on October 25, 2012
I say "good" but "not great" for several reasons. This is a good book because of the extreme wealth of detail and information it brings to the table. It is part of the recent (last decade) explosion of information from the Japanese side finally coming into the English Language. As such, it offers many unique insights and perspectives into what was actually going on on the other side, and why things turned out so badly for them. It addresses a lot of big and small questions, from overall strategy all the way down to cruiser and destroyer tactics. And it pretty much refutes the notion that Midway was THE single pivotal turning point of the Pacific war (somewhat of a straw man, if you have looked closely at the Pacific war, but for those who have only a cursory understanding, it is an effective way to shift the common perspective.)
I say "not great" mostly because of the style. The book is just not easily readable. The first several chapters seem almost encyclopedic in style -- "This happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this happened..." -- with very little illustrative detail. I understand it is necessary to set set the scene and give the background, but I very nearly put the book down and didn't pick it up again. Once you get into the main body of the book it improves substantially, but I never had the feeling I was in the hands of a real storyteller. The tone is very uneven. We go from broad scope to particulate detail and back again, over and over, and much of the small detail is disjointed and disconnected, or non-sequiter. As for the portrayals of the people involved, there is lot's of telling but very little showing. We never really get clear pictures of the main participants. Overall the book feels like it was written in a hurry and never quite polished.
To its credit, this book does take us through the Solomons campaign from beginning to end, and clearly reveals the scope, significance, and general flow and contours of the campaign. To finally get to see the war from the Japanese perspective is very enlightening. Of course I'm glad the war ended as it did, and wish it could have been avoided in the first place, but it is really sad to see how the incredibly brave Japanese soldiers and sailors and airmen were wasted by poor leadership, worse planning, and ineffective strategy. It is also very interesting to put our timeline alongside theirs and see who knew what, and when. This is where Prados' close attention to the shadow side of the war, the code-breakers and intelligence gatherers and interpreters, really pays off.
If you are interested in reading this book, there are two others I would recommend to go along with it. One is "Shattered Sword" by Johnathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. It looks at Midway from the Japanese side and is almost a prequel to this book. (And in my opinion it is a much better-written book, far more engaging, perhaps because the scope is smaller.) The other is "Neptune's Inferno - The US Navy at Guadalcanal" by James D. Hornfisher. This book follows the US Navy through its most critical and fiercest battles of the war, the seven major surface and air engagements around Gradalcanal at the beginning of the Solomons Campaign, and is absolutely stellar. Hornfisher could give Prados a really serious lesson in how to tell history, with all the drama inherent in it.
on November 5, 2012
The subtitle of Islands of Destiny - The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun - tells the reader what he needs to know about this book. Mr. Prados' thesis is that Midway was not quite the turning point in the Pacific War that many causal historians believe. He makes a compelling and insightful case that anyone interested in this period of history will find worthwhile. Unfortunately, his penetrating analysis is handicapped by an uneven and occasionally jarring narrative style.
Prados joins several other authors of recent books in arguing that after Midway the Pacific War hovered on a knife's edge - the Japanese had just about lost the ability to pursue offensive operations, but the United States did not yet have that ability. Midway, of course, came almost six months to the day after Pearl Harbor - the period Yamamoto had predicted he could run wild in the Pacific. The second half of 1942 and the Guadalcanal campaign witnessed the slow but inevitable shift of momentum to the United States.
Prados explains that this outcome was not a forgone conclusion. There were opportunities for Japan to regain the initiative. Using recently available sources, he offers new perspectives of how the Japanese perceived these events and acted upon them. He provides a good comparison of how the USN used intelligence to its advantage and how the IJN failed to do so. In particular, his final chapter comes as close as most historians can to identifying the smoking gun in the mystery of why the Japanese failed to exploit their opportunities to crush their opponents.
The Japanese strategy of seeking a "decisive battle" like Trafalgar or Tsushima after wearing down the larger United States Navy through attrition has been the subject of numerous authors. Prados argues persuasively that the Japanese failed to commit their superior resources at Truk when they could have made a difference in the Solomons because they were holding them in reserve for that decisive battle. Their unwillingness to risk them allowed the USN to hang on and ultimately prevail. Prados does not say it, but he implies that the Japanese failed to recognize that the decisive battle was in fact the series of battles already being fought in the waters around Guadalcanal.
