S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Archive for the tag “Military”

Book Review – Triumph at Imphal-Kohima: How the Indian Army Finally Stopped the Japanese Juggernaut

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Rating – Two Stars

Callahan reports on the little known yet profoundly important British India/Japan campaign in 1944. The Imperial Japanese Army launched an invasion of India’s eastern frontier. Streaming out of occupied Burma, the former British crown colony, they achieved initial success and threatened the capture of the key Indian city of Imphal in Manipur State. The Fourteenth Indian Army, under the command of British Lieutenant General William Slim, crushed the invading Japanese and began the conquest of Burma. This Indian Army was composed of revitalized Indian divisions, Gurkha Rifles battalions, and British elements.

Of note is the several-hundred-word account of the Bengal radical Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army, allied with the Japanese.

Unfortunately, Callahan’s account is inept. His narrative is far too detailed for the lay reader, and it’s too befuddling for the military cognoscenti. His failure to include large- and small-scale maps that depict the geography and military movements is an egregious blunder that negates, in large measure, the value of this book. His narrative lacks chronological coherence—the narrative wanders back and forth in time and we do not get a clear understanding of what is happening with who, where, and why. It is repetitive to a crippling fault. It is seriously overwritten—there’s far too much detail that’s irrelevant to the primary story and beclouds the essential points.

The author’s failure to split frequently his text into paragraphs hinders comprehension. Some paragraphs are a page long and others longer. And, frequently, Army element numbers (XIV, for example) suffuse through the pages to an inordinate extent, to the point that they become noise in our reading process. Well-planned tables would have helped clarify this printed din. Images of the key persons would augur well for engendering reader empathy.

I wonder why the editor at the University of Kansas Press did not exercise more control over this narrative. It had the potential to be a much-needed and valuable account of this crucial battle that threatened the East India Company Raj.

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Book Review – Unbroken

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Rating – Five Stars

Unbroken is an intensely gripping book. I read page after page after page until my roiling mind demanded that I quit. I could not. Unbroken is a dismaying book. I wanted to toss it into the trash to relieve my emotional distress. I could not. My empathy was too intense.

I continued reading and reading about the horrifying images Hillenbrand penned of the dehumanizing tortures and starvation diets the Japanese guards inflicted on our Allied prisoners of war during World War II. (The war in the Pacific raged from 7 December 1941 to 2 September 1945.)

Her storytelling skills engender intense and disturbing emotions. Perhaps I should note that I am a retired naval intelligence officer and one of my specialties was Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE). I had some experience in Operation Homecoming in early 1970—the repatriation of our prisoners of war from the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam.

Hillenbrand’s gripping narrative of Louis Zamperini (1917 to 2014) is adroitly compelling. Zamperini was a distance runner who ran the 5,000 meter race in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He finished 8th. As the Pacific War loomed, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier in a Consolidated B24 Liberator squadron. In a search and rescue operation in May 1943, his B24 crashed into the ocean.

Zamperini, Russel Allen Philip, the pilot, and Francis McNamara, waist gunner, survived and drifted in the Pacific in lashed-together rafts for 47 days. I’ll not detail their struggle for survival in this review—suffice to say, their schemes to garner food and portable water were exceptionally innovative. On the 33rdday, McNamara died. After 47 days, Zamperini and Philip were gaunt and covered with saltwater sores. Their raft drifted onto a small island in the Marshall Islands and Japanese naval personnel captured them. The pair had drifted about 2,000 nautical miles.

I’ll not detail more of Hillenbrand’s narrative. It’s up to you, dear reader. In summary, I do not recommend this book for the “weak of heart.”

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Review – The Siege of Tsingtau

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Four Stars

The Siege of Tsingtau is a professional read. Stephenson threads the narrative with insightful analysis and precise detail that oftentimes are primarily apt for the military historian. Nonetheless, he develops with absolute clarity this little known, yet critically important, battle of World War One with long-range repercussions on the Pacific War of the 1940s.

In the early twentieth century, the Empire of Japan had no pressing quarrel with Imperial Germany. As World War One erupted in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the quasi-military government of the Land of the Rising Sun seized a golden opportunity and on 14 August 1914 declared war on Deutschland. Japan’s goals were twofold: to counter Germany’s imperialist expansion in the Orient and to capture Germany’s vast central-Pacific empire stretching some 2,300 nautical miles across the ocean. Included were the Caroline Islands, Marshalls, Marianas, Pelews, Maloelap, and others—an area that encompassed all of Micronesia.

