Sea of Thunder

Author: Evan Thomas
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Year: 2006
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

Americans are obsessed with the Second World War. No, that's a little condescending - people are obsessed with World War II. It's just that, as an American, the national obsession feels so much more palpable. Yesterday, I walked into Barnes and Noble and found at least four or five new books on World War II. The awkwardly titled Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945 was one of them.

While "people" might be obsessed with World War II, most of them seem particularly obsessed with the war in Western Europe and the Atlantic. While the Pacific theater has never really been neglected in film and literature, some people consider it a mere sideshow to the "real" war in Europe. The reality couldn't have been farther than the truth - many of the battles fought in the Pacific were so grueling and brutal they made their Atlantic counterparts look like border skirmishes. The scale of the destruction and bloodshed was almost unimaginable, and the atrocities committed by both sides (especially the Japanese, whose horrific treatment of POWs and civilians in occupied territories remains a source of resentment for many) would make any thinking person shudder.

With that in mind, it's hard to believe that Evan Thomas could have written such an uninspiring, milquetoast history of the Pacific War. Thomas focuses on four main characters, all of whom eventually participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 23 through 26, 1944, the largest naval battle of World War II.

Fleet Admiral William Halsey commanded American naval forces in the South Pacific from October 1942 to May 1944. Returned from October 1944 to January 1945 as commander of the 3rd Fleet during the Philippines campaign, and again from May 1945 until war's end.

Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki commanded the Imperial Japanese Navy's 1st Battleship Division at Leyte Gulf. After the battle he returned to Japan to take command of land-based naval aircraft, including the massed kamikaze attacks at Okinawa.

Commander Ernest Evans was the captain of the Destroyer USS Johnston at the Battle of Samar Gulf. Evans went down with his ship while fighting a vastly superior Japanese force including battleships and heavy cruisers. He was later awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita was Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Second Fleet at Leyte Gulf. Despite having surprised the American 7th fleet at Samar Gulf and sinking four of their ships, Kurita decided to retreat from the battle for reasons that remain unknown.

The two Japanese admirals were diametric opposites of one another; while Ugaki always found new ways to sink his ships and kill his men for the glory of the empire, Kurita continuously sought to preserve his forces for another day. Ugaki killed himself in a botched kamikaze attack against an unloaded American landing ship the day after the war ended - Kurita lived to be 88 and died peacefully in the company of his family.

Halsey was the naval hero that America needed in it's time of crisis. Flaunted by the press as the second coming of Admiral Nelson, Halsey was a chain smoking, no-nonsense kind of guy who refused to eat off of fine China because it was "made in Japan." Seriously, read up on the guy! Halsey's luster began to wear off as his obsession with sinking the Japanese carriers nearly resulted in the destruction of much of the 7th fleet, left behind to guard the San Bernadino Straight between Layte and Samar. Thomas's depictions of the main characters range from insightful to borderline cliche. He manages to present Halsey as a shrewd father figure for the first third of the book, spending the rest criticizing him for his every action. Thomas's portrayal of Halsey isn't particularly new or groundbreaking, and probably won't influence Halsey's supporters and detractors very much.

Thomas portrays the two Japanese leaders in a sympathetic light, but in making them more human he also unfortunately transforms them into clichés. Based on Sea of Thunder, the Japanese military establishment consisted entirely of brutish war criminals, or noble warriors who spent their spare time philosophizing, drinking tea, writing poems, and finding inner peace. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully did a far superior job of exploring the Japanese naval mindset in their 2005 book Shattered Sword.

Ernest Evans disappears for the entire mid-section of Sea of Thunder, and serves little purpose in the end. Again, I'm thinking about another far superior book on the same subject, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, where Evans had a more prominent role. Thomas cherry-picks some quotes, given 60 years in hindsight, by a number of Johnston survivors and determines that Evans's actions at Samar Gulf were foolhardy. Perhaps Evans could have simply bolted and left his CVE cohorts to their fate, but doing so would have gone against everything he, as a veteran destroyer skipper, was trained to do.

Sea of Thunder's flaws are myriad and irritating. Thomas describes submarines with "conning tower bridges," 14-inch shells with 1,400 pound bursting charges, battleships being pushed aside 10 feet from firing their main guns, and "telegrams" being "wired" from ship-to-ship. The author's descriptions of gigantic naval battles feel strangely bloodless and abstracted. Have I turned into a naval literature snob? Maybe, but mistakes such as these, easily corrected by proper research, are just plain grating. Every time a military time is used, the "actual" time is appended afterwards. 0932 becomes 9:32 am, 1450 2:50 pm, and so on. On an anal retentive note, the glossy, wavy American flag on the cover has 50 stars, not 48. Oops.

Call me a history snob, a WWII nerd, a tenacious bookworm, or a naval grognard, but Sea of Thunder is rather disappointing. The back cover is littered with glowing praise about Thomas's "jaw dropping psychological insights," "impressive scholarship," and "brilliant penetrating studies," little of which I actually found in the previous 415 pages. All right, the author's insights into the Fog of War and the complications of divided command are interesting at times. Then again, I've already learned the same lessons in the kitchen, cooking hamburgers at the same time my Mom was cooking French fries, trying to finish both at the same time and deliver them to the proper plates without any direct communication. Perhaps I simply protest way too much, or have become crotchety and jaded in my old age.



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