Ex Libris: Pacific Crucible

War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

Early 1942 was a foreboding time for the United States and its allies. After being blind-sided at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, the Allies suffered a cascading series of defeats against the mighty juggernaut of the Japanese navy and army. The capture of Wake, the Philippines, Indochina, and Singapore as well as the sinking of many ships, including Great Britain’s prized battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, happened in rapid fire succession. If America could not secure a significant victory soon and stop Japan’s momentum, Australia’s northern coast might be next and Hawaii soon after. The battle of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June of 1942 were pivotal victories that put an end to Japan’s advance and turned the tide of war against them.

Through his book Pacific Crucible, Ian Toll tells the story of how both sides slugged it out in the immense vastness of the Pacific Ocean. In these early days of the war, the United States was outgunned in the number of aircraft carriers, planes, and the quality of munitions. Many of our torpedoes were duds, bouncing harmlessly off the hulls of Japanese ships. The Japanese were battle hardened, well equipped, and extremely confident. Ironically, while this confidence — or over-confidence — was beneficial in the early days of the war, it later transformed into an Achilles’ heel and a key to Japan’s defeat.

Toll gives insightful background information on the rise of the Japanese empire starting in the early 20th century. He focuses on the military takeover of the government after the Russo-Japanese War as well as the intense and committed militarization of the country and the brainwashing of the people. The Japanese leadership felt the West had subjugated Japan and was exploiting the country for its own gain. They wanted to kick the Western powers out and establish itself as the dominant Far Eastern power. In order to do this, they needed the oil and mineral riches of the East Indies, and the New Guinea town of Port Moresby was crucial in obtaining that.

The United States badly needed to hold the line at Port Moresby, not only to keep the Japanese from having it, but also to keep the U.S. supply lines open to Australia, which had become the Allied base for the war in the South Pacific. Australia was just as important in the South Pacific as Hawaii was for the Mid and North Pacific. Toll takes the reader through the intricacies of the Battle of The Coral Sea — the first battle in which neither surface fleet saw the other and was only fought from the air. Tactically, this battle was a draw, but strategically the United States came out ahead by stopping the planned invasion of Port Moresby.

Due to the United States’ naval inferiority to the Japanese at this time, we needed something extra, a competitive advantage, in order to stop our nemesis. This came in the form of Station Hypo, an ultra-secret intelligence team that broke the Japanese secret communication code. Working non-stop under extreme stress, this group under the command of Joseph Rochefort performed the miracle that the U.S. Navy needed by cracking the code. Deciphering Japanese communications, Rochefort was convinced that the next attack after the Coral Sea battle would be the invasion of Midway.

Convincing the Navy leadership was no easy matter, and Admiral Nimitz took a huge risk in committing his only three aircraft carriers to a brazen ambush mission. Even though the United States had the element of surprise, the odds were still stacked against us because of the Japanese’s naval superiority. As Providence would have it, U.S. dive bombers caught the Japanese fleet while its fighters were being refueled and were unable to defend themselves adequately. The end result was the sinking of four Japanese aircraft carriers and one battle cruiser and a United States loss of one aircraft carrier, a decisive U.S. victory that staggered the Japanese and ultimately turned the tide of the war.

Ian Toll masterfully ties together the complexities of issues and decisions involved on both sides and gives the reader a greater understanding of one of history’s most important events.