My first book, Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II, is now out in stores and places like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Earlier this week, I did a Q and A with my publisher, Osprey, about the book:
1. What got you interested in the Battle of the Java Sea?
Somewhat of an odd story. I took a class on World War II when I was in 4th grade, and wrote a report on World War II in the Pacific when I was in 5th grade. My little 5th grade report had nothing on the Battle of the Java Sea because there was very little information available to me on it – remember, this was a time before the Internet, before Amazon, before Alibris, so we were very limited into what books and other information we could access from our local bookstores and library. When I was in 7th grade, my mom got me a compendium of the Pacific War called Combat Command, by Admiral Frederick Sherman, who among other things commanded the carrier Lexington at the Battle of the Coral Sea and a carrier task group at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. His was the first book in which I read a description of the Battle of the Java Sea. I found the story of the battle and the campaign completely enthralling, with this small group of servicemen from four different countries so far from home, so outnumbered, so outgunned, mostly cut off – and the only line against the darkness that was about to overtake East Asia and most of the Pacific. But the description in Sherman’s book was incomplete, somewhat generalized, and missing a lot of information, largely because the information on which the admiral based that description was incomplete. The problem for me was that I could find almost nothing else on the battle. For years, all I could find were general descriptions of the battle or snippets from it. I found it incredibly frustrating to find a wealth of information on so many other battles and campaigns and almost nothing on this. So for years I just grabbed any book, any report, and scrap of paper I came across that had any information about the battle. It became somewhat of an obsession. I was determined to someday figure out precisely what happened in this battle and this campaign.
2. What do you see as the difference between Rising Sun, Falling Skies and other books about the Java Sea Campaign?
The big thing I noticed over the years is that while there are quite a few very good books that deal with parts of the campaign – like the US cruiser Houston, the US Asiatic Fleet, Patrol Wing 10, the Far East Air Force, etc. – there is very little out there that deals with the Java Sea naval campaign as a whole. Each of these sources gives some good information and different takes on their individual pieces of the story of the Java Sea Campaign, but they are only pieces. Which is fine, because that’s what they’re intended to do. But a Dutch account won’t usually include the Battle of Balikpapan. A British account won’t often include the Battle of Badoeng Strait. American accounts don’t always get into the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, let alone the controversy behind it. The naval accounts often mention the lack of air power in passing without a description of how exactly that lack of air power came about. The efforts of the submarines are often ignored. Yet these are all pieces of the same Java Sea Campaign. I’ve wanted for years to assemble these pieces into sort of a global account of the entire Java Sea Campaign, with analysis of my own that I had developed over time, in order to give each of these pieces big and small some context.
3. Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, the Allied commander, is usually seen as valiant but incompetent, at least in English speaking countries. You have a different view of him. Why?
There is this idea, especially in the US, that people should be judged solely by outcomes. For instance, in baseball, if a pitcher loses a game, it must be his fault. Doesn’t matter if he only gave up a solo home run and lost when his offense was shut out, it must be his fault. That thinking extends to history as well. But you can make every correct decision, every correct judgment, and still lose. Karel Doorman lost every battle in which his Combined Striking Force fought, it is true. But if you examine his decisions in the context of what he was facing, the information he had, and the orders he had, those decisions, which were mostly close calls with no obvious answers, were, for the most part, sound. At worst, they were defensible. Doorman was caught in a web of contradictions. His own take on the campaign – that it was hopeless without adequate air power – was contradictory to that of his Dutch superiors, but completely in agreement with his American and British colleagues – who were actually his biggest critics. He has been criticized for being both too aggressive and too cautious – often at the same time. He has been criticized for not training his ships – when, as his American superiors admitted, he had no chance to do so. In short, it seems like no matter what Doorman did or could have done, he was going to be ripped by a lot of people. And he seems to have known this. If one examines his conduct throughout the Java Sea Campaign, the single unifying theme is the protection of the men under his command so that they would not be sacrificed needlessly without a chance to cause significant loss to the enemy. When there was no chance to cause loss to the enemy, he would have his ships withdraw – at the cost of his own life in the Battle of the Java Sea. In the midst of an almost impossible situation, Doorman ignored the cost to himself and put his men first. That by itself is highly admirable, and he has not gotten nearly enough credit for it. Doorman seems to have been a very private person, with few people to defend him after he was no longer able to defend himself. It is time someone stepped up to defend him and call attention to the positives of this brave, intelligent, and humane officer.
