Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

Review: American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964

March 3, 2011

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 by William Raymond Manchester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like most Americans, I knew of Douglas MacArthur before listening to this audiobook. I knew he was a five-star general of the army like Eisenhower, Marshall, and Bradley. I knew he commanded forces in the Pacific in World War II, constituting the southern effort that mirrored the central Pacific effort commanded by Chester Nimitz. I knew that he was sacked early in the Korean War by President Truman for insubordination. I knew that he was called “Dugout Doug” by troops who believed he did not share their privations in forward positions, close to the enemy.

I learned so much more about MacArthur in this book. I learned that his Army career spanned a remarkable 52 years, and that he was a general officer for something like the last 30 of these. Contrary to the “Dugout Doug” epithet that followed him in the Pacific, he was hardly a coward in the face of the enemy – in fact, it was quite the opposite. He was virtually suicidal in taking undue risks in battle. In World War I, though he was a high-ranking officer (colonel as chief of staff for the Rainbow Division, and later brigadier general in command of his own units), he insisted on commanding from the front, not some tent or quarters far removed from the battlefield. He accompanied his troops on raids and reconnaissance efforts armed only with a riding crop and refused to wear a steel helmet or carry a gas mask (he was gassed at least once because of the latter). Much later, when he withdrew to Corregidor in Manila Harbor after the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, while everyone else rushed for cover when the island came under air attack, he routinely came out of the underground shelters to observe. It was much the same when he later returned to the Philippines after withdrawing to Australia to regroup. Though the Japanese knew the location of the house he was using as a command post and regularly strafed and bombed the area, he refused to leave the building or seek shelter when attacks came. In fact, one of the first actions he took upon assuming the private home as his headquarters was to demolish and fill in an “unsightly” bomb shelter that spoiled the aesthetics of the home’s lawn. Even during the Korean War, he still needed to get close to the front lines to get a feel for the fighting, much closer than many of his aides would have preferred (though in Korea he always made “day trips” to the fighting – flying in, touring, then returning to Tokyo at the end of the day).

Though he was quite fearless in battle, he was also a megalomaniac, highly egotistical, unable to accept blame for mistakes, and unwilling to allow anyone but himself to be acclaimed. His cables were routinely studded with accolades of his own exploits and triumphs, rarely if ever even mentioning the name of any other officer from his command.

I was unaware that Dwight Eisenhower had been one of MacArthur’s aides in the 1930s when MacArthur had retired from active duty and had gone to the Philippines to oversee the U.S. military assistance program there. It would forever sting MacArthur that Ike, who had been a major or lieutenant colonel while working for him, would have such a meteoric rise thereafter, pulling equal with him in rank as a five-star general of the army in the next decade and even further when he won the presidency – something MacArthur always coveted.

His seniority and reputation earned him a great deal of autonomy in how he conducted his business as a warfighting general. In World War II, orders were issued to all other theater commanders, but to MacArthur, the orders were sent for information only. This would lead to his ultimate fall from command in Korea. The man simply could not refrain from dabbling in politics, even going as far as launching an abortive presidential bid in 1948. He could not see the line between civilian control of the military, and was belligerent and insubordinate to commands and instruction issued even from the president himself. The lesson for American civil-military relations was clear – something was wrong with how the system allowed MacArthur to behave as he had – and would yet.

One thing I thought completely remarkable was that even after Truman fired him and he returned to the U.S. – his first time back in over a decade (he had been in the Philippines, Australia, and Japan during his time abroad) – he toured the country, making political speeches attacking the president while in full uniform, still on active duty, still drawing full pay and benefits from the military, jetting about the country on a military plane. This would never happen today.

