By Christopher Miskimon
After the U.S. victory at Midway in June 1942, the focus of the War in the Pacific moved south. While the Imperial Japanese Navy had suffered a stunning defeat at Midway, it was still on the move elsewhere, particularly in the Solomon Islands.
Japanese forces there were trying to isolate Australia from its lifeline to the United States. When the Japanese began constructing an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal, the Americans responded by landing there and seizing it. This began a months-long struggle for control of this vital island, one that ended in American victory. It was the first major engagement in the area, but far from the last.
This was the beginning of a long, grueling campaign of land, air, and sea battles in the South Pacific as the Allies began pushing the Japanese out of the territory they had seized in the first six months of the war.
Unfortunately, the herculean efforts of Allied troops in the South Pacific have often been glossed over in favor of Central Pacific battles such as Tarawa and Saipan. South Pacific Cauldron: World War II’s Great Forgotten Battlegrounds (Alan Rems, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2014, 312 pp., maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index, $38.95, hardcover) goes a long way toward redressing that imbalance, systematically covering the struggle to recapture the islands on Australia’s northern frontier and beyond.
The book begins with a retelling of Guadalcanal, the gateway to all that came later. American forces landed unopposed on the island but suffered greatly in the effort to capture it. Japanese naval forces roughly handled a U.S. Navy still getting its feet under it, and the terrible conditions on the ground took a toll on the defending Marine and later Army personnel. The counterattacking Japanese underestimated how many Americans were on the ground and always had trouble coordinating their multipronged attacks in the thick jungle, often allowing their opponents to deal with them piecemeal. The author notes this was a particular flaw of Japanese planning throughout the war, a consistent underestimation of enemy strength and their own offensive moves, which were complicated and difficult to coordinate.
After Guadalcanal the Allies embarked on a sustained effort to carry the war to an enemy dug in across thousands of square miles of ocean dotted with islands large and small. The Japanese had been pushed onto the strategic defensive at last, but they were determined to hold what they had, forming a perimeter around their vital conquests so these could be protected until the Allies gave up and negotiated a peace settlement. Large forces were installed in places like Rabaul, boasting a major port and airfields capable of supporting hundreds of planes. Eventually this great bastion was neutralized from the air and bypassed, but not all Japanese strongholds could be left to wither and die under air attacks. Others had to be invaded and taken.
This entailed combat in fetid jungles and dank swamps, where the conditions were nearly unbearable. The Allied forces were a mix of soldiers and Marines along with a substantial number of Australians and New Zealanders. Each component had its own style of fighting, not always in harmony with one another or the desires of various leaders, including American General Douglas MacArthur or Australian General Thomas Blamey. While the leadership generally cooperated, there was friction. By 1945, the Japanese forces remaining in this theater were beaten, neutralized beyond the capacity for effective action, and often starving. Despite this, fighting went on as the Australians in particular kept hounding the Japanese garrisons, a controversial decision at the time.
Although it covers the wide topic of an entire theater of operations, this book is thoroughly detailed, and the level of research is obvious. The occasional squabbles among the senior commanders are covered as well as notable individual and small unit actions, such as instances where a soldier earned the Medal of Honor or Victoria Cross. The real strength of this book, however, is in its coverage of an often ignored area of the war. This work places it into an easy to follow narrative that makes sense of the war in the South Pacific.
Invasion Rabaul: The Epic Story of Lark Force, the Forgotten Garrison, January-July 1942 (Bruce Gamble, Zenith Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2014, 304 pp., maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index, $18.99, softcover)
Rabaul on the island of New Britain was under the control of Australia when the Pacific War began in December 1941. A reinforced battalion of Australian infantry was stationed to defend it in case of Japanese attack. When that attack came in January 1942, the garrison, known as Lark Force, was woefully outmatched by a Japanese force of almost 5,000 backed by a powerful naval task force. Neither equipped nor trained for such a battle, Lark Force was quickly overcome, the survivors fleeing unprepared into the jungle.
Tragically, the Australian government had no plan in place to evacuate survivors, though some ad hoc efforts did occur. A small number escaped in boats largely provided by local civilians and coastwatchers. This meant the majority of Lark Force became Japanese prisoners. Some were executed in brutal atrocities, while others were relegated to slave labor. Even worse, about a thousand of the prisoners were lost at sea when the vessel taking them to Japan was sunk by a U.S. submarine. The ship was not marked as a POW transport.
This is the first in Bruce Gamble’s Rabaul trilogy, telling the story of this naval base that figured prominently in the South Pacific during World War II. The story of Lark Force is relatively unknown in America but it is a fascinating tale of the tragic unpreparedness of Allied forces and the attendant consequences. Gamble’s prose is clear and easy to read, and his expertise on the Pacific Theater is well established. The second book in this trilogy was reviewed in this column recently; both are well done.
