The Last Days of the United States Asiatic Fleet
The Fates of the Ships and Those Aboard, December 8, 1941–February 5, 1942
Greg H. Williams
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2018, 429 pages
Book Review published on: October 5, 2018
The title of this book—The Last Days of the United States Asiatic Fleet—misleads; the subtitle, however, is more apt. The topic area has much to offer. Few Americans know much about the doomed U.S. Asiatic Fleet and its destruction in the waters off Southeast Asia and the Dutch Indies by the forces of the Empire of Japan in the first year of World War II in the Pacific. However, this book does not coherently tell that story. It purports to tell the stories of those who cannot tell their side of things, those who were killed, as well as those who might not have been given a proper hearing by “historians” of the Pacific War. However, it does this in a way that is almost the opposite of the narrative the title and preface lead one to expect. It fails the basic test of retaining the reader’s interest.
A book need not be written by a professional historian to be valuable, but it has to “flow,” it has to have context, and in the case of history, it needs structure. None of these are present. The structure of the book is its greatest weakness—it is a rambling collection of lists and anecdotes about the men and ships of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. Through fifteen uneven chapters, it follows a roughly chronological order. However, time and again, the author proceeds from unsubstantiated anecdotes to lengthy block quotations, and then to pages of lists of the names of crewmen and ships. Much of the text should have been turned into appendices. For example, on page 129, after extensive passages of block quotations and text lifted directly from primary sources with little original writing to provide context, Greg Williams provides a twenty-page list of sailors presumably (it is not clear from the text) lost aboard the Japanese ship Arisan Maru. At the end of the list there is no recap or analysis. One gets the feeling that the author simply included these lists to increase his page count. This list is followed by a subheading titled “Policy Opinions” that launches into text riddled with style and grammar errors. Additionally, there are no endnotes or footnotes for the entire book and no maps to help readers unfamiliar with the geography of the Far East.
Williams claims to have served in “the Navy”—one assumes this means U.S. Navy—but the limited biography on the back cover of the book does not give much else on his background. This reviewer’s attempts to find more information on Williams yielded little other than another book he wrote about the merchant marines in World War II, also published by McFarland. Similarly, there was not much about the publisher, McFarland, which this reviewer had never heard of until reviewing this book. Going online revealed that McFarland considers itself “a leading independent publisher of academic nonfiction.” Based on the title reviewed here, this reviewer cannot imagine a work less in line with academic standards and formats than this one. It is too poorly written to be considered “popular” military history and conforms to none of the standards one finds in military history published by university presses or publishers like Naval Institute Press. There is a strong likelihood that this book was self-published, given its low production run and relatively high price for a first-edition paperback ($49.95).
This book might have some minimal value as a reference work but even that is in question given the lack of proper academic citations and confusion about sources beyond the short bibliography. For readers wishing a more coherent and authoritative history of the demise of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, the reviewer recommends the older work of Samuel Eliot Morison in Rising Sun in the Pacific or more recent accounts in general histories of the Pacific War such as Ronald Spector’s Eagle Against the Sun. Additionally, the scholarship on American prisoners of war in the Pacific is extensive and much better told in books such as Professor Greg Urwin’s Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941-1945, but it is not even listed in the author’s bibliography.
Book Review written by: Cmdr. John T. Kuehn, U.S. Navy, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas