Following the model laid out by Band of Brothers, The Pacific begins with actual footage of Pearl Harbor and interviews with some of the veterans of the Pacific War. We’re rapidly approaching the time when the generation who fought in WWII will be gone and I find these interviews extremely valuable. In Band of Brothers, they were often the most heart-wrenching parts of each episode. I am immensely happy that The Pacific has continued using real footage and interviews – it reminds the audience that this show is based in fact and reality.
As I mentioned earlier, the United States was not ready to go to war with Japan on December 7th, 1941. While the American military had been anticipating a war with Japan for some time, they did not have the equipment or men needed to engage in a massive war halfway around the world. On August 7th, 1942, eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal became the first major offensive of the Pacific War precisely because the United States needed to spend that time training soldiers (marines specifically) to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific.
Thank god The Pacific included some maps in the beginning of this episode!! Looking at maps is absolutely vital to developing a clear understanding of the Pacific War. As I mentioned in my previous post, the sheer size of the Pacific Ocean made the Japanese-American War as much a war of logistics as anything else.
It’s important to ask yourself; Why Guadalcanal was important? Tom Hanks give you a good hint in the introduction of Part One – Guadalcanal was part of the spearhead of the Japanese South Pacific advance and could threaten the Allied line of communication with Australia. More importantly, Guadalcanal lay in between the joint Army-Navy advance and the Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain Island. It was the capture of this base that justified the invasion of the Solomons (including Tulagi and Guadalcanal) and New Guinea.
After some squabbling, the Army and Navy divided the offensive into three ‘tasks;’
- Task One would be an attack on Tulagi in the southern Solomons, led by Admiral Nimitz. (Guadalcanal was not even part of the initial plan, but when the Joint Chiefs of Staff received intelligence that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal (the so-called Henderson Field), it was also added to the list of objectives.)
- Task Two was an advance along the coast of New Guinea with a simultaneous advance up the Solomons.
- Task Three was the final assault on Rabaul, led by General MacArthur.
In the formal directive issued on July 2nd, 1942, the operation was codenamed WATCHTOWER.
Task One was the initial responsibility of the Navy and, with them, the Marine Corps. Under Admiral Nimitz, Rear Admiral Robert L. Ghormley was in overall charge of Task One. To give you an idea of how ill-prepared the military was for WATCHTOWER, I will quote Spector:
When Ghormley learned in late June of the impending operation, his amphibious assault force, the First Marine Division, was still at sea on its way to New Zealand. Its most experienced regiment, the Seventh Marines, had been sent to Samoa in April. The division was not combat-loaded. Its commander, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, had been assured by Admiral King that he need not expect a combat mission before 1943. Almost nothing was known about Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the Solomons beyond scattered reports from coastwatchers and a few old records in Australia.
Given the insufficient men, supplies and preparation, Ghormley and MacArthur requested WATCHTOWER be postponed. This completely infuriated Admiral King and Admiral Cooke, primarily because MacArthur had claimed only a few months earlier that he could storm not only Guadalcanal but Rabaul as well. They told Ghormley and MacArthur to get on with the operation, but did agree to delay D-Day from August 1st to August 7th.
The invasion of Guadalcanal came at the tail end of a series of monumental defeats of the Allied naval fleet at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Despite victories at Coral Sea and Midway, the navy would continue to suffer major defeats after the invasion. Given the high cost of engaging the Japanese Imperial Navy in battle, preservation of Allied naval vessels was a top priority during WATCHTOWER. On July 25th, most of what remained of the Allied fleet came together for the Guadalcanal invasion, including ships from Australia, New Zealand, Pearl Harbor and San Diego. Three of the four remaining carriers were there, along with a new battleship and a division of cruisers from the Royal Australian Navy. The breakdown of command went something like this –
- Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher – tactical command
- Rear Admiral V.A.C. Crutchley – command of the Royal Australian ships,
- Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner – command of the Amphibious Force South Pacific
- Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift – command of the First Marine Division.
Vice Admiral Fletcher was immediately skeptical about the invasion and his first concern was taking his carriers within range of the Japanese navy and airbases. His concerns were not without merit – as Spector points out, “The carriers represented three-quarters of the navy’s fighting strength in that category and no replacements could be expected for the next nine months.” With this in mind Fletcher insisted that he could only support the landings and keep his carriers exposed for two days. Both Turner and Vandegrift protested this decision, pointing out that it would take at least 4 days to get all the troops and their equipment on shore, but Fletcher refused to give them more time. So, the fleet sailed to Guadalcanal and the invasion began.
