THE FLEET AT FLOOD TIDE: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945. By James D. Hornfischer. Bantam Books. 602 pages. $35.
Acclaimed World War II historian James D. Hornfischer has a crafted an impressive and fast-paced narrative on the pivotal battle for the Mariana Islands in his latest book “The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945.”
A New York Times bestselling author, Hornfischer is the dean of World War II naval history. His first book, 2004’s “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” about the battle at Leyte Gulf, is a classic, and no doubt, one of the top World War II history sellers in recent memory.
Two years later, Hornfischer published “The Ghost Ship,” about the sinking of the cruiser USS Houston followed by his 2011 book “Neptune’s Inferno,” a bestseller about the Navy’s fight for Guadalcanal.
In his latest book, Hornfischer has set his storytelling sights on the 1944 battle for the Mariana Islands, which consist of Guam, Saipan and Tinian.
These islands were the crown jewel in the American Navy’s slugfest across the central Pacific. The reason, of course, was that control of the Marianas — and more specifically, their crushed coral runways — would for the first time put the Japanese mainland in range of B-29 bombers, Boeing’s aeronautical monster that would allow the United States to begin firebombing Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and other industrial centers.
The Japanese understood that reality, and the ensuing battle for this priceless Pacific real estate proved a bloodbath, one Hornfischer captures in unflinching detail. To tell this story, he drops the reader into the amtanks that rumbled ashore on Saipan amid fierce Japanese resistance. He relates the story of one Marine, who took two enemy rounds to the head, one of which managed to pierce his helmet and knock him unconscious. The only thing that saved him was the voice of his 4-year-old son echoing in the back of his head.
“Get up, Daddy,” the dazed Marine heard his son demand. “Get up, Daddy.”
In another anecdote, Hornfischer tells the story of a Marine under fire by a Japanese machine gun, who looks at the blasted remains of the man next to him. “I could see daylight through him,” the Marine later said.
The fighting was so treacherous that American troops often refused to take prisoners, but simply eliminated the enemy. Likewise, Marines skipped burying the Japanese dead, choosing instead to douse them in gasoline and torch them. “We figured if they were dead they weren’t a problem any more, at least not much of a problem,” Hornfischer quotes a Marine captain.
Along similar lines, Hornfischer describes how one Japanese officer, facing advancing American troops, beheaded four of his own men to prevent them from being captured.
One of the big tragedies of the Marianas campaign was the mass suicides of Japanese civilians, a story Hornfischer explores in depth. Parents strangled their children and tossed them from atop cliffs into the ocean only to jump seconds later after them.
“It’s just the damnedest feeling deep in your stomach when you see somebody die like that, especially women and young children, babies even,” one American sailor later said.
The latter half of the book focuses largely on how America’s seizure of the Marianas paved the way for Japan’s defeat.
Though he dutifully covers the incendiary attacks in early 1945, Hornfischer largely builds his narrative around Paul Tibbets, the pilot who led the Aug. 6 atomic bombing attack on Hiroshima.
In his capable hands, the story races along like an intense thriller with the reader in the cockpit of the Enola Gay, named for Tibbets’ red-haired mother in Miami.
Just as he had practiced, Tibbets released his 9,000-pound bomb over Hiroshima and banked to escape. Hornfischer chronicles the second the bomb detonated with the powerful prose of a poet: “A flash of light drained all color from the world.”
He then takes the reader down to the ground to show what it was like for the Japanese, including Michiko Yamaoka, who was just five hundred meters from ground zero. “There was no sound. I felt something strong,” Hornfischer quotes Yamaoka. “I felt colors. It wasn’t heat. You can’t really say it was yellow, and it wasn’t blue.”
One of Hornfischer’s great strengths is his uncanny ability to shift from the lofty 30,000-foot command view down to the 30-foot perspective of the sandy Marine on the beach. The end result is a narrative that is both comprehensive and authoritative yet gritty and real.
Hornfischer likewise has an incredible eye for detail and images, describing at one point how a shipyard, faced with rationed grease, smeared the skids with ripe bananas to help launch new vessels. Other times his writing is truly elegant, like his image of parachutes on the sea “drifting like great jellyfish.”
“The Fleet at Flood Tide” is narrative nonfiction at its finest — a book simply not to be missed.
Reviewer James Scott is the author of “Target Tokyo,” “The War Below,” and “The Attack on the Liberty.” He lives in Mount Pleasant.