| Book Reviews Index |

The Battle of Midway Roundtable






1.  Black Shoe Carrier Admiral

2.  And I Was There

3.  Beyond Pearl Harbor

4.  Eyewitness to History

5.  Hawaii Under the Rising Sun

6.  Refighting the Pacific War


(All reviews written by the Roundtable editor except as otherwise noted.)




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1.  Black Shoe Carrier Admiral


by John B. Lundstrom

Subtitle:  Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal

Published 2006, Naval Institute Press



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2006-43)


Roundtable member John Lundstrom has produced what can only be called the definitive account of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher during the critical first year of the war in the Pacific, with particular focus on the battles in the Coral Sea, at Midway, and in the Solomons.  In one key regard it resembles Parshall & Tully’s Shattered Sword, for it effectively counters a prevailing myth, as you find in Jon and Tony’s book.  In Lundstrom's case, he takes on the pervasive notion, found in the respected histories by Morison and others, that Fletcher's decisions during those key battles reflected poor judgment or even downright character flaws that brought about the loss of three U.S. fleet carriers in the span of only three months, and left the Marines on Guadalcanal abandoned without air cover during the critical first few days of that campaign.  Through an exhaustive examination of primary sources largely ignored by other writers, Lundstrom demonstrates that such criticism is generally tainted by perfect hindsight or selective memory, and in fact does not hold up when all of the relative evidence and testimony is brought to light and fairly considered.


Admirals sitting behind desks in Hawaii and Washington, as well as historians writing after the war's end were not well situated to objectively and accurately evaluate all of the important realities of a convoluted combat scenario.  Added to that is irrational bias against Fletcher by influential officers, such as Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, who in his own mind never made a mistake.  Turner reviles Fletcher at every opportunity, and when he becomes renowned as the amphibious operations master of the war, his opinions on Fletcher are widely accepted by many who don't bother to seek independent substantiation.  Thus, for example, when Fletcher is condemned for failing to charge full speed ahead to engage the enemy when doing so would have exhausted the fuel in his escorting destroyers, thereby making victory impossible and destroyer losses inevitable, he is chastised for failing to attack rather than praised for sensibly preserving America’s meager fleet assets in very dangerous waters.  The critics either ignore or don't bother to educate themselves concerning Fletcher's serious fuel shortages in the Coral Sea and the Solomons, which dictated many of his difficult command decisions.  (Ironically, when RADM Spruance does essentially the same thing at Midway on the night of 4 June 1942—withdrawing his carriers in the face of probable night attacks by a large Japanese surface force—he is awarded ebullient praise.)


But the book is much more than just a counterpoise to unwarranted criticism of Fletcher's decisions.  It is an engrossing narrative of the critical naval battles of 1942 as seen from the flag bridge of the Yorktown and the Saratoga.  Lundstrom takes you through the day to day challenges of running a carrier task group in the face of superior enemy forces while dealing with fuel shortages, conflicting orders, restricted operating areas, communications failures, and an obsolete tactical doctrine dictated by the battleship admirals running the Navy at its highest level. 


Black Shoe Carrier Admiral is a magnificent achievement, representing years of dogged research and composition by an award-winning expert who is eminently qualified and experienced in this subject matter.  If you have admired Lundstrom’s previous works such as The First Team series, this one will find a prominent spot in your World War II library.


It has always been my practice to point out the flaws that I find in any book or video (they all have some), but Black Shoe comes away with very nearly a clean slate.  I only found one inconsequential misstatement of fact (wrong squadron for a PBY pilot) and only two very minor typos in a 515-page text.  That can only be considered a level of literary quality that you rarely find.





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2.  And I Was There


            by Edwin Layton

Subtitle:  Pearl Harbor and Midway—Breaking the Secrets

Published 1985, Konecky & Konecky



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2004-15)


And I Was There, by Admiral Nimitz' intelligence officer, Edwin Layton, has been a recommended volume on our web site for a long time, but I just finished reading it last week.  And for me, the book was a rather stunning revelation--no, several stunning revelations.


With regard to Pearl Harbor, I knew that Admiral Kimmel and General Short had been made scapegoats for the surprise attack, and I knew that CDR Rochefort's genius at Hypo (Combat Intelligence Unit, Pearl Harbor) was not appreciated in Washington.  But I had no idea how much actual blame for the disaster rightly belonged to a few incompetent, self-serving members of the navy's top leadership.  Admiral Layton's book is a sobering report on "a war within a war, of admirals fighting admirals.  It is a tale of men in Washington vying for power and turf while disregarding the national interest."  (Quoted from the book's jacket.)


