Evan Thomas’ Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945 is an excellent look at four naval commanders and their actions during the Battle of Leyte Gulf during the World War II.
Here is a brief summary of the book from Publisher’s Weekly:
Thomas, Newsweek’s assistant managing editor, turns his considerable narrative and research talents to Leyte Gulf, history’s largest and most complex naval battle. He addresses the subject from the perspectives of four officers: William Halsey, who commanded the U.S. 3rd Fleet; Adm. Takeo Kurita, his Japanese counterpart; Adm. Matome Ugaki, Kurita’s senior subordinate and a “true believer” in Japan’s destiny; and Cdr. Ernest Evans, captain of a lowly destroyer, the U.S.S. Johnston.
The Americans believed the Japanese incapable of great military feats, while the Japanese believed the Americans were incapable of paying the price of war. Both were tragically wrong. Halsey steamed north in pursuit of a what turned out to be a decoy, while Kurita’s main force was positioned to destroy the American landing force in the Philippines.
Evans repeatedly took the Johnston into harm’s way against what seemed overwhelming odds. His heroism, matched by a dozen other captains and crews, convinced Kurita to break off the action. With Halsey’s battleships and carriers just over the horizon, Kurita refused to sacrifice his men at the end of a war already lost. Ugaki bitterly denounced the lack of “fighting spirit and promptitude” that kept him from an honorable death. Evans fought and died like a true samurai. As Thomas skillfully reminds us, war is above all the province of irony.
From cover to cover, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Thomas’ writing style is easy to follow and hard to put down. He smoothly interposes the biographies of the four men with a narrative of the events leading up to the battle and the battle itself.
In the biographies, he describes how each man’s character and personality was shaped by his upbringing. And this is what separates Thomas from other authors who have written about the battle. Each man brought different feelings and beliefs into the battle that shaped the way they called out and executed orders. For instance, Admiral Kurita did not share the beliefs of many Japanese naval and army officers that their role was to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their men for the Emperor â€“ even in lost causes. Kurita was raised to value life and this value, as Thomas asserts, influenced his decision to break off the attack on the Americans in Leyte Gulf even though his superiors expected him to sacrifice the fleet for the Japanese cause.
Thomas analyzes and criticizes the actions of each of the men â€“ although he does not criticize Commander Evans as much for some reason. He is particularly harsh, whether rightly or wrongly, with his criticism of Admirals Halsey and Ugaki. For example, Thomas contends that Halsey often made decisions on impulse without much thought â€“ this is exemplified when Halsey went chasing after the Japanese carrier force to the detriment of protecting the landing ships in the Leyte Gulf.
This book is not only a strong narrative of the Battle of the Leyte Gulf, but also a great analysis of some of the leaders involved in the battle.