By RONALD SPECTOR
Published: January 7, 2007
A peculiar characteristic of warfare after 1945 was that while navies became steadily more powerful and more expensive, naval battles — that is, combat between fleets of ships at sea — became almost extinct. Thus it is easy to understand the fascination of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the last great naval confrontation of the 20th century, fought from Oct. 23 to 26, 1944, between the American and Japanese Navies in the waters off the Philippines. The scale of the battle was immense, involving four separate engagements extending over hundreds of miles, between fleets that included 35 large and small aircraft carriers, 21 battleships, 34 cruisers and hundreds of destroyers, along with submarines and motor torpedo boats and more than 1,700 aircraft.
SEA OF THUNDER
Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945.
By Evan Thomas.
Illustrated. 415 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27.
Forum: Book News and Reviews
A number of talented authors have written about Leyte Gulf, among them C. Vann Woodward, the great historian of the American South, and James A. Field Jr., who was actually there, and won a Bronze Star. Samuel Eliot Morison devoted an entire volume to the battle in his “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.” Now Evan Thomas is trying his hand, and it’s likely his predecessors would have enthusiastically approved of the result. “Sea of Thunder” is an engaging and thorough account based on extensive research in both the United States and Japan that describes the war in the Pacific and culminates at Leyte Gulf.
An assistant managing editor at Newsweek, Thomas is the author of books on Washington politics and American espionage, as well as a biography of John Paul Jones. He is known for his ability to explain and illuminate important and complex developments in government, international behavior and crisis decision making through a close exploration of the beliefs, personalities and formative experiences of the key players. His approach here is again to focus on personalities: Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita, the top Japanese naval commander; Adm. William F. (Bull) Halsey, commander of the American Third Fleet; Vice Adm. Matome Ugaki, who commanded a battleship division that included the world’s two largest battleships; and Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, captain of the destroyer Johnston.
Halsey and Kurita are obvious choices. They were the leading commanders at Leyte Gulf, and both committed almost inexplicable errors in the course of the battle. But it is unclear why Ugaki and Evans are included. Evans, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, commanded a ship famous for its brave fight against overwhelming odds in the climactic phase of one engagement, and Ugaki left a detailed diary that has been a useful source for historians. Yet neither man played an important role in determining the course or outcome of the battle.
Thomas presents his four subjects as different types of warriors. Halsey, one of the greatest popular heroes of the war, became a prisoner of his own legend. Evans, a Cherokee who was imbued with the warrior tradition of his American Indian community, was the complete fighter, in an echo of John Paul Jones. Ugaki exemplified the unthinking militarism and the kamikaze spirit — indeed he became a kamikaze — of many Japanese career officers, while Kurita represented a more complicated type; he was a military leader unwilling to sacrifice lives endlessly in a hopeless enterprise.
The four engagements collectively referred to as the Battle of Leyte Gulf resulted from the Japanese Navy’s all-out effort to halt or fatally damage Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s invasion of the island of Leyte in the Philippines. This was a place the Japanese could ill afford to lose because it lay across Japan’s supply lines to its recent conquests in Southeast Asia. So the Japanese developed a complicated plan. The basic idea was to use the navy’s few remaining aircraft carriers, with their handful of planes and pilots, as bait to lure Halsey’s Third Fleet, the strongest part of the American naval forces, far to the north. While Halsey pursued the almost empty carriers, two additional fleets, composed of Japan’s still numerous battleships and cruisers, would pass through the narrow seas and straits of the Philippines and destroy the American landing forces off Leyte.
The Japanese suffered heavy losses but their plan succeeded because of the Americans’ divided command and their unbelievably poor communications. Halsey took the bait and steamed north. Meanwhile, Kurita brought his battered but still formidable fleet through to Leyte, where he found only the small escort carriers and destroyers of Rear Adm. Clifton Sprague supporting the landing operations. Convinced he was closing in on the heart of the Japanese fleet, Halsey repeatedly disregarded desperate calls for help from American forces around Leyte. Finally, a partly garbled message from Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, which Halsey interpreted as a rebuke, caused him to steam south, far too late to reach the battle scene.
Left unsupported, Sprague’s forces put up an unexpectedly fierce fight in which Evans played a starring role. Nevertheless, the American forces would have been annihilated had not Kurita decided to withdraw. This seemingly inexplicable decision has been the subject of speculation in Japan and the United States ever since. Thomas’s explanation, relying on new evidence from his Japanese informants, may be the best available. He argues that Kurita simply could not bring himself to sacrifice thousands of lives.
Thomas’s discussion of Kurita’s and Halsey’s strange behavior is balanced and judicious. He presents their decisions as based as much on their personalities as on their reading of the tactical situation. Halsey, for instance, is presented as an aggressive fighter who let his aggressiveness get the better of him in trying to win a decisive victory.
Still, while Thomas’s personality-based approach has many advantages, it can easily overshadow other considerations that are at least as important in forming a judgment about these four individuals. Thomas does not really do justice to Halsey’s fine work in the South Pacific theater in 1943 where, in effect, he functioned as the head of what would now be called a joint and combined command, a job that demanded different qualities than those of a plain-spoken sea-chief. Similarly, Thomas suggests the differences in outlook and behavior between Kurita and Ugaki can be explained simply in terms of their relationship to Japan’s militarist culture. Yet they were men associated with separate factions within the Imperial Navy whose differences dated back to the early 1920s; factions that carried on their rivalries with only slightly less ruthlessness and fanaticism than they carried on the war.
In the end, however, what makes “Sea of Thunder” a singularly appropriate explication of Leyte Gulf is the reality of the battle itself. The outcome was determined not by technology and tactics. Victory in the South Pacific ultimately depended on human judgment and will.
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