'Sea of Thunder', History of Battle Author Evan Thomas talks about his book, "Sea of Thunder" and the history of the battle off the coast of the Philippine Island of Samar.
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'Sea of Thunder', History of Battle

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'Sea of Thunder', History of Battle

'Sea of Thunder', History of Battle

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

If you joined us today to hear Yusuf Islam, the musician once known as Cat Stevens, he will be with us in a few minutes. The traffic in New Jersey and Philadelphia has been a little bit worse than expected, and we ask for your patience. As soon as he arrives, he'll join us for an exclusive live performance and take your questions.

Up first, though, “Sea of Thunder,” and we thank Evan Thomas for his willingness to switch his schedule around and fill in - at least a little bit -for Yusuf Islam.

On the morning of October 25, 1944, a mighty Japanese battle fleet emerged from the mist before the astonished eyes of a tiny American taskforce. The battle that developed that day off the coast of the Philippine Island of Samar is among the most glorious pages in American naval history, and amongst the most controversial. How could U.S. commanders have messed up so badly as to allow the Japanese to maul a hopelessly outnumbered support unit? And there are controversies aplenty on the Japanese side, as well. With the Americans finally under the big guns of the Imperial Fleet, why did the Japanese sail away?

In a new book called “Sea of Thunder,” Evan Thomas follows four men - two Japanese, two American - from the beginning of the war at Pearl Harbor to their parts in the battle off Samar. And along the way he wonders about the roles played by racism and misunderstanding - about confusion, exhaustion, and the changing nature of the war - about what led one culture to send tens of thousands of men and a national pride's worth of ships on a suicide mission, and another to cover up the failures of high command.

If you have questions about the battle off Samar or about the broader cultural issues of the Second World War in the Pacific, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And the e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Evan Thomas, when not writing naval history, is assistant managing editor at Newsweek magazine. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. EVAN THOMAS (Author, “Sea of Thunder”; Assistant Managing Editor, Newsweek): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And when we talk about the failures of the American high command, I get you talking primarily about one of the great heroes of the Second World War for the United States, and that's Admiral William Halsey.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, Bull Halsey, I mean crusty, salty, Bull Halsey - a great hero early in the war when we needed a hero, when the American Navy, particularly, was feeling defeatist after Pearl Harbor. He was the guy who said, let's go get them and led the Doolittle Raid to Japan and was the overall commander at Guadalcanal and was a great - you know, deserved to be a hero, was on the cover of Time.

But, you know, the war sort of outgrew him, and he wasn't - he really wasn't smart enough, in a way, to manage - and that's the operative word - a giant fleet of ships, very complex logistics and evolutions, as they say, in warfare. He just really wasn't up to the job, and he also didn't - he committed a cardinal sin. He did not know his enemy. He allowed himself to be fooled by the Japanese with almost catastrophic effect.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, allowed himself to be lured away. The Japanese plan for the Battle of Leyte Gulf, of which this battle off Samar was just a small part. But the Japanese plan relied on their ability to lure Halsey away, to trail the bait of aircraft carriers in front of him, and knowing that he would follow them north.

Mr. THOMAS: The Japanese - who made plenty of mistakes about not knowing their enemy - at least knew Halsey, and they knew that he would jump at the carriers. They made - Halsey made a couple of mistakes. For one thing, he thought the Japanese fleet would not sortie because - this is classic projection here - an American fleet would not have sortied without air cover. The Japanese did not have enough air cover by October 1944. We'd shot down most of their planes. So our intelligence didn't expect the Japanese fleet to come out. Well, they did, caught us by surprise. And then when they did, they came out with an elaborate deception, with a - in football, it would be like a play fake.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: And sure enough, our guy fell hook, line and sinker for the fake and went steaming north with his fleet carriers and fast battleships after a bunch of carriers that had, essentially, empty decks - leaving vulnerable MacArthur's landing fleet and these small flotillas of what they call jeep-carriers, these auxiliary characters that were flying planes in support of the landing and these small destroyers, who, as you mentioned, got up one morning to look out on the horizon and there was the main Japanese battle fleet, a sight that - I've talked to some of these men - one would never forget.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, pagoda masts…

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

CONAN: …the masts were shaped like pagodas, unmistakable.

Mr. THOMAS: Distinctive pagoda shapes. Imagine you're standing there on the deck of this destroyer. You know, World War II, American Navy sailors did not see enemy ships. The battles were fought at night or over long ranges by carrier-based aircraft. So it was incredibly unusual to see an enemy ship, and to see the main Japanese battle fleet - four battleships, eight cruisers - there on the horizon, their guns winking, throwing shells the size of Volkswagens at you was really a terrifying experience.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about Admiral Kurita, the commander of the Japanese fleet, who's flagship had been sunk the day before.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. I mean, Admiral Kurita - here the Japanese fleet are sent, essentially, on a suicide mission. Their mission is to go die - all of them, if necessary. That's pretty clear in their orders. But Kurita, who was a very well-educated grandson of a great Confucian scholar and himself a reputable scholar, had a sort of a Western point of view. He was not ready to get all his men killed. In this particular battle, he'd been asleep - excuse me - awake for three days, which is way longer than a modern commander would allow himself to stay awake. He'd been sunk on the first day of the battle, had to swim for it. When he got to the bridge of the ship that picked him up, his first words were do you have any Scotch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: He was a brave guy. He'd seen a lot of combat. But he was pretty weary at the end of three days, and - and this is the point - he just didn't want to get his men killed. I mean, there's a lot of controversy about this after the war. He turned around and sailed home. He did not go steaming into Leyte Gulf. He didn't do the daring thing. He went home.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: And they debate - they still debate this in Japan. They faked a telegraph - I think a fake telegraph - to sort of justify his actions, and he gave various excuses. But the real truth, I think, at the end - as he told a schoolboy friend before he died - was he just didn't want to get 15,000 men killed when he knew that the war was lost.