Unlike some other recent authors, Prados covers the entire Solomons campaign instead of just the crucial first six months when the control of Guadalcanal hung in the balance. This treatment is useful history, but it necessarily results in a less dramatic denouement. It also becomes diffuse. Some of the decisive naval battles in the last few months of 1942 receive less coverage than the adventures of Lt. John F. Kennedy in 1943. JFK became president, but his contributions in the Solomons are magnified while others of equal or greater significance are either ignored or mentioned in passing.
I also found Prados' writing style a challenge. He bounces back and forth between terminology for men, ships, and events one would expect in a history and slang expressions that seemed awkward in this context. At one time he appeared to confuse "the Slot" with "Ironbottom Sound." Referring to a Japanese admiral as "the old salt" came across as contrived. I grew tired of Halsey being referred to as "Bull Halsey" or "the Bull." An historian should beware of hagiography; Halsey was at his best during this period, but this forced familiarity 70 years later did not work for me.
Writing history in a purely linear fashion is often impossible, but on page 336, Prados describes the US carriers available on November 4, 1943 as Saratoga and Princeton. Then, on page 339, when describing an important attack on Japanese cruisers the following day, he mentions the participation of a pilot from Independence - like Princeton a new light carrier. On page 343, he states that after the success on November 5, 1943, Nimitz dispatched a task force of two Essex class carriers and the aforementioned Independence to the Solomons. A mistake has been made; Independence was either there on November 5 or she was awaiting assignment to go there. There are other errors. For example, HMAS Canberra (p. 58) and USS Wichita (p. 225) were heavy cruisers, not light cruisers.
In spite of these glitches and the sometimes off-putting writing, this is a good history. Its merit comes from its thoughtful analysis. This history is not a revisionist view of Midway; indeed, it is impossible to conceive of what was achieved in the Solomons without the triumph at Midway coming first. Perhaps the complete judgment of what happened in 1942 is that after Midway, the USN stopped losing the war; after Guadalcanal, it started winning the war. Read this book and find out why.
on October 30, 2012
The Solomons camapign in the Southwest Pacific theater in WW II was pivotal. There are myriad books that cover Guadacanal, but a dearth of those that follow the entire span of action from August of 1942 to the virtual surrounding of the major Japanese base Rabaul on New Britain by May of 1944. John Prados has attempted to remedy that deficiency with his new work.
Prados, a noted expert on national security affairs, and a prolific author, has written two previous books on WW II topics; "Normandy Crucible" and "Combined Fleet Decoded." The latter concentrated on the history of US intelligence activities in the Pacific and the impact of that information on miltary encounters.
The thesis that Prados postulates with this book is that the Battle of Midway in June of 1942 was not the turning point of the Pacific conflict with Japan. The action that irrevocably turned the tide against the "Rising Sun" was the Solomons campaign. To those familar with the miltary history of the Pacific war, this is no shocking theory. It is fairly evident to even the casual student of the conflict against Japan that Midway resulted in the crippling of Kido Butai, the Japanese carrier strike force, which had a major impact on what Japan could accomplish from an offensive standpoint. The sinking of four first line fleet carriers at Midway blunted Japan's ability to project its power via the most developed naval weapon system that existed in the world at that time. However, their surface battle fleet was largely intact and they still had two fleet carriers (Zuikaku and Shokaku) available for offensive action. It was the attritional hell of the Solomons battles between 1942 and 1944 that ground down the Imperial Japanese Naval, Army, and air assets.
There are dozens of books that detail the Guadacanal invasion. These include excellent works by authors such as Eric Hammel, Richard Frank, and John Lundstrum. The recent book by Jeff Hornfischer, "Neptune's Inferno," is also an entertaining and informative read. However, none of those authors cover the entire Solomons campaign. This is where the scope of John Prados' work differs. He also spends a good deal of effort to detail the intelligence activities of the Allies that assisted them in knowing Japanese tactical moves in advance in order to effect counter measures (though they were not always successful in this regard).
