The Conquering Tide; War in the Pacific Islands, 1942 to 1944. By Ian Toll, W.W. Norton, 2015.
Ian Toll’s The Conquering Tide is the second volume in a trilogy covering the Pacific War from 1942 to 1944. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the declaration of war that followed, the Roosevelt Administration and the War Department under George Marshall determined that the major effort would be the defeat of the Axis Powers in Europe. With that accomplished, the U.S. would then turn its attention to regaining the former territories of the Dutch and British Empires lost to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.
It was necessary, however, to pay immediate attention to the safety of the sea routes to Australia and India. And that would involve recapturing crucial islands that the Japanese had occupied and fortified. Also, by 1942 the Allies had determined that they would demand unconditional surrender from the Japanese. The aerial bombardment of Tokyo and other cities would be necessary to bring them to the negotiating table. That in turn would require occupying island bases and landing fields sufficiently close to the Japanese homeland to make bombardment by land-based planes possible.
An intensive bombardment by battleships and cruisers but also carrier-based aircraft must precede any amphibious assaults on these islands. Hence battles in the Pacific would involve huge naval operations. Initially both sides used submarines as scouts for the battleships and cruisers. Later the U.S. altered its submarine warfare, allowing its submarines to search and destroy supply ships, particularly oil tankers, and troop ships.
The best strategy to use against the Japanese in the Pacific was the subject of much debate among the navy and army leadership. Should the our amphibious forces proceed systematically from island to island? Or should our landing forces leapfrog over most islands, liberating crucial ones thus saving time and lives.
Amphibious landings would involve enormous casualties; the Japanese forces were determined to hold out at any cost. Much has been made about the Japanese notion of bushido, a Samurai code that exalted an honorable death in battle. Faced with that fanaticism, the U.S. wisely adopted the policy of island skipping. But that involved less secure rear supply lines.
As this volume stops in mid-1944, the two most remembered battles, the capture of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, await Toll’s last volume. What makes The Conquering Tide interesting are his accounts of sea and land battles that turn out to be decisive, but have been given little attention in most of the narratives about the Pacific War.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was planned by Isoroku Yamamoto. Yamamoto understood, Toll contends, that ultimately the U.S. would win a war of attrition. So the purpose of the Pearl Harbor attack was to delay our entrance into the Pacific War, and encourage the U.S. to come to terms with Japan. More than anything else Yamamoto’s goal was to gain recognition for Japan’s future role in Southeast Asia, replacing British and Dutch imperial powers with the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
It is commonly argued that the Battle of Midway, a sea battle that took place near the island of that name in early June 1942, was one of the decisive battles of the Pacific war. The Japanese fleet sent to occupy the island was dispersed with heavy losses, and the Japanese drive toward the North American continent was halted.
In the years covered by Toll in this second volume, the Battle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands was fought over the longest period of time, from August 1942 to February 1943. It was both a sea battle and a land war to capture the island and particularly its important airstrip, later called Henderson Field. There were heavy casualties on both sides.
The Battle of Tarawa in November 1943 was perhaps the most deadly. Others would argue for Saipan earning that dubious distinction. The big Japanese base at Rabaul was bypassed. It was decided that the better strategy would be to limit the base’s usefulness by almost continuous bombardment using both land-based and carrier-based airplanes.
Ian Toll’s account raises issues about our conduct of the war. Although it wasn’t common, there were instances of U.S. submarine crews surfacing and shooting Japanese troops floundering at sea when their ship was torpedoed. Also we had broken the Japanese naval code, and we used our knowledge of Japanese air traffic to shoot down a plane in which Yamamoto was flying in April 1943, thus his assassination. Toll, however, reminds us of the atrocities that troops under Yamamoto’s command had committed in China.
Ultimately the strategy of delaying our concentration on the Pacific struggle and our decision not to systematically recapture the islands occupied by the Japanese seems to have been correct. Saving American lives was an objective of the leadership in liberation of these Pacific islands. Perhaps it ultimately saved Japanese lives as well.