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Pearl Harbor book reviews

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

“Wax — Pearl Harbor Changed Everything” by Therese Ambrosi Smith (Blue Star, $13.95)
This novel is obviously a work of passion and knowledge by the author, a tour guide at various Kaiser shipbuilding sites in the Bay Area and an enthusiast of wartime history. The title gets it right; Pearl Harbor did change everything, particularly for women who entered the work force in trade positions usually held by men. The three woman at the core of her story become shipfitters. They come from the — at the time — largely isolated and rural California coastline, a region where, unless you were a farmer or fisher, real jobs were scarce. Smith, a resident of Half Moon Bay, writes knowingly about the region in wartime, and these portions ring true. She’s not so smooth in laying out a multi-layered plot that doesn’t feature the writer’s hand, as when one of the characters feels lesbian stirrings in an era when such things weren’t discussed. As a time-capsule ride through a largely forgotten social landscape, however, “Wax” generally delivers.

“Breaking the Code” by Karen Fisher-Alaniz (Sourcebooks, $14.99)
Connections. That’s cryptographers make when they decode enemy messages. That was Murray Fisher’s job in the Navy, mostly stationed at Pearl Harbor during the latter part of the war, processing Japanese katakana code into English. His connection to his own daughter, however, was strictly formal. It wasn’t until more than a half-century after the war, when he began having nightmares, and began obsessively studying every aspect of the conflict, that the usual parent-child barrier broke down.
This memoir is his daughter’s memoir of that process, which began when he dropped hundreds of wartime letters in her lap. She learned what her father was like, both as a human being and as a bright young man thousands of miles from home, scarred by a ferocious Pacific war. The connection across time between the young sailor and the troubled man he came later in life is surprising tenuous, a skein stretched by memory and emotion. Fisher-Alaniz has an unerring sense of gravity and affection for both version of her father, and her memoir is well-served by an attractive book package that uses typography and photographs in interesting ways.

“December 1941” BY Craig Shirley (Thomas Nelson, $24.99)
On the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack, Hawaii lawyer Roy Vitousek and son Martin were aloft in a rented Aeronca light airplane. The unsuspecting civilians flew into the middle of the melee and managed to escape with some bullet holes in the airplane. This anecdote is repeated in Craig Shirley’s massive “December 1941” compendium, but Roy Vitousek is spelled “Ray Buduick.” Shirley’s sources for this are contemporary East Coast newspaper accounts, written the day after the attack. This, in a single factoid nutshell, illustrates why Shirley’s big book is an interesting read, but cannot be used as an accurate recounting. “December 1941” is a case of obsessive research that has little regard for facts; it’s more concerned with painting an emotional picture of the state of the nation following the surprise assault. In that, it largely succeeds, as Shirley piles on contemporary anecdote after anecdote culled from sources of the period, plus various conservative musings about military preparedness that seem shoveled in. This vast collection of snippets is not put into perspective by the author. Although “December 1941” is an amusing read for Pearl Harbor scholars, it fall far short of being a useful history — it is not even indexed. Shirley could have really used a firm hand from an editor. That said, this book does give a flavor to the period. Readers interested in that very busy month are also urged to find Donald Young’s 1992 work “December 1941: America’s First 25 Days At War.”

“Tora! Tora! Tora! Pearl Harbor 1941” by Mark E. Stille (Osprey RAID, $18.95)
This is a perfunctory retelling of the attack in Osprey’s attractive packaging. It tells you most of what you need to know if you have less than an hour to read, so it will likely be a favorite among kids writing history term papers. Stille touches on all the high points in a fairly dry manner — although he doesn’t seem to understand the role of the Imperial Navy’s submarine force — and he draws conclusions that rely on 20/20 hindsight, but at least he steps back to view the event as a seminal moment. Bert Kinzey’s “Attack on Pearl Harbor,” released last year, is a better value as a one-stop shop of Pearl Harbor facts, but this will do for the mildly interested.

“Fighting For MacArthur — The Navy and Marine Corps’ Desperate Defense of the Philippines” by John Gordon (Naval Institute Press, $32.95)
This is the keeper of this year’s crop, and proof that there are still new stories to be told about that dangerous, desperate time. Gordon is focused simply on what happened to the Navy and Marine Corps personnel in the Philippines from the time of the initial bombing on Dec. 8, 1941, to the surrender of beaten, battered U.S. forces on Corregidor five months later. Gordon rightly points out that Bataan histories always highlight the U.S. Army, except for period pieces like the contemporary memoir “They Were Expendable.” American naval records are largely missing, making research difficult, so it’s interesting that Japanese military records turn out to be more reliable. Gordon has skill with describing the choreography of combat, and the balance of factual detail doesn’t overwhelm colorful anecdotes and streamlined storytelling. Gordon also takes pains to explain why the navy despised MacArthur, so the book’s title has a degree of irony. Naval Institute Press, in general an indifferent publisher, has hit one out of the park here.

“Joe Rochefort’s War — The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway” by Elliot Carlson (Naval Institute Press, $36.95)
Another home run for NIP, this is a fine, engrossing biography of one of the major — and largely unknown — figures of the early Pacific War. Rochefort, the brilliant cryptologist in charge of deciphering the Imperial Navy’s secret codes, worked in secrecy in the basement of an administration building at Pearl Harbor, an office labeled “Station Hypo” but known to those who worked there as “The Dungeon.” An officer who mustanged up out of the ranks, Rochefort was fluent in Japanese and possibly the only naval officer who wasn’t dazzled by Japanese Adm. Yamamoto. Rochefort let himself be half-convinced that the Japanese wouldn’t strike Pearl Harbor, and he never forgave himself for the oversight. When he became convinced that the Imperial Navy was going to strike Midway six months later, he stuck to his guns, alienating brother officers who refused to believe it. Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz gambled on Rochefort’s educated hunch, resulting in one of history’s great naval battles and certainly saved Hawaii from invasion. But the bureaucratic damage was done, and Rochefort was abruptly relieved of command a few months later and assigned to a backwater task — and confounded his critics by managing it superbly. Rochefort’s supporters began a half-century task of seeking recognition of his efforts, succeeding with medal posthumously awarded in the 1980s, which becomes a satisfying coda to the book. Author Carlson has managed to illuminate the usually murky and arcane world of cryptology with a well-told tale that strikes an engrossing balance between career highlights and personal struggles.

“Pearl Harbor — FDR Leads the Nation Into War” by Steven M. Gillon (Basic Books, $25.99)
Gillon is a populist scholar for the History Channel, but don’t let that deter you. This isn’t “Ice Road Truckers.” It’s an account of the very busy 24 hours at the White House between the time President Roosevelt learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor and his famous “day of infamy” speech to Congress. (His immediate response upon hearing the news — an agonized cry of “No!”) Although Gillon makes some tyro errors, such as referring to Mitsuo Fuchida as a “fighter pilot,” this different look at the day’s events is fascinating. This is a slim book and a fast read, and rather hard to put down.