In the introduction to his book, Prados states that "Islands of Destiny" is "classic military history." Perhaps military history it is, but it certainly does not deserve the self-assessed "classic" designation. The work often is superficial (e.g. the disastrous Battle of Savo Sound in which the Allies lost four heavy cruisers at the start of the Guadacanal invasion is described in a scant few sentences). The narrative is often staccato and episodic in nature. By attempting to cover everything, Prados many times gives short shrift to the battles that proved crucial in the eventual victory against the Japanese in this theater. Another weakness is that there are virtually no comments on the quality and use of miltary assets such as planes and ships, much less ground assault troops. The invasion of Guadalacanal resulted in seven major naval battles (Savo Island, Eastern Solomons, Cape Esperance, Santa Cruz, the Naval Battle of Guadacalanal on 13 November and 15 November, and Tassafaronga) between 8 August and 30 November, 1942. The treatment of these naval battles is rather lacking in depth, while the crucial land battles of August, September, and October are glossed over. Prados, at times, attempts to humanize the narrative by introducing individuals of both sides onto the pages of his work, but his style in weaving these stories into the whole is often awkward.
Of the 362 pages of narrative exposition, the first 216 concern Guadalcanal. The balance deal with the remaining efforts to wrest the upper Solomons from Japan, and the neutralization of Rabaul. That leaves 146 pages to cover the balance of the Allies movement northwest through the Solomons chain. Therefore it is not surprising the book is short on detail of the many battles that ensued after Guadalcanal was secured in February of 1943.
Prados does offer some insights into the Japanese high command that heretofore haven't been available to western readers, but in no sense does this book offer the readability and drama of narrative that authors such as the late Walter Lord or Eric Hammel display. Also, there is very little new ground that is broken by Prados. Books already exist that detail each of the major actions in this Solomons conflagration much more completely than Prados' overview, but he does cover the entire effort of the Allies to eject Imperial Japan from this island chain.
A polar opposite work from Prados' book is "Hell's Islands" by Stanley Coleman Jersey. This book is incredibly detailed on the Guadalcanal land battles, though to the virtual exclusion of the other parts of the savage campaign (air and sea). If you want an overly granular presentation, Jersey's book is your choice. Prados takes the other road, and is by necessity too topical in many areas to provide a truly insightful and interesting reading experience.
In the final analysis, Midway blunted the strategic offensive power of the Japanese Combined Fleet, while Guadalacanal acted as a meatgrinder for their land, air, and naval assets. Once that island was secured by the Allies, it was only a matter of time before the entire Solomons chain was wrested from Japanese control. The losses sustained by the navy and army of Japan were irreplacable, at time when American production was in high gear and dispensing military assets to the Southwest Pacific in increasing numbers. Given the ability of the US economical infrastructure to manufacture ships, planes, tanks, artillery, rifles, machine guns, etc. Japan had no real chance of ever winning a conflict with America. To those speculating that the Solomons camapaign was responsible for defeating Japan's empire, it is equally obvious that even if America had been defeated at Guadalcanal, it was only a matter of time before Japan would have withered under the blizzard of men and material that we fed into combat.
Of course, the Solomons campaign, which started within 8 weeks after Midway, initially caught the Japanese flatfooted. But they recovered soon enough and battled tenaciously against the Marines, Navy, and Army of the US. Both sides began to increasingly feed planes, men, and ships into the crucible until it became a sinkhole for the combatants. That we won that battle, and inflicted substantial and irrevocable losses on Japan in the Solomons actions hastened the destruction of the empire's armed forces. Prados makes the assertion that that the Solomons campaign was the pivot point upon which the Japanese Empire was shipwrecked. That may be quite true, but if had not been the Solomons in 1942, it would have ineluctably transpired there or elsewhere at a later date.
