Almanac Book Review: The Cricket is a lost cause, read a book instead.

Ian W Toll

The Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942” and “The Conquering Tide- War in the Pacific Islands ,1942-1944

(The first two volumes of a history of the United States Navy Pacific campaign of World War II)

WW Norton (Vol 1 2011 656 pages) and (Vol 2 2015 672 pages)


After the first test match in Perth, many of us will be looking for a good book to read over the Christmas break. Generally speaking I prefer non-fiction, with the obvious exception of Jack Reacher novels. For those of you who enjoy reading I wholeheartedly recommend these books.


Ian W Toll is an American historian who is undertaking a three volume history of the United States Navy’s campaign in the Pacific during World War II.  Toll’s critically acclaimed first book “Six Frigates” is a history of the founding of the United States Navy.  He sets out the politics of post-revolutionary America and its need to protect mercantile trade with Italian city states against the Barbary pirates of North Africa. After the War of Independence the Royal Navy offered no protection to American shipping. After Trafalgar the French navy was incapable of offering assistance. Thus American merchantmen were easy prey for pirates.


Toll sets out correspondence between John Adams when he was American minister in Paris with the Bey of Tangier. Barbary pirates demanded tribute of the United States. Captured sailors were enslaved. In a twist of fate the truth is that the United States Navy was founded to fight Islamic terrorism. The USS Constitution was one of the six frigates and is still a commissioned ship in the United States Navy. Interestingly, it is the only commissioned ship in the United States Navy which has sunk an enemy vessel.


“Six Frigates” is an engaging history.


Toll has published the first two volumes of his Pacific history. He has attempted to paint an historical portrait not only of the events but of the cultural and political background to the war in the Pacific. He traces the development of the United States Navy in the first half of the 20th century. He explains the theory of naval warfare expounded by Alfred Thayer Mahan in his book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783”. Mahan’s theories were adopted by all modern navies at a time when the advance of technology allowed for construction of battleships.


In “Pacific Crucible”, Toll examines the effect of Mahan’s thinking on post Meiji  restoration Japan and the founding and expansion of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Mahan’s theory of decisive battle was brilliantly illustrated in the battle of Tsushima Straits, where Japan defeated the Russian Baltic fleet.


An integral part of his thesis is that since the settlement of the Sino-Russian war, there was an inevitability that the United States and Japan would engage in a naval war in the Pacific. Both countries had extensive war plans based around Mahan’s theories. Yamomoto’s attack on Pearl Harbour, represented a break from earlier Japanese plans which had envisioned the decisive battle happening closer to Japan.  The successful attack on the Italian fleet moored at Taranto, undoubtedly influenced Japanese planning.  The strategic goal of the attack on Pearl Harbour was to force the United States into a negotiated peace as the Russian had been after Tsushima Straits


Toll paints interesting character portraits of the principal admirals on both sides. The majority of the commanders were trained in the first decade of the 20th century.  Admiral Yamamoto was a veteran of Tsushima Straits. The American Admirals were all the product of the United States Navy Academy at Annapolis. He discussed the influence of Theodore Roosevelt.


The Japanese navy pilot training program prior to Pearl Harbour was incredibly rigorous.   The Japanese aircraft particularly the Mitsubishi Zero were superior to the American aircraft. However, the advantage was short lived. American pilots had three advantages, they learnt to deal with the advantages in climb and maneuverability of the Zero. The American aircraft had better armour and could take more punishment that the Zero. Thirdly, the United States Navy did everything it could to recover downed aircrew.


Toll explains that the greatest failure of Pearl Harbour was Admiral Nugumo’s failure to launch the second wave of attack. The second wave was to attack port facilities including oil storage. Had the Japanese destroyed the American capacity to refuel ships then inevitably the fleet would have withdrawn to either San Diego or Sydney.


Common wisdom indicates that the Japanese attack was audacious. Toll clearly sets out that from the moment Admiral Nugumo cancelled the second wave of attacks, it was the United States Navy which was constantly audacious.


Admiral Ernest King was the Commander-In-Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations during World War II.  Although, the United States was committed to a Europe first strategy, which Admiral King accepted.  King undertook several operations at the commencement of the war in the Pacific, which set the scene for the Allied victory against Japan.


Before American troops landed in the European theatre the  Doolittle raid on the Japanese mainland brought the fight to japan. It was a significant example of how the Americans were able to advance operations in the Pacific in the face of the Europe first strategy.


Toll usefully illustrates that whilst there was no unified command structure in the United States at the outset of World War II, the inter-service rivalry paled into insignificance when compared to the division between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Japanese Army. Toll also demonstrates that the technological advantages were with the Americans. Despite losing three aircraft carriers during 1942, they were replaced by larger and better aircraft carriers within the same time period.


