Tag Archives: world war two

“Neptune’s Inferno” by James D. Hornfischer



The deep bass of this audiobook’s narrator (Robertson Dean) sounds like the Navy personified. I was forced to adjust the equalizer on my car stereo so as to not be blasted away by sheer manliness.

After Pearl Harbor, it looked like nothing could stop the Japanese advance across the Pacific. The US Navy finally started the push back earlier in 1942 at Midway, and that push was definitely well underway after the Guadalcanal campaign later that year. The war was still new so there were lots of mistakes, but the Navy got lucky, fought hard, and denied the island to the Japanese.

The US had discovered (via a leftover Australian “spotter” on the island – those guys really were the gutsy ones) that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal. If they succeeded, it meant a clear path on to Australia. So, the US landed a superior force of Marines and took the airfield, which they rechristened Henderson Field, but everyone called it Cactus and the planes that flew from it the Cactus Air Force. Planes launched from an unsinkable airfield were already certain death to navies.

Now the tables were turned on the Japanese – they recognized that they needed to force the Marines out if they were to keep on with the advance. The next few months were an all-out effort to reinforce and resupply the Japanese troops still on the island via a fast destroyer night force dubbed “Tokyo Express,” along with neutralizing the airfield with cruiser and battleship bombardment. The US Navy’s job was to stop them, and they generally did.

Here’s an interesting and darkly humorous lesson learned for the Navy: a practice of the time (and probably now) was to cross-train the sailors on many different jobs in order to have ready replacements when needed. So far so good. But, battle doctrine dictated that each sailor report to his battlestation when in battle. Ok, still sounds alright … except, when a surprise attack came, a game of musical chairs ensued — chances were that most sailors were not at their assigned battlestations when attack came; precious minutes were lost scrambling across the ship and changing the guard at each and every station. Hopefully naval doctrine was adjusted after a few of these occassions.

A key advantage the Navy had was radar-assisted gun control. You always hear about how radar was the savior of the Battle of Britain earlier in the war, but I never really realized it was critical to the Navy as well. Particularly during Guadalcanal, where most of the major engagements were at night. It was a tricky business being able to illuminate the opposing ships via searchlight or star shells without giving your own position away. With radar, the Navy silently kept track of all around it.

Of course it wasn’t that simple. Target misidentification and friendly fire during night engagements was still a big deal and not quite worked out. Also lots of the captains and admirals didn’t understand the advantage provided by radar or were not quite ready to trust the infant technology.

What won war in Pacific (per Halsey): “If I had to give credit to the instruments and machines that won us the war in the Pacific, I would rate them in this order: submarines first, radar second, planes third, bulldozers fourth.”

Finally, though this book didn’t discuss it I gotta throw out a link to this awesome article I recently read about mechanical computers on-board the Iowa class battleships — not yet in existence during Guadalcanal, but the other heavy surface ships surely had something similar.



“The Face of Naval Battle” by John Reeve and David Stevens


I selected this book thinking it would be like the similar-sounding title from Keegan, but I was sorely disappointed.  This is really a collection of essays, all from different authors.  The first essay – by the lead editor, I presume – does acknowledge the link to Keegan and states that they are trying to produce a similar picture from the naval point of view, but I don’t think many of the other authors got the message.  Only about 5 out of 17 seemingly randomly selected essays in the book are even remotely close to the desired theme — a look at what naval battle is/was like for the common sailor.

Even these 5 essays are mostly memoirs of some captain or another – interesting and informative, but perhaps one-sided and definitely not from the common sailor’s perspective.  Anyway, some of the essays were interesting and there were assuredly some recurring themes.  Mainly, life in the Navy at war is one of long periods of boredom and anticipation, followed by intense, relatively brief periods of extreme action, danger, and consequence.

Perhaps more so than in the land army, sailors can develop very close bonds with each other in times of war.  (And they typically empathize more with the enemy navy that they do with their own landed counterparts!)  Perhaps this is illustrated best by the crew members of the SMS Emden, detached from von Spee‘s squadron for a remarkable career of independent raiding in the Indian Ocean at the outset of WWI.  This is a cool story in and of itself, but the thing that blew me away was that the majority of the survivors after the war changed their name to include the suffix “Emden” — they were a family.

