Context Matters: Why I Read Broadly

The Many Lives of Eddie Rickenbacker is coming out in two months. Just last month I completed and approved the final changes to the manuscript. Near the end of the process I panicked about this sentence: “[Rickenbacker] visited the island of Guadalcanal where he witnessed the hellish conditions under which Americans soldiers fought.” Did he really get a flight to the island? Not even COMSOPAC Robert Ghormley, whose job it was to oversee the Guadalcanal operation, made the trip (though his replacement, Halsey, and his boss, Nimitz, did). For four months, thousands of Marines had been living on the edge of extermination; harassed by daily air raids, nightly naval bombardments, and artillery fire from the jungle any time of day. These men had been beaten down by tropical disease, insufficient calories, interrupted sleep, and a hopeless sense of abandonment.

I knew all this because I had been reading about the Pacific War throughout the entire editing process. I understood the timeline. Rickenbacker arrived on Guadalcanal in early-mid December, soon after the Japanese threat had been checked. I knew that, but it was easy to allow the mid-November date of his rescue (it took a month to recover from his ordeal) to creep into my mind as I read my own words for the penultimate time. That’s why I decided to check if he really did get to Guadalcanal.

I found the “hellholes of the Pacific” quote on the bottom of page 445 of Lewis’s biography. There it said he had visited Espiritu Santo, the Navy’s operational base, and spoke with soldiers coming out from the island. I had been wrong! I reread the passages several times to be sure. Alas, if I had only turned the page, I would have seen that he did indeed fly to Guadalcanal the next day, December 10. Both the date and the island’s name are highlighted at the top of the page. The two lengthy paragraphs that follow have no highlighting, but are full of details of Rickenbacker’s impressions of Guadalcanal, all of interest to me now. Rickenbacker met commander General Sandy Patch who was, as it happened, in just his first full day in charge. His Second Marine Corps Regiment had relieved the First Marines just the day before.

So I was right in the first instance and wrong in the second. Thankfully, the revised sentence that will be in the published book is not wrong factually, but is incomplete and would have been better left in the original. This little lead was going to be about the importance of knowing context, about how I hadn’t known much about Guadalcanal or the geography of the Southwest Pacific and almost made a mistake as a result. Instead, it is more about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. And the unreliability of human brains, mine in particular.

But let’s let the original premise stand: broader contextual understanding is necessary for the understanding of more narrow events or narratives. It is necessary to prevent inaccuracies from creeping into your text (though perhaps not sufficient if your cognitive style is one of panicky jumpiness). As I have read about events in the Pacific War in recent months, I automatically made connections with the Rickenbacker story to help me better understand it. The connections and understandings traveled in both directions, of course. What follows is a reflection on what I discovered.


My first “Aha!” moment came as I was reading Ian Toll’s The Conquering Tide. The section started blandly enough with a description of Nimitz’s “gentleman-of-the-old-school” composure, despite the desperate situation in the late summer of 1942. Would the Navy hold Guadalcanal, or would it turn into a second Bataan? Nimitz decided to travel four thousand miles to meet with his commanders in New Caledonia. (His plane refueled uneventfully at Canton, I noted.) It is not until the end of Toll’s five-page account of the conference that the significance struck home. Here was the genesis of Rickenbacker’s mission to MacArthur in October 1942!

MacArthur didn’t deign to attend the meeting in Nouméa. (His presence in Brisbane was in dispensable, he explained in his refusal. His biographer, Walter Borneman, believed that MacArthur repeatedly shunned such conferences throughout the war, sending his aide-de-camp Richard Sutherland in his stead, in order to maintain his stature. Among all those 4-star generals and admirals he would be just one among equals. [Borneman 325] Army Air Force chief Hap Arnold was there, the same Arnold who enlisted Rickenbacker to boost pilot morale earlier in the year. As one of the most outspoken chiefs for the Europe-First policy first adopted in 1941, even before Pearl Harbor, Arnold ruffled a lot of feathers in Nouméa. Among commanders in the Pacific, engaged in an existential battle with a determined foe, Arnold must have come across as tone-deaf. He then traveled on to Australia to meet with his supreme commander. There he clashed directly with MacArthur, who felt no compunctions about speaking  his mind. Arnold said he was “incredulous” at MacArthur’s insubordination. He explained that the general, like all commanders, should be “indoctrinated with the idea that there is a United States plan–An Allied plan–for winning the war, and all must conform to it.” [Toll 2015, 128-129]

I realized at that moment that Arnold would have brought his incredulity–simmering during the long plane ride across the Pacific–back to the States in early October. He would have given Secretary of War Stimson an earful of complaints, and Stimson, who would become exasperated with MacArthur only later in the war, would have mollified Arnold with an assurance of direct action. Together they might have hit upon Rickenbacker as their man. The ace and Eastern Air Lines president had served Arnold in the spring and was just then returning to the States after serving Stimson on a tour of inspection in the U.K. Stimson would send Rickenbacker east to put MacArthur in his place. Borneman speculated with some confidence that the secret message Rickenbacker learned by heart “was a sharp reprimand, demanding that MacArthur cease his personal publicity campaign, stop complaining about the Joint Chiefs and the resources allocated to his theater, and stop waging war against the United States Navy.” [Borneman 257]

Thus did the overworked, still-pained Rickenbacker get sent on a mission that would lead to a twenty-three-day ordeal in a raft in the Pacific.

Biographer W. David Lewis thought Rickenbacker “the ideal emissary for Stimson.” His “civilian status, self-assurance, unwillingness to take anyone’s guff insured that MacArthur’s exalted rank and imperious manner would not overawe him.” [Lewis 415] In fact, both were outspoken anti-communists and anti-New Dealers. Both spoke out forcefully for the need for American defensive preparations. Yet, while Rickenbacker was an aviation booster, MacArthur remained an aviation skeptic. During the court-martial of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell in 1925, MacArthur had sat in judgment of the internal critic, and Rickenbacker had spoken as witness for the defense.

Three weeks after his rescue, having put on twenty of the fifty-four pounds he had lost during the ordeal, Rickenbacker insisted on completing his mission. MacArthur greeted him warmly in Port Moresby, something he did not do for everyone who visited. But none of those had undergone a grueling ordeal at sea to get there. And, besides, MacArthur had become an enthusiastic convert to air power. “You know, Eddie,” he admitted, “I probably did the American Air Forces more harm than any man living when I was chief of staff by refusing to believe in the airplane as a war weapon, and I am doing everything I can to make amends for that great mistake.” [Lewis 444] This was as self-deprecating a statement as has been documented coming from the famously vain general. MacArthur welcomed Rickenbacker and heard his message, but, Borneman says, “there is little, if any, evidence that MacArthur moderated his ways.” [Borneman 257]

The still somewhat emaciated Rickenbacker continued on to Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal. The “hollow-eyed, exhausted and emaciated young men…had grown frightfully old in four months’ time,” Rickenbacker wrote. [Lewis 446] He witnessed first-hand what would soon be called the thousand-yard stare. Rusting hulls of Japanese landing craft littered the island’s coast; mangled aircraft lined the runways of Henderson Field.  Rain, mud, and mosquitoes made sleep impossible. The privations of Villeneuve and Rembercourt would have seemed trivial in comparison. By way of conclusion, I wrote in my book, “This experience, coming on the heels of his three-week ordeal, changed Rickenbacker and his approach to the war. No more would he defend a military system that was anything less than meticulous, exacting, in its preparations. No more would he temper his words or worry if he ‘stepped on tender toes.'”

