{Printer Friendly}

Hal M. Friedman

Review of Evan Thomas, Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Pp. 415. ISBN 978-0-7432-5221-8.

Evan Thomas's Sea of Thunder is one of the latest books written by largely amateur historians about the Pacific War. More particularly, Thomas's work focuses on two American and two Japanese commanders at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944: Admiral William Halsey and Commander Ernest Evans of the U.S. Navy and Vice Admirals Kurita Takeo and Ugaki Matome of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). Thomas's book takes one or two new interesting turns in its coverage of this battle, but does not develop those new areas, leaving the reader with another Pacific War account that simply rehashes old material.

Thomas covers the prewar and wartime periods by tracing the lives of the selected officers. He especially looks at their formative years as midshipmen at the U.S. and IJN Naval Academies at Annapolis and Eta Jima, respectively, and how naval education at those institutions created "warriors" for the two nations. Thomas also devotes considerable space to the "inner conflicts" in these officers' lives, especially the Japanese, who had divided loyalties to the Throne, the IJN, and the men under their command. The book goes back and forth between the American and Japanese officers as the two nations become interwar rivals and then wartime adversaries. The majority of the book is then devoted to the progression of the Pacific War itself, and especially the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

One or two new and interesting subjects are unfortunately not developed at all. For instance, Thomas's book, to this reviewer's knowledge, is the first from which we learn a great deal about Commander Ernest Evans, the daring commanding officer of the destroyer USS Johnston. Evans's actions during the Battle of Leyte Gulf were truly exemplary and Thomas is rightfully in awe of the man, but he does not deal with the context of Evans's life as fully as he could. We learn, for instance, that Evans was Cherokee Indian and raised in fairly horrible conditions typical of American Indian reservations in the 1910s and 1920s. Thomas lets it be known how rare it was at that time for someone of Evans's ethnic heritage to gain entry into the U.S. Naval Academy from the Navy's enlisted ranks. But that is essentially where he stops on this part of his subject. The reality is that Evans must have been highly extraordinary to get off the reservation in the first place. Even more unusual is the fact that he obtained entry to Annapolis from the Navy's enlisted ranks, something that almost never happened in those days. Not only did Evans break all kinds of racial barriers in his entrance to the Naval Academy, he overcame institutional "glass ceilings" as well. Thomas mentions these things but without developing them. One would like to know more about factors in Evans's family background that helped him in his education, motivated him to join the Navy, and enabled him to overcome the prejudices in the fleet to obtain an Academy appointment. Again, these are all mentioned by Thomas but not in as thorough a manner as the rarity of the accomplishments requires.

Having said this, there is not much more that is new in this book. In fact, one wonders why it was written. Thomas employs a variety of primary and secondary sources, but most of the former are diaries, memoirs, and even interrogations of former officers, some written right after the war but some decades afterward. While such sources can be valuable, they are also highly self-serving. Moreover, they are not necessarily the best material to draw on, since at least the U.S. primary source documentation from the battle itself, such as after-action combat reports, is now declassified and readily available. Just as problematic is that Thomas uses many of the secondary sources on the battle as body for his text instead of exploring those sources as a route to a new interpretation of the battle. In fact, except for the new material on Evans, the book is largely a repetition of work by previous historians.[1] Another potentially interesting point is that Admiral Kurita may have withdrawn from the battle against Taffy Three so as to spare his men a meaningless death, but even that idea was first posited by Ito Masanori.[2]

Additionally, Thomas clearly does not understand the contexts about which he is writing, either the American naval one or the Japanese cultural one. His early references to the four officers as "warriors" fit the two Japanese commanders, given that the Japanese military did habitually refer to themselves as such. But Thomas's reference to Halsey and Evans as warriors does not at all fit the context of mid-twentieth-century American naval professionals. To those two men, "warriors" denoted savagery and, at best, un-professionalism; neither would have so referred to himself or his colleagues. Evans, in particular, would have been extraordinarily sensitive to this. Being known as "the Chief" at Annapolis was one thing, but he would never have wanted to be known as anything but a professional naval officer in other contexts. "Warriors" is a term from 1990s, post-Vietnam, "greatest generation" American rhetoric rather than the 1940s U.S. Navy. The word's very use indicates a serious lack of contextual knowledge on the author's part.

