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Island Infernos Cover

Island Infernos

The US Army’s Pacific War Odyssey, 1944

John C. McManus

Dutton Caliber, New York, 2021, 656 pages

Book Review published on: July 1, 2022

The role of the U.S. Army in the Pacific has often been marginalized—or at least taken a back seat—to the U.S. Marine Corps with respect to primacy in ground combat operations. In popular culture, this tendency has been reinforced by productions such as HBO’s miniseries The Pacific, which focuses exclusively on the exploits of the Marines; the only coverage of Army troops is when they are victimized by Marines pilfering their beachside supply depot during some down time on Guadalcanal. During the conduct of the Pacific war, as author John McManus describes in detail, some Marine Corps leaders, most notably Lt. Gen. Hollin “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, who openly disparaged their Army counterparts’ performance in combat, so much so that it had adverse impacts on future joint operations between the two services. Island Infernos: The US Army’s Pacific War Odyssey, 1944 is the author’s second volume in a trilogy designed to correct these misperceptions and more accurately portray the record of the U.S. Army’s role in the Pacific theater. A masterful accomplishment, McManus’s effort sheds ample light on the Army’s performance during the year 1944, and is a worthy successor to his opening volume, Fire and Fortitude, which covers the years 1941–1943.

Island Infernos provides a balanced, multifaceted portrayal of U.S. Army operations in and around Kwajalein Atoll, the Admiralty Islands, Bougainville, New Guinea, Burma, the Philippines, and the Marianas Island group. Ambitious in scope, the book covers each of these major operations with vivid prose that captures the essence of Army contributions to the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. McManus is thus equally adept at describing how each operation supported Pacific as well as global wartime strategy, conflicts between theater level commanders such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz, as well as the horrors of ground combat from the individual soldiers’ perspective. The result is a page-turning narrative that is gritty, realistic, and always respectful of its subject matter.

While impossible to cover all aspects of a six hundred-page volume, some notable themes are worth mentioning. First, McManus pulls no punches regarding the Army’s performance during its operations in 1944, giving a balanced portrayal of the leaders—primarily at the corps and division level, as well as the units—mainly regiments and battalions—engaged in combat ranging from Kwajalein to Burma. He disparages the notion that the Army engaged solely in “mopping up” operations and asserts that the term itself denigrated units that performed difficult close combat operations in rooting out a determined enemy in extreme conditions of weather and terrain. Next, he shows that the Army was undeserving of the bad reputation it received from some Marine Corps leaders at the higher levels; on the ground, the two services often enjoyed close cooperation as brothers-in-arms. McManus asserts that such leaders who openly criticized the Army were often biased in their views, unwilling to change them, and ignorant of the real situation on the front lines. Finally, the author questions the efficacy of conducting offensive assaults against a Japanese enemy that was determined to defend to the last man. This could take place at the operational level—bypassing an island stronghold entirely—or at the tactical, by isolating and containing fortified areas without attacking them directly. The author decries the tendency for some commanders to undertake needlessly wasteful operations, at great loss of men and materiel.

In Island Infernos, the author reminds us of all that went into these many individual campaigns, each of which could be described, in his words, as “a nightmarish mile marker on the road to Tokyo” (p. 236). Allied emphasis on seizing airfields and ports shows that the air and maritime domains were always contested, and these valuable prizes were key to further exploitation by U.S. naval and air forces, the sine qua non for successful amphibious and ground operations. McManus also demonstrates the criticality of intelligence; while not a guarantor of victory, Allied breaking of the Japanese encryption codes proved a decisive point in the Pacific War. Despite this advantage, U.S. forces frequently underestimated the number of Japanese troops at the tactical level, causing inter-service conflicts and needless casualties. Lastly, the author’s portrayal of numerous battlefields throughout the theater underscores the horrors men on both sides faced, not only the ever-present risk of death or injury but also disease, deprivation, and the tyranny of extremely difficult weather and terrain. As a result of the author’s excellent analysis, the reader will no doubt gain a newfound respect for the role the U.S. Army played in the Pacific as a worthy companion to the other services.

Island Infernos is narrative history at its best. McManus writes in a manner that captures and keeps the reader’s attention; the book never seems tedious or cumbersome. Though the volume is over six hundred pages in length, the author’s ability to interweave the levels of war, as well as cover topics above and beyond the combat action alone, make for a highly readable, educational, and entertaining experience. Readers of Island Infernos will no doubt look forward with great anticipation to the author’s final volume in the trilogy, which will cover the Army’s Pacific exploits in the final year of the war, 1945. It will no doubt be a worthy conclusion to what is an outstanding trilogy in the making.

Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas