Morning Star, Midnight Sun – The Early Guadalcanal-Solomons Campaign of World War Two
Historian Jeffrey Cox discusses his new book about the Pacific Theater of World War Two, which is out February 22, 2018
Your new book, Morning Star, Midnight Sun, is out on February 22nd. The book follows your 2014 title Rising Sun, Falling Skies. Do you feel the two books are interlinked - especially given Rising Sun, Falling Skies reports on events early in 1942, whilst your new book looks at later events of the same year?
Indeed they are. You can perhaps see them as waypoints on a continuum of the development and maturation of the US Navy. The radar-less USS Houston and the primitive four-piper destroyers, cut off from all help, in the Java Sea Campaign, versus modern, radar-equipped cruisers and modern destroyers – but with outmoded tactics – off Guadalcanal. That does not always hold, however, since the US Asiatic Fleet tended to attract the more freewheeling of the sailors and officers – witness the Houston’s beloved skipper Captain Albert Rooks versus the Chicago’s hated Captain Howard Bode and the other masters-of-bureaucracy-but-not-combat off Savo Island. Conversely, they are waypoints on a continuum of the fall of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The aerial dominance of the Java Sea Campaign is no more off Guadalcanal, though the effort is still there. The arrogance, sloppiness, and overconfidence of the Java Sea Campaign should have been eradicated by the disaster at Midway, but, no … they still do stupid things like have transports lead their escorting cruisers, because the Americans won’t show up. Right?
What sparked your interest in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and how has that interest developed over the years?
It’s hard to say exactly what it was. When I was in 4th grade, if your grades were high enough, my school let you take after school classes in subjects like algebra, chemistry, history, and computer science. I took a class about World War II. The Pacific War grabbed me more than the European Theater, though eventually I would study both areas extensively. Then I started raiding our local library for all the books I could find, like Jeffrey Bennett’s Naval Battles of World War II and Carrier War in the Pacific, whose author I cannot remember. I wrote a report on the Pacific War in 5th grade, for which I got an award that I have since lost. After that, I grabbed Admiral Frederick Sherman’s Combat Command, which covered all the naval battles of the Pacific War. That was the first place I saw a description of the Java Sea Campaign. And it was lacking, as in none of the Japanese figures or even their ships were identified. It started a bit of an OCD deal in me as to grab everything I could find that had anything to do with the Java Sea Campaign, even if it was in bits and pieces, as it usually was. That expanded to pretty much everything Pacific War, but I always had a special interest in the Java Sea Campaign, Guadalcanal and the Solomons, and Leyte Gulf. That has continued to this day.
Do you have any personal connections with the Pacific War that make studying it particularly resonate for you?
My uncle fought in the Marianas in 1944. Brought back a Japanese flag that I have. My grandfather, who had fought Tiger tanks in Europe, was slated for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu and later Japan, in which the projected American casualties exceeded 1 million and the projected Japanese casualties exceeded 5 million. The only reason he did not take part in Olympic is because we dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convincing the imperial Japanese government to surrender. So I take a bit of a personal interest in criticism of the atomic bomb attacks.
The Pacific Theater of war sometimes feels as though it receives less attention in the UK - perhaps because from a geopolitical perspective, the European campaign was much closer and commanded more media attention. How important though was the Pacific campaign for the Allied efforts in Europe, and for the Allies' World War Two strategy in general?
In most respects, they were really two separate wars. Though they had many of the same participants, the Pacific Theater had very different causes and dynamics than the European Theater. It’s natural that the war against Nazi Germany gets more attention in the UK because Nazi Germany was an existential threat to the UK. Imperial Japan was not, though Imperial Japan was an existential threat to British overseas holdings, and one can argue that Imperial Japan was an existential threat to Australia and New Zealand. Which was one of the links between the two theaters.