CONAN: And that distinguished him from his colleagues, including another man you write about, a man who was also there that day.

Mr. THOMAS: Sure did. I mean, Japan went mad in the 1940s or before, particularly the military leadership, the militarists who ran Japan. And they became obsessed with this idea of dying for your country, and I don't mean a few of them. I mean the kamikazes that we're all familiar with - there were kamikaze planes, yes, but there were kamikaze bombs, kamikaze torpedoes, kamikaze speedboats. There was a whole infrastructure of suicide that went into operation on this - actually on this day, October 25, 1944, which was the beginning of the end of the war.

The war should have ended that summer. The Japanese should have sued for peace and spared the lives of a couple million Japanese. But instead, they insanely -in my judgment - kept on fighting on this theory that if they just bled the Americans enough, that if they just were willing to sacrifice and die enough, Americans - who were a weak and decadent race, the Japanese believed - would throw in the towel, give up, say sorry, you can keep China and you can keep Southeast Asia. But, no, we just bombed them into submission.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, it is - it has not been clear to me before this the extent to which Admiral Kurita's orders were a suicide mission.

Mr. THOMAS: Well, they were. I mean, they - in fact, his last orders are basically a Japanese version of the Norse with your shield are on it, you know, sail on to victory and don't come back. I mean, insanity is not too strong a word here. By our modern Western standards, the orders that were given and the willingness of the men to die was nothing short of insane. It was beyond bravery. It was just suicidal.

And one of my heroes - or one of my characters - Admiral Ugaki, just really epitomizes this. He was, literally, the last kamikaze. Before the war begins, he writes a poem in his diary - and I have his diaries - that says: You will die. You will all die for the sake of the land. I, too, will die. That's before Pearl Harbor. And he spends most of the war trying to die, and he finally dies, literally, on the last day of the war as the last kamikaze.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest is Evan Thomas. His new book is “Sea of Thunder,” about the Battle of Leyte Gulf. 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Tony's with us, Tony from Oxford, Kansas.

TONY (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TONY: I think it's very - I love the speaker that you have. This is very fascinating to me. And I think it's more than a little ironic that you could substitute the word Japanese for the Iraqis, and it seems that we have not learned our lesson 62 years later. They are almost - you know, you used the term evolution of war and how we do not know our enemy, and do you think that's also true? We have not learned our lessons because we still don't know our enemy with the Iraqis. They're willing…

Mr. THOMAS: Well, it's - yes, I totally agree. I think the parallels are obvious. I mean, it always amazes me - and I write about this in my day job at Newsweek - that here we are, three years after we invade Iraq, we are just now publishing a manual on counterinsurgency. How can you be three years into a war and just now be deciding what your doctrine is? Well, the answer is that we didn't like Vietnam. We didn't like how it goes, so we just decided we were never going to fight another war like that. We were never going to fight an insurgency. Well, you know, of course we were, we did, we have. And it's exactly the same problem. Know your enemy.

I was sort of curious about this. People - how often is it that a country that starts a war has the experience of the war working out about as they hoped or expected? I think you have to go back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 for a war to turn out about the way the people who started it wanted it to. It is the nature of war that it takes unexpected twists and turns. And unfortunately, it's also the nature of war that people don't know their enemy. These cultural differences loom large.

We demonize our enemies. We turn them into animals. To make it easier to kill them, we make them out to be animals. And the Japanese did that to us, and we did it to them. And, I mean, the Pacific - you know, we talk about World War II as the good war. And it was a good war in the sense it was a just war and a necessary war, and I honor the men who fought it. But in the Pacific, at least, it was a pretty bloody war. The Japanese...

CONAN: John Dower's famous...

Mr. THOMAS: ...military code: You are not allowed to be taken prisoner.

CONAN: John Dower's famous phrase...

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

CONAN: ...a war without mercy.

Mr. THOMAS: War without mercy. In fact, Dower was an important source for me, just to understand how ugly the racism was.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Tony, thanks very much for the call.

TONY: Thank you.

CONAN: And before we let you go, Evan Thomas, I did want to ask, this was a glorious page in American naval history. Those men on those little ships looked at the situation and did the impossible.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, they did. I mean although there was blundering above, there was extraordinary heroism below. The little destroyer, the Johnson, and a couple of others - I talked to this lookout who was on the deck who heard the captain say full steam ahead. And he thought, great, we're getting out of here. And then he heard the captain say left, full rudder.

And he watches as his bow swung around and they charged, just like an old-fashioned charge, a torpedo charge. They got off 10 torpedoes that blew up the bow of a cruiser. They stayed alive for two and a half more hours, vastly outgunned and outmanned, unbelievable courage. and it had the effect of dulling Admiral Kurita's will and turning - against impossible odds. It is - in all the years of - and the American Navy does have a glorious history. This day could have been the most glorious just for sheer, raw courage.

CONAN: At the end of the battle, one of the sailors aboard one of these jeep escort carriers, as the Japanese turn away and leave says they're getting away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. I love the dark humor in the darkest moments, and that was that. And also the Japanese, interestingly - when the Johnson went down and the Americans were in the water and they thought they were going to be shot - because that was the custom - the Japanese destroyer commander saluted the Americans.

CONAN: Evan Thomas' new book is “Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign.” Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. THOMAS: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: When we come back, Yusuf Islam will join us from WXPN in Philadelphia to perform and take your calls. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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