Evan Thomas. Sea of Thunder. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Pp. 356.
In Sea of Thunder, Evan Thomas examines the lives of four naval commanders of the Second World War, two Japanese and two American. He follows the paths of their service to the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, where each will play a significant role. Admirals Matome Ugaki and Takeo Kurita of the Imperial Japanese Navy both believed deeply in personal honor and duty, but held very different views as to what that meant in combat. Their enemies, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey and Commodore Ernest Evans shared a common desire to engage the enemy in decisive action, and both would get their chance at Leyte Gulf, with mixed results.
Thomas briefly recounts the early lives of each man before delving into their respective military careers. Ugaki, a true believer in bushido, the ancient Samurai code that had been twisted by Japanese militarists, looked forward to the day when he would die for the Emperor. Takeo Kurita, Ugaki’s boss at Leyte, did not anxiously await an honorable death. Kurita was deliberate in battle, and took what he felt were reasonable precautions to minimize loss of life. Many in the Imperial Japanese Navy perceived this as weakness, and Kurita was often criticized for “lacking the fighting spirit”.
William Halsey was an officer that was never accused of “lacking the fighting spirit”. By the time of Leyte Gulf, Halsey was almost desperate for a major collision with the Japanese. He had been out with his carriers at Pearl Harbor, had been in the hospital for Midway, and had been out of the command rotation at the Philippine Sea. By October of 1944, with the Imperial Japanese Navy nearly destroyed, Halsey feared missing out altogether, and looked at Leyte Gulf as perhaps his last chance for glory.
Cdr. Ernest Evans had missed out, too. At the Battle of Java Sea in early 1942, Evans’ destroyer was ordered to retire from the action and retreat to safety while the rest of the fleet was wiped out. For a commander whose hero was John Paul Jones, it was a humiliating experience that would haunt him for the rest of the war. When Evans found himself in command of a modern destroyer, the U.S.S. Johnston, at Leyte Gulf, he was determined to make the most of the opportunity.
A main component of the Japanese battle plan at Leyte Gulf was a diversionary force of mostly empty aircraft carriers approaching from the north; it was hoped that this paltry assemblage would draw Halsey’s huge fleet away from Leyte and the approaching Japanese strike force. If the strike force could enter the gulf lightly opposed, it could wreak havoc on the American landing operations in the Philippines.
While Halsey’s primary objective was to cover those landings, he had also been given an out in his orders for the Leyte operation: “IN CASE OPPORTUNITY FOR DESTRUCTION OF MAJOR PORTION OF THE ENEMY FLEET OFFERS OR CAN BE CREATED, SUCH DESTRUCTION BECOMES THE PRIMARY TASK.” Halsey needed no more prompting, and without ensuring adequate coverage in the Gulf, he took his fleet north to begin the chase.
When the main Japanese fleet entered Leyte Gulf, they encountered was what has been called “MacArthur’s navy”, a small force comprised of escort carriers and light destroyers, one of which was the Johnston, commanded by Ernest Evans. These destroyers placed themselves between the Japanese fleet and their carriers, inflicting minor damage to the Japanese at great cost. In the end, the Johnston was sunk, taking Cdr. Evans down with it.
Kurita then mysteriously decided to break off the attack. Halsey raced south and finally caught up with the Japanese fleet, which suffered much, but was not entirely destroyed. Halsey, for his part in the near-debacle, came under heavy criticism, as did Kurita, who would survive the war. Ugaki chose to lead a last kamikaze assault in the war’s final hours rather than surrender.
Thomas’ work is heavily documented with endnotes, with anywhere from five to ten citations listed per page. This gives the reader a great sense of security in the quality of research done for this book. The endnotes are organized by chapter, and Thomas’ sources are excellent. He uses memoirs, diaries, interviews with survivors, and a large number of scholarly secondary sources as evidence. In his acknowledgements, Thomas recounts his experiences in Japan talking to survivors and their families, and visiting places such as Eta Jima, the Japanese naval academy near Hiroshima. He also writes of his time spent with American veterans, among whom were many officers who had served with Halsey and Evans, and who knew them both at the time of Leyte Gulf. All of these sources add to the authoritative nature of Thomas’ words.
Sea of Thunder makes for fast reading, as the author moves rapidly from one subject to another, and never seems to dwell too long on one topic. His pages are filled with wonderful quotes, both contemporary and from the memories of survivors, which helps to keep the narrative fresh. The quotes also keep the focus of the story on the people who lived through it. By allowing for ample exploration of opposing viewpoints, Thomas creates an accurate impression of “the fog of war.” Even when the story turns to the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the competing technologies, Thomas uses the sailors’ reflections to maintain a human perspective, which adds to the emotion and drama of the building plotline.
Thomas’ writing style is not overly challenging, and he avoids excessive jargon, which can be a problem when the subject is the military - institutions awash in jargon, euphemisms, and acronyms. When Thomas does use jargon, he explains it in an easy to understand fashion, which adds, rather than detracts, from the flavor of the narrative. He enhances his writing with dozens of interesting photographs; usually not portraits, but more candid shots of the commanders as they were on board their vessels, along with fascinating pictures of named warships in action during the battles being described, and in one case, a crude painting a Japanese survivor made of a fellow officer being cut down in battle. In addition, Thomas includes many maps and diagrams of battles, which adds to the student’s ease of understanding the geography of the places being described and the sometimes-confusing movements of vessels in combat. In all, Thomas has provided well for the reader who may have a limited knowledge of the Pacific theatre and naval warfare in general.
For the student of the Second World War, Thomas provides an excellent rendering of both the strategy and tactics of naval warfare in the Pacific, as seen through the eyes of his protagonists and their subordinates. He also introduces the reader to most of the major personalities of the Pacific War, including Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Japanese Fleet Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, American Commander-in-Chief of Pacific Forces Chester Nimitz, and Ernest King, the Chief of Naval Operations. In addition, Thomas touches on many of the naval milestones of the Pacific War, again providing the student with a useful overview of larger events.
Evan Thomas’ Sea of Thunder makes for great reading on many levels. It provides an intriguing character study of some of the key players in the Pacific War, it gives a general overview of major events in that theatre and it does these things while being entertaining. By keeping the perspective at the point of view of the individuals involved, the reader is permitted to step into the shoes of the men being shot at as well as the commanders who direct their fates. For the student who knows little of this overshadowed theatre, a book such as Sea of Thunder might well encourage further reading and exploration; it did in my case.