Bataan and Beyond: Books on World War II in the Pacific
Every purveyor of books knows that Second World War is a field of ongoing focus for writers and readers from former combatant and non-combatant countries. This year marks the 75th anniversary of well-known episodes including the Bataan Death March, April 10-15, 1942. We were also pleased to host a sellout crowd at a recent lecture by Ian W. Toll about the study and legacy of the Pacific war.
If you’ve ever wandered among the beaches and bunkers of Stack 2, you’ll know that the Library’s collection stretches for miles in every direction and could never be reduced to a tidy batch of recommendations. I - Head of Events Sara Holliday - have been reading about World War II steadily, if eccentrically, since 2013, with a focus on the Pacific theater and on prisoners of war. These are all titles that I’ve read or that are in my plans due to recommendations in other books. They make for a deliberately incomplete and quirky list that might point you down a new path, or provide a new perspective, in considering history’s greatest conflagration.
For a Broad Education with Some Surprises
Hirohito's War: The Pacific War, 1941-1945 | Francis Pike (2015)
Hitler wanted to rule Europe and murder its Jews: obscene but clear. What did the Japanese emperor and government think they were accomplishing when they took on powers much larger than themselves? You may need a DUKW to haul it around, but Pike’s up-to-the-minute primary-source digestion is the place to go for detailed de-foreignizing of the economic, political, and philosophical upheavals that made Japan such a shock-successful aggressor.
At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor | Gordon W. Prange in collaboration with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (1981)
The Big One if you want to understand what it was like or what it meant that day when the skies darkened over Hawaii.
Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese, 1942-45 | Brian MacArthur (2005)
I spent one memorable vacation with this book never out of my hand and imagination. Focusing on the British and Commonwealth POWs captured in Singapore, Java and Sumatra, it perfectly covers wide historical, geographical, and medical aspects while introducing stories you’ll never forget, both appalling and redeeming.
The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King - The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea | Walter R. Borneman (2012)
Practical Nimitz, passionate Halsey, wise Leahy, ornery King: this macho but engaging and often very funny book covers it all through their lenses.
Writing War: Soldiers Record the Japanese Empire | Aaron William Moore (2013)
Soldiers from Japan, China, and the United States fight to find themselves through diaries and letters, often brutal, graphic, and disturbing, but ultimately human.
Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 | Max Hastings (2007)
Also called Retribution, this readable doorstop points up the unique aspects of the war’s last year – the kamikaze, the close of the Roosevelt era – while reintroducing us to the big personalities from MacArthur to Mao and never losing sight of the common soldier.
Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II | Ronald Takaki (2000)
Not exactly about the war in the Pacific, but rather its mirror stateside. A star social historian takes on the mixed messages and melting pots of the war generation, highlighting the achievements and travails of all the Americans who, when “they” attacked “us,” had to fight first to be considered “us.”
If You Read Only One (OK, Two)
Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (2012)
The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (2015) | Ian W. Toll
The first two volumes of the major comprehensive Pacific War history of this generation. With words for all, but some favoring of the Navy, Toll covers the politics, the personalities, the perceptions and the perils across a huge swath of subject matter. His pithy summaries made me fall in love with personalities as different as Admiral Yamamoto and American decoder Joe Rochefort. Also see Toll’s outstanding February 2017 evening in the Members’ Room.
A Small but Intrepid Band
Baa Baa, Black Sheep | Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (1958)
Who could fail to be hooked by the in-your-face first-person account by the famous Flying Tiger, Marine Corps fighter pilot, POW, and Medal of Honor and Navy Cross honoree?
Code Talker | Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila (2011)
White America just wanted the Navajo to speak English until it suddenly needed a Japan-proof code. And rather than hold a righteous grudge, Navajo Marines like Chester Nez used their language and culture to fight back. Fascinating personally and linguistically.
The Long and the Short and the Tall: The Story of a Marine Combat Unit in the Pacific | Alvin M. Josephy Jr. (1946)
Written before the smoke cleared, with an introduction by General A.A. Vandegrift, Josephy captures the language (well, the printable language) and mindset of a small cross-section of America on Guam and Iwo Jima.
The Emperor’s Last Soldiers: The Grim Story of Two Japanese Who Hid for Sixteen Years in the Guam Jungle | Itō Masashi, translated by Roger Clifton (1967)
For many Westerners, it’s the final anecdote proving the alien fanatacism of the banzai-shouters. Who on earth would deliberately miss 1945’s olly-oxen-free and carry on in the hostile jungle? The writer of this book, for one. The mad uniqueness of his story goes some way toward making up for his understandable lack of authorial skills.