I have since read widely enough in the Pacific War to appreciate the significance of Guadalcanal in the nation’s history, the war’s history, and Rickenbacker’s life story. James Hornfischer, in Neptune’s Inferno, quotes Hap Arnold summing up his trip of September 1942: “It looked to me as if everybody on the South Pacific front had a bad case of the jitters”–from the COMSOPAC on down. Vice-Admiral Ghormley whined, “The Government is not backing us up down here with what we need, why, I don’t know,” and “This is a shoestring operation, we haven’t got enough of anything. We’re just hanging on by our teeth.” [Hornfischer 129, 202] (Nimitz picked up on the complaint and used humor to blunt its sting, referring to the invasion as Operation SHOESTRING, in jest.)

The rank-and-file Marine on the island echoed Ghormley’s desperation. Lieutenant Commander John Lawrence described the sense of abandonment his fellow Marines felt: “It was the hopelessness, the feeling that nobody gave a curse whether we lived or died.” [Hornfischer 195] By the time Rickenbacker reached Guadalcanal in December 1942 the desperation had abated. Indeed, a fresh division had just arrived to garrison the island. Yet, I imagine he picked up more than a little resentfulness from those on their way out. Born again from his Pacific ordeal, Rickenbacker’s mindset would have been fertile ground for their message of abandonment by their government. Rickenbacker the prophet was ready to evangelize.

He said he was not afraid to “step on tender toes.” I wrote next, “He criticized the nation’s war effort publicly and did step on toes— even those of President Franklin Roosevelt.” With this in my manuscript, my ears pricked up distinctly when, a few weeks ago while listening to a podcast on the Depression, I heard Roosevelt speak those very words: “In the working out of a great national program that seeks the primary good of the greater number, it is true that the toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on. But these toes belong to the comparative few who seek to retain or to gain position or riches or both by some shortcut that is harmful to the greater good.” [“Lives of the Great Depression,” Throughline, July 23, 2020.] Was Rickenbacker using Roosevelt’s words back at him?  The thought is intriguing, even if unlikely.

If Rickenbacker had been a gadfly in the twenties and thirties, buzzing on about the need for America to keep pace in the field of aviation, he became a Jeremiah after the Pacific Ordeal, as 1942 turned to 1943. He goaded and browbeat his countrymen to do more for the war effort and to do it gladly. “You…should be grateful for the privilege of offering everything you know how…. For none of us are doing so much that we cannot do more.” [New York Times, January 23, 1943] He earned a reputation for labor baiting, chastising workers for slowdowns and stoppages. He could not understand workers putting their personal needs and those of their families above those of their country. I did discover in my reading that Rickenbacker’s concerns were real. There was not as much domestic unity of purpose as the popular understanding of the Good War leads us to believe.

George Roeder’s The Censored War supplies numerous examples of propaganda promoting the very message Rickenbacker was delivering in more strident tones. One poster of a dead GI was titled, “This Happens Every Three Minutes.” The take-away written below: “Stay on the job and get it over.” Later in the war the Treasury Department produced a film, Two and One-Half Minutes, for viewing in industrial plants engaged in war production (the death rate had picked up speed). It was released to the general public in the final months of the war. Thinking back on his years directing the Office of War Information (OWI), Elmer Davis averred: “There was much more domestic political bitterness in the country than there was in 1917.” [Roeder 33, 36, 122] In this light, my words at the end of chapter 9 take on a slightly different resonance: “Rickenbacker had played his part [in the war], but he was not the unifying hero he had been after the last war. He was a polarizing figure now—loved by some, despised by others.”

Rickenbacker’s tune had changed significantly from the early years of the war, 1939-1940. The last thing he wanted was for his country to get sucked into another total war in Europe. He had seen the destruction of men and property in 1918. He foresaw no virtue in having American boys and girls “regimented into uniforms” and taught to shoulder guns when they should be free to play with marbles, and baseball, and model airplanes. [Broadcasts I, September 26, 1939.] He was recruited to represent America First Committee, but he was never actively involved. He steadfastly preserved his independence: “I represent no person or persons–group or groups….” [Farr 254] And as conditions changed, he changed his mind. On his way out of a four-month stay in the hospital post-Atlanta crash and six months before Pearl Harbor, he told a reporter, leaving no shade of doubt where he stood, “We are in [the war] and we have been in it for a year. …The sooner everyone knows we are in the better it will be. …The sooner we crush Hitler the better.” [New York Times, June 26, 1941.]

Rickenbacker was no pacifist. He advocated a strong military as a deterrent. As an airline executive he proposed a plan for building 50,000 commercial planes for transport so that if the country were drawn into war it could quickly retool them for military purposes. (Using the same reasoning, he emphasized the importance of training of pilots.) Officials in power did not pay enough attention to this sensible idea, despite Rickenbacker’s persistence. I thought of Rickenbacker when I came across a Walter Lippmann column in Life magazine. “This war cannot be won unless we realize why we failed to prevent it,” wrote the great liberal journalist. “We are now paying for and are now repairing the greatest failure of popular government in America.” He sounded a lot like Rickenbacker to me, or perhaps vice versa. The policies of the interwar years, Lippmann said, had moved the country from “a state of perfect security to a state of deadly danger.” [Lippmann, “America’s Great Mistake,” Life, July 21, 1941, 74.]

Rickenbacker lost some of his independence and also his gadfly role when Army Air Forces chief Hap Arnold asked him to give his pilots pep talks. “Put some fire in them,” he said. [Rickenbacker 1967, 272] Morale was low, preparedness had not kept pace, as Rickenbacker had forewarned. Now his job was to be a booster, and he took to the task with energy (as much as he could muster considering the physical ailments that still plagued him post-Atlanta crash). Rickenbacker’s public pronouncements of 1942 clearly show a determination to put a positive spin on AAF preparedness, personnel, and planes.

All the descriptions of American fighters and bombers I have since read accord with Rickenbacker’s assessments. But where Rickenbacker maintained the political tact required of his role, others in the field could speak more candidly. This gem came from a pilot as recorded by journalist Clark Lee: “It’s high damn’ time our plane manufacturers stopped wasting advertising space trying to prove to our people that we have the world’s best planes and started producing them instead.” [Lee 154] But my favorite was uttered earlier in Bataan, the paragon for American unpreparedness. The irony is so artfully spare, it could  have been published in a 1940s version of The Onion: Dear Mr. Roosevelt; our P-40 is full of holes. Please send us a new one.” [Lascher 271]

In his 1967 autobiography, Rickenbacker contended that he promoted Black American pilots in defiance of the policies that kept most Negro cadets grounded. “They are a grand bunch of kids and great pilots,” Rickenbacker has himself arguing. “But something should be done immediately to commission them, they are deserving of it.” [Rickenbacker 1967, 315] This might well have been revisionist history and public relations for a new era. Chicago Defender newspaperman Enoch Waters remembered Rickenbacker–and Charles Lindbergh, too–for actively discouraging Black American from entering aviation. He said they questioned Negroes’ the ability, despite counter-evidence from the likes of Bessie Coleman and Hubert Julian, the Black Eagle. [Waters 202-203] Waters was in a position to know about such things. He helped bring the National Airmen’s Association of America to Chicago’s Harlem Airport. He, along with Willa Brown, Cornelius Coffey, and financial support from Waters’s Defender boss, Robert Abbott, founded the Association and the Coffey School of Aeronautics.

