Eric Bergerud has produced a very good soldier’s history of the land war in the South Pacific. For Americans, this is a sadly understudied period, often ignored in favor of the far larger battles on the Central Pacific Islands or the Philippines. However, it was during this period that the outcome of the war in the Pacific was actually in doubt, and therefore where the Japanese were on a relatively equal footing with the Allies. The relative forces involved make the American involvement certainly equal to the parallel operations in North Africa and Sicily, but at that time we were far from being even equal partners with the British. It is a fascinating campaign in an exotic region, and Bergerud treats it as such.
Bergerud takes a Keeganesque approach, but balances it with the necessity of his narrative. Those looking for an in-depth strategical analysis should look elsewhere – jungle wars are by necessity not wars of large manuver units. It is, by necessity, a grunt’s story. However, Bergerud’s narrative does describe the campaign and some of the higher strategic considerations which led to those grunts being sent to wherever they were sent, and why their respective armies sent them out to fight the way that they did. The narrative takes the reader on a fascinating journey through life as a combat solider in the South Pacific: where he fought, how he was wounded, injured or rendered ill (disease being a huge problem in the jungles of the South Pacific), how he was cared for in injury and death, what he ate, how he was armed, why he fought, and all the other elements that you need to really understand what a rifleman’s life was like. The author makes good use of veterans’ interviews in illustrating his points.
Australians will take comfort (and hopefully Americans will learn something) in the attention paid to their contribution in the South Pacific. The MacArthur propaganda legacy does not hold sway over this book.
If there is any great failing in this book, it is the lack of material present about the Japanese. At times, coverage of the Japanese is excellent. However, at no time does the author use as much interview material from Japanese veterans as he does from Allied vets. Also, Bergerud gives Japanese morale the short end of the stick. That is a serious flaw, given that by the time one reaches the chapter on morale, a reader should be painfully aware of just how much every Japanese attack in the South Pacific (even the successful ones) resembled massacres. What motivated these men to go and die in droves is a subject worthy of a serious examination, and Bergerud does not give it one.
That aside, this is a great book for anyone wanting to bone up on the South Pacific campaign!