Book Review: ‘Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945’

(C) 2020 W.W. Norton & Company

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

On September 1, New York-based (and wholly-owned by its employees) publisher W.W. Norton & Company published Twilight of the Gods: The War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945, the concluding volume of Ian W, Toll’s Pacific War Trilogy, thus completing the story begun in Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific (2011) and The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (2015). In a narrative that covers the last year of the war in the Pacific Theater from the aftermath of the Battle of the Philippine Sea in the late summer of 1944 to the invasion of Okinawa and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August of 1945, Twilight of the Gods puts the capstone on the first major history of the Pacific War since Samuel Eliot Morison’s 15-volume history of US naval operations in World War II (1947-1962).

(C) 2011 W.W. Norton & Company
(C) 2015 W.W. Norton & Company
Ian W. Toll. Photo Credit: Dan Deitch

Originally scheduled for a Fall 2019 release, Twilight of the Gods picks up where The Conquering Tide left off. American marines and soldiers, supported by Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s massive U.S. Fifth Fleet, have wrested Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Mariana Islands from Japan in a massive air-sea-land campaign code-named Operation Forager. The U.S. invasion of these strategically important islands triggered a strong response from the Imperial Japanese Navy, which clung to its long-held belief that it could defeat the American naval colossus in a single decisive battle: Operation A-Go.

The naval battle that followed – the Battle of the Philippine Sea – resulted in the largest carrier battle of the war; in all, 24 carriers saw action on both sides, and of the five Japanese fleet carriers present at what has gone down in history as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” three were sunk, two of them by submarine attack. The surviving Japanese carriers escaped, but Japanese naval aviation had lost so many trained aviators that they were of limited value to the embattled Imperial fleet.

Because the Marianas – which included the U.S. territory of Guam, conquered in December 1941 during Japan’s 1941-1942 Pacific “blitz” – were considered part of the Empire’s inner defensive perimeter, their loss triggered the fall of Premier Hideki Tojo’s government and the adoption of new and desperate tactics, including the formation of the dreaded Divine Wind Special Attack Corps (Kamikaze/Shinpū Tokubetsu Kōgekitai in Japanese).

USS Bunker Hill hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead – 372. Wounded – 264. (Navy) NARA FILE #: 080-G-323712 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 980

From the Publisher

The final volume of the magisterial Pacific War Trilogy from acclaimed historian Ian W. Toll, “one of the great storytellers of War” (Evan Thomas).

In June 1944, the United States launched a crushing assault on the Japanese navy in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The capture of the Mariana Islands and the accompanying ruin of Japanese carrier airpower marked a pivotal moment in the Pacific War. No tactical masterstroke or blunder could reverse the increasingly lopsided balance of power between the two combatants. The War in the Pacific had entered its endgame.

Beginning with the Honolulu Conference, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with his Pacific theater commanders to plan the last phase of the campaign against Japan, Twilight of the Gods brings to life the harrowing last year of World War II in the Pacific, when the U.S. Navy won the largest naval battle in history; Douglas MacArthur made good his pledge to return to the Philippines; waves of kamikazes attacked the Allied fleets; the Japanese fought to the last man on one island after another; B-29 bombers burned down Japanese cities; and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vaporized in atomic blasts.

Ian W. Toll’s narratives of combat in the air, at sea, and on the beaches are as gripping as ever, but he also reconstructs the Japanese and American home fronts and takes the reader into the halls of power in Washington and Tokyo, where the great questions of strategy and diplomacy were decided.

