5 War Books Naval Institute Press

5 Must-Read War/Historical Books From Naval Institute Press

Being there . . . . for a fresh look at the amphibious seizure of Tarawa; later, to meet the melancholic, controversial Marine aviation hero, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington; followed by joining the fighting in the Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls, June 1942 – April 1944; then slip, slog, and fight along the jungle trails of Guadalcanal; and, finally, from aboard one of our reconnaissance aircraft, observe the mesmerizing 72 hour Battle of Leyte Gulf . . . .


Naval Institute Press (who else?) offers five truly enjoyable, spellbinding World War II sea battle books . .

Reviewed and Recommended by Don DeNevi

UTMOST SAVAGERY: The Three Days of Tarawa,” by Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret). Naval Institute Press: 306 pages, sc

When first published in 1995, “UTMOST SAVAGERY” was a Main Selection of the Military Book Club. The book won the General Wallace M. Greene, Jr. Award for the year’s best nonfiction book on Marine Corps history, and the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Outstanding Writer of the Year, presented by the Navy League of the United States. It was also a selection of the U. S. Marine Corps Commandant’s Reading List.

To read the best, most complete, and exact “minute by minute account” ever written on the pulverization of tiny Tarawa (2 ½ miles long and less than 100 yards wide) by a three-day bombardment, does any reader need a more impressive pageant of endorsements? Eddie Albert, the 1930s popular Hollywood star of screen, stage, and radio, and, in 1942, Salvage Boat officer for the landing on Tarawa’s Red Beach, said it best, “books about battle smother this militant planet, but few are able to tell it as it was.

I have never read a description of combat as honest and frightful as this hand-to-hand explosion on Tarawa. Now we know how it really was reading ‘Utmost Savagery.” Eddie’s last Tarawa duty was especially sad: retrieving and identifying the swollen corpses of American boys off Red Beach.

BLACK SHEEP: The Life of Pappy Boyington,” by John F. Wukovits. Naval Institute Press: 252 pages, sc

Like most elderly buffs, enthusiasts, and serious aficionados of USMC aviation history after World War II who knew about and valued the character, personality, and brave exploits of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington in the Pacific War, new generations were introduced to the pilot in the 1970s television series, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. Few cared the episodes bore little reality to the actual accomplishments of Boyington and his squadron in the South Pacific.

In fact, few abandoned the man when they learned that wherever he walked, turmoil followed. Or, heard how “he stomped and crashed his way through life like a bull, leaving hurt feelings and disillusioned loved ones in his path.” Wukovits concludes, “In many ways, Boyington failed miserably as a human being.”

Be that as it may, the Black Sheep aviators readily accepted Boyington as their commander. He proved his courage and bravery repeatedly in China and Burma by always being the first to engage the Japanese when sighted. Soon enough, he achieved ace status. No one doubted his abilities. To a man like Boyington, suffering from the maladies that tormented him, acceptance by his men made all the difference. He triumphed in the South Pacific. “He was always for the underdog and thought of himself as one.”

ALUTIANS, GILBERTS AND MARSHALLS, June 1942 – April 1944,” History of United States Naval Operations, Volume 7, by Samuel Eliot Morison. Naval Institute Press: 369 pages, sc

Samuel Eliot Morison, an eminent Harvard professor, was appointed by his close friend, President Roosevelt to write the history of U. S. Naval operations during WW II after convincing him that too many wartime histories were written after the fact, or from a distance. The 14-volume set was first published in 1951 and remains to this day a worthy series for many reasons, the most important being mixing strong, often eloquent narration by Morison and his staff with the sound, correct miniature that persists to this day.

Morison called his classic saga a “shooting history” of the war in the Pacific because it was documented by historical observation during each specific naval operation in both the Pacific and Atlantic. Those military literati-historians still hail the set for its accuracy, narrative pace, and detail. Its 15th volume—the Supplement and General Index—is worth the price of the entire collection all by itself. “Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshalls, June 1942 – April 1944” is the heart of Morison’s collection, by far the most riveting reading of all 14 volumes.

THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL,” by Trent Hone, Naval History, Special Edition. Naval Institute Press: 114 pages, sc

The painful lessons were learned at a tragic cost on the island of Tarawa when our USMC jungle–camouflaged troops began the complicated recapture of Guadalcanal after its seizure by the Japanese in the early months of 1942. No one knew the first stage of reclaiming the island, the capture of the airfield, would be so easy, then become a horrific nightmare lasting more than six months. Every inch of wet sand, slippery earth, and rain-soaked jungle would cost the Allies dearly in blood as the Japanese poured reinforcements onto the island, mostly at night, from aboard the “Tokyo Express.”

As usual, Naval Institute Press author Trent Hone, a masterful summarizer, describes the six-month battle cogently, that is, brilliantly compelling, constraining, and appealing forcibly to WW II–minded readers. After a brilliant introduction, he presents “ships, tactics, and technology” in the book’s opening sections followed by the campaign’s initial skirmishes and the Battle of Cape Esperance.

From that point, he has his readers trudge, plod, and slog in the steaming jungles and their partially flooded trails for an additional five and a half months, experiencing victories and defeats, defeats and victories, all commingling until final victory is achieved in early December 1942.

There was no geography in all the regions of the earth our troops fought in that they hated more than the steaming, stinking jungles of Guadalcanal. Hell was viewed as more the heavenly paradise than the leech invested inundated jungle trails, rest stops, and overnight bivouac nooks and crannies.

BATTLE OF LEYTE GULF: The Largest Sea Battle of the Second World (Images of War Series),” by John Grehan & Alexander Nicoll. Frontline Books, Pen & Sword, Naval Institute Press: 184 pages, sc;

No one questions that the world’s greatest sea battle occurred at Leyte Gulf. There, with considerable luck, the USN sunk the final remnants of Japanese naval power for good.

For three nerve-wracking days, the two greatest navies ever assembled fought to the bitter end, firing salvo after salvo, torpedoing, strafing, and bombing, across a sea half the size of Eastern America, Seaboard to the Mississippi, Florida to Connecticut. With the benevolent guidance of God, nature, and brilliance of Admiral William Halsey, Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, and their combined 800 warships, joined by Supreme Naval Commander Admiral Chester Nimitz back in Honolulu, we won! What a story!

Accompanied with rare photos, this reviewer dares the reader to begin reading and stop midway, especially with so many disasters on both sides, vain pursuits, gallantries by so many “Taffy 3” officers, and gobs, and the whole world wondering who was winning.

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