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

By Robert J. Mrazek. 544 pp. Little, Brown and Company, 2008. $27.99.

Operation PLUM: The Ill-Fated 27th Bombardment Group and the Fight for the Western Pacific

By Adrian R. Martin and Larry W. Stephenson. 384 pp. Texas A & M University Press, 2008. $29.95.

The first months of the Pacific war were exceptionally dark ones, especially for the United States’ air arms. Army, navy, and marine aviators, outnumbered and often flying obsolescent machines, with the enormous bow wave of American technology and industrial output still in the future, struggled to turn back the Japanese advance. Two excellent new accounts of those times emphasize the personal experience of combat in two units: the navy’s Torpedo Squadron Eight from the carrier USS Hornet and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 27th Bombardment Group (Light).

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Battle of Midway knows that Torpedo Eight was annihilated, with only a single survivor. Indeed, every Devastator torpedo plane launched from the carrier on June 4, 1942, was shot down, as were five of six Avenger bombers from the unit’s detachment based on Midway Island. A Dawn Like Thunder retells this famous tale, unveiling much new personal information about the aviators of the squadron. But this is only about a third of the story. The survivors of the battle, the airmen not flying at Midway and the ground personnel, weathered the loss, regrouped, and soon were in action in the first major American offensive of the war—the bloody campaign on Guadalcanal. For three months, Torpedo Eight, flying from the USS Saratoga, Henderson Field, and Espiritu Santo, engaged Japanese ships, artillery, and infantry at Guadalcanal, patching together its battered Avengers until they could fly no more.

This is much more than a gauzy tribute to brave men. Robert J. Mrazek, a five-term congressman, writes with a novelist’s flair and a historian’s rigor. He unsparingly notes failures of leadership by senior commanders. He draws on the very latest academic scholarship, but the personal letters and diaries of the men, tracked down over years of patient interviewing and research, give his book its heft. We are unlikely to have a finer account of Torpedo Eight’s exploits.

The subject of Adrian R. Martin and Larry W. Stephenson’s Operation PLUM is far less familiar. Even the title (taken from the briefly used code name for the U.S. Army in the Philippines) is obscure, but the story is well worth recounting. Family history provided the inspiration: Stephenson’s uncle served with the 27th Bombardment Group and never returned. A desire to find out why led to a diligent effort to reconstruct the unit’s lost history. The 27th, trained on the Douglas A-24 Banshee dive-bomber (the army version of the navy’s Dauntless), began the war inauspiciously. Its aircraft were still en route when Japan struck the Philippines on December 9, 1941; the planes never arrived. The group fought as infantry during the retreat to Bataan. The pilots who had gone to Australia to collect the planes and a handful of others evacuated by submarine continued the fight, but the bulk of the ground echelon endured years of brutal Japanese captivity. The remnants of the unit fought a series of desperate rear-guard actions in Java; acquired a handful of B-25 bombers from the Dutch (the exact circumstances of this “reverse Lend-Lease” are shrouded in mystery); and launched a daring raid on Japanese positions in the Philippines. Then, merged with the 3rd Bombardment Group, they fought on in New Guinea. When its personnel returned to the United States in November 1942, only 20 of the original 1,209 men of the 27th were among them.

From our vantage point 65 years later, Allied victory in World War II seems a foregone conclusion. These two remarkable books remind us that it just wasn’t so.


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here