Layton's revelations are a damning indictment against those in Washington who withheld critical intelligence from Kimmel and his staff—intelligence that clearly pointed to an attack on Hawaii in early December (i.e., the Japanese consulate in Honolulu receiving requests from Tokyo for the specific location of ships in the harbor).  And before the Pearl Harbor revisionists seize on that as proof of their conspiracy theories, it must be said that it was all due solely to internal feuding over who would have responsibility for intercept analysis—Rochefort or OP-20-G in Washington.  As the book jacket says, it was a silly turf struggle, and thousands needlessly died because of it.


But Layton doesn't stop there.  He details our intelligence victory at Midway, but we learn that it was almost another Pearl Harbor.  Again, Washington didn't want anyone in Hawaii analyzing and predicting Japanese intentions, despite the fact that the Midway attack was launched almost to the minute that was predicted by Layton and Rochefort, but nearly two weeks in advance of the date chosen by OP-20-G.


The book goes on to relate the intelligence debacles associated with General MacArthur, particularly his insistence upon invading the Philippines when Nimitz was convinced it was unnecessary.  MacArthur was the bombastic politician while Nimitz was the quiet pragmatist, and FDR was swayed by the politician.  In Layton’s view, many thousands of Americans needlessly died for the sake of a senior officer's vanity.


And I Was There is 596 pages of meticulous detail supporting the author's basic premise that our communications intelligence victories in the Pacific, as dramatic as they were, fell far short of what they could have been.  But that aside, it's also a thorough treatment of our most significant CommInt breakthroughs, especially with regard to the BOM.





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3.  Beyond Pearl Harbor


by Ron Werneth

Subtitle:  The Untold Stories of Japan’s Naval Airmen

Published 2008, Schiffer Military History



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2009-09)


If you’ve been on our roster for several years, you’re probably aware of Ron Werneth’s remarkable undertaking to interview Japanese WW2 veterans and publish their stories for Western readers.  There have been many authors and researchers who have touched on that subject, some very extensively.  A few even went to Japan to interview the veterans first hand.  Werneth, however, trumped all of those efforts to an exponential degree—he quit his job in Chicago and literally moved to Japan, resolved to stay there until he could manage an in-depth interview with every surviving IJN airman who would talk to him.


How does a young American, with no particular knowledge of Japanese culture or its language, manage to (a) muster the courage to do something like that, (b) get aged Japanese vets to open up to an unknown gaijin, (c) actually pull it off with amazing success, and (d) even acquire a wonderful unexpected bonus in the process?  Frankly, I have no idea, despite my own considerable familiarity with Japan, courtesy of the USN.  Werneth clearly had intestinal fortitude in this case that I find admirable to the extreme.


Gaining the confidence of Japanese vets was a tall order, but he had important help on two fronts.  One, he was accompanied by a bilingual companion, Keigo “Hammer” Nakahama (great nickname!) who solved the obvious language problem for him.  And two, once he managed to get an “in” with one or two of the vets via Hammer, those vets helped him make contact with others, letting them know that Werneth was one gaijin they could trust.  With such network building, he was able to connect with a great many former IJN airmen from all backgrounds; pilots, observers, radiomen/gunners, and hangar deck mechanics.


The result is his excellent book, Beyond Pearl Harbor.  It’s divided into sections that feature veterans associated with fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers.  Each section includes a short biography and wartime history of specific veterans, as told by the vets themselves.  Werneth has also inserted his own historical notes at appropriate points in each narrative, which helps the reader maintain perspective.  In a way, the format resembles what you’ve seen in No Right to Win.  Indeed, one of my book’s critics mentioned that it had nothing about Japanese BOM vets.  Well, here it is, hundreds of times better than I could have done.


While their tales of training and combat often tend to be somewhat similar with each other, the Japanese vets’ post-WW2 stories are as interesting as those of our own U.S. veterans.  Several of them established strong associations with their former enemies, one of whom should be especially familiar to many on the Roundtable: Taisuke Maruyama, whose Kate made a low pass over Yorktown at the BOM, witnessed rather closely by our future member Bill Surgi.  Bill and Maruyama became good friends in later years, and the IJN vet also became well acquainted with other Roundtable members during U.S. visits.


The physical properties of the book are superb.  It’s a massive 9 x 11 inch hardback that tops out just under four pounds, even heavier than Shattered Sword.  The paper stock is high gloss, and there’s a great abundance of pictures, especially “then” and “now” shots of each veteran.  The back of the book has a set of color plates showing beautiful profile views of all of the IJN aircraft, plus numerous photos of Werneth posing with the vets he interviewed.


