Book Review: Nanjing 1937 by Peter Harmsen

Nanjing 1937

In Nanjing 1937, Peter Harmsen follows up his spectacular book about the Battle of Shanghai by describing Nationalist China’s subsequent retreat west and effort to defend their capital. In this new book, Harmsen demonstrates the campaign leading up to the capture of Nanjing as featuring prominently in Chiang Kai-shek’s plans to gain international sympathy for the Chinese cause and to buy time to retreat to the interior and wear down the Japanese in preparation for a long war. He contextualizes the brutality of the Rape of Nanjing (unforgettably described by Iris Chang) by recounting the absolutely horrific and merciless battle that preceded the Japanese takeover of the city. Throughout, he weaves in the personal stories of Chinese and Japanese soldiers, as well as foreign observers who heroically tried to protect human life. He includes many maps demonstrating the maneuvers of the opposing armies and many photographs from both sides of the encounter. This was the Pacific War four years before American involvement and understanding it is key to understanding the ultimate outcome in 1945. The Japanese clearly thought their pitiless victory at Nanjing would decisively end the war. In fact, it dragged on for eight more years. Hopefully, Harmsen will follow up this astonishing book with accounts of Taierzhuang, Wuhan, and Changsha to further bring this topic into the historical consciousness of the English-reading public.

Peter Harmsen on Famine, Sword, and Fire

I am very grateful for Peter Harmsen’s kind words about Famine, Sword, and Fire. His book, Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze is available on Amazon.com and his next book, Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, is due out this October.

“The history of the China, Burma, India Theater has never got the attention it deserves in the otherwise voluminous literature about World War II. Dan Jackson’s new book is a valuable contribution towards filling this gap, mixing the general’s bird’s-eye view with the perspective of the ordinary soldiers and airmen who fought and died in some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain. It’s an added strength that Mr. Jackson’s background as a military pilot gives him a natural familiarity with the subject matter that few professional historians can match.”

– Peter Harmsen, author of Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze

Book Review: A Young Man in the Wild Blue Yonder

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David Hayward has written an excellent autobiography of his experiences as a B-25 pilot in Burma and China during World War II. Previously, Mr. Hayward put together several publications for the 22nd Bomb Squadron Association, which included some of his own reminisces, but he finally decided to compile his own story. He did a great job. Assembled from his own diaries, letters home, official records, and the memories of him and his comrades, A Young Man in the Wild Blue Yonder paints the picture of a boy who came from modest beginnings in Pasadena, California, to become a combat pilot in the Army Air Forces. He describes his challenges during training, heart-pounding encounters with enemy flak and fighters, and the terrible loss of friends. Throughout, the narrative is straightforward and easy to read. Hayward does not have a penchant for overstatement or sensationalism. He describes it as it happened to him and thus it comes across as a very honest and personal account. Unique for books of this type are his details about standing up the veteran’s group long after the war and his several trips back to China. These stories add perspective to his memories of combat. In all, it was a very enjoyable book and a very valuable addition to the body of World War II literature.

Book Review: Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangzi by Peter Harmsen

The Battle of Shanghai is oddly one of the best documented, but also least remembered battles from the period before America’s entry into World War II. Peter Harmsen, in Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangzi, seeks to makes use of the former to rectify the latter. Mr. Harmsen made use of a wide variety of sources, including from the Chinese and Japanese combatants, as well as from third-party observers in the International Settlement. The result is a nuanced and complex view of the horror of total war in one of the world’s most populous metropolises. Harmsen does a great job moving from the politics at the top to the fighting man at the bottom. He builds a steady narrative that takes us through the battle as it develops. Of particular interest to me was the fact that Shanghai was a battle of Chinese choosing. In the wake of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Japanese armies swiftly occupied much of northeast China. Chiang Kaishek wanted to make a stand where his troops would have a tactical advantage. Given the Japanese superiority in tanks, aircraft, and artillery, urban combat in Shanghai gave his troops the best chance of success. Later, as the Japanese were clearly winning the battle, Chiang kept his troops in combat to try to generate sympathy on the global stage. One of the things I really appreciated about Harmsen’s narrative is his demonstration of the brutality on both sides; the radicalization of the Japanese as they executed prisoners in gruesome ways and the Chinese, often civilians, that took brutal revenge when the opportunity presented itself. It is a grim picture of modern war. Shanghai 1937 will give the reader a new perspective on World War II in Asia and the Pacific. The text is accompanied by a good number of photographs and maps.

