Book Review: Their Backs Against the Sea by Bill Sloan

Their Backs Against the Sea: The Battle of Saipan and the Largest Banzai Attack of World War II
by Bill Sloan
Da Capo Press, 2017

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Historian Bill Sloan continues a string of detailed, even granular accounts of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War with his latest book, Their Backs Against the Sea. The subject here is the grueling Battle of Saipan, which Sloan characterizes as a key conflict: the island, at fourteen miles long the second-largest in the Marianas, would give advancing US forces a vital foothold, a base that was at last within striking distance of the Japanese home islands. And the Japanese forces on the island, under the command of Lieutenant General Yoshitsugo Saito, knew this perfectly well; they understood that they needed to hold the island at all costs. A large part of the significance of the Battle of Saipan derives from how literally “at all costs” was interpreted.

Published in Open Letters Weekly, August 14, 2017

Book Review: Midnight in the Pacific by Joseph Wheelan

Midnight in the Pacific: Guadalcanal – the World War II Battle That Turned the Tide of War
by Joseph Wheelan
Da Capo Press, 2017

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August 7th of this year marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, which was launched in an almost unplanned scramble in the summer of 1942, mainly out of US Admiral Ernest King’s ferocity to strike a blow against the Imperial Japanese Navy. King (the subject of an excellent biography by Thomas Buell called Master of Sea Power) warned that unchecked Japanese victories in the Pacific imperiled the all-important shipping lanes between the US West Coast and Hawaii and Australia. When King and Admiral Chester Nimitz learned of Japanese plans to construct an airfield on the island of Guam, the die was cast: they sent in the Marines.

Published in Open Letters Weekly, August 15, 2017

Book Review: The Paris Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

The Paris Spy
by Susan Elia MacNeal
Bantam, 2017

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“This is not my war” Susan Elia MacNeal’s redoubtable heroine Maggie Hope says at one point in the new series novel, The Paris Spy, and although the moment is deadly serious – she’s verbally sparring with a silky, venomous Obersturmbannführer in occupied Paris at the height of the Second World War, and if she slips up and breaks her cover (she’s in Paris to spy, of course, for the Special Operations Executive), she knows she’ll suffer the same fate as the Erica Calvert, the SOE agent whose recent disappearance in Paris has urgent relevance to the Allies’ advancing plans for the D-Day landing in Normandy – and yet the line will likely prompt a quick smile or laugh from long-time readers of MacNeal’s series. Ever since 2012’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, American-born Maggie Hope has been on half a dozen adventures with a cast of endearing supporting characters (including a good many well-drawn historical figures). She has fought, scrambled, connived, and sleuthed her way through more than enough adventures in hopes of thwarting the Nazis that it most certainly is her war – she owns it as thoroughly as any character in an ongoing mystery series.

Published in Open Letters Weekly, August 17, 2017

Book Review: The Riviera at War by George G. Kundahl


The Riviera at War: World War II on the Côte D'Azur
by George G. Kundahl
IB Tauris, 2017

Even the title of George Kundahl's impressive new book, The Riviera at War, sounds fundamentally odd to modern ears; the gorgeous, sybaritic glories of southeastern France almost always strike their visitors as inviolable parts of the place, like the sea and the sunlight – the very idea that war could mar such a place seems untenable.

Published in Open Letters Weekly, August 22, 2017