Sunday, 31 December 2017

Book Review - Goodbye, Darkness by William Manchester

Goodbye, Darkness : a memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester

New York: Back Bay Books, 2002 (originally published by Little, Brown & Company 1980)

ISBN 9780316501118

What a book! I came to this work thinking that it was the recollections of Manchester's time in the Marines during the War: it is that, but so much more besides. It is a potted history of the island-hopping campaign run by Nimitz, along with a current-day (1980) view of some of the most infamous and bloody battles in history.

Manchester, a veteran of the Battle of Okinawa - where he was seriously wounded - decided in his middle-age to revisit the Pacific, to try and make sense of his time there, to make sense of the War in the Pacific, and work through his ideas of what the United States had fought for, and whether it was worthwhile.

This is, mostly, a recollection of futility and waste: that is, a book about war. Manchester revisits Guadalcanal, the first test of the Marines in the War, where both the Allies and the Japanese fought the climate, disease and lack of food as much as they fought each other. Not for the last time, the Americans greatly underestimated how much effort it would take to successfully complete such invasions. For months, the fate of the Allies' war, and perhaps even Australia, balanced on who would prevail in the Solomons: at that time Guadalcanal was one of the most important places on the globe. When Manchester visits in the late 1970s Guadalcanal has returned to being the sleepy backwater it was before the War. He spends a night on Bloody Ridge, and is haunted by old memories and fears.

He then visits Tarawa; he wasn't there during the War, and there isn't much there now. The island of Betio which held the airstrip and which therefore was the prize, is small - "No part of it is more than three hundred yards from the water." There were nearly five thousand Japanese on the island, and about the same number of Marines landed to face them. In 76 hours the battle was over, at the cost of 3,381 Marine casualties (over 900 deaths): of the Japanese garrison, 17 were taken prisoner. Such brutality was commonplace in the Pacific, where the Marines often took 60-70% casualty rates in their units and were still fighting. The Japanese typically fought to the last man.

This fact makes it all the more horrifying when Manchester goes on to describe the battle for Peleliu. Owing to the quick advance of the Allies under MacArthur on the Western flank of the warzone, the Peleliu operation was strategically pointless by the time it got underway. Every casualty there was a waste of a life. 2,336 Marines died there, 8,450 were wounded. The Japanese lost 10,695 killed, and of the 202 men captured, 183 were foreign labourers.

As the Allies got close to Japan, the tactics of the enemy changed. Instead of meeting the Marines on the beach, the Japanese fortified themselves inland and proceeded to bleed the US forces dry. In this way they hoped that, even though they knew Japan couldn't win, the Allies would baulk at the horrific cost in men that an invasion of the Home Islands would make (MacArthur, usually accurate in his predictions, estimated one million US casualties in such an invasion).

Thus as Saipan, Guam and Iwo Jima fell, so did tens upon tens of thousands of men. In what is an acute irony, Manchester describes how Iwo Jima is now a Japanese military base.

Manchester deals briefly with MacArthur's war as well, his fleeing and returning to the Philippines via New Guinea. But this is a memoir mostly of the Marines, of Manchester's platoon, and in the end, of that platoon's Golgotha, which came to them on the slopes of Sugarloaf Hill on Okinawa. The scale of the carnage on that island is almost impossible to believe. In fact Manchester, when he revisits it, struggles to come to terms with the fact that normal life, with motorways and McDonalds stores can go on where such bloody battles were fought. This passage is a key to some of Manchester's struggles within this book: what was all the sacrifice for, if the World, and people, haven't really changed? How can people forget so quickly? How can it be that the things that he and his comrades fought for have now become "old hat"? And how can the fit and combat-ready Marine Sergeant have become a crusty middle-aged man?

Manchester's description of the horror and degradation of battle is at times terrifying and his howls of anger at the death of those he fought with are painful to read. In the end Manchester comes to the realisation that soldiers fight for love of the man next to them: grand strategy has little meaning, but the life of your platoon-mate means everything. When you see them die, part of you dies as well.

Some of Manchester's platoon died heroes, single-handedly fight off Japanese attacks; Others had their throats cut in the middle of the night; Some were killed by friendly-fire; one was incinerated when a flamethrower malfunctioned; another got hung up on barbed wire, unretrievable, and the platoon had to listen to his screams of agony until he died. This, in the end, is the legacy of war.

At the end of the book, Manchester has his recurring dream one more time. This time, when the middle-aged Manchester reaches the top of Sugarloaf, he doesn't see his younger self ascending the other side. He has laid his ghosts to rest: "His Sergeant would never come again. He turned away, blinded by tears." He wasn't alone in that.

This is one of the most powerful books on World War Two that I have read. It is not for the faint-of-heart. It is a classic.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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