Evans Carlson, Marine Raider: The Man Who Commanded America’s First Special Forces (Duane Schultz, Westholme Publishing, Yardley, PA, 2014, 280 pp., maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index, $26.00, hardcover)
Like many leaders of special operations units, Evans Carlson did not fit the mold of a conven-
tional military leader. He eschewed standard hierarchies and adopted an ethos of teamwork and a shared desire to accomplish goals for the good of the group. However, these methods allowed Carlson to create an elite fighting unit capable of accomplishing extraordinary feats of endurance and courage. The Marine Raider unit he formed would go on to make a famous raid against Japanese-held Makin atoll before going on to Guadalcanal. There it conducted the famous “Long Patrol” deep behind enemy lines.
This biography of Carlson delves deep into the man and his life, highlighting the events that helped make him the leader he was. His early days in the Army and then the Marine Corps, his time spent with Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in the 1930s, and his efforts to create a commando-style unit are all covered in detail. Likewise, the controversies surrounding Carlson are evaluated. The Makin raid was used as a propaganda victory, but inside military circles there were questions about how it was conducted and whether some Marines were left behind. Carlson’s unconventional leadership style also rankled some within the Marine hierarchy, so much so that eventually he was sidelined for the rest of the war. This book is a worthy read for anyone seeking a better understanding of this much debated officer.
Hitler’s Generals in America: Nazi POWs and Allied Military Intelligence (Derek R. Mallett,University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2013, photographs, appendices, notes, bibliography, index, $35.00, hardcover)
As World War II progressed, more and more German officers fell into Allied hands as prisoners of war. As the American military advanced through North Africa into Sicily and Italy, it began to accept the surrender of its own share of generals. Back in Germany these men were of a distinctly different social class from the soldiers they commanded. Unlike the British, who recognized this reality and acted accordingly, the Americans failed to appreciate what this meant. Thus German generals in U.S. captivity found themselves treated little better than other prisoners, while those in British hands were treated according to their perceived station, something the British used to their advantage for intelligence purposes.
As the war progressed, American leaders began to see things differently. They began to realize their nation was growing into a superpower. Also, they could see that the looming Soviet menace was waiting after the Nazis were defeated. America would need every advantage it could seize to counter the Soviet threat. So, the U.S. military began to court captive German generals, capitalizing on their vast experience fighting the Soviets. Many German generals wrote about their experiences on the Eastern Front and elsewhere, providing insight for American leaders for the coming Cold War.
The author does an excellent job showing how the American military was able to draw these enemy generals into cooperation and gather their useful insights. Interrogators had to weigh the reliability of each man’s statements and watch them for signs of betrayal. Many stayed in Allied hands for several years after the war. Some were suspected of war crimes. This complex situation meant that American leaders had to make difficult decisions regarding their level of trust in the German officers and their potential prosecution.
The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin 1939-1941 (Roger Moorhouse, Basic Books, New York, 2014, photographs, notes, bibliography, index, $29.99, hardcover)
On August 23, 1939, two of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century made an agreement. Less than two years later they would become implacable foes, flinging vast armies across a continent. For the moment, however, Adolf Hitler was free to move east into a Poland isolated from Western support. Josef Stalin could focus on defeating Japan in the East and annexing part of Finland without fear of German involvement. The pact had other advantages for Germany and the Soviet Union. The two nations traded raw materials and machinery across their new border. In the end, the Nazi-Soviet Non-agression Pact strengthened both nations for the brutal war they would fight against each other.
Many today are unaware of the temporary alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II. The author wrote this book with the intent of enlightening readers about it, and he has done a commendable job, presenting the story in clear prose and fascinating detail. The numerous ways in which the Nazis and Soviets cooperated are well documented, and the narrative is structured in an easy to follow style. This book is a political as well as a military history.
Dogface Soldiers: The Story of B Company, 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, From Fedala to Salzburg: Audie Murphy and His Brothers in Arms (Daniel R. Champagne, Merriam Press, Bennington, VT, 2011, 264 pp., maps, photographs, bibliography, $39.95, hardcover, $4.99 in PDF format on disc by mail)
Audie Murphy is one of the most famous American soldiers of World War II, and for good reason. He was the most decorated American soldier to come out of the conflict. Though he finished the war as a lieutenant, his exploits occurred while he was an enlisted man. This makes him one of only a few soldiers from the ranks to gain lasting fame. Murphy’s actions are well known. He even wrote his own book. Like all infantrymen he was part of a unit rather than a lone hero. This book looks at that unit, Murphy’s company, the center of a foot soldier’s world then and now. Company B entered the war in North Africa during Operation Torch in November 1942. The unit stayed in the war until it ended for the company in Salzburg, Germany, in May 1945. Along the way Murphy earned his honors, and his fellow soldiers stood by him through hellish combat.
