The magisterial final volume of Ian W. Toll’s Pacific War trilogy
September 2nd marks the 75th anniversary of the day the Japanese officially surrendered on the deck of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, ending World War II. Just over the railings, much of Tokyo was burned to the ground, as were many Japanese cities, the nation starving and completely beaten.
I first became fascinated by the war between the United States and Japan in the 1970s, when its history felt current: many veterans were still alive, and people were still fishing out the last stubborn Japanese soldiers from the Philippine jungles. I was 13 and the fierce battles between planes and ships on a vast blue ocean were thrilling to imagine. My great uncle died when he stepped on a Japanese landmine on Leyte Island. My step-father fought in five campaigns in the Pacific, manning twin 50-cal. machine guns to protect airfields. Even then, 35 years later, he preferred cloudy afternoons, because the Japanese “won’t strafe us today.”
At the time, with much information newly unclassified, histories of the conflict tended to recount which ships had been where, which planes had scored hits on their opponents, and which battles had decided the outcome. As the decades wore on, and my interest ebbed and flowed, I occasionally read the latest new history. The focus shifted: writers added novelistic details, rich visual descriptions, internal thoughts and motivations for admirals and sailors, and all manner of obscure diary entries and hitherto unexplored official histories. Battles and incidents that had once merited a line now got the full-book treatment.
Then, nearly 10 years ago, the author and historian Ian W. Toll published the first of what would seem to be–what surely must be–the definitive, three-volume history of the brutal four-year battle with Japan. I gobbled them up. How did Toll manage to distinguish himself from all those works that had come before? By collecting an astounding volume of information and elegantly putting it on the page; by wonderfully writing those battles that previous historians had thoroughly examined; and by going deeply into episodes that had received scant attention before. In the first volume, “Pacific Crucible,” for example, Toll gives an early U.S. raid on the Marshall Islands pulse-pounding narrative drive, while previous authors had rushed through it to get to big battles like Coral Sea and Midway.
The result is a remarkable body of work that allows one to viscerally experience how the war in the Pacific was not one war, but really three wars. It began as a three-dimensional, 360-degree naval and air chess game between professional navies, morphed into a titanic war of attrition, and ended as a an utterly unbalanced contest between the largest, most sophisticated war-making force the world had ever known and a desperate, starving, beaten nation, its own civilians caught miserably between their relentless enemy and their own delusional, selfish leaders.
Today, Norton publishes the final volume, Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945. In the closing pages of the second book, “The Conquering Tide,” Toll foreshadowed the Gotterdammerung that Japan would face in the war’s closing year. In Twilight of the Gods he delivers it with stunning, exhausting, horrifying force.
From Kamikaze to Napalm
Twilight of the Gods–at 792 pages of text, the biggest of the trilogy–begins with a look at the role of press relations during the war and the delicate art of releasing bad news to the public, a theme that continues as a subplot. Both sides fight a public-relations battle, with characters like Gen. Douglas MacArthur playing directly to the media, while others shun the spotlight. Again and again, in both the United States and Japan, we see the answer is clear: it’s always best to put the truth out there for your people to see and hear. This focus on the partisan use of “facts” is indeed germane to our political discourse today.
We’re soon back in action at Peleliu and then the sprawling Battle of Leyte Gulf, the final true sea fight of World War II. Toll switches nicely from the 30,000-foot strategic view to the telling, in-close detail, like how sailors transferred their injured shipmates off the burning carrier Princeton by timing their tosses to the up-down ocean swells. The battles wrecks the Japanese. It essentially finishes their navy as a fighting force; from there it only gets worse for them.
The United States carrier force–alternately the Fifth Fleet or the Third Fleet, depending on who is in charge, Adm. Raymond A. Spruance or Adm. Bill “Bull” Halsey–has become an unstoppable Death Star, ranging around the Pacific with impudence. In “Pacific Crucible,” Toll had described balanced battles between forces with two or three aircraft carriers each; now the U.S. fleet has dozens, with the best planes and the best-trained flyers by far.
