Book Review: ‘The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (Volume II of the Pacific War Trilogy)

(C) 2015 W.W. Norton & Company

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

On September 21, 2015, W.W. Norton & Company – an independent, employee-owned publishing company based in New York City – published Ian W. Toll’s The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. This is the second book in Toll’s Pacific War Trilogy, which begins with Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (2011) and ends with the recently-published Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945.

As the subtitle clearly indicates, The Conquering Tide covers the war between the Japanese Empire and the Allies (the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand) during the “island-hopping” campaigns of the American-dominated twin drives across the vast expanses of the South and Central Pacific to drive the Japanese out of their conquered island holdings and build a network of bases from which Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet and Gen. Douglas MacArthur could use as a springboard to liberate the Philippines and the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

Ian W, Toll first won acclaim for his 2006 book Six Frigates: The Epic Story of the Founding of the U.S, Navy. Photo Credit: Dan Deitch

The Conquering Tide begins where Pacific Crucible left off; in the late summer of 1942. Seven months have passed since Japan’s blitz across the Pacific and Southeast Asia began on Sunday, December 7, 1941 with the stunning attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which was based at Pearl Harbor Naval Base on the island of Oahu, then part of the U.S. territory of Hawaii. After a chain of shocking victories on land, in the air, and at sea, the Japanese juggernaut has been stopped by the Americans at the Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942). On the first day of that now-famous battle (Chicago’s Midway Airport was named to commemorate the victory), four of the six Japanese carriers that participated in the Pearl Harbor raid were destroyed, and a heavy cruiser, the Mikuma, was sunk several days later. Additionally, Japan suffered 2,500 casualties and the total loss of 292 aircraft) (U.S. losses were serious, too, including the carrier USS Yorktown, destroyer USS Hammann, 145 aircraft, and 307 casualties.)

Though the Battle of Midway is rightly called a turning point of the Pacific War; it marks the end of Japan’s offensive and sets the stage for the next phase of the U.S.-Japan struggle, it was not the decisive battle that changed everything in the Pacific Theater.

Contrary to many Midway myths, many of the Japanese aircrew who participated in the battle were not killed in action or when their floating air bases were sent to the bottom of the North Pacific Ocean. Many pilots and observers were injured, but most recovered from their wounds and returned to the fight in the skies over the Solomon Islands.

It was in that distant island chain – a British protectorate that Japanese forces occupied in the spring of 1942 shortly before the Battle of the Coral Sea – that America’s first counteroffensive of World War II began. Spurred by reports from Royal Australian Navy coastwatchers and other sources of intelligence that the Japanese were building a new airfield on the north coast of the island of Guadalcanal, Fearing that Japanese bombers based on Guadalcanal could sever the sea lanes between the U.S. and Australia, Admiral Ernest J. King and the other Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Admiral Nimitz to send the First Marine Division to capture the area around the air base before it was completed.

So it was that on August 7, 1942, eight months to the day after Pearl Harbor and two months after the victory at Midway, a large amphibious force supported by U.S. and Australian warships and Admiral Frank J. Fletcher’s carrier force landed the vanguard of the first amphibious landing in U.S. Marine Corps history since the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the first of many such D-Days in the Pacific.

From the W.W. Norton & Company website’s page for A Conquering Tide:

This masterful history encompasses the heart of the Pacific War—the period between mid-1942 and mid-1944—when parallel Allied counteroffensives north and south of the equator washed over Japan’s far-flung island empire like a “conquering tide,” concluding with Japan’s irreversible strategic defeat in the Marianas. It was the largest, bloodiest, most costly, most technically innovative and logistically complicated amphibious war in history, and it fostered bitter interservice rivalries, leaving wounds that even victory could not heal.

Often overlooked, these are the years and fights that decided the Pacific War. Ian W. Toll’s battle scenes—in the air, at sea, and in the jungles—are simply riveting. He also takes the reader into the wartime councils in Washington and Tokyo where politics and strategy often collided, and into the struggle to mobilize wartime production, which was the secret of Allied victory. Brilliantly researched, the narrative is propelled and colored by firsthand accounts—letters, diaries, debriefings, and memoirs—that are the raw material of the telling details, shrewd judgment, and penetrating insight of this magisterial history.

This volume—continuing the “marvelously readable dramatic narrative” (San Francisco Chronicle) of Pacific Crucible—marks the second installment of the Pacific War Trilogy, which will stand as the first history of the entire Pacific War to be published in at least twenty-five years.

