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History Repeats in 'Sea of Thunder'

Newsweek editor chronicles triumphs and blunders off the Philippine coast in WWII

By Daniel J. Hemel, Crimson Staff Writer

The U.S. invasion itself went smoothly.

But with its numerical and technological advantage, the American military should have overwhelmed the enemy.

Instead, due to poor decisions at the top ranks, the U.S. failed to deploy its superior firepower effectively. And American fighters were flummoxed by enemy suicide bombers.

The U.S. military was not defeated—not by a long shot. But it lost many more men than it should have, and its victory was less decisive than it could have been.

Would John McCain come to the rescue? McCain would have brought more force to bear on the American side—a strategy that might have turned the tide of the battle. But unfortunately for the U.S., he arrived on the scene too late to alter the course of events.

And so, perhaps, the history of the Iraq conflict will one day read. But in this case, it’s the story of war in the Leyte Gulf—not the Persian Gulf. The date is October 1944.

Author Evan W. Thomas III ’73 is an assistant managing editor of Newsweek, where he has written extensively about the ongoing Iraq war. Meanwhile, he has spent the past few years working as a naval historian after-hours. (His 2003 biography of the seafaring American revolutionary John Paul Jones was a New York Times bestseller.) In his newly-released “Sea of Thunder,” Thomas’ moonlighting and his day-job converge. The subjects Thomas tackles—from military infighting to the suicide bomber’s mentality—could just as easily be found in a current-events magazine as in a history book.

Thomas, who is on campus this semester as a visiting professor at the Kennedy School, transports us to the Philippines in the heat of the Second World War. The archipelago was strategically significant to the Japanese because it stood along a petroleum supply route.

General Douglas MacArthur—hoping to drive a hole in Japan’s southeastern flank—landed his forces at Leyte Island in the Philippines on Oct. 20, 1944, a date which he declared “A-Day” (Dwight Eisenhower had already laid claim to the “D”). The A-Day invaders overran Japan’s first line of defenses in less than 24 hours. But then the Japanese moved the fight to the ocean—and there Thomas’ naval narrative sets sail.

The American armada, under Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, was “the largest, most powerful fleet of warships ever assembled.” Not only did Halsey have the upper-hand on the high seas, but he dominated the air as well, with 1,000 warplanes at his disposal. (His rival, Admiral Takeo Kurita, had none.) In short, it should have been a blowout, not a battle.

Kurita is a character who would command the reader’s sympathy but for the fact that he fought for the enemy. He was, according to Thomas, a “modest,” “amiable,” and “scholarly” man—“perhaps, a little gun-shy.” Halsey, on the other hand, is the sort of figure one would love to hate. He was an unapologetic adulterer and an unrepentant racist—he lived by the motto, “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs!” He is redeemed only by the fact that he fought for the right team.

Indeed, we might wish that Halsey weren’t on our side. Thomas tells us (twice) that Bull Halsey had “an enormous head,” but Halsey was a small-minded man come battle-time. On the eve of the largest confrontation in naval history, Halsey allowed Admiral John S. “Slew” McCain, the grandfather of the Republican senator, to take five aircraft carriers and 400 warplanes “for resupply and R&R.” It’s difficult to calculate how many American seamen now rest at the bottom of Leyte Gulf as a result of McCain’s “R&R,” but the number may well be in the hundreds.

Without McCain, Halsey had a much smaller force defending Leyte Gulf. Halsey—in a testament to his terrible tactical judgment—then took all his ships out of the gulf and sailed northward to chase a Japanese “decoy” task force. Meanwhile, Kurita and his battleships cruised into Leyte Gulf unmolested.

MacArthur and his men on the gulf shore were left to rely on a ragtag pack of converted transport ships to fend off Kurita’s assault. For “Doug MacArthur’s navy,” as the fledgling fleet was called, fighting was fierce—and, in many cases, fatal. Perhaps old soldiers never die, but young ones did in droves. In total, 473 Americans—along with more than 12,000 Japanese—perished in the battle.

Neither McCain nor Halsey could turn around quickly enough to rescue MacArthur’s outgunned “navy.” Nonetheless, Kurita’s fleet was badly bruised. By the end of the battle, according to Thomas, “the Japanese navy was effectively finished as a fighting force.”

The age of the battleship was finished as well. Leyte showed that even the bulkiest battleship was no match for an aerial assault—the Musahi, one of the two largest vessels ever to enter combat, was sunk by American planes.

The episode also taught that brute American naval strength alone couldn’t end the war—Japan fought on for nearly a year after Leyte. Before the fight, commanders wondered whether a “battleship duel could really turn the fate of nations in a day.” The answer from Leyte Gulf was no.

Even though the book’s immediate subject-matter, large-scale naval warfare, appears to be obsolete now, “Sea of Thunder” remains relevant to modern-day conflict. Twelve kamikaze pilots dive-bombed American ships during that battle—perhaps the first incident of Japanese suicide tactics in the war. Another 3,900 self-destructing flyers would follow suit within a year.

The kamikazes—much like Islamist suicide bombers—were fed a false account of their own cultural heritage. They were told that the samurai code, “bushido,” required self-sacrifice rather than surrender. But the Japanese military’s mantra repeated a fabricated history—according to Thomas, “many ancient Japanese warriors had been prisoners of war.” The scholarly Admiral Kurita penetrated through the “bushido” ruse. Too many of his countrymen did not.

In the end, Thomas sees the suicide-bomber mentality as a form of “psychosis” that defies explanation. Thomas cannot be blamed for failing to rationalize the kamikaze pseudo-tradition—six decades later and now facing a new brand of kamikazes, we’re still at a loss for words.

But the kamikazes were only a sideshow in the Pacific Theater. Thomas’ overarching aim is to substantiate his opening epigraph, a quote from Churchill—“War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.” Thomas paraphrases that adage again in the book’s final sentence, and the intervening 335 pages provide proof. The case is both riveting and persuasive; one only wishes it were confined to the realm of history.

—Reviewer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.

Sea of Thunder
By Evan W. Thomas III '73
Simon & Schuster
Out Now

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