Title: Fire In The Sky: The Air
War in the South Pacific
Author: Eric M. Bergerud
Publisher: Westview Press
Pages: Hardcover, 723 pages
Price: $35, suggested retail
Fire In The Sky is Eric Bergerud's follow-up to his superb book on ground combat in the South Pacific theater, Touched With Fire. A third book on the naval aspects of this phase of the Pacific War will be next. Touched With Fire is one of the best books ever written on ground combat in any theater of World War II, and so it was with great anticipation that I settled in with this doorstop of a book on the air war. Like the first installment of this series, Fire In The Sky gets high marks for readability, research, thoughtful analysis, and a refreshingly sensible global perspective. Bergerud deals with the totality and complexity of industrial warfare in this book, not just the technical minutia at the tactical "sharp edge," and the result is a comprehensive thematic study rather than a conventional narrative of events. The author does provide an introductory chronological summary, but as he notes there is little in it that will be new to anyone who has studied this topic.
It is important to note that Bergerud's focus in these books is on the Solomon Islands and New Guinea operations of 1942-44. Bergerud writes that it is common now for people to think of these South Pacific campaigns as a minor prelude to the "real war" at sea and in the Central Pacific that culminated in the B-29 bombing campaign. However, this view is quite mistaken: "the South Pacific campaign was not the preliminary bout; it was the main event. Yet that is not obvious if one only counts casualties and numbers. The fact is that the systematic disasters suffered by Japan in the South Pacific dislocated the imperial military apparatus and revealed glaring weaknesses that the Allies proved quick to exploit. Failures in the Solomons and New Guinea did not equate to an El Alamein or a Sicily. No, defeat in the jungle tropics was Japan's Stalingrad." Since the strategic objective of Japan's war was to gain possession of the resources of the Indies necessary to do battle with the West, the Allied counterattack in New Guinea and the Solomons HAD to be resisted. Japan ultimately sent - too late as it turns out - massive reinforcements to the area. Bergerud reminds us that "there were more Japanese troops trapped on New Guinea than were deployed in the entire Central Pacific Theater; there were as many soldiers trapped on Bougainville as were faced by the U.S. ground forces on Saipan and Iwo Jima; there were more regular infantry cut off on Rabaul than were defending Okinawa." And it is for good reason that Imperial Army Air Force personnel considered a posting to New Guinea a death sentence.
This book also makes it clear that these were campaigns ABOUT air bases, and that much of the credit for ultimate Allied success must go to Army, Marine and Navy air units. The Fifth Air Force was particularly important, and gets the credit it deserves for waging one of the most successful tactical campaigns of the entire war. Bergerud doesn't ignore the critical contributions of Navy and Marine aviation in the Solomons, but he essentially leaves carrier operations to the later volume on the sea war during this period. So have the publishers put a picture of a strafing "Air Apaches" B-25 on the dust jacket? No, it features a U.S. aircraft carrier.
The book is divided into three parts. The first is "The Three-Dimensional Battlefield," a discussion of the incredibly hostile geography of the South Pacific region and its massive impact on operations. "Machines and Men in the South Pacific" is a wide-ranging discussion of training, tactical doctrine, living conditions, industrial technique, and aircraft design, performance and production. The final section, "Fire in the Sky: Air Battle in the South Pacific," brings it all together with a discussion of the impact of these elements on the nature and progress of combat operations. Although the book contains much excellent analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the most important Allied and Japanese combat aircraft types, Bergerud makes it clear that aircraft performance and tactics are almost meaningless in isolation. General George Kenney, Commander of 5th Air Force, provided a simple example of this when discussing his preference for the P-38:
" I wanted the P-38 in the Pacific because of the long distances, but not only long distances. You look down from the cockpit and you can see schools of sharks swimming around. They never look healthy to a man flying over them. Say we were going into a combat and you go in with a P-51, a 100-percent warplane: Give it a status of 100 for combat. The pilot starts out with a rating of 100. But by the time he gets four or five hundred miles out over the ocean his morale has been going down steadily by looking at that water down there, and my guess was that he would arrive at combat about a 50-percent-efficient pilot. So the total score of pilot and plane is 150. Now the P-38 is not a bad combat airplane - I'd give it a rating of 75 as compared to the P-51, easily - maybe more than that - but give it 75. But the pilot arrives there 100 percent - he's just as good as when he took off because he knows one of those big fans can bring him home. He's got two engines. So his score - his fighting score is 175 as against the other's 150. And you could hang gasoline on them."