Perhaps no one did more to block American reinforcements for the Pacific than General Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the US Army Air Force. When reminded that the Arcadia Declaration called for protection of the sea and air lanes from the US to Australia, Arnold mused that he didn’t know that having Australia driven from the war would be a big loss. Hello? How many Australian troops were fighting with the British 8th Army in North Africa against Rommel’s Afrika Korps? Would they still fight if Japan had forced Australia out of the war? Hap Arnold could be pretty callous.
The Pacific War was really an exercise in opportunism by Imperial Japan. The UK was tied up in Europe and could not adequately reinforce its East Asian holdings. The Netherlands were occupied by Nazi Germany and the government-in-exile was even more restricted in how they could support the defense of the East Indies. The US had not yet built up the Navy, though the Two Ocean Navy Act showed that we soon would. For Japan, it was the perfect moment to strike.
Was the Guadalcanal-Solomons campaign a turning point for the Allies, after the initial setbacks of the Battle of the Java Sea?
In my mind it was the real turning point. For all the ink about Coral Sea and Midway, they merely stopped the Japanese advance. It was at Guadalcanal that we started to roll it back. Take the offensive, if not quite the initiative. One of the major criticisms of the Guadalcanal operation from the start was the lack of logistical preparation. However, what frequently gets glossed over is that the Japanese had completed their airfield on Guadalcanal and were about to stage aircraft into it. We could not wait any longer to launch the offensive because if we did, the cost in men and material would have been much higher. So while we did take the offensive, we did not quite take the initiative. Because the Japanese unwittingly chose the location and timing of our offensive.
One issue that stands out from both of your books is that the Allies featured forces from a number of nations - America, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and others. Did this pose any complications for the Allies, given they were facing a single opposition in the Japanese Empire?
Absolutely. In the Java Sea Campaign it was a nightmare with ABDACOM (American-British-Dutch-Australian Command). America trying to save the Philippines, the British trying to save Singapore, the Dutch trying to save the East Indies, and the Australians trying to save Australia. ABDACOM was pulled in four different directions at once. The Dutch put their navy at Britain’s disposal to help save Singapore, but after Singapore fell, Britain would not return the favor. The British had a legitimate reason – once Singapore fell, the East Indies were outflanked and thus defending them was next to impossible. But from the Dutch standpoint it was very convenient reasoning.
Much of the bumpy road of ABDACOM was smoothed by the time of Guadalcanal, but not entirely. Little things would pop up, and occasionally become big things. An example would be the unfortunate Royal Navy Admiral Victor Crutchley.
Here was a winner of the Victoria Cross in World War I, an unquestionably brave officer who cared about the well-being of his men, very well respected. Even the Americans had no qualms about serving under this fine officer. He commanded the screening unit off Guadalcanal during the invasion, which he had divided to cover both routes to the landing area from the northwest. The second night after the landing, he is called away by radio to a conference with his superior, to which he goes in his flagship HMAS Australia. Crutchley tells the second-ranking officer in his southern force, Captain Howard Bode in the USS Chicago, that he is leaving for the conference, but he does not tell the second-ranking officer overall in the force, the USS Vincennes’ skipper Captain Vincent Riefkohl, who is in the northern force, that he is leaving. While Crutchley was gone, the Japanese struck the screening force and slaughtered it in the Battle of Savo Island, the worst defeat in US Navy history.
A major cause of that defeat was that no one knew who was in command of the screening force. Americans asked why Crutchley did not tell Riefkohl he was leaving. The answer is that Royal Navy protocol presumed Riefkohl got the same message Crutchley did ordering Crutchley to leave, and thus knew he was in command while Crutchley was gone. That was not US Navy protocol, but it was Royal Navy. It seems like such a little thing, but the Japanese attack turned it into a big thing and an unfair blemish on Crutchley’s fine record.
Did the geography of the Pacific force the Allies to develop new military tactics?
Not just the geography, but the nature of both war in general and the Pacific War in particular. We had our plan for how to handle a Pacific war – War Plan Orange, later Rainbow 5. With Pearl Harbor and Force Z, it went out the window. We had to make do without our battleships. That forced us to use our aircraft carriers and the power they provided.
