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Pacific War: Three Alternative Histories

Avery Abernethy, 20 March 2013

How might WWII have evolved in the PTO with some slight historical tweaks? Avery Abernathy digs in to three different books that all offer their own alternate histories.

The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was an almost unbelievable victory which left much of the US Pacific Fleet and US Army Pacific Air Corps in ruins. The attack was such a shock that numerous official and unofficial inquiries were made into how the disaster could have happened. The totality of the victory is even more amazing when considering the Japanese air assault was spotted by a primitive radar unit on Oahu, a Japanese mini-sub was sunk at the entrance of the harbor prior to the air attack, and the US Pacific Fleet had earlier received an official “war warning” from Washington.


Still, the Japanese only launched two attacks on Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Two critical naval facilities were largely untouched: the massive dry docks/ship repair facilities and the huge Navy fuel stores. The naval fuel stores were especially vulnerable to aerial attack. The Hawaiian Islands are one of the most remote places on earth, and getting fuel to the island and getting the repair facilities back in action if either were destroyed would have taken many months and further crippled the US military at the start of the Pacific War. Critically, the two US Carrier groups (Enterprise and Lexington) were away from port transporting aircraft to other Pacific bases, and their survival eventually led to the massive Japanese defeat at Midway a mere six months later.


Many wargames have a “special Pearl Harbor rule” which reenacts the devastation of the US Pacific Fleet and Air Corps. This disaster was so horrible and so difficult to pull off that the reality of the US – Japanese War is impossible to simulate unless you take an equally successful attack on Pearl Harbor (and to a lesser extent the in the Philippines) as a fait accompli. The way the Pacific War is simulated is a major difference in long-run strategic simulations of the war such as the Hearts of Iron series and the more combat focused simulations such as War Plan Pacific.


Many historians and wargamers have wondered what the outcome in the Pacific would have been if Japan had launched a third strike on Pearl Harbor to destroy the oil storage and naval repair facilities. Additional speculation has asked if Japan could have launched a successful amphibious assault on Hawaii as part of the Pearl Harbor attack. Others wonder if the Imperial Japanese Navy could have destroyed the Enterprise and the Lexington in the days immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack.


Three recent major works of alternative history by Robert Conroy (2012), Harry Turtledove (two novels with the first released in 2005), and Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen (2008) each have a different “what-if” take on Pearl Harbor. This review compares and contrasts these three alternative histories. Inevitably, a review which looks at all three alternative histories must divulge some plot twists and spoilers.


Gingrich & Forstchen

Days of Infamy by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen (2008) has an extremely short time frame for an alternative history novel. The novel starts on December 7 and ends on December 11. The focus is almost entirely on the major naval, air and military commanders. Although there are some interludes with lesser historical figures, most of the action focuses on the individuals who commanded the action and their political masters.

In Gingrich’s Days of Infamy the Imperial Japanese Navy launches a third strike on Hawaii to attack the dry docks and fuel storage facilities, and Yamamoto is determined to lure the two US carrier groups into a decisive battle. Yamamoto uses some major capital ships as pawns hoping to sink the two US carriers.

I found Gingrich’s Days of Infamy to be extremely well written and quite plausible from a historical perspective. Japanese air losses mount with each subsequent attack. The logistics needed to keep the ships on station could have been accomplished (barely) if additional Japanese tankers and supply ships had been committed to the campaign. The gambit used by Yamamoto and Admiral Halsey’s reaction fit with the known personalities of these two individuals. I’ll leave the rest of the twists and turns of the novel to the reader.

In sum, Gingrich’s Days of Infamy is a short (369 page) read which extends the attack on Pearl Harbor by an additional four days, transforming it into a full, more two-sided battle. The focus is on the military and political leadership. It is well written, well edited, and will not leave the average wargamer angry that the logistics, military capabilities, or leadership is so far removed from reality to make the book irritating instead of entertaining.