This book is full of veteran accounts, anecdotes, and references to official records. Books such as this seldom fail to entertain the reader with the experiences of the men who lived the history. This book focuses well on the common infantryman.
Barbarossa Unleashed: The German Blitzkrieg through Central Russia to the Gates of Moscow June-December 1941 (Craig W.H. Luther, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, 2014, 712 pp., maps, photographs, notes, appendices, bibliography, index, $59.99, hardcover)
The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was the largest military operation in history. Millions of soldiers, tens of thousands of armored vehicles, and a like number of aircraft all came together on the western frontier of the Soviet realm. In the first six months of the offensive, Germany came as close to conquering its communist foe as it ever would. Army Group Center, carrying the German main effort, pushed from the Polish border to the very edge of Moscow before a stiff counterattack pushed it away from its prize forever.
The complexity and sheer scope of Operation Barbarossa is enough to overwhelm most minds, making concentrated study a requirement even to attain a basic understanding. This new book from Schiffer Publishing brings the entire effort of Army Group Center into one volume, which examines nearly every aspect of the campaign. It combines material from various archives with extensive veteran accounts and other writings to provide a comprehensive look at this world changing campaign. The level of detail is extensive, and the author’s analysis is insightful. Aside from recounting the actual fighting, the book also looks at the role of the German Army in war crimes against both civilian and military personnel. Many German memoirs seek to provide justification for various actions, but this book avoids that pitfall while still incorporating the useful information from them.
Tigers of the Death’s Head: SS Totenkopf Division’s Tiger Company (Ian Michael Wood, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2013, 298 pp., maps, photographs, appendices, bibliography, $32.95, hardcover)
The Nazis’ 3rd SS Panzer Division was nicknamed the Totenkopf, or Death’s Head, Division. Initially formed using a cadre of guards from concentration camps, the unit earned a fearsome reputation on the battlefield. While one might think of such a unit advancing with endless rows of Tiger tanks, the division had just one company of the deadly heavy tanks within its organization. Though small, this company caused casualties among its Soviet opponents out of proportion to its size. Like all Nazi units, it eventually went down in defeat, a fate it deserved. Along the way, however, it fought from the Battle of Kharkov in early 1943 until its arrival in Austria in 1945, where it surrendered. The unit amassed a wealth of experience in the dark heart of armored combat on the Eastern Front.
The author spent many years gathering the information for this book through interviews with surviving veterans, archival research, and trips to the places where the company fought. A fantastic assortment of photographs show the unit in battle as well as relaxing during time away from the front, providing an interesting view of German soldiers’ everyday lives. It is rare to find a book so rich in detail on a single company.
New and Noteworthy
No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War (David Kaiser, Basic Books, 2014, $27.99, hardcover) Roosevelt saw war was coming for the U.S. and was determined to prepare for it. This work shows how he worked around a reluctant populace and an unready nation to get America on a war footing.
West Point ’41: The Class That Went to War and Saved America (Anne Kazel-Wilcox and P.J. Wilcox, University Press of New England, 2014, $29.95, hardcover) West Point’s Class of 1941 was thrust directly into combat in World War II. The service these men gave throughout their careers shaped the nation.
The Forecast for D-Day and the Weatherman Behind Ike’s Greatest Gamble (John Ross, Lyons Press, $24.95, hardcover) James Stagg was the chief meteorologist for Eisenhower during the D-Day invasion. This is the story of how he made the most important prediction of his life.
Partisan Diary: A Woman’s Life in the Italian Resistance (Ada Gobetti, Oxford University Press, 2014, $34.95, hardcover) This book provides a firsthand look at the day to day operations of Italian partisans in the Piedmont region. They had to fight both German troops and the mountain terrain.
Hitler’s Last Witness: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Bodyguard (Rochus Misch, Casemate Publishers, 2014, $32.95, hardcover) The author was assigned to Hitler’s personal bodyguard. This memoir covers his experiences in the Nazi inner circle.
Lion Rampant: The Memoirs of an Infantry Officer from D-Day to the Rhineland (Robert Woolcombe, Black and White Publishing, 2014, $15.00, softcover) An officer’s account of his experience leading soldiers in Europe, full of detail on the foot soldier’s life in combat.
D-Day Bomber Command: Failed to Return (Steve Darlow, Sean Feast, Marc Hall, Andrew MacDonald, and Howard Sandall, Casemate Publishers, 2014, $34.95, hardcover) The story of the RAF’s campaign during the buildup to D-Day. This book discusses the high cost British airmen paid to enable the invasion.
George Marshall: A Biography (Debi and Irwin Unger, HarperCollins, 2014, $35.00, hardcover) Marshall was an architect of American victory in World War II. This book covers the life of this great man.
World War II Album: Consolidated B24 Liberator (Ray Merriam, Merriam Press, 2014, $24.95, softcover) This is a photo book of the famous American bomber. Pictures cover every aspect of the plane from prototype to combat.