Rickenbacker had put a positive spin on his past, but in an unguarded moment on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, he gave a disturbingly candid response. After observing that his childhood home was “in a colored section now,” he was asked if that bothered him. Captain Eddie responded, “Of course it does. Why wouldn’t it. Get to the point.” [Columbus Citizen-Journal, November 18, 1970.] His words speak for themselves. Heroes are men and women. Look hard enough and they will disappoint you. But, considered another way, their imperfect humanity endears them to us as much as their exceptionality.


I was able to write my book without knowing much about the War in the Pacific. His life had only briefly intersected with it, after all. On the other hand, it had a big impact on the final decades of his life. By continuing my research into the Second World War, I made my understanding of Rickenbacker’s life that much more solid. I learned, first of all, the origin of his Pacific mission of 1942, birthed in a meeting between Hap Arnold and Douglas MacArthur just a few weeks before. I learned, too, the reasons General MacArthur merited the message of rebuke that Rickenbacker delivered. Hearsay was replaced by evidence in my mind.

I have followed the development of the Air Forces and their planes during 1942-1944, as American military aviation gradually superseded its Japanese counterpart. Especially in the Philippines in late 1941 I saw how right Rickenbacker had been in clamoring for preparedness.

I learned that Rickenbacker’s jeremiads against labor during the war, while largely tone deaf, were not unfounded. There were real concerns about production capacity and civilian Americans pulling their weight. However, I still wonder if he didn’t retain more of the pessimistic outlook absorbed during his visit to Guadalcanal than was warranted. A form of availability bias took hold, nourished by a convert’s religious fervor.

Perhaps most of all I have learned enough to appreciate Rickenbacker’s comments on fighter pilot aviation in this second iteration of world war. “Air fighting over the Pacific is just about the hardest kind of fighting there is,” he wrote in his Pacific Ordeal memoir, Seven Came Through: ten-to-twelve hours at a stretch under nerve-wracking strain. “It wasn’t that way on the western front twenty-five years ago. A pilot went out to battle like a knight. He was pampered and rested; his every whim was indulged. I can remember patrol after patrol in which I never saw an enemy plane.” [Rickenbacker 1943, 89] Times had changed and so had combat aviation. Rickenbacker had the perspicacity and the humility to recognize it.


Borneman, Walter R. MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016.

Farr, Finis.  Rickenbacker’s Luck: An American Life.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979.

Garrett, Betty. “‘Capt. Eddie’ Admits Time Was Better Flyer.” Columbus Citizen-Journal. November 18, 1970.

Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, New York: Random House, 2011.

Lascher, Bill. Eve of a Hundred Midnights. New York: William Morrow, 2016.

Lee Clark. They Call it Pacific. New York, Viking Press, 1943.

Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Rickenbacker, Captain Edward V. Seven Came Through: Rickenbacker’s Full Story. Garden City: Double Day, Doran and Company, Inc., 1943.

Rickenbacker, Edward V. “Keep Us Out of the War,” September 26, 1939, Broadcasts I.

Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.

“Rickenbacker, 4 Months in Hospital, Back; He Will Resume His Airline Post on Monday,” New York Times, June 26, 1941, 24.

“Rickenbacker Sets Detroit Goals in Blunt Talk to War Workers, New York Times, January 23, 1943, 8.

Roeder, George F. The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. New York, W. W. Norton &Company, 2015.

Tregaskis, Richard. Guadalcanal Diary. New York: Random House,  1943.

Waters, Enoch P. American Diary: A Personal History of the Black Press. Chicago: Path Press, Inc., 1987.

Enoch Waters’ “American Diary”

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Enoch Waters called his memoir American Diary. I admit to being confused by the title. I had chosen it mainly as a source of war reporting from the Pacific, especially from an African American correspondent for The Chicago Defender. I expected the “diary” part to meet my needs, but “American”? It seemed so general, so generic. I started in, vaguely dubious.

Waters explained on the first page of his foreword that the book is not so much a diary of his life as a diary of the Black Press in the United States. (The subtitle, A Personal History of the Black Press, should have made this clear but was obscured on the cover.) Apparently, the working title of his book had been Diary of a Race. Why not Diary of the Black Press? In the end, a “diary” of a whole race was still too limiting. Waters expanded it to include the entire country. “The diary of blacks is really a neglected part of the diary of America. Hence, American Diary.” [xx]

It crossed my mind that Waters might be trying too hard. He might be forcing a concept on his work that it could not bear. Perhaps so, yet the title was not, in fact, false advertising. Waters’ intention to write an American story is manifest throughout. He makes his case for equal rights and full citizenship rest firmly on a foundation of black contribution to American society. His “diary” is equal parts personal memoir and history of black journalism in America. Where those two parts intersect, Waters’ reporting on events from the 1930s to the 1970s, the American story comes most alive.

Waters, both the author and the subject of the book, emerges as a determined reformer yet who refuses to be made radical. It’s not so much that he acquiesces to gradualism. It’s that he wants black equality within the American nation as it otherwise is. He seeks the equality of blacks, free from discrimination, in civil society, not a wholesale overturning of society itself. Some of today’s multi-cultural warriors might disdain his outlook as essentially conservative, yet, they would be a mistake to overlook his commitment to change. There is, first, the simmering-yet-controlled anger that pervades almost every page his narrative. And, too, there is the positive change he helped bring about. As reporter for The Defender, Waters gave his people pride and hope on a daily basis.


The title of his first chapter, “Childhood: Days of Play/Years of Learning,” promises straight memoir. Yet we learn early on that it will be in the best, confessional tradition of Augustine and Rousseau. Though the young Enoch grows up surrounded by sisters, he knows nothing of their different anatomy until the day his friend asks Susie to show them her “pussy.” After giving them a chase into the woods, she obliges. (Flat on her back, skirt hiked up, panties pulled down.) She even demonstrates how she pees, upon request. The scene brings back a tangible feel of childhood, even for those of us who never had the benefit of such a vivid demonstration (and few of us did!).

Waters’ family was solidly middle class. At least, as solidly as was possible for a black family in Philadelphia in the 1920s. Waters’ father was a train porter, bringing home a steady wage. His family never knew poverty. Yet Waters makes clear that Enoch, Sr.’s career as a redcap was “not because he chose to be one, but because he was denied the opportunity to be what he wanted to be.” [3] Waters understands that his own success as a journalist was built on the back of his father’s less glamorous labor (whose work was infinitely preferable to large swaths of his peers). Waters understands that he is one of few Negroes born in the early twentieth century who enjoyed the opportunity to “be what they wanted to be.”

