World War II 1941 To 1945


Well before Pearl Harbor, American strategists had decided that in the event of a two-front war against Germany and Japan, the defeat of Germany would be America’s primary strategic objective. But for nearly the first half of the war, America’s fight against Japan took center stage. The war across the Pacific was a part of a struggle so different it could almost be seen as another war altogether. The Pacific Theater was the largest and most complex of all the operational theaters, requiring unprecedented, novel combinations of ground, air, and naval force, directed inventively against a skilled, desperate enemy. Some strategists at the time argued that the Pacific war was so important it should be America’s only war. For all that, the Pacific campaign is still less well represented by history than the one in Europe. By seeing this particular war through the expert and comprehensive analysis in Ronald H. Specter’s Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan (1985; Vintage), readers can begin to appreciate not only how it was fought but just how critical it was to the outcome of the whole war.

One of the defining features of the Pacific war was the bitter racism that suffused both sides’ conduct in the war. No corner of Allied or Japanese strategy, campaigns, operations, or minor tactics was beyond the reach of racism’s poisonous effect. John W. Dower’s prizewinning War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (1986; Pantheon) is the most thoroughly researched and balanced investigation into the sources of the Pacific war’s viciousness. No one should journey into this region of the war without Dower’s guiding hand.

For every one of the combatant nations in this war, some single campaign, battle, or event has assumed a symbolic power that outshines all others. For Americans, the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, is the iconic battle of the war. That is partly why the Normandy campaign has attracted so many able historians and inspired so many memoirists over the years. Carlo D’Este’s Decision in Normandy (1983; William S. Konecky Assoc.), however, portrays the war from the vantage point of those who bore the responsibility of conceiving, planning, and executing the D-day campaign—a campaign that took the Allies to victory as no other operation could have done. After spending time with Decision in Normandy , the reader will have an idea of how the professionals plan and command modern war.

And then, at some point in one’s reading, the shooting starts. The greatest challenge for any student of any war is to come to an understanding of the world of combat, for combat alone is the essence of war. Without the threat of combat, the dread of it, the act of it, or the sorrow of it, war itself would collapse. War has never held out the secrets of combat for historians to see. This best-studied of all wars has produced very few histories that come directly to grips with war’s fundamental nature. It is true, as it has long been true, that fiction and the literature of memory deal with the act of combat more effectively than any other forms of literature.

History will have to go some way, therefore, to equal Eugene B. Sledge’s classic memoir of his war in the Pacific, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (1981; Oxford). Fighting with the 1st Marine Division in 1944 and 1945, Sledge’s company suffered 64 percent casualties during the savage battle for Peleliu. And then, on Okinawa, the fighting was worse. Only much later was Sledge able to reflect on what he had seen and done and lost during his war. An understanding of war is impossible without an understanding of combat; the reader is advised to pay attention to the lessons Sledge and his friends paid such a high price to learn.

Sledge’s book has been justly praised since its first appearance. A much less well-known memoir depicts the vastly different experience of combat miles above the earth at the controls of a heavy bomber. John Muirhead fought with the 301st Bomb Group, first out of North Africa and then out of Italy, against Axis targets, one of which was Romania’s infamous Ploesti oil field. Like Sledge, Muirhead returned to a quiet life after the war and did not sit down to his memoirs until much later, finally publishing Those Who Fall in 1986 (Random House; out of print). No American heavy bomber pilot had ever before published an account of his wartime experiences. Military memoirs are not usually noted for their literary quality, but Muirhead’s book is distinguished by a style so fine the reader finds himself wishing the writer had made a life in letters. When these qualities are combined with his authoritative rendering of the Allied bomber offensive from the pilot’s perspective, Those Who Fall must take its place on the shelf alongside Sledge’s With the Old Breed as one of the two best memoirs of the Second World War.