“To Hell and Back” by Audie Murphy

Audie Murphy was the most decorated US soldier of WWII.  After reading his own account of his war service, I’m inclined to attribute his record to quick thinking, excellent marksmanship, and a whole lot of luck.  Plenty of his slain buddies, and undoubtedly many others in the war, possessed some of these qualities but not enough of the latter.  On numerous occasions mentioned in the book, Murphy should have bitten the bullet by all accounts.  Even Murphy admits that “old” men like him “feel like fugitives from the law of averages.”

With the despair of eventual almost certain death surrounding them, the only way front-line infantrymen avoided going crazy with worry was through a hefty dose of false bravado and a sense of humor.  Soon even this disappears, at least in Murphy’s memoirs.  It is pretty striking – at beginning of the book, there is a lot about Murphy’s platoon buddies — their backgrounds and personalities, lots of bantering.  Then, these buddies are all killed or wounded, one by one.  “The grave seems merely an open door that divides us from our comrades.”  Towards the end, Murphy sometimes doesn’t even know his fellow soldier’s names.  He’s all business; the business of killing Germans, that is.  It seems like the part of his soul capable of sentimental attachment has long since been snuffed out.

Indeed, in the final page or so, as Murphy reflects on the celebrations during V-E Day, he personally is not able to bring himself to feel much of anything.  But then:

When I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency? Of all belief?

Not of all belief. I believe in the force of a hand grenade, the power of artillery, the accuracy of a Garand. I believe in hitting before you get hit, and that dead men do not look noble.

But I also believe in men like Brandon and Novak and Swope and Kerrigan; and all the men who stood up against the enemy, taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting. The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent.

My country. America! That is it. We have been so intent on death that we have forgotten life. And now suddenly life faces us. I swear to myself that I will measure up to it. I may be branded by war, but I will not be defeated by it.

“Churchill” by Paul Johnson

First impression: “A biography of one of the most important figures of the twentieth century, only 160 pages long?  Huh?  How is that possible?”  I was leery for the first chapter or so, but somehow it works.  The book comes across to me as a kindly, well-informed grandfatherly man just talking about his favorite subject for a few hours, somewhat veering off-course temporarily but for no longer than a few minutes or so at a time.  Johnson actually met Churchill once and blends personal accounts with the historical record nicely.  This is a good outline or introduction to Churchill … provided one has a basic grasp of early twentieth century British history.  I struggled a bit myself with the people and events in the pre-WWI and Interwar period, as well as the finer points of the structure of the British government.  But the meat of the book, the WWII period, was great.

Some interesting things learned:

  • Young Churchill was quite the war “ambulance chaser.”  He used his parent’s connections to land assignments as a journalist in most of Britain’s wars in the 1890s and early 1900s.  He was also an unabashed medal seeker.  This kind of ambition seemed a little cringe-worthy to me, but it worked at putting his name out there.  He became very popular and well known.
  • As First Lord of the Admiralty during WWI, Churchill took the fall for the failure at Gallipoli.  Even though, in retrospect, things were out of his control, it almost ruined his career.
  • British post-WWI strategy in Middle East was to box in extremist Saudis by creating friendly coastal buffer states (Muscat, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain).   BP and Shell dealt with them rather than Saudis, but US Standard Oil screwed up everything by allying with Saudis, giving them immunity (due to US interests) and wealth, which they used to undermine region.  A shadow was cast over future….
  • Churchill might have made just as great a mark on history (well, probably not quite so great) as a painter or a writer as he did as a politician and leader.  He painted voluminously and quite well, evidently.  Same for writing – 10 million published words+.  From his speeches he is obviously a master wordsmith and has a good sense of humor; I’m looking forward to digging into The Second World War some time soon….
  • Churchill prophesied and warned against German aggression since 1933.  He repeatedly called for immediate rearmament, but was up against a very strong pacifist movement.  Britain should have started WWII in 1938 for the Czechs over the Sudetenland Crisis.  Besides the Czechs having 40 well-equipped divisions that were now for, not against, the Nazis (the net equivalent of 80 divisions for Germany — about the size of the entire French army), the French were not as demoralized as they were a year later.

One of Johnson’s chapters tries to answer the question, “Did Churchill personally save Britain?”  Here are his reasons why the answer is “yes”:

  • Greater acceptance of civilian leadership than during WWI permitted Churchill to control the military.
  • No constitutional or political obstacles to his decisions.
  • Took over at a desperate time.  Mastermind of Dunkirk.
  • His energy and productivity were an example to the nation.
  • Master orator who provided inspiration and encouragement.
  • Grasped early the importance of new technologies like air power, radar.
  • (7 & 8) Harassed Italy early, when Britain was in no shape to fight Germany – secured oil supply route, gained experience for troops.
  • Always cultivated alliances with countries great or small.
  • Got priorities right – ie Germany-first.