Waters says he benefited from growing up in an integrated neighborhood. Yet he documents how, at every new stage of his life, he confronted limits imposed by racial prejudice and discrimination. His best childhood friendship with a neighborhood Jewish boy, does not survive the transition to adolescence. His father finagles Waters’ admission to the best (all male) public high school in the city, only to be denied participation in every school activity, including, most frustratingly, the school newspaper.

As luck would have it, he gets a kind of internship with the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s only Negro newspaper. Actually, luck had nothing to do with it. Waters learned years later–and we learn a hundred pages later–that his own father had secretly arranged with the publisher to hire his son for a job that didn’t exist. Enoch, Sr. paid the publisher who turned around and paid it back to the son as (minimum) wages. Enoch, Jr. earned his father’s money and a boon for his paper by creating a popular column on high school news and views.

Waters does not glorify his introduction to the black press. The Tribune‘s offices and plant were dishearteningly seedy as he arrived for work that first day. His assigned desk–such as it was–“was one of the most abused pieces of furniture I had ever seen. It was so battered that it might have been in continuous existence since the days when Frederick Douglass was publishing The North Star in 1858, and it might have been second hand then.” [42] The editorial staff were hardly more inspiring: The Tribune‘s “was not a fast paced operation. In fact, the atmosphere was very casual and informal. The men worked in spurts to the accompaniment of banter and conversation consisting mostly of comments on the copy that flowed across their desks. The mail and telephone produced most of the news.” [44] He acknowledges the paper’s practice of printing as many names of community members as possible, a blatant attempt to flatter potential customers into purchases.  He reveals reporters accepting money from community members to put their names, or pictures, in the paper.

This is the confessional style pervading the other half of his memoir. Waters’ “diary” of the black press is unblinkingly honest. No rose-tinted glasses. Waters is a realist, neither (especially) a booster nor a critic of the institution he served for four decades. “Paid news” was a fact of life for a business living so close to the edge of financial solvency, whose advertising revenue among both black and white businesses was limited, whose market was not fully literate and tended to pass the product around to friends and neighbors. And yet, Waters allows that it was at the Tribune he came to see Negro newspapers as “the heartbeat of the community.” [52] The reporters did more than gather information and write stories. They shared their knowledge with community members who came to them in crisis, as if they were providers of social service agency.

After a chapter on his Hampton days, in which he reported on school clubs and sports teams, and two on the history of the black press from its inception to the twentieth century, Waters focuses his gaze on Chicago, “A  Tainted Heaven, But Still a Haven.” [68] He exposes equal amounts of taint and haven. Waters goes inside the so-called policy (gambling) racket in an attempt to understand the Negros at its heart. He is discouraged to find these racketeers spending money ostentatiously, as fast as they can take it in. Was this what their forebears dreamed of in emancipation? Waters passes no judgments. He decides their profligate behaviors “were involuntary efforts to compensate for the low esteem in which Negroes were regarded. With money to do so, the policy barons wanted the Negroes, if not the whites, to know they existed, that they had achieved some measure of success and that they were somebody.” [79]

Later, assigned to the crime beat, Waters was shocked to discover “Negroes had so little regard for the lives and property of other Negroes” [320]–until a friend of his, a beat cop, set him straight. The sergeant asked Waters to think like a small-change punk criminal. “Would you go to a white neighborhood, unfamiliar to you and where your presence would arouse suspicion and where all the cops are white, even if you had the money to get there?” [321] It wasn’t meant as a rhetorical question. Waters got the picture. White criminals didn’t go into black neighborhoods for much the same reasons. A journalist conducts his education in public, and Waters is not afraid to revisit the progress of his own in his memoir.

Nor does he balk at examining the seamier side of black American life. His thoroughness, both in coverage and in his efforts at understanding, serves a rhetorical purpose. It makes his case for full civil rights for all that much stronger, that much more urgent.

This, after all, was his and the black press’s overriding mission during these middle decades of the twentieth century. “The pursuit of that goal was total and took precedence over all else,” writes Waters. “More accurately, [black newspapers] were organs of personal, and usually, militant expression rather than newspapers as we know them today. They were heavy on opinion and short on news that was not related to the mission.” [135] Today, we might laugh–or scream back at the page–after reading that black newspapers “didn’t conform, at the time, to the stark, unbiased reporting that was the guiding principle of white journalism.” Waters tells us that “black newspapers were criticized as propaganda sheets…and they were in a sense.” [267] Yet we would do well to take Waters at his word. His concern is not how well white journalism did or didn’t live up to the ideal of “objectivity.” His interest is in the black press, whose mission was avowedly one of advocacy as well as of journalism. As the managing editor at The Defender told his staff after they had reported a particularly good day on the civil rights front, “Keep this up and you’ll put the Defender out of business.” Then he added, “Don’t worry, that’s a long way off….” [295]

Waters pushed himself throughout his career to widen his view and to expand his understanding. (“A black journalist reporting news of a black community for a black newspaper is likely to develop a narrowed perspective of life in America without being conscious of it.” [320]) In 1942, and again after the war, he made a tour of the South: thirty-eight states, fifty-seven communities, thirty military installations in a total of twenty-eight months on the road. The people he met in his travels were as interested in his view from the Promised Land of Chicago as he was of theirs. They plied him with questions, which made them all the more open to his own questions of them. His stories in the two chapters covering these months make some of the most compelling of the entire book.

The Southside Chicagoan in the Jim Crow South reads like a kind of “innocence abroad.” Waters describes having to carry toilet tissue in his briefcase to use in basement bathrooms that were never cleaned. He recounts his dependence on the kindness of Negro contacts to put him up for the night, and all the benefits (home-cooked meals) and drawbacks (curtailed nighttime typing sessions) that entailed. He details the difficulty of carrying out his work when transportation and telephones were difficult to come by, and access white domains nearly impossible.

Yet the Negro population is more than willing to assist a reporter from the hallowed Defender. The people he meets provide rich material for his series of articles and for his two chapters on this period. The profile of Henry Taylor stands out. Henry works in the local, white-owned barbershop, opening to close, sweeping up hair, racking magazines, and generally performing every odd job that needs to be done. At the end of each day, after boarding a bus and alighting in the colored section of town, Henry became Mr. Taylor. “A miraculous transformation from boy to man occurred in the twenty minutes it took to reach his destination.” [347] For those of us who weren’t there, especially those of who aren’t black, this story–whose plot thickens: read the book!–tells us more about what it meant to black in the South than any scholarly monograph could.

Henry Taylor may have been exceptional, but he wasn’t an exception. “At this time, no Negro could be taken at face value,” Waters explains. “Often the stereotypical southern darkey, smiling, respectful, and unlearned was a dedicated and active foe of white dominance” when among his own kind in the black part of town. [329] Enoch Waters’ reporting, related in his memoir for a new generation of readers, gives substance to racism of that time.

As promised (American Diary), Waters considers the effect of these racial attitudes and practices on whites, too. He concludes, “Whites didn’t understand the little worlds they dominated. They knew they were in charge, but they did not realize they were not as superior as they assumed. While they successfully depressed blacks, they were not progressing. As measured against whites from other regions of the nation, they, too, were inferior in all respects.” [337] It was a theme he sounded in his 1943 reporting, that I found by scanning through ProQuest historical newspapers. In an article from the very end of his tours, Waters portrayed the South as a giant Gulliver, strapped down by Lilliputian strands, never considering that “he has the strength to free himself.” [Waters, The Chicago Defender, May 8, 1943, 13.]

