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Book Review - The Conquering Tide

War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

Cover of book, The Conquering Tide by Ian W. Toll

By Ian, W. Toll

WW Norton and Company, 2015. 688.

Paperback ISBN: 9780393353204

Hardcover ISBN: 9780393080643

Reviewed by Sam Baumgarten

The Conquering Tide is an outstanding book for those wishing to understand the American conduct of war in the Pacific. It examines the war in the Pacific islands from the aftermath of the Battle of Midway to the Battles of Saipan and Guam in mid-1944. This is the second part of a trilogy. The other two books cover firstly the war in the Pacific from Pearl Harbour to the Battle of Midway, and then complete the war with the battles after the Marianas campaign. While all volumes are equally well written, the focus of The Conquering Tide is on the Pacific theatre which is undoubtedly of greatest interest to contemporary Australian military professionals.

Ian W Toll treats the topic of The Conquering Tide as a human experience, drawing on a range of individuals’ perspectives. This approach extends from his description of efforts in Washington to manage the war, right through to the actions and personalities of key American and Japanese leaders. Many individual stories are incorporated into the historical narrative to give a sense of the depth of participation across all types of individual service personnel, in all domains - from San Francisco, to Australia and Japan, and from New Zealand to the Pacific islands. In this way, the reader learns about the lifestyles of submariners, pilots and ground crew, as well as all types of marines and soldiers, including both their fears and their sources of enjoyment in the face of adversity.

Toll’s description of the joint logistic and planning complexity of island campaigns will likely be of greatest interest to Australian military readers. The scale of war in the Pacific (an oft-used but seldom articulated term) is well laid out. Toll avoids complex geographic descriptors, preferring instead to treat the battleground islands as sensory experiences. This stylistic approach is evident in phrases such as: ‘Nowhere was this more true than in the Solomons, an archipelago of fetid jungle-islands a few degrees south of the equator…The larger islands gave off an aroma of damp soil and rotting vegetation that could travel ten to twenty miles out to sea.’[1] In a similar vein, distances are described in descriptive terms:

‘Efate was 800 miles southeast of Guadalcanal, still too far to serve the purpose. A sea base and airstrip were need in the remote northern reaches of the New Hebrides, within a 650-mile flight radius of Guadalcanal. Scouting the area from the air, Admiral McCain peered down at the island of Espiritu Santo.’[2]

The effect of Toll’s writing style is to lend suspense to the narrative by enlivening the complex movements and counterstrokes that defined the tightly contested campaigns. The human contribution to the conflict is also presented such that its role is unpacked in equal measure to details concerning the material contest.

Australian readers will perhaps consider the contribution of their forces overlooked; Toll scarcely mentions the contribution of US allies apart from the Coastwatchers and Royal Australian Navy cruisers. The only detailed reference to Australia relates to the ribald social disruption created by American troops garrisoning in this country. Toll’s omission is consistent with the book’s focus on the Pacific conduct of the war. Indeed, Toll also overlooks MacArthur’s American contributions to Papua New Guinea. Instead, he focuses on Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet and the array of powerful and often polarising characters associated the campaign in the Pacific.

Toll’s background is in politics and finance, having only moved into naval history in the past two decades. This context helps explain his non-conventional ‘episodic narrative’ writing technique. Indeed, the book is written in the sweeping style of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy. As such, it is highly engaging, with a focus on the unique, personalised events in a way that creates suspense and promises to generate true interest in the story.

The Defence Strategic Review will have encouraged many in the profession of arms to review conflict in the southwest Pacific. While there are many other worthy books that cover the Pacific campaign, The Conquering Tide will interest those with an aversion to complex detail and argument. It will also appeal to historians seeking access to the personal accounts of those who led and fought during the Pacific campaign.

[1] Ian W. Toll, The Conquering Tide, (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2015) xvii.

[2] Ibid, 14.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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