There was a philosophy used during the Guadalcanal campaign and throughout the war. It was called “Makee learnee.” The prominence of air power and an enemy reaching across the Pacific like a kraken grabbing islands left and right, especially on top of Pearl Harbor and Force Z, compelled us to improvise. Makee learnee. Try something Try anything. It just might work. If it doesn’t, you learn how to make it better.
A big example was Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner. Admiral Ernest King, the commander-in-chief of the US Navy, told Turner to develop an amphibious force for the Pacific. Turner replied that he knew nothing about amphibious operations (which was not totally true). King responded, “You will learn.”
That was the philosophy. Learn on the fly. Makee learnee. The amphibious landings on Guadalcanal were a mess, especially the unloading of supplies and provision of fighter support, but a year later it was the proverbial well-oiled machine.
And let's not leave out the critical role of the Australians in creating Ferdinand, the network of coastwatchers up and down the Solomons, without whom we would have lost Guadalcanal. That, too, was new.
As well as a precise military report on the campaign, the book also reveals some of the characters behind the conflicts. How important is it to understand the individuals who played a part in the big decisions of the campaign, and the inevitable human element of military conflicts? One of the techniques you also utilize in Morning Star, Midnight Sun is to look at the campaign from the perspectives of both sides. How important is it for military historical analysis to have a balanced view of campaigns?
Morning Star, Midnight Sun, like Rising Sun, Falling Skies, differs from the traditional military history book and, for that matter, from the traditional history book. I have written both like novels. Historically accurate novels, non-fiction novels, but novels. Each novel tells a story. Morning Star, Midnight Sun, like Rising Sun, Falling Skies, tries to reveal history by telling a story. You can’t have history without story – it’s part of the word. And novels need protagonists and antagonists.
The protagonists in my books are the Allies – the Americans, the British, the Australians, the Dutch, the Kiwis, the Canadians. Though they may contain secondary antagonists, I make no bones about the fact that we were (and are) the good guys. Not perfect, by any means, but still the good guys. I don’t pretend to be some unbiased, impartial judge of history sitting on Mount Olympus that others claim to be. I am a proud American and I support the United States, warts and all, along with our good friends in Britain, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere across the globe. I root for us to win at whatever we do.
The Imperial Japanese were the bad guys. The Japanese of today are not the bad guys – they seem to be doing more than anyone else in East Asia to stop the current bad guys in that region – but the Japanese of the Pacific War were the bad guys. With an army riddled with sadists, rapists, and thugs that was unleashed on helpless civilians and POWs. Their very own version of the Gestapo in the Kempeitai. An economic system more brutal and exploitative than anything the Western powers ever had. I can’t imagine any legitimate standard by which Imperial Japan and the Allies were in any way moral equivalents.
But in a good story the antagonists are not one-dimensional creatures. They have their motivations, their histories, their personalities. And real history is no different. The Imperial Japanese were the bad guys, but there is a big difference between a racist, sadistic thug like Tsuji Masanobu and the quiet, reserved Mikawa Gunichi, a Japanese patriot who held little ill will toward the US. Between the complex Kawaguchi Kiyotake, who seemed to respect American power but was lackadaisical in preparing his own operation against the Americans, and Tanaka Raizo, who would not hesitate to speak up when the Japanese were doing something stupid.
They make for a good and true story, but there is also military value in understanding their actions. There is always military value in knowing your opponent. Perhaps more in knowing yourself, but also in knowing your opponent. It was the Carthaginian General Hannibal who would learn the motivations of the Roman consuls and then turn those motivations against them in battle, whether it was baiting them into crossing a freezing Trebbia River, ambushing them at Lake Trasimenus, and playing on their fighting zeal at Cannae. Publius Cornelius Scipio later did the same thing. The Parthian General Surenas apparently studied Marcus Crassus and the Roman legions before setting up his ambush of Crassus’ invasion of Parthia with horse archers, against whom Crassus heavy infantry were helpless.
