A Wall Street Journal Review by Jonathan W. Jordan of the Book by John C. McManus Titled “To the Ends of the Earth”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Jonathan W. Jordan of the book by John C. McManus titled “To the Ends of the Earth”:

The last act of America’s war with Japan impels a special sense of operatic tragedy. Fire bombings, mass starvation and atomic fallout formed a blistering whirlwind reaped by an empire that had launched a savage war in China and driven Western powers out of the Pacific Rim at bayonet point.

Imperial Japan’s death throes have drawn the attention of first-rate military historians. James M. Scott’s impressive “Black Snow” (2022), Max Hastings’s “Retribution” (2007) and Richard Frank’s “Downfall” (1999) are literary pearls in a string reaching back to John Toland’s “The Rising Sun” (1970), while Dan Carlin devotes nearly three hours of his “Hardcore History” podcast series to dissecting the collapse of Japan’s supernova in 1944-45.

In these accounts, the war is mostly an air-and-sea show. Ian Toll’s “Twilight of the Gods” (2020) and James D. Hornfischer’s “The Fleet at Flood Tide” (2016) give center stage to U.S. Navy carriers and Marines under Adms. William Halsey, Chester Nimitz and Raymond Spruance. From the skies, Malcolm Gladwell’s technosocial history, “The Bomber Mafia” (2021), and Chris Wallace’s “Countdown 1945” (2020) showcase the fire bombings of March 1945 and the atomic blasts five months later.

Where does this ocean of ink leave the American foot soldier? The U.S. Army shipped millions of men across the Pacific to overrun big islands like New Guinea, Luzon and Okinawa. Lacking the emotional imagery of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi or the ticking-bomb drama of the Enola Gay’s flight, the soldiers on Mindanao or Palawan ceded much of the spotlight to the Marines, Navy and Army Air Forces.

Enter the historian John C. McManus. In his trilogy on the Pacific War, Mr. McManus traces the Army’s hard road to victory from the early defeats of Bataan and Wake Island. “Fire and Fortitude” (2019), covering the years 1941 to 1943, and “Island Infernos” (2021), carrying the reader through 1944, set the stage for his third act, “To the End of the Earth,” a chronicle of the Army’s campaign from the Philippines to Tokyo Bay.

Mr. McManus, a professor of U.S. military history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, begins his book with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s beach landing on Luzon in January 1945. MacArthur had been driven off the Philippine island in 1942, making a hasty retreat by PT boat as the Japanese closed in on the island fortress of Corregidor. Three years later, the tables had turned, and Luzon’s outnumbered and outgunned defending general, Tomoyuki Yamashita, had resigned himself to the slow but certain death of his army. “Yamashita understood that the best way he could enhance Japan’s strategic position would be to bleed the Americans and fight on as long as he possibly could,” Mr. McManus explains.

Replicating his famous beach wade at Leyte Gulf the previous year, MacArthur ignored a purpose-built pier “in favor of wading ashore for beachside photographers,” Mr. McManus notes. “As he sloshed ashore, he affected a grim, determined facial expression, yet another deliberate recapitulation of Leyte for this master of political-military theater.”

While MacArthur’s eyes remain fixed on the big picture, Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, the invasion’s methodical ground commander, bore the thankless burden of redeeming MacArthur’s promise to advance through central Luzon and liberate Manila. “Krueger better grasped the tactical realities of the unfolding Luzon campaign while MacArthur had a keener understanding of the strategic picture,” Mr. McManus opines. He compares Krueger, commander of the U.S. Sixth Army, to “a brilliant civil engineer who fully appreciates every nut and bolt of a construction project but not necessarily its larger societal effect.”

MacArthur’s other army commander, Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger, is the hard-charging yang to Krueger’s yin. “Glib, cordial, energetic, and physically robust,” Eichelberger had been MacArthur’s cavalier at major battles in New Guinea and had led the U.S. Eighth Army on a lightning strike south of Manila—the “Patton of the Pacific,” as MacArthur once quipped.

Krueger’s frugality with the lives of his men gave the impatient MacArthur fits as the Sixth Army drove slowly on Manila, prolonging the agony of civilians who were burned, raped and beheaded by the city’s doomed overlords. Considering Eichelberger’s swift drive through southern Luzon, Mr. McManus reflects that Krueger may have been the wrong man for MacArthur to entrust with the mission of taking Manila in a coup de main.

With Luzon finally captured in February 1945, the road to Japan lay to the north. But MacArthur diverted his attention to clearing out the southern Philippines, a decision Mr. McManus questions. “MacArthur already had all the air bases he really needed to keep advancing north to Japan,” he writes. “In that context, any invasion of an island south of Leyte amounted to moving backward.”

From the Philippines, “To the End of the Earth” debouches west to China, where Maj. Gen. Albert Wedemeyer took the reins of a much-neglected front. Navigating the byzantine politics of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s court, Wedemeyer tactfully nudges his ally to fight the Japanese, knowing that Chiang’s real worry was the 900,000-strong Chinese Communist army led by Mao Zedong.