As he was reporting from the South, Waters was waiting for permission to go overseas as a war correspondent. His application to the government, though held up for political reasons, was finally approved in May, 1943. Waters caught a transport ship to Australia and spent the next thirty months reporting on the Pacific war and its aftermath.

How would he and The Defender report the war? More to the point, how could Negroes more generally support a country that daily denied them full citizenship? Forty years after the fact, Waters attempts to provide an answer:

If America were not our home, what was? We hadn’t come here willingly, but once here we had made contributions to the nations development as great as any other group of Americans. What we gave was far in excess of what we had received. We knew we had gained a proprietary interest in this land and because we knew of no other, we regarded as our home, a home we had to defend with our lives if it came to that. What alternative did we have? [365]

The passage reminded me of an anecdote shared by James Alexander Thom, who asked a Native American Vietnam veteran how he felt about fighting for a country that had displaced, even exterminated, his people. The man replied, “You White people don’t get it. This is my country.” Waters, too, makes a strong case not for black inclusion into a white country, but for the country itself to be conceived properly as black, white, and red, or Native American (his wife was part Cherokee). (Asian Americans, he would argue, have made equally defining contributions to American society and require equal respect and citizenship.)

The most affecting part of his two war chapters comes when Negro GIs challenge The Defender‘s editorial stance on segregation in the armed forces. More specifically, they disputed Waters’ contention in an article they read that blacks be assigned combat roles equal to whites. For these men in the so-called service units, war work was not all that different from what they had done at home: unloading supplies, driving trucks, operating a laundry, painting signs, repairing auto engines, cooking, building roads, burying garbage, hauling water. Yet they were perfectly fine with it. “Why should we volunteer to sacrifice our lives for a Jim Crow country?” one asked Waters. “Have you ever seen how the infantry lives? Then you know they are like nomads, always on the go. Never settling down. Living on the worst rations, dirty and always fearful of being killed or at least shot at. That ain’t for me.” And another: “Let them have the medals. You can’t eat ’em and you can’t buy anything with ’em.” [389-390]

This was uncharted territory for Waters. For the first time, he was having to defend The Defender‘s editorial stance to its own readers. He seems to concede the men’s point at the end of the chapter when he admits that he, too, benefited from the Army’s racial policies. By reporting on Negro service units he received more perks unavailable to other war correspondents: better food, cold beer, clean clothing, more comfortable quarters, and a closer relationship with the GIs. [394]

Occasionally, one has the  impression of  listening in on dialogue between Waters and unseen speakers offstage, the septuagenarian engaging with the next generation of civil rights advocates. Like any respectable old fogey, he aims to show respect while distancing himself from elements of their rhetoric he cannot endorse. “Black is beautiful,” he says, was a misguided slogan that, unintentionally, conveyed arrogance. To make his point, he asks the reader to consider it converted to a proclamation of white beauty. “Black is also beautiful” would have been better achieved its aim of instilling black pride, he says. [227]

Waters also finds arrogance in the vogue among left-leaning members of his community to adopt African names.  Waters sounds touchier than he needs to be at one point in his argument. However, his reasoning overall is perfectly sound: “My surname has a greater significance to me than one that I might select from an alphabetized list of African names I can purchase at a bookstore. My surname not only links me to my forebears, some of whom may have been white, but with my living kinsmen.” Again, the argument is of a piece with his comments, cited above, on the Negro’s loyalties in the Second World War. He doesn’t want to apologize for seeing himself as American. To the contrary, he wants racist whites, racist society, to apologize for denying his claim to equal American citizenship.

In Waters’ heyday as a journalist, both white and black newspapers used “Negro” and “colored” to talk about members of Waters’ community. (Though white papers took longer to capitalize Negro, and The Defender‘s publisher, Robert Abbott, preferred “the Race” whenever he published commentary.) Even the Oklahoma Black Dispatch used Negro rather than Black. Waters, from the perspective of the mid-1980s, avers that he is equally amenable to all the various appellations for his people, though he adds that he is most comfortable with Negro because he is of the period “when it was generally acceptable and in common use.” [228]

The discussion is of special interest to me because I was in college as Waters wrote these words. I was of the period, the late 1970s, when “black” was “generally accepted and in common use.” African American was starting to displace it as the preferred nomenclature in the 1980s. Writing in that decade, Waters works to include the former in his text (I sense him making a conscious effort), and occasionally approximates the latter with “Afro-American,” which is perhaps an earlier form of the expression my generation became comfortable with. I have learned, along with everyone in my generation, to use the more modern term. We have (or haven’t) learned to adopt terms that post-date our coming-of-age: Latinx, cis-gender, etc. But spending time with Enoch Waters underscores the relative puniness of language policing. Waters speaks with more authority on the issues than most of those today who uses the more politically correct terms. Language matters, of course, but a richness and openness of expression matters, too.

The wokest might object to more than his terminology. Black Lives Matter would take him as a reactionary for quibbling with its organization’s name. (Black Lives Matter, Too? Please!) #MeToo would object to his focus on aviatrix Willa Brown as a “shapely young brownskin woman.”[196] (And let’s please ditch the sexist term for aviator while we’re at it.)  Fair enough. Yet crimes of racism, sexism, classism, etc. are negative features and add up to little on their own. Besides, we can add presentism to the list of sins, while we’re at it. Waters had no control over the color of his skin, nor over the year of his birth, nor does anyone else. If I can respect those who from other places, with different cultures and ideas about how the world works–and let’s admit it can be difficult to do so, or else we wouldn’t need to talk about it so much–then surely I can respect people from different times whose formative experiences were so different from mine.


Enoch Waters had a radically reformist side, to be expected in a one on the receiving end of so much discrimination and prejudice. He had a temperamentally conservative side, befitting a child of a relatively educated, middle class family and one who pursued a professional career his entire adult life. Why should anyone begrudge him the latter? Aren’t those the opportunities that too many African Americans were denied? Besides, the strength of Waters’ memoir of his life within the black press resides in the synthesis of the two sides. The full humanity of the writer, and of the everyday and exceptional Negroes he wrote about, is palpable for that very reason.


Waters, Enoch P. American Diary: A Personal History of the Black Press. Chicago: Path Press, Inc., 1987.

———-, “Color Lines Bind Dixie To Economy Of Poverty,” The Chicago Defender, May 8, 1943, 13.

National Air and Space Museum: 




War Games II

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

As the Japanese Imperial Navy was gearing up for war with the Allies, destroyer captain Tameichi Hara was brushing up on his Sun Tzu. The axiom from the third chapter of The Art of War jumped out at him:   “If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win [some] and lose [some]; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Captain Hara took these words to heart and made a study of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides as the war progressed. In retrospect, at least, he could be hard on himself, admitting a weakness for impulsiveness and, at times, an overindulgence of drink. He could be hard on his superiors, too, criticizing their mindless overuse of tactics that had worked once but became ineffective as the enemy made adjustments. After Japan’s string of early advances, Hara held no illusions. He told a reporter, “We have won a series of battles simply because the enemy out-blundered us.” [Hara 87]

All Japan’s military leaders had Sun Tzu in their training, yet few evinced an inclination to his precepts. In their righteous rage against the West, they seemed to lost sight of their civilization’s most valuable teachings. In other words, even as they invoked racial and cultural superiority, they failed to exploit the most advantageous elements of their heritage. They failed to seek to understand either own or their enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.

