on May 19, 2006
Since I was a child, John Thach was my hero. He is only sparsely mentioned in survey history books on World War II. Finding articles about him, or detailed accounts on his history, was always challenging. At age 8, I actually tried calling his house in Coronado, California (he wasn't home).
As I grew older and read more in-depth histories on Midway and other battles, I learned much more of the significant role Thach played - what a master tactician - but there was no biography on him or any information on his early life or life after World War II.
Finally, there is a biography - sort of. While finally getting detail on the full life and history of this Hero, in every sense of the word, is great, there is a lot missing.
This book, along with Reaper Leader (on Jimmy Flatley) and Fateful Rondezvous (on Butch O'Hare) completes a trilogy on the great Navy fighter pilots in early World War II. Ewing's prime interest is clearly with Flatley, but the three men were good friends and worked closely together so that the research lent itself to creating biographies on each man.
To Ewing's credit, he did help discover a treasure trove of Thach's personal papers, adding a wealth of information to the key role that Thach played in saving Naval Aviation (revolt of the Admirals in response to the USAF takeover of military aviation) and in advancing anti-submarine warfare to counter the serious nuclear threat of soviet submarines. In fact, those who know of Thach from his fighter pilot fame, will be surprised to find how much more he did for naval aviation and the US security AFTER the second world war.
The author traces Thach from his childhood in Arkansas, the son of professional teachers, to his time at the Naval Academy, and solves the mystery of why John Thach was called "Jimmie Thach" when his older brother, who also attended the Naval Academy was named James Thach. Ewing describes his early service and wartime career in detail, and then goes on to describe the 20 plus years of service to the Navy after World War II.
Unfortunately, the book seems stale, almost like a high school report summarizing an entry from an encyclopedia. Stories that should be vivid and memorable, seem remote and cold - like when as a young pilot, Thach exited the cockpit in flight because he didn't have time to go to the bathroom before leaving the field. After reading numerous exploits of young pilots from both world wars, and the fraternity type antics, a reader expects the story to be told as if an old joke or `war story' from somebody who lived it - not as a dry legal brief.
While some of this might be from the author's style, it is more likely due to the challenge of describing an anecdote heard third or fourth person. Both Thach and his wife died in the early 80's, and they were only infrequently interviewed prior to their death. Few of their contemporaries are still around to impart the true and full color of the events.
Therein lies the tragedy of this history and many more - as the "greatest generation" passes, we are loosing a wealth of history told by the people who lived it. This is a tragedy, but there is no government program or agency to `fix' the problem (nore should there be) - it is life.
Still, the book is very worthwhile and thoroughly readable even if somewhat disappointing in the attenuation of the stories that you expect to bring the history to life. History buffs and fans of naval aviation will enjoy the book, or regret not getting it once printing ceases. Ewing justly deserves credit for this book which gives a wealth of otherwise unavailable information on a great American that gave 100% effort and his entire adult life to the security of America.
By the way, as a cordial response to a comment by a fellow reviewer about the Wildcat being "vastly inferior" - inferior, yes, but not vastly so.
It still remained in front-line service well into 1943, equited itself well when in sufficient number with the right tactics (i.e. Thach Weave), Joe Foss thought very highly of it, had a career kill to loss ratio of 7 to 1, and was one of the few pre-war fighters at the beginning of the war still in combat service at the end (the Hurricane and the P-40 were long gone). Give me a break, it wasn't like the Brewster Buffalo, Chance Vought Vindicator, Boulton Paul Defiant, Fairey Swordfish, Douglas Devastator, most of the French and Russian planes, or Bell Aircobra - now those were "vastly" outdated and inferior machines that should never had been put in combat!
on May 7, 2008
I am fairly well-read on the U.S. Navy in World War II. But prior to this book, all I knew about John S. "Jimmy" Thach was that he invented the "Thach Weave" air combat maneuver and fought in the Battle of Midway. It turns out that Thatch was one of the truly great U.S. Naval Officers, with a career filled with significant achievements.
