The Pacific - Hugh Ambrose

Book: The Pacific
Author: Hugh Ambrose
Publisher: New American Library (A division of The Penguin Group)
My Rating: 4.0 of 5 stars

If you've been reading my blog for the past few months you are probably tired of me gushing over HBO's production of The Pacific. I had no idea that Hugh Ambrose was writing a companion book to the series until a few months before the series aired on HBO, and when I heard that Mr. Ambrose was going to be signing his book at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, TX I ran out and bought a copy to further feed my obsession with the series.

I am usually not a fan of books on war but after watching Band of Brothers on HBO nine years ago, I was so captivated by the men of the 101st Airborne - Easy Company that I watched the episodes over and over again through the years on DVD, the History Channel, and every other channel that aired it. For nine years I waited for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks to produce a series about our men and women that served in the Pacific Theater during WWII because of the fantastic job they did for the European Theater.

The Pacific (The Official Companion Book to the HBO Miniseries) was written by Hugh Ambrose not to mirror the television series, but to give a more complete view of the war than is told in the TV series. The book focuses chiefly on five men:

  • Austin "Shifty" Shofner - A Marine that was captured as a POW in the Phillipines
  • Vernon "Mike" Micheel - A Navy pilot that fought in numerous naval battles in the Pacific Ocean
  • Sidney C. Phillips - A young Marine that fought in campaigns on Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester
  • John Basilone - A Marine that had served in the Philippines before WWII and fought in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima
  • Eugene B. Sledge - A young Marine that fought in the Battle of Peleliu and Okinawa

Neither Shifty Shofner nor Vernon Micheel were featured in the HBO series, but their stories were pivotal to the book because they helped complete the picture of the large number of POWs that were imprisoned during the war (Shofner) and the large scale of the Navy's involvement in the Pacific Theater (Micheel). 

This was Hugh Ambrose's first solo book. He has previously been noted for his work as a research consultant on many of his father's (Stephen Ambrose) books. I have read some negative reviews of Hugh Ambrose's book and I have to say that I disagree with their assessment. While the book is a fairly dense read, the book was well researched and I found myself getting lost in the pages. I did watch the TV series first but found that Mr. Ambrose's book more than complimented the episodes on HBO. The book helped make more sense of the progression of the war. I felt the TV series was a little jumbled in that respect because it focused more on the soldiers' struggle to keep their humanity than the chronological progression of the war itself. The European Theater is so storied in WWII I think because with Adolph Hitler there was an individual face that people could call the "bad guy". The Pacific War lacked that and was also fought on many islands (some of which were not largely inhabited) which in my opinion, makes it a more difficult war to understand. The book cleared up so many questions I had from the series. Sure, I had to take some notes while reading the book, but I liked that partially because of the nerd in me and partially because I feel that the book did a great job in explaining this chronology. It also gave a very human face to the men and women that served during the war and I thought honored them in a very profound way. 

Some people have complained that Hugh Ambrose isn't as gifted a writer as his father. I have only read one book by Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers--which was fantastic), but I didn't compare Hugh's writing to his father's. To me, they are two separate people so it makes sense that their writing styles would be different. I enjoyed the amount of research he put into this book and his writing style didn't bother me at all. I also liked that he chose to feature Shofner and Micheel in the book even though they weren't in the HBO series because it enhanced my understanding of the war. I also was glad that he didn't overuse stories of some of the soldiers featured in the series like Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge who had written their own memoirs, Helmet for My Pillow and With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa respectively, which were in part, the basis for the HBO series and deserve to be read on their own.  

My only complaint about the book was that I wish they had printed an index for the book. There were so many times that I wanted to look something up, but the only thing at the back of the book were the pages of footnotes from Mr. Ambrose's research. I also appreciated the maps that were available in the book, but I wish there had been more or they would have been grouped in a way so that I could refer back to them rather than page through the book to find them. 

I highly recommend this book to people who are looking for an overview of the American effort in the Pacific Theater for WWII and also to those who enjoyed the HBO series. I will definitely be reading more on the Pacific Theater because of the series and the book. 

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Zee said...

Thank you so much for this review. I watched the show and I must admit I got lost at times with both time and characters (still loved the show). I will definitely be getting this book (and the two memoirs you mentioned) as WW2 has always fascinated me, but when we studied it in school we primarily focused on the causes and outcomes, not so much the war itself.

Carin B. said...

One of the most amazing things to me was that their time spent in Australia was a whole year! I didn't get that from the show at all. The book doesn't focus on the full scope of the war in the Pacific, but it definitely enhanced my understanding of the show.

My cousin posted this video on Facebook the other day. It was about the Japanese Americans that served in the war in Burma (if you're interested).

Have you seen the film, "God afton, Herr Wallenberg"? After Schindler's List came out, I heard about this movie so I rented it. I remembered being completely amazed that I had not heard of Raoul Wallenberg before given how many people that he helped.

Zee said...

I haven't seen God afton, Herr Wallenberg but he is a figure from the war that we did cover in school :D

Chris and Jess said...

Hi Carin, thank you for the comment on my 'Tales by Japanese Soldiers' post

Great review! I've never seen the series myself but I did catch 'Band of Brothers' so I'll keep my eyes open!

I've read accounts in the past on how the Japanese treated POWS and civilians they captured. I'd be interested in learning more about their mindset.

I know the Japanese placed very high value on Bushido and the Samurai but still can't understand how they could do the things they did in the name of 'honour' I'd like to be able to improve my understanding of the reasons so i'll try and find a copy of 'The Japanese Mind'


Carin B. said...

@Chris - I was amazed too. I really think that in times of war people do terrible things because they see terrible things. I did read Band of Brothers after watching the series and they left out some terrible things too--I think war itself just makes you lose your humanity a bit. The Pacific (both the book and the series) are really good at explaining how war changes a person. I highly recommend With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. He apparently wrote one of the better war memoirs of all time from what people have told me. I am planning on reading it in the near future.

Trish said...

I didn't realize the author was the son of Stephen Ambrose! We had these all taped in our DVR queue but then something happened this week and all of our recordings deleted. So bummed about it. Maybe I'll just have to check out the book instead.

Carin B. said...

@Trish - The book is pretty dense, but I thought it was a really nice companion piece to the show. They definitely focus on some of the men in the show but others like Robert Leckie are largely left out. Leckie wrote a memoir called Helmet for My Pillow and Sledge wrote With the Old Breed. I think those are largely what the show itself used for source material. I recommend the book for sure--it does help with understanding of the series because it's pretty different in style from Band of Brothers.

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