But as Fire In The Sky makes abundantly clear, the "fighting score" calculation for military operations went far beyond even this level, to all aspects of personnel and equipment. Medicine and health issues (or what could be considered 'personnel serviceability') provide a startling example. Bergerud reports that from December 1942 to June 1944 Fifth Air Force had an annualized hospital admissions rate of 899 cases per 1,000 for all reasons, and in all areas, of which 772 cases were for diseases such as malaria, typhus, dysentery, and dengue fever. One USAAF surgeon reported that "In some areas of New Guinea, Milne Bay particularly, malaria has been widespread, in some units as many as 35 percent contracting it in one month .a unit that remains there for a period of three or four months will become 100 percent infected with malaria." The Solomons were even worse: during the Guadalcanal campaign air and ground crews suffered an incredible disease rate of 2,500 cases per 1,000 men per year! The impact of such health problems on operations is not hard to imagine. Allied medical services, while unsatisfactory at first, were always better than those of the Japanese, and improved greatly by 1944. Of course equipment serviceability problems were similarly difficult, and the Allies proved far superior to the Japanese in that area as well. It doesn't take a statistician to figure out that in the hostile environment of the South Pacific, the ability to sustain ANY sort of military operation was determined by the quality and quantity of support services.
In some respects Fire In The Sky is somewhat less impressive than Bergerud's earlier book on the ground war. Perhaps this is just because the subject is more familiar to me, or the fact that the author's thesis and approach owe so much to the earlier work. But I was frustrated by a lack of simple descriptive data on various points. For example, what was the TOE of the ground echelon of the combatants' fighter or medium bomber groups? Did it change during the period under study? How successful were the combatants in attaining ideal establishments in practice at various times and places? Although voluminous statistical data on such matters exists in the official histories, at least for the Allies, Bergerud's analysis is often couched only in qualitative terms. On the other hand, he does a fine job of making sense of the incomplete strength and loss figures available. The eyewitnesses Bergerud quotes provide much excellent, and even moving testimony, but I would have liked more from the Japanese side generally, and more of the American and Commonwealth ground and support personnel that the book clearly shows were essential to victory. I was also somewhat irritated by the large number of typos and editing/writing clams in what is after all a pretty pricey book.
Many students of Japanese wartime aviation will find that Bergerud's narrative of Japanese aircraft design is rather simplified in places, and he makes a few errors of fact with the sort of technical minutia that aviation modelers are most likely to spend great energy fussing about. Such errors do not really diminish the thrust of the analysis - indeed, most of these details are the sorts of things that the book convincingly demonstrates had little impact on the outcome of operations - but for this kind of money one expects top-notch fact checking and editorial work. Coverage of the Japanese side is generally not as good as I had hoped for, even considering the real problems an author faces more than fifty years after the event when virtually all the participants and records are long since gone. Henry Sakaida's work demonstrates what can still be accomplished in this area. Some of the sources of aircraft data Bergerud relies on are not the most up to date. For example, the performance data for Japanese aircraft apparently came from Francillon's Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War and Richard Bueschel's monographs. These sources are now 30 years old, and while excellent in many ways they are not the last word on the subject by any means. I'm also puzzled how anyone writing on this subject could fail to consult Shores, Cull and Izawa's Bloody Shambles, Hickey's Warpath Across the Pacific, and the USAAF's wartime journal Impact. I doubt these would have altered Bergerud's thesis, but they would certainly have added some useful details and operational examples. Hickey's book is a particularly fine case study of just the sort of ultimate Fifth Air Force tactical operations that Bergerud provides the deep background for.
But hey, it's my job here to nit-pick! Fire In The Sky is essential reading. It may well be the best study of a World War II aerial campaign yet written.
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