The main focus here is on the tail end of the campaign on Guadalcanal, the invasion of New Georgia, the connected fighting on New Guinea, and the naval and air campaigns that were associated with those campaigns. This was the period that saw the Americans go firmly onto the offensive, securing Guadalcanal after a bitter battle and then moving on to the first major invasion they were able to plan without such a tight time limit as on Guadalcanal.
The war at sea was probably more evenly balanced during this period than at any other stage of the Pacific War. The era of early Japanese victories was over, and the Allies had won the crucial battle of Midway, but the Japanese Navy was still a force to be reckoned with, especially at night. The US Navy lost a series of aircraft carriers during the fighting in 1942 – Lexington at the Coral Sea, Yorktown at Midway and Hornet and Wasp in the Solomons, and the Enterprise was damaged. Early on both sides committed battleships, but for most of this period the naval war was dominated by cruisers and destroyers, and the Japanese had the best of most of the clashes between these forces. One reason for that is that the Americans were unaware of the existence or capabilities of the famous ‘Long Lance’ torpedo, and lost a series of ships when they believed themselves to be safely out of torpedo range.
I must admit I found Cox’s tone rather grating in places. He sometimes seems to focus on people’s mistakes and misjudgements, and in a way that starts off feeling somewhat refreshing but soon ends up feeling rather smug. An account of a Japanese or American plan for an upcoming operation will end with ‘They were wrong’, while the difficulties faced by commanders almost all of whom will have had no previous experience of commanding during a naval battle aren’t really taken into account. Both sides were operating at the end of very long supply chains, so it shouldn’t be such a surprise that both sometimes had to cobble together task forces from whatever ships were available.
Once we get into the battle accounts themselves things are much better. Cox has done a great deal of research on both sides of these battles, and this gives us a rather different view of many of them than in earlier works which were often based largely on American accounts. In many battles this actually makes a major difference to the Japanese side of the picture, as the rather confused picture seen on the radar screens of American ships is replaced with the clear Japanese accounts. One Japanese tactic emerges in particular – when faced with a powerful opponent fire a salvo of torpedoes, then retreat to reload and return to fire a second salvo. This caught the Americans on several occasions, partly because of the long range of the Long Lance torpedo and partly because they didn’t carry reloads for their torpedoes so didn’t consider it as a possible enemy action.
One of the most impressive features of this book is the coverage of the murder of Bishop Josef Lorks, the Catholic Bishop of Central New Guinea and 61 others, aboard the Japanese destroyer Akikaze. This opens the book, and Cox returns to the story at the end to try and work out who was responsible for the crime, why it took place, and why nobody was prosecuted for it after the war. This is a difficult task, as most of the senior Japanese officers involved died during the war, but I think Cox does a very good job of teasing out the truth behind this war crime.
Overall this is a very well written and research account of this crucial period during the fighting in the Pacific.
Prologue: Via Dolorosa
Chapter 1: Akikaze
Chapter 2: Putting the Cartwheel before the Horse
Chapter 3: I-Go
Chapter 4: Magic in the Air
Chapter 5: Where Sea Eagles Dare
Chapter 6: Parthian Shots
Chapter 7: Quagmire
Chapter 8: The Hop
Chapter 9: Dominoes
Epilogue: The Akikaze Resunk
Author: Jeffrey R. Cox