In a narrative presented in a prologue, fourteen chapters, and an epilogue, A Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 takes the readers from the halls of political power in Tokyo and Washington, D.C. to the bases at Pearl Harbor, Wellington (New Zealand), Noumea, Truk, and Rabaul, where politicians, admirals, and generals held palavers over strategy and planned attacks and counterattacks that involved hundreds of warships, support ships, and landing craft of various types and sizes, as well as thousands of aircraft and tens of thousands of sailors, soldiers, airmen, coast guardsmen,and marines on both sides of the war.

Starting with the preparations for Operation WATCHTOWER (the landings on Guadalcanal) – a mission so hastily planned and provided with the barest of essential war materiel and food supplies that wags in the Marine landing force called it Operation SHOESTRING – and continuing the “island hopping” campaigns up the Solomons chain and in other archipelagos north and south of the equator, The Conquering Tide covers many diverse topics, including:

  • The initial – and stunningly shocking – Japanese response to the Guadalcanal landings, including the Battle of Savo Island, which resulted in one of the biggest defeats in U.S. Navy history
  • The fierce interservice rivalry between the U.S. Navy and the Army, each of which had distinct and sometimes conflicting strategies for the defeat of Japan
  • The contrasting personalities of the senior American commanders, especially of the calm but determined Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and the brave but ambitious (and publicity-hungry) General Douglas MacArthur, and their impact on how the Pacific campaigns would be fought
  • The long attritional campaign for Guadalcanal and the Solomons, which gutted Japanese naval aviation far more than the Battle of Midway and claimed Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s life in the only American assassination of an enemy military commander in World War II
  • The imbalance between Japan’s limited industrial capacity and America’s jump-started war production juggernaut, which allowed the U.S. to replace lost warships, transports, tanks, and planes at a faster pace than its Japanese enemies
  • The invasion of Tarawa (in the Gilbert Islands) by the Second Marine Division and other supporting units in November 1943, which saw the first opposed amphibious landing in the Pacific War and cost the lives of 1,009 Marines and 2,101 wounded, in exchange for the near-annihilation of the Japanese-Korean garrison of 4,700 soldiers and civilian laborers
  • Operations in New Guinea and other islands in the Southwest Pacific, part of the twin-drive strategy led by Nimitz and MacArthur
  • The Battle of the Bismarck Sea
  • Admiral William F. Halsey’s stint as theater commander in the South Pacific under Nimitz, and Admiral Raymond Spruance’s corresponding assignment as commander of the Fifth Fleet, Nimitz’s main striking force of the Pacific Fleet
  • The Japanese strategy to contain the American advances in the Pacific – and why it was doomed to fail
  • Operation Forager, the invasion of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Marianas, which led to the first liberation of a U.S. territory occupied in 1941 by the Japanese (Guam) and triggered the pivotal Battle of the Philippine Sea
“A Water Buffalo, loaded with Marines, churns through the sea bound for beaches of Tinian Island near Guam.” July 1944. Photo Credit: National Archives

Often overlooked, these are the years and fights that decided the Pacific War. Ian W. Toll’s battle scenes—in the air, at sea, and in the jungles—are simply riveting. He also takes the reader into the wartime councils in Washington and Tokyo where politics and strategy often collided, and into the struggle to mobilize wartime production, which was the secret of Allied victory. Brilliantly researched, the narrative is propelled and colored by firsthand accounts—letters, diaries, debriefings, and memoirs—that are the raw material of the telling details, shrewd judgment, and penetrating insight of this magisterial history.

Publisher’s blurb, The Conquering Tide

My Take

I purchased The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 on December 24, 2015 along with Toll’s first book of the Pacific War Trilogy, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. I did so for two reasons.

First, I had just finished re-reading Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy (An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light), which focuses on the Anglo-American campaigns against Nazi Germany from North Africa to Northwest Europe. between November 1942 and May 1945. Those are among my favorite non-fiction books, and I try to re-read them every so often. But my World War II library tends to have a European Theater of Operations bias, so I wanted a few new books about the Pacific War to counterbalance that.

The Liberation Trilogy. Photo Credit: Henry Holt & Co.

Second, it was the first Christmas that I spent alone (or mostly so) after my mother’s death and the sad, unwelcome, but tragically predictable estrangement from my older half-sister. Even in her last years, Mom had always told me to order something for Christmas from Amazon in her name, so even though this time around I was paying for it, I decided to get the first two-thirds of Toll’s trilogy in one fell swoop as a “Christmas present from me to me.”

