REVIEW BY TOBY CLARK
Anyone who enjoyed the HBO television series The Pacific or Eugene Sledge’s memoir With the Old Breed will want to read Saul David’s new book, Devil Dogs: first in, last out – King Company from Guadalcanal to the shores of Japan. All three are closely linked: they describe K ‘King’ Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, United States Marine Corps; abbreviated to K/3/5. Sledge’s memoir came first, in 1981, becoming a classic and drawing praise from historian John Keegan among many others. HBO then told Sledge’s story as a television series. Now, Saul David has told the history of the company that Sledge fought in.
Written in the same style as Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and James Holland’s Brothers in Arms, Devil Dogs follows the marines through the trials and tribulations of active service. For K/3/5, their battles were Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa. Four more-traumatising battles would be hard to find. Since marines were rotated home after three major campaigns, and considering that some marine formations suffered casualties higher than their original strength, there are no men who fought in all four campaigns.
Crucially for a book of this type, the reader becomes emotionally attached to the men. We come to know their nicknames, families, and sweethearts. If you are standing in a bookshop deliberating over buying this book, read chapter 36, as the descriptions of the deaths of Edward ‘Hillbilly’ Jones and Andrew ‘Ack-Ack’ Haldane are David’s finest work to date.
Battle scenes manage to capture something of the reality of combat, with its unforgiving terrain, intense gunfire, and savagery from both sides. Japanese military culture frowned on prisoner-taking and the marines had to follow suit. Otherwise, more casualties were incurred when trying to capture suicidal Japanese soldiers.
Then there was the souvenir hunting. Even at its worst, the fighting between American and German troops in Europe rarely witnessed this macabre tradition so prevalent in the Pacific. In an unsettling peek at what would happen later in Vietnam, gold teeth, heads, and even hands were cut from Japanese corpses. Devil Dogs captures the descent into madness very well.
The real strength of this book is David’s ability to place low-level fighting of the marine’s foxhole within the context of the wider strategic situation. K/3/5 might be clawing up a ridge or clearing caves, but we understand they are part of the Central Pacific thrust led by Admiral Nimitz.
As the fighting becomes intense, supplies continue to arrive thanks to the operational side of the campaign: the hundreds of supply ships, engineer units, and medical teams. David shows that amphibious warfare fought over thousands of miles of ocean required enormous organisation. When the marines watch a lone Japanese plane fly into a troop ship at Okinawa, David explains that at the strategic level, this approach is already too little, too late – a desperate last throw by a military without men, equipment, or ideas.
However, when considering the marines’ campaign, David does not give adequate attention to China. Chinese forces had been fighting the Japanese since 1937, keeping the bulk of the Japanese army (more than a million men) occupied, a factor that must be taken into account when writing about the Pacific War.
Ultimately, Devil Dogs is a microcosm of the American experience in the Pacific. Starting at Guadalcanal and ending at Okinawa, K/3/5 learnt how to island-hop across the Pacific, beating brave and determined Japanese defenders as they went. And unlike any campaign before or since, it ended with an atomic bomb. Devil Dogs is an excellent book that will entertain, instruct, and enthral those readers who enjoy well-written and fast-paced history.
Devil Dogs: First In, Last Out – King Company from Guadalcanal to the shores of Japan
William Collins, hbk (£25)