By Hugh Ambrose
NAL Caliber, 2010
You have to sympathize with a writer who has the kind of obstacles in his path that Hugh Ambrose does for his new book The Pacific, and you have to admire the perseverance with which he did a job that so many of us have wanted to do, but you don’t have to like his work, especially when he’s all but daring you to dismiss him out of hand.
There are two obstacles to taking The Pacific seriously – both a bit unfair: there’s the fact that Ambrose’s father, bestselling historian Stephen Ambrose, was embroiled in a plagiarism scandal when he died in 2002 (Ambrose is long gone in 2010, but the scandal just keeps on growing as more and more apparent lies and exaggerations on Ambrose’s part come to light) and the unavoidable but unfair suspicion that the rhetorical apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (this is made all the more difficult to ignore by the fact that Ambrose everywhere thanks his late father for teaching him his craft), and there’s the fact that Ambrose’s publishers are marketing The Pacific as a “companion” to the recent HBO miniseries of the same name, by the producers of Band of Brothers, which raises the unavoidable and perhaps sustainable suspicion that the facts of the book were shifted, stacked, and shellacked to conform to the dramatic dictates of TV, rather than the reverse (the cover of The Pacific doesn’t help any: despite the existence of many hundreds of thousands of genuine photographs from the U.S. armed forces’ struggle in the Pacific Theater, it’s a production still from the miniseries, showing a too-handsome young man yelling to his embattled comrades, displaying a vast array of expensively capped, perfectly white teeth – he doesn’t look like he’s fighting the Japanese, he looks like he’s yelling at the valet for dinging his Bentley in the parking lot of the Bel-Air).
And the job he does in this book is one every son or grandson of a World War II veteran has at one point or another contemplated: not only recording all of their scattered reminiscences, but then elevating the whole result into something more than just a private family document. Our grandfathers on both sides of the family fought in the Second World War and spent the next few decades telling very different, almost complementary stories: Grandpa Soderquist was stationed on the coast of Maine for the whole war, and in between occasional U-Boat scares, he managed to have an apparently endless series of picaresque adventures, each more hapless and hilarious than the last (most of them involved get-rich-quick schemes that went horribly awry, and if they were embellished through repeated tellings, well, there’s a skill in that too, right?); Grandpa Benton saw combat in France and Germany, led a squadron of men in combat, killed men and ordered men killed. Both men returned to their civilian lives and became pillars of their communities – no long-term trauma, and, after an initial adjustment, no reticence about regaling listeners with their stories. Hearing those stories, most of us wanted to preserve them somehow and just never got around to doing it. Then suddenly both old soldiers were gone, and all that’s left were some scraps in photo albums.
Ambrose has hit upon the notion of taking five such wartime reminiscences, collating them into one big narrative, and doing his damnedest to elevate the whole thing into something more than a bunch of ‘and then another thing happened’-style memories. As he himself points out, his book is not exactly a memoir (he cites such minor classics as E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and Robert Leckie’s Helmet For My Pillow as the kind of memoirs he very much admires – and has not tried to duplicate)(those two volumes are being hyped by HBO as two of their ‘sources’ for the miniseries The Pacific). He also wants to make it clear his book is not a straight-up history of the Pacific War – there is no attempt made here at sustained big-picture narration: what we know page by page is very much tied to what his five main characters knew at the time. As Ambrose – honestly but inadroitly – puts it:
… the five stories included here were chosen because they are representative of the experience. Between these men, they fought many of the great battles of the Pacific War. The coincidences and relationships that connect the five men allowed their experiences to arrive in the context within which they occurred. The historical perspective emerges in a variety of ways. After carefully choosing the right stories, and developing them to their fullest, the author has chosen to provide only a thin skein of omniscience.
A writer – particularly one a bit predisposed to pomposity – could scarcely serve up to his critics a floater more spikable than that hilarious line “the author has chosen to provide only a thin skein of omniscience,” and after fire-sale sentences like “The coincidences and relationships that connect the five men allowed their experiences to arrive in the context within which they occurred,” certainly the urge to spike is there. This particular disclaimer comes early in The Pacific, and it immediately alarms the reader with the prospect that the main craft Hugh Ambrose learned from his father was how to construct an entire book of jury-rigged and mostly incomprehensibly awful prose.
