Book Review: 'A Dawn Like Thunder,' by Robert J. Mrazek

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By Robert Bateman,
who teaches military history at Georgetown and is the author of "No Gun Ri, a Military History of the Korean War Incident"
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A DAWN LIKE THUNDER

The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight

By Robert J. Mrazek

Little, Brown. 526 pp. $27.99

Fifteen planes from the Navy's Torpedo Squadron Eight launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet just after 7:30 a.m. on June 4, 1942. Their mission was to find and attack an approaching Japanese fleet. One hour and 45 minutes later, they found that fleet. Ten minutes after that, 29 of the 30 men in the attacking force were dead. The lone survivor, a 25-year-old ensign named George "Tex" Gay, was floating smack-dab in the middle of one of the most powerful fleets the United States would ever face. The Battle of Midway, often heralded as the turning point of the war in the Pacific, had just begun.

"A Dawn Like Thunder," by journalist-turned-congressman-turned-novelist Robert J. Mrazek, melds a good story with solid and skeptical research. Mrazek's multiple roles over the years -- service in the Navy, a decade (1983-93) in Congress (D-N.Y.) and his latest career as an author of three military novels -- are perhaps why the book moves so well. Fast-paced and yet personal, Mrazek's narrative carries the reader to Midway quickly. But it does not stop there, as so many other accounts have. Rather, it plucks Tex Gay out of the water, sends him stateside for war bonds tours and then takes the story of Torpedo Squadron Eight through the campaign on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, from August through November 1942. Afterward, so little remained of the unit that it was reduced to flying a single Frankenstein plane, so called because mechanics assembled it from wrecked aircraft. The Navy disbanded the unit rather than attempt to rebuild it from scratch.

Academically trained historians too often reduce gripping events to soul-parching compilations of cautious statements that only the most generous might grace with the term "narrative." On the flip side, journalists attempting to write works of history sometimes jettison their skepticism; the result is often a great story but not very good history. In his first foray into history, Mrazek captures the best of both approaches, avoiding hagiography and telling the story of Torpedo Eight and the war in the Pacific as it was, not as some might wish it had been.

The celebrated Marc Andrew "Pete" Mitscher commanded the USS Hornet at Midway. Later in the war, he led carrier task forces to great success, and he is rightly a member of the Navy's pantheon of heroes. Indeed, Mrazek's own father served under Mitscher and considered him a genius. But Mrazek does not hesitate to slam a torpedo into Mitscher's legacy, revealing how the Hornet's captain fundamentally messed up at Midway, and how the Navy covered up the truth.

At the same time, Mrazek brings forward other, less known figures. Torpedo Eight, grievously damaged by its catastrophic losses at Midway and stranded with the Marines at Guadalcanal, fought through the rest of 1942 under the previous second-in-command. This is how Mrazek introduces him: "To many junior officers who found themselves temporarily serving under him, Harold H. "Swede" Larsen was a bull-headed young martinet with the charming leadership style of Captain William Bligh of the HMS Bounty. . . . One man had already thought about shooting him."

Mrazek injects that most elusive element, complexity, by noting that Larsen later displayed near-suicidal heroism, winning the Navy Cross multiple times. Yet Mrazek reports that two of his men went beyond merely thinking about shooting him and actually drew their weapons on him. Heroism does not mean one is a good person: As Mrazek makes clear, Larsen was a heroic pilot in the air but a racist, anti-Semitic jerk on the ground.

"A Dawn Like Thunder" has some minor flaws. At one point, relying on an interview, Mrazek relates that in June 1942 one officer "had seen the newspaper and magazine photographs of the devastation caused by the Japanese attack less than six months earlier" on Pearl Harbor. The problem with this statement is that no photos of the surprise attack were allowed to be published until that December, a year after the event. Such are the pitfalls of oral histories; as all historians know, memory is a slippery thing.

Mrazek's gaffes, however, are rare. With "A Dawn Like Thunder" he earns the title of historian, one that this reviewer does not apply lightly. I look forward to his next work of nonfiction. If you need me, I'll be in the bookstore, looking up his previously published novels.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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