There are too many great Churchill quotes to list, but here’s a favorite, given after his party lost the election in 1945 (and thus heralding his exit as PM):

On the night of 10 May 1940, at the outset of the mighty Battle of Britain, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct in their affairs.


“Japan at War” by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook

The book’s format is inspired by and identical to Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” – a collection of oral histories of soldiers and others involved in World War 2 – only this time we hear from the Japanese perspective.  And there is absolutely no way that this collection could have shared Terkel’s title.  This was one of the saddest, most depressing books I have read in a long time.

Some of the things that happened in the war are indeed stranger than fiction.  And much more horrifying:

  • Infectious disease research on local populations in Manchuria by Unit 731.
  • Ghastly vivisections and practice battlefield surgeries – like amputating both arms and reattaching them backwards, just for kicks – on Chinese prisoners by military doctors.  Oh yeah, and no anesthetics either.
  • During the Firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the fire-stoked wind was so intense that people were blown away into the flames.  One mother was carrying her baby on her back while trying to reach safety – the baby burned to death while still attached, badly burning the mother, too.  The mother survived, even though several of her children died.  In later years she poured water on their graves, saying “You must have been so hot.”
  • During the invasion of Saipan, soldiers and civilians hid in caves from the devil Americans.  Mothers were ordered to kill their crying babies so as not to alert the enemy.  I don’t know how they brought themselves to do it, but many did so.
  • Similarly on Okinawa, many civilians committed suicide or killed family members rather than face the horrors they were told would be inflicted on them when captured by the Americans.  The kids in one family killed their mother by hitting her head with rocks.  Then the older boys killed their younger brother and sister.  They were deciding which of them should kill the other when they were found by American soldiers.
  • Kaiten and kamikaze pilots.

The final oral history in the book is very fitting.  Long after the war ended, a man is giving a tour of a bombed-out Mitsubishi factory in Nagasaki.  He says that the torpedoes used in the attack on Pearl Harbor were manufactured there, in the same place where an atomic bomb would destroy everything several years later.  “We fought a stupid war, didn’t we?”

There is one similarity with America’s experience as in “The Good War” – the common man in Japan felt like he was doing what must be done to save his country.  Sadly, the common man was misled by the de facto military dictatorship of Japan.  Questioning the Emperor’s will was a crime, and the Emperor delegated his authority to the military.  The Emperor, being divine, could never be wrong, so everything had to be justified even by lying.  Sometimes even military planners didn’t know the true situation on the battlefield due to all the false stories and propaganda in the newspapers and official reports.  “The closer you got to the front, the less often you found a burning and unflinching belief in victory.”  The Army and Navy planners stayed mainly in Tokyo.

The war against China demanded oil, and Japan needed to seize that oil from the Western colonies in the Pacific, and stop America from interfering, in order to keep up the fight in China.  Japan’s industrial capacity was 1/13th the size of America’s at the outbreak of war.  It never really stood a chance.  As a Zero ace said, “You need altitude, speed, and firepower to win an air engagement.  No amount of bushido will help.”

“Defend the Realm” by Christopher Andrew

The Authorized History of MI5 (Britain’s secret service).  Listened to book on CD while commuting.

Very long, very detailed account of the organization, insofar as the author was able to compile within the bounds of secrecy restrictions.  If you think back as to what occurred in the world since the establishment of MI5 in 1909, you can probably guess at what parts of the book were interesting and what parts were dull.  World War I and II and double-crossing the Germans = interesting; countering communist subversion and Soviet espionage + Irish and Islamic terrorism = not as interesting.  This book was a little too long to be recommendable to just anyone.  Maybe there are better books focusing on just the interesting time periods, and we can leave “Defend the Realm” to the historians interested in the whole account.