Given the multiple islands and nations that were involved in the Pacific conflict, is collecting source material even more challenging for today's military historians?
No. It’s far easier. When I started my own World War II odyssey in 4th grade more than three decades ago, there was no Amazon or Alibris. There was no internet. Here on the east side of Indianapolis, I had our local library and the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks at Washington Square Mall. That was it. Samuel Eliot Morison was unheard of out here; I did not see a copy of his Two-Ocean War in the library until the late 1980s, and his History of US Naval Operations in World War II was nowhere to be found. From Theodore Roscoe, only Pigboats, the abridged version of his United States Submarine Operations in World War II, was available. Hara Tameichi, Fuchida Mitsuo, Walter Winslow (who, to be fair wrote, his books in the early 1980s) – forget it. There was very little available.
Today, we have the internet, which provides such great sites for research such as The Imperial Japanese Navy Page (which helped me get through boring lectures in law school), and Hyperwar. You can track down original battle reports from the UK, Australia, and even Japan. Through Amazon and Alibris, books that were unheard of here in Indianapolis, even first-person accounts, are now available – Hara, Kroese, Cal Calhoun, for example.
And let’s not forget the incredible scholarship that has been done in the interim, thanks in part to the declassification of various documents over the years. Jonathan Parshall, Tony Tully, and the crew at The Imperial Japanese Navy Page have done amazing work and perhaps single handedly created a renaissance in Pacific War studies by making Japanese records accessible to us landlubbers. The late Patrick Clancey and his crew at Hyperwar have performed a real service in posting World War II records. John Lundstrom is the gold standard when it comes to the air war over Guadalcanal. Richard Frank wrote the seminal account of the Guadalcanal campaign, my copy of which is now falling apart. Eric Hammel, William Bartsch, Barrett Tillman, John Domagalski. I could go on. Just great work done by these people.
Was there a particular story from the Solomon Island and Guadacanal campaigns that stood out for you, that you felt was especially important for the book?
That’s hard to say. There are so, so many. I don’t want to risk committing an injustice to any of them or their participants by perhaps not rating them highly enough. If I may, please allow me to take a different tack.
Here in the US, we are at odds over a shooting spree at a Miami-area high school. The usual suspects are trying to make political hay out of it. The case has an odd twist because the alleged shooter, using his own, rather unusual name, is said to have posted threats to the high school on social media. Supposedly, he was reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation months before the shooting, but the FBI could not find him – because they did not make one phone call that could have located him before the shooting. Needless to say, many are up in arms over the FBI’s perceived incompetence in handling this case, especially on top of allegations it meddled in the 2016 Presidential Election.
Aside from noting the FBI has admitted it did not follow “proper protocols” in the case, I don’t want to get into the truth of the allegations. It is still early in the legal proceedings and the investigation of the case, and more facts are sure to come out, which could change things. What I will say, though, is this: one phone call.
One phone call. That is all it took, it is alleged. One phone call made stops a horrific school shooting. One phone call not made that allowed the shooting to happen. Among the hundreds, perhaps thousands of tips the FBI gets like this. One phone call. Not made.
Extrapolate that to the Pacific War and that gets you the Battle of Savo Island. One phone call. Not made. Across, say, five different military organizations. One scout plane not launched. One message not sent informing the commander of said one scout plane not launched. One set of scouts misidentifying with tired eyes enemy ships. An overworked central communications office not forwarding their report in a timely manner. An admiral not telling his second-in-command he’s leaving because, in his navy, protocol (there’s that word again) assumes (another bad word) that second-in-command got the message ordering the admiral to leave. One entire destroyer not looking at the most obvious route of Japanese advance – and thus missing the entire Japanese squadron passing by – because she was too concerned about running aground. One call not made by a skipper of a cruiser warning the others that the enemy was here (by far the most inexcusable of the mistakes that led to Savo Island, in my opinion).
One phone call, so to speak, at any of those levels, perhaps prevents the biggest defeat in US Navy history.