Harry Turtledove’s Days of Infamy begins in March, 1941 with arguments among the leadership of Japan about the wisdom of trying to invade Hawaii in conjunction with the sneak naval aviation attack on Pearl Harbor. Like the Gingrich book, there is a third (and then further subsequent) air attacks on Hawaii, and. a large scale amphibious assault captures all of the Hawaiian Islands. A brutal Japanese occupation similar to those on other Pacific islands and the Asian mainland follows.

Turtledove’s story runs across two novels. This is a much longer work than the other two, with the first book alone running 520 pages. Turtledove follows the alternative history style he favors in his other series. There is an overall strategic war with occasional glimpses at the thinking of major military and political leaders. But the bulk of the story follows the lives of selected low level military personnel (both Japanese and US) along with several US civilians. The characters are developed and almost all have both admirable and less than admirable traits – just like most of humanity.

The poor Japanese logistical situation results in widespread hunger and starvation. The second novel in the series chronicles the US Navy destroying the fleet guarding Hawaii and the subsequent amphibious invasion. The Japanese fight in Hawaii as they did on most of the other island campaigns, skillfully and usually to the last man. The military and civilian deaths follow the pattern later seen on Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Turtledove’s Days of Infamy books are also an enjoyable read. If the reader likes to follow the story of the ordinary men and women in the military and civilian sides of a major alternative history conflict they will find a lot to like in these books. But if the reader wants a detailed strategic and tactical “what-if” focusing on the military conflict they will probably get bogged down and eventually put aside Turtledove’s two novel series.



Our third alternative Pacific War is Rising Sun by Robert Conroy. This reviewer was grateful that Mr. Conroy avoided becoming the third author to have an identical title to an alternative history of the same conflict. Rising Sun is relatively short (339 pages) and begins its departure from the historical narrative at the opening moves of the Battle of Midway. Several Japanese submarines intercept the US carriers on their way to Midway. Some are sunk outright, with the rest destroyed in the losing effort to keep Japan from seizing the island.

Most of Rising Sun focuses on one naval officer who is on the staff of Spruance on the Enterprise, who manages to save the life of Spruance as the Enterprise sinks. After the disastrous US losses during the battle of Midway the Japanese launch a series of carrier attacks on Hawaii and eventually capture the big Island and the Port of Hilo.

The “coincidence factor” of Rising Sun became very annoying to me. The same low level staff officer conceives of an attack on Japanese forces in Alaska. The officer is sent out as an “observer” on these attacks. The brother of the staff officer is in the ground forces in California and his ground unit manages to sink a submarine.

The same staff officer who saved Spruance and conceived of the attack on Alaska then accurately predicts multiple Japanese strategic moves. This guy’s girlfriend managed to escape Oahu on a sailboat. The same girlfriend provides the critical link to discovering a Nazi agent (no, this is not a typo) who is then used as a double agent by the same lowly staff officer to lure the Japanese carriers into a decisive battle in the Pacific close to California. There are even more coincidences surrounding the staff officer, his girlfriend, and his brother in the army but I will leave those to people who wish to read Rising Sun.

I disliked Rising Sun for many reasons. First, it tried to tell way too much in too few pages. There are more plot twists and turns than you see in most novels twice as long. The coincidence factor was played to a jaw-dropping level. The characters are all either generally great people or utter scoundrels. The central character either guesses or knows every major strategic choice made during this period of World War II in both the Pacific and European Theater. The logistics needed for the Japanese to have extensive and continued naval operations off of the US continental Pacific Coast are ignored. Where did all of the oil come from and where was it stored to allow the Japanese fleet to sail up and down the Alaskan and Californian coast for months?


If you are interested in alternative World War II Pacific Theater books, I recommend Days of Infamy. In fact, I recommend both of them!



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Avery Abernethy is Professor of Marketing at Auburn University. He reads a lot of alternative history and has played wargames for more than forty years. He and his wife were lucky enough to take a cruise to Hawaii and visit Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field and Schofield Barracks.

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