As is my practice, I looked hard for something to criticize in this fine volume and came up with next to nothing.  One might quibble a little about the title since Pearl Harbor was a major portion of the book, including nearly every veteran biography.  Another minor point:  readers will benefit by placing a bookmark in the Glossary as you proceed, since Werneth makes liberal use of undefined Japanese terms in his text.  After a while I learned some of the more repetitive ones, but the bookmark was a big help.  Except for that, all I found were three inconsequential typos—an amazing level of quality for a work of this magnificent scope.  Very highly recommended.


As a footnote, you might wonder how Werneth managed to pay three years worth of bills as an unfunded expatriate in Japan.  He solved that by gaining employment as an English teacher.  And as for his unexpected bonus, that came in the form of a lovely young local woman named Kaori whom he married in 2003—another unique way to get help with Japanese language and culture!





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4.  Eyewitness to History


by Philip Jacobsen

Published 2006, Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2007-44)


If you’ve been with us for a while, you’ll probably recognize the name of this author right away.  Prior to his passing in 2006, Phil Jacobsen was perhaps the Roundtable’s most prolific writer on the topic of communications intelligence and how it impacted the BOM as well as other major events of the Pacific war.  A bona fide expert on ComInt as it was practiced by the U.S. Navy in that era, Phil’s writings appeared for several years in a number of publications, most notably the Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association’s “Cryptolog” magazine.


Eyewitness to History is a 170-page compilation by the NCVA of Phil’s many ComInt articles that were previously published in “Cryptolog” and other magazines or journals.  It reads a little like an autobiography, for it details most of Phil’s principal experiences during his 28 years in the Navy.  But it is much more than that, for he was highly passionate about accuracy when writing about ComInt in WW2.  Phil aggressively challenged any writer whose ComInt-related claims weren’t supportable by the facts as he knew them, including some authors whom he held in the highest regard.  Such rebuttals comprised the bulk of Phil’s writing in his latter years, and that is reflected in this book, over half of which consists of such articles.


The book will be most interesting to any reader who shares or has an interest in Phil’s ComInt background at least to some degree.  He rose through the Navy’s ranks from the Radioman rating, and much of what he writes involves a high level of technical detail regarding the equipment and procedures employed by the Navy’s communications security specialists.  His two lengthy articles on the training of intercept  operators at the outset of the war make fascinating reading for someone (like me) who has had related experience, but anyone with no such background may find these and similar articles a little too technical to maintain a strong interest.


But there is plenty in the book that will appeal to the average Roundtable member.  Phil relates several experiences from his days with the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal, including a fascinating account of the Battle of Tassafaronga, which he had the unique distinction of witnessing both visually and via his radio direction-finding apparatus.  An unexpected bonus is the account of his post-Navy career as a civilian prosecutor for the government of Guam.  He tells several interesting tales from his three years on the island, during which he ultimately rose to the position of attorney general.


Eyewitness to History is available only from the NCVA, in either printed form at $17.00 or on a CD for $5.00.  I bought the CD version, which offers the convenience of rapid searches.  For example, I was able to find every mention of the word “Midway” in the book with just a few clicks.  Another advantage:  if you don’t like the size of the print font, you can enlarge it to anything you want.  Of course, the disadvantage of the CD version is that you have to be parked in front of your computer to read it, so it’s just a matter of which version you might prefer.


I highly recommend Eyewitness to History to anyone who knew Phil and to all who appreciate his contributions to our knowledge of the U.S. Navy’s ComInt operations in WW2.  You can order it directly from the NCVA (scroll down to item #608).





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5.  Hawaii Under the Rising Sun


by John J. Stephan

Subtitle:  Japan’s Plans for Conquest After Pearl Harbor

Published 1984, University of Hawaii Press



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2006-05)


The concept of Japanese invasion plans for Hawaii came as a surprise to me when it was first discussed on the Roundtable.  At the time I'd never heard of any such plans, however impractical or unrefined they might have been.  But the subject developed into one of the most discussed and to some extent, debated topics in the Roundtable's history.  The gist of that discussion, very briefly, was that the Japanese apparently did have Hawaii in their sights at some level and to some extent, but it was highly unlikely that an invasion could have succeeded, or if it did, that a Japanese occupation of the islands could have been sustained.


Hawaii Under the Rising Sun is the same topic expanded exponentially.  The author is Dr. John J. Stephan, a retired professor of Japanese history at the University of Hawaii and a member of the Roundtable.  Equipped with Japanese language skills and academic experience in Japan, Dr. Stephan conducted exhaustive research into both military and civilian primary sources in order to develop the full story of Imperial Japan's intentions for Hawaii.  And as the book reveals, those intentions were considerably more advanced in Japan than anything suggested in our previous Roundtable discussions.