Drawing from a wealth of rich archival sources and new material, Twilight of the Gods casts a penetrating light on the battles, grand strategic decisions and naval logistics that enabled the Allied victory in the Pacific. An authoritative and riveting account of the final phase of the War in the Pacific, Twilight of the Gods brings Toll’s masterful trilogy to a thrilling conclusion. This prize-winning and best-selling trilogy will stand as the first complete history of the Pacific War in more than twenty-five years, and the first multivolume history of the Pacific naval war since Samuel Eliot Morison’s series was published in the 1950s. – Dust jacket blurb, Twilight of the Gods: The War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945

A staged photo op taken before the Honolulu Conference at the Holmes Estate on Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. Here, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Admiral William D. Leahy (Roosevelt’s chief of staff), and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pose for accredited news photographers and newsreel cameramen. Here, Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) pretends to indicate Tokyo as the American war effort’s ultimate objective. In Twilight of the Gods, Ian W. Toll reveals that Nimitz and MacArthur, who commanded the Southwest Pacific theater, took turns posing with the map and pointer for the photographers. (Photo Credit: National Archives)

Twilight of the Gods begins in July of 1944 with an account of the little-known Honolulu Conference (July 26-27), where President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with his two senior commanders in the Pacific, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur. Held at the Holmes Estate not far from Pearl Harbor, this palaver between FDR, Nimitz, and MacArthur served two purposes.

First, it had a legitimate military purpose; Roosevelt, as Commander-in-Chief, wanted to hear from Nimitz and MacArthur’s ideas about the next phase in the Pacific War. Since the summer of 1942, the U.S. had adhered to a de facto “twin drives” strategy in which Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet and its attached Marine Corps and Army ground forces, supported by the U.S. Army Air Force, drove westward across the South Pacific, while in the Southwest Pacific, MacArthur’s command, which included American and Australian forces supported by the U.S. Seventh Fleet and the U.S. Fifth Air Force, “island-hopped” from Australia to Papua-New Guinea and nearby archipelagos in a bid to reach MacArthur’s ultimate objective: the Philippines.

Second, 1944 was an election year, and FDR – who had just won the Democratic Party’s nomination for an unprecedented fourth term as President – needed to assure the voters that he was still actively involved in the running of America’s war effort and that he was still physically strong enough to merit re-election. That, unfortunately, was not true. The President, who was already confined to a wheelchair as a result of contracting polio at the age of 39 in 1921, was dying, although his official physicians and the White House kept that information from the American public. Nevertheless, FDR believed that he was indispensable to the nation in time of war, so to reassure his loyal supporters as well as the American people in general, the President went to Oahu to confer with Nimitz and MacArthur, even though his doctors advised him not to go.

There are no official transcripts of the Honolulu Conference, but Toll, basing his account from MacArthur’s memoirs and other eyewitness accounts, tells us that Nimitz and the Navy preferred an invasion of Japanese-held Formosa (present day Taiwan) and avoiding the Philippines altogether in lieu of future operations against Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the Japanese home islands.

MacArthur, who despised FDR and had even flirted with the notion of allowing himself to be drafted as the Republicans’ Presidential candidate in 1944, disagreed. He reminded Roosevelt that the Philippines were a U.S. Commonwealth slated for independence in 1946, and that he – MacArthur – had pledged to the Filipinos in the name of the U.S. that he would return to the islands with American forces to liberate them from occupying Japanese forces. To welsh on this promise, which the Roosevelt Administration could not simply disavow, would damage America’s prestige in the eyes of the Asian people for many years to come.

FDR was a savvy politician as well as a keen observer of people. He knew that MacArthur thought he was a “fake” and knew nothing about military strategy, and he must have been displeased by the general’s grandstanding and almost insubordinate attitude toward the President. Nevertheless, in 1944 MacArthur was a national hero and had a large following in the United States. FDR could not fire “Mac” at this point of the war, and he was smart enough to understand that as far as the Philippines were concerned, it would be morally and politically unsound to abandon them in favor of an invasion of Formosa in 1944.

Nimitz also had reservations about operations in Formosa and eastern China, so even though he presented the case for the Navy’s preferred course of action, he ended up agreeing with MacArthur, and the conference ended with a firm commitment to liberate the Philippines, conduct strategic bombing of Japan’s cities from bases in the Marianas, then land on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in early 1945.