In the end, MacArthur was a tragic figure – so talented, so gifted and driven (largely by the influence of his mother, who always pushed him to best the achievements of his father, who had been an Army three-star general), but also so terribly flawed. He failed to adequately prepare the Philippines for the Japanese invasion in World War II, responded sluggishly to reports of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (which preceded the strike on the Philippines by several hours), and largely repeated these mistakes in Korea in 1950. US troops in Japan were soft from easy occupation duty there, and the U.S. posture on the peninsula itself was abhorrent when the North Korean attack came. Of course, MacArthur could never be blamed for any of these shortcomings. (In an interesting sidenote, many of the Japanese troops who attacked the Philippines in December 1941 came from Takou, Formosa – now Kaohsiung, Taiwan, from which I write these words. MacArthur failed to conduct any aerial reconnaissance missions of Southern Formosa to determine the disposition and strength of Japanese troops – something he and the Filipino people would pay dearly for.)

It’s a long book – nearly 800 pages in print and over 31 hours of unabridged audio – but very interesting for military history buffs and students of Asia-Pacific geopolitics. (MacArthur to this day is probably regarded more fondly in the Philippines and Japan than he is in much of the United States.) I have read another book by the same author, William Manchester, called “Goodbye, Darkness” about his experiences fighting as a Marine in the Pacific theater during World War II, and there is no doubt that he is a skilled writer. Recommended.

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The Pacific: Endgame

December 31, 2010
Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Image via Wikipedia

Note: I wrote this post in May 2010 after viewing the final episode of HBO’sThe Pacific” miniseries.  I think I meant to work on it more and then post it a bit later, but since it’s now the end of the year and I am just now posting it, clearly it fell by the wayside.  Previous posts on the series can be found here and here.

The final episode of HBO’s original miniseries “The Pacific” aired last night in Taiwan.  As I have written about a couple of times previously here at Facing China, I’ve been doing some reading related to the series and the World War II in the Pacific.  My final selection related to HBO’s The Pacific was the new book about the survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb attack, Charles Pellegrino’s The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back. But before I get into the book at all, let’s discuss The Pacific, shall we?

I enjoyed the series.  It had big shoes to fill, though.  I would say that if The Pacific had come out 10 years ago in place of Band of Brothers, people would be gushing about it, me included.  But since it had so much to live up to, I must reluctantly admit (I already admitted that as a U.S. Marine myself, I am biased) that in my opinion Band of Brothers is the superior series.  Why?  I am not completely sure…perhaps it was because Band of Brothers focused on a smaller “scene” in the European theater of war, as compared to the far-ranging American effort across virtually the entire vastness of the Pacific Ocean.  I think that as a result The Pacific was a bit disjointed, it didn’t flow as smoothly as Band of Brothers did.  Then there was the characters – none of the actors in The Pacific really excelled and stuck with me the way certain characters did in Band of Brothers, like the crazy-legs lieutenant that seemed invincible running across many a battlefield, inspiring the troops to greater accomplishments.  Or Dick Winters, the ultra-charismatic officer who Band of Brothers followed throughout the war.  His equivalent, Sledge’s company commander at Peleliu, “Ack Ack,” did not survive that island’s fighting.

I asked at the outset whether or not the producers of The Pacific would be able to do justice to the baseness and ferocity of the fighting in places like Peleliu and Okinawa as described in Eugene Sledge‘s book.  I think they did a fair job in showing the incredibly demanding conditions the fighting took place in, like the never-ending rains in Okinawa that turned everything to a sea of mud.  In his book, Sledge described one Okinawan vista this way:

It was the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed.  As far as I could see, an area that previously had been a low grassy valley with a picturesque stream meandering through it was a middy, repulsive, open sore on the land.  The place was choked with the putrefaction of death, decay, and destruction.  In a shallow defilade to our right, between my gun pit and the railroad, lay about twenty dead Marines, each on a stretcher and covered to his ankles with a poncho – a commonplace, albeit tragic, scene to every veteran.  Those bodies had been placed there to await transport to the rear for burial.  At least those dead were covered from the torrents of rain that had made them miserable in life and from the swarms of flies that sought to hasten their decay.  But as I looked about, I saw that other Marine dead couldn’t be tended properly.  The whole area was pocked with shell craters and churned up by explosions.  Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse.  The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand.  Swarms of big flies hovered about them.

