Island Infernos by John C McManus

This is book two of John C McManus epic trilogy on the US Army in the Pacific War, the sequel to “Fire and Fortitude”. That makes it a bit of an oddity, no doubt the Pacific War is usually about the Navy and Marines. Army history usually means Europe.

Yet the scope of Army involvement in the Pacific is actually huge. Best known would be MacArthur and his war in the South Pacific. As Volume Two here is all about 1944, this starts in New Guinea with a series of battles north and west up the northern coast of that huge island. Well before the end of 1944 New Guinea had become a backwater, so really this is the climax of that massive campaign.

There is also a fair amount here about China. Joe Stillwell and Frank Merrill may be the best known names in this part of the book. This would be warfare on a shoestring. Merrill’s Marauders (5307th Composite Unit) made quite a name for themselves with fierce combat in Burma. This theater involved very few resources, which led to the Marauders being used and used up. 1944 is also the year China lost most of its influence in the ongoing War effort. It was nearly impossible to make anything happen there, and Chaing Kai-shek was more interested in the civil war he knew was coming. This last finally led to less investment from Washington and the whole theater getting less involvement.

There is a full chapter devoted to the POW experience. Again, this is about 1944 so apart from some shuffling around between camps most prisoners were simply trying to survive it out at this point.

Finally, the Central Pacific gets a fair amount of attention. The previous volume had dealt with more of the Solomons campaign, but this has the Marshall Islands, Marianas and Angaur. The Marianas especially is a big chapter, largely due to the big controversy of the Marine General in overall command (Holland Smith) relieving an Army Division commander (Ralph Smith). No surprise, as an Army history this book is much more sympathetic towards Ralph Smith. But I would add, that seems to be the more recent trend of it; the relief seems to have a product of impatience and incomplete information.

1944 also meant the Central and South Pacific Campaigns finally coming together in the Philippines. Just Leyte here, subsequent actions, big actions on Luzon and elsewhere in the archipelago will be in the trilogy’s final volume. But it is particularly interesting seeing some of the stage set for those bigger battles. Also interesting to have the focus here on ground operations, no surprise I usually read naval and air.

Overall I would rank this as an excellent and thorough history. Every corner of the conflict seems well explored. Major personalities are looked at closely and how the Army operations tie into the “big picture” of the Pacific War is quite well covered. I will look forward to Volume Three
I do have one big complaint though, the writer gets very hung up trying to apply modern sensitivities to things. He frequently judges actions and comments as a 21st century academic. It makes me laugh, and steam, when he goes off on the insensitivity and “dehumanizing” practice of calling people “natives”… Oh brother, what have we come to. I guess I’ll have to stop calling myself an Illinois native. This hypersensitivity, and even worse, applying one’s own understanding of words and assuming the worst of people who are no longer even around to defend themselves (or tell you how it really was!) just staggers me. I truly am worried for what is being taught as “history” anymore. My big fear is a latent disrespect of those who went before us. And this is creeping into what is a military history, by a man who clearly loves the subject matter.

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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4 Responses to Island Infernos by John C McManus

  1. jfwknifton says:

    I fully agree with you about applying modern sensitivities to history. Some things are clearly wrong, and are wrong even by the code practiced by the baddies themselves. In this category are the FinalSolution, murdering prisoners, the slave trade and a hundred others to feel strongly about, but the contemporary choice of vocabulary is plain silly. To use a saying that you may have in the USA, “it’s re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”, or perhaps stacking them more neatly.

    • atcDave says:

      Yes, I agree exactly. Especially when the War illustrates pure evil in pretty graphic terms; fussing over over vocabulary that may, or may not have a nuance you don’t care for, seems silly.

  2. Dr. G says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Island Infernos but I agree with the creeping wokeness, even into military history by an excellent military historian. Does anyone have any idea if and when the 3rd installment of his trilogy may be released?

    • atcDave says:

      Amazon has a May 2, 2023 date on it. So far out things could still change! I remember Ian Toll’s Pacific War trilogy slipped by a couple years. But at least its planned under the title “To The End of the Earth”.
      I really do worry about this “woke” nonsense. I think it is corrosive to a serious study of history and fundamentally disrespectful to pretty much every human being who is not “woke”. At best, its comical. When every history has to be written to fit the current ideology, we have propaganda not actual history.

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