This book may confuse the casual reader, and frustrate those with in depth knowledge about the Solomons actions. While it is nice to have one volume that covers the entire campaign, it is by no means a book that will provide you with a superlative narrative, or give you the detail that some of these battles demand for better understanding.
on October 10, 2012
Once again, John Prados has taken on conventional wisdom -- in this case the view that the Battle of Midway was the turning point in the Pacific War -- and forced us to re-think. As he painstakingly shows, the long and grinding campaign for Guadalcanal and the Solomons -- not Midway itself -- was the inflection point at which the rising sun began to set. I particularly liked Prados' dedication of this book "To all the veterans of World War II". I have only one quibble, which is true for almost every book on military history: more maps, better maps, please. Overall, an outstanding contribution.
on February 12, 2013
I am halfway through the book. It is written in a very engaging fashion and in fact if I didn't have to go to work for the next two days I would easily finish it in a day or two. I take exception with the some of the editing however. The author mentions "four Aoba- class heavy cruisers". Actually the Japanese Navy built only two- the Aoba and Kinugasa. In the chapter detailing the Battle of Santa Cruz he mentions the Atago-class heavy cruisers. There was no Atago class. The Atago was a Takeo-class cruiser. The author writes that Santa Cruz was a complete Japanese victory. Strange that he would advance this notion- Chuichi Nagumo himself considered it a tactical victory at most and a strategic disaster because of the loss of so many skilled aviators when the replacements were so inferior. According to nagumo every victory had to be an overwhelming victory or Japan would lsoe the war. After Midway Japan indeed still fielded several carriers but only the Shokaku and Zuikaku were fleet carriers- the rest were small carriers built on oil tanker or passenger liner hulls and fielded much smaller air groups. I also found it some what specious to credit the sinking of the USS Hornet to Japanese destroyers. She was already sinking and doomed and would have sunk even if the destroyers didn't strike her with torpedoes. I think to suggest that the Hornet was the only carrier sunk by a surface torpedo action during the war is really stretching things to make a more sensational statement. Admiral Kondo was "born in Osaka and settled in nearby Setagaya, Tokyo". Huh? They are 500 kilometers (300+ miles) apart. Not exactly close. As far as I can tell there was no anti-aircraft cruiser called the USS Cairo (and certainly no Cairo-class of cruisers). Around page 175 torpedoes are launched at the Hiei too close to arm but did tremendous damage. How? Torpedoes either arm or they don't. Clearly the torpedoes armed. Atago is credited as having launched 19 torpedoes in one battle. No Japanese heavy cruiser could launch 19 torpedoes. Japan had five classes of heavy cruiser- Aoba class, Myoko class, Takao class, Mogami class and Tone class. Some had 12 launchers and some had 8. Torpedoes were kept in these deck mounted tubes for quick launching. Some cruisers carried reloads- usually 4-8- but they took a good deal of time to reload into the deck tubes and the process involved cranes- hardly likely to be employed during the heat of a quick battle. There are just numerous errors of these sorts and this is why the book receives only 3 stars.
on March 17, 2013
This book satisfied my rememberances of WWII. We lived in Alameda California during the war years. I can recall when we lost wake island, Bataan, and the hell of Guadalcanal . The book breaths life into the battle sequences and is an excellent read. My brother-in-law was a landing ship driver whose mother ship was sunk by a Jap submarine . His recollection of of the Pacific battles are well documented and in line with the novel.
on February 12, 2013
Other reviews have already written extensively about the quality of the research and whether or not the author is convincing in his argument that the Solomon Islands campaign was the true turning point in the Pacific War so I won't dwell on this here. The book filled some gaps in my knowledge of the campaign and overall was interesting. However, the writing style was often choppy and distracting in many places. The book would have benefitted from some good editing and could have used more and better maps as well.
