Sea of Thunder (by Evan Thomas)

The Battle for the Pacific

U.S. Navy carrier St. Lo afire after being bombed by Japanese planes during the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea in October 1944.
U.S. Navy carrier St. Lo afire after being bombed by Japanese planes during the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea in October 1944. (AP)
Reviewed by Wesley K. Clark
Sunday, February 4, 2007


Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945

By Evan Thomas

Simon & Schuster. 414 pp. $27

The aim of every commander in war is to understand the mind and intentions of his opponent. Never is that more vital than in naval warfare, when whole fleets can maneuver precisely in accordance with the direction of a single leader. But understanding the enemy poses formidable problems -- and, lacking it, even the greatest forces may falter.

Sea of Thunder, by Evan Thomas, an assistant managing editor of Newsweek, provides one of the most insightful analyses yet written of personalities and military cultures at war. The book tells the story of the Japanese and American commanders whose fates converged in history's last great naval engagement, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. It is also a story of competing traditions and the extraordinary influence of personality, organizations and culture on warfare -- despite the advanced technologies wielded in World War II.

Drawing on archives, official debriefings, eyewitness commentary, letters, diaries and interviews, Thomas takes us into the minds of these opposing leaders. Adm. William "Bull" Halsey, the blustery U.S. fleet commander, was a household name in America; the other three main characters are less well known: Cmdr. Ernest Evans, an American destroyer captain and Medal of Honor winner; and two top Japanese admirals, Matome Ugaki and Takeo Kurita. We learn about their upbringing, schooling, military experience and the maritime and naval campaigns leading up to the 1944 showdown. And we see each side's persistent misunderstanding and underestimation of the other.

Thomas draws the battle scenes with exquisite precision, taking us onto the bridge with the admirals or into the waves with sailors abandoning ship. He portrays incredible heroism, boredom, fatigue and fear -- across both fleets. This is an exciting read, especially for landlubbers who have never experienced the discipline, loneliness or anxieties of war at sea.

But Thomas's excellent writing also offers sobering insights to anyone today who believes that technology can relieve warfare of its human component. Even though bound by some degree of common technology, training and education, the admirals here drew on different cultures and perspectives to confound conventional predictions. For the real story of the Pacific war is neither the formidable 18-inch guns of the Japanese battleship Yamato nor the remarkable code-breaking that sometimes allowed American commanders to read Japanese orders. No, Thomas skillfully explores the judgments that drove the application of the technology: Halsey's heartbreaking pursuit of a Japanese decoy fleet, Evans's inexplicably courageous stand against far stronger Japanese battleships, Ugaki's fanatical determination to strike with kamikazes, Kurita's cagey disregard of his superior's intent to sacrifice his fleet.

So read Sea of Thunder for entertainment -- but also for its powerful implications as we struggle in Iraq to use advanced technologies to win a war within a foreign culture. As Thomas proves, courage is hardly limited to a single culture or nation; nor is rationality. But what is seen as rational can differ among cultures. Those who would direct military strategy and policy should be well warned -- and should have Thomas's book, well-worn, at their bedsides. ยท

Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general, was the supreme allied commander in Europe during the war in Kosovo. He is the author of "Waging Modern War."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company