John C. McManus, Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941–1943 (Penguin Random House, 2020)
John C. McManus, Island Infernos: The US Army’s Pacific War Odyssey, 1944 (Penguin Random House, 2021)
John C. McManus, To the End of the Earth: The US Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945 (Penguin Random House, 2023)
With the recent publication of To the End of the Earth: The US Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945, John C. McManus completed an epic trilogy of the US Army’s involvement in the Pacific theater of World War II. The series is a masterwork of historical research and storytelling. The completion of the trilogy could hardly be more relevant, as the US Army and US government transition their attention toward a potential conflict in the Pacific. For scholars and practitioners, McManus’s series should be viewed as the handbook on organizing, supplying, and fighting expeditionary, high-intensity warfare in the Indo-Pacific theater.
Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941–1943
McManus begins the trilogy by laying bare all the grim details of the US Army’s rough start to the war in the Pacific. The first volume details the Army’s confusion and panic at Schofield barracks as Japanese planes flew overhead as well as the simultaneous loss of island garrisons on remote Pacific islands. General Douglas MacArthur’s failures and counterproductive leadership in defense of the Philippines hindered the initial American response and led to a significant strategic disadvantage for the United States. Analyzing the Japanese campaign plan, it takes little imagination to overlay ongoing tensions in the South Pacific on the Japanese logic of limited preventive strikes and rapid seizure of key islands with such speed and audacity as to deny the possibility of, or psychologically deter, an escalatory US response. With US forces again operating in the Philippines and concerned about strategically vital atolls, the adversarial calculus of targeting such locations becomes much the same as it was for Japan in 1941.
After departing the Philippines, MacArthur began rebuilding his forces, and his credibility as a leader, in Australia. Crucial to MacArthur’s ability to strike back was the need to reconstitute and rebuild the US Army and US Army Air Forces after the staggering losses in men and materiel in the Philippines. Here, McManus expertly tells the story of the rapid arrival and acculturation of thousands of new service members into the military after Pearl Harbor and their subsequent arrival in Australia.
The use of Australia, a nation at war since 1939, as a home was strategically essential but not without complications. McManus expertly details the challenges of conducting multinational coalition warfare through the lens of the Australian-American alliance. Despite fighting a common enemy, the partnership was rocky at the start of the war. The seemingly close allies had their own share of troubles, as thousands of raw US Army soldiers began pouring onto the continent, bringing with them American culture, and even racial inequalities. These tensions eventually led to the Battle of Brisbane, a deadly riot between American and Australian personnel.
The challenge of aligning missions with a partner force is not a new one and will continue to be as inherent in coalition warfare in the future as it was for MacArthur. MacArthur found ways to publicly minimize the Australian contribution to the war, from claiming Australian victories as American to mocking the Australian soldiers who fought and died along the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea. These actions themselves provide lessons on the often-fraught political nature of coalition warfare and highlight the importance of maintaining respect and dignity at all levels, even in the harshest of combat conditions.
Meanwhile, far across the Asian continent, McManus tells a very different story of another US Army fighting alongside the Chinese Kuomintang against the Japanese in the rugged terrain of Burma. There, General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek’s contentious relationship and simultaneous interdependency make for an interesting study in coalition warfare, the role of security force assistance, and the intersection of personalities and strategic objectives. McManus includes details of how the Kuomintang leader and his wife crowdfunded support across the United States, a strategy that has more recently been effectively repeated by organizations such as the North Atlantic Fellas Organization which globally fundraised through the internet to buy weapons for the defense of Ukraine.
Further to the north, American soldiers engaged in the only cold-weather battles of the Pacific war, as they fought to reclaim the captured Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The Japanese seizure of the Aleutians, while sometimes considered a strategic feint to divert US forces from Midway, demonstrated that the far northern reaches of the Pacific were both accessible to military forces and strategically valuable. Now as the Arctic opens to the world, the need for Arctic-focused security and policy studies is only further validated.
Island Infernos: The US Army’s Pacific War Odyssey, 1944
McManus’s second book details the transition of the Army from a force made brittle by the interwar peace and initial defeats into the brutally effective fighting force it would become by year’s end. This transition offers powerful insight for the contemporary US Army, as it seeks to transition from twenty years of counterinsurgency operations to one oriented on multidomain operations and large-scale combat operations.
Much as in the first book, special attention is paid to the dysfunctional relationships between leading generals and their subordinate commanders, which often led to arbitrary dismissals of competent leaders and the frivolous waste of soldiers on pointless missions dictated by commanders far from the action. Despite General George Marshall’s ruthless screening process of senior officers during the war, the problem of senior leader misconduct remained, and does so today with ripple effects across formations and greater American society.
