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Pacific World War II Book Review  
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by William H. Bartsch
Texas A&M Press  2003
568 pages
Index, photos
ISBN 1585442461
Language: English

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December 8, 1941
MacArthur's Pearl Harbor

Napoleon is quoted as having said, "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." William H. Bartsch book covers an historic event that, like many of the Pacific campaigns during WWII, has yet to receive the scholarly attention in merits. In taking up this story, the reader has no settled version or “agreement” to which to refer. In effect, the story is being told for the first time.

This is Bartsch’s second book about the air war in the Philippines. His first book, Doomed at the Start focused on story of the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) pursuit pilots and their valiant but ultimately tragic efforts to confront the Japanese air assaults on the Philippines on December 8, 1941 through April 1942. In his second book, Bartsch explores the political and military forces on both the American and Japanese sides that preceded the events of December 8, 1941, culminating in the disaster of that day.

Bartsch has taken on the long overdue task of presenting a compelling and sad history of bravery, incompetence and competing egos combined with a war planning system that was still evolving when America entered WWII. In its failure to fully understand the inexorable growth of hostilities in both the east and west, America was suffering from a perceptual lag during the pre-WWII period. The national mood during the 1930s, shaped by the economic traumas of the Depression and memories of WWI, was adamantly isolationist and opposed involvement in foreign wars. This mood was apparent in the country's foreign and fiscal policies. During the 1930s, military budgets were kept unreasonably low, military planning was required to be based on defensive, not offensive, strategies and technological development was morbidly slow.

Operating as an arm of the Army, the Army Air Corps was uniquely disadvantaged in its fight for both resources and status. Still considered a supporting arm for ground forces by the Army, it was fighting for acceptance of air power’s strategic potential almost to the eve of WWII. If the Air Corps in the late 1930s was operating at a material and strategic disadvantage, then its outposts in places like the Philippines were even worse off with antiquated aircraft and facilities that were totally unprepared for the war in the offing. It is worth pausing to note that, in spite of the debacle that Bartsch so vividly describes in the Philippines, air power ultimately played a decisive role in helping to win WWII.

Bartsch goes back to the period just before the war to begin his story. The reader is taken along the halting, often contradictory course of official decision-making in Washington as the war in Europe loomed ever more threatening to U.S. interests. The record of this period may still be in dispute, but there is general agreement that Washington political and military planners were hampered in their work by a profoundly inadequate appreciation for the power of the Japanese war machine and an overly optimistic perception of U.S. military superiority.

Washington was preoccupied with German aggression and how to support Britain at a time when domestic political forces favored neutrality. The Pacific theatre was an afterthought. Even so, some on the Air Corps war plans staff, like Hoyt Vandenberg, had put forward innovative proposal for defending the Philippines that, had they been implemented, could have made a measurable difference in the outcome of that early conflict with the Japanese. Reading Bartsch’s description of the often counterproductive course of the decision-making process is like watching a train wreck in the making.

Even before the threat of war in the Pacific, military commanders in the Philippines had pleaded for new equipment, but with Europe as its priority, government and military planners in Washington would continually deflect urgent requests, until what - from this perspective - looks like the last minute. The problem was compounded by faulty assumptions regarding the primary objective of the Air Corps posture in the face of an attack: would it be defensive or offensive? This would result in an oversupply of strategic aircraft like the B-17 while the fighter planes that would be critical to any successful Philippine defense were under supplied.

Brought out of retirement to head U.S. forces in the Far East, Douglas MacArthur no doubt brought with him old assumptions about warfare in general and air power in particular. Though he may have misunderstood air power’s full potential, MacArthur did understand the need to update Air Corps equipment and put in place a commander that he felt could oversee the build-up he planned. This led MacArthur to replace Air Corps Gen. Henry Clagett with Gen. Lewis H. Brereton whom he felt that was the better suited to manage the logistical demands that would be required.

As the Japanese threat grew more palpable in early 1941, long overdue material requests finally began to flow. On the ground, work to improve facilities, update early warning systems and place the military apparatus in the Philippines on a war footing began in earnest. The stage seemed to be set for a well-planned and concerted effort to confront the Japanese whenever the might attack. Yet, the perception of readiness and the reality were very different as events would soon reveal.

Bartsch has constructed this story, to the extent possible, from the point of view of the participants themselves. By skillfully integrating the experiences of both American and Japanese combatants in the run-up to the December 8 Japanese attack, Bartsch is not being morally neutral, but rather providing readers the means to fully appreciate this dynamic piece of history through the insights and perceptions of everyone from high-level strategists to individual officers and enlisted men as each side prepared for war.

His detailed treatment of the actions of individual Air Corps officers and units in the face of impossible odds is impressive and adds an important dimension to this story, which is as much about individual personalities as it is about military strategies and equipment. In their own attempts to prepare for a Japanese attack, Air Corps commanders at various locations in the Philippines were hampered by inadequate and often unreliable information on the one hand and, on the other, a military leadership that somehow failed to fully grasp the extent of the deadly force that was rapidly closing in on them.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, General Douglas MacArthur and Brereton had a ten hours notice to respond to the very high probability of a Japanese attack on the Philippines, and though the outlying fighter and bomber groups were all on alert. When the attack finally happened, the Air Corps and most of the other military units there were still caught off guard.

Bartsch tells the dramatic story of that day from both American and Japanese viewpoints. He provides graphic details of the tragedy on the ground for those airmen and airplanes caught in the sights of Japanese attackers. He describes the heroism of those pilots who were able to take off and bravely faced the overwhelming odds.

Bartsch is a good writer. He has the rare ability to establish an aura of suspense about an event in which the outcome is already known. He is also an historian, and it is important that out of this recording of events, the reader gain some insight about what happened and how it went wrong. The history revealed in this book, and the tragic event at its center, must inevitably lead to questions of responsibility. In retrospect, it’s difficult to understand how badly Washington underestimated the Japanese threat and the sadly inadequate state of military responsiveness in the Philippines was to the threat and finally the attack itself.

His extensive research provides a reliable foundation that permits the reader to make his own assessment of the failures of command and control in both Washington and the Philippines that ultimately caused not only the destruction of U.S. military capacity in the Philippines but also the loss of America's prime strategic outpost in the Pacific. Without the Philippines, America's ability to resist Japanese aggression was so badly crippled that it would take another year to begin turning back Japanese advances in the Southwest Pacific and East Asia.

This is a powerful story, well told and well researched. It's also an important moment in American history about which Americans know too little. Bill Bartsch has done a remarkable job in telling that story and reminding us that we have much to be proud of but there is also much to learn from our own history.

Interview with William H. Bartsch

Review by Douglas Walker  

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Last Updated
September 21, 2023

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