Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 caught the U.S. Navy by surprise in more ways than one. For not only did Japan succeed in disabling a major portion of the Pacific Fleet, the attack by waves of bomb- and torpedo-carrying planes inaugurated a new style of naval warfare for which the United States was unprepared. The learning curve that the U.S. was forced to undertake serves as a key theme of Ian Toll's book, which chronicles the first six months of the war in the Pacific. During these months the Japanese enjoyed virtually free reign in the Pacific, as their planes and ships swept aside what opposition the Western powers could throw together on short notice. The result was a succession of victories won at a pace that astonished even the Japanese themselves.
Yet as Toll demonstrates, the United States was quick to absorb the lessons of the new style of warfare. Here he focuses on the carrier operations that formed the initial response to the Japanese onslaught. While the famous Doolittle raid gets its due here, Toll rightly highlights the often overlooked strikes on Japanese bases in the Marshall and Gilbert island chains Not only did these strikes give the U.S. Navy valuable experience, but they were central to Admiral Yamamoto's decision to stage an invasion of Midway Island in an effort to draw the remaining U.S. forces out for a decisive engagement. The resulting battle in June 1942 proved the turning point of the war in the Pacific, however, as the sinking of the four carriers that formed the core of the Kido Butai deprived the Japanese of their ability to conduct further offensive operations.
Toll describes these months in a text that engages the reader with dramatic yet straightforward prose. His pen portraits of the major commanders -- men like Chester Nimitz, Ernest King, and Isoroku Yamamoto -- are a particular strength of the book, as is his integration of the role American codebreakers played in this stage of the war. Though he bases his book almost entirely upon previously published works, his analysis and his evocative writing style make this a book that even readers familiar with the subject will find well worth their time. It's a promising start to what, when completed, could prove to be an enduring go-to source for anyone interested in reading about the Second World War in the Pacific.