At least, these are the thoughts I have had as I have been studying the Pacific War and simultaneously learning the ancient Japanese game (also originated in China) of Go. The game is an obvious analogy for war, with territory claimed and lost, positions strong and weak, attacks and invasions, battles and fighting, walls and supporting stones. The game awed me with its complexity and competitiveness, with the richness of its lore. How could a nation raised on such a game conduct a war so deficiently? Why was I seeing no evidence of its wisdom in the thinking of Japan’s commanders?

The following is a personal musing on Go teachings that might have been overlooked in the heat and fog of the Pacific War, 1941-1945.



4-dan Go player and master teacher Jonathan Hop has a tongue-in-cheek name for aggressive Go players. He calls them “Barbarians,” out to slash and burn any “civilization” their opponent has built on the board. [Hop 134] They wreak havoc by compulsion rather than with strategic intent. Hop concedes that this type of player can be unsettling to play and challenging to beat. Early in his career the “Barbarian” gave him fits. To rookie players of this type, though, Hop cautions that attacks poorly planned can backfire and strengthen your opponent.

The same caveat applies in a war of expansion. Japan was on the short end of a demographic trend and needed its own version of lebensraum. As an island nation three times as dense as Britain, yet with only fifteen percent of its land suitable for agriculture, Japan struggle to feed its people. With few natural resources to bolster trade, she struggled to pay for the raw materials necessary for industrialization.

And militarization.

One Japanese officer explained his presence in Manchuria, 1931, candidly: “There are only three ways left to Japan to escape from the pressure of its surplus population…: …emigration, …world markets, and …territorial expansion.” [Edgerton 236] The first two were precluded by other nations’ quotas and tariffs, leaving the last as the only realistic option. The world had forced Japan’s hand.  Manchuria gave the Empire access to coal and fertile land. China proper gave it Shanxi iron–and eight years of headaches, besides. Malaya, Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines in 1941 supplied the oil, aluminum, iron, nickel, tin, tungsten, chrome, manganese, and rubber to satisfy its industrial appetite.

Yet, in the language of Go, Japan had established a “zone of control” rather than true “territory.” [Hop 151] It failed to build a “framework” for mounting future attacks and defending against future counter-attacks. Nor did it create “influence in a useful direction.” To the contrary, it seemed to be projecting its might in all directions at once. The Aleutians? Solomons? New Guinea? Burma? India itself? Which were the priorities? Could the Empire defend the full extent of its reach?

While the Allies were still recovering from the setbacks of December 1941 to May 1942, Japan might have done better to strengthen its defense-in-depth, as James Wood argued. [Wood 40, 97] It could have converted a loosely held zone of control into genuine territory, with the equivalent of “eyes,” as in Go. Territory in war is never logically “alive” or “dead,” as it is in Go. Yet defense-in-depth likely would have made prosecution of the war too costly for a democracy, sending its young men to die thousands of miles away. Japan needed to think more in terms of establishing territory and less about winning attacks.



In Go, every stone played in the middle of the board gets four liberties, surrounding spaces that are free, available. As each player places stones upon the board, one at a time, like-stones can connect and increase their strength by sharing liberties. Opposing stones can attack and reduce another stone’s, or group of stones’, liberties, its freedom of movement, as it were. Reduce a stone or group to one liberty, and it is said to be in atari, in danger of being surrounded and thus captured. When the opportunity arises to put another player’s stone(s) in atari, the novice player fairly jumps at the chance. He believes he has caught his opponent napping as is on the path to victory. Nothing of the sort. Putting an opponent’s stone(s) in atari can be a bad, even the worst, move to make at a given time. Experienced players know to consider the ramifications of all possible moves and to make the most profitable one, even if it means foregoing a chance to atari.

Japan was not a beginner in game of war. She had been expanding her borders for more than half a century and successfully challenged the Chinese and Russian giants in the process. Still, by 1930, a noxious mix of militarism, racism, and fascism clouded her military thinking. By February, 1942, she had put Allied “stones” in atari all across the board. Many were captured outright. Those that held out were left to fend for themselves. Wake fell, unreinforced, in late December. The Philippines in early May. The Allies did not rise to the bait.

In this regard, United States was playing above her experience level. She would make many tactical errors in the early months, but strategically, she was wise enough to buy time and build up her resources. Rather than respond directly to Japanese instigations, U.S. naval units merely harassed Japanese ships. “Hauling ass with Halsey” took some of the sting out of Pearl Harbor for naval officers and men. Though the damage inflicted on enemy ships was small (far less than what was hyped in American media), the boost to troop morale was great. The Halsey and Fletcher raids gave naval units experience returning fire, and with it a sense of confidence.

It also gave officers immediate feedback on their units’ deficiencies. Ian Toll identifies at least five of them, including antiaircraft ineptitude, inability to identify enemy and friendly aircraft, jumpiness at nonexistent submarine “sightings,” poor cruiser gunnery, and an insufficient number of fighter planes. [Toll 229] Identifying these vulnerabilities was critical to future success in the war. Furthermore, the mosquito-bite attacks were effective enough get inside the Japanese commanders’ heads. Suddenly the possibility of a carrier raid on Tokyo became a realistic possibility. Such a strike would dishonor the Imperial Navy and shatter its prestige, to say nothing of the casualties within the capital city itself.

Playing away from atari won the Americans significant benefits on which they would capitalize later in the war. When they did respond to the ultimate atari threat at Midway, in June 1940, a combination of pluck and luck helped them escape capture and inflict great damage on the enemy. They were aided by the Japanese decision to try for two ataris at once, dividing the strength of her force between at the atoll and the Aleutians. It was first outright victory for the Allies in the Pacific.

In pushing for Midway, and likewise New Guinea and New Caledonia, the Japanese were playing for the quick atari and quick capture. It made a certain sense to strike while the Allies were reeling from the devastating initial strikes. Capture pieces early, get them off the board and they cannot exert influence later in the game. It didn’t work out that way. The Allies didn’t play their game (at least not primarily). In going for the kill, the Japanese conducted the war like beginners.



“It is not a wise strategy for the player who is ahead on the board to engage in complicated and risky fights or exchanges on the board. He should strive to settle the shapes and decrease the complexity of the game.”

In May, 1942, both sides knew the Japanese were ahead on the map. Settling shapes–shoring up lines of communication and supply, constructing self-reinforcing airfields, establishing a zone of defense-in-depth–these were the actions Japan’s Imperial Army and Navy should have prioritized. Instead, the Navy carried out a Midway operation that was, in Toll’s words, “a farrago of compromises struck to quell internal dissent and to balance the demands of rivals. …shot through with contradictions, flaws, and unnecessary risks.” [Toll 379] It paid dearly for the mistake.

