ANYTHING calling itself oral history probably ought to be approached with deep suspicion. Time is short. There is much to read. We're already awash in ill-chosen words. And though tape recorders are splendid gimmicks, people who present interviews as history are farther from the mark than a chef who insists that a loose collection of eggs, sugar, milk, vanilla, flour, and a few squares of bitter chocolate are in fact a chocolate cake.
So when John T. Mason praises oral history in his preface, ''because it gives men and women who are not masters of the written word a chance to communicate,'' one's heart sinks. But not for long. Between the oral memoirs, maps and terse bridgework fill in the real history. Besides, Mason has been officially collecting stories for the Naval Institute for years. He clearly prepares his questions with care and guile, skillfully condensing the answers into brief, seamless webs of recollection. At least to this reviewer, who took part in the tail end of the naval war in question, these 31 memoir-interviews proved mightily absorbing.
The voices begin at Pearl Harbor. They end on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. At Pearl, Coxswain James Forbis, all dressed up for Sunday shore leave from the battleship Arizona, first saw the attackers as U.S. army planes: ''They were always playing war games out there, the army against the navy in surprise attacks. So we thought, Maybe it's the crazy army air forces. They don't know when to quit.''
Mason offers scenes from historic battles -- Coral Sea, Midway, Leyte Gulf -- and dramatic moments like the launch of Jimmy Doolittle's 16 army bombers from the carrier Hornet for the raid against Tokyo in 1942, landings on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima in 1943 and 1944, and a breathtaking account of the submarine Parche slashing around inside a big Japanese convoy at night. Inevitably his organizational method resembles the island-hopping tactics used by U.S. forces in the war against Japan. But when he concentrates on is metier: men with special skills totally preoccupied with the urgent priorities of war, trying to solve unsolvable problems likely to involve deadly consequences.
Before Midway, in early 1942 James Thach worries about how he and other Navy pilots will cope with the Japanese Zero, a plane that could climb twice as fast as, and easily turn inside, the U.S. carrier planes available. After experimenting he comes up with an effective maneuver, known as the ''Thach weave'' which first has to be tested in the air against fellow pilots pretending to be Japanese. How to approximate the American performance disadvantage for the test? Simple. Those planes using the ''weave'' have to fly at half power.
In what is surely the book's best interview Navy frogman Draper Kauffman blithely tells how -- just before the invasion of Saipan and directly under the eyes and guns of the Japanese defenders -- his demolition teams, using 55 miles of fishing line, special knots for specified distances that could be recognized by feel, and depth marks painted at given heights on their naked legs, had to improvise ways to measure and mark safe paths for tanks and men through the long, shallow underwater approaches to the island.
Mason's voices mostly belong to naval officers, many of them now dead, who later became and were interviewed as admirals. Collectively they convey a lot about waging the Pacific war: how napalm was inadvertently invented on Guadalcanal (out of gasoline and the stuff used for waterproofing raincoats); exactly why the softness of sand could determine the success or failure of a beachhead; wily ways of conning a bullheaded admiral who ranks you to agree to what you know is best. Piratical instincts are not amiss either in trying to scrounge men and material for an impossible rush job -- like clearing Manila harbor of 500 ships sunk by the retreating Japanese.
Mason's voices make clear how crucial it was that we had broken the Japanese code, how important, too, the intelligence provided by a shadowy and eccentric collection of agents known as ''coast watchers,'' who in New Guinea, the Philippines and elsewhere lived behind Japanese lines and sent out radio signals -- sometimes, like characters in Kipling or Conrad, going half-batty in their danger and loneliness. T IS a shock to be reminded how often the Japanese beheaded captured pilots, and committed suicide en masse rather than surrender. When Navy ships tried to pick up Japanese survivors at sea, they would often swim away. And yet, in a curious memoir, Admiral Arleigh Burke recalls that after the war he was invited to join a Japanese naval society -- not because he had become Chief of Naval Operations -- but because, after his destroyer group sank an enemy ship and picked up some survivors, he once ordered a moment of silence for the brave Japanese dead.
There is candor in this book, and humor and an exhilarating sense, once common to us but now strange, that the Americans who fought that war could do just about anything, and without getting wordy or pretentious about it, or themselves. There is no eloquence, which may be just as well. Eloquence can be suspect, too.
It is also likely to require the talent for words of some non-oral historian. Here, for instance, is Samuel Eliot Morison in The Two Ocean War, invoking the clear, cool, beautiful June morning at Midway when young American dive bomber pilots flying at 19,000 feet could see for a radius of 50 miles around them on the porcelain blue ocean below. All unwitting, they are about to save America from defeat in the Pacific war. Morison writes ''Try to imagine how they felt at first sight of enemy flattops and their wriggling screen, with wakes like the tails of white horses; the sudden catch at their hearts when the black puffs of anti-aircraft burst came nearer and nearer, then the dreaded Zekes of Japanese combat air patrol swooping down out of the central blue; and finally, the tight, incredible swift attack, when a pilot forgets everything but the target so rapidly enlarging, and the desperate necessity of choosing the exact tenth of a second to release and pull out.''