This is where The Pacific: Part One picks up. The episode includes the landing on Guadalcanal, the Battle of Savo Island, and the Battle of the Tenaru. It mainly serves to introduce Robert Leckie, part of the First Division of the Marine Corps and author of Helmet for My Pillow. Personally, I prefer Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed. Leckie published Helmet for My Pillow in 1957 and the book has a “We won the war, rah rah rah!” sort of attitude. Leckie doesn’t spend much time describing his combat experience (and when he does he makes it sound very poetic, in a biblical sort of way) and most of the book seems devoted to depicting the more routine aspects of military service – boot camp, guard duty, training, drinking, and digging foxholes.
Sledge, on the other hand, wrote and published With the Old Breed many years after the end of the conflict. It is clear that he has the utmost respect for his fellow marines and the Marine Corps, but the reader can also see that his combat experiences have had time to fester. Sledge reaches a much grimmer conclusion about war, which I find more genuine than Leckie’s.
That said, Helmet for My Pillow is a great book and reads more like Salinger than a war memoir. Unlike the common image of the enlisted marine, Robert Leckie was both smart and educated. Part One does its best to pound this point into the audience’s head, with Leckie’s character narrating over sections of the episode with profound and intellectual excerpts from his journal or letters back home. For example, as the marines prepare for the invasion, they ask Leckie was he thinks about the war. Leckie replies, “You want to know why we’re here?…Without a sign, his sword the brave man draws, and asks no omen but his country’s cause.” For those of you who care, that’s a quote from Homer, author of The Iliad and Odyssey.
The Landing: August 7th, 1942
Viewers who were expecting an amphibious landing like Normandy were probably surprised to see how little resistance the marines met when they landed on Guadalcanal. In fact, both Guadalcanal and Tulagi were occupied by a small number of Japanese troops, mostly construction crews, who were completely unaware of the American approach until Crutchley began shelling the islands on August 7th. When the shelling commenced, the Japanese troops fled into the jungle. The island and Henderson Field were in Americans hands by the end of the second day, August 8th.
The coconut scene in Helmet for My Pillow accurately demonstrates that surprise that Leckie felt when he landed on Guadalcanal and was greeted by palm trees rather than bullets. But, as I mentioned in THIS post, one of the things that I will really be looking for in The Pacific is a depiction of the divide between enlisted men and commissioned officers, as it was a prevalent theme in each book. I don’t want The Pacific to make officers seem like inept fools, because they certainly weren’t. But, there needs to be more tension between the solders. The coconut scene was a bit more forgiving to the sergeant than the scene described in Leckie’s book:
Sergeant Thinface screamed shrilly at someone opening a coconut.
“You wanna get poisoned! Doncha know then things could be full of poison?”
Everyone laughed. Thinface was so stupidly literal. He had been briefed on Japanese propensities for booby-trapping or for poisoning water supplies; thus, the coconuts were poisoned. No one bothered to point out the obvious difficulties involved in poisoning Guadalcanal’s millions of coconuts. We just laughed – and went on husking the nuts, cracking shells, drinking the cool sweet coconut milk. Thinface could only glower, at which he was expert.
I was very happy with how The Pacific portrayed both the jungle, which appeared rather sinister, and the gear that the marines had to carry with them as they moved through it. All marines had to carry a heavy and cumbersome amount of gear, with field packs that weighed about 70 pounds. At many points during the Guadalcanal campaign, marines could only move one or two miles a day, their progress hindered by the thick jungle, poor maps, and heavy gear. I plan to write an entirely separate post about the equipment used by both sides during the conflict and how the environment factored into their performance.
I am also very pleased that they kept the scene where the marine corpsman is killed by nervous friendly fire during the night. The marines were under constant lookout for enemy infiltration during the night. Japanese soldiers liked to slip into marine foxholes at night, carrying only a bayonet (the Arisaka rifle that the Japanese used had a rather telltale silhouette) and often dressed in dungarees they stripped from dead American soldiers. This tactic didn’t end up killing a lot of marines but it was psychologically effective. Marines used passwords to try and confirm the identity of men walking between foxholes at night, but it was not uncommon for a nervous marine to fire at unidentified shadows.
However, the scene where they find the dead soldiers in the jungle was not in the book. I believe they inserted this scene to add a bit of tension to the first episode – the first half of Part One is devoid of any real fighting. This scene is not in any way uncharacteristic of the conflict in the Pacific, so I think we can forgive the screenwriters for a bit of indulgence. However, I watched this episode with a Japanese friend and upon seeing this scene he immediately lamented, “Of course they’re only going to show the brutal side of the Japanese soldiers!” I asked him to be a bit more patient with the series and find out if they end up portraying the Japanese soldiers fairly. But, the inability to fairly depict the Japanese soldiers might turn out to be the biggest flaw of The Pacific.
