William M. Donnelly
Review of Bill Sloan, The
Darkest Summer: Pusan and Inchon 1950: The Battles That Saved
South Korea—and the Marines—from Extinction. New
York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. Pp. ix, 385. ISBN
Bill Sloan, a former
Pulitzer-nominated reporter at the Dallas Times Herald, has
published popular books on the Marines at Wake, Peleliu, and
along with other works of nonfiction and two novels. His latest
work, according to the book's dust jacket, "is the dramatic story of
the first three months of the Korean War, captured through author
interviews with dozens of surviving U.S. veterans, as it has never
been told before." The Darkest Summer does not live up to
this billing or to its subtitle.
The book opens with a brief
account of the origins of the Korean War, followed by one on the
U.S. Army's deficiencies at the start of the war. There is a
detailed section on the Task Force Smith battle. After discussing
the Marine Corps' enemies in Washington, Sloan looks at Eighth
Army's battles in July 1950. Thereafter the book focuses on the
actions of the First Marine Provisional Brigade and then the 1st
Marine Division in the Pusan Perimeter and the Inchon-Seoul
campaigns. Sloan does provide the occasional vignette about Army
units in August and September, usually to highlight how the marines
were superior to the soldiers. He also sketches in the big picture
by discussing actions in MacArthur's headquarters and in Washington.
The final chapter is a brief account of the United Nations' defeat
in North Korea by the Chinese, followed by an epilogue that recounts
what happened after November 1950 to a number of the men, both high
and low ranking, featured in the book.
Sloan's intended audience
is the general reader of military history. There is no attempt to
engage the existing literature on his topic nor any effort at
analysis beyond that found in the bases for his narrative: secondary
literature, memoirs, and his interviews with veterans decades after
the war. Most of those veterans served as company-grade marine
infantrymen; others include a field-grade marine staff officer and
several soldiers. Instead of footnotes or endnotes, chapter notes at
the end of the book list relevant sources. The four maps are
adequate; among the forty-two photographs are head shots of a number
of the veterans featured in the text.
The author is sometimes
careless in his use of secondary sources, as when he has elements of
the 7th Infantry Division deploying to Korea in July instead of
September 1950 (56); has four divisions instead of the actual one
reinforced division in Task Force Kean (105); and provides an
incorrect name (Frank A. Allen rather than Leven C. Allen) for
Eighth Army’s chief of staff (281). He accepts without question
accounts provided by veterans in memoirs and interviews, most
notably a marine battalion commander's dramatic story of being
threatened by black soldiers fleeing the destruction of the 555th
Field Artillery Battalion at the Bloody Gulch in August 1950. The
555th, however, was not a black battalion (133-34).
Sloan writes in a
journalistic human-interest style, particularly when recounting
battles from the perspective of marines and soldiers at the company
level. He himself is a pronounced presence in the book, getting
across his own judgments about events and people.
Over the next sixty years, the officers and enlisted men of Task
Force Smith have been among the favorite "whipping boys" for Korean
War historians and armchair critics. They've been targeted for the
bitterest kind of condemnation and even outright ridicule for
"bugging out" in the face of the enemy. But in truth, the majority
of them—green, poorly trained, and shoddily equipped though they
were—fought bravely in an untenable situation.
If the real culprits had been singled out, they could have been
found in Washington, Tokyo, and Taejon, among the ill-advised
commanders who sent 548 American soldiers into a battle they had no
hope of winning against a tank-led army of thousands. (37)
This quotation reveals the
major weakness of The Darkest Summer: despite the promise on
its dust jacket, the book offers nothing new. Too often, Sloan
simply repeats judgments already presented by T.R. Fehrenbach and
By ignoring more recent work
on the war's first three months, he deprives the reader of important
revisionist arguments that differ with the "Fehrenbach School." Sloan's
use of interviews, memoirs, and a lively prose style makes it clear
that serving as an infantrymen in Korea during the summer of 1950
could be a hellish experience, but this story, too, has been told
While Sloan clearly admires
the Marine Corps, the omission of any reference to Allan R.
Millett's indispensable Semper Fidelis
vitiates his discussion of the struggle over the role of the Marine
Corps in national defense after 1945. For example, he correctly
emphasizes President Truman's antipathy towards marines, quoting his
infamous letter (of 29 August 1950) calling the Marine Corps "the
Navy's police force," yet fails to mention that it was written in
response to press accounts criticizing his administration for
problems the First Provisional Marine Brigade encountered in its
first combat operations. Indeed, Sloan seems to imply that Truman
wrote the letter before the war.
Sloan also does not follow
the developments after Truman's letter became public, culminating in
the 1951 law making the Marine Corps the only service whose force
structure is set by Congress. Nor does he link the battlefield
achievements of marines in Korea with what happened in Washington.
Instead, he ends his final chapter with a simple declaration: "In
the fifty-six years since the Korean War cease-fire, no authority
figure in Washington has ever again suggested eliminating the Marine
Corps as the nation's premier fighting force" (328).
The Darkest Summer,
although it rightfully salutes the bravery and sacrifice of American
marines and soldiers during the first three months of the Korean
War, is an inadequate history of their efforts and of the campaigns
in which they served.
U.S. Army Center of
 Given Up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand
at Wake Island (NY: Bantam, 2003), Brotherhood of Heroes:
The Marines at Peleliu, 1944--The Bloodiest Battle of the
Pacific War (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005), The Ultimate
Battle: Okinawa 1945--The Last Epic Struggle of World War II
(NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007).
 In This Kind of War: Korea: A Study in
Unpreparedness (NY: Macmillan, 1963) and The Forgotten
War: America in Korea, 1950-1953 (NY: Times Books, 1987),
 Notably missing from the bibliography are
Richard E. Wiersema's School of Advanced Military Studies
monograph, "No More Bad Force Myths: A Tactical Study of
Regimental Combat in Korea" (18 Dec 1998) and Thomas E. Hanson's
"America's First Cold War Army: Combat Readiness in the Eighth
US Army, 1949-1950" (diss. Ohio State 2006) <link>.
 The term is Hanson's (note 3 above) 11-15.
 Notably in Donald Knox, The Korean War:
Pusan to Chosin, an Oral History (San Diego, CA: Harcourt,
1985); Rudy Tomedi, No Bugles, No Drums: An Oral History of
the Korean War (NY: Wiley, 1993); and Louis Baldovi, ed.,
A Foxhole View: Personal Accounts of Hawaii's Korean War Veterans
(Honolulu: U Hawai'i Pr, 2002). Also untapped is the U.S. Army
Military History Institute's Korean War Veterans Survey Project.
 Subtitle The History of the United States
Marine Corps (1980; rev. ed. NY: Free Press, 1991).