Time and again during World War II in the Pacific, U.S. forces successfully landed on enemy beaches and fought their way to victory. Images of Marines storming Japanese-held islands dominated newsreel and news paper coverage of those battles. And one image—six Marines raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi on blood-drenched Iwo Jima—became the war's supreme icon.
To anyone who knows anything about the battle for Iwo Jima, the island has an almost sacred aura. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz's tribute—"Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue"—became the epitaph for the thousands of Marines who fell in one of the most dearly won battles of the war.
Now, 62 years later, The Ghosts of Iwo Jima asks whether that invasion was necessary, whether the generals and admirals who planned it were inspired more by inter-service rivalry than by strategy, and whether horrific Marine casualty figures were deceptively manipulated.
Author Robert Burrell, a Marine captain and former instructor in naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy, preserves the sacred memory of Iwo Jima. He graphically describes the battle for the island, quoting not only from the vast American archives but also drawing from documents describing the strategy of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of Iwo Jima's fight-to-the-death defenders. Burrell also shows that official Iwo Jima casualty reports "underestimated American casualties while at the same time exaggerating Japanese losses." The skewed figures gave President Harry S. Truman a false impression that would influence his thinking about the invasion of Japan.
In prose as direct and unadorned as a fitness report, Burrell describes the way high-ranking officers of the Army, Navy, and Army Air Forces scuffled over planning for the Iwo assault. He produces a classic demonstration of the inter-service rivalry that often befogged strategic decisions in the Pacific. Such squabbling has been covered in countless books that look back at the conflicts between Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and General Douglas A. MacArthur. Burrell adds another actor: General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, whose zealous championing of air power and the B-29 Superfortress dominated his arguments for the Iwo Jima landing.
Arnold said the island needed to be taken to provide a base for fighters that would escort the bombers on their flights to and from Japan. But no fighter base was built. "The Army Air Forces," Burrell says flatly, "did not use Iwo Jima for the purpose that had led to its capture." So, the reason was changed: Iwo Jima was said to be an emergency-landing field for B-29s.
Employing what Burrell calls "deep falsehoods," the Army Air Forces said in a 1945 publication, entitled Air Victory Over Japan, that 2,251 B-29s had landed on Iwo. "But at most, only 1,000 Superforts were ever based in the Marianas," Burrell writes. "The Army Air Forces did not even have 2,251 B-29s in its total inventory." The number referred to landings, and the overwhelming number of those were refueling stops. In a scrupulous analysis of Iwo Jima's role as a base, Burrell comes up with enough information to drive out of future history books the "emergency landing" claim for the taking of Iwo Jima.
Burrell goes over familiar—and hallowed—ground by recounting the events that produced Joseph Rosenthal's immortal photo of the second Suribachi flag raising. He takes the image all the way to our time, when that moment on Iwo Jima is embedded in the minds of Marine recruits. Perhaps the reasons for the invasion will be argued and even forgotten. But that flag will always fly in American memory.
Mr. Allen is a prolific author with more than 30 books, II National Geographic Magazine articles, and dozens of others to hi s credit. His most recent book, Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent, was published by the National Geographic Society in October.
The Last Lieutenant: A Foxhole View of the Epic Battle for Iwo Jima
John C. Shively. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006. 184 pp. Illus. Maps. $27.95
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)
John Shively relates the story of one Marine infantry officer's experiences during World War II in the Pacific focusing on one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history, Iwo Jima. Shively's saga about his favorite uncle's sojourn from college student to veteran rifle platoon leader is marvelously told. The title refers to the fact that his uncle, Jim Craig, was the only platoon leader from Company L, 3d Battalion, 24th Marines still standing after a month-long slugfest to secure eight square miles of stinking volcanic ash strategically located about halfway between the Marianas Islands and the Japanese mainland.
In February 1945, that barren, steaming, fetid, pork chop-shaped hunk of rock became very valuable real estate because its seizure by the Americans would deny the enemy early warning of incoming air raids while providing safe haven for damaged U.S. bombers. Almost one-third of the Americans who stormed Iwo's black sand beaches became casualties, as the Japanese fought to practically the last man. The desperate struggle for the island was immortalized by the recently deceased Joe Rosenthal's dramatic photograph of the Stars and Stripes being raised atop Mount Suribachi early in the battle and by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz's assessment that "uncommon valor was a common virtue."
