The publishers didn't want this serious book to include a lighthearted observation of Adm. Edwin T. Layton that our bombers at Yokohama couldn't tell the difference between a warehouse and a whorehouse, so the authors left it out.

But often a merry aside is more revealing and contains more truth than the average publisher can be expected to know about, and I would have included it, if I were the editor.

It suggests a central truth about Adm. Layton, who died last year at 81, that he believed he knew a great deal about the disaster of Pearl Harbor that was not reflected in the received version of that Japanese attack.

For 43 years he held his tongue, publicly, until a million pages or so of documents were finally declassified and available to historians at the National Archives.

Then, with documents he felt supported his claims and his analysis, he consented to the years-long urging of Capt. Roger Pineau (USN-Ret.) and his coauthor, British historian John Costello, to tell his story.

Fortunately, the first draft of the most critical part of the book was completed before the admiral's death, and enough work had been done, enough leads developed and enough documents unearthed to bring the work to completion.

This book, "And I Was There," will be published Dec. 7 by William Morrow. Copies already have filtered out and attracted attention on the front pages of the major newspapers, so within five years we may expect to see something about it on television. The book is 596 pages, elaborately argued and buttressed, and anyone interested in that major war (World War II) will read it himself, since its value is the detail with which it abounds.

Still, a general statement or two can be made. First, it is not necessarily the only book to be read, but as the authors modestly point out, no other book on that war can now be written that does not take account of the one they have written.

In some cases heroes are toppled, or at least given a few good shakes -- among them Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- and a number of scapegoats are not only restored to grace but are somewhat exalted as heroes. And among these are Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, widely blamed for American sleeping-at-the-switch at Pearl Harbor, and Capt. Joseph J. Rochefort, who was thought by many important officers to be one of a "bunch of nuts in a basement dreaming up wild hallucinations."

Rochefort, a key figure in breaking the Japanese code, was very much out of favor in Washington, the authors observe, and, to be brief about it, "was speared like a frog and hung up to dry."

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, however, relied on Rochefort, who said when and where the Japanese would attack at Midway, while Washington insisted the attack would not come there at all. Fortunately for the eventual security of America, Rochefort was correct, and Nimitz, relying on him, was prepared. The battle at Midway ensured that the Japanese would not win the war, however long it might drag on.

But the details are too complex to summarize lightly. Suffice it to say that a decision was reached only last month to award Rochefort the Distinguished Service Medal posthumously. (He had been turned down for this high award twice during his lifetime.)

A continuing strand of the book is that individual men make history, and an incredible amount of history depends on who gets along with whom; whose ego is at risk, and who is unhappy at being proved wrong.

As Costello said at lunch yesterday, if you have invested a lot of thought, effort and general good sweat to conclude that reality is a certain way, then you resist some other view, blowing in from left field, that contradicts your conclusions. Few analysts like contrary analysts. Even if they happen to be right.

One thing Adm. Layton believed, Pineau added, was that the same infighting that led to disaster at Pearl Harbor still operates, and one reason Layton consented to the book, Pineau said, was his hope that a nuclear Pearl Harbor could be prevented in the future. But before anything can be corrected, he felt, you have to know precisely what went wrong in the last disaster.

And what went wrong -- the intrigues, the misinformation -- is the burden of the book.

"There have been books written with intellectual arguments," Costello said, "and books carefully based on documents. But this is the only book based on personal knowledge plus documentation not available before, and it will change a lot of opinions."

Pineau, who has been darkly muttering for some years that we have not heard the last on Pearl Harbor or Midway (without giving so much as one detail to support this) now basks like a cream-fed cougar as he contemplates an early copy of the book that has taken so much of his life and energy the past three years -- and long before that, if the truth be told.

He is quiet, scholarly (a great student of Japanese, a man who has interviewed an endless assortment of Japanese military figures), and Costello is far more brisk and assertive in manner.

"I am a journalist manque'," Costello said. He has written several books of history, among them "The Pacific War." He was educated at Cambridge and has been much absorbed by the whole study of military intelligence.

The two men, dissimilar on the surface, got together when somebody wrote a damning review of one of Costello's books, and Pineau (who had never laid eyes on Costello) fired off an impassioned defense of Costello's facts and reasoning.

When Costello, who has often been to America on his various projects, was in California, Pineau said why not phone old Adm. Layton at Carmel, and just see if he would consent to talk.

"We had asked Adm. Arleigh Burke (USN, Ret.) what he thought of this, and he said, 'Well, if Adm. Layton doesn't want to see you, you won't be in any doubt of it.' So I went down and we sat on the deck looking out at the sea, and he began to open up, and we knew we had a book."

Adm. Burke (former chief of naval operations) had already said Layton's story could be one of the most important to come out of World War II. And here it was, the documents declassified at last, and the old admiral beginning to talk in the last years of his life, looking at the sea.

"You strike me as one of those guys who believes there is a talismanic power in truth," I said, but Costello just grinned:

"Not exactly, or not in those words. I just believe in this, that of 10 guys, eight may get it wrong, but there will always be one or two that will finally get it right."

"But if you and Pineau had waited a little longer, Layton's story would not have been recovered."

"Wrong," Costello said. "If we hadn't done it, or it hadn't been done now, somebody else would have done it, no matter how much later. Enough is on record now. It was bound to be told."