First of a three-part series of my e-interview with John Burton, author of Fortnight of Infamy: The Collapse of Allied Airpower West of Pearl Harbor, December 1941.

What inspired you to write Fortnight of Infamy and how is it different from other books written about 8-24 December 1941?

For most of my life, I’ve resided within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean. As a child, I lived in Hawaii at the time the epic movie Tora, Tora, Tora was released. My proximity to Pearl Harbor and the influence of that film drew my attention to the history of the Japanese attack from an early age. However, the more intently I studied the incident that took place on Oahu, the more I realized that concurrent events at the opposite side of the Pacific were equally interesting – and vastly more important in their overall impact on the U.S. and Allied war effort. Although the attack on Pearl Harbor was stunning, actual losses of personnel, equipment, and facilities in Hawaii paled in comparison with those in the Far East. In the end, the present-day status quo was barely affected by the Japanese bombs that fell on Oahu, but it was changed altogether by what took place in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia during December of 1941.

It seems that most Americans – distracted as they are by Hollywood versions of Japan’s assault on Oahu – don’t fully grasp the desperate situation that the United States faced at the start of the Pacific War. That is not really surprising, since even the curriculum of a higher education does not advance the story of this period much beyond that told by the filmmakers. Unless one is a fairly serious student of history, the study of WWII in the Pacific is perfunctorily limited to the Pearl Harbor attack, an occasional brief mention of the battle at Midway, and a slightly more protracted discussion of the ethics surrounding the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While these are undeniably important events, I’m guessing few people know that General Douglas MacArthur’s surrender in the Philippines, and the British capitulation of Malaya and Singapore, constituted the worst battlefield defeats that the U.S. and Great Britain have ever experienced; before or since. In the very short duration of those disastrous campaigns, nearly a quarter-million Allied soldiers were either killed or forced into a torturous and extended captivity, and their fate was sealed within the first fortnight of combat.

An extensive and comprehensive body of research and literature has been compiled over the years about the Pearl Harbor topic. Very few stones have been left unturned at this point. In contrast, there is a relative paucity of published information about the early weeks of war in the Far East. Despite the fact that the situation in the Far East is underreported, until Fortnight of Infamy was published a reader would have had to acquire and digest several dozen books just to acquire a basic understanding of these battles and their interrelationship. Because most of those volumes are very narrowly focused on specific topics – including two excellent aviation-related books written by Bill Bartsch (Doomed at the Start and December 8, 1941) – they do not coherently combine aspects of the Philippine campaign with those of the simultaneous Malaya/Singapore campaign. Although airpower was the most important factor in the Allied defense of the colonial Far East during December of 1941, before the publication of Fortnight of Infamy, the only attempt at covering the whole subject was found in two volumes of Bloody Shambles, by Shores, Cull and Izawa. Unfortunately, those books – which do stand as an excellent reference for Japanese and British air operations – contain many inaccuracies in their account of American activities, and make no attempt to explain or analyze the events they summarize. Thus, I wrote Fortnight of Infamy in an effort to fill in much of that gap by providing a comprehensive, yet readable, account of the Allied tragedy that took place west of Pearl Harbor.

To be continued…

Posted by Jim Dolbow in Books

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  • UltimaRatioReg


    Superb post on an absolutely outstanding work. The author pulls no punches. A MUST READ with many applicable lessons for today.

  • J.J. Burke

    First post, so I hope to get it right. I read the post with great interest. After the Pearl harbor attack, General Short and Admiral Kimmel were pilloried for their failures in preparedness. General MacArthur, on the other hand, had some modicum of direct, unambiguous warning of Japanese attacks throughout the Pacific and appears to have done nothing. He then unceremoniously departed, and allowed his subordinate commander to surrender US forces to the Japanese. For this effort, I am told MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor. Why the disparity?

  • Mike M.

    A book I will read…but I have a question.

    How much of the ‘disappearing’ of the events of the first 90 days in the Pacific is a consequence of the political standing of GEN MacArthur and Franklin Roosevelt?

  • Mike M.

    J.J., I think I can help you there…

    The Japanese launched a simultaneous attack on Pearl Harbor and all other major American and British bases. Differing dates are an artifact of the International Date Line cutting through the theater. MacArthur had the same I&W information that Short and Kimmel did. He is no MORE to blame than those two…and it is worth noting that many of their compatriots considered Short and Kimmel to have been railroaded.

    And I won’t pillory MacArthur for leaving his command. Roosevelt ordered him to do so.

    Where MacArthur can be justly blamed is for his defense of the Phillipines. Prewar plans both of the US and Japan figured on the Phillipines being able to hold out for ~6 months. Long enough for a major fleet engagement to be fought over their relief. Instead, the Japanese brushed the defending forces aside – and it is my understanding that many of the survivors held MacArthur accountable for the poor showing.

    • Pops

      Japanese forces hardly “brushed aside” the Fil-Am force in the Philippines. It may be that MacArthur was ill-prepared for an extended defense, given his initial efforts at beach defense instead of the WPO-3 plan he belatedly returned to. But Fil-Am forces fought bravely, even though many were poorly trained and ill-equipped. Airpower may have been quickly reduced, as this book discusses, but ground forces, aided by remnants of air and naval forces, were the only Allied forces in the Far East that held out for a significant period of time. Had MacArthur prepared properly, they would have held out even longer, even though the Arizona and the others weren’t coming to the rescue…

  • Jim Dolbow

    JJ Welcome to the blogosphere!!! Mike and URR thanks for your comments as well. Stay tuned for the rest of my e-interview with the author on wednesday and thursday of this week.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “The Japanese launched a simultaneous attack on Pearl Harbor and all other major American and British bases.”

    I believe MacArthur DID have several hours’ warning. Enough to get his aircraft dispersed. And yes, his handling of the defense of the Philippines was questionable at best. (Regarding Kimmel and Short, the book “And I was There”, an account by Capt Ed Layton regarding the intelligence picture leading up to Pearl Harbor, is an excellent read.)