This book is not a classic military textbook. It describes only the actions and observations of one man, and its scope is confined to the football-field-size area that is the purview of a small unit leader as his unit closes with the enemy.
The idea for this project was triggered by the 50th anniversary of the famous battle and came to fruition when Shively began discussing that event with his uncle. Shively skillfully relates Jim Craig's days as a student at Purdue University, his decision to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1943, his training at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, a whirlwind marriage, and follow-on movement to Camp Pendleton. Eventually, Jim ships out to Hawaii where he joins the veteran 4th Marine Division that was at that time training to seize "Island X." Jim picks up his platoon, a mix of combat veterans (Kwajalein, Saipan, and Tinian) and new arrivals such as himself. His unit is thrown into the fray to reduce a series of defenses collectively referred to as "the Meat Grinder." By the time Jim leads the remnants of Love Company off the island 28 days later, only ten men answer the roll call, and Jim is the only platoon leader left.
Shively smoothly supplements his uncle's recollections with meticulous research and a commemorative trip to Iwo Jima. Although he is neither a combat veteran nor a former serviceman, the author does a remarkable job of describing life on the front line and presenting the dilemmas faced by a junior officer in both training and under fire. Despite the fact he is a physician, not a professional writer, Shively's book is poignant, informative, and very well organized. He carefully places the battle of Iwo Jima and his uncle's role there in historical context. He defines and explains military organization and strategy in layman's terms and includes informative sidebars to provide additional perspective. Personal and official photographs enhance the text, and three maps allow the reader to locate scenes of action.
Much in the mold of Flags of Our Fathers, this slim book is recommended for anyone with an interest in World War II, the Pacific campaign, or the battle of Iwo Jima. Additionally, several sections dealing with leadership issues can be especially meaningful for present or future junior officers.
Lieutenant Colonel Brown is a retired educator and a freelance writer. He served as an infantry officer with five different Marine divisions including combat tours in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.
Evan Thomas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. 432 pp. Illus. Maps. $27.
Reviewed by Admiral Jim Stavridis, U.S. Navy
Sea of Thunder is a readable recounting of the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the events leading up to it. By focusing on four principal characters—two Americans and two Japanese—author and journalist Evan Thomas of Newsweek magazine brings conflicting perspectives together in a focused and contrasting manner.
The seas around the Philippine Islands were the scene of the largest naval battle in world history from 23 to 26 October 1944. It represented the last gasp of the Japanese Navy to destroy a principal portion of the U.S. Navy's forces as they closed in on Japan. Strategically, the Japanese were very much on the defensive, moving back toward the home islands and subjected to an increasingly tight American strangulation of their commerce.
This enormous battle included nearly 40 aircraft carriers, more than 20 battleships and 40 cruisers, 175 destroyers, and almost 2,000 naval aircraft. At the end of four days of furious combat, 13,500 sailors were dead and more than 30 ships were at the bottom of the sea. Leyte Gulf is also notorious for the first use of kamikaze aircraft, a deadly threat we see echoed in the suicide bombers of today.
Thomas, author of the recent best-selling biography of John Paul Jones, weaves together the lives and sensibilities of four particularly interesting characters to serve as touch points in telling the story not only of Leyte Gulf but of the collision of culture, history, and geopolitics that underlay the Pacific portion of the war.
- Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, a mercurial and macho American hero figure, was adored by the public, but his fundamental errors in judgment became the pivot around which the battle turned. He hated the Japanese with all his heart, and often used racial and ethnic slurs in describing them—publicly and vigorously.
- Commander Ernest Evans, a Cherokee Indian, fiercely charged the heavy Japanese battleships with his light destroyer—an extraordinary act of personal and operational courage—for which he received the Medal of Honor for valor even as he lost his life.
- Admiral Matome Ugaki, was the dark, willful, and unrelenting leader who, after Leyte Gulf, led Japan's kamikazes and ended his own life in a final unsuccessful raid against the U.S. Navy. His pessimism and stoicism were noteworthy.
