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Books and Movies Week--World War II Books   (October 8, 2007)

We all need respite from the grind of everyday life. Books and films offer us a few hours of distraction, education, entertainment or escape. Since PBS just broadcast the Ken Burns epic on World War II, I thought I'd start the week with a handful of books I can recommend about this era/war.

As there are many hundreds of titles on the war, I am not claiming these are the best or "must read" titles among the vast literature devoted to that global conflict--simply that they provide either a personal account or an engaging account of a pivotal battle which I can recommend.

I have carefully selected each title for reasons which I explain below.

Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester

Manchester was a contemporary historian who wrote well-regarded biographies of Winston Churchill The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill (two volumes) and Douglas MacArthur American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur (all of which I can also recommend). This is his personal account of his years as a U.S. Marine who fought in some of the most horrific battles of the Pacific Theatre: Iwo Jima, et. al. He very nearly died of his combat wounds.

What I recall most vividly are his descriptions of what his dead comrades had planned to do with their lives: become a doctor, etc. Not all the Marines were 17-year old tough guys; some were Ivy Leaguers. Each had plans and dreams which were snuffed out in combat: just like the hopes and dreams of the 3,800 Americans who have been killed in Iraq.

If you watched the Ken Burns series, you were probably struck (as I was) by the voice of Eugene Sledge from Mobile, Alabama. here is his entire secret diary in book form: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa .

Historian Gavin Daws has written a comprehensive account of the Japanese treatment (i.e. their unspeakable brutality) of Allied prisoners of war. Prisoners of the Japanese : Pows of World War II in the Pacific If you watched the Burns series, you heard some personal accounts of the Bataan Death March. Here is a history which can only sicken or depress even as it rivets your attention, for it proves (yet again) just how cruel humans can be.

If you read these three books, then you will understand why Truman and the U.S. command had no qualms about dropping the atomic bombs on Japanese cities: the entire 100,000-strong garrison of Okinawa had fought literally to the last man (only a few hundred Japanese soldiers survived the battle), and this "fight to the last man" was what surely faced any American invasion of the home islands.

Many U.S. units suffered horrendous casualties; the 8th Air Force which was tasked with daylight bombing of Germany had a casualty (dead or wounded) rate of approximately 50%, as did the Pacific submarine command. How would you like heads-or-tails odds on survival?

But some U.S. units faced essentially suicidal odds. Oone little-known but fascinating tale of unit and individual bravery is described in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The U.S. Navy's Finest Hour by James D. Hornfischer. In the sprawling confusion of the battle of Leyte Gulf off the Philippines, a feint by a contingent of the Japanese fleet had tricked Admiral Halsey's fast aircraft carriers to leave the area, exposing the lightly-defended American invasion fleet to annihilation by the main body of the Japanese fleet.

To forstall this outcome, a handful of undergunned U.S. destroyers (small, lightly-armored ships) launched a frontal attack on the Japanese battleships, inviting destruction. The Japanese could not believe the destroyers would attack unless backed up by a large force, and so they turned away from the invasion fleet--but only after shattering the attacking destroyers.

Another American suicide attack was launched during the epic battle of Midway, as described by this 1983 classic, Miracle at Midway by Gordon Prange. Flight after flight of hopelessly outgunned U.S. torpedo planes attacked the Japanese fleet without fighter escort (fighter planes to hold off the Japanese planes attacking them). It was a slaughter; all 41 U.S. planes were shot down and only a few crewmen survived. The pilots had known the odds of success or survival were low and had attacked anyway.

To show how history is still being amended by new archival research, take a look at this history of Midway from the Japanese point of view: Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully.

For a sweeping fictional account of the war in both the Pacific and in Europe, I highly recommend Winds of War\War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. These volumes were made into a TV mini-series in the 1980s. Wouk is especially effective describing the son's death in the battle of Midway (he was a pilot) and the agonies faced by Jews in Europe as the Nazis' "final solution" was pursued throughout the continent.

And since my wife's uncle served in the famous Japanese-American unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, I suggest Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd by Masayo Duus and Peter Duus. The definitive account of the 442nd has yet to be written (it's the most decorated unit in U.S. Army history) but until then this is a highly servicable account of the units stunning victories and losses. If you saw the Ken Burns series, you heard a bit from 442nd veterans.

If you're in the downtown Los Angeles area, by all means go visit the Go For Broke National Education Center /Memorial honoring the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and those who served in the Pacific as translators and interrogators of captured Japanese soldiers, the Military Intelligence Service.

For an understanding of the continuing Chinese (and Korean) animosity toward Japan, I recommend The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang.

Thank you, Michael D. S., ($25) for your very generous donation to this humble site. I am greatly honored by your contribution and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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