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War in the Far East, vol. 2, Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943

War in the Far East, vol. 2, Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943 by Peter Harmsen. Casemate Publishers, 2020, 210 pp.

There is no shortage of books out there about World War II. The scope of the conflict covers so many topics, and the types of works can span from broad overviews to detailed analysis focusing on a specific aspect, be it a battle, a personality, or some other related action. Into that literary maelstrom comes Peter Harmsen, a longtime journalist/correspondent based out of East Asia. He offers the second of a trilogy of books focusing on the Pacific theater in World War II. In War in the Far East, vol. 2, Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, he dives into in the aftermath of Japan’s successful Pearl Harbor attack.  He follows its meteoric rise in the conquest of the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia in 1942, its dramatic turn in fortunes after Midway, and the Japanese in retreat after their bloody defeat at Tarawa.

Divided primarily into chronological segments, the book looks at the key battles, engagements, and activities of the main combatants in the Pacific theater. While the focus is on Japanese activities and actions, Harmsen will incorporate stories and details of Allied actions where appropriate within his narrative. The author centers on the political-military aspect of the conflict, highlighting Japanese plans and actions and the Allied responses. The action starts quickly with the recounting of the ill-fated British Task Force Z, whose defeat enabled the Japanese to land on the Malay Peninsula, starting a simultaneous offensive action to take that territory as well as the Allied island holding in the South and Western Pacific.

Yet the years 1942–1943 reflect a pivotal change in fortunes for the Japanese, as they started 1942 on a major offensive upswing and by June 1942, sat at the apex of their power. However, June 1942 brings Midway, and then the fortunes of the Japanese military trend downwards, from the losses at Guadalcanal and Tarawa to setbacks in China and the Aleutians. Harmsen notes that many in the Japanese High Command knew of their tenuous position, from Yamamoto (killed in 1943 over Bougainville) to the emperor himself. Still, the Japanese, even with all the setbacks of 1943 and facing an ever more uncertain future, continued to fight on, ensuring more death and destruction in the following years of 1944 and 1945.

Normally, a book looking to cover a broad overview of the Japanese military actions of 1942 and 1943 could easily reach hundreds, if not thousands, of pages. This work comes in at a remarkably concise 210 pages, to include notes and index pages. Harmsen’s strength is his ability to concisely convey significant amounts of detail and facts. He does not attempt to go into excruciating detail about the battles, tactics, individuals, or other facts and concepts. This is where his journalistic background helps, as he can relay individual stories and weave them into the larger narrative about a critical time in world history.

For American readers, he offers insight into the actions of the Japanese against China and the Asian subcontinent. Many books published about the Pacific theater during World War II will primarily focus on the American-Japanese conflicts, leaving out other parts of Japanese actions during the war. The fighting in Burma and Japanese actions in the Indian Ocean are no less important to the overall scope of the war and to Japanese activities that would lead to their ultimate defeat. Harmsen’s understanding and access to Asian sources help with his narrative.

While Harmsen generally follows a chronological path,  he can jump around in timelines and topics. In a chapter that discusses the early part of 1943, he references the internment of Japanese Americans that began in December 1941. Granted, some of the topics discussed—from the internment of Japanese Americans to Allied POWs in Japanese custody to the horrid actions of Unit 731 in China—transcend a specific time and occurred throughout the war. The storytelling narrative does not necessarily suffer because of this, but it can make following events confusing at times.

There is enough in Japan Runs Wild that would make a reader want to review volume 1, which covers 1931–1941 and is also a relatively concise 231 pages. The third book in the trilogy has not yet been published. For those who have studied much of World War II, there is a good deal that is a review of well-known and widely researched material, but there are also facts and stories that many readers may not know. This volume is highly readable and does not require an extensive background in history, politics, or military studies to be comprehendible. Japan Runs Wild could be a starter read for someone wanting background on the Pacific theater of the war or a book club submission.

Lt Col Scott C. Martin, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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