In his new World War II story “Island Infernos,” John McManus tells a story that everyone knows but almost nobody knows much about: how the U.S. military contributed mightily, albeit imperfectly, to the victory in the Pacific War.
Too often overshadowed then by the Marine Corps and too often overlooked in the history books since, the role of the military in the Pacific is the subject of a massive McManus trilogy. “Island Infernos” is the second volume, covering the year 1944. The equally captivating “Fire and Fortitude” preceded it in 2019. A third volume summarizing the war will follow.
McManus describes the Army in the Pacific as “nearly 700,000 troops…spread over nearly a third of the earth’s surface, answerable to no single commander; a dispersion of geography and command unprecedented before or since in history. By mid-1945, this force would grow to 1.8 million troops and achieve battlefield successes also unprecedented in military history. In the year alone covered by this volume, the drama unfolds in places as far afield as Kwajalein, Manus Island, Bougainville, Burma, Angaur, Leyte. It’s a massive story that McManus tells deftly and convincingly. A chapter on the China-Burma-India theatre, and that of Merrill’s Marauder in particular, is one of the most informative and succinct explanations this reviewer has encountered of this complicated area of warfare.
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Combat is his main subject, but McManus does not glorify war. The reader cannot escape the gritty realism of the scenes he describes. McManus isn’t shy about broaching topics like evacuating the gruesome casualties; the effects of thirst and exhaustion on soldiers fighting the tropics as well as on the enemy; or the stench of rotting corpses in the heat of the jungle. He finds men who are heroes, but he also finds men who are broken by the stress of battle (a phenomenon less understood in 1944 than today). The author generally impresses the reader with the effectiveness of the army, from enlisted men to the top ranks, but he does not avoid harsh criticism where he warrants it.
McManus finds much fault in the rivalry between the Marine Corps and the Army, usually at the command level (the author argues that at lower ranks, the soldier and Marine shared a mutual respect and admiration). An unfounded lack of trust in army personnel among some Marine Corps generals and in some army commanders towards the Marines, hampered several operations, including the invasion of Saipan. Later, at Peleliu, “senior American leaders at the division level displayed little strategic vision, or for that matter, tactical vision.” McManus also departs from the common historical assumption that the Army’s combat effectiveness was poor compared to the Marines, concluding that the two were similar in tactics and performance.
McManus pulls no punches in his analysis. He frequently finds reason to criticize no less than Douglas MacArthur himself, for his almost narcissistic ego which did not always separate personal ambitions from larger strategic goals. MacArthur’s vanity could suck the air out of the room, so to speak, preventing other very talented generals from receiving the credit or promotions they so richly deserved. McManus seeks to correct this injustice in “Island Infernos” by highlighting the impressive careers of unsung commanders such as Robert Eichelberger, Oscar Griswold and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Walter Krueger.
In speaking of these high-level commanders, McManus frequently uses a fascinating but hitherto largely untapped source: their letters to their wives. Freed from the wartime censorship that plagued the enlisted man, generals and colonels could and often did bare their souls to their wives, speaking their innermost thoughts. McManus’s compelling use of these sources offers an intriguing look at the top brass of the theatre.
“Island Infernos” tells a single cohesive story, but can only tell it as several separate topics. The chapters are separated geographically and thematically, so that each major action of 1944 receives due attention, but other topics are not ignored. As in his previous volume, McManus takes the time to follow the stories of soldiers who were Japanese prisoners of war; suffering greatly but forced to do nothing more than wait for the victory that others would win for them. His descriptions of their plight are heartbreaking even eight decades later.
Other important themes emerge: the nature of Japanese opposition to American advances (McManus cites numerous Japanese sources), the importance of logistics, and, briefly, the experiences of African Americans in the segregated army of 1944. There’s probably no way for a single volume to cover any of these topics comprehensively, but “Island Infernos” provides a solid introduction to these questions and more.
When the third volume of this trilogy is completed, our knowledge of the Pacific War will be greatly expanded, and future historians will have a well-researched reference that will not only be as complete as possible, but also wonderfully comprehensible.
John McManus will speak at 11 a.m. Monday at the National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, and is expected to sign books afterwards.