In 1915, during World War I, the British captured a German agent named Muller.  Rather than putting him on trial or such, they pretended he had infiltrated successfully, and sent reports back to the Germans as if they were Muller, feeding false information.  This worked pretty well until the Germans caught on after several months. They even periodically sent money to fund “Muller’s” spying activities.  MI5 used the funds to purchase the agency’s first automobile … which they named “the Muller.”  🙂

During World War II, the “double-cross” system was matured.  Shortly after the outbreak of war, (although they didn’t entirely know it at the time), MI5 controlled all German agents within Britain. (!)  They came up with a sophisticated system of using the agents to report back some actual intelligence, designed to impress the Germans but not harm British war efforts, mixed with manufactured dis-information.  This worked spectacularly well throughout the war.  The biggest achievement was in leading the Germans to believe the main Overlord attack would occur at Calais rather than Normandy.  German High Command reinforced Calais, and refused to greatly diminish their defenses there even after Normandy was invaded, thinking that Normandy was just a feint.  By the time they realized there would be no Calais attack, several days later, it was too late and the Allies already had an unbreakable beachhead.

Later, during the V-1 attacks on London, the double-cross spies reported that the missiles were overshooting central London, when they were really slightly undershooting.  This caused the Germans to adjust their aim such that they were undershooting even more, sparing more of London from damage.  Very clever.

If you read this book for fun, just read up until the end of World War II and skip or skim the rest.

“‘The Good War'” by Studs Terkel

This is a collection of oral histories from those who fought in or lived through World War II.

Some common themes:

  • The feeling that the war was justified; they contributed to something great – although it was a destruction of something negative rather than the building up of something positive.
  • In the beginning the war felt like a great adventure but then innocence was lost as the horrors of war became evident.
  • “The war was fun for America.”  – quote from the book.  Also: “Never in the history of human conflict has there been so much talk of sacrifice and so little <actual> sacrifice.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, in charge of price controls.  Consumption of consumer goods doubled during the war.  It really brought the country out of the Depression, and made many people wealthy.

I understand better some of the dangers of drawing conclusions from oral histories.  The interviewees most definitely relate their WWII experiences through the lens of many years and in light of other historical events.  Specifically, (this book came out in the early 1980’s) they are influenced by Vietnam (many comparisons to WWII and Vietnam) and also the Cold War (many remark on how quickly the Russians went from being our “friends” to our “enemies”, at least according to the government.)

Something learned: PAFs (Pre-mature Anti-Fascists) and the Lincoln Brigade – Americans fighting in the Spanish civil War.

“FDR” by Jean Edward Smith

I listened to this book on CD (20+ CDs!) while driving to and from work for the past two months.

FDR most definitely lived through interesting times, and indeed was often the key player in the very events that made those times interesting.  The fact that he deftly led the country through the Great Depression and then to victory in World War II while effectively unable to walk makes his story all the more compelling.

I can’t help but compare this book to the biography of Truman I read last year.  I don’t know if it was the writing style of the authors or nature of the subjects, but I feel like I know Truman better than FDR.  Truman was scrupulously honest throughout his life and was virtually obsessed with making morally correct decisions, even if they were poor political ones.  FDR seemed more the politician – not that he was dishonest, but he held his cards closer to his chest.

FDR had a kind of strange, sad married life.  It seems like he and Eleanor quickly grew tired of each other.  FDR had an affair in the 1920s that, once exposed, permanently altered his relationship with ER.  They remained married and  eventually still respected one another, but more or less lived their separate lives.   (The author presents FDR filling the companionship void with his secretary Missy Lehand, but he doesn’t speculate much on how his relationships affected him emotionally, which would be interesting to know.  Did FDR regret his personal-life decisions which led to estrangement with ER?  Or did he just regret marrying the wrong woman in the first place?)

Interesting thing learned about the times:  Reporters in FDR’s day and age drew a strict line between the public news of political figures and private issues in those public figures lives.  This included no stories or even photographs of FDR in a wheelchair; also no scandals about affairs, etc.  With all the mudslinging in the news today, it seems like reporters thrive on digging up the personal dirt about public figures … one wonders if the old way wasn’t much better.

Historical things learned: court packing scheme, Roosevelt recession

Favorite quotes:

“Father always wanted to be the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.” – Alice Roosevelt about TR (in section about FDR and Eleanor’s (TR’s niece) wedding)

“If you can’t use your legs, and they bring you milk when you wanted orange juice, you learn to say, ‘That’s all right!’ and drink it.” – FDR

“Truman” by David McCullough

This is a pretty meaty book – almost 1000 pages on the life of Harry S. Truman.  I didn’t know a ton about Truman before reading; now I truly believe he was one of our finest presidents and a good example of integrity, hard work, and courage.  I feel like I learned a lot about the time period as well.  I suppose all this means that David McCullough succeeded in his purpose of helping the reader to get to know the real Truman!

