Stephen R. Taaffe. Commanding the Pacific: Marine Corps Generals in World War II. Naval Institute Press, 2021. Hardcover, $34.95 USD, ISBN: 9781682477083, 12 maps, 232 pages.
By Joshua Shepherd
In the American military tradition, the Marine Corps has played a somewhat dichotomous role. A constituent service of the Navy, Marine detachments have traditionally served at sea as shipboard security or on land in the capacity of small shore parties. During the early twentieth century, Marine detachments saw increasing service on land in counter-insurgency operations throughout Latin America.
During World War I, Marines served ably as infantry on the Western Front, but struggled with the appearance of redundancy when compared to Army units that served in nearly identical fashion. In the years subsequent to World War I, the Corps sought for a unique strategic identity that would set it apart within the United States military. Ultimately, the high brass within the Corps opted to specialize in amphibious warfare, which was an ideal fit for the Navy-affiliated Corps.
The timing of the increased focus on amphibious warfare uniquely positioned the Marine Corps to play a major role in the conflict that broke out with Japan in December of 1941. In a war that was destined to play out in the vast expanse of the Pacific, amphibious invasions would of necessity be a key component to victory.
Taaffe’s Commanding the Pacific is a unique volume that chronologically explores Marine Corps leadership against the backdrop of the war in the Pacific. In comparison to their counterparts in the Army and Navy, the Marine generals of World War II have been subjected to a curious anonymity. Leaders including Douglas MacArthur, Chester Nimitz, and William Halsey enjoy wide recognition. Marine generals such as Holland Smith, Roy Geiger, or Graves Erskine remain relatively unknown outside a of a narrow pool of specialists.
In this volume, Taaffe endeavors to bring greater attention to Marine Corps generals and the amphibious doctrine which they honed in the Pacific Theater. According to Taaffe, much credit for the expansion and development of the modern Marine Corps rests on the shoulders of the two men—Thomas Holcomb and Archibald Vandegrift—who served as commandant of the Corps during the war years. The commandants performed an often thankless task of fighting for Corps prerogatives, maintaining peace among nettlesome subordinates, and presiding over the Marines during a period of unprecedented expansion.
By the end of the war, the Marines fielded six full divisions organized in two amphibious corps. Such rapid growth necessitated an expanded stable of general officers, a sudden demand for which the Marine Corps was initially ill prepared. In 1941, few Marine officers had commanded more than a regiment in battle and a number of senior leaders had experienced only small unit actions or no combat at all. Career Marine officers were also somewhat deficient in the advanced leadership training enjoyed by their Army and Navy colleagues. Despite such disadvantages, Marine generals largely performed ably in executing a difficult amphibious advance across the Pacific.
Marine forces often operated on small islands and atolls which offered little opportunity for intricate tactical maneuver. Marine generals were generally limited to blunt tactics which resulted in horrific casualties. For senior Marine leaders, there was little opportunity to exhibit tactical acumen on a grand scale. Despite the punishing nature of the Pacific ground war, Marine generals performed yeoman’s work reducing the Japanese Empire. Taaffe explores the lives and careers of over a dozen men – including Marine luminaries Harry Schmidt, Clifton Cates, and William Rupertus – who deserve more attention from historians. The book, however, is far from hagiography, and the author is forthright in his assessment of officers who performed poorly in leadership positions.
Taaffe has carved out something of an academic niche analyzing senior leadership in America’s military history, having authored similar volumes on general officers during the American Revolution, World War II, and the Korean War. This slender volume, with 193 pages of text, plows fresh ground, and is recommended for students of the Pacific Theater and the United States Marine Corps.
Joshua Shepherd is a sculptor and author whose work has appeared in publications including MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Military Heritage, Civil War Quarterly, and Journal of the American Revolution.