Given the shortages of landing craft, airplanes and munitions caused by the bigger war against Hitler and the drive through the Central Pacific, the Allied high command relegated China to a holding action. Wedemeyer’s main achievement was to complete a road link between Burma and Kunming—Chiang’s main supply base in China—and to nurse relations with a leader worrying less about Hirohito and more about Mao.

The war’s last great invasion opened in early April on Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands on Japan’s southern tip. MacArthur would sit this one out, as Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. led a blended army of soldiers and Marines onto Okinawa’s beaches.

A veteran analyst of Army campaigns from the American Revolution to Iraq, Mr. McManus is quick to criticize the many American stumbles along the road to victory. Okinawa offers plenty of case studies. Buckner, for instance, believed the Japanese would fight him on the beaches rather than bleed him on the island’s rocky, easily defended hills. He should have known better. As Mr. McManus observes: “The pattern for the previous nine months, including most recently at Iwo Jima and Luzon, had indicated precisely the opposite.”

Explaining the war from the defender’s perspective, Mr. McManus pays close attention to the personalities of the two Japanese commanders on Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima and his fiery chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Isamu Cho. Cho, who had been a loud voice for war in imperial circles in 1941, springs from Mr. McManus’s pen as an Asian Porthos, a swashbuckling figure who favored hitting the Americans on the beaches and counterattacking from the hills. “Cho’s political radicalism, owlish spectacles, and stocky frame, and his propensity to bully subordinates by subjecting them to verbal harangues and even physical beatings, obscured a fun-loving, humorous side to his personality,” writes Mr. McManus. With a taste for “fine liquor, rich food, cigarettes, and attractive women, especially geishas,” Cho represented the faction that saw glory in a final banzai charge, not a slow and steady effusion of blood.

But Ushijima had the final say on how his men would die. On Luzon, Yamashita’s contribution to the Empire of the Sun had been to draw inland and kill as many Americans as possible in the hopes of buying time for Tokyo to negotiate an honorable peace. Ushijima’s strategy was more of the same. “Tactically, the best way to serve that strategic objective in ground warfare was to dig in, fortify, and make use of the Japanese soldier’s formidable proficiency for selling his life dear in defensive combat,” Mr. McManus writes.

The key to any campaign-level work is the balance between small-scale fighting and the big picture. Mr. McManus achieves this by serving up vignettes from senior commanders before plunging into the fighting front. In taking stories from both ends of the command chain, on both sides of the battlelines, he allows the squalor and violence of the Pacific War to take coherent shape as part of a broader, history-changing epic.

Soldiers on both sides endured hell in many grotesque forms. One tactic used by Ushijima’s men was to strap explosives onto their bodies before rushing at American lines. “In some cases, American firepower detonated their explosives, but more than a few of the attackers blew themselves up, usually prematurely,” Mr. McManus writes.

Americans responded with their own mechanized savagery. “Engineers pumped hundreds of gallons of gasoline into caves and ignited it with tracer bullets or white phosphorous grenades, burning the Japanese to death in showers of flaming fuel.” In Okinawa’s kill-or-be-killed environment, ordinary men stumbled in filth and blood and meted out death with no mercy. One U.S. rifleman later confessed: “I probably killed more human beings on Okinawa in three months than have been murdered in Jackson County [Georgia], where I live, in the past 10 or 15 years. I am not proud of this but I do know it was a necessary part of my job.”

A recurring theme of “To the End of the Earth” is futility. By 1945, the end is preordained, and the only question is how the half-starved samurai will die—and whether their sacrifice will force America to the negotiating table. “Even though the Japanese were clearly beaten militarily by August, they were still potent enough to exercise the curious and frightening sort of power that revolved around their own choices, of the sort exerted by a grenade-wielding man who is cornered in a room by his enemies,” Mr. McManus writes. “Only the cornered man could decide on mutual destruction, self-sacrifice, or defusion.”

One desperate tactic of the cornered man was the kamikaze attack, by which “the Japanese regained some tactical initiative, albeit at a gratuitous cost in human beings and planes,” Mr. McManus writes. “The kamikaze pilots focused mainly on the escort ships rather than the transport ships. No soldiers lost their lives to the suicide planes.” Moreover, “suicide pilots, and their planes, were a steadily diminishing asset.” Japanese troops tasked with holding the Philippines ran out of kamikazes in a few days, and when Japan’s air commanders had to choose between defending the home islands and the Philippines, Yamashita’s forlorn forces were left without crucial air support.

“To the End of the Earth” is, like the campaign it describes, a solid mix of strategic insight, tactical analysis and ground-level fighting in which the American soldier’s deprivation and self-sacrifice claim their due credit. In the final installment of his trilogy, Mr. McManus renders an eloquent salute to soldiers who fought their way across two island chains to reach Japan’s doorstep and set the stage for the war’s end.

Jonathan W. Jordan is the author of “American Warlords: How Roosevelt’s High Command Led America to Victory in World War II.”

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