Here’s things that I learned from “Truman” (the book; also the man I guess!):

  • pg. 58 – As a child he was a bookworm, voraciously reading histories and heroic stories of war and adventure.  He gained the conviction that “men make history;” a single courageous individual can change the course of history.  He definitely acted on this belief later in life.
  • pg. 62 – Truman was a very likeable fellow.  He was never idle and never had anything to be ashamed of; he always conducted himself with honesty and integrity.  The book tells the story of him not being a very good “horse trader” during his farming days – “When I buy a cow for $30 and then sell her to someone for $50 it always seems to me that I am really robbing that person of $20.”  (He was a successful mens-clothing store owner for a number of years and seemed to do ok until the economy went bad.)
  • pg. 240 – Politics in his corner of Missouri was controlled by a political machine, and corruption was all around.  Truman had ample opportunity to embezzle, etc; but he would have none of it.  When running for Senate, his opponents tried to find some dirt on him but couldn’t, although they did for plenty of others.  “It looks like everybody in Jackson County got rich but me!”
  • pg. 402 – Sense of history – After taking over the presidency from FDR, he had a portrait of George Washington hung in the oval office and used a desk that Teddy Roosevelt had used.  (I read a bio of TR a few years ago and there are many similarities with Truman – bookwormish as children; outspoken but likeable adults; stuck to their guns.)
  • pg. 458 – At the close of WWII, even though he did order the atomic bomb dropped on Japan (twice), he was not interested in their suffering.  “I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in that same manner.”
  • pg. 558 – Truman had the ability to simplify exceedingly complex matters.  He also said he would rather teach than make history.  (less pressure, I suppose)
  • pg. 574 – A comment by Bess, Truman’s wife : “Harry and I have been sweethearts and married more than 40 years – and no matter where I was, when I put out my hand Harry’s was there to grasp it.”
  • pg. 654 – The presidential campaign of 1948, with virtually everyone predicting a win by Thomas Dewey, Truman traveled 21,928 miles by train in his “whistlestop” campaign.  Most people thought he was wasting his time … but in the end “Dewey defeats Truman” was not a reality.  Truman was cooly confident throughout, and worked hard and did his best.
  • pg. 676 – In a speech just before the election, after talking of modern inventions (particularly atomic weapons), peace and progress: “We have got to harness these inventions for the welfare of man, instead of his destruction.  That is what I am interested in.  That is what I am working for.  That is much more important than whether I am President of the United States.”
  • pg. 856 – Making a stand against the communists in Korea, and then limiting the conflict to avoid all-out atomic war with Russia, is now seen as one of the greatest accomplishments of Truman’s presidency.  Many, including theater commander and WWII hero Douglas MacArthur (who Truman fired for insubordination – an incredible thing to do considering MacArthur’s popularity, but necessary to re-establish civilian control over the military) wanted to drop atomic bombs on China, but Truman refused to widen the war or let it go atomic.  Churchill later said, recalling their first meeting outside Berlin following FDR’s death: “I must confess, sir.  I held you in very low regard then.  I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt….<pauses>… I misjudged you badly.  Since that time, you more than any other man have saved Western civilization.”
  • pg. 914 – Truman didn’t generally care what people thought about him; he just tried to do the right thing.  “I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt?  What would Jesus have preached if he’d taken a poll in Israel?  It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts.  It’s right and wrong.”
  • pg. 966 – after the presidency, Truman was very involved in the construction of his library in Independence (which I visited a few years ago!) and was there personally much of the time.  He visited with anyone who wished too, and even did mundane tasks like answer the phone when no one else was there to answer questions on visiting hours, etc.

I’ve read others of McCullough’s books, and they are uniformly excellent.  I noticed some similarities with “John Adams,” his other Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.  One popular criticism of that which may be extended to “Truman” is that they are works of hagiography rather than biography, ie they don’t mention many faults of their subjects.  However, I think this is probably more an indication of McCullough’s preference of studying truly great, bold, upstanding, moral individuals, who in the retrospective of history and comparison to others really don’t have too many faults and therefore are worthy of our study, adulation, and emulation.  (On the flipside, both books made me reconsider the regard I hold for certain other historical figures – Jefferson and Ben Franklin for “John Adams” and MacArthur and Eisenhower for “Truman”, all of whom did less than honorable things [but still are vindicated by history], at least where Adams and Truman were concerned.)

Ok, that’s quite enough writing; I think I am approaching the length of the book itself!!!