Pacific Crucible

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

Ian Toll‘s Pacific War Trilogy, coming in at more than 1,700 pages of text and 500 pages of notes and sources, obviously aims for comprehensiveness. Yet, in its breadth, there are nevertheless many moments of you-were-there intimacy. Instead of dry recitations of process or technology or organization, Toll brings historical elements to life within the narrative itself. He allows dozens of participants on both sides–admirals, politicians, pilots, sailors, support crew, intelligence officers, corpsmen, war correspondents–to speak for themselves, bringing the entire range of primary sources to bear on his narrative. The result–at least in the first volume, the only one I have yet read–is a remarkable achievement, narrative history at its best.

Pacific Crucible tells the story of the Pacific war from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Though covering just seven of the war’s forty-five months, this first volume must also lay out much backstory–from two sides of the ocean–and introduce many key players. Besides, the bracketing encounters probably loom larger in Americans’ memory of the war than any of the later pivotal battles.

Here is Toll describing the return of carrier planes to the Enterprise during Halsey‘s raid on the Marshall Islands of February 1, 1942:

As the planes entered the landing circle they passed close to starboard, circled across the  bow, flew downwind to port, and then made a final turn aft, directly above the wake. A spotter confirmed the landing gear, flaps, and tailhook were all down. The landing signal officer (LSO) stood prominently on the port quarter and held his two yellow paddles high over his head. At the moment of truth he either waved both paddles above his head–the “wave-off,” requiring the pilot to pour on the throttle, pass over the deck, and return to the landing circle for a fresh approach–or drew his right-hand paddle across his throat–the “cut,” telling the pilot to chop his throttle and let his aircraft fall to the deck, where the tailhook seized one of the cables and brought the plane to a abrupt, jarring halt. The deck crews sprinted out to release the cable from the hook; the hydraulic crash barriers retracted into the deck; and the pilot abruptly gunned his engine to taxi his aircraft forward of the barrier. The barrier shot back up , the arresting wires were tensioned, and the deck was made clear for the next plane landing in the circle. “A tricky and dangerous business,” wrote Ordnanceman Kernan, “and everything depended on doing it fast and doing it well.” [Toll 221]

This is general description seamlessly serving in the account of a particular carrier raid. (The launching of the strike force, ten pages earlier, was equally both informative and charged with tension.

The best example of Toll’s descriptive-cum-narrative writing comes when the carrier Lexington makes its trans-Pacific sail from Oahu to the Coral Sea. The equatorial heat, anti-aircraft gunnery practice, “crossing the line” rites, all come in for deep treatment in Toll’s bravura five-page dive account:

The Lexington‘s colossal power plant, deep in the bowels of the ship, included sixteen huge steam boilers and four 33,200 kilowatt turbine engines. Scorching heat was an inevitable byproduct of those great machines, and much of it remained trapped in the steel envelope of the carrier’s interior. On the flight deck at midday, where the ambient heat from below merged with the overbearing rays of the equatorial sun, the steel plates were like skillets. They would burn exposed flesh or melt rubber soles, and sailors sometimes amused themselves by frying eggs on them. On the sauna-like lower decks, where condensation collected on every surface, Chicago Tribune reporter Stanley Johnston observed that the ship appeared to sweat like a human being: “Beads of moisture combined to form rivulets which forever coursed down floors, walls and roofs, the bulkheads, decks and side plates of this great floating city.” No place was hotter than the engine room itself, in which the “black gang” (the engineers) toiled in a harshly lit subterranean cavity where the temperature never fell below 110  ͦand sometimes approached 130  ͦ, about the upper limit of human endurance. [Toll 324]

Toll has mastered the Japanese sources, too. This account of the Imperial Navy’s damage control effort at Midway provides a window into the desperate chaos that would have followed the bombing or torpedoing of almost any warship, while showing, in this instance, how the Japanese had not sufficiently trained. Toll does tell the story of three different ships as a composite, yet the sense of immediacy remains undiminished:

Even when firefighters could get hoses on the fires, the water pressure was too weak to make much of an impression; in some cases it actually made matters worse, by spreading spilled aviation fuel to as-yet-undamaged portions of the ships. Fire-suppressing foam would have been better, but the Japanese ships were not equipped with it. Firefighters descended into the lower reaches of the ships, where the passageways were choked with smoke and heated to oven-like temperatures. Lacking gas masks, they held wet rags to their mouths, or they crawled on all fours, to breathe the slightly better air near the deck, across steel plates that seared their hands and knees. But on all four carriers, no matter how bravely the firefighters persisted in their hellish labors, they could not extinguish the fires. [Toll 456-457]

Toll does more than paint telling scenes. He also composes muscular sentences that get to the heart of the matter. After discussing Allied morale and views of the enemy, Toll sums up by saying, “The subhumans of 1941 had mutated into the superhumans of 1942.” [Toll 247] On the chaotic nature of history’s first carrier battle, he writes: Coral Sea was “one of the most confused and confusing battles in the history of war at sea, characterized on both sides by an almost incredible series of miscues, miscommunications, misidentifications, misinterpretations, and miscalculations.” [Toll 374] (True enough, this battle was one section of the book in which I felt lost in the details and began to consider skimming.)

After discussing Japanese planning for Midway, Toll writes, “The Midway operation was not a product of sound military planning. It was a farrago of compromises struck to quell internal dissent and to balance the demands of rivals.” [Toll 379] More narrowly, on Yamamoto‘s willful myopia, he writes of the commander, “He was a gambler, and he had decided that he liked the odds.” [Toll 381]


Sometimes luck is on your side. I discovered Toll’s trilogy last month and was able to purchase and read it right away. The second volume, The Conquering Tide, is in my shopping cart at Better World Books and cued up for my reading in April. The third and final installment, Twilight of the Gods, is due out in July of this year. I should be able to wait a couple months for its release without too much hardship. Time to preorder my copy now!

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

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