Books and Stories: A Quick Overview of Ian W. Toll’s ‘The Pacific War’ Trilogy

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In his afterword to Twilight of the Gods: The War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945, naval historian Ian W. Toll tells readers that his original concept when he started working on a new history of the Pacific War (1941-1945) was for a one-volume history of the 44-month-long conflict that began with the Japanese “blitz” against the U.S., Great Britain and the British Empire, and the Dutch in Southeast Asia in early December 1941 and the Central Pacific and ended in September 2, 1945, when representatives of the defeated Japanese Empire signed the instrument of surrender aboard the Iowa-class battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

However, when Toll realized that he had reached the 800-page mark in his manuscript and had only covered the first six months of the war (from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway), he nervously contacted the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, an independent company wholly owned by its employees.

Toll was rightly worried that he would not meet the deadline in his contract with Norton, so he explained the situation to the editors in New York. He knew a 2,400-page one-volume history was not what he had contracted for, and few readers would be interested in such a voluminous tome. What should he do?

Well, Norton’s representative said, why don’t you abandon the one-volume idea and write the story of the war in the Pacific in three volumes?

I’m paraphrasing Toll’s story and doing it little justice, but it is in the Afterword section of Twilight of the Gods if you are inclined to read the author’s version. I mention it because the resulting Pacific War Trilogy (2011-2020) is probably going to be one of the two classic multi-volume histories of Japan’s war against the American-dominated Allied coalition in the Pacific War written in the 21st Century. (The other is Richard B. Frank’s three-book cycle that started earlier this year with Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War, Volume I: July 1937-May 1942)

Tower of Skulls. (C) 2020 W.W. Norton & Company
Photo of Ian W. Toll by Dan Deitch.

Toll, who won several awards for his 2006 book Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, including the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, spent over 12 years working on this trilogy, which began with the 2011 publication of Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942:

From the Publisher

These summaries are from the publisher’s website and not my own text.

Pacific Crucible

On the first Sunday in December 1941, an armada of Japanese warplanes appeared suddenly 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—through a dramatic narrative relying predominantly on primary sources and eyewitness accounts of heroism and sacrifice from both navies—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 to seize the strategic initiative.

The 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.

Twilight of the Gods

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.

My Take

If you were to ever visit me in Florida and look at the bookshelves in my study, you’d notice that even though I have several one-volume histories of the entire war and a handful of books about individual events in the Pacific War, most of my World War II books are focused on the war in Europe. I have at least seven books about D-Day or Normandy, two about Market-Garden, and four about the Battle of the Bulge, as well as Rick Atkinson’s The Liberation Trilogy.

I don’t think I am alone in this “Europe First” focus; many Pacific War veterans used to write letters to the late Stephen E. Ambrose, the author of such popular books as Band of Brothers and D-Day: June 6, 1944, The Climactic Battle of World War II asking him, “When are you going to tell our story?” According to Ambrose’s son Hugh, who was also a historian until his untimely death (at the age of 48!) of cancer in 2015, the respected history professor and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s official biographer was about to start working on a project about the Pacific War when he died in 2002 at the age of 66.

To many World War II buffs, the center ring of the conflict was the war in Europe. Most of Hollywood’s best-known war films are set there, and Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich attract more attention than Italy’s Benito Mussolini or the Japanese militarists bent on conquering Asia in the name of Pan-Asian “liberation” from white colonialism.

I believe that if one is to understand the events that we are living through now in the third decade of the 21st Century, one needs to know about the great Global War that began in August of 1914 and ended, somewhat, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. World War II was just a six-year slice of this upheaval, although it was the greatest and bloodiest clash of arms in the history of humanity.

Thus, to understand World War II, a reader must read about all of its theaters, as the consequences of the various outcomes continue to shape our present, whether we are aware of it or not.

‘The best way for a new reader to get a grip on the Pacific War, in my view, is to read Ian W. Toll’s Pacific War Trilogy before going on to read any book about individual battles, campaigns, memoirs, or biographies of commanders (great and not-so-great) on both sides of the battlefield. Each book in the trilogy is a fascinating blend of in-depth accounts of naval, air, and land combat, political intrigue, personality profiles, and a fine balance between Big Picture glances at grand strategy and the everyday experiences of the average airman, soldier, marine, sailor, and even civilian caught in the maelstrom of World War II in the Pacific.

Is the trilogy perfect? Perhaps not. It probably doesn’t focus a heck of a lot on the British experience in the Pacific, or on the Australian contributions to victory over Japan. The Allies’ main forces were deployed in North Africa and the various battlefronts in Western Europe, facing off against Japan’s nominal “ally,” Nazi Germany, and though Toll does cover British Commonwealth contributions to some extent, the main narrative concerns itself with the U.S.-Japan war.

“A Water Buffalo, loaded with Marines, churns through the sea bound for beaches of Tinian Island near Guam.” July 1944 (National Archives via U.S. Navy)

And since mistakes do creep in when one is writing such a huge and complex story, I would not be surprised if sharp-eyed readers might catch the occasional goof or so. And I’m not talking about typos here, but actual errors of fact. I noticed one recently while reading the prologue to Twilight of the Gods (Toll misidentifies the small Japanese carrier sunk by the U.S. Navy at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May of 1942; I’ll have to re-read Pacific Crucible soon to see if he did that there as well.)

Overall, though, the Pacific War Trilogy is well-written, extremely informative, and highly enjoyable. Out of a possible five stars, I give Toll’s three-volume series four and a half and an enthusiastic recommendation.

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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