The battle of Midway was a pivotal battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II, a true turning point in the war between the United States and the Japanese Empire. However, that turning point would have come to naught had it not been for the steadfastness of U.S. troops and military servicemen during the invasion of Guadalcanal two months later. If that invasion had failed and the troops been dislodged from the jungle island, who knows what might have happened?
A Dawn Like Thunder by Robert J. Mrazek is the story of carrier-based Torpedo Squadron Eight and its fight through both battles. It is immensely personal, told from the viewpoints of all of the men who fought (and many who died) in that squadron. Told in a large part through author interviews with survivors or the war diaries of some of those who were killed, the reader gets to know these men, to care for them, and to feel it when they die, as so many of them did. In three months of fighting, they suffered the largest casualty rate of any air squadron before or since.
The hard-to-put-down book is told informally, as if Mrazek were one of the pilots telling stories about his squadron-mates. He begins by detailing a few of the more prominent pilots and their backgrounds: how they got into flying, where they were born and their family life before the war, whether they enjoyed constantly being around women, or whether they were more reserved and self-reflecting. Along with these introductions, he shows how the squadron was formed, giving a little information on their training, and how the bombing of Pearl Harbor affected them, especially as they arrived at Pearl Harbor later for final assignment.
The pilots were flying inferior planes, outmoded and slow, though some of the squadron were flying newer Avenger planes across the U.S. to finally come to Pearl. Unfortunately, they didn't arrive in time, and many of the pilots who were already at Pearl had to ship out to Midway on the carriers in their desperately slow and outclassed Devastator torpedo bombers.
Mrazek fully captures the tension leading up to the first attack on the Japanese fleet at Midway, the horrifying realization that squadron commander John Waldron comes to when he hears the insane plan to keep all of the Wildcat fighter planes with the dive bombers instead of his torpedo planes, the rationalization being that all of the Japanese fighters would be dealing with the dive bombers.
The author also presents, for apparently the first time in a mainstream history book, the tragic cover-up when Waldron's entire attack force is wiped out because the admiral originally sent them on the wrong heading. When Waldron realizes that the fleet can't possibly be where they've been sent, he turns his force onto a more likely heading. They find the fleet, but with no dive bomber or fighter support, the attack is catastrophically destroyed after inflicting no damage. The admiral's after-action report covers this up, and it's only been revealed in the last thirty years of research. Mrazek uses this research to vividly illustrate the courage of Waldron and his fellow pilots, as well as how unnecessary their massacre was.
Mrazek moves on to Gaudalcanal, also detailing how the almost universally-disliked second in command, Harold H. "Swede" Larsen, took over after Waldron's death. Not only was Torpedo Eight assigned to the carrier Hornet during this campaign, but when carrier losses became high, they were assigned to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal itself. Mrazek clearly describes the numerous missions the pilots made, how the incessant Japanese shelling of the airfield made keeping the remaining planes flyable almost impossible, and the Japanese assaults to re-take Henderson. He captures the fear, the tension, and the violence; the reader definitely feels, along with the Marines, Army soldiers and pilots, that if Henderson falls, the battle is lost.
A Dawn Like Thunder is gripping like few history books are, with the immediacy of Mrazek's prose and descriptions making you feel like you're part of the action. He uses other sources to address the wider battle, including some Japanese sources, thus setting the stage for the heroics and determination of the Torpedo Eight pilots. The reader gets a feel for all of the action and what it means to these pilots. His epilogue not only discusses how the remaining pilots were re-assigned to the U.S. after this battle, but also goes pilot by pilot (and character by character, regarding some of the pilot's wives or girlfriends) and attempts to give a brief description of the rest of their lives. For some, he simply couldn't find any more information, and he tells you that. I found this valuable, especially since I had spent so many pages getting to know these people.
Finally, Mrazek doesn't use a note system at all, unlike most history books (and most of them who don't usually don't turn out this well). Instead, at the end of the book, he discusses his sources chapter by chapter, whether they be author interviews, other history books, diaries, letters home, or anything else. Thus, unlike with most history books, the reader should actually read the information on the author's sources. Especially interesting is his reconstruction of how the cover-up was discovered and how it came to Mrazek putting it in this book.
A Dawn Like Thunder is a must-read for any World War II buff. It's not dry at all, dragging you in and not letting you get away until you have finished it. It's a gripping display of courage, undaunted heroism, and tragedy, a mix that always makes for an interesting book.