Saul David's excellent new account of the Pacific War
BBC History Magazine has just published my review of Saul David’s excellent new account of the Pacific War, Devil Dogs, told through the eyes of the men of K Company, 5th Marines. Please do buy a copy of the magazine if you can. This month’s edition is a bumper, with an excellent interview with Al Murray about his new book, Command. I have reviewed this for the December edition of the Aspects of History magazine.
For those who don’t have access to the BBC History Magazine, my original review follows (it was somewhat abridged to fit the wordcount).
This book is a huge achievement. In my view it is the long-awaited Pacific version of Stephen Ambrose’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and needs to be produced as a mini-series without delay. Television executives please take note. The book succeeds in capturing the physical enormity and the human horror of the long trauma of the Pacific War, for both Americans (mainly, among the Allies) and the Japanese. It does so through the ground-level eyes of the ordinary men (the ‘Devil Dogs’ – a name acquired during the Great War) of K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (‘K/3/5’) – part of the legendary 1st Marine Division, the ‘Old Breed’. The individual enlisted men of K/3/5 have a very significant voice in this story, among others Eugene ‘Gene’ Sledge, author of the incomparable ‘With The Old Breed’, primarily because of the very high literary standard of the men. Many were college graduates and many left memoirs, diaries and letters, all of which David has assiduously plundered in the building of this remarkable story.
The story begins with Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands at the end of 1942 and ends with the long, exhausting terrors of Okinawa in 1945, with New Britain (Cape Gloucester) and Peleliu in between, four years of grindingly tough fighting against the most demanding enemy imaginable. At Guadalcanal the troops – all greenhorns – are suddenly thrust into the relentless viciousness of brutal war, amidst the fungal and malarial misery of the monsoon. It's both an individual and a corporate experience. Each has to overcome his fears, learn how to fight and adapt to survive. Teams have to develop, coalesce around good, bad or indifferent leaders, and learn to live and fight as one. The ‘one thing those people have got that you haven’t is guts’ Colonel Edson chastised his men at Guadalcanal in the terrible fighting for Henderson Field, as wave after wave of Japanese ‘banzai’ attacks threatened to overwhelm his traumatised, exhausted men. It was enough to encourage them to hang on, which they did by their fingertips. They learned fast; it was adapt or die. A Guadalcanal – proportionately the costliest American campaign of the entire war – there was no luxury of long months of psychological preparation for the exactitudes of fighting the Japanese: war was a matter of direct and rapid immersion. This perhaps is one of the defining features of this war: its grinding relentlessness. Reading this, and Saul David’s previous excellent Crucible of Hell, about the long fight for Okinawa in 1945, is exhausting enough for the modern reader. What hell it must have been for the brave though benighted souls who had to endure it's reality.
This is the primary take away from the book. Although David does a magnificent job in keeping us close to the strategy of the Pacific war, it is principally a story of how men learn to fight, adapt to the rigours of vicious, uncompromising battle, and cope with the ruthless decimation of their ranks through the fighting. There was no subtlety to this war. Sergeant Asa Bordages described one part of the struggle for ‘Walt’s Ridge on Cape Gloucester, as the Japanese launched yet another attack. ‘The Japanese attacked, ‘bent low, screaming death… It was hand to hand in the dark, in the pelting rain… Man against man. Smashing, clawing in the dark. Stabbing, clubbing. Slipping in the mud. Gasping, grunting, dying. Each man alone in the blackness, not knowing what was happening on his right or his left, but holding until he died [on] the ground where his feet were planted.’ This particular fight, he observed, was won by Marines ‘who died but would not step back.’
Bordages’ comment is a perfect encapsulation of the achievement of the men who fought and died in this most terrible of wars, and who were ultimately to triumph, at huge cost, against the most fearsome of foes.
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