Commanding the Pacific

Marine Corps Generals in World War II

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In Commanding the Pacific: Marine Corps Generals in World War II, Stephen R. Taaffe analyzes the fifteen high-level Marine generals who led the Corps’ six combat divisions and two corps in the conflict. He concludes that these leaders played an indispensable and unheralded role in organizing, training, and leading their men to victory.  


Taaffe insists there was nothing inevitable about the Marine Corps’ success in World War II. The small prewar size of the Corps meant that its commandant had to draw his combat leaders from a  limited pool of officers who often lacked the education of their Army and Navy counterparts. Indeed, there were fewer than one hundred Marine officers with the necessary rank, background, character, and skills for its high-level combat assignments. In addition, the Army and Navy froze the Marines out of high-level strategic decisions and frequently impinged on Marine prerogatives. There were no Marines in the Joint Chiefs of Staff or at the head of the Pacific War’s geographic theaters, so the Marines usually had little influence over the island targets selected for them. In addition to bureaucratic obstacles, constricted geography and vicious Japanese opposition limited opportunities for Marine generals to earn the kind of renown that Army and Navy commanders achieved elsewhere. In most of their battles on small Pacific War islands, Marine generals had neither the option nor inclination to engage in sophisticated tactics; instead they relied on direct frontal assaults that resulted in heavy casualties. Such losses against targets of often questionable strategic value sometimes called into question the Marine Corps’ doctrine, mission, and the quality of its combat generals.   


Despite these difficulties, Marine combat commanders repeatedly overcame challenges and fulfilled their missions. Their ability to do so is a credit to the Corps and demonstrates that these generals deserve more attention from historians than they have so far received. 

About the Author

Editorial Reviews

“In Commanding the Pacific, Stephen R. Taaffe puts on a writing clinic as he blends biographical sketches and personality studies with a historical narrative of the strategic and operational levels of the Pacific War. He also effortlessly weaves analysis into this mix. Readers can also glean lessons and habits of mind about leadership and teamwork.” —David J. Ulbrich, author of Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Marine Corps, 1939–1943

“Stephen R. Taaffe’s Commanding the Pacific is an instant classic. Readers interested in the Marine Corps, combat leadership, and World War II will find it invaluable. In combination with his previous works, this outstanding volume highlights Taaffe as the preeminent scholar on senior command in the U.S. military during America’s wars.” —William A. Taylor, author of Military Service and American Democracy; Lee Drain Endowed University Professorship, Angelo State University


“Much of our understanding of the Marine Corps in World War II has been shaped by the perspectives of the fighting men. Dutifully researched and exceptionally written, Commanding in the Pacific provides a much-needed analysis of USMC leadership to allow a fuller comprehension and appreciation of the Marine experience.” —Bradford A. Wineman, professor of military history, U.S. Marine Corps Command & Staff College
“Stephen R. Taafe has written a long-overdue history of the commanding generals of the six large combat divisions fielded by the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. Because of the far-flung nature of combat in the Pacific,1941-1945, the performance of many of these crucial division commanders has been overlooked by historians. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. While the author does not hesitate to criticize some of these division commanders, most of whom had never commanded formations larger than a single regiment, his excellent history highlights the tremendous difficulty the entire Navy-Marine Corps team faced, especially toward the end of the war, when the Japanese decided that fanatical last-stand defensive efforts, like the ones conducted on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, were the best way to convince the Americans to not even contemplate an invasion of their home islands.” —Charles P. Neimeyer, Ph.D., professor, Naval War College, Fleet Support Program
“Readers familiar with the accounts of the Marine Corps’ Island campaigns of World War II will find this book enlightening on a higher level.” —Seapower
“History is often generous to victorious generals, focusing on their strengths and ignoring their faults. Commanding the Pacific gives you both, revealing the officers who led the Marine Corps through some of its most famous battles and campaigns in a balanced fashion. The author withholds personal judgments to lay out the facts in a neutral fashion, allowing the reader to evaluate them. This book effectively presents its subjects as human beings, with all the good and bad that implies, serving in difficult circumstances.” —WWII History
“Taaffe’s descriptions of strategy and operations are succinct…. Any reader of military history will enjoy this valuable treatise on character and command.” —The Journal of America’s Military Past
“Taaffe has written a superb book on leaders of Marines—both in war and peacetime—that show these leaders embracing what Puryear called ‘the ‘whole Marine Concept’ of employing and orchestrating ground, aviation, and combat service support assets, as well as understanding the service infrastructure dedicated to recruiting, training, and equipping Marines. Herein lies the key to Marine leadership and the main strength of this book. The author shows how Marine leaders … understood these precepts and successfully employed them in battle and in peacetime assignments.” —Naval Historical Foundation
“Commanding the Pacific is an important read for anyone with an interest in the Pacific War, the Marine Corps, or command.” —StrategyPage
Commanding the Pacific: Marine Corps Generals of WWII authored by Stephen R. Taaffe highlights the manifested glory of the U.S. Marine Corps in WWII Pacific…. This book is recommended reading for those who would like to join the Marine Corps, and learn combat leadership skills to be a successful fighter in battle. The ideal Marine Combat General must be in perfect health and mind, and excellent in logistical planning and executing orders, but with an iron soul. In my opinion, the Marine Corps was the perfect arm to match the ferociousness of the Japanese in WWII. Marines are truly a different breed. Semper Fi.” —The Maritime Review
Taaffe has carved out something of an academic niche analyzing senior leadership in America’s military history, having authored similar volumes on general officers during the American Revolution, World War II, and the Korean War. This slender volume, with 193 pages of text, plows fresh ground, and is recommended for students of the Pacific Theater and the United States Marine Corps. — Global Maritime History