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Companion books for HBO’s The Pacific

If I had the time and the energy, I’d love to write a review of each episode of HBO’s The Pacific.  The miniseries has completely blown me away, as it shows the filth, despair, carnage and courage of some oft-forgotten World War II battles.  The war in the Pacific was really an entirely different affair from the European theater, and Hanks, Spielberg and crew are paying homage to those veterans.

Whereas Band of Brothers did a fantastic job covering fairly familiar ground (Normandy invasion, Battle of the Bulge, liberating a concentration camp), The Pacific covers small battles in faraway places that have been only told sparingly – and even the movies on Iwo Jima and Midway are often aging, b-level fare from the 50s and 60s. And, importantly, The Pacific only covers four campaigns – Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu and Okinawa.  The Pacific war was sprawling and complex, and a 5o-part series would still leave out huge chunks of the story.

As a military history junkie, here are a few books that I’ve read about the subject – and if you enjoy The Pacific, give ’em a try.

  • Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. Naturally, the foundation for the miniseries would be a good place to start.  I read these about five or six years ago thanks to some savvy Amazon recommendations, and I’ve re-read them in recent months.  They are exclusively a private’s perspective on the war, which is somewhat rare, as most historical accounts start from the commander’s point of view. They are also two very different books.  Leckie’s account is more literary and cerebral; Sledge relies on a more sparing and matter-of-fact style.  But they are both invaluable first-hand accounts on how war brings out the absolute best and the absolute worst in people.
  • One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa by John F. Wukovits.  This is one that I picked up in an airport, and it just was an engrossing read. If you were shaken by the carnage of the Peleliu scenes from The Pacific, the Tarawa battle is more of the same.  This account explores different angles of the battle, from the commanders on the ground (on both sides) to the plight of the individual soldiers in the field.  It also delves into the lives (and deaths) of combat photographers and journalists.  Highly recommended.
  • The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James Hornsfischer. Before I picked up this book, I knew precious little about the naval battle off Samar.  It sounds like an unbelievable Hollywood script. A group of lightly armed US destroyers and escort carriers – mostly providing ground support and submarine screens for a Marine landing force – run up against (and ultimately repel) a squadron of huge Japanese battleships and cruisers.  In fact, one Japanese battleship itself outweighed the entire US fleet that it opposed.  Sometimes, the US boats were saved because the heavy Japanese shells went completely through the thin armor, leaving only holes – but not exploding.  It’s a bizarre, desperate battle, and the book reads like a gripping fiction novel. Yet, it was entirely true.  It’s absolutely amazing.
  • Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway.  If you really, really, REALLY want to geek out on some WWII history, this is the book for you.  Shattered Sword is a heavy-duty account of the pivotal Battle of Midway, with an almost “turn by turn” retelling of every move of every ship involved.  Brilliantly researched and chock full of details, this book will allow you to crush anyone who spouts commonly accepted Battle of Midway trivia they’ve picked up from history textbooks and movies.  The bad news is that you will be that guy who knows waaaaaay too much about that topic. If you enjoy it, definitely don’t admit to it in a blog or anything.  Oops.
  • Weller’s War: A Legendary Foreign Correspondent’s Saga of World War II on Five Continents by George Weller.  A great book on wartime journalism. George Weller spent the vast majority of World War II covering the conflict from places like Greece, Iraq and New Zealand. His accounts of the out-of-the-way Pacific locales (often news stories filed “on the scene”) are stunning.  It wasn’t just the US who was routed in the Pacific; Dutch and British soldiers were fighting it out in faraway places like Singapore and Burma.  Mainstream US writers haven’t covered these locations too extensively, and to get a compilation of these superbly written dispatches makes this a worthwhile read. I’d recommend it to anyone who has dual interests in journalism and history.

Happy reading!

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