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A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight

by Robert J. Mrazek, Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2008, $27.99.

Robert Mrazek presents in a popular, anecdotal form the results of intensive research into a squadron that performed heroically during World War II. A Dawn Like Thunder chronicles in intimate detail the activities of the colorful individuals who lived and died with Torpedo Eight in two of the most significant campaigns of the war, the Battle of Midway and Guadalcanal.

Mrazek combines excellent secondary source material with extensive interviews, military documents, oral histories and correspondence to produce a flowing narrative. He re-creates many conversations among the principal players and speculates on the thoughts that might have been going through their minds. Most participants are limned in an ingenuous, good-natured manner that emphasizes their heroic actions, with only a few singled out for their shortcomings, most notably Admiral Marc “Pete” Mitscher and Commander Stanhope Ring.

In the course of A Dawn Like Thunder, Mrazek develops his theory, based primarily on the findings of attorney Bowen P. Weisheit, that Mitscher gave orders which led directly to the failure of the attack of Hornet’s air group at Midway. He imputes to this failure the loss of the Douglas TBD-1 Devastators of Torpedo Eight, and infers that Admiral Raymond Spruance’s account of the battle to Admiral Chester Nimitz reflected adversely on Mitscher. He further states that Nimitz decided to ignore those comments so as not to tarnish the glory of the Navy’s victory, also revealing that Mitscher let blame for the failure fall on Ring, whose performance receives severe criticism in the book.

In his Midway and Guadalcanal accounts, Mrazek focuses on individuals rather than providing a larger picture of the ebb and flow of combat. His depiction of the famous battle at Edson’s Ridge on Guadalcanal is unusual. The Marines stopped the Japanese attack there, killing more than 800 for a loss of 47, but here it appears as a very close-run thing.

Like it or not, Mrazek’s technique of concentrating on individuals’ thoughts, conversations and insights (including some of the Japanese participants) is currently a popular approach to military nonfiction. But it runs risks of context and nomenclature that can detract from the narrative. For example, he describes a takeoff from Hornet like this: “He had firewalled the throttle and redlined the manifold pressure, but settings for minimum fuel consumption didn’t necessarily correlate with long distance flights.” Next he has a pilot “gunning his engine” and “pointing to his fuel gauge” to attract the formation leader’s attention. Small things perhaps, but they are off-putting if you have some background in the subject matter. And so it is with his verbal portraits of the main characters, who are painted just a shade over the top, something like Thomas Kinkade doing a Norman Rock – well. But despite its flaws, this book is especially recommended for those interested in the personnel and heroic achievements of Torpedo Squadron Eight.


Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here