that the battle was called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

Even more distressing for the Japanese fleet was that they sailed through a submarine patrol zone and two submarines fired at two carriers.  One, the Shokaku, was hit several times and sank.  Even worse was the one hit on the flagship Taiho.  While the torpedo hit did minor damage, blunders in damage control caused fuel and gas fumes to spread through the ship.  A spark set off huge explosions that gutted the ship and sank her.

Late the next day, the US struck back.  Because of the extended range, the attacks were poorly coordinated and hasty, but a third carrier, Hiyo, was sunk and the Zuikaku – the last surviving carrier from the Pearl Harbor attack, was heavily damaged.  A few other ships had slight damage.  Losses to the planes defending the fleet were heavy.

The US planes returned to the fleet in darkness and critically low on fuel.  Admiral Mitscher decided to risk turning on the fleet’s lights in full to aid recovery operations at the risk of attacks by enemy submarines.  In the confused operation, many planes were lost but most of the aircrews were saved.

This brought the battle to an end.  The US had destroyed the Japanese naval aviation, although they did not know it at the time.  Critics thought the carrier operations were a bit too tentative, despite the good results.  Of course, they were to find out that being over-bold can be just as bad in Leyte Gulf.

This is a good treatment of a battle that is usually glossed over in the histories.

Reading Update – February


Notable Historical Trials III
Starting into a chapter on Major Andre, the British officer hung for conspiring with Benedict Arnold.
Red Sun Setting – the Battle of the Philippine Sea
The World War II Naval Battle, often called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” because of the great success in shooting down Japanese aircraft.  It nullified the value of the Japanese carriers from that point on.  Just starting.
A critical year in the antebellum era as seen through participants. So far it has been pedestrian, with chapters on the Lecompton battle and one on Lee.  I prefer the treatment in the book “1857” so far.  There are chapters coming up on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  This prompted me to look up the re-enactments that were done in 1994 that are available on the web.
 Guns of Cedar Creek
The 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek.  Haven’t progressed much.
Wings of War – Airborne Warfare 1918-1945
Currently reading about the early German airborne operations in the Netherlands and about to start the Crete operation. 
The Secret War for the Union
Military Intelligence in the Civil War.  A very good book. It gives a lot of credit to Hooker for creating a professional intelligence branch and using it effectively. It turned out that the spy service is not as useful in the heat of battle, and that contributed to his failure. Now the service is helping detect Lee’s march North.
Kindle Books
I re-read most of the H. Beam Piper books and stories.  I started reading “Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne from one of the collections I bought a few months ago.

Guadalcanal – Richard Frank

I finally finished this book on the air-sea-land campaign to hold Guadalcanal against the Japanese.  Only a few months after the battles of Coral Sea and Midway slowed the Japanese advance, for the first time the US took the offensive by snatching the island away from the worker gangs that were installing an airfield.

Started on a shoestring with a Navy strained with the losses from Pearl Harbor and the needs of a two ocean war, this battle is unique in that the issue was in doubt for some months until the inability of the Japanese to supply their troops led to an abandonment of the island.  In later battles the USN was strong enough the issue was never in doubt.

The book is very well researched and written, giving a view of both sides, the Japanese and the US.  In a lot of ways the Japanese were better than the US during this fight, but the US got better and the Japanese lost their initial edge.  Also, throughout the US was in a better logistic position, and the Japanese neglect of supply led to many of the troops they delivered starving to death on the island.

This book is one of the standard works on the subject, and it deserves its reputation. An excellent book on a complicated operation.



Miracle at Midway – Gordon Prange

I finished this book on the Battle of Midway the other day. It’s a good treatment – a little less of the journalistic slant of the famed “Incredible Victory” by Walter Lord, and more of the Admiral’s eye view of matters on both sides.

The is also some interesting treatment of the Aleutians operation, which is often omitted due to its eventual irrelevance.

The theme is that the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto produced an overly complicated plan that wasted their strength and allowed the USN to compete on even terms.  When a little luck was added, the Japanese lost three of their four carriers in a few minutes, followed by the fourth the same day, and the remainder of the Japanese fleet was rendered impotent.

A recent book on the battle – Shattered Sword – looks at the details of Japanese procedures and carrier construction to show that the Japanese were much less fast and flexible in carrier operations than the US, even at this point. Also, their indifference to damage control led to uncontrollable fires that did most of the work in sinking the four carriers.  The US had learned from previous sinkings how to limit the spread of fires.

Prange notes an incident in this battle I hadn’t heard that bears on this. At the end of the battle, two Japanese cruisers collided, the Mikuma and the Mogami.  Although of the two, the Mogami was more damaged, it survived the followup air attacks and the Mikuma did not.  This is probably in large part due to the damage control officer of the Mogami throwing overboard all flammables including torpedoes and depth charges.  This gave them the edge they needed, while their sister ship died due to fires started by bombs.

Another theme Prange stresses is the tendency for promising Japanese officers to commit suicide or go down with their ship rather than survive and learn.  Japan had a tough road in the war regardless, but having their officers kill themselves only helped the US.