The Battle of Savo Island: August 9th, 1942
As I mentioned before, the marines met little resistance and successfully captured Henderson Field on the first day. It was during the second day that things began to go poorly. Vice Admiral Fletcher, who was in tactical command of the American aircraft carriers, was extremely wary about exposing his carriers to attack from Japanese planes. At 6:00 PM on August 8th, Fletcher radioed Admiral Ghromley (who was back in New Zealand) with the following message:
Fighter strength reduced from 99 to 78. In view of large number of enemy torpedo planes and bombers in this area, I recommend the immediate withdrawal of my carriers. Request tankers be sent forward immediately as fuel running low.
Without waiting for a reply, he immediately left, leaving Turner’s Amphibious Force and Crutchley’s Royal Australian ships behind. Understandably, Admiral Turner was furious. Fletcher had withdrawn 12 hours earlier than planned – a plan which was already insufficient to transport all of the supplies on shore for the marines. As Spector points out, “He [Turner] considered it little better than desertion, and most historians have agreed with him. Samuel Eliot Morison points out that…his force could have remained in the area with no more severe consequence than sunburn.”
As Fletcher was sending his notification of withdrawal, MacArthur’s headquarters received a report that an Australian search plane had sighted Japanese warships heading south from Rabaul. Though the pilot had sighted the Japanese ships at 10:30 AM, he waited until after he had his afternoon tea to report it. The intelligence report did not reach the forces on Guadalcanal until 7:00 PM. The pilot also inaccurately described the Japanese force as three cruisers, thee destroyers, and two gunboats. In fact, the force was five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and a destroyer. This fleet was commanded by Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi, who was planning a night attack on the American ships at Guadalcanal.
These events are a good example of the crucial role that intelligence played in the war in the Pacific. Correctly and quickly relaying reports of enemy sightings had the potential to save entire fleets from Japanese surprise attacks. Unfortunately, the American military was only beginning to learn the importance of intelligence. Even though the Americans had learned how to decrypt Japanese messages since before 1941, they were often not fast enough to decrypt and relay the information in time to prevent surprise attacks. This is exactly what happened on August 8th.
Earlier that day, CINCPAC intelligence intercepted a message from Admiral Mikawa stating his plans to attack Guadalcanal. But, the Americans did not decrypt this message until August 23rd. Because Rear Admiral John S. McCain’s land-based search planes (Turner and Crutchley were unaware that the planes had been grounded due to bad weather) had not sighted any Japanese ships headed down ‘the Slot’ (Sealark Channel) they assumed that the Japanese naval force was setting up for a seaplane attack the next day, not for a surface attack that night. They were wrong.
That night at 1:30 AM, Mikawa’s fleet attacked the Allied ships and achieved complete surprise. Most of the American ships were only able to fire off a few salvoes. At 2:20 AM, Mikawa signaled for the withdrawal of his ships. In less than one hour, the Japanese had left four Allied cruisers sunk or sinking. Two destroyers and another cruiser were damaged. It was the worst American naval defeat since 1812.
This was this fight, the Battle of Savo Island, that Leckie and his fellow marines witnessed from Guadalcanal on the night of August 8th. This how Robert Leckie describes the battle:
The night I shall never forget.
I awoke in the middle of it to see the sky on fire. So it seemed. It was like the red mist of my childhood dream when I imagined Judgment to have come while I played baseball on the Castle Grounds at home. We were bathed in red light, as though fixed in the eye of Satan. Imagine a myriad of red traffic lights glowing in the rain, and you will have a replica of the world in which I awoke.
The lights were the flares of the enemy. They hung above the jungle roof, swaying gently on their parachutes, casting their red glow about. Motors throbbed above. They were those of Japanese seaplanes, we learned later. We though they were hunting us.
But they were actually the eyes of a mighty naval armada that had swept into Sealark Channel. Soon we heard the sound of cannonading, and the island trembled beneath us. There came flashes of light – white and red – and great rocking explosions. The Japs were hammering out one of their greatest naval victories. It was the Battle of Savo Island, what we learned later to call more accurately the Battle of the Four Sitting Ducks. They were sinking three American cruisers – the Quincy, Vincennes and Astoria – and one Australian cruiser – the Canberra – as well as damaging one other American cruiser and U.S. destroyer…
…it was dusk [August 9th] when we reached the beach. We saw wrecked and smoking ships – a clean, unshipped expanse of water between Guadalcanal and Florida Island.
Our Navy was gone.
After the Battle of Savo Island, the remaining Allied ships were forced to withdraw to a safer distance. Turner stayed until noon of August 9th, unloading supplies for the troops ashore, but the marines were still woefully undersupplied and would remain so for the next 6 weeks. They lacked barbed wire, radio equipment, construction equipment, food and were left with only 4 days’ supply of ammunition.
