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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Naval War Heroes

Evan Thomas takes us inside the naval war of 1941-1945 in the South Pacific in a way that tells personal stories, gives us cultural insights and explains this greatest of all naval wars. Four men provide the tableau upon which the tale is told.

Admiral Bull Halsey is well known to students of the Pacific War. He gave America a needed boost of confidence with his hard charging attitude in the dark days after Pearl Harbor. His courage, foibles and failings add depth to an understanding of his war hero image and racist attitudes before, during and after the war.

Admiral Matome Ugaki is in some respects Halsey's counterpart in the Japanese Navy. How Japanese culture of the early 20th century shaped this man into a suicidal fanatic, willing to sacrifice a whole nation for a bizarre conception of "honor," is hard to understand. Evans comes close to making sense out of it.

Commander Ernest Evans, a Cherokee Indian and Annapolis graduate who led his destroyer on the last great charge in the last great naval battle in history was somewhat known to me. A Medal of Honor recipient for his acts of bravery and leadership in the battle of Leyte Gulf, he overcame extreme poverty and prejudice to become a naval officer before the war. Knowing the story of his defense of the carriers of Taffy 3, I had always admired him as a great hero and still do.... and yet while all of his surviving crew, to this day speak highly of him, some will admit he may have gone too far. With his tiny destroyers ammunition all gone and the ship ablaze, he continued to attack the largest battleships ever built.

Admiral Takeo Kurita, the Japanese battleship commander charged with making what was, in essence, a suicidal fleet attack against the American invasion of the Philippines is the most intriguing of all. By means of a clever deception, which put Bull Halsey reputation at risk, Kurita's force of battleships fought and destroyed a portion of a smaller and outgunned American naval force in a night battle in Leyte Gulf. Then faced with the prospect of being annihilated by the power of Halsey's overwhelming carrier force, he choose a "mysterious retreat" in violation of his orders. In Evans words, he was later praised after the war as a "seaman of seamen," but never honored for "his humaneness, as a commander, who chose not to foolishly waste the lives of his men in a grand but empty act of bushido."

I don't think one has to be particularly interested in refighting old battles from WWII to learn something worthwhile from from Evan Thomas's latest book. The vagaries of courage and honor in the face of cultural imperatives are a subject for any era. Think of things like the "doctine of preemption" as a basis for a national foreign policy or "enhanced interrogation" as best means of protecting our national security.


Montanagirl said...

Very interesting post.

Cedar ... said...

Interesting,.... a good friend was a Pacific veteran. I think I'd like to check out that book.

Bekkieann said...


I do like this review. I'm not one to pick up a book on the topic of war -- just never have been. But your perspective does make this of interest. I like your ending where you bring it up to date with recent events. Something to think about.

Sarah Laurence said...

Nice review - I like how you added the faces of the historical figures. It's a fascinating period of history.

Dave Coulter said...

Sounds interesting! My dad was in the navy in WWII, but mainly in the Atlantic.

Janie said...

Interesting review. My husband enjoys WWII history. I'm putting this on his reading list.