For example, I was annoyed at the constant references to "tin cans" for destroyers and "tin fish" for torpedoes. The USS Enterprise is almost always referred to as the "Big E". Such overuse of nicknames isn't appropriate for a serious narrative. USN fighters are incorrectly identified as "F-4F" Wildcats and "F-6F" Hellcats instead of F4F's and F6F's. Individuals, often of minor or vague relevance, are frequently introduced seemingly out of thin air and then disappear just as fast without further follow-up or explanation. There's even gratuitous use of profanity in the author's own words ("...Cactus would truly have been in the s***...") that really is out of place and unprofessional in a book of this type. Also, anecdotal references to the Fukashima tsunami of 2011 and Bin Laden kill mission give the reader the impression he's attending a classroom lecture rather than reading a serious study. I had previously read Prados' "Combined Fleet Decoded" over 15 years ago and can't recall these type of issues in that book so I was surprised to see them here.
Still, I don't want to be overly critical since I did enjoy the book overall. Would still recommend it to anyone interested in the Pacific War.
on November 24, 2012
The first book of military history I ever read was Tregaskis'"Guadalcanal Diary". While the Pacific is not my main field of interest, I have read more than a few books on Guadalcanal, and books that included considerable discussion of the whole Solomons campaign. Many of them give good and detailed descriptions of the land, naval, and air battles that took place around "The Canal" or "Cactus" or "Starvation Island" as the island was called.
John Prados book was different, and added a dimension sorely lacking in many of the otherwise excellent descriptions of bayonet charges in the jungle, torpedo hits in the night in Ironbottom Sound, and air battles between Wildcats and Zeros you can find in other author's books. Four things distinguish this book from other treatments of the subject. For one thing, Dr. Prados has a thesis, insisting that it was the Solomons campaign, not Midway, that turned the conflict in the Pacific from one where the Japanese had the whiphand to one in which their doom was sealed. I think he very sucessfully supported his thesis, demolishing the "decisive battle" fascination that too many western historians have shared with Japanese strategists. After Midway, while hurt badly, the Imperial Japanese Navy was still far stronger than the USN and, had it effectively exploited that advantage, could have produced a far different outcome, at least in the short and middle run (Japan had no chance at any time of gaining a victory unless the US government decided to throw in the towel, and there was simply no way that was going to happen).
The second strong point of the book is that it quite naturally emphasizes the role intelligence played in the US victory. The effects of Allied code-breaking in all aspects of WWII has only gradually come out, just how tactically the data was put to use. The Japanese could hardly sortie ships without the US knowing the details. Prados, with his background in intelligence studies, is well suited to explore this dimension. He also gives us a fascinating look at Japanese efforts to track the American moves, and the unfortunate (for the Empire) tendency for the Japanese military to downplay intelligence work.
A third aspect is very refreshing. Doing military historical research gets very difficult and costly when you are faced with a conflict in which at least one side's language is really hard to access. You must either learn the language, or pay for translation, which, given what historians receive for their efforts, is prohibitive for all but the very wealthy. However, the US military faced the same problem fighting Japan, and did enormous work translating captured documents both during and after the war, and with intercepted radio messages. Post war POW interrogation also added to the piles of paper available, in English, to the researcher who is willing to do the work to dig it out and make sense of it. John has done a good job of this. There is only one caveat, and maybe its just me, but... Japanese names are organized the opposite way American ones are. In English, the surname comes last, and given name comes first, so John Prados. But in Japanese it is the other way around, Prados John. Almost all authors writing in English have used the convention of writing the names in the English style, so Isoroku Yamamoto. Dr. Prados decided to make that Yamamoto Isoroku, and given that there enough Japanese personages in the book's pages to populate a good sized Russian novel, for my eyes at least it was a bit of a chore to have to repeatedly reverse the order of names to remember who was who.
The fourth way the book really succeeds is that rather than looking in detail at the individual actions on land, sea, and air, the focus is pulled back, and we get not just Guadalcanal, but the entire Solomons fight, which allows us to see the changes in the balance of forces, the strategies, and the personalities driving the fight. This larger picture is appropriate for the central theme of the book, the original thesis, and shows well how the Solomons campaign fit into both the Japanese and the US strategies for the war.
