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Updating the Legend of Guadalcanal : GUADALCANAL By Richard B. Frank (Random House: $34.95; 828 pp.)

December 23, 1990|Dan Kurzman | Kurzman, a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, is the author of 11 books, including the current "Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis" (Macmillan).

Guadalcanal is a word that stirs the American soul as few other battle sites ever have done. It conjures up visions of supreme courage, bulldog tenacity and impassioned patriotism. It is a symbol of all that is most admirable in the American character. For in some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II, more than 7,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen perished in the fetid forests of this remote South Pacific island and in the turbulent waters and transparent skies enclosing it, while killing two-thirds of a fanatical 20,000-man Japanese army.

Nor is the legend of Guadalcanal simply symbolic. The ferocious struggles there thrust the United States onto the offensive at a time when the Japanese, even though defeated at Midway, were seriously threatening the American campaign in the Pacific and still dreaming of a negotiated peace that would let them keep the spoils of conquest. Both sides knew that the decisive battle of the war in the Pacific would be fought here. Indeed, victory at Guadalcanal opened the way to America's ultimate victory in the Pacific.

The legend of Guadalcanal has been told many times by able historians and journalists--among them Samuel Elliot Morrison and Richard Tregaskis--but Richard B. Frank, a former captain in the 101st Airborne Division who served in Vietnam, has written what must be the definitive book on the subject. His "Guadalcanal" is an enormous work based on the most meticulous research. Especially intriguing is the new material gleaned from official Japanese battle reports that reveal the frustrations, fears and fantasies of an enemy portrayed in most World War II books as soulless robots. One starving Japanese officer poignantly scribbled in his diary: "Rice. I really want to give my men as much rice as they want. That is the only wish I have."

In this brilliant academic history, almost every unit in every battle is identified; almost every action by every platoon is described; almost every weapon is taken apart, examined, appraised. Individual characters are mentioned, but they play only cameo roles in Frank's epochal production. In one shattering account, the author quotes a sailor who survived the sinking of the destroyer Juneau and witnessed a shark gouging out a shipmate's shoulder:

"He looked at his shipmates there and realized that he was making them nauseated, that he was driving them crazy by just being there . . . he pushed himself off the life nets and swam out about five or six feet and let the sharks have him rather than lay there and die like a coward and jeopardize the live(s) of his shipmates."

Such drama often is obscured by the manual-like detailing of battle, but it is this detail that makes the book unique. Here is everything you might want to know--or not want to know--about Guadalcanal. And all the facts are presented in an orderly manner and in studied perspective. Frank limberly jumps from jungle conflict to naval encounter to aerial clash, dealing with each side in turn, showing how each perceived the thinking of the other, weaving the clutter of episodes into the whole.

Frank's objectivity is reflected in his comparative appraisal of the character of the antagonists. While heroism abounds on the American side, the Japanese emerge as opponents more than worthy of his admiration. He quotes one U.S. officer as saying:

"Most of us who have fought in the Pacific are ready to admit here and now, away from all the convincing firsthand evidence we have seen--mass starvation, untold suffering, shell shock, cannibalism, mass suicide--that for sheer, bloody, hardened steel guts, the stocky and hard-muscled little Jap doughboy has it all over any of us."

As Frank points out, the brave fighters on both sides, ironically, often were undercut by the misjudgments and faulty leadership of their commanders. Thus, Japanese leaders were convinced that only 2,000 Marines had landed in Guadalcanal and that their morale was low; in fact, more than 20,000 had waded ashore and were ready for battle, even though, as the author states, they "lacked the moral reserve that a long string of successes or a large preponderance of power gives any unit."

And American leaders were just as convinced that when Japanese ships sought to reach Guadalcanal, they were trying to land reinforcements, though their mission was, on the contrary, to evacuate troops already on the island. At one point, some U.S. officials, unaware that the Japanese were barely hanging on, harbored doubts that the Americans could hang on, especially after they suffered several naval defeats. When a reporter asked Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox if they could, he dourly replied:

"I will not make any predictions. . . . What I am trying to say is that there is a good stiff fight going on. Everybody hopes we can hold on."

Such doubts generated battle plans that resulted in the needless killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men.

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