The book started a little slow but soon became very interesting. Overall it reads well.
It's not unusual for books of this type to idolize the subject, causing the reader to wonder if the subject was as great as the book implies. I don't get that from this book. If anything, I felt the book understates Thach's amazing achievement on June 4, 1942 in the Battle of Midway. Of the three VF squadrons that escorted the USN attack against the Japanese carriers, only Thach's engaged in combat. Thach's six Wildcats were jumped by approximately 20 Zeros. Despite being outnumbered in a slower, less maneuverable fighter against experienced pilots, Thach shot down three Zeros and his wingman one using the Weave tactic he had developed. Later in the day, Thach shot down a Kate Torpedo plane, probably that of flight leader Tomananga. It was one of the great individual performances of World War II.
Amazingly, Thach never flew in combat again. Immediately after Midway, he was sent to Florida where he had a big part in setting up the training pipeline that produced the thousands of naval aviators who manned the new 1943 and 1944 carrier air groups. I was struck by the contrast with the Japanese training system. Their aviators stayed in the fight until they were killed, after which there were no fully trained aviators to replace them.
After two years ashore, Thach went back to sea in one of premier jobs for someone of his rank - Air Operations Officer for Task Force 58, the Navy's main striking force in the Pacific. I was impressed by how the U.S. Navy in World War II hand-picked promising young officers who had proven themselves in combat -- men such as Arleigh Burke, Jimmy Thach, and James Flatley -- and put them in charge: Burke as Chief of Staff and Thach and Flatley as Air Operations Officers of the gigantic Task Force that won the war in the Central Pacific, routinely deploying eight Essex class fleet carriers and eight Independence class light carriers.
The book never says it directly but Thach must have been a very good public speaker. The book continually remarks on his speaking to various groups, briefing Congress or advising Admirals.
One cannot help but notice Thach's devotion to the Navy and wonder how his absence affected his family. The book says says very little about this. Thach did well in the Navy, earning four stars and holding important, meaningful positions. But he surely paid a heavy price, being at sea so much, and working long-hours in the Pentagon.
If what this book says is true, Thach was a founding father in the U.S. Navy's anti-submarine warfare infrastructure and organization. Not something you would expect from an officer with a fighter pilot background. I was a naval officer for 20 years, specializing in maritime patrol ASW. This book described the creation of the system I spent my career in.
This book deserves to sit alongside those of Spruance & King (Thomas Buell), and Nimitz, Halsey and Burke (E.B. Potter) for those interested in World War II Naval Officers. Recommended.
on July 18, 2015
Steve Ewing has done it again. A biography that is thoroughly researched, extremely well documented and yet reads like a novel! Dr. Ewing's knowledge of the U.S. Navy adds great depth to the biographical narrative. I don't generally read textbooks for pleasure, but this book was a pleasure to read.
Pacifists and cheeseparers in the 1920s and '30s left Hawaii without adequate defenses when the Japanese attacked in 1941.
As the aircraft carrier Saratoga rushed from California to still smoking Pearl Harbor, the planes of Fighting Squadron 3 had only 24 rounds per gun for their Wildcat fighters -- not even enough to "charge" the guns in preparation for combat.
Within a year, 12 of the 19 pilots in VF 3 were dead, killed partly by Japanese aggressors, partly by American politicians and moralizers.
That more young Americans' lives were not lost in the early days was due in large part to three remarkable Navy aviators, Butch O'Hare, Jimmy Flatley and the commander of VF 3 in December 1941, Jimmie Thach.
Of the three, all subjects of biographies by Steve Ewing, curator at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston, Thach may have been the most remarkable.
O'Hare was the matchless marksman in battle, and Flatley was a superior teacher and lobbyist for new tactics. Thach was the originator of those tactics, a man who figured out how to substitute technique for technology.