Japan, meanwhile, rushed young men aloft as quickly as possible, in planes that were fast becoming obsolete, to be shot down en masse. Yet the leaders wouldn’t give up, even as a nascent peace movement took hold within the government. The generals and admirals knew they were beaten but were ready to sacrifice as many of their sailors, soldiers and pilots–and eventually civilians–as necessary to convince the Americans that this fight was going to be too costly, and they should just negotiate a peace and go home.
These competing factors reach a fevered pitch with the advent of the Kamikaze, in which barely trained Japanese pilots – many of them college students – flew their planes into American ships, or died trying. The Kamikaze scored many successes, sinking or severely damaging dozens of vessels, including several big and valuable aircraft carriers, but they were nonetheless unable to hinder the U.S. fleet’s movement. A furious typhoon, which Toll harrowingly describes; you almost get seasick–causes almost as much of a setback for the fleet as the most frenzied Kamikaze attack.
Toll makes a strong case that, in the beginning of the Kamikaze program, the flyers, both new and veteran, were eager to volunteer. But as the war drags on, and the Allies get closer to the homeland, they begin to resist, or to at least question the strategy. More and more pilots turn back with mysterious engine malfunctions. One pilot does so nine times, and is executed. He was a graduate of the elite Wasada University. What a terrible waste: he was exactly the kind of person Japan would need to rebuild in the months ahead.
The true Gotterdammerung of this historical Gotterdammerung is the strategic bombing campaign against Japan. First we see the troubled development of the massive, four-engine B-29 bomber and its initial failures. Japanese civilians, it’s almost painful to read, initially “regarded the B-29s with curiosity, fascination and even admiration.”
But when Gen. Curtis LeMay determines that the plane’s most effective use would be flying low and dropping napalm-lined incendiary bombs on Tokyo, the interest turns to horror. That night is told in unflinching and ghastly detail: the streamer-tailing explosives floating to the ground and popping, the fires everywhere, the desperate sprints of terrified families seeking refuge when there was none. Fathers lose their children in the whirlwind; mothers and babies burst into flames. Michiko Okubo, 12, grabs the hand of a four-year-old girl and says, “Let’s get away from here together.” But flames quickly separate them. She recalls: “I have never been able to forget the feeling of her soft, little hand, like a maple leaf, in mine.”
It is hard to say who’s crueler: the American planners who knew what incendiaries would do to a city of wood and paper, and seemed to almost relish it, or the Japanese leaders, who implored their citizens to keep fighting when they couldn’t protect them. By the time the bomb falls on Hiroshima 146 pages later–again told in unflinching detail–Twilight of the Gods has more or less inured us to human suffering. But then again, at the time, much of humanity was equally inured.
Reading about the Pacific War as a 54-year-old is quite a different experience from that of a 13-year-old boy. As the father of a 20-year-old college student son, I find tales of young pilots being shot down in flames not at all thrilling–in fact, they are deeply upsetting. As a writer and journalist with 30 years experience, I can all the more admire and appreciate Toll’s incredible breadth of reporting, his canny insights, and his smart way with words. Twilight of the Gods is not as taut as the first two books. A section on the home front didn’t seem to advance the scholarship and he probably could have cut it. And there’s a little sloppiness: a misnamed ship here, an awkwardly repeated phrase there. But, all in all, it’s an incredible work, an all-encompassing journey back to a war whose scale and ferocity is hard to imagine today.
My youthful fascination with the Pacific War led to a lifelong interest in Japan and its history and culture. I’ve managed to go three times, and I’ve made some strong friendships there. In October, 2015, I went to write a travel story for The New York Times and, on my last day, made a mad dash from Kyoto to Tokyo to Narita Airport and home. In Tokyo I met a friend, Sakura, at Tokyo Station. We had coffee and cherry pie at a place called Bubby’s.
Her grandfather had driven a truck in the Japanese Army during the war. Perhaps he was on the same island where my step-father shot at Japanese planes on sunny days. But now here we were, in the Tokyo outpost of a downtown Manhattan restaurant, eating a quintessential American dessert, so very close to where Curtis LeMay’s streamer-tailing bombs had set their fires. It seemed impossible to imagine that our nations, and our relatives, had once been at each other’s throats.
With his magisterial work Toll reminds us in extraordinary detail that they were, and in so doing makes the best possible case for making sure it never happens again.