Pearl Harbor by Craig Nelson

So far on this site I’ve posted less than a dozen book reviews, yet I find myself now revisiting the Pearl Harbor raid.  No doubt this is an important and complicated event!

Join with me for a second look at this pivotal battle.

My previous book review on this subject was “Attack on Pearl Harbor” by Alan D. Zimm.  That was a detailed analysis of the military aspects of the attack.  Craig Nelson’s book is more of a narrative history.  He presents the history as a story going back to Matthew Perry bringing Japan into the global community by force.  The story gets more detailed and complicated as we get more into the causes of war, from the Sino-Japanese War to trade embargoes and high tension diplomatic discussions.

This book excels at presenting the story at its most human level with period documentation and many excellent anecdotes.  It continues well into the post-War period as it looks at how the event impacted people and two nations. I particularly appreciate the author’s willingness to deal with fall out and moral issues.

But that said I do have some serious reservations.  For one, the writer is very sloppy with technical details.  It is obvious he doesn’t really know much about aircraft and aviation.  And a closely related issue, he makes no effort to provide editorial corrections or footnotes to the many recollections that make his history.  That means if an eyewitness misinterpreted or mis-remembered what they saw there is no effort to identify the error.  This gets very confusing when multiple witnesses offer their takes on the same or related events and the reader is left to only wonder at discrepancies. Much of this jumped out at me because I’ve read dozens if not hundreds of books on this event and period (seriously, I own thousands of books on WWII, and only the smallest fraction of those have not been read yet).  So when a witness mentions 500 men killed on the Utah, I know this was exaggerated by about tenfold, and the text did offer the real number about 30 pages previous; but I think a footnote/reminder of the actual number would have been helpful.  And this sort of issue presents itself many, many times over the course of the book.

A second issue I had is the narrative structure.  The writer chooses to keep extended comments and eyewitness testimonies all in one piece, or in as few pieces as possible.  I can see some value in this, but it makes the reading of it jump all over the place.  We have Francis Gabreski remembering running to the flight line to try to get a plane in the air, and the story continues with his patrol over the burning harbor, without really mentioning that he got up several hours after the Japanese had left.  And then he moves on to the story of how Lts. Taylor and Welch got up and did battle that morning. He moves these recollections sort of geographically around Oahu.  Perhaps this is recreating his own research tour of the island.  But I think it would have flowed better if he kept to a tighter timeline of events.

The overall strength of the human story(s) presented combined with those weaknesses make this a recommended read with reservations. For any reader looking for a solid introduction to these events I would recommend something else. The best basic histories will remain Day of Infamy by Walter Lord (very easy to follow narrative); At Dawn We Slept by Gordon Prange (more detailed and involved in every level); and But Not in Shame by John Toland (excellent narrative that continues the story through the Battle of Midway).
Many later writers have added details, especially of the military issues.  A few writers, like Mr Nelson here, have loaded us up with the personal memoirs of the event. We truly have a staggering volume of material on this subject.  But I will always recommend a solid understanding of the history of the event before checking out a book that mostly adds color or detail.

~ Dave 

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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8 Responses to Pearl Harbor by Craig Nelson

  1. jfwknifton says:

    A very fair and constructive review.

  2. atcDave says:

    One thought I had in reading this book is a little broader than just review. That is, I’ve seen a couple histories recently use sections from novels. I think this a poor technique, potentially misleading and just bad history.
    In this book the author uses snippets from “From Here to Eternity”. The book was written by an eyewitness to Pearl Harbor; but the book is a novel. It is a dramatization of events. It may have been inspired by what the author saw, but it was never even intended as an accurate recounting of events.
    Another book I recently read included bits from “Slaughterhouse Five”. Same comments apply.

    This is a troubling trend. Modern readers my be truth challenged and unable to separate truth from fiction. Some historians aren’t helping matters.

  3. If a book is intended to be factual then it should stay factual. Using eye witness accounts to support the facts are important as they add detail and bring the facts to life. Historical errors are sometimes inevitable, but it sounds like the problem here is just poor organisation or planning. A nicely balanced critique. Andy

    • atcDave says:

      I picked up on a lot of energy and passion, but not so much discipline. It’s a useful but flawed project.

      • And I think that’s what makes the difference between a good and brilliant writer. Passion is half the battle and you can see that in many texts. Getting it disciplined is the hard part. I draft and edit my own writing so many times and that’s not even a book!

      • atcDave says:

        Yes absolutely. I read a lot of amateur fiction and see that often.

        Of course I’m also probably guilty of more energy than care.

  4. Pingback: Countdown to Pearl Harbor by Steve Twomey | Plane Dave

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