Tom Hanks and The Pacific

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2010

It would be a pity if an inane comment by Tom Hanks’ in Time regarding the HBO miniseries, The Pacific, causes people to dismiss it as just more Hollywood-style “politically correct” revisionist history. In fact, if the first episode is a harbinger, the series promises to be another Band of Brothers, Hanks’ earlier program for HBO. Hollywood may make people stupid on occasion, but if they are fundamentally decent and patriotic—and Hanks is—they can still make riveting, historically-based drama.

Unlike Band of Brothers, which dealt with a single company of paratroopers from Normandy to Austria, The Pacific is based on the memoirs of two Marines and the well-known story of another. The first is Eugene Sledge, whose With The Old Breed is a classic description of service in the First Marine Division in World War II. The second is Robert Leckie, who wrote Helmet for My Pillow.

When I was in the Marine Corps, these books were required reading. And when I first entered the service, every Marine knew the story of the third individual, the Leatherneck demigod, “Manila John” Basilone, who had been in the Army before the war, joined the Marines when the war broke out, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal, and was later killed on Iwo Jima.

But I knew of him even before I became a Marine. My dad, who also fought in the Pacific—on Bougainville, Guadalcanal’s neighbor in Solomon Islands chain, and on Guam in the Marianas—knew John Basilone. In addition, as the son of a Marine, I spent time at Camp Pendleton in California, the main road of which leading from the main base area to the regimental camps to the north is Basilone Road.

All-too often, people today seem to believe that the outcomes of historical events are somehow preordained. But that is not true. By the summer of 1942, the US Navy had turned back a Japanese task force during the battle of the Coral Sea and had inflicted a major defeat on the Japanese at Midway, but even with such successes, the outcome of the war was in doubt and would remain so for some time. And things would become particularly desperate on Guadalcanal. The Pacific provides a glimpse of that desperation.

On August 7, 1942, the Marine landings on Guadalcanal surprised the Japanese who abandoned the unfinished airfield and faded into the jungle. The airfield, soon made operational by the Sea Bees and named Henderson Field, would become the focal point of the many battles on the island for the next several months. But two days after the landings, disaster struck. In the early morning hours of 9 August, a task force of the Japanese Imperial Navy surprised the Americans and inflicted the most humiliating defeat on the United States Navy in its proud history.

The battle of Savo Island cost the Americans three heavy cruisers and the Australians one. Only a fateful decision by the Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, spared the defenseless transports, still discharging cargo in support of the Marines ashore. So many ships from both sides were sunk in the area between Guadalcanal and Florida Island over the next few months that it became known as “Ironbottom Sound.”

Following the defeat at Savo Island, the US naval commanders decided to withdraw the ships that were supporting the Marines. The “big picture” problem the US Navy faced was that it was operating on a shoe string far from its bases while Rabaul, the Japanese naval base on the island of New Britain, was much closer. But the decision to withdraw the naval task force meant that the Marines were on their own.

The Japanese for their part meant to recover Guadalcanal. The attack by the first contingent of Japanese troops on the Marines near the Tenaru River is nicely depicted in the miniseries. During this fight, the Marines killed nearly a thousand Japanese soldiers.

But the Japanese continued to land troops and to subject the Marines to a nightly naval bombardment as the “Tokyo Express” sailed down “the Slot” from Rabaul. At one point, Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, the commanding general of the First Marine Division, made the decision that if necessary, the Marines would break up into guerrilla bands and take to the jungle. Fortunately, with successful battles on “Bloody Ridge,” at Henderson Field, and along the Matanikau, this never became necessary. In addition, the US Navy scored victories in several battles in the waters around Guadalcanal—among them Cape Esperance, the Santa Cruz Islands, and Tassafaronga—to redeem the defeat at Savo Island. By February 1943, Guadalcanal was proclaimed to be “secured.”

While there were many horrors still to come in the Pacific Theater—for the First Marine Division, these would include Peleliu and Okinawa—Guadalcanal would always have a lasting impact on the survivors. For example, I had occasion to serve for a brief period in 1969 as aide de camp to the Assistant Division Commander of the Third Marine Division in Vietnam, Brig. Gen Regan Fuller.

He was a veteran of Guadalcanal where he had been a company commander in 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, under the legendary Lt. Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller. When he was finally evacuated, then-Captain Fuller, who was about 6’4″ tall, weighed less than 90 pounds thanks to malnutrition and malaria. And like many other veterans of Guadalcanal, he had the “10,000 meter stare.”

Thanks to Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for telling the story of such men.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport RI, and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research institute in Philadelphia. He is a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.