Getting the books did not miraculously solve all of my existing problems, of course, but reading them did distract me from the troubles and tribulations I was facing at the time, plus I learned new and fascinating details about a part of World War II history that I was not totally in the dark about but wasn’t as knowledgeable about in comparison to the better-known battles in Normandy, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

Some of the ground covered in The Conquering Tide was familiar to me from other books about the Guadalcanal campaign and the last year of the Pacific War (such as Max Hastings’ Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 ) and documentaries such as The World at War and The War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick. However, The Conquering Tide filled in so many gaps in my understanding of the Pacific War and its complexities that I feel like I received a college course’s worth of knowledge after reading it.

As he did in Pacific Crucible, Toll does a magnificent job of telling the complex story of the various campaigns in the South and Central Pacific as the mostly-U.S. forces fight their way across vast expanses of Earth’s largest ocean and a large array of islands both big and small. (Guadalcanal, which was the focus of a six-months-long air, sea, and land campaign, is 90 miles long and has a total land area of 2,047 square miles; in contrast, Betio Island, Ground Zero for the Tarawa invasion, has a land area of 0.59 square miles.)

Toll balances the Big Picture of grand strategy from the perspective of the two opposing sides with detailed personality profiles of American and Japanese commanders, insights into the thinking of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who, by the end of the book, is campaigning for a fourth term in the White House even though he is, in essence, a dying man) and his senior commanders, including the self-effacing Nimitz and the vainglorious MacArthur.

On the Japanese side, we see the equally doomed Yamamoto doing his best to stave off disaster in the Solomons even though his pre-Pearl Harbor prediction that unless America was defeated quickly after the commencement of hostilities, Japan was doomed. We also learn about the self-defeating strategies concocted by Yamamoto’s successors in the Combined Fleet to deter America from penetrating Japan’s self-proclaimed defensive perimeter and the fall from grace of War Minister/Premier Hideki Tojo after the invasion of the Marianas in the summer of 1944.

We also see the Pacific War from the point of view of the average sailor, airman, soldier, or Marine who was at the “tip of the spear” throughout the various campaigns. Although the book is not an intimate look at the war viewed mostly from the perspective of the men who did the actual shooting, flying, or steering the warships, readers do get enough telling details about what each battle was like for the Marines coming ashore on Saipan or the Navy “zoomies” flying F6F Hellcat fighters to protect their ground-bound brethren from attacks by Japanese aircraft.

The Conquering Tide is one of the best books that I have read about this phase of the Pacific War, I have not read it since that first read-through in 2015; reading about the interservice rivalry between the Army, Navy, and Marines during World War II – while not exactly a new topic to anyone at all familiar with the military – was somewhat depressing, and some of the battles (Tarawa, in particular) were so fierce and gruesome that I sometimes wonder how the current generation of Americans could stomach a war in which 1,000 American Marines and 6,000 enemy combatants fight and die for a small coral atoll with a total land area of 0.59 square miles? (Back in 1943, the U.S. government commissioned an official documentary titled With the Marines at Tarawa. The footage of dead American Marines was so shocking that the film was not released until November of 1944, and then only because President Roosevelt insisted that the public needed to see it.)

(C) 2015 W.W. Norton & Company

As Gen. William T. Sherman once said, “War is all hell, boys.” And although World War II was a necessary war, it was spectacularly brutal and lethal. In the Pacific, it was a race war for both sides; Americans and Japanese alike held virulently racist views about each other, which led to a savagery on the battlefield that was not seen on a regular basis in the Anglo-American campaigns against Germany in North Africa and the various European battlefields on the Western Front.

The Conquering Tide showcases the many facets of war that many readers are drawn to. There is a lot of drama in a well-told war story (either in fiction or true histories), as well as stories of courage, self-sacrifice, and devotion to duty, which are often mixed with tales of unimaginable cruelty, cowardice, pettiness, and sheer incompetence.

No matter if you are an experienced World War II grognard or a newcomer to the literature about humanity’s greatest and most tragic clash of arms, Ian W. Toll’s Pacific War Trilogy is definitely worth reading. The Conquering Tide is a wonderfully written book that fascinate any reader who is interested in this chapter of history, and it sets up the third book in the series, Twilight of the Gods: The War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945 beautifully.


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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