Reading: Pacific War Nonfiction

17th June 2015

Growing up, I do remember watching cartoons, but more vividly, I remember watching American Movie Classics (back when they showed true classics and not this “modern classics” business). World War II films captivated me from an early age, but nearly all of them focused on the European war.

When Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand first came out, the blog world was saturated with reviews of it, and I steered clear. But in December when the film came out, I watched it and thought it was good but wondered how much better the book was. That night, I raced home from the theater, downloaded the book and stayed up all night reading it.

Since then, I’ve been on a steady diet of Pacific War nonfiction. I realized how little I knew of those battles and how many of them there were. I’m still cultivating a list of authors and books to give me a broader perspective, but I thought I’d share a little on the ones I’ve read so far (click on the title below the book to add it to your Goodreads shelf!).

pacificwar6Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

The book that started it all. No doubt about it, Zamperini’s story is incredible. A hardscrabble young man turned Olympic athlete turned soldier, Zamperini himself was a fascinating man to read about. Combined with Hillenbrand’s ability to shape his story and increase the tension as he crashes and finds himself in a Japanese POW camp, Zamperini’s story was an excellent introduction to the personal nature of war.

pacificwar5Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II by Bruce Henderson

Rescue at Los Banos reinforced just how little I knew of the Pacific War. Mere days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they started in on the Philippines. Colin Powell teased the events in this book most enticingly, calling the raid at Los Baños “the textbook operation for all ages and all armies,” and Henderson does it justice, depicting the Pacific front of the war as well as the many American citizens whose lives were caught up in the fighting. The plans to liberate the internees were intricate and dependent on so many variables, and the tension Henderson creates in his narrative makes this an up-all-night read.

pacificwar4The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

Though this book isn’t specifically about the Pacific War front, The Girls of Atomic City is an intriguing account of the women, many of whom were incredibly sheltered, picking up and leaving for Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city so secret it wasn’t even on the map, and war work about which they knew nothing. The more technical sections are a bit daunting, but I loved reading about women who thought bobby socks were wild, trying to retain a semblance of society amid such a bizarre, manufactured atmosphere. When they realize what their work has done, many of them are unsure of how to feel, realizing what devastation they’ve enabled but also appreciating an end to the war.

pacificwar3Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley

Of all of these books, James Bradley’s account probably spurred my reading on the most. Flyboys: A True Story of Courage is the story of nine men, one them George H.W. Bush, who were shot down in enemy waters and the story of what happened to them after. Eight of the men’s stories were classified for many decades, and Bradley’s meticulous research honors their lives. Yet what gripped me was Bradley’s discussion of the history of Japan and its codes, which gave me an insight into why and how the Japanese seemed (and were) such brutal opponents. He manages to do this while not downplaying the brutality of America’s own ways and means and had me searching for more in-depth looks at the history of the empire of the rising sun.

pacificwar2Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff

Why yes, Lost in Shangri-La also happens to claim the subtitle “the most incredible rescue mission of World War II,” but I’d argue that this and Rescue at Los Banos are completely different, worthy accounts. Stuck in New Guinea near the end of the war, Allied Forces were frustrated with the lack of action they were seeing. In order to boost morale, a superior officer decided to take a select group on a sightseeing trip over “Shangr-La,” the newly discovered, untouched civilization in a lush valley. The plane crashed, and the only survivors were face to face with natives who were rumored to be headhunters. Their survival and subsequent rescue are the stuff of legends.

pacific1Ghost Solders: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission by Hampton Sides

Survivors of the Bataan Death March lived only to suffer additional cruelty and deprivation at the hands of their Japanese captors. Near the end of the war, the Japanese massacred all prisoners of a nearby war camp in an effort to leave behind no witnesses to their treatment, as it was against the Geneva Convention (which the Japanese never signed), and American Forces realized they had no more time in which to plan a rescue for the Cabanatuan POW camp behind enemy lines. Just over 100 troops, along with Philippine guerilla forces and civilians, worked ceaselessly to execute a raid, and Sides dips into the lives of both the prisoners and the soldiers planning to save them, telling a story of incredible courage, strength, and will.

Next up, I’m reading James Hornfischer’s Ship of Ghosts, so I’ll have to check back later with an updated list. That said, I’d wholeheartedly recommend any of these, and I’m curious if you may have any recommendations as well.

Or have you ever been obsessed with reading books on a certain subject?

  • I read Flyboys shortly after I joined the air force, and I was really affected by the descriptions of not only the fighting itself, but the years leading up to it. I live in Japan now, and I really love this place, but that book helped me get a better understanding of why relations between Japan and other Asian countries are still very tense.

    Also, over the weekend, I was fortunate to cross off one of my last Okinawa bucket list items: visiting the Okinawa Peace Memorial. It was interesting to learn the history of the Ryukyu Islands as Japan subjugated them and forced them to give up their own language and culture and assimilate into Japanese culture. Then the war started and the friendly, peace-loving Okinawans got caught in the middle. By the time the Battle of Okinawa was over, the vast majority of the dead ended up being civilians, and the terrain of the whole island had been completely destroyed. They still find unexploded ordinance all over the island on a regular basis today. It was impossible to come out of that museum without understanding how horrible war really is.

    Anyway, being a military professional, this topic is close to my heart. I will definitely add some of these to my reading list.

    • Yes! For example, I had no clue about Japan’s 250-year period of peace. It was just fascinating. A lot of people on Goodreads complained that the author seemed to be excusing Japanese behavior during the war, but that’s not what I got at all.

      And wow, what an experience. As for the relations between Japan and other Asian countries, I’ve also got some books on my list about that. I don’t think I’ll have a full picture until I read some of those.

      I hope you enjoy if you pick up any of these!

  • The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein, a historical novel of WWII Japan, totally blew my mind — had no idea the 1945 bombing of Tokyo was the deadliest raid of the war, for example — and it’s made me want to learn more about that part of the war. Sadly, I just cannot do huge chunks of non-fiction — am currently wading through a biography at the moment, so may never get to these…

    • I’m slipping one nonfiction in for every few mysteries I read, so I’m doing fine on that front, but yes, the Tokyo fire bombing was just horrific. Like you, I had absolutely no idea that the fire bombings killed more than the atomic bombs combined. Devastating.

  • I loved Unbroken and, like you, didn’t know much about the events surrounding it. I recently read Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants and I’ve realized how Americanized the version of events I was taught is and am definitely going to be looking for books to teach me a little bit more about from another perspective.

  • I’ve been on a kick reading books about space. I just picked up a biography of Sally Ride that I’m excited about. And I loved Girls of Atomic City — such a weird, interesting place to have been.

  • Donna Farrer

    My husband and I have read nearly all of these, they are all so good. History is history and we have come a long way in some cases, these books are always good to read so we don’t forget what has happened in the past. I read memoirs like these and historical novels like these primarily. Fiction is my other fav, Alexandra’s Order is my current series! I like to mix books like this in with my Non-Fiction reads. Good reads out there, Emilia Rutigliano is of Russian decent, her series gives a look into her life, likely hard being in her situation but she is very proud of her history. You can find a lot about authors and their history and story by reading their books and that is what I think it is all about!