It was not that many years ago when I could say that I had not read a single book on the Pacific and even go as far as saying that I doubted I ever would. If you guess that the HBO series The Pacific you would miss your target. Indeed by the time I got these on DVD I had already read Helmet for My Pillow and With The Old Breed, both worth reading by the way. No, my interest in the Pacific war came with my taking the plunge into the jungle in ASL. As I got to enjoy the PTO scenarios I got more interested in the history of the battles. Having watched Thin Red Line a couple of times and not many other WWII films on the PTO really left me without a vision of the battles. John Wukovits book was actually one of the first I read on this theatre, as such I was revisiting old ground.
That may be so but the it did not feel old to me, not at all. I once read a book on the Battle of the Somme, this book reminds me of that but where in that case I was left worn out and rather bruised from such a waste of life this book both manages to get under your skin and yet uplift you in almost equal parts. This book is typical of today's mass history books in that it is not a dry or small detail book that most professional historians had put out for so long but uses quotes from interviews and original letters etc. so that the human face of the battle comes across, indeed it is the mainstay of the books appeal. Whilst I do like the dry by the numbers books and more from a distance style of writing I also like the in close and personal style when it's done well. Too often though it's not. Too often the writer seems to ignore the cold facts so that he or she can conform to a favourite witness. It's a sad fact that many witness statements are full of inaccurate statements, mistakes and down right lies. Not surprising when so many interviews are conducted decades after the event. Even when events are written about soon after the event the account is coloured by lack of the bigger picture, reasons to expand one's involvement or the wish to protect a lost buddies memory. In short this style of writing is both much easier to do and more difficult to do accurately and many a book that tries has glaring errors that even fairly basic research would have brought to light.
I do not know enough about the battle to say if this has happened at all with this book, though I caution that it is not the way of men to bring to the fore their buddies failings when talking about their deaths. From this book you get a sense that the Marines were made up of virtue and light, I counter that many may well have had those virtues but on that small atoll it was something far more base that kept them going forward than faith, love and charity.
Wukovits has used skill to bind the period of pre-war America, the lives of some of the troops to be involved and how they went from for the most part high school kids to the men about to storm the most completely defended island in the Pacific. he does this delving into the childhood of some of the soldiers he picks out to follow. In short he manages to get you to connect with these men and as you go through their training and deployment you get a sense of knowing them. Just like in fiction the author needs you to care about the characters and he did a good job with me. The first 100 odd pages are filled with this, spending a few paragraphs on their first campaign and whole chapters on the period between this campaign, the rest and training period in New Zealand and voyage out to Tarawa. The next 100 or so pages deal with the battle and the last 50 deal with the aftermath of the men and family's of those who were killed and the effect on the home front. Wukovits certainly has the skill of a writer as I am not a fan of to much filler. A book covering a battle should not have over 60% of it's pages filled with either what happened before and after unless it's as relevant to the battle as the battle itself. That is where the facts and figure books tend to have the advantage, they put the battle in perspective to the campaign or war and get on with the matter in hand. Sometimes it's important to know the logistics involved, often you need to know how the outcome of the battle went on to shape the future campaigns and it's value to the war itself. However the people history style of book often fails to put the battle into full context and often fills the pages with unimportant facts about the bit characters of the battle, who happen to be major actors of the book. This is the case with this book but at least it is done well, you do care about the people who populate the book and when some of them die it is real, it's the truth and it happened. Of the personal perspective style of writing this is in the better vein.
The true skill of Wukovits is in the middle section, the period of three days that the battle was fought. The nature of the battle meant that most of the action was very similar if not the same as each other. There is only so many ways of describing combat that especially was the same time after time. Somehow he manages not only to not make this just repetitive page by page but he manages to embrace that repetition and turn it into a positive feature of the fighting. Again it shared some of that book on the Somme's mind numbing brutal repetitive death into a more personal and feeling death. This is down to your living through some of the normal parts of the lives of these people but of course it's the detail of the individuals that means that the book as a study of the battle itself is flawed. If you want to know what it was like to wade ashore through bullet swept waters, to know that to get up to move forward an almost certain death or injury then this is for you. How ever if you want to know how this plan was to be devised and what was done to improve the situation and how it shaped future operations this is just not the book for you.
Personally it fulfilled the small unit action interest that I have, it's made me want to play something from the MMP's Bloody Reef Tarawa, maybe even the beech landings themselves. The two books I mentioned before are better if you want to know what it was like fighting through campaigns and getting the day to day of battle. This is a snap shot of the battle, focusing in on single men spread out across the battle who were picked out either because they were still alive to talk about it or because their loved ones or comrades told their story. It's both sad and uplifting, the Japanese side is told as best as possible and considering only 17 men survived the battle this side is told fairly well. Recommended reading even if your a dogface or none PTO fan, just for the sheer guts and human story.