John Wukovits, an expert on World War II’s Pacific theater, has written a book that documents the last dogfight of the war, after Admiral William F. Halsey ordered Air Group 88, stationed aboard the USS Yorktown, to attack an airfield near Tokyo on the morning of August 15, 1945. The book tells the tragic story from the perspective of Air Group 88’s pilots while also providing a thoughtful examination of the tough choices senior commanders must make during war. Wukovits spoke with Air & Space senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in March.
Air & Space: Why did you decide to write this book?
Wukovits: I wanted to write this book because of something Admiral Halsey said. During research for a biography of the admiral, I came across his words about the last aviators to die in the war. Halsey kept sending out missions against Japanese airfields and other targets because he wanted to keep the pressure on them to come to the peace table. However, he knew that in doing so, he might be sending men to their deaths in the final moments of the war. He urged in his autobiography that these last four men to die [Billy Hobbs, Eugene Mandeberg, Howard Harrison, and Joseph Sahloff] should never be forgotten. I filed away that thought until my calendar cleared, and then turned to this story. I felt that, if I could get in touch with relatives, and if those relatives had enough material to flesh out these four aviators, that it would make a potent story. Fortunately, I was able to locate them and obtain diaries, letters, photographs, etc. to bring these four men to life for the reader.
I also wanted to write this book because it gave me the opportunity to personalize this war. Too many books about World War II present facts, but forget to include a human touch. Here, I could not only bring alive Billy Hobbs and his three companions waging war, but also their families back home, eager to hear word of their loved ones in the Pacific. Thus Billy’s parents and siblings form a major part of this story as well.
You say in your book that you faced the difficult task of casting Halsey in the villain’s role. What led you to that characterization of him?
I had to cast him as the villain because that is the way that Billy Hobbs, Eugene Mandeberg, and every other aviator of Air Group 88 saw him. If I were to tell their story, that attitude had to be prevalent. They hated embarking on what they saw as useless missions against a nation that was already defeated. This animosity first became evident at the start of August 1945, and intensified once the atom bombs had been employed. Why—they asked themselves, others, and their superiors—should they risk their lives when the war was going to end in a few days or even hours.
That was difficult for me because of my esteem for Halsey. In my biography of the man, I presented a two-fold commander. He was able, gifted, energetic, and talented in 1942 and 1943, when the nation most needed an aggressive commander in the Pacific, but a bit indecisive, overly aggressive, and out of touch with the constantly evolving manner of commanding large groups of ships at war in 1944-1945. Despite his flaws in the latter half of the war, I concluded that Halsey deserved a place among naval greats due to his vast contributions to the war in the first half. I didn‘t like focusing on merely his actions in the latter half of the war.
Admiral Radford later regretted that he didn’t convince others to delay offensive operations during the final days of the war. Do you think he could have succeeded? Or were the other admirals’ minds already made up on this decision?
He regretted it, but he would not have succeeded. Admiral King in Washington, D.C. and Admiral Nimitz in the Pacific issued orders to Halsey and his subordinates, which included Radford, to keep applying pressure on the Japanese to bring the war to an end. Orders were orders, and those were not going to be challenged or changed. Radford felt for those men who would die when the end of the conflict was so tantalizingly close.
Is the broader story of “war weariness” among America’s airmen and soldiers missing from World War II narratives?
Not really. Maybe it hasn’t been depicted as starkly as I have here, because my focus was on one of the air groups sent against Japanese anti-aircraft fire, but overall, war weariness has been portrayed by other historians. Clark Reynolds [a historian of naval warfare] did a marvelous job in his writings.
What lessons could military commanders today take away from this book?
The lesson for senior commanders would be different than any lesson I might draw for subordinate commanders, lieutenants, and ensigns. For senior commanders, the lesson would be to keep applying pressure until the enemy is defeated. No half measures, I guess. Another lesson would be that one cannot base his orders and actions on the impact they might have on aviators and their families. It’s war; you do what you have to do, despite the