In the end, it’s back to the old cliché – read the book.  At one point in The Pacific, a Marine on Okinawa slips down the side of a hill of mud while trying simply to get from one place to another.  He ends up in a deep puddle of maggotty mud-water along with a rotting corpse or two.  While it is disgusting by any measure on the screen, here’s how he described the same events in the book:

My buddy rose, took one step down the ridge, slipped, and fell.  He slid on his belly all the way to the bottom, like a turtle sliding off a log.  I reached the bottom to see him stand erect with his arms partially extended and look down at his chest and belt with an mixed expression of horror, revulsion, and disbelief.  He was, of course, muddy from the slide.  But that was the least of it.  White, fat maggots tumbled and rolled off his cartridge belt, pockets, and folds of his dungaree jacket and trousers.  I picked up a stick and handed him another.  Together we scraped the vile insect larvae off his reeking dungarees.

I’d certainly recommend The Pacific as a good series to watch about World War II in the Pacific from the U.S. point of view.  It doesn’t tell the whole story, but how could it?  Four years of fighting can hardly be compressed into under 10 hours of television.  Nice effort – 4 of 5 stars.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I also wanted to talk about the book The Last Train from Hiroshima.  First, it’s important to note at the outset that the book is controversial because of problems with key sources of information the author used in researching the book.  In fact, because of these source problems, the publisher pulled the book from further sales earlier this year and the author is re-writing the book without the tainted sources.  Oh yeah, the sources scandal also raised questions about the author’s academic credentials, and it turns out that the PhD he claimed wasn’t real.  Due to all these problems, Last Train may not have been the best book to choose in retrospect, but in my own defense, I bought it soon after it was released, prior to all these skeletons coming out of the closet.  I decided to read it to tie in with World War II‘s “endgame” – nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and a few days later, Japanese capitulation.

The nuclear attacks on Japan are not a major event in The Pacific – they occur at the end of the 9th episode, and are not shown, only alluded to in a conversation about some fancy, new “super bombs” wiping out a couple Japanese cities.  This is not to downplay their significance; it is simply because the attacks themselves are beyond the scope of the story.  It is because of the atomic bombs used on Japan that the story ends as it does, with a U.S. victory on Okinawa, with no need to chance the estimated 1 million U.S. casualties that would be necessitated by a breach on mainland Japan itself.

Last Train talks about some of the poor souls who managed to survive the bombing in Hiroshima and thought that fleeing would be a good idea, to get out of the area.  I agree, but a few who fled Hiroshima went to join family in Nagasaki and were there a few days hence when the second, more powerful nuclear bomb was detonated.  This could called “really, really bad luck.”  The book also asserts that the Hiroshima bomb was a “dud.”  The yield was only about 10 kilotons (KT), even though it was supposed to be between 20 – 30KT. (The Nagasaki bomb‘s yield was in this latter range.) One Japanese survivor, a medical doctor who wore glasses to correct his eyesight, had his vision corrected by the blast.  In what might be the ultimate deadpan, he said that he does not recommend weathering a nuclear attack as an alternative corrective vision surgery. (!!!)

I visited both Hiroshima and Nagasaki earlier this year.  I wanted to see both of the bombing sites and see what the cities that still exist there are like now.  It’s remarkable, really – what I took away most from the visits was the resilience of mankind.  To see the photos of the destruction the bombs caused and to stand at the hypocenter today and take a look around, to see all the bustle and urban metropolis still surrounding you there, is quite a testament to being able to bounce back from a really, really big setback.

A related book I also recently completed was John Lewis Gaddis’s newest book of history related to the aftermath of World War II, called The Cold War: A New History.  I found the book to be quite interesting in how it ties so many different themes together, from the evolution of containment, detente, the creation of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War in Asia, the opening of China, and on and on.  It was a nice way to bring me pretty much right back to the modern day, tracing out the results of World War II to (near) the present.  Excellent book.

Halfway through “The Pacific”

May 1, 2010
Guadalcanal map

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.

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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 MarDiv insignia

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.

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