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Book Review: Midnight in the Pacific

By (August 15, 2017) No Comment

Midnight in the Pacific:

Guadalcanal – the World War II Battle That

Turned the Tide of War

by Joseph Wheelan

Da Capo Press, 2017

August 7th of this year marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, which was launched in an almost unplanned scramble in the summer of 1942, mainly out of US Admiral Ernest King’s ferocity to strike a blow against the Imperial Japanese Navy. King (the subject of an excellent biography by Thomas Buell called Master of Sea Power) warned that unchecked Japanese victories in the Pacific imperiled the all-important shipping lanes between the US West Coast and Hawaii and Australia. When King and Admiral Chester Nimitz learned of Japanese plans to construct an airfield on the island of Guam, the die was cast: they sent in the Marines.

In his very enjoyable new book Midnight in the Pacific: Guadalcanal – the World War II Battle That Turned the Tide of the War, historian Joseph Wheelan makes clear right from the start what anybody who’s ever visited the place will already know: those Marines were marching into a high-humidity version of Hell. Part of the string of what Wheelan succinctly calls “remote, malarial, and malodorous subequatorial islands,” Guadalcanal lay in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate and was, excepting possibly Siberia, the worst kind of place to have any kind of slogging fight:

Guadalcanal’s enchanting views of sea and mountains, its misty mornings and brilliant sunsets, and the Southern Cross etched in the night sky above suggested a tropical paradise, but it was illusory … When it wasn’t raining, Guadalcanal was oppressively hot and humid beneath its hundred-foot-high jungle canopy, where the stench of decay permeated the air. Sunshine never reached the ground in some areas, the trees dripped water continuously, and it was never dry. There were swamps, enormous saltwater crocodiles, spiders as big as a man’s fist, two-foot-long lizards, large land crabs, fire ants, centipedes, giant wasps, tarantulas, leeches, ringworms, and the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito …

Poisonous snakes, Wheelan drily adds, were rare – “except for the sea kraits sometimes found on the shore.”

The account that Wheelan draws of the ensuing struggle to take the island is long on impressionistic sequences and short on dispassionate analysis, as is often the trend with WWII histories and particularly, it sometimes seems, with books about the Pacific Theater. Wheelan loads his chapters with colorful, melodramatic language (Marines wait in “coiled silence” for Japanese attacks, and so on) and never resists an opportunity to pass along a well-told, celluloid-ready veteran anecdote, as in the story of Privates First Class Ed Shepard and Russ Whittlesey huddling in their foxhole as their position is overwhelmed by Japanese soldiers:

He helped Shepard to his feet, and they shuffled toward the ridge; they were behind enemy lines now. Three Japanese soldiers suddenly loomed before them in the inky-black darkness, fully lit by explosions and gunfire. Letting Shepard slip to the ground, Whittlesey confronted them with his only remaining weapon, his seven-inch stiletto. Whittlesey’s Raider training in hand-to-hand combat took over, and he killed two of the enemy soldiers. The third one bayoneted Whittlesey in the back and ran away. Whittlesey fell to the ground. The wound was serious enough, but when Shepard turned his friend over, he discovered that Whittlesey was bleeding heavily from previous stomach wounds.

“Well, Shep, I guess this is where we came in,” said Whittlesey, smiling dreamily. He hummed a few bars from a favorite tune, “I’m Getting Tired So I Can Sleep,” closed his eyes, and died. Shepard painfully dragged himself up the ridge to the Marine lines.

The Guadalcanal campaign was the first amphibious assault launched by the United States in half a century, and it culminated in the first real victory of US forces over the enemy that had caught them sleeping at Pearl Harbor. Dozens of warships, hundred of planes, and over 1500 soldiers and Marines died before the fighting was over, and the long-term auguries of the victory were plain even to the most ardent war hawks in the Japanese government. The Da Capo publicity for Midnight in the Pacific describes it as a “sweeping narrative” of these events, but it is not and seldom seems to want to be. Rather, it’s mostly a well-woven tapestry of troop-level impressions of what the fighting was like, and many of those impressions will stick with readers long after they’ve moved on to more comprehensive histories of these events (James Hornfischer’s magnificent Neptune’s Inferno, for instance). The book is full of moments like the one following the torpedoing of light antiaircraft cruiser Juneau by a Japanese submarine on November 13th of that year, which threw 100 burned and terrified survivors into the water. Among them was George Sullivan from Waterloo, Iowa, who’d been serving on the Juneau with his four brothers and now began a frantic search for them among the men clinging to the wreckage – only to meet a horrific end himself:

George Sullivan fell victim to the sun, his hallucinations, and, finally, to the sharks that circled the crewmen, pulling them underwater one by one. He announced one night that he was going to swim to San Cristobal Island, which was more than fifty miles away, for buttermilk and a meal. His mates tried to dissuade him. But George jumped from the raft into the water and swam out twenty-five yards. There three sharks overtook him and tore him to pieces.

These kinds of vignettes are the main strength of Midnight in the Pacific, and of course they’re as important in their own way as the broader story a Thucydides might tell.