I have long been a student of US and US military history. Having had two now deceased uncles who both served in the European Theater and several familyfriends and parishioners who served in both the European and Pacific Theaters, books about the Second World War have always interested me.
When I saw James Hornfischer’s book, The Fleet at Flood Tide (TBP 2016 by Bantam) was available for request and review, I requested it thinking that it would be another great book on the exploits of the American Navy and Marines as they moved to defeat Imperial Japan.
But I was wrong… wrong in a very good way. For what I received from this book was an education about the emergence of US military doctrine that was formed as the US faced an increasingly suicidal enemy which caused the terrible deaths of both military and civilians. The doctrine of Total War.
Yes, book is also about those who led American forces into Guam, Tinian, Saipan and onto Okinawa and Iwo Jima and ultimately the atom bomb to Japan. People such as Marc Mitscher and Ray Spruance of the Navy; Holland Smith of the Marine Corpt; and Paul Tibbets of the Army Air Corps. It also about those who defended these islands such as Yoshitsugu Saito of the Imperial Japanese Army and Chuichi Nagumo of the Imperial Japanese Navy. And Hornfischer’s introduction of Shizuko Miura, a civilian nurse and Captain Sakae Oba who held out along with several hundred civilians and military on Saipan until December 1, 1945 when he surrendered, added an new dimension for me to understand what went on during those battles.
Detail descriptions of the movements and tactics abound throughout the book as Hornfischer describes the evolution of amphibious operations developed in the larger campaign as well as the introduction of now common military outfits and munitions. Groups like SEAL’s and weapons like napalm.
But it is the result of what American forces witnessed on these islands, no less than mass suicide, and the kamikaze attacks on US ships, that forces the doctrine of total war to be implemented which ultimately led to the still controversial decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan to avoid the high death count of both American troops and Japanese civilians. Hornfischer’s narrative on this decision making process as well as the detailed accounts of the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945 and how Japan was occupied in the weeks and months following its surrender adds depth and understanding to this time of both American and world history.
The Fleet at Flood Tide is a comprehensive look at American military policy and operation in a way that I have never read. It raises the issues of how war was and is conducted and what happens when moral lines, because of battlefield realities, are crossed to try to save life and not destroy it. This book will continue the debate over the use of the atomic bomb but it should also bring to light the realities of a similar mindset in this day and age of those for whom death is an honor and not something to avoid. How do we deal with such a mindset?
I enjoyed the Fleet at Flood Tide and I think that it would be a welcomed addition to history classes about the ethics of war as well as a comprehensive look at the final year of war in the Pacific.
I gave this book a five-star rating on Goodreads.
Note I received a galley copy of the book from the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.