If You Read Only One
With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa | Eugene B. Sledge (1981)
An intelligent and sensitive Southern gentleman joins the Marines and wades (literally) through two of the Pacific’s most desperate battles, taking notes the whole time. The 2010 HBO series The Pacific was adapted in part from this minor classic.
Flyboys: A True Story of Courage | James Bradley (2003) A pilot’s-eye survey of America’s air forces serves as a warmup for the disturbing but compelling story of American fliers in Japanese hands. The other bestseller by the author of Flags of Our Fathers.
I Was On Corregidor: Experiences of an American Official’s Wife in the War-Torn Philippines | Amea Willoughby (1943)
When the English-speaking world was hungry for news from the Allies’ last Philippine holdout, Amea Willoughby delivered this homely yet electrifying memoir. She describes a Manila social world then newly ended, months of constant strain in the tunnels of the holdout island, and a breathless (literally) submarine evacuation.
The Dyess Story: The Eye-Witness Account of the Death March from Bataan and the Narrative of Experiences in Japanese Prison Camps and of Eventual Escape | William E. Dyess (1944)
Escape from Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War | John D. Lukacs (2010)
Captured in Manila, intrepid American pilot Ed Dyess escaped one of the worst prison camps in the Philippines to break the news of the Bataan Death March. His own book comes from his official report of his experiences; Lukacs’ history provides the bigger picture and the roles of Dyess’ accomplices and saviors.
Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II | Mitchell Zuckoff (2011)
According to its publicist, every rescue mission of World War II is the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II. Nevertheless, this one really does knock your socks: three Americans drag themselves from a plane crash on a remote Pacific island to find themselves caught between the rock of a possibly cannibal tribe and the hard place of the merciless rainforest. Who can save them?
Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II’s Most Dramatic Mission | Hampton Sides (2001)
Just-invented Army Rangers and tough-as-nails Filipino and American scouts rescue POWs from Cabanatuan and death’s door. Sides can really tell a story and makes a large cast of characters come alive.
Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945 | Evan Thomas (2006)
The much-admired biographer of presidents here takes on the thundering personalities of Admirals William “Bull” Halsey, Takeo Kurita, and Matome Ugaki, plus Commander Ernest Evans, as they sail towards the inevitable fireworks in Leyte Gulf.
Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue | Bob Drury and Tom Clavin (2007)
As the Americans make their fabled return to the Philippine Sea, a wild storm batters “Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet. Will they even make it to the battle zone?
If You Read Only One
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption | Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
Oh, Louie Zamperini, how I love you, you scamp, you champ, you unkillable inspiration. Impossible, except it happened: the dead-end kid who became an Olympian, a bombardier, a castaway, a prisoner, and, at last, a soul survivor. You’ve probably already read this bestseller by one of our finest working writers of narrative nonfiction, but if not, run for a copy.
The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Allied Prisoners of War in the Second World War | Midge Gillies (2011)
“For you, the war is over.” The contemptuous statement of many a film Nazi only began the struggles for hundreds of thousands of captured military personnel. Gillies, the daughter of a Far East prisoner, surrounds her dad with others who tried to make their sidelined time count with educational programming, games, sports, or nature study – all while dodging starvation, disease, cold, monsoon, and captors’ cruelty.
Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath | Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman (2009)
Disorganization, culture clash, sadism: all these ingredients combined to make the transportation of Allied prisoners up the peninsula into one of history’s most infamous atrocities. The Normans report the context, the causes, the loss, the heroism, and what happened next in this tragically compulsive and thorough book.
Conduct Under Fire: Four American Doctors and Their Fight for Life as Prisoners of the Japanese 1941-1945 | John Glusman (2005)
Even more than in other corners of the war, military prisoners have the opportunity to show their real stuff, whether it turn out selfish or selfless, creative or despairing. Among that group, perhaps nobody stands out more than medical personnel. The compassion, the doggedness, and especially the ingenuity among doctors, nurses, and orderlies amazes me every time. Here, another heir grown up to be a historian adds his dad’s story to others’ to present all the war’s conflicts in medical microcosm.
Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors | James D. Hornfischer (2006)
This is one of the rare books that makes me proud to be a Texan. The Houston’s men, full of beans and know-how, suffered and fought on until their historic vessel sank under them off Java and their Japanese captors pressed them into forced labor. By the end of this book, you’ll feel you’ve hung out at the VFW with a cast of real characters, hearing them tell their wild, awful tales with stubborn gumption.