Other problems also ensue from this lack of contextual awareness. In the introduction, Thomas states that Japan was the "clear" aggressor in the Pacific War. That quick conclusion is fine for the reactionary side of the history culture wars of post-Cold War America, but scholarship on the Pacific War (see below) more accurately indicates that Thomas takes a very biased, American perspective on the start of the war. The Japanese saw, and still see, the war as a defensive one on their part in opposition to U.S. Open Door imperialism. Given that these points are obviously debatable, Thomas has a responsibility to communicate divergent perspectives rather than simply assuming U.S. moral rectitude. Similarly, Thomas sees the war as essentially a cultural clash between the U.S. and Japan, an idea probably borrowed from John W. Dower.[3] However, primary source research[4] has shown that the war was much more a strategic clash between two powers that wanted to dominate East Asia and the Western Pacific. Culture was important but not the sole cause of the conflict.

Another shortcoming is Thomas's reliance on outdated sources. For instance, he asserts that the Japanese base at Truk was "illegally" fortified by Japan in the 1930s in violation of its League of Nations mandate. This despite his interview with Mark Peattie, the historian who demonstrated in the 1980s,[5] using extant IJN planning documents, that Japan did not begin to fortify Micronesia until after it had withdrawn from the League in 1934! At another point, Thomas speaks of the Japanese Decisive Battle doctrine being focused on battleships, failing to use the latest primary research from Asada Sadao,[6] who has shown that the doctrine changed in the 1920s and 1930s with the addition of submarines and shore-based naval air forces. Poor research again shows when Thomas states in Chapter 15 that land-based bombing of Japanese cities by the U.S. Army Air Forces led to Japanese starvation before the dropping of the atomic bombs. The reality, as Clay Blair has shown,[7] was that the U.S. submarine blockade shut down the Japanese economy and brought on the collapse. It has become "politically correct" in the last few years to pay homage to the "bomber boys" and the U.S. Air Force's claims about strategic bombing "doing it all," but Thomas's research would have shown something different had it been competently done.

Given these serious weaknesses in scholarship and originality, it is unclear why this book was published, other than for monetary purposes. Of course, many books like this one have been published in the last few years, largely by amateur historians who really do not understand what scholarly or even good popular history based on primary sources is about. Furthermore, editorial staffs at major, for-profit publishing houses are just as ignorant about what has been written on the war and what still needs to be covered. This situation is made worse by an American public that voraciously consumes newly-written World War Two history without understanding that much of that history has already been written by previous authors in a more thorough and professional manner. History for the general public is a positive thing, whether it is written by professionals or amateurs, but blindly putting out poorly done and unoriginal material is not the best route to take.

Henry Ford Community College


[1] See, e.g., Edwin P. Hoyt, The Men of the Gambier Bay: The Amazing True Story of the Battle of Leyte Gulf (1979; rpt. Guilford, CT: Lyons Pr, 2003) and The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Death Knell of the Japanese Fleet (NY: Weybright & Talley, 1972); Clark G. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers: The Forging of an Air Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Inst Pr, 1992); Elmer B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Inst Pr, 1976), Bull Halsey (Annapolis, MD: Naval Inst Pr, 1985), and Admiral Arleigh Burke (NY: Random House, 1990); Thomas Buell, The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (1974; rpt. Annapolis, MD: Naval Inst Pr, 1987) and Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980); John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945 (NY: Random House, 1970); Thomas J. Cutler, The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 23–26 October, 1944 (NY: HarperCollins, 1994); and H.P. Willmott, The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action (Bloomington: Indiana U Pr, 2005).

[2] The End of the Imperial Japanese Navy, trans. Andrew Y. Kuroda & Roger Pineau (NY: Norton, 1962).

[3] War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (NY: Pantheon, 1986).

[4] See esp. Herbert Feis, The China Tangle: The American Effort in China from Pearl Harbor to the Marshall Mission (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Pr, 1953); Dorothy Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933–1938: From the Manchurian Incident through the Initial Stage of the Undeclared Sino-Japanese War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Pr, 1964); Akira Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Pr, 1981); Warren F. Kimball, The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt As Wartime Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Pr, 1991); Michael Schaller, The U.S. Crusade in China, 1938–1945 (NY: Columbia U Pr, 1979); Waldo Heinrichs, Threshold of War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Entry into World War II (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1988); and Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945 (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1995).

[5] See esp. Nan'yo: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese in Micronesia, 1885–1945 (Honolulu: U Hawaii Pr, 1988).

[6] From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States from Mahan to Pearl Harbor (Annapolis, MD: Naval Inst Pr, 2006).

[7] Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1975).