While the book didn't change the conclusion I reached long ago (a Hawaiian invasion would have been Japan's "Bridge Too Far"), it did change my understanding of their seriousness in actually trying it.  The kicker was the Doolittle Raid—literally overnight, sixteen B-25s caused the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) to not only drop its resistance to a Hawaii operation, but to actually start planning for it.  Dr. Stephan quotes a specific order, dated 23 May 1942, from Imperial Headquarters to various army commanders that identifies the scope of the mission, the divisions that would participate, and the advance training that was to be conducted.  Only the BOM stopped such planning from going forward.


In addition to military considerations, the book reveals a strong fixation on the conquest of Hawaii among Japanese civilians, a fire that was constantly stoked in the press even after the BOM.  As late as mid 1943, before the debacles at Midway and the Solomons had become generally known, Japanese newspapers and periodicals trumpeted a fervent desire to liberate the "Asian" populace of Hawaii (which in their minds included everyone there except Caucasians) and bring them into Japan's sphere of control.  Some Japanese even advocated annexing the islands outright as a natural extension of their own island nation.


Another revelation in the book was the extent to which many of Hawaii’s ethnic Japanese citizens directly participated in the mother country’s war, at least before Pearl Harbor.  Many issei and nisei Hawaiians (Japanese nationals and Hawaiian-born Japanese-Americans) served in the Imperial armed forces (i.e., in China) and numerous others returned to Japan before Pearl Harbor to support the war through various academic or journalistic pursuits.  And many of those, including a number of nisei Americans, remained steadfast Japanese loyalists even after Pearl Harbor.  Indeed, a large element of Imperial thinking at the time was that an invasion of Hawaii would be aided in large measure by local issei and nisei who would welcome the IJA troopers with open arms.  Whether that was a realistic expectation is debatable, but that’s how Japanese thinking went at the time.


In summary, Hawaii Under the Rising Sun is a fascinating study of what the IJA and IJN very likely would have at least attempted, if not successfully accomplished and sustained, had they managed to prevail at Midway.  The ultimate conclusion is that everyone—Japanese, Hawaiians, and other Americans—are far better off because the BOM put an end to the whole idea.





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6.  Refighting the Pacific War


by James Bresnahan

Subtitle:  An Alternative History of World War II

Published 2011, Naval Institute Press



(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2011-20.  The following is an abridged version.)


Instead of researching and writing on a topic, author-editor (and Roundtable member) Jim Bresnahan has assembled a panel of historians and veterans who contributed their responses to a number of key questions about WW2 in the Pacific; each question being of the “what if” category.  Example: what if the USS Hornet’s entire air group, not just VT-8, had attacked the Japanese carriers at Midway as the battle began?


However, this book really isn’t “alternative history” fiction, despite its subtitle.  Rather, each issue is approached with a view toward examining the significance of what really did happen vs. what did not happen but easily could have.  The result is historical analysis, not historical fiction, which leads the reader to a new awareness of how the Pacific War was shaped in large measure by seemingly minor but ultimately important occurrences that reasonably could have turned out differently.


The questions posed range from matters concerning the Washington Naval Arms treaty in 1922 to the administration of postwar Japan in the late 1940s, and everything in between.  The panel explores what-ifs at almost every major clash in the Pacific as well as several important political issues directly related to the war.  The effect is like a gathering together all of those eminent contributors at a forum in which they mutually explore most of the Pacific War’s key issues.


While the give-and-take among the panel members is very illuminating, readers need to get past some confusion factors upon starting the book.  Besides the misleading subtitle, there’s the matter of the panel: who and where are they?  The panel is the core of the entire book, but the publisher has oddly elected to introduce them at the very end, sandwiched almost like an afterthought between the bibliography and the index.  Upon starting Chapter One, you’ll encounter writings by panelists you know nothing about unless you look them up one at a time in the back of the book.  Knowing the panelists is essential to the reader; they should have been introduced at the outset.


Then there’s the foreword, by Japanese MSDF Vice Admiral Yoji Koda.  The problem is that the publisher has inexplicably labeled Admiral Koda’s foreword the “Introduction,” not the foreword.  You start reading what anyone would assume to be the author’s introduction to his book, but it soon becomes apparent that you couldn’t possibly be reading the author’s words.  The puzzle is solved by skipping to the last page of the “Introduction,” where Admiral Koda’s signature is found.


But poor choices by the publisher aren’t the author’s fault, and they don’t detract from the heart of his work—the insightful exchange among the panelists.  Once you get past the misleading subtitle, the misplaced panel, and the confusing introduction, Refighting the Pacific War should appeal to anyone with a focus on the war in the Pacific.





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