Now that I’ve survived the Christmas swivet and am buckling down to ramp up for China’s Wings’ publication (so much so that I’m probably going to curtail my surfing despite the ongoing run of excellence at Ocean Beach), I want to circle back to a book I mentioned in one of my pre-Christmas posts — Ian Toll’s book Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. I finished it just before Christmas, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in reading a breezy, informative, well-researched narrative of the opening months of World War II in the Pacific.
In my mind, “narrative” is best way to read and appreciate history — the best history books always read as stories.
In Pacific Crucible, Toll tells the story of the first six months of the Pacific War, taking us from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the climactic Battle of Midway in the first week of June, 1942, albeit also including some significant circles back through time to fill in the back stories of the significant characters and nations, and their respective navies. Isoroku Yamamato, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, is perhaps the best drawn and best developed of Toll’s characters, which is fitting, since his decisions — and blunders, particularly at Midway — did much to shape the first six months of the war.
Through the years, I’ve read many accounts of Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the Battle of Midway, and Toll does an excellent job leading us through those engagements, giving proper prominence to recent research into those battles and doing an excellent job describing the efforts of US Navy codebreakers and the crucial role they played. I knew much less about American carrier operations between Pearl Harbor and the Doolittle Raid, and thanks to Toll’s telling, I’m glad to now be able to fit them into the overall picture.
In mid-March, an Air Corps officer approached Bixby in New York, at the Pan Am headquarters in the Chrysler Building, and asked a slate of technical questions about flying conditions in Eastern China. Bixby gave what specifics he could, but said that for precise, accurate, and current information, the Army should query “Our man Bond,” who’d recently returned to Washington from China.
The officer took Bixby’s suggestion. He was evasive, but he told Bond the Army planned to bomb Tokyo between April 10 and April 20 and wanted to land in China afterward. Based on landing weight parameters, Bond surmised the Army was planning to use medium bombers, and he disabused the officer of hope there was a suitable spot north of the Yangtze. But CNAC’s airfield at Namyung was just barely within the radius the officer indicated. It was fifty miles from the nearest Japanese garrison and wasn’t difficult for skilled navigators to find in daylight. Bond told the man everything he knew. He never heard from the officer again, but extrapolating from what he’d been told and knowing the Air Corps didn’t have any medium bombers in China, the realization grew on him that the military must have figured out how to launch them from aircraft carriers, after which they’d raid Japan and carry on to China. Considering the value of the assets the Japanese could annihilate if the operation were compromised, Bond was amazed the officer hadn’t extracted a formal secrecy pledge – concrete proof he was trusted as much in Washington as he was in China.[i]
Moon Chin flew Doolittle out of China after the raid, and it’s one of the more amusing anecdotes in China’s Wings.
As an addendum, those fascinated with the Battle of Midway will spend happy hours perusing the wealth of information posted at the Battle of Midway Roundtable — it’s a fabulous website, and I could not more strongly recommend Jonathan Parshall’s and Anthony Tully’s Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, which tells the battle from the Japanese perspective. It’s one of the best battle narratives I’ve ever read, and I’ve read many dozens.
[i] Bond’s contribution to the Doolittle Raid: William Langhorne Bond, Wings for an Embattled China, pp. 347-348.