Guadalcanal campaign map
Episode 5 of HBO’s The Pacific aired here in Taiwan last Saturday night. I’ve seen all five episodes thus far and want to offer my impressions of the series halfway through. I think it is useful to tie in some related reading I have been doing.
In a previous post I talked about reading E.B. Sledge’s account of the fantastically terrible fighting on Peleliu and Okinawa as preparation for the series. Selection of Sledge’s book, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa was in fact a matter of convenience; it had been setting on my shelf, begging to be read for nearly a year since I found a very affordable paperback copy used at a bookstore in Monterey, California. My latest tie-in selection, William Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War was also one of convenience – during a “fire sale” on Audible.com in September 2009, I picked up the unabridged audiobook for cheap. It had been waiting in my audiobook queue, also beckoning – “Listen to me!” The time had come.
First of all, my full review of the book, which I finished yesterday, is here at Goodreads. However, there are a few things I would like to mention about it here in contrast with what I read in Sledge’s book. Not that really creates any disputes in the descriptions of the fighting – far from it. Rather, it is a matter of scope. Sledge’s book takes an almost “soda straw” view of the fighting he personally engaged in on two islands in the Pacific during World War II. Much has been written about how successful he was in describing the undeniably brutal combat in both places. Manchester’s book contains some of the same intense accounts of personal battle, but to it he adds a great deal of context, both from at the time the Pacific campaign was taking place, but also, and very uniquely, from the future – looking back at the battles and their aftermath from the vantage point provided by over three decades of hindsight and perspective. Writing in the late 1970s, Manchester was critical of the return of the Japanese in commercial and consumer roles to many of the same places that so many U.S. servicemen died in securing during the war, for instance Guam. I have spent some time on Guam, first in late 1996 and most recently in early 2008. If he though the place was overcommercialized and had too many Japanese tourists in the late 1970s, I shudder to think what he would make of it today. The main drag along Tumon Bay compares not unfavorably in terms of commercial development with Waikiki and is now studded with high-rise hotels and fancy boutiques. Yet only a few miles away in little villages life is completely different, lacking in basic needs like fresh water. As a legacy of the war, the island is already has a large U.S. military presence, but that will increase by a large margin when in the coming decade nearly 10,000 Marines and their families will most likely move from Okinawa to a new installation on Guam. Guam’s sons and daughters serve and give their lives in a disproportionately high percentage in today’s U.S. military forces, yet the people there cannot vote in the American presidential elections. Conditions in Guam today, faced with the impending U.S. military buildup, have many residents feeling like they are colonial subjects of the U.S. This situation bodes not well for the stability of the island in the future and is even more important as Guam takes a more central role in American strategy in the Pacific as traditional basing locations like Okinawa become less palatable, as the recent protests about the relocation of the Futenma Marine air base in Ginowan, Okinawa and the ongoing friction between the government of Japan and the Americans about what the plan is for the relocation of U.S. forces.
View of Guam from the air, 2008
Manchester also visited Okinawa during his return to the Pacific, and was appalled by what he saw there as well. He called the base exchange he saw at Camp Foster, the largest of the Marine bases on Okinawa, bigger than any department store he had seen in the U.S. His return to the Philippines was a bit less shocking, if only because it seemed a bit less “Americanized.” I’ve also been to Manila and other places in the Philippines and what shocks the most is the contrast between rich and poor. Manila has no shortage of high-end Western hotels, shopping malls (the Mall of Asia there is the one of the largest in Asia), restaurants, and so forth, but oftentimes just a block or two away are people living in some of the most grinding conditions imaginable. Panhandling is epidemic. And then there is the Manila American Cemetery, where many of America’s battle dead from World War II are buried. When I visited it in 2007, I felt almost as if I had stepped into Arlington National Cemetery, with the rolling expanses of white cross-studded greenery. It was spacious and peaceful, a stark contrast to the teeming metropolis that surrounded it.
Even with Manchester’s and Sledge’s lucid descriptions of the combat all across the Pacific, it’s hard for me to imagine fighting in some of these places. Conditions on Guadalcanal sounded absolutely oppressive. It’s no wonder the 1st Marine Division emblem still boasts of their fortitude there.
1st Marine Division insignia
Finally, specifically about The Pacific, I am enjoying each week’s episode. I prefer the installments that are more heavy on combat, less so the ones that are about “chasing tail” (i.e. episode 3 about Marines resting and refitting in Australia between the battle on Guadalcanal and the Cape Gloucester landing). In this respect I agree with critics who say that the series tries to hard to make a “love story.” Perhaps the second half of the series will be able to tie it all together. All in all, I would say that halfway through the ten-part series, I prefer Band of Brothers, though it left some seriously big shoes to fill.
Episode 6 of The Pacific airs tonight in Taiwan. Tune it to HBO to watch.