If You Read Only One
The Railway Man: A POW’s Searing Account of War, Brutality, and Forgiveness | Eric Lomax (1995)
Eccentric Scots trainspotter surrenders in Singapore and is forced into labor on the infamous Siam-Burma Railway. His radio skills target him for torture by the Japanese special police. He survives as a shell until a meeting with his repentant tormentor turns his life around. It’s another story seemingly born in Hollywood, except it’s (mostly) true. It’s also been turned into a compelling documentary and a mediocre Colin Firth vehicle.
By Eastern Windows
Samurai! | Saburō Sakai with Martin Caldin (1957)
If only he’d been American, Saburo Sakai would have every third school named after him. He rose from poverty to become Japan’s greatest Zero hero, veteran of hundreds of dogfights across the Pacific and unstoppable, to the tune of over sixty Allied kills, even while suffering wounds that would have left a lesser man a smudge on the sky. His early memoir did much to humanize the Japanese in Western eyes.
Blossoms In the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze | M.G. Sheftall (2005)
It’s what most disturbs Westerners about Japanese soldiers then and Daesh ones now: their alien ambition to throw their own lives away. Sheftall, an American living long-term in Japan, takes a step closer to demystifying this mindset through remarkable interviews with the men whose final flights didn’t take off.
Children of the A-Bomb: The Testament of the Boys and Girls of Hiroshima | Arata Osada, translated by Jean Dan and Ruth Sieben-Morgan (1963)
Anne Frank or Zlata’s Diary, except it’s adults, who were kids then, remembering where they were when the bomb went off. Bertrand Russell nailed it: “Exceedingly valuable...and unbearable painful.”
If You Read Only One
Japan at War: An Oral History | Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook (1992)
While Hirohito and his combative ministers dragged Japan into war first in China, then over half the earth, the Japanese people had their freedoms curtailed, their identities redefined, and rugged austerities imposed. The Cooks survey an amazing swath of everyday folks with all sorts of stories and opinions of that treacherous decade, sometimes confirming but often undermining or transforming the official version.
Challenge Your Opinions
Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb | Ronald Takaki (1995)
Racism? Russians? Hubris? Or a genuine tough choice to save lives on all sides? Takaki takes a hard-eyed look at the reasons tossed around in every dorm-room debate on the use of the atomic bomb, and the men who debated them that crucial summer of 1945.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath | Paul Ham (2014)
The Prisoner and the Bomb | Laurens van der Post (1971)
Ham’s dead against it, and he won’t let you go, through personal narratives and statistics, until you agree with him.
Van der Post’d be dead without it, and he’ll gently talk you round until you’re surprised to find you agree with him.
If You Read Only One
Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II | Michael Bess (2006)
Much less blood and guts than the battle narratives, but Bess’ book induces just as many shudders. He unblinkingly probes the men and women who, willingly or unwillingly, committed massacres or acted on collective guilt – and the few who, as in the famous example of Le Chambon, rose to moral triumph instead. It covered few battlegrounds, but I came out with a much deeper understanding of the era.
The World Shaped by the War
Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1999)
Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World (2012) | John Dower
Generally considered one of the very best books in the field, Embracing Defeat took home both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for its sweeping portrait of Japan under occupation, from behind-the-scenes government negotiations to the experience of the struggling, thriving, crushed, or proud citizen in the street. In Ways of Forgetting, essays discuss Japan’s lengthy wrangle with the war’s literal and metaphorical fallout, and how that wrangling has itself been discussed, critiqued, and used.
Inside GHQ: The Allied Occupation of Japan and Its Legacy | Eiji Takemae (2002)
How did Japan begin the transformation into perhaps the most modern contemporary state? Full of foreign occupiers, that’s how. With insights only a Japanese historian could have, Takemae talks everyone from the U.S. brass on down during the first decade postwar. Translated and adapted from the Japanese by Robert Ricketts and Sebastian Swann.
Our Fathers’ War: Growing Up in the Shadows of the Greatest Generation | Tom Mathews (2005)
Soldier From the War Returning : The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming from World War II | Thomas Childers (2009)
Notice the problematized use of “greatest generation.” Mathews, in a fraught relationship with his own father, seeks out other adult sons’ stories. Childers simply narrates three different families’ struggles, one of them his own. Both reveal lovably, hate-ably complex men and women smashed to pieces or brought to life by the conflict, even if they weren’t born until it ended.
If You Read Only One
Hiroshima | John Hersey (1946)
In August 1945, the U.S. dropped the bomb. From Hersey’s writing, it learned what it had done. Dispassionately recording the stories of a diverse handful of survivors, Hersey presents not only a horrendous - if, arguably, necessary - episode, but also one of the best examples of fearless on-the-ground reporting.