‘Twilight of the Gods’ Review: A Blood-Soaked Peace

From The Wall Street Journal:

A tale-telling axiom holds that complex narratives—whether from a writer’s quill, the pulpit or a Hollywood storyboard—are best broken into threes. From Sophocles to Coppola, the trilogy has thrived as a means to carve an enormous meal into manageable courses.

World War II, history’s most complex bloodbath, often seems to require such treatment, and over the decades the war’s two billion individual stories have been compiled into dozens of memorable (and not-so-memorable) three-volume sets. The best known of recent threepeats is Rick Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy,” a brilliant study of the U.S. Army in the Europe and the Mediterranean. James Holland (“Normandy ’44”) has released two of his three volumes on the Anglo-American war against Germany, and for the hard-core history geek, David M. Glantz offers a three-part deep dive into the Stalingrad campaign. Novelist James Jones (“From Here to Eternity”) drew the Pacific War’s thin red line through three volumes, while respected historian Richard B. Frank (“Tower of Skulls”) recently launched his first of three volumes on the Asian-Pacific struggle. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Frank’s series will rise to the level of Ian W. Toll’s Pacific War trilogy, now capped by “Twilight of the Gods.”

Mr. Toll, who has spent his literary career chronicling the U.S. Navy, built a solid foundation for the war’s final act in the first two volumes. The opening work, “Pacific Crucible” (2011), spanned the Navy’s disaster at Pearl Harbor to its redemption at Midway. The second installment, “The Conquering Tide” (2015), spotlighted America’s hard-won education in amphibious landings, from the six-month charnel house of Guadalcanal to the red-tinged tides of Guam. In “Twilight of the Gods,” he carries the reader through the war’s violent death rattles, spanning Peleliu to Okinawa.

The Pacific War’s complexity—and brutality—resist detailed depiction. The 8,800-mile American odyssey from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay was dominated by saltwater, airstrips and islands few had heard of before 1941. Chinese, Dutch, Australians, Indians, Filipinos, British, Burmese and New Zealanders played major supporting roles in a conflict we often think of today as “U.S. versus Japan.” Setting the table of personalities, objectives, resources and innovative weapons systems is an immense job for any historian.

. . . .

As his narrative rolls through the Philippine Sea, Peleliu, the Philippine islands, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Mr. Toll introduces the reader to America’s battle captains of the waves. Adm. Raymond Spruance, commander of the Fifth Fleet, was an eccentric thinker who delegated nearly everything to his subordinates. “Spruance did not fit the conventional mold of a wartime fleet commander,” Mr. Toll writes. “He was aloof, introverted, and monkish. . . . On an average day at sea, Spruance paced for three to four hours around the forecastle of the Indianapolis while dressed in a garish Hawaiian floral-print bathing suit, no shirt, white socks, and his regulation black leather shoes.” Yet, he continues, Spruance’s “insistence upon delegating authority down the line of command tended to bring out the best in subordinates.” Because Spruance’s résumé included spectacular victories at Midway and the Philippine Sea, Roosevelt would tolerate eccentricities.

Third Fleet’s Adm. William Halsey, nicknamed “Bull” by the press, jumps off the pages as an instantly likeable, Pattonesque leader whose reputation was cemented with his victory at Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history. “He was a profane, rowdy, fun-loving four-star admiral who laughed at jokes at his own expense and fired provocative verbal salvos against the enemy.” His rapport with the press would yank him out of trouble on more than one occasion and propel him to the rank of five-star fleet admiral.

. . . .

Mr. Toll’s interest in the evolution of weaponry dots the pages of “Twilight of the Gods.” The big Essex-class aircraft carriers and their unruly children, Hellcat fighter-bombers, play critical roles, as does the ultimate piece of the war’s power game: the atomic bomb. Doppler radars, proximity fuses, air-dropped mines and napalm raise the curtain on modern warfare. Carrier combat, no longer the “whites of the eyes” affair of 1941, morphed into a long-range campaign in which, Mr. Toll notes, “often the crews of the ships did not even lay eyes on a hostile plane.”

Yet on the ground Marines laid eyes on many enemies, human and natural. On Peleliu, a wasteland Mr. Toll compares to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor, “clouds of large greenish-blue flies fed off the unburied dead and tormented the living. Sudden torrential rainstorms came in the late afternoon, and sometimes at night. There was no escape from the relentless artillery and mortar barrages.” Worse horrors faced the doomed enemy: “When the guns paused, the marines could hear wounded and dying Japanese crying out in the night. Often they cried for their mothers, as did dying men of all races.” Of the cave-dwelling Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima, he writes: “The noise and blast concussions took a steady toll on their nerves, and many were reduced to a catatonic stupor. Their subterranean world grew steadily more fetid and unlivable. There was no way to bury the dead, so the living simply laid them out on the ground and stepped around them. The stench was unspeakable.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

World War II in the Pacific theater covered almost unimaginable distances, particularly for the world of the early and mid-1940’s.

The OP mentions the distance from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Tokyo as 8,800 miles (not in a straight line, presumably following the sequence of the location of major battles). For comparison’s sake, the distance from London to Moscow is approximately 1500 air miles. London to Shanghai via a direct flight is approximately 5700 air miles. New York to Tokyo via a direct flight is approximately 6700 air miles.

All through World War II, the only way to transport large numbers of soldiers or any significant amount of military equipment from the US to the site where needed was via ship. Most of the ships used for this purpose were a variant of the Liberty ship.

A Liberty ship cruised at about 11 knots (a bit less than 13 miles per hour). The distance between San Francisco and Honolulu is about 2400 miles. The trip took more than a week via Liberty ship. The distance between Honolulu and Manila is about 5300 miles. That trip took about 2.5 weeks. The potential for enemy submarine or air attacks that required evasive maneuvers added even more time.

The same distances were also covered while delivering massive amounts of military equipment, supplies, ammunition, food, etc., etc., etc., necessary for the Marines, troops and sailors to live and wage war on the ground, at sea and in the air.

Since virtually all of the Pacific war was waged from island to island, everything and everyone had to be put back on ships, taken to the location for the next battle and unloaded once again. This process was repeated many times.

4 thoughts on “‘Twilight of the Gods’ Review: A Blood-Soaked Peace”

  1. PG, thank you for this extract from the review. I always appreciate your occasional post of this type and this looks like it might be another trilogy to be added to my World War 2 TBR mountain.

    The only problem – not infrequent with such reviews – is that one cannot always distinguish between what the reviewer says and the views of the author. In the reviewer’s account “William Halsey … jumps off the pages as an instantly likeable, Pattonesque leader whose reputation was cemented with his victory at Leyte Gulf” which sounds highly approving. If this is also the author’s view – and I suspect it is not – it would leave me with grave doubts as to his judgement – though I guess it could be that Halsey was likeable and that his victory cemented his reputation, even though a positive reputation was totally unjustified.

    (Note: Halsey totally screwed up at Leyte Gulf and was only saved from disaster by the heroism of Taffy 3 and, in particular, USS Johnston, plus the incompetence and timidity of the Japanese).

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