McManus simultaneously captures the challenges of the terrain, the extensive logistical demands of high-intensity combat, and the expeditionary character of the war. Throughout the war, men and supplies had to be transported from the United States to distant battlefields in the Pacific theater. Departing in great fleets of ships that carried them across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, supplies were unloaded onto hastily constructed docks or, in many cases, directly onto recently secured beaches on islands where no logistical infrastructure existed before. From these depots, supplies were then carried by truck, mule, or men, along rough or entirely nonexistent roadways deep into the unforgiving jungles and mountains to the front lines. Little has changed in many of these locations today and the lift requirements from home station to combat have only increased.
As the Army grew accustomed to the challenges of jungle warfare through the fighting in New Guinea, the beginnings of what would be known as the island hopping campaign, and the campaign to reclaim the Philippines, emerged. When writing about the battles on Guam, Saipan, and Peleliu that the Army was involved in, McManus paints a picture of Army forces seizing terrain to set conditions for naval and aerial freedom of maneuver. US Army Pacific envisions a similar role in the Indo-Pacific today, by applying landpower to joint campaigns.
While covering details of the 27th Infantry Division’s fight on Saipan, McManus also lays bare challenges of joint operations, including differences in service culture. These challenges were laid painfully bare in the relief of the division commander, US Army Major General Ralph Smith, by his commanding officer, Marine Lieutenant General Holland Smith, on the belief that the Army forces fighting on Saipan lacked the aggression of their Marine counterparts. This contentious moment again provides valuable lessons to modern practitioners. As with coalition warfare, joint operations require a high level of respect and understanding for other services. The nature of the terrain and the threat in the Pacific currently will again force the various branches of the US military to be tightly integrated in the joint and multidomain fight, with no room for petty bickering and finger pointing.
To the End of the Earth: The US Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945
The final book of the trilogy is the conclusive finale of the Army’s fight in the Pacific. McManus expertly captures the intense urban combat of the liberation of Manila, highlighting perhaps one of the most important but often overlooked aspects of any future conflict in the Pacific. Since the end of World War II, the Pacific region has urbanized greatly, particularly in the littoral zone. A glance at a map of the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and Japan shows dozens of major cities spanning their coastlines. As people and power flow into cities, so too will conflict as various armed forces seek to control the populations and the centers of regional and national power.
Much of the rest of the book is devoted to the savage fighting on Okinawa, the last major battle of World War II. The protracted campaign to capture the densely populated island set the stage for its continued American presence to this day. Special attention is paid to the plight of the native Okinawans, who, decades later, remain acutely aware of the destruction inflicted upon them by the clashing American and Japanese forces. To this day the lingering resentment from this battle and the subsequent occupation has created challenges for US forces based on the island.
McManus dedicated the final chapters to the events that occurred after representatives of the Empire of Japan surrendered on the deck of USS Missouri. He captures the victorious attitude and its lapse into apathy as soldiers went home or began occupation duty. In doing so, he explains how the war’s end was instrumental in setting the conditions for the Korean War, as well as the geopolitical outcomes that continue to dominate that region in contemporary times.
Overall, McManus’s series is an excellent work that ties together not only the tactical and strategic history of the US Army’s war in the Pacific, but also its cultural, social, and political components. There is no single series on the war in the Pacific that captures all of these variables and details in the same manner. His attention to the most minute details, such as local soil conditions or the case of two estranged brothers meeting on a battlefield in New Guinea in the middle of a suicidal Japanese attack, is unrivaled and manages to paint an extremely detailed picture while losing none of the greater strategic image of the massive conflict.
Rick Atkinson’s Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945, which chronicled American operations in Europe and was the conclusion of his Liberation Trilogy about the US Army in Europe, was described by one reviewer as the “Big Wars Manual.” McManus’s series now serves as the timely and complementary “Pacific Wars Manual,” presenting the oft-understudied Army campaigns in the Pacific with relevance today. For modern practitioners, both uniformed and civilian, this series is an outstanding resource on the specific challenges that the US Army faced in the Pacific theater during World War II. From the grand plans of generals to the breathless, split-second decisions made by junior leaders, McManus tells the story of the men and women who waged the war in the Pacific.
Benjamin Phocas is a cadet at the United States Military Academy, where he is in the Defense and Strategic Studies program. He is an intern for the National Center for Urban Operations and the Urban Warfare Project of the Modern War Institute.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: New York National Guard