Within 86 days, the Imperial Japanese Army had captured Imperial Germany’s Oriental possessions and Pacific Ocean colonies, including the leased German Kiautschou Protectorate on China’s Shantung peninsula and its port city Tsingtau. The Japanese conducted their siege campaign thoroughly, professionally, and, most importantly, effectively. In fairness, the German defenders were naval infantry personnel who were outnumbered in personnel and overwhelmed in equipment and training.

The German East Asiatic Naval Squadron, which consisted of two armored cruisers, the SMS Scharnhorst and the SMS Gneisenau, and four light cruisers, escaped the Japanese naval blockade and steamed toward Germany’s colonies in Micronesia. An Imperial Japanese Navy task force, led by the battle cruiser IJN Shikshim, pursued the escaping German squadron with the ostensible goal of destroying it, thus ensuring safe passage for Allied commerce in the central Pacific.

However, when the Imperial Japanese Navy reached Germany’s Pacific Ocean possessions in the central and southern Pacific, they abandoned the pursuit and let the German squadron sail eastward towards Frederikshavn, their home port.

Japan’s victory secured and expanded its existing political and economic position in the Orient. More importantly, Japan took possession of German Micronesia and established a “Bamboo Curtain” that flanked any line of communication across the central Pacific and prevented passage through the area, all in violation of Japan’s League of Nations mandate. Shortly, the Japanese Imperial Navy began the fortification of key islands, the preliminary phase of their planned Pacific War with the Occidental colonial powers. Such bases included Saipan in the Marianas, Truk, Ponape and the Palau Islands in the Carolines, and Kwajalein, Wotje, and Jaluit in the Marshall—names all too familiar to our Greatest Generation.

FIN

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Book Review – Flyboys: A True Story of Courage

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Rating – Three Stars

As usual, my simple mind is confused. I do not know what to make of this book. It’s not a history of naval aviation in World War II, and it’s not a personal memorial to all the lost fliers “that did not return” to their aircraft carriers. It is a salmagundi of stories of naval aviators mostly dying. It’s a compendium of personal insights into naval aviators—officers and enlisted men that did not return—mostly.

Aside: Bradley’s use of “boys” throughout the text is an abomination and insult to the men of naval aviation who fought the good fight in the Pacific Campaign—many of whom did not return. I was in naval aviation for my entire career in the United States Navy. Prejudice against such disrespect is entrenched in me.

Also, to my amazement, Bradley fashioned the Japanese soldiers as “boys.” They were men.

Bradley rants pointedly about the USA’s eeevil colonialism in the Philippines and the diabolical war we waged on the populace—the slaughter of innocent civilians, internment camps, and the scorched-earth policy. I wonder what this screed contributed to Flyboys—perhaps only that war is Hell.

His detailed account of the Doolittle Raiders’ bombing of Japan on 18 April 1942 is compelling.

Bradley gets credit for his excellent research. His exposition of the Japanese army’s  training, discipline, and inexorable top-down chain of command is keenly informative and explains, in large measure, the inability of the on-scene commanders and their subordinates to make any decision of import without approval from the senior military clique in Tokyo—the “Spirit Warriors.” Of particular note is his explanation of their total disregard for the lives of their men. They sent soldiers to isolated islands. Their orders were to kill the American devils and to die for the Emperor. Surrender or failure to die was dishonorable and brought shame to their families. It was the Bushido code updated for the Pacific War.

Here’s one example. Japanese high command sent 130,000 troops to the island of New Guinea. After our navy’s victory in the battle of the Bismarck Sea, the Japanese soldiers were trapped. No supplies could reach them and there was no escape. The high command lacked concern—it was the vagaries of war and these men would die an honorable death. Nonetheless, the soldiers fought the Australian and American forces until almost all of the Japanese were dead—either killed or dead of disease and starvation. It’s in this story that Bradley tells us how the starving Japanese soldiers killed their own to keep from starving to death.

Bradley’s writing style is easy, fluid, and empathetic. And, that’s part of the problem with his book—it’s too empathetic, too vivid. We become immersed in his stories—we are at the location witnessing the details of the hideous torture, barbaric assassination, and gruesome cannibalism of our naval aviators. We attend the Japanese officers’ dining table to share the thigh of an enlisted gunner’s mate. Naturally, the reigning general has first pick.

Flyboys is a book suffused with death, torture, and cannibalism. I reckon that these horrors happened, but Bradley doesn’t have to be so dammed graphic about the details. This is not a book for the squeamish, the prudish, or the honorable warrior—in fact, I feel it’s a book solely for the Judge Advocate Generals.

My heart is greatly troubled by Bradley’s narrative. I regret having read his book. I’ve not slept well these past few nights. His images are too powerful. Flyboys is too personal, too engaging. I don’t want to witness the ignominious fate of my shipmates.  

Note: Many of these Japanese criminals were convicted of crimes and hung from the gallows.

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Book Review- The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945

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Rating – Five Stars

Toland presents in this superb tome a view of the Pacific War (1941-1945) that most of us have never thought about or seen. He writes in a smooth, engaging style. We are engrossed in the narrative of this page-turner. We view the details of this horrendous campaign from the Japanese perspective—it’s an eye opener incarnate. I was a young teenager on 7 December 1941, and followed the war closely in the papers, radio, and in newsreels. Finally, after all those years, I have a new perspective of the wherewithal—and it’s engaging.

In essence, the Japanese government and military convinced themselves and their public that the United States of America caused this war. Their rationale is complicated, self-deluding, and ignores their long-term ambitions of conquest.

As early as the late nineteenth century, the Japanese military had devised a scheme, dubbed the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, designed to forcefully take the rich natural resources of Southeast Asia that the home islands were deficient in—needed to make Japan a great nation. Such resources include: oil, rubber, tin, manganese, iron, silver, and a host of other items.

Following, Japan waged aggressive wars with its neighbors to implement this conquest plan: Sino-Japanese War, 1894 to 1895; Russo-Japanese War, 1904 to 1905; World War I, 1914 to 1945, Changkufeng incident with the USSR in 1938, Khalkhin Gol conflict with the USSR in 1939.

Tensions grew between Japan and the USA during the 1930s after the Kwantung Army invaded and conquered the Chinese Province Manchuria. In 1936, Japan invaded China proper. Within a few days, the Kwantung Army captured Peking, Shanghai, and other coastal cities.

In 1941 Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo told the Japanese Diet, “The Greater East Asia war is founded on the exalted ideals of the founding of our empire and it will enable all the nations and peoples of Greater East Asia to enjoy life and to establish a new order of coexistence and co-prosperity on the basis of justice with Japan as the nucleus.”

In July 1941, the Japanese Army invaded French Indochina for its many resources including rubber—the essential commodity for war. A few days later, President Roosevelt ordered all Japanese assets frozen and a complete embargo of oil and other resources. Great Britain and the Netherlands followed. These actions denied Japan her rightful place as the leader of Asia and challenged her very existence. Every day the Japanese navy consumed twelve thousand tons of irreplaceable bunker oil. With only a small reserve, Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye said, “…the armed forces would be a helpless as a whale thrown up on the beach.”

At the military’s urging, Tojo convinced the Diet and Emperor Michinomiya Hirohito, to authorize the military to implement Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan to attack secretly the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; and for the Army to launch the invasion of Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Burma, Siam, the Philippines, Netherland East Indies, Guam, Wake Island, New Guinea, and Portuguese Timor.

From time to time, Toland personalizes the war, and we see the conflict from the perspective of the ordinary Japanese soldier. For example, we follow privates engaged in the Guadalcanal campaign, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Leyte, Saipan, and Okinawa. Surprisingly, we begin to empathize with them—our pernicious enemy. Occasionally, he fails to follow through and we know not what happened to the soldier—killed, suicide, wounded, captured, survived?

I do have a few “picks to nit.” The most serious is Tolan’s diminution of the Japanese barbarous atrocities: the Bataan death march, Rape of Nanking, Death Railway in Siam, Rape of Manila, and many thousand other mistreatments of military prisoners of war and civilian captives. His Spartan coverage of these Japanese transgressions is curious—it’s almost a passing reference.

For the aficionados of the Pacific War this book is an essential reference.

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Book Review- Killing the Rising Sun

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Rating – Five Stars

Bill O’Reilly hits a home run with his compendium of the 1940s Pacific War. He writes in an easy, sparse, and empathetic style. He paints the big pictures of the major land and sea battles and tells the stories of the “grunts” that did the fighting and dying. We know these grunts. We identify with them, we are appalled at the horrendous casualties, we share the agony with the wounded, and we attend their burials at sea, in unmarked graves, and at Arlington.

O’Reilly sets the stage for the war in the Pacific with the Empire of Japan. We learn of the building animosity in the 1930s between America and the Empire of Japan. The animus began when Japan invaded the Chinese province Manchuria in September 1931. Japan was eager to implement its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere to conqueror East Asia for its natural resources. The animus increased when Japan invaded China in July 1937. The Kwantung Army captured Peking, Shanghai, and other coastal cities in a few days. French Indo-China fell to Japan in July 1941.

Responding, President Roosevelt (with Great Britain and the Netherlands) imposed an embargo on petroleum products, steel, and other natural resources for Japan. At the time, the Imperial Japanese Navy had only three months of bunker oil. General Hideki Tojo ordered the implementation of Command Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan for a surprise attack on our fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—Tora! Tora! Tora!

In the early morning on Sunday December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese aircraft, from three aircraft carriers, bombed and torpedoed our fleet in Pearl Harbor with devastating results: sunk were the battleships, USS Arizona, USS Utah, USS Oklahoma, USS West Virginia, and USS California. Five other battleships were heavily damaged. President Roosevelt declared war on the Empire of Japan with the phrase, “a date which will live in infamy.”

O’Reilly guides us our journey through the bloody campaigns throughout the South and Central Pacific, and to the Japan’s home island Okinawa—where Kamikaze pilots drove their aircraft directly into our ships—causing devastating casualties in sailors and ships.

He details the great sea battles with cogency, Java Sea, Bismarck Sea, Coral Sea, Midway, Espírito Santo (“The Slot”), Battle of the Philippine Sea, Battle of Leyte Gulf, and the Okinawa Campaign. We crawl through the islands with the grunts: Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Buna, New Georgia, Mankin, Tarawa, Leyte, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, and Okinawa.

Almost seventy percent of this book discusses the atomic bomb. We follow President Roosevelt’s approval, General Groves management of this titanic project, Doctor Oppenheimer assembling his team at Los Alamos, work, innovation, breakthrough, and testing. The bomb on board the B-29 dubbed Enola Gay, Hiroshima in flames; another bomb on the B-29 dubbed Box Car, Nagasaki in flames. We see General MacArthur on board the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay signing the instrument of surrender. The greatest, most deadly, and costly war has concluded.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Armies of Warlord China 1911-1928 by Philip Jowett

Armies of Warlord ChinaRating-Four Stars

This is a large (11” x 9”), heavy book–in weight and content. Jowett tells us just about everything we’d want to know about the history of the warlords of China that ruled the Northern provinces (and a few in the south). He laces his narrative with relevant photographs.

Unfortunately, the organization of this book is askew, and the narrative may need more copy editing. In the Introduction he relates a short history of China from the early 20th century to the early 1930s. Following is an extensive chronology of this history outlined in a bullet-type format where he introduces the warlords. Some of these entries are lengthy and introduce significant duplication of the information contained in the Introduction. There is also massive duplication of information in the subsequent pictorial biography of the major warlords and the captioned photographs of military activities.

I did enjoy the illustrated section of the aviation activities in the relevant time frame. The color drawings of the airplanes are well done and add credence to the narrative. There is also a section detailing the uniforms and equipment in the Imperial and Warlord Armies. The photographs of the warlords festooned in all their habiliments and the detailed drawings of the soldiers of the various armies in their uniforms are particularly informative.

The color pictorial of the badges and medals relevant to the National and Warlord Armies was excellent, but the captions are far too meager for the reader to understand their significance and order of importance.

This book is heady reading and designed for the cognoscenti of China’s milieu in that time period. It could be used as an important reference book for those seeking details of this not-well-known history of the Celestial Kingdom and the warlord wars (1929 to 1930).

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