The Battle of the Tenaru AKA Battle of the Ilu River AKA Battle of Alligator Creek: August, 21st 1942
What would prove difficult for the marines on Guadalcanal was not capturing the island or Henderson Field but holding onto them. On Guadalcanal, the marines did not face a heavily fortified or entrenched enemy, but a slow and steady supply of reinforcements sent in by the Japanese. After Fletcher and his carriers deserted the marines and the devastating defeat of the remaining Allied fleet at the Battle of Savo Island, the Japanese Navy quickly regained control of the seaways surrounding Guadalcanal. Almost nightly, the Japanese would land troops and supplies on the beaches of Guadalcanal through the so-called ‘Tokyo Express.’ After dropping off their cargo, the Japanese ships would usually bombard Henderson Field with their artillery – making life miserable for the hungry, sleep-deprived marines and damaging the air field to prevent American air operations. Control of the air over Guadalcanal would give the Americans a decisive advantage in the weeks to come.
On August 18th, Colonel Ichiki Kiyonao was given command of a 1,000 man combat team and sent to Guadalcanal (ahead of Lieutenant General Hyakutaka Harukichi’s 6,000 man force) to recapture Henderson Field. They landed to the east of Henderson Field where Ichiki launched an ill-conceived attack against the well-defended marine perimeter along the Ilu River (called Alligator Creek in The Pacific: Part One). Vastly underestimating the strength of the Allied forces, Ichiki threw all of the men in the so-called ‘Ichiki Force’ into a head-on frontal assault of the night of August 18th. By daybreak, 917 of the 1,000 man-force had been killed. Clearly, the scene where Leckie looks out at a beach covered with dead bodies was not an exaggeration.
The Japanese assault at the Battle of the Tenaru gives us a good example of one of the major flaws in the Japanese Imperial Army’s strategic doctrine. I will refrain from getting into too much detail here, but during the 1920s and 1930s an ongoing rivalry between two Imperial Army factions (the Tosei-ha and the Kodo-ha) ended up producing a strategic doctrine that overemphasized the spiritual strength and fortitude of Japanese soldiers while brushing aside the more material concerns of strategy, logistics, and technologyl. Put simply, the Japanese Imperial Army based many of their military decision upon the (false) assumption that the spiritual strength of their soldiers would be the deciding factor in the conflict and would ultimately triumph in the face of America’s overwhelming advantage in raw materials, man power, technology, and equipment. This belief in the ability of the yamato damashii (Japanese spirit) to triumph over all odds and adversaries that was the primary logic behind the infamous Banzai! charges. Looking at the appallingly high Japanese casualty rates at conflicts like the Battle of the Tenaru, this was obviously not what ended up happening. Unfortunately, by the time the Japanese military realized this and began changing their tactics (as we will see in Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa), the scales had tipped in favor of America and it was too late.
The scene where the wounded Japanese soldier kills two corpsmen with a grenade while shouting, “Tenno heika BANZAI!” was not in Helmet for My Pillow. Nor was the scene with the Japanese soldier yelling, ‘Kill me!” while the marines take practice shots at him from across the river. Because neither of these scenes are a drastic departure from the nature of the conflict on Guadalcanal, I am willing to forgive these creative liberties. I can tell, though, that The Pacific is going to struggle with accurately representing why Japanese soldiers behaved this way. The series is about the experience of American Marines, so the subject of what motivated Japanese soldiers is a little outside the focus of the show. However, no attempt at portraying the Japanese side of the conflict might have the unintended effect of perpetuating America’s misinterpretation of the Japanese soldier. At this moment, I must say that Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima is the still the best representation of the Japanese soldier ever made, despite the Hollywood-ending.
The souvenir hunting scene also disappointed me. To put it bluntly, it wasn’t brutal enough. A fairly common thing for marines to do was pull the gold teeth out of the heads of dead Japanese soldiers. Perhaps the makers are still trying to portray the lingering innocence of the soldiers during this early point in the conflict. Guadalcanal was only the first in a series of long and bloody engagements and the soldiers are still comparatively innocent. However, if the depiction of souvenir-taking and the equally brutal treatment of Japanese soldiers by marines is not shown than I am going to be disappointed.
Spector, Ronald. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan. Vintage Books; New York, 1985.
Leckie, Robert. Helmet for My Pillow. Bantam Books; New York,1957.
 Spector, 186.
 Spector, 186.
 Spector, 190-191.
 Spector, 191.
 Spector, 192.
 Leckie, Robert. Helmet for My Pillow.
 Spector, 192.
 Spector, 192.
 Spector, 192.
 Spector, 193.
 Leckie, Robert. Helmet for My Pillow.
 Spector, 195.
Tags: bushido, constantine in tokyo, film review, HBO's The Pacific, Helmet for My Pillow, Japan, Japanese, Japanese history, Steven Spielberg, The Pacific, war, With the Old Breed, World War II, WWII