Friday, January 12, 2007

SEA OF THUNDER: A good book to read

Even Thomas' Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign scratched DD's holiday itch for a good book on naval combat. You see, I'm a person who can never pass up titles like Jutland 1916, HMS Warspite, or Battleship Bismarck (the last two on Naval Institute Press, no less)!

Fighting tales from the sea float my boat.

Thomas' SoT tells the Battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II from the standpoints of two Japanese commanders, Takeo Kurita and Matome Ugaki, and two Americans, one famous -- Bull Halsey, and one not, Ernest Evans.

Halsey was America's fighting admiral in the Pacific, one famous for the signed declaration in the US naval base at Truk to "Kill japs, kill japs, kill more japs. You will help kill the yellow bastards if you do your job well."

Kurita was a Japanese battleship admiral, one who commanded a task force with the two largest ever built, the Musashi and the Yamato.

Ugaki and Evans are sidelights to the story, although Thomas did not mean them to be so. While their histories are interesting, they are secondary to the vivid arcs of Kurita and Halsey.

The Battle of Leyte was the biggest naval engagement in history.

It was the death ride of the Japanese navy and involved an elaborate plan in which two feints around the north and south of the Philippines were launched.

The feints were to lure the great blue fleet, Halsey's task force, away from defense of the landing beaches in Leyte Gulf. This would allow Kurita, in command of the mightiest wing of the Japanese attack, to sail unopposed through the San Bernardino Strait and into the rear of the American landing in the Philippines. His big battleships would then commence the destruction of troop transports and whatever other ships got in the way.

However, by this late juncture in the war, the Japanese had no real chance of success. Their plan, deemed overcomplicated even by its own commanders, was as much an attempt to die suicidally in combat, as it was aimed at killing Americans.

Thomas shows that the Japanese military leadership was something of a death cult, one which not only did not grasp the nature of their strategic defeat by the United States but which longed for battles in which they would gloriously meet their end.

During the battles leading up to Leyte Gulf, it happened for many of them. The Japanese Navy was effectively destroyed as a fighting force, even though its complicated plan sort of worked.

Halsey, commanding America's fast carriers and battleships in the Pacific, took the bait of the northern feint and went for a sacrificial Japanese force of crippled aircraft carriers. This left the San Bernardino Strait open to Kurita's force which sailed through under cover of darkness.

However, during the approach, Kurita's force took a fearful mauling from American naval aviation, the supposedly unsinkable battleship Musashi being sent to the bottom before firing a single shot at an American naval vessel.

Nevertheless, Kurita pushed on and emerged near the American landing area, confronted only by a force of small aircraft carriers known as "jeeps" and their destroyer escort. In the ensuing battle, the small aircraft carriers and destroyers put up a furious defense, one which further wore at the Japanese battle squadron.

Moments away from total victory and the complete destruction of the American force under the mighty guns of the Yamato, Kurita turned away, confused by the US defense, exhausted by the fog of war and laboring under the suspicion that he had been led into a trap.

Thomas tells the story with excellence and rigor and the reader comes away not only engrossed with the controversial and mercurial nature of Halsey, but -- more impressively, the guarded and solemn personality of Kurita, a man who remains an enigma in World War II histories for turning away at the moment of his greatest triumph.

Why did he do so?

Mostly because the Japanese commander could not stand to see any more of his men killed in a battle he knew wouldn't influence the outcome of the war, writes Thomas.

After Leyte Gulf, with the northern and southern feints smashed, the southerly one in the last battleship action ever, Surigao, where American ships pulled from the muck of Pearl Harbor crushed their opposition under a rain of fire and steel, the Japanese fleet never sailed effectively again. The Yamato was eventually tossed away in a senseless sortie.

Sea of Thunder retells a magnificent tale of heroism and battle from both sides, adding to scholarly knowledge by informing from the perspective of Kurita's writings, largely unknown in the US.

Readers cannot help but be struck by the differences between the US war effort then -- which was waged by all, not just those who don't have other options -- and the war in Iraq.

Halsey and Kurita are unforgettable as opposed to modern commanders, appearing regularly in the news like managers of a failed corporate operation, one in which CEOs regularly retire and are replaced, seen occasionally before Congress or the newsmedia expressing themselves in ways which are neither strong, moving nor particularly elucidating.

Recommended, hardback, from Simon & Schuster.


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