The significance of code breaking and intelligence gathering,  through coast watchers is explained in both the first and second volume. The significance of breaking the Imperial Japanese Navy codes prior to the Battle of Midway is well known. However, Admiral Nimitz as Pacific commander was given every support by King. For the United States Navy, the Battle of Midway was a calculated gamble. Toll sets out the risks that were undertaken by Nimitz and the shortcomings he had in the number of aircraft carriers, experienced pilots and outdated aircraft. The reader is left under no illusion as to how fortunate Nimitz was at Midway. The result could quite easily have been a disaster for the Americans.


The Battle of Midway was in early June 1942 some six months after Pearl Harbour.  In August 1943, Admiral King, an operation to capture a Japanese air strip being consrtructed at Guadalcanal. The airstrip consequently named Henderson Field, was to be critical to the successful pursuit of Japan in the Pacific. Toll sets out with clarity the audacity of the American command. King was opposed by his field commanders who believed ground troops were not battle ready. Despite heavy losses of ships the American forces maintained their grip on Henderson field.


Admiral King was responsible for the strategy of island hopping, and Toll points out that General MacArthur (who claimed credit for the idea in his memoir) initially opposed it as unworkable.


The third volume of the history is expected to be published in 2017. Although both volumes 1 and 2 are in excess of 600 pages, the books are written with a clarity and in an engaging style which makes them difficult to put down. Both volumes are extremely well written, and move seamlessly between personalities and events. Toll attempts to explain the propaganda which Japanese people were subjected to during the Pacific campaign. He clearly lays out the speed with which American forces were built up and the capacity of the United States Navy to replace lost ships with better and stronger ones.


Toll also illustrates the bravery of Japanese pilots. He highlights deficiencies in their management during the war. The capture of Henderson Field ultimately meant that Japanese aircraft had to fly long distances to support the ground troops. Japan lost not only four aircraft carriers at Midway but also the maintenance crews and pilots.  Additionally, Toll highlights the advantage that the Imperial Japanese navy had with its type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes.  But the industrial and technological gap was glaring. Perhaps, his most telling description is of the transportation by oxen of newly constructed Zero fighters from the factory to the Imperial Japanese Navy base several kilometres away.


Both volumes are written with a scholarly insight, for any person who is interested in military history, the books are a worthwhile investment.


Attached is a question and answer session in which Ian W Toll discusses his writing philosophy.


If you cannot bear the pain of a repeat of the first test, get your nose into a book!


About Anthony W Collins

A northerner with a mild distrust of anyone from south of St Lawrence.


  1. Sounds alright Anthony. The USN didn’t cover itself in glory in that early period.

    I’ve read a few good books on that time, including one on the Houston by a chap called Winslow. He was a seaplane pilot who survived the sinking off the Houston, spending the next few years as a POW. We know all about the attack on Pearl harbour, but the US nay vessels, destroyers, cruiser, submarines all were in action from that point. Old vessels, under resourced they fought valiantly , despite an overwhelming lack of air support.

    We know a lot about the disaster at Pearl Harbour, though we say less about the disaster in the Philippines. Macarthur had his planes lined up at Clark Field, was aware of the Pearl Harbour raid, but he procrastinated in ordering an attack on Japanese bases in Formosa. This allowed the Japanese air force to destroy the bulk of his planes on the ground.

    As they say, that’s history.


  2. Good stuff Mulcaster. ABC. Anything’s Better than Cricket.
    Had the privilege 15 years ago of lunching with Kim Beazley at HMAS Stirling, and spent hours boning up on Pacific War history for the occasion (it was at the time of the execrable Pearl Harbor movie). The naval officers were impressed/mystified at 2 civilians fascination with what they saw as ancient history.

  3. Anthony W Collins says

    Glen, I would encourage you to have a look at this. The focus is entirely on the Pacific Command, rather than what was to become the SouthWest Pacific. Toll deals with Macarthur’s failure to react in the Philippines.. By way of an interesting comparison the small Marine detachment at Wake Island inflicted losses on the Japanese including sinking a destroyer before they were overcome.

    Peter, I would have loved to have been with you, for that lunch. What astonishes me is just how ready the Americans were for the war. The impression I got was that Admirals like King, Nimitz and Spruance had waited their whole lives for this and they weren’t going to miss the chance to prove their skills etc. It is easy to forget how many ships the USN lost and how many men died in the campaign.

    Thank you for the comments.

  4. Ta Anthony.

    Yep Wake fought hard, a small detachment of troops and civil contractors, with some Grumman Wildcats, put up a sturdy resistance. There was also a small force on Guam.

    The Philippines campaign was a mess. From the errors on December 8, until the capture of Corregidor not much went right for the defenders. ‘Dug Out Doug’ was not revered by the men he left behind. Other Generals like Wainwright and King were revered by their men.

    I’m just trying to remember the cruisers based in that area. There was the Housto, the Marblehead, though my ageing mind, with its feeble memory can’t recall more. There was a great naval captain John Bulkeley. who might have been in charge of the PT boat Dug Out Doug snuck out on.


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