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Review: Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

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Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942
Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 by Ian W. Toll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 by Ian W. Toll. It covers the early portion of the Pacific Theater in World War II through the Battle of Midway from both the Allied and Japanese points of view. Due to an emphasis on communications intelligence, this book may also be of interest to the radio hobbyists that read my blog. 

Toll begins Pacific Crucible by looking at how the Japanese came to decide to go to War against the United States and taking a look at the states of the Japanese and US Navies. He also looks into the leadership of both navies, particularly Yamamoto, Nimitz, and King. After examining how the attack on Pearl Harbor came about, he explores the Europe-first strategy and how the war would be fought in the Pacific. From there, he goes through the early chronology of the Pacific War, showing how it was truly a closely run thing in the beginning but also showing how the United States Navy learned from it to become the force that would come to dominate the Pacific by the end of the War.

“Combat was a hard an unforgiving school, but the U.S. Navy was taking its lessons to heart. If the navy did one thing right after the debacle of December 7, it was to become collectively obsessed with learning and improving.”

One of the central themes of the book was the hubris and contempt with which both the Japanese and United States Navies held their opponent and how that changed through the early part of the war. The Japanese never really lost their contempt for the Americans and became infected with “Victory Disease” that clouded their judgement and created flaws in their planning. On the other hand, the Americans learned from each defeat at the hands of the Japanese, becoming a stronger and more effective fighting force in the process.

“By making believers out of the key decision makers in the upper ranks, who had entered naval service when radio technology was in its infancy, the victory at Midway ensured that communications intelligence would never again suffer for funding, manpower, or respect.”

As a lifelong radio enthusiast, I love Toll’s emphasis on the United States Navy’s communications intelligence operation. He not only describes how they came to get inside the Japanese Navy’s communications but also shows how the Navy’s leadership came to not only trust communications intelligence but put a premium on it in planning and decision making. It’s pretty cool that a group of folks who would today be considered geeks or nerds played a considerable role in not only the US victory at Midway, but the Allied victory in World War II as a whole (take into account Ultra and efforts into communications intelligence against Germany).

Pacific Crucible is well written and never falls into the history book trap of getting dry. He does a good job of developing the personalities of the leaders and doesn’t go into minutiae that would, while delighting the anorak, would turn off the casual reader. Reading the Kindle version, I was very pleased to find well placed maps of excellent quality that illustrated battle movements (which are frequently hard to visualize in naval battles). This is definitely a five star book and one that I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in how the United States Navy got off of the floor after receiving an almost knock out punch at Pearl Harbor, gathered itself together, and began to win World War II in the Pacific.

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2 Comments

  1. […] read that much about the early history of the service. After reading Ian W. Toll’s excellent Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942 I noticed that he also wrote a history of the early days of the Navy: Six Frigates: The Epic […]

  2. […] trilogy on World War II in the Pacific and picks up where the excellent first book in the trilogy, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942 left off. In Pacific Crucible, Toll chose a central premise – hubris and contempt – and […]

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