In a story that spans a prologue, 16 chapters, and an epilogue and over 700 pages worth of narrative, Ian W. Toll, the award-winning author of Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, covers the following topics:

  • The political and military perspectives in Japan and the U.S. after the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the fall of the Marianas
  • The build-up of the B-29 Superfortress force created to bomb Japan into submission
  • The planning for the invasion of Leyte and a preliminary landing on Pelielu
  • Operation Sho-Go and the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  • The strengths (and weaknesses) of Admiral William F. Halsey as a fleet commander
  • The “one horse, two drivers” command structure in the Pacific Fleet’s striking force which alternated under the commands of Admirals Halsey and Raymond Spruance; when Halsey was at sea, the main body of CINCPAC’s warships was known as the Third Fleet. When Spruance was in command, the same unit was renamed the Fifth Fleet
  • The creation of formal Special Attack Units (suicide), better known in the West as kamikaze (“divine wind”) in the fall of 1944
  • The climax of the U.S. submarine war against Japan
  • The liberation of the Philippines and the dreadful Battle of Manila, the first urban clash in the Pacific War
  • The invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the last mission of the Japanese superbattleship Yamato
  • The plans for Operation DOWNFALL, the projected invasion of Japan in late 1945, FDR’s death, and Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb
(C) 2020 W.W. Norton & Company

My Take

As I have related in my reviews of Pacific Crucible and The Conquering Tide, I have been waiting for Twilight of the Gods since I bought the first two volumes of Ian W. Toll’s Pacific War Trilogy in December of 2015 from Amazon. I read those books over a period of three months in early 2016 while a friend of mine and I tried – without much success – to repair and renovate my late mother’s townhouse in advance of a protracted legal wrangle with my half-sister in Miami-Dade County’s probate court over who owned it.

I read both books from cover to cover, and I eagerly looked forward to reading Twilight of the Gods, which was originally slated for a 2018 publication. That date was later pushed back to 2019, and then to 2020. (If memory serves, Twilight of the Gods was announced as a July 2020 release, but the coronavirus pandemic caused a two-month delay in publication.)

Is Twilight of the Gods worth the wait? Absolutely, yes. As he has done in Pacific Crucible and The Conquering Tide, Toll is an adept storyteller as well as a consummate researcher who examines every aspect of the Pacific War – a bloody and complex 44-month struggle between two radically different nations (Japan and the United States) – and tells a compelling story that mixes all of the elements that make military history such a draw for millions of men and women all over the world.

Because Twilight of the Gods covers many events that took place over a period of 13 months, Toll has to strike a balance between the Big Picture aspects of grand strategy and politics and the more “close-up” and intimate stories of the sailors, marines, soldiers, and airmen who fought in those “no quarter asked, none given” battles that were once so familiar to the ears of Americans, young and old, in the decades immediately following Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945: Peleliu…Leyte….Surigao Strait…Luzon…Iwo Jima…Okinawa…and other battles in between.

Toll also delves deeply into the psyches of the individuals – the great, the not-so-great, and the average civilian – on both sides of the war. He doesn’t sugarcoat reality; it’s obvious that FDR might have erred in his belief that he was indispensable to the war effort in 1944, and he points out both the virtues and the flaws of various U.S. commanders, specifically Admiral William Halsey and General Douglas MacArthur. Both were men with undeniable personal courage and tactical acumen, but Halsey was too impulsive in occasions where restraint and good seamanship were necessary, and MacArthur was obsessed with winning glory on the battlefield and shameless self-promotion.

Twilight of the Gods is a well-written and highly readable book that will captivate readers who want to read about the endgame of the Pacific War. It can, of course, be read on its own as a history of the last year of World War II in the Pacific, but it is best enjoyed as the capstone of Toll’s trilogy. The prose is crisp and elegant, and the narrative is clear, fast-paced, and consistently compelling. As a modern and revisionist (in the good sense of the word) work of military history, Twilight of the Gods truly is informative and entertaining, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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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