4. Could the ABDA force have done anything to win?
Superficially, one would think so. At the Battle of the Java Sea, the forces were evenly matched on paper. But the ABDA Combined Striking Force was really a hollow shell. If you imagine the battle as two knights fighting each other, the Japanese were a samurai in polished armor with a sharpened katana and the Combined Striking Force was a knight in completely rusted armor with a dull sword and a cracked shield. Yes, they might have been able to do something to increase the likelihood of some sort of battlefield victory – Use their lone spotter plane? Drive straight toward the Japanese cruisers come hell or high water instead of turning away? – but they would have had to fight an absolutely perfect battle to do so. And no battle is ever fought absolutely perfectly. One shot from the Japanese and they would shatter. Which is precisely what happened.
5. Why is the Battle of the Java Sea significant?
Quite a few reasons, actually, so I’ll try to be limited. From the standpoint of the Pacific War overall, the Battle of the Java Sea was the first instance of the arrogance, overconfidence, and sloppiness that was slowly but surely infecting the Imperial Japanese Navy directly affecting its battlefield performance, although they won the battle in spite of it. Perhaps most enduringly, there was the Combined Striking Force itself, and, for that matter, all of ABDACOM – a multinational force that was not modular, as such forces had been throughout history, but was fully if imperfectly integrated. Over the years those imperfections would be sufficiently worked out to become the model for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. From a philosophical standpoint, the Java Sea Campaign is more evidence that in terms of defense and foreign policy, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You can’t neglect defense for 20 years as the Allies did with shoestring budgets and wishful thinking and then adequately rearm when war is on your doorstep. The fighting men of ABDACOM paid the price, in some cases the ultimate price, for that neglect. Finally, there are some simple but often forgotten principles in today’s nuanced world: that when your friends are in trouble, you stand beside them and fight alongside them, and that, even if there is little or no chance of winning, there is inherent value in fighting evil – and make no mistake; in the Pacific War the behavior and objectives of the Japanese were nothing short of evil.
6. What do you hope to achieve with Rising Sun, Falling Skies?
Two goals, really. The first and far more important of the two is to get the story of these American, British, Dutch, and Australian fighting men out there. It should be emphasized that this is their story, not mine; I am merely the vehicle for telling it, for trying to put it into context. Instead of marching triumphantly to liberate the Pacific from Japanese tyranny, many of these men lost their lives or were forced to endure the horrors of Japanese POW camps. More than a few histories of the Pacific War almost – almost – skip over the Java Sea Campaign, going from the disaster at Pearl Harbor to stopping the Japanese advance at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 while blurring most of the unpleasantness in between, stopping briefly to mention the Bataan Death March and Corregidor. In my opinion, the men who fought the Java Sea Campaign have never gotten the credit they deserve. Rising Sun, Falling Skies is my own effort to help rectify that oversight in some small way. A secondary goal is to attract more people to the history genre. In writing Rising Sun, Falling Skies, I have tried to strike a balance between scholarship and readability. Despite the length and all the end notes to give authors proper credit and give readers a chance to check my work and decide for themselves as to the proper conclusions, I have also tried to keep the language somewhat informal, to keep the military terminology to a minimum, and to explain military or nautical terms to unfamiliar readers. I wanted the Rising Sun, Falling Skies to be approachable, especially to a new generation of readers. To attract them to history. The fastest and perhaps most accurate way to study history is to study its wars. History is not boring words about dead people. History is alive, exciting, even changing, and still affecting us today. Why are the Chinese and Japanese sparring over the Senkaku Islands? Because of the Pacific War. They never came to real terms with each other after the Pacific War or over the two wars they fought previously. And they are perhaps closer than many think to fighting their next war. We cannot have an idea of where we are going if we do not know where we have been.