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Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last…

Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign… (original 2006; edition 2006)

by Evan Thomas (Author)

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5131231,582 (3.83)12
Journalist and historian Thomas writes with a knowing feel for the clash of cultures as he follows four men through the naval war of 1941-1945 in the South Pacific: Admiral William ("Bull") Halsey, the macho, gallant, racist American fleet commander; Admiral Takeo Kurita, the Japanese battleship commander charged with making what was, in essence, a suicidal fleet attack against the American invasion of the Philippines; Admiral Matome Ugaki, a self-styled samurai who was the commander of all kamikazes and himself the last kamikaze of the war; and Commander Ernest Evans, a Cherokee Indian and Annapolis graduate who led his destroyer on the last great charge in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the biggest naval battle ever fought. From new documents and interviews with American and Japanese veterans, Thomas was able to piece together and answer mysteries about the battle that have puzzled historians for decades.--From publisher description.… (more)
Title:Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945
Authors:Evan Thomas (Author)
Info:Simon & Schuster (2006), Edition: 1st, 415 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Read in 2020, History

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Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945 by Evan Thomas (2006)



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Another journalist writes WWII history. Sea of Thunder author Evan Thomas was an “assistant managing editor” at Newsweek; this work on the Battle of Leyte Gulf displays the standard merits and flaws of the genre. Journalists tend to place a lot of emphasis on interviews and on getting “both sides of the story”. Well and good; WWII veterans are dying much faster than they did during the war and it’s important to get their stories, and you should always research history from multiple points of view. However, eyewitness testimony is notorious for its unreliability, as is memory of events 60+ years in the past. And just because there are two sides to every story doesn’t mean both have equal credibility.

Thomas focuses his book on four naval officers, two American and two Japanese: Admiral William Halsey, Commander Ernest Evans, Admiral Takeo Kurita, and Admiral Matome Ugaki. In the remote chance that anybody here is unfamiliar with the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the US invaded the Japanese-held Philippine Islands in 1944, starting with the island of Leyte. American possession of the Philippines would cut Japan off from its main source of oil in Indonesia, so the Japanese military felt compelled to act and devised a typically complex plan. Two Japanese fleets would move on Leyte from the west, one through straits south of the island and the other to the north; a third force, of aircraft carriers (useless because they had few aircraft and fewer capable pilots), would act as a lure to draw most American warships away to the northeast, allowing the Japanese to envelop and destroy the invasion forces.

As it happened the plan almost “worked” (worked is in quotes because it’s not clear what would have happened even if everything had gone according to plan). The southern Japanese force was annihilated coming through Surigao Strait. The northern force under Kurita (with Ugaki commanding the battleships) was badly beat up during its approach and the Americans thought it was in retreat; in fact Kurita temporarily withdrew then turned back. Halsey, in the meantime, found the Japanese decoy force and headed for it, leaving San Bernadino Strait undefended. Kurita debouched from the Strait and discovered an American task force of escort carriers and destroyers, intended to support troops ashore and not to fight capital ships, under his guns. Commander Evans launched his destroyer, USS Johnston, in a death ride against the Japanese, trying to distract them long enough for the escort carriers to escape. The American destroyers scored torpedo and shell hits on several Japanese vessels, but lost the Johnston, the destroyer Hoel, the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, and the escort carrier Gambier Bay; in a decision forever subject to second-guessing, Kurita broke off and headed toward an (imaginary) reported American fleet. Halsey, in the meantime, was astonished by desperate pleas for help. Boosted by an unfortunately worded message from Admiral Nimitz (in Washington) he broke off pursuit of the Japanese carriers and headed back toward the Philippines.