Review of The Forgotten Squadron in Air Power History

I was very happy to see Air Power History publish a review of The Forgotten Squadron in their Winter 2011 issue. The review is written by Lt Col (ret) Golda Eldridge and is presented in full here:

This book is noteworthy not only for its subject and narrative quality, but also for other aspects including photo quality and depth of scholarship. Most surprising is that Lieutenant Jackson conceived and finished this research project while still a college student. The excited response of veterans and families to his requests for information and the lack of official documentation on the 449th’s activities convinced him this was a story that needed to be shared. The result is first class and would do any historian proud.

I didn’t know P-38s served in the China-Burma-India Theater. The 449th was the virtual unknown of Chennault’s not-well-known Fourteenth Air Force whose contributions have faded like the mists of the mountainous land they defended. It was the only P-38 unit stationed in China and dealt with the same maintenance, support, and supply problems that plagued every other unit there. Jackson does an excellent job discussing the unit’s struggle from all perspectives and helps the reader appreciate fighting in such unforgiving circumstances.

The account of the squadron from inception to deactivation is excellent. Jackson provides enough background of world and theater events to frame the squadron’s activities and help the reader understand the unit’s efforts and contributions. He interviewed or corresponded with twenty-nine unit veterans, one Chinese civilian, and a Japanese researcher in developing his narrative. Numerous memoir and reminisces, published and unpublished, helped him recreate a robust picture of events. He even traveled to China to see some of the locations he writes about. His success is evident in the frequent first-hand accounts of events as varied as the accidental shooting of a pilot by an armaments officer demonstrating rifle maintenance; the shootdown and rescue by Chinese partisans of Rex Barber, one of the men who shot down Admiral Yamamoto; and the story of the only enlisted man killed in theater, stabbed by a Japanese agent in a Chinese market. Throughout, the book stays focused on the subject and includes the memories and perspectives of many enlisted members, a feature frequently missing from these works. The book fills in a missing piece of the Greatest Generation’s story.

This high-quality unit history is laid out as a coffee-table book; the multitude of pictures lends itself to this format. Many military histories suffer from a lack of adequate maps, but this one has plenty of useful maps. The appendices are particularly useful and include a place name listing; comparisons of Allied and Japanese fighter aircraft; a unit timeline; a record of all originally assigned aircraft and their fate; and listing of personnel killed in service, aerial victories claimed by the squadron, and kill totals for all squadron pilots.

There are a few shortcomings, however. Jackson minored in Chinese and knows the language better than most. He uses the Pinyin rather than the out-of-date but more commonly known Wade Giles renderings of Chinese place names – distracting for several locations, as the Wade Giles and Pinyin terms are not at all alike. There are a few editing errors, but the only other real complaint is the high price. Only the real student of the theater, veterans, or family members will probably ever buy it. This is a shame because the 449th veterans deserve to have their story more widely known and Jackson’s talent deserves a wider audience. Schiffer and Jackson really put together a real gem in this book.

Book Review: Ki-44 ‘Tojo’ Aces of World War 2 by Nicholas Millman

Nicholas Millman has written a great volume about the Ki-44’s combat record in World War II. Navigating through an area of history replete with holes and misinformation, he has put together a concise narrative that both makes sense and is enjoyable to read. I was surprised to read that both the AVG and the CATF encountered the Ki-44 in combat long before it was recognized in the summer/fall of 1943. What I most like about the book is that Millman does solid research on both the Japanese and Allied sides, leaving the reader with a sense that the subject was treated fairly. He does not attempt to oversell the aircraft or its combat record. It is apparent, however, that the Japanese suffered for producing this formidable aircraft in such small numbers and for not having a more robust pilot training program throughout the war. Despite a rude shock to the Americans when the Ki-44 dominated the skies over China during the summer and fall of 1943, these deficiencies eventually spelled the downfall of the Japanese air forces.

Book Review: Ki-43 Oscar Aces of World War 2 by Hiroshi Ichimura

I thought ‘Ki-43 Aces’ was very good and very informative. I was impressed with Mr. Ichimura’s frankness and was interested to see how he cross-referenced Japanese claims with Allied records and vice versa. His discussion of both the successes and failures of the units involved is a model of impartiality which I think many historians find hard to achieve. Though he clearly emphasized the aces, I thought he did a good job providing a history of the Oscar’s operational service during the war. The section on Oscar units in Burma seemed the most thorough – with more detail and more first-hand information from Oscar pilots and crews. One criticism: he uses the Pinyin and Wade-Giles Chinese place names interchangeably, which can be a little confusing. For example, he refers to Guilin by the Wade-Giles romanization (Kweilin) but Chongqing by the Pinyin romanization. Overall, however, it was one of the best Osprey books I’ve read (it reads very professionally, while others feel half-fast) and I’m glad Hiroshi Ichimura is adding to the literature on an under-exposed subject.