The five representative men here are Lieutenant Austin “Shifty” Shofner, stationed in the Philippines when it’s overrun by the Japanese in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Ensign Vernon “Mike” Micheel, who completed the Navy’s flight school in 1941, Sidney Phillips, who joined the Marines the day after Pearl Harbor, Sergeant “Manila John” Basilone, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his fighting at Guadalcanal and was killed at Iwo Jima, and Phillips’ friend Eugene Sledge, who saw fighting at Peleliu and Okinawa and wrote the aforementioned With the Old Breed. As Ambrose points out, between them, these men saw most of the Pacific War in all its moods and tempos (he also points out that another of these emblematic individuals heavily used in the miniseries, Robert “Lucky” Leckie, figures far less in his account … a curious admission that simultaneously lessens the book’s value as a “companion” and increases just a bit our respect for the author, who almost certainly was told at some point “Give us more Lucky” and didn’t comply).
Ambrose has pored over the letters and memoirs of these men (and been honored to hear many of the stories first-hand, from the survivors and their families), and as promised, he keeps his own scene-setting to a controlled minimum, as when conveying the pre-invasion tension in the Philippines:
The men put their backs into the work. Every marine had seen the Japanese soldiers in action on the other side of the street barricades in Shanghai. They had witnessed how brutal and violent they were to unarmed civilians. Most of them had heard what the Japanese had done to the people of Nanking. So many knew what to expect from a Japanese invasion.
Or broadening the scope to talk about the commanders much more elevated than his five relatively humble focal points:
Jocko Clark, the admiral who had ordered his squadrons to attack even before he had heard from his CO, knew what was happening. His flagship, USS Hornet, turned on her white truck lights at seven fifty-nine p.m. The massive illumination made her a perfect target for enemy submarines, but it had to be done.
a B-25 takes of from the USS Hornet
Our five heroes (Ambrose resists this term, and you just know his aged interlocutors did, but after reading a couple of chapters of their various adventures – some taken as POWs, some wounded, some continuing to fight against what seems like impossible odds – it feels natural) have radically different experiences of the war, which is the whole point of Ambrose’s project, and yet there’s a commonality to it all that actually does bind the narrative together. Even when Ambrose is obviously only merely tinkering with some oft-repeated reflections, he manages to convey all the low-key drama, as in the chaos of night-landings during the initial stages of this theater’s war:
Unfortunately, the moon was not lighting the sky on this evening. Mike knew what it felt like to be that pilot, flying in the darkness. Life came down to fine-tuning the engine and dialing in the right trim, while ignoring the urge to climb higher or go faster and ignoring the fear produced by not being able to distinguish the sea from the sky. The plane’s homing device, the YE/ZB, had a good range and its radar would help once a man got close. Inside the ship, cryptic radio messages began to be received. “I’m hit,” and “I’m out of gas, going into the water.”
(There are also plenty of quiet little moments of a type that are often lost in larger, more sweeping narratives, as when two young friends prepare to part ways into unknown dangers:
Eugene and Sid got together most afternoons. They made plans for after the war. More immediately, Sid promised to carry Eugene’s seashell collection home to Eugene’s mother and to visit the Sledges upon his return if – Sid smiled – his own parents ever let him out of the house again.)
A crucial element in war-stories like these is the familial, and here The Pacific retains all the strength of the memoirs and recollections on which it’s built. A bewildering feature for civilians to contemplate when reading about the Second World War is that many of its front-line combatants got furloughs home, basked in family life and home cooking for a week or two, then went back to killing fronts. We get to see many such intervals in this book, and they’re all as surreal as the homecoming Sidney Phillips had in 1944:
A bus took Sidney home to Mobile. He called home from the station. His family arrived soon thereafter. All of his hopes of a joyous reunion came true. “My family treated me like I had returned from the grave, and we stayed up and talked almost to dawn.” Sid found it hard to speak at first. Years of service in the Raggedy-Ass Marines, where most every other word was a cussword, forced him to concentrate on his speech to prevent something dreadful from tumbling out of his mouth. At last everyone went off to bed and he lay in his bed, in the room in which he had grown up, unable to close his eyes. He had a whole month of furlough before his war began again.
Throughout all of this, Ambrose stays true to his promise to meddle as little as possible; readers are in the prison camps with the men, on the front lines, tramping through jungles, even making awkward war-bond tours back in the States (this lot fell to poor “Manila John,” who had an excruciatingly artificial press-photographed meeting with New York Mayor and fellow “son of Italy” Fiorello La Guardia, who congratulated him repeatedly on killing “38 japs single-handedly”)(throughout this book, the already-grating term “Jap” is rendered just a little bit more so by lowercasing the ‘j’). Only occasionally does Ambrose the historian supplement Ambrose the tour guide, and even then, it’s usually unobtrusive. For instance, this passage:
Reports of enemy warships continued to pour in. None of the strike missions, however, located these ships. By the late afternoon they heard that the Japanese dive-bombers had hit both carriers and that the U.S. pilots had gotten some hits, too. Sometime the following day the news came that the Big E was now the only U.S. carrier in Pacific Ocean [sic]. USS Hornet had been sunk.
…evokes this footnote: “This carrier battle came to be called the Battle of Santa Cruz.” Since the main characters wouldn’t have known that at the time, it’s not made part of Ambrose’s main story.
The darkness and tragedy we learned from our Grandpa Benton is here in graphic, minute-by-minute detail:
Snafu and Sledgehammer and the others shot the enemy as they emerged [from reinforced bunkers on the beachhead at Ngesebus]. A short pause after the first surge of men ended when another Japanese soldier emerged. Sledge “lined up my sights on his chest and began squeezing off shots. As the first bullet hit him, his face contorted in agony … the grenade slipped from his hand.” The moment became seared into Gene’s heart as his sharp eyes noted every detail of the first time he killed another human being. “The expression on that man’s face filled me with shame and then disgust for the war …” Another thought struck him hard: the foolishness of “feeling ashamed because I shot a damned foe before he could throw a grenade at me!”
And the rollicking humor we learned from Grandpa Soderquist is here as well, in story after story that Ambrose must have liked hearing every bit as much as his sources must have liked telling them:
Not everyone from How Company of the 2nd Battalion of the First Marines made roll call on the first morning at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds. The first sergeant looked out to see maybe thirty guys in formation, somewhat less than the two hundred or so he had on his muster roll. For every name he called, though, he heard an answer. He decided to call out a few names of men who had been buried on Guadalcanal and, lo and behold, they answered aye as well. On this lovely morning First Sergeant McGrath did not care. He was drunk, too.
It’s a good thing – a great thing, really – that these reminiscences, good and bad, dark and funny, are preserved here for future generations to read, and for the work of preserving them Hugh Ambrose deserves much praise. And it’s entirely unfair to visit the sins of the father on the son; for that kind of literary obstacle, Hugh Ambrose deserves much sympathy. But in the end, neither of these things compels us to like the job he’s done in The Pacific. And yet, the book is immensely likable. It’s presented without any kind of formal historical rigor; the maps and dates are rudimentary to the point of uselessness, and there is no Index. And too often author and subjects meld a little too completely (we’re often told – by Ambrose the historian – that shit is hitting fans, etc., and some of those stray ‘japs’ certainly feel like they’re his, not his interview-subects’) – a slightly thicker skein of omniscience would have served this book better.
But in the end, Ambrose has taken the keyhole-specificity of memoir and the inner skeleton of wide-screen history and made something almost new out of the combination. For all the network’s much-touted (and self-touted) artistic vision, it’s easy to guess how HBO would have liked this book to turn out. Louder. Simpler. Easier, in every sense of the word. It’s quietly amazing that in the end, all they got was that blow-dried model yelling on the dust jacket.
Ben and Terry Soderquist are Open Letters freelancers living in Lewiston, Maine.