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December 04, 2006

Book Review: Sea of Thunder, by Evan Thomas.

I like Simon and Schuster. They send me books to read.

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This is a title I would not have bought, simply because of competition for shelf space and time, but I'm glad I got it to read. Made me expand myself a bit.

The book is Sea of Thunder - Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-45, by Newsweek journalist Evan Thomas.

I've not read a quick-reading one volume history of WWII in the Pacific, except in context of the land campaigns. So I've read several detailed histories of some of the battles covered here, but I've never really had a sense of the overall flow of the Naval Campaign. I say naval campaign in caps there because the book is not about MacArthur's Navy, the 7th Fleet, nor does it touch on the land campaigns much, except where needful.

This is the story of the maneuverings, nautical and political and personal, of the Big Blue Fleet, mostly when under the command of Admiral Halsey, and the Imperial Japanese Fleet, as they strove to achieve the Decisive Battle in the Pacific Theater, told via the wartime careers of 4 naval officers. Admiral Halsey, commander of the Big Blue Fleet. Commander Ernest Evans, skipper of the USS Johnston, a ship and captain made famous in the Last Stand of the Tin-Can Sailors at Leyte Gulf. Admiral Takeo Kurita, commander of the Second Fleet on it's last, ill-fated sortie, and Admiral Matome Ugaki, commander of the biggest battleships ever built, the Musashi and Yamato, and who would achieve a sad fame as "The Last Kamikaze".

Thomas makes good use of Japanese sources to give the reader a far more nuanced view of the Japanese Navy and it's commanders and sailors than I have read elsewhere (a failing that may be more due to my soldierly, vice naval, interests). It was especially eerie to see the witless paranoia and fantasy that the Japanese Imperial Staff engaged in that mirrored that of the German General Staff, comprised, as both were, of people far too removed from the fighting and who held their positions due to being good staff weenies and game-players than deep-thinking strategists.

He also strips away any lingering pedestals for Halsey and Evans, applying as he does, the one thing about the book that annoyed me. Evans lets his "90's kind of guy" sensibilities suffuse his writing, as he makes sure we all know that these guys were, in many ways, uncultured, sorta uncouth, and racist (especially Halsey). I don't mind truth-telling. It's far more useful to know that Halsey was so affected by the stress of his job that he had psychosomatic illnesses and yet kept on doing his job, than the image of an unbreakable man at the helm. Humanizing these men is a good thing. There are just moments in passing where Evan's lets his sensitivities mar his prose, to my ear. Your mileage may vary.

[Update: Heh. I fell into my own rhetorical trap - *I* still think Halsey did a great job overall, and that Evans *earned* his Medal of Honor, whatever we after-the-fact guessers have to say. They were the "Man in the Arena" many of us are the cold and timid souls who know neither victory of defeat. That said - you have to be able to look past the aura and see the truth, to both try to learn from the mistakes, and, in the final analysis - makes great people greater, as you learn of the real cost of doing what at the time seemed so easy, because we wanted it to appear that they were Olympians. -the Armorer]

But if that's the only complaint I have, it's not much.

I suspect my compadres of the Naval community will not find much in here that is new or revelatory, aside from the Japanese perspective. I admit to being a little surprised at the unity of command issues and long-running sore of strategic comms, and how Naval Tradition (with those caps) got in the way at times, but no more so than happened with MacArthur. I was completely unaware of the effective incompetence of the highest levels of the Japanese armed forces, simply because I really had never paid attention to the Japanese side of the war from the operational and strategic end of things.

My recommendation? If you like military history and aren't looking for geek-level reading, it's worth the money. If you aren't that up on the naval campaign in the Pacific in WWII, and would like an easy-to-read precis on the last gasp of the Gun Club Admirals and the rise of carrier warfare, as well as an interesting window into the Japanese, this book will fit that niche. If you've never read naval history before, this is a good introduction to the subject - well written in an easy to read style, and decent history from a substance perspective. If you're a serious naval historian/geek, unless the Japanese side of this is new to you, there isn't much in here for that level of reader, except that if it's a subject you last read about in Samuel Eliot Morison's history of the war some time ago, it might be a good way to revisit the topic and refresh those neurons. Especially if you've moved from junior officer to more senior officer in the intervening years. Revisiting the subject might cause you to see some things you didn't notice the first time.

A good Christmas gift for the naval enthusiast in your group who doesn't already know enough to write a book themselves... In other words, if I hadn't read it already, it would have been a good choice for me! (Thanks, Leah!)

Sea of Thunder, by Evan Thomas. Released November 2006 by Simon and Schuster. List $27, online $18.90 or less.

Coming up later this week: Masters of the Air, by Donald Miller.

Comments on Book Review: Sea of Thunder, by Evan Thomas.
Maggie briefed on December 4, 2006 08:43 AM

*I* have an autographed copy! Neenerneener!

I met this guy over at the Kennedy Museum and then went to see him speak about the book in Harvard Square. He was great.

John of Argghhh! briefed on December 4, 2006 08:45 AM

Heh. Mine was free. Plllppppt!

Maggie briefed on December 4, 2006 09:20 AM

Right, mine is worth more.

John of Argghhh! briefed on December 4, 2006 09:21 AM

Interesting perspective.

Actually, mine wasn't free. It took the hours of my time to read it, and the hour to compose the review.

Which is worth a lot more than $19 at my billable rate.

Maggie briefed on December 4, 2006 09:42 AM

Are we discussing your hourly rate? Does it include the room? LOL

John of Argghhh! briefed on December 4, 2006 09:51 AM

I'm a Beltway Bandit, Maggie. If I'm providing the room, that's extra. Yer paying per diem, too. But we always meet our deliverables. Just make sure what you ask for is really what you want.

Mike Greene briefed on December 4, 2006 09:32 PM

Surprised to see it wasn't mentioned today, but Happy St. Barbara's Day from a fellow Redleg. May all who work with sudden explosions have a safe and happy day.

Regards,

Mike

Justthisguy briefed on December 5, 2006 09:14 PM

*Every* day is Saint Barbara's Day at Castle Argghhh!

John of Argghhh! briefed on December 5, 2006 09:18 PM

Oops. Mike - reality is, I never keep the date straight. In all those years of wearing the scarlet facings, we never once celebrated her day *on* the day...