Share This Article

Fire and Fortitude: The U.S. Army in the Pacific War, 1941–43, by John C. McManus, Dutton Caliber, New York, 2019, $34

The U.S. Army did 80 percent of the fighting against Japan, yet the Marines dominate popular histories. In an effort to restore the balance, John McManus, a professor of American military history, spotlights the Army’s role in first two years of the Pacific War.

Following a fine account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (though it breaks no new ground) the author turns to the greatest defeat in American history. Hobbled by the Depression and a relatively tiny Army, American leaders agreed the distant Philippine Islands were indefensible. Anticipating the Japanese invasion, they planned a retreat to the trackless jungles of the Bataan Peninsula. Yet retreat was not in Philippine Department commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s vocabulary; he stoutly maintained that his combined American-Filipino forces would repel any invader. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor the Japanese arrived, parked their transports, loaded troops into barges and headed for shore. Resistance was minimal.

Seeing the Japanese advancing steadily, subordinates suggested moving supplies to Bataan, but MacArthur refused—a serious mistake. By the time he changed his mind, it was impossible to move enough supplies. The outnumbered Japanese suffered terribly during the Bataan fighting, but American and Philippine forces, hobbled by a lack of food, medicine and equipment, suffered more.

Evacuated to Australia before the surrender, MacArthur directed the recapture of New Guinea, perhaps the least known major operation of the theater and one that persisted through war’s end in August 1945. Despite vastly improved logistics, troops had a miserable time in the jungles of New Guinea, which resembled those on Bataan. Many historians consider the campaign the most arduous fought by any Allied troops.

Commanding from Australia, MacArthur underestimated the problems of jungle warfare and often denounced his generals’ performance, but success came at a price. When Gen. Robert Eichelberger garnered headlines and a Saturday Evening Post story after winning the first U.S. ground victory of the war (the capture of Buna-Gona, Papua), MacArthur, who maintained he had personally directed the fighting, relegated his subordinate to training duties in Australia and refused requests from Washington to release Eichelberger for a command in Europe.

The author delivers vivid accounts of the campaigns in China/Burma, India, the Solomons (skimming the early Marine-dominated months), the Aleutians and the Gilberts (where the Marines prevailed at Tarawa, though nearby Makin, an Army operation, was no picnic). Excruciating chapters detail Japan’s bestial treatment of POWs. MacArthur’s reputation (never as high among the military as among civilian scholars) continues its decline.

Opinionated and highly entertaining as the book is, it is unlikely to bump the Marines from pride of place in the Pacific War.

—Mike Oppenheim