Book Review: ‘Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (Volume I of the Pacific War Trilogy)

(C) 2011 W.W. Norton & Company

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

On November 14, 2011, W.W. Norton & Company published Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942, the first volume of Ian W. Toll’s Pacific War Trilogy. In twelve chapters and an epilogue which take up 493 pages of narrative, Toll covers the first six months of the Pacific War that pitted the Japanese Empire against the combined forces of the United States and the British Empire, as well as the small Dutch military contingent based in what was then the Netherlands East Indies – modern day Indonesia – from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)  to the fate-changing Battle of Midway (June 4-6, 1942) and its immediate aftermath.

By writing Pacific Crucible, Toll, whose first book of naval history Six Frigates: The Epic Story of the Founding of the U.S. Navy won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for 2005 and earned praise from critics and readers alike, took on a huge challenge – to create the first multi-volume history of the war in the Pacific since Admiral Samuel E. Morison’s monumental and semi-official 16-book series about U.S. naval operations in World War II.

Toll, who was a stockbroker, speechwriter, and political consultant before becoming a writer of naval history, examines the various aspects of mid-20th Century global warfare, including the various strategies, tactical doctrines, and political imperatives that shaped the first harrowing months of World War II in the Pacific from both the American and the Japanese perspectives.

Per the book’s dust jacket blurb:

On the first Sunday in December 1941, an armada of Japanese warplanes appeared over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and devastated the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Six months later, in a sea fight north of the tiny atoll of Midway, four Japanese aircraft carriers were sent into the abyss, a blow that destroyed the offensive power of their fleet. Pacific Crucible tells the epic tale of these first searing months of the Pacific war, when the U.S. Navy shook off the worst defeat in American military history and seized the strategic initiative.

This dramatic narrative, relying predominantly on eyewitness accounts and primary sources, is laced with riveting details of heroism and sacrifice on the stricken ships and planes of both navies. At the war’s outset, Japan’s pilots and planes enjoyed a clear-cut superiority to their American counterparts, but there was a price to be paid. Japanese pilots endured a lengthy and grueling training in which they were disciplined with baseball bats, often suffering broken bones; and the production line of the Zero – Japan’s superbly maneuverable fighter plane – ended not at a highway or railhead but at a rice paddy, through which the planes were then hauled on ox carts. Combat losses, of either pilots or planes, could not be replaced in time to match the fully mobilized American war machine.

For the inhabitants of Oahu, there was nothing unusual in being jerked out of sleep by guns and bombs and low-flying aircraft. The island was crowded with military bases, and live-firing drills were commonplace. In early 1941, as the danger of war had seemed to grow, the services took to conducting “simulated combat exercises” — mock battles pitting the army against the navy, the navy against the marines, the marines against the army.

Ian W, Toll, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

Among the events described in Pacific Crucible, readers will immerse themselves in:

  • The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and its immediate aftermath in both the U.S. and Japan
  • The brilliantly-executed coordinated offensive that resulted in Japan’s conquests of Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, the Netherlands East Indies, Rabaul, and Burma
  • The poor generalship of Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the early stages of the Pacific War, including his unexplained sluggish reaction to the Pearl Harbor attack and the resulting loss of American air power in the Philippine Islands, then a U.S. possession slated to be granted full independence in 1946
  • The sinking of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battle cruiser HMS Repulse, which sortied to attack a Japanese invasion fleet off the coast of Malaya – without sufficient air cover against land-based Japanese torpedo bombers
  • The arrival of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz as the new Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) at Pearl Harbor in late December 1941 and his efforts to boost the morale of the shaken staff on Oahu
  • The first forays of the Pacific Fleet’s carrier force against isolated Japanese bases in the Central Pacific that were intended to give the “brown shoes” (naval aviators) badly-needed combat experience and helped improve their skills and their fighting spirit
  • The fall of Manila, Bataan, and Corregidor, and how a PR-conscious Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave his troops on the doomed Philippine Islands to command the U.S. Army contingent then beginning to assemble in Australia
  • The brief and tragic tale of the American, British, Dutch, and Australian (ABDA) command and its desperate bid to avoid disaster in the Netherlands East Indies
  • The interservice rivalry between the Japanese Army and Navy, and the lack of a cohesive war plan after the successful first phase of Japan’s blitz across the Pacific and Southeast Asia
  • The  Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942
  • The Battle of the Coral Sea, the first naval battle in which the two fleets never sighted each other
  • The efforts of the Pacific Fleet’s codebreakers at Pearl Harbor to break the various cyphers used by the Japanese Navy, including the crucial JN-25b code
  • The Battle of Midway, in which the Pacific Fleet partially avenged its baptism by fire on December 7, 1941 and ended Japan’s Pacific Offensive, taking away the strategic initiative from the Empire of the Sun…forever