The strategic error went beyond Midway and preceded it. Unrestrained advances west and south aroused the Allies’ resolve like nothing else. Britain feared a Japanese incursion into India from Burma. Australia was alarmed by the Japanese push south into New Guinea, a stone’s throw, or easy air raid, from its mainland. The United Sates understood the Japanese drive through the Solomons toward New Caledonia threatened to cut off its transports from the Allied base of operations in Australia.

All these threatening Japanese actions called into question the Allies’ natural inclination toward a Europe First policy. [Toll 266-267] By pressing the issue, Japan stiffened the Allies’ resolve and hastened their turn to the counter-offensive. By attempting to take Port Moresby in early May, the Japanese instigated the Battle of the Coral Sea, which gave Allied naval forces more valuable experience and a strategic victory. As a result, no JIA troops were landed at Port Moresby, and the next attempt at the port, by land over the Owen Stanley Mountains, would prove an unmitigated disaster.

In August, two months after Midway, the U.S. Marines landed at Guadalcanal, beginning another months-long train wreck for the Japanese. According to destroyer captain Tameichi Hara, military planners at the time underestimated both the Americans’ willingness and their ability to launch such an attack. These were symptoms of the so-called “victory disease” that had infected much of the country, even those who were in positions to know better.

In May, 1942, the Japanese military was a rich man but it picked unnecessary fights with a weaker opponent. It complicated the war, rather than simplified it. The Allies fought harder as a result. Another Go proverb comes to mind: GIVE YOUR OPPONENT WHAT HE WANTS. Japan could have let the Allies have Australia, New Guinea, and nearby archipelagos. Malaya, the Philippines, Indonesia and Indo-China provided the raw materials it needed for empire. Allowing the Allies time to build  up its Pacific forces and bases would have given Japan time to build up its own communications and supply networks, infrastructure, including air bases, and fortifications. She would have been hard to defeat without an attrition rate too high for democratic populaces to stomach.

Unfortunately for her, Japan did not do that.



It is a liability in Go to be too attached to one’s stones, to cling to unfailingly to one’s territory. There are times, many times in the course of any single game, when stones will have to sacrificed, territory conceded. It is better to take the initiative and build a more favorable position elsewhere than to give up sente or throw good stones after bad.

The Allies conceded territory, even if unwillingly, then reluctantly. Toll quote Roosevelt trying to buck up Churchill, “There is no use giving a single further thought to Singapore or the Dutch Indies. They are gone.” [Toll 266] He might have said the same of the Philippines, but that was a loss harder for him to swallow. The Japanese might have benefited from letting Guadalcanal and New Guinea go earlier and with less of a fight. They needed time to strengthen their defensive position. They squandered it and would never regain it.



I have not quite convinced myself that Go proverbs have much bearing on the planning and execution of the War in the Pacific. I am still too inexperienced with both the game and the war to make a convincing case. My ideas inchoate and have relied too heavily on a simplified understanding of James Wood’s already somewhat simplified argument about Japanese prosecution of the war.

Still, I sense the Japanese were less in tune with their own traditions in the 1920s through 40s than they might have been. The country had westernized so relentlessly for half a century that its “progress” sowed the seeds of virulent reaction. Japan became…well, a farrago of contradictions. To counter racial prejudice, she invoked racial superiority. To exploit Western weakness, she employed Western military methods. She tried to beat the Allies at their own game.

The uniforms, the salutes, the ranks, the ships, the planes, the armaments: they were all Western, if improved upon in certain cases by Japanese ingenuity. While I have seen evidence of Eastern, philosophical ways of thinking in Hara, Yamamoto, and Kuribayashi, the military, as a whole, has seemed almost willfully blinded by hubris and rage. Over-estimation of their own powers, underestimation of their enemy’s, and a surfeit of wishful thinking were the results.

If the Japanese were deaf to Sun Tzu’s precept to know thyself and thine enemy, they were still more obtuse toward his predilection for “winning” without fighting. Both before and during the war, too little thought–and too little action–was given to the winning of a negotiated settlement. Certainly, Japan should have sought to negotiate from a position of strength. Yet she did not actually seek the negotiation in the first place. Japan lacked a realistic endgame strategy.

In Go, close games are won and lost in costly endgame moves. That wasn’t the case with Japan. Her opening  moves, fuseki, gave her a strong position at the start of the war. Her failure to build strong shapes of territory, simplify the game, and have an overall strategy for winning through negotiation, cost her dearly. A little more Eastern philosophy; a little less Western fasco-militarism.


Hara, Captain Tameichi (with Fred Saito, translator, and Roger Pineau, annotations). Japanese Destroyer Captain: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Midway–The Great Naval Battles as Seen Through Japanese Eyes. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1967 (translation, 1961).

Edgerton, Robert B. Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1997.

Hop, Jonathan. So You Want to Play Go? (Intermediate Level 2, 19-10 kyu). Sunday Go Publications, 2008.

Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Wood, James B. Japanese Military Strategy: Was Defeat Inevitable?  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

Wood, James B. Japanese Military Strategy: Was Defeat Inevitable?  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.



War Games

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

“I was asked once how we were able to fight the war in the Pacific, and I said that we fought it just as we had fought it all on paper in the Naval War College. I fought the whole war of the Pacific when I was there in 1923.” [Toll 132-133]

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

Nimitz’s words to War College students after the war have the feel of overstatement. Can we take him seriously when he says that “nothing that happened during the war was a surprise–absolutely nothing”? [Pellegrino 3:30] (He did except the use of kamikaze tactics.) NWC senior analyst Peter Pellegrino encourages students of history to take the admiral at his word. The College’s extensive war gaming curriculum in the 1920s and 30s prepared the future naval officers of WWII in a way of thinking, of anticipating problems and responding to them. That’s what Nimitz meant by fighting it all out on paper–he and two decades’ worth of students who followed him.

Pellegrino wants us to consider that the so-called War Plan Orange (code for Japan, likewise red for Britain and black for Germany) was not a single plan, written in stone, that foresaw every eventuality. It had roots at least as far back as 1905, when the Japanese navy surprised the Russian fleet at Tsushima Strait, sinking eight of twelve warships. WPO had, according to Pellegrino, been worked and reworked in simulation over a generation and more, each class discovering new problems and finding new ways to respond. The results of each war game was fluid, ever-changing, as in any actual war situation.

At the same time, Navy brass–all graduates of this war gaming process–devised their own iterations of War Plan Orange. At first the Mahanians held sway. At the end of the previous century, Alfred Thayer Mahan had posited that a sea power must concentrate its naval forces for a decisive victory. His influence spread to naval commanders around the globe. Applied to the War Plan Orange, his theory meant the small Asiatic Fleet the  in the Philippines would avoid a fight, escape an anticipated blockade, and await the arrival the main fleet, mobilized from San Diego and through the Panama Canal. Anyone recalling the fate of the Russian fleet at the hands of Admiral Togo could be forgiven for their skepticism. Logistical difficulties might be overcome, but “mid-ocean attrition”–loss of ships to aerial attacks, a tactic Mahan could hardly have imagined–was deemed too costly. War gaming brought this “attrition” to light and made its consequences inescapable.

