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4.0 out of 5 stars The Long Afternoon of the Rising Sun, November 5, 2012
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This review is from: Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun (Hardcover)
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.
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Initial post: Jun 11, 2013 6:41:22 AM PDT
Great review. I totally endorse your point about phony familiarity with someone the author did not know and has been dead for years. This seems to be a common failing with military history books, where the author is anxious to use vernacular/slang to show himself as some sort of insider.

The point you make about Prados saying the result was not a foregone conclusion is interesting but you have to wonder whether there was any chance the Japanese could have won the war after 1942 given the huge discrepency between US and Japanese industrial capacity. Based on my reading of Guadalcanal (Richard Frank's book), for example, it does seem to me that the Japanese squandered opportunities to win that battle. But, while the specific historical arc of the war might not have been a foregone conclusion, Japan was trying to punch far above its weight and it's hard to see, given the anger that Pearl Harbor had endgendered in Americans, how Japan could actually have won the war.
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