- Admiral Takeo Kurita, a classic Samurai poet and archer, lived a long and purposeful life after the war, surviving into his ninth decade and finally dying in 1977 after helping rebuild Japanese society to postwar success. While doing his duty during the war, he felt grave doubts for his country throughout much of the conflict.
In the end, Leyte Gulf was a battle full of heroism but deeply marred by the fog of war. As Thomas writes, "Inattention, flawed assumptions, long and twisted or broken chains of command are the norm not the exception throughout the history of warfare. But the gods of war needed to be particularly fickle, not to mention heartless, to arrange the collision that [occurred] on the morning of October 25, 1944, the last and most destructive day in the long history of fleets fighting at sea." As it turns out, that date was the anniversary of the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, well remembered for one of the most destructive blunders in modern warfare—the charge of the light brigade.
Even today, with satellites, supersonic long-range reconnaissance aircraft, naval tactical data systems, secure communications, and a thousand other improvements, naval operations are prone to difficulties and misjudgments. At Leyte Gulf, a combination of classic tactical fog overlaid by the over-aggression and over-confidence of Halsey led to a somewhat mixed result for the American forces—who could have achieved the de sired knock-out punch with a bit more luck and measured admiral ship.
Evan Thomas has put together a well-crafted study of both the U.S. and Japanese Navies; but perhaps more interesting, he manages to shed considerable light on the philosophies and personality types that populated the stage of war in the glory days of the sea battles of World War II. This is not a scholar's book, dense with detail, but rather a reader's volume that lightly mixes solid history with cultural observations and personality judgments. It is certainly a worthwhile addition to any naval officer's literary sea bag.
Admiral Stavridis , a 1976 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is commander of SOUTHCOM. He is the first Naval officer to hold that position.
War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History 1500 to Today
Max Boot. New York: Gotham Books, 2006. 640 pp. $35.
Reviewed by Captain George Galdorisi, U.S. Navy (Retired)
War Made New is a tour-de-force of warfare over the past half-millennium. This book is destined for the top of the best-seller lists and will likely eclipse the success of the author's The Savage Wars of Peace.
Boot skillfully maps changes in technology—especially, but not exclusively—weaponry doctrine, strategy, operations, and tactics. This provides a fresh look at not only how nations have waged war over the past five centuries, but more importantly, what has caused nations to rise and fall when the preponderance of factors would lead one to the opposite conclusion. In doing so, he debunks some of the more popular and trendy notions such as "geography is destiny."
Boot arranges his book into four primary sections: The Gunpowder Revolution, The First Industrial Revolution, The Second Industrial Revolution, and the Information Revolution. Within each section he selects three campaigns or battles as examples for that era. Additionally, he begins each section with an overarching introduction and finishes each with a summary "consequences" section that divides lessons learned in each medium—land, sea, or air. The book concludes with a summation, "Revolutions Past, Present and Future," and, finally, an epilogue, "Five Hundred Years and Counting, What the Past Teaches About the Future." War Made New is especially true to its title as Boot takes the reader to what is happening in Iraq today in some detail.
One of the things that makes this book stand out and a particularly lively read is that there is nothing predictable about the campaigns and battles Boot chooses to examine. It is by no means a subset of books like Sir Edward Creasy's 1850 classic, Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. Boot reaches deeper to discuss less well-known battles and campaigns to provide his examples, from Breitenfeld in 1631 to Omdurman in 1898 to the Tokyo firebombing in March 1945.
Readers should be advised that this is not a trivial read and definitely not a light beach book. The main body is an imposing 479 pages and is followed by an extensive bibliography and 89 pages of notes, making it an invaluable reference resource.
But make no mistake. War Made New is not a tome by any measure. It is fast paced and reads like a novel. Boot grabs the readers and causes him or her to turn the page to find out what happens next. This is not only essential reading for anyone who is a serious student of warfare, technology, and the like, but for anyone wanting to know what has made the world unfold the way it has over the past five centuries.
Captain Galdorisi is a former naval aviator who is now director of the Decision Support Group at SPAWAR Systems Center San Diego.