Enter the Cautionaries, who were not so much cautious as deliberate. Admirals Nimitz and Spruance would eventually be counted among their number, advocating a sequence of island-hopping west across the Pacific, building lines of communication and supply from which to encroach on Japanese-controlled territory. As it happened, this was the strategy the general staff implemented, even if the particulars were always under discussion and strongly argued over.

And not always correct in their application. Pellegrino points out that the Navy generally assumed Japan would employ technology in tactically similar ways to themselves. They did not anticipate the development of Japanese nighttime naval tactics or its enhanced torpedo technology. Nor did planners adequately foresee their own use of submarines or amphibious landings. [Pellegrino 5:17] But, Pellegrino argues, the graduates of the Naval War College, in positions of power during the war, had practiced making the same types of decisions in game situations as they were making during the fog of war in the Pacific. This prepared them in the way that Nimitz meant, speaking in hindsight.

The abandonment of the Philippines in the short  run (“They Were Expendable”!) was foreseen and carried out as planned. [Toll xxxv] Two weeks after the assault began General MacArthur, commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East ordered a general withdrawal into the Bataan Peninsula. “Put WPO-3 in to effect,” was all he needed to say. [Toll 239] USAFFE was now on its own. MacArthur and his lieutenant General Wainwright would make it up as they went, hoping to hold out until the combined Pacific Fleet and accompanying air forces could come to their rescue. But their short term survival was never really part of the plan.



“For a while we’ll have everything our own way, stretching out in every direction like an octopus spreading its tentacles. But it’ll last for a year and a half at most.” [Toll 273]

Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku

Japanese tentacles grasped a large chunk of the western Pacific in just three months of naval Blitzkrieg, from Burma and Malaya in the west to Tarawa and Wake in the east, as far north as Luzon in the Philippines and as far south as Java in the Dutch East Indies. Admiral Yamamoto’s instincts had been at least half right. Japanese forces had had their “own way” to start the war. But it had all gone so quickly. Neither the General Staff nor the Japanese equivalent of the War College had war gamed the next phase. What to do next was an open question.

It didn’t help that Imperial Army and Navy were locked in a turf war of their own. Though Yamamoto and the Navy planned and executed the attack at Pearl Harbor, in 1940-41 it was the Army that had been “straining at the leash” and the Navy that had cautioned against unnecessary provocations–at least for as long as was politically feasible. [Toll 123] Even with the war progressing as well as either branch could have hoped, the rivalry roiled.

Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka argued for safeguarding Japanese gains: shoring up interior supply lines, constructing airfields and fortifications on perimeter islands, expanding production of war materiel and training of replacement personnel. These efforts would drive an overall strategic goal of establishing air superiority “through a network of interlocking, mutually supporting air bases,” as Ian Toll put it. [Toll 275] James B. Wood used much the same language when he argued that “defense in depth”–hundreds of airfields on the Philippines, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Formosa, Ryukus, and Bonins–could have yielded a much different ending to the Pacific War. [Wood 41]

Ryunosuke’s voice was drowned out by commanders determined to take the offensive and to expand the perimeter. The Allies–American, British, Dutch–were unprepared and on their heels, their argument went. There was no better time to strike than now, in the spring and summer of 1942. The Army set its eyes south through New Guinea to Port Moresby, the Navy through island chains to the southeast–Admiralties, Bismarcks, Solomons–toward New Caledonia, Samoa, and Fiji. What these actions had in common was an urgency to take advantage of Allied weakness and the strategic goals of breaking enemy lines of communication and of isolating Australia. They also shared more than a hint of impetuousness. They seem driven more by self-interest in their own military branch than by a unified strategy and coordinated plan of operations. How would any new gains be supported, lines of supply be maintained? Those questions were ignored or deferred.

If that were not enough, a third offensive was thrown into the mix by the hero of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto: an assault 3,000 miles in a completely different direction against a target of questionable strategic value: Midway Atoll.

Japanese naval officers, Yamamoto not excepted, had been schooled in Mahanian doctrine as much as their American counterparts. The strike at Midway, with its airbase a mere 1,000 miles from Hawaii, was primarily a means to draw out American surface ships and thus provoke a classic Mahanian encounter. Smashing the U.S. fleet, according to Yamamoto, would do more to isolate Australia than the acquisition of Port Moresby and New Caledonia combined. The Navy General Staff approved his plan in April, with a provision: that Yamomoto divide his fleet and send the smaller part to take Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians. More strategic muddling and anti-Mahanian to the core. But Yamamoto had threatened to resign once before, when the NGS wavered over his Pearl Harbor plan. He could hardly challenge them to call his bluff a second time, in the same way. He accepted the provision.



“In shogi too much fighting causes all-out defeat.” [Toll 461]

–Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku

The fleet of the Japanese Imperial Navy might have been partly divided, but it was still an awesome armada. Yamamoto’s Midway force included the better part of 200 ships and 700 planes, with four fleet carriers and air forces, collectively known as Kido Butai, forming its core.

A month before his fleet sailed out of Kure Naval Base, Yamamoto assembled his commanders on his flagship super-battleship Yamato to war game the upcoming battle. More than one gaming result revealed the vulnerability of Kido Butai to air attack, a potentially fatal flaw in the plan. In one instance the game was invalidated as too unlikely. In another, the variables were arbitrarily manipulated to yield more favorable results. When Yamamoto asked, pertinently, what would happen if the U.S. fleet turned up suddenly, undetected, famed aviation commander Minoru Genda dismissed the thought with a Japanese idiom, Gaishu Isshoku! (“We shall crush them!”) [Toll 381-382]

This wasn’t war gaming. This was mutual self-delusion.

What happened next, as they say, is history. In the space of a few hours’ engagement (including the five minutes that turned the tide of the entire war) the mighty Kido Butai was destroyed–four fleet carriers sunk or sinking, two hundred and forty-eight planes down in flames (or run out of gas with no place to land). Even then, Japanese commanders groped for ways to salvage the mission on which they had staked so much.  Yamamoto ordered his surface ships to hunt down the American carriers (there were three, though he did not know for sure) in the darkness of the night of June 4/5. Admiral Spruance and his commanders played hard to get until morning.  Though his officers egged him on the next morning, Yamamoto finally faced reality. He halted to their pleas with reference to the game he knew and played so well: In shogi too much fighting causes all-out defeat.”

He ordered all ships to turn toward home.



“To end a war that is going favorably for one’s own side, requires a special, different kind of effort.”

–Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku [Toll 274]

Yamamoto understood the dangers of senshoubyou, the “victory disease” that infected so much of the Japanese military (and civilian population, too) in the heady days of spring 1942. Yet he, too, fell prey to its most pernicious symptom: overconfidence. How? How could he and his staff have been so slipshod in their war gaming? Besides Western forms of knowledge, the Japanese had access to a whole tradition of gaming and philosophy of war that they apparently ignored. Yamamoto had been raised on the wisdom of Shogi. Other Japanese officials must have learned from Go deep ways of thinking about both attack and defense. How were these lessons forgotten in the heat of battle? These questions will be the focus of the next post, leaving the answers as matters of supposition.


Pellegrino, Peter. “History of War Plan Orange,”

Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

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