Thomas’ oral histories are the high point of the book. He’s handicapped because all the principles were dead; Halsey in 1959, Evans in 1944 (battle casualty at Leyte Gulf), Kurita in 1977, and Ugaki in 1945 (in a kamikaze attack after the Japanese had surrendered). Thus he’s reduced to interviewing the secondary participants – Japanese and Americans who were junior officers and enlisted men during the battle. Many of the interviews are compelling and evocative, and probably trustworthy when it comes to personal details about the officers involved – Halsey hated being called “Bull”, Kurita practiced archery on the deck of his flagship, etc. Alas, though, politically correct hindsight is apparent; Halsey is portrayed as a racist, borderline alcoholic, overly aggressive, fixated on the destruction of the Japanese carriers, and Kurita comes across as a gentle, contemplative but indecisive and fatalistic sort who would have been more suited for a Zen garden in a monastery than commanding a fleet. Well, everybody was pretty racist in the 1940s – not least the Japanese – and Kurita’s withdrawal has been criticized by armchair admirals ever since the battle. All of Thomas’ first, second, and third hand interviewees reported that they had tried to warn Halsey of the dangers of leaving San Bernadino strait open but, somehow, their messages never got through or were disregarded; not surprisingly nobody can be found who was enthusiastic about going after the decoy force – at least, not now. Similarly, Thomas’ Japanese sources go out of their way to say how surprised they were to witness American bravery and how gentle Kurita forbade shooting American sailors in the water; again perhaps thoughts that they first had long after the battle.

The accounts of Evans and Ugaki seem like afterthoughts; they receive much less space than Kurita and Halsey and are a little strange to put in opposition – Ugaki was an admiral in charge of a battleship division while Evans was a destroyer commander. I suppose the link is that they both “went down with their ships”, so to speak, although in Ugaki’s case it’s not clear that an illegal suicide attack should be compared to Evans’ actions with the Johnston

Thomas’ technical accounts of the battle are adequate; he uses maps adapted from James Hornfischer’s Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, which are probably as good as can be expected under the circumstances (considering the actual participants certainly didn’t have a good idea of where they were, where the other ships in their fleet were, or where the enemy was). Ironically, while Thomas is perfectly willing to criticize the participants’ character and personality, he refuses to speculate on the outcome of their decisions – i.e., what would have happened if Halsey had left a fraction of his force behind, or if Kurita had pressed his attack. Leyte Gulf probably has more opportunity for “what ifs” than any naval battle in WWII – even Pearl Harbor or Midway.

I don’t want to seem too critical; this is actually quite a good book. The portrayals of Halsey and Kurita are useful as reminders that American WWII heroes smoke, drank, swore, womanized and said things about their enemies that offend modern sensibilities; and that many Japanese officers were not brutal demons. Still, it ended up with Halsey in Tokyo Bay on the deck of the Missouri, not Kurita in the Potomac on the deck of the Yamato. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Dec 19, 2017 |
Fantastic narrative of the Pacific Theater in WWII and the clash of cultures. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
a page turner ( )
  hukkleberri | Jun 11, 2010 |
An excellent history of a hotly debated battle, Mr. Thomas, with 60 years of research available, has come to an historian's view of a huge battle. In the intervening 60 years, there have been many books written about the circumstances of the battle, each coming to a conclusion based information available and the individual bias of the author. Mr. Thomas admits that there were mistakes made by both sides, by tired commanders, with conflicting emotions and motivations. Whether any of these things should have a differences is beside the point -- what is clear is that ordinary human beings found themselves in the pulverizing factors of war on a scale never before seen or since. Before anyone is condemned, one has to ask oneself: What would I have done. ( )
  DeaconBernie | May 19, 2009 |
An interesting history of four commanders (2 US and 2 Japan) who have a collision course with history at the battle of Leyte Gulf. Follows their life from the beginning of the Pacific War to the climatic battle at Leyte Gulf and quickly wraps up the story with the end of the war with Japan. I enjoyed the brief accounts of the lives of the commanders after the war, those who lived, though it seemed to me that their existence after the war, to a degree, was a sad one. Overall it was a quick read and enjoyable. ( )
  Loptsson | May 8, 2009 |
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Evan Thomasprimary authorall editionscalculated
Seow, JackieCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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