One phone call. That’s the margin for error in war. That’s not much. Maybe that one phone call slips by and nothing happens. But it added up to disaster at Savo Island. That’s the margin for error in war. That’s the pressure under which our men and women in uniform had to operate. Exhausted, overworked, underpaid, and scared. One phone call. It’s a sobering thought.
What do you hope readers will react to the book, and what do you hope they will take away from reading it?
I like to think we put something in here for everyone. When I looked at all the research we had assembled for this book, even I was shocked. There is as much information packed in here as we can pack in without getting in trouble with the fire marshal or something. That information was put together to tell a story.
So I’ll reiterate that Morning Star, Midnight Sun, like Rising Sun, Falling Skies, differs from the traditional military history book, from the traditional history book. They are written like non-fiction novels.
In many respects, the study of history is dying. Parents come to me complaining that World War II is no longer taught in their children’s schools. And there is little motivation to study it outside of school because many people see history as boring. Which seems to be a function of some history textbooks. The big complaint I get about history books is that they are dry. Mainly names, dates, places, events, reasonable inferences and interpretations therefrom. As if the author is, as I described earlier, some unbiased, impartial judge of history sitting on Mount Olympus. Who, what, where, when, why.
But history is more than that. Writing about history is more than that. History is a story. History is our story. You can’t have history without the story; it’s part of the word. Without the story, it’s just “hi.” An introduction and nothing more.
That’s why, I’ll say it again: Morning Star, Midnight Sun, like Rising Sun, Falling Skies, tries to reveal history by telling a story. Stories have good guys and bad guys. Stories have color. And so does history. History is not dry. It is not dead. It is not static. It is dynamic. It is alive. I want to show readers it is alive, so we can bring new people into the history genre.
I made my first visit to the UK a few years ago, taking in York, Vindolanda, Housesteads, Hadrian’s Wall, and Birmingham before finishing up in London with, among other places, my beloved British Museum and the Tower of London. I did not realize until this visit the divergence of opinion on King Richard III. At the Tower of London, Richard III is considered the murderer of the two princes in the Tower and a brutal, illegitimate ruler. But in York and places north, I got a very energetic defense of Richard III. While his remains had just been definitively identified and respectfully interred in Leicester Cathedral, we are still talking about events from five centuries ago. Events that earned very heated disagreements, at least on my visit. Normal, everyday people arguing Richard III. For a history nerd like myself, it was nice to see. They made history alive. I’d like to see more of it.
So, to make Morning Star, Midnight Sun, like Rising Sun, Falling Skies, approachable for the newcomer to history, I have tried to keep military and nautical terminology to a minimum. Such terminology may intimidate a new history reader into thinking this book is only for those with military experience. For that same reason, I use 12-hour civilian time. It is much easier for one with military experience to understand civilian terminology than for a newcomer to history to understand military jargon. For history, especially military history, to be remembered by society, it must be shared by all.
The Epilogue ends with a tantalizing question, did Admiral "Halsey change enough to save Guadalcanal?". Are there plans to write further books exploring the Pacific Theater as it developed throughout 1943 and the remainder of the war?
Yes. We originally planned one volume to cover both Guadalcanal and the later campaign in the middle and upper Solomons. But there is so much material to cover, including quite a few under-covered stories. If we put everything in one volume, it would be 1,000 pages. At least. A little intimidating, especially for people new to history. So we had to break it up.
But don’t worry. The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Tassafaronga, Rennell Island, Vila-Stanmore (the rare, hyphenated battle), Kula Gulf, Vella Gulf, Vella Lavella, Empress Augusta Bay, all the rest, yes, they are coming.
Jeffrey Cox's latest book on the Pacific Theater, Morning Star, Midnight Sun is available to buy from Osprey Publishing's website now, for launch on February 22, 2018. Don't also forget to look up Jeffrey's first book in this exciting series looking at the Pacific War, Rising Sun, Falling Skies which can also be ordered in hardback, paperback or as an e-book via the Osprey Publishing website.