Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-015
23 Feb. 2021
Review by Corbin Williamson, Air War College
Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941–1943
By John C. McManus
New York: Dutton Caliber, 2019. Pp. xvi, 624. ISBN 978–0–451–47504–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, World War II, Pacific Theater Print Version

Fire and Fortitude, the first installment in a planned two-volume series, begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (7 Dec. 1941) and ends with the US invasion of Makin in the Gilbert Islands (Nov. 1943). The author, military historian John McManus[1] (Missouri Univ. of Science and Technology), stresses the role of the Army, rather than the Marine Corps, in the Pacific war, with special attention to the logistical and engineering feats required to deploy its divisions in the South Pacific.


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The first of the volume's two parts (entitled "Onslaught" and "Turnabout") begins with an assessment of the Army's lack of preparation before the Pearl Harbor attack. The author shows a fine sense of detail in recreating the experience of individual soldiers. He notes, for example, that efforts to care for the wounded exhausted supplies of clean syringes at some Army facilities, though there were no recorded cases of infections caused by uncleaned syringes.

McManus next turns to the Philippines, which was defended in 1941 by a combined Filipino-American force led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Though the general's troops showed no lack of spirit, they were woefully short of equipment and training. Moreover, McManus shows, he bungled the defense of the islands in 1941–42. His plan to defeat the Japanese on the beaches of Luzon required the distribution of supplies, food, and equipment around the island. When the Filipino-American forces failed to stop the Japanese at Luzon, MacArthur had to pull them back quickly to the Bataan Peninsula, without bringing the dispersed equipment and provisions with them; this left them with inadequate supplies up to their defeat in May 1942.

The author also takes MacArthur to task for his vanity. Of 142 communiques MacArthur's headquarters issued in the early months of 1942, 109 concerned the general alone and reflected a "tendency toward alternate reality" (108). McManus concludes that MacArthur was slow to transition to a wartime mentality and too zealously guarded by his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Richard Sutherland.

The book's early chapters also offer compelling, granular accounts of the human suffering endured during retreats and relocations by Chinese and British imperial forces out of Burma and during the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. In contrast to scholars who have praised Gen. Joseph Stilwell's march out of Burma with a small band of soldiers and staff, McManus damns it as a pointless exercise that Chiang Kai-shek, head of Nationalist China, considered an abandonment of the two Chinese armies he had entrusted to Stilwell.

McManus also analyzes the cultural adjustments required of US soldiers in distant lands like China and Australia. Americans were bemused by Australian customs like the closing of businesses on Sundays: "it was said that Melbourne on a Sunday was just like a New York cemetery except that it was half the size and twice as dead" (209). For their part, the Australians appreciated the Army's large-scale construction projects that erected depots, rail yards, and airfields all over the country. Throughout, McManus stresses the logistical feats required to deploy and sustain forces far from the United States amid daunting terrain and living conditions.

After chapters on the Philippines, China, and the Army's arrival in Australia, McManus turns in the second part of the book to the initial American operations in New Guinea. The 32nd Division under Maj. Gen. Edwin Harding sought to take Buna on the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea, but met heavy Japanese resistance. The arduous jungle terrain, relentless heat, and torrential rains at times made the environment more deadly than the enemy. Illness and disease sapped the strength of American and Australian units. The dense jungles also forced a greater reliance on air and sea transport to move troops and supplies. McManus contrasts these conditions with MacArthur's sheltered life at his headquarters in Brisbane, remote from the hard realities of fighting in New Guinea.

The Papua campaign was anything but pretty. From an intelligence standpoint, it bordered on the disastrous. Training and preparation were amateurish. Combat leadership at the senior-officer level was lacking, at least until [Gen. Robert] Eichelberger's arrival on the scene. Command relationships were unnecessarily complicated, and Allied relations were, initially at least, contentious and counterproductive. Rather than bypassing the strongest pockets of Japanese resistance, MacArthur had, in essence, opted for frontal attacks, presumably because of his preoccupation with achieving a speedy victory. (342)

In his treatment of Guadalcanal, best known for the 1st Marine Division's defense of their beachhead in fall 1942, the author dwells instead on the Army's months of grinding combat against the island's remaining Japanese forces (late 1942–early 1943). He praises the operations on Guadalcanal for holding down American casualties in comparison with the bloody battles for Buna.

In contrast, the Army's liberation of Adak in the Aleutian Islands came at a high price in casualties. Poor preparation, bad weather, and a dysfunctional command structure all contributed to this outcome. Similarly, operations in northeast New Guinea in 1943 after Buna exposed problems with Army training. McManus faults the Army's failure to engage in night training or conduct operations against Japanese infiltrators. It did, however, successfully use incremental advances supported by plentiful firepower to drive back Japanese units in New Guinea. By 1943, American industrial output was sufficient to make this approach possible. Substantial fire support and better preparation improved the Army's performance during the invasion of Makin in the Gilbert Islands (Nov. 1943).

Interspersed with chapters on combat operations, McManus shares the stories of US Army personnel captured in the Philippines in 1942. Using postwar memoirs and reports, he shows that an underground network of Filipino supporters somewhat alleviated their suffering. This is but one instance of McManus's good use of relevant archives and personal paper collections.[2] Sixty pages of footnotes reveal the depth of his research.

Fire and Fortitude fills a gap in recent literature on the Pacific War by its salutary concentration on the US Army. Peter Dean's book[3] on the Australian-American coalition focuses more on allied relations, organizational development, and strategic decision making. But Dean and McManus both find MacArthur wanting as a commander, especially in the New Guinea operations. McManus excoriates him for his pursuit of the 1944 Republican Party nomination for President: "his actions revealed the dangerously megalomaniacal character of the man" (459).

The author's appealing prose style and extensive use of personal papers brings his text to life. Further enrichments include helpful maps and short biographies of major figures as they come into the story. I heartily recommend Fire and Fortitude to all readers with an interest in the US Army's role in the Pacific theater of World War II.

[1] His earlier works include September Hope: The American Side of a Bridge Too Far (NY: NAL Caliber, 2012) and The Dead and Those about to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach (NY: Dutton Caliber, 2014).

[2] At, e.g., the National Archives, the Hoover Institution, the Army Medical Department in San Antonio, and the US Military Academy. He also uses material gathered by Army historians during the writing of the Army's official World War II history, known as the "Green Books."

[3] MacArthur's Coalition: US and Australian Operations in the Southwest Pacific Area, 1942–1945 (Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 2018).

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