Tags: meet the author
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.
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