For the inhabitants of Oahu, there was nothing unusual in being jerked out of sleep by guns and bombs and low-flying aircraft. The island was crowded with military bases, and live-firing drills were commonplace. In early 1941, as the danger of war had seemed to grow, the services took to conducting “simulated combat exercises” — mock battles pitting the army against the navy, the navy against the marines, the marines against the army. On these days, a colossal amount of ammunition was thrown up into the air, and the island’s lightly built wood-frame houses would shake and rattle as if an earthquake had struck. So when the familiar racket started up, at a little before eight in the morning on that first Sunday in December 1941, most of the residents pulled a pillow over their heads, or turned back to their coffee and comic strips and radio programs, and tried to ignore the deep concussive thuds of distant bombs, the heavy booming of antiaircraft batteries, and the faint rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns.

My Take

(C) 2011 W.W. Norton & Company

I bought Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942, along with its recently published sequel, The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 in December of 2015 as a “Christmas present to myself” during my first holiday season five months after my mother’s death. I had just finished re-reading Rick Atkinson’s The Liberation Trilogy, which isabout the campaigns in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Northwest Europe, so I figured to balance that by reading a similar trilogy about the Pacific War.

I was, of course, familiar with the topic; I have books about Pearl Harbor and various other battles and campaigns, including Midway and Guadalcanal, and I used to own Ronald Spector’s one-volume history of the Pacific War, Eagle Against the Sun, but until I bought Pacific Crucible and The Conquering Tide, I had never read a multi-volume account about the conflict between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan.

So between December 2015 and March of 2016, I would pick up my copies of Pacific Crucible and The Conquering Tide from my ever-present To Be Read (TBR) pile and either sit on my living room sofa or go to the pool closest to my townhouse – which wasn’t mine de jure because I had not gone through the probate process yet – and lay on a deck chair to read a chapter or two while getting a bit of fresh air and sunshine. In happier times, I might have read them both at a faster clip; as it stands, I am surprised that I was able to complete the then-existing two thirds of Toll’s trilogy without skimming through them and skipping through the sections that delve into politics in both Washington, DC and Tokyo.

That I did read both books all the way through at a time when my mind was on so many other things, including worries about my future and my sad – but inevitable – estrangement from my older half-sister, is a testament to Ian W. Toll’s skills as a researcher and storyteller.

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 is a highly readable book. I like how it looks at the first six months of the Pacific war from the high-strategy perspective of the fleet admirals – on both sides – to the “sword point’s” point-of-view of the sailors, marines, airmen, and soldiers who fought on the land, in the air, and at sea in the vast expanses of the Asia-Pacific theater of war.

It’s also a good example of revisionist history, but in the good sense of the word. As a historian of the 21st Century, Ian Toll uses the latest information available about the early dark days of America’s entry into World War II to explode some long standing myths, especially several misconceptions about the Battle of Midway, that have been perpetuated by earlier accounts of the Pacific War. The book explains how and why Japan decided to provoke a war that many of its senior commanders – including Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet – knew she could not win. Using clear and lively prose and an eye for vivid details that makes history come alive, Toll gives the reader a page-turner that is hard to put down  

Some readers might find fault in some of Toll’s editorial decisions; in a customer review I saw on Amazon recently, a Navy veteran griped that Pacific Crucible does not cover the efforts of the Pacific Fleet’s submarine force in the first six months of the war. Oddly enough, I wondered about that, too, even though I knew – from reading Clay Blair, Jr.’s Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan – that the Silent Service’s performance during that period was hampered by pre-war doctrines that bred overly cautious skippers and by poorly-designed torpedo warhead exploders for the Mk. 14 torpedo used by most U.S. fleet boats.

As it turns out, Toll didn’t ignore the submarine force’s efforts in the Pacific War; he just deferred the topic until Twilight of the Gods: The War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945. There will be readers who may still think that Toll somehow shortchanged the American submariners by saving that part of the narrative for the last book, but you can’t please everyone.

Overall, Pacific Crucible is a fine opening to a highly enjoyable trilogy, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is interested in U.S. history, naval warfare, or U.S.-Japan relations in the first half of the 20th Century.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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