His solution, worked out over a kitchen table with matchsticks, was put to the test at the Battle of Midway, and with it a few Wildcats were able to hold off four times as many Japanese Zeros, though they were unable to fulfill their mission of protecting American attack planes.
The maneuver, the "Thach Weave," was a lifesaver in the next year of ceaseless combat in the South Pacific, until newer, better planes were delivered.
The weave was not wholly original with Thach; but his version was superior to the technique adopted shortly before by British pilots fighting the Luftwaffe.
As a staff officer, Thach distinguished himself in the western Pacific, becoming part of still debated controversies about how the war was fought. Ewing dives into this fight with relish, as he has before.
In a long career, Thach rose to the highest position in naval aviation, but possibly even more important, he was the leading tactician as the Navy struggled to adapt antisubmarine warfare to the challenges of fast, nuclear opponents.
During years at Pearl Harbor in the 1960s, his antisub planes and ships tracked Russian opponents as if war might break out any second. He, at least, never forgot the surprise at Pearl Harbor.
But the lessons Thach learned in a long, arduous career have too often been forgotten; and still are. Recalling the early days of the war in the Pacific, he wrote, "Early in the last war it was brought home to me that it is the untrained who are needlessly lost in combat, and who contribute little or nothing to the cause in which they are lost. I would rather have 12 properly trained aviators with me to fight 20 planes of an enemy than to have twice or three times that number of half trained or poorly trained pilots."
on November 1, 2004
At the beginning of World War II, the allies were in very poor condition to face the Germans or Japanese. Due to years of neglect, the American fighting forces, generally speaking, had vastly inferior equipment, and in many cases even worse tactics.
Against the Japanese Zero fighter, the Americans fielded the vastly inferior Grumman F4F Wildcat. The Wildcat suffered in three vital areas to the Zero: climb, maneuverability and speed. The Wildcat did have advantages in firepower, due to the excellent .50 caliber Brownings, and in overall toughness. Jimmy Thach was able to come up with a flying mode to take advantage of those points in favor of the Wildcat while minimizing its disadvantages. This was called the Thach Weave after the inventor and the way he conceives of having two planes each fly a serpentine path that brought the planes together facing each other at frequent intervals. Thus any Japanese pilot falling in behind one of the planes would soon be facing the nose, and the machine guns of his partner. This enabled the American pilots to survive in the years it took to get more capable aircraft into service. The Thach Weave continues today, with todays far more capable aircraft but with the same basic principles and the same name.
Mr. Thach survived the war and went on to ever higher positions within the Navy. This book uses just about half of its 338 pages on The World War II era, and the rest on his work at improving the Navy's aircraft afterward.
on January 12, 2013
This an excellent book on one individual who made major contributions during the early years of U.S. naval aviation. An Arkansas native son from a family of meager means, Thach won a Congressional appointment to the Naval Academy and was graduated in 1927. He became a pilot and developed many of the tactics used by the Navy whose planes were not fast enough to duel the Japanese Zeros. In spite of that he shot down two enemy aircraft during the Battle of Midway. He was also a master tactician, communicator, and natural leader. Other accomplishments included the establishment of a Navy harbor at the naval base at Jacksonville, Florida; and the development of naval anti-submarine tactics. This is a must read for any WWII buff.
on September 10, 2004
To start with I will admit that I am only half way through this book but wanted to rate what I have read so far and I can say that what I have read is very interesting. For those who are interested in Naval history and its heroes in particular will enjoy this book. Its nice to be able to learn more about Jimmie Thach because there aren't may books on the guy and he has a fascinating life that needs to be told. I would also highly recommend Steve Ewing's book on Butch O'Hare titled "Fateful Rendezvous". I do know that I will soon be ordering the third book in this trilogy on the Reaper leader Jimmie Flatley.
Update 10 years later: I realized that I did not come back to my review after finishing this book. I have since re-read the book and still feel it warrants 5 stars. A very well written bio about a little know pilot outside from historians.
on September 23, 2014
impressive man,one to emulate.
on December 6, 2015
My former C O.