A debut book details the fighting lives of two soldiers in the South Pacific during World War II, one a U.S. Navy officer, the other a young Japanese lieutenant.
The author deploys an intriguing dual biography of two combatants on opposite sides during the war in the Pacific, neatly balancing the two portraits of military officers from two very different cultures. One is his own uncle, Vernon Jannotta, a veteran of both world wars who saw extensive Navy service during World War II—and, being middle-aged, was “the old man” to his younger troops in battles throughout the Philippines and New Guinea (yet could still hold his own physically and in drinking, readers are told). Through the family, the author was provided with his uncle’s many descriptive letters home to his beloved wife, describing the rigors of combat and command in detail (the officer was bright enough not to include classified material that could assist the enemy). The other protagonist is Kotaro Kawanishi, a Japanese Imperial lieutenant who, before his death in 1967, wrote an unpublished memoir, which was helpfully provided to the author. The two soldiers never met but are still a compelling study paired side by side. Many band-of-brothers tales from the South Pacific (going all the way back to James Michener) relate the conflict from the American vantage point. The victory here lies with an evenhanded view of the Japanese, making (somewhat) comprehensible to a modern Western mindset the rigid ideas of discipline and beyond-human sacrifice that still seem outwardly savage and barbaric (even before the advent of the kamikazes, Japanese Zero pilots flew missions without parachutes; the notion of surviving a plane crash was not an option). Although only in his 20s and sometimes overwhelmed by responsibilities, Kawanishi seemed an enlightened sort. Rather than succumbing to base survival instinct when stranded on an island with thousands of starving comrades (of whom only about 270 would live to the war’s end), he worked out an equitable, humane farming/education deal with the natives. He was ultimately offered a chief’s virgin daughter in appreciation (he appears to have declined); even the French and Australians treated him with respect. Generous photos and maps accompany the accounts of courage and day-to-day travails.
A noteworthy chronicle—and surprising appreciation—of two well-matched foes from the Greatest Generation.