I think the book does a fairly good job covering an aspect of Japanese operations I have previously noted but could never exactly explain to myself, namely that for a military based on the code of Bushido, the willingness to die for one's Emperor, it seems to me that every time the Japanese had landed a potentially deadly blow, from Pearl Harbor to Santa Cruz to Leyte Gulf, they jellied on the pivot at the last moment, and were not, in the Irish expression, willing to "throw the handle after the hatchet." So the carriers depart for fear of a counterstrike at Pearl Harbor, when a third strike against the oil storage and repair facilities might have crippled the US for another year, at Santa Cruz without a functioning US carrier left in the Pacific, the Japanese pulled back instead of pushing on to annihilate the survivors. And even at Leyte, when the Japanese have their battleships in position to annihilate the US transports, they turn around and head home. By Leyte it was too late, it would not have set things back too badly for the US; we had that much surplus strength available. But earlier it was a very different picture. And yet the IJN held its hand at the decisive moment. Why? The book gives a very interesting discussion of Japanese strategic thinking that had the effect of pulling the reins just when a full gallop might have been more appropriate. Such chances as they had before US industrial production swamped them were thrown away, saving for the decisive battle. And by the time that happened (in the Philippines as expected by both sides through the whole pre-war period), it was way too late already. The attrition wrought in the Solomons had already determined that.
on June 23, 2013
This is a strong book. Written by an accomplished and experienced historian after exhaustive research of source material not available to previous authors on World War II in the Pacific, Islands of Destiny is an entertaining read; if you like history. If you're looking for a summer beach book, this isn't it. I bought it for research for a historical novel I might write one day, and I wanted someone else to read the volumes of memoirs and histories published in English since WW II, then wade through the recently translated diaries and journals of the Imperial Japanese Navy and their sailors and airmen, screen through the inflated after action reports each side produced after battles to count how many planes and ships were actually lost, lay out in reasonably concise terms the perspective of the various combatants, and tie it all together with maps, technical analysis of ships, planes, radar, secret codes and Japanese and American doctrine. Here it is. Other reviewers have criticized author Prados as providing excessive detail and not enough personal drama; get a romance novel, I say! This is the best chance we arm chair admirals will have to understand how it all went down.
The Solomons form the eastern edge of the Coral Sea, which borders Australia. At the beginning of WW II the Japanese took Rabaul, in the Bismarck Archipelago, which is just to the north of the Coral Sea. When they landed on Guadalcanal and began building an airfield, they threatened to encircle Australia and cut her supply route to the US. In July, 1942 American Marines landed on Guadalcanal. Thus begins this story of two mighty nations locked in mortal combat at the end of their supply chains. It went on for a year.
Now for some quibbling. John Prados is positively toxic on the subject of General George Kenney and the Army Air Corps' contribution to the Solomons Campaign. True, the Solomons was a Navy show, and the Navy did the bulk of the fighting and dying there, but the Army Air Corps held the western flank while protecting Australia from imminent invasion through New Guinea, and they did it on a shoestring compared with the firepower the Navy could muster. There are a lot of Japanese names in this book and I couldn't keep them straight. The addition of their source material is critical to this document, but it made for some tough cross checking. Perhaps a graphic with the Japanese hierarchy could have been added.
Contrary to some reviewers, author Prados gives us many personal vignettes and human profiles drawn from diaries and published memoirs to personalize this tale. I don't fault him a bit for being too dry. Insights I gained from this story include how our cracking of the Japanese code affected virtually every battle. It wasn't just the strategic movements but the actual routes and timing of ship movements, and the fact that we maintained that secret until 1978! Both American and Japanese dive bomber pilots experienced 80% attrition during major battles; put yourself in that cockpit as the engine warms up.
This book, in its paper form for the maps, pictures, and reference materials, belongs in the library of all descendants, American and Japanese, of the brave men who fought The Solomons Campaign. They changed the world.
on July 24, 2015
I think Prados does a great job of explaining the strategic importance of the combat occurring in the Solomon Islands. I had expected an account that focused on Guadalcanal. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that it covered the whole campaign in a very quick - but still detailed and informative format. There wasn't a lot of fluff to get bogged down in. Got to the details and the action flowed quickly. And most importantly, the action he covers doesn't just focus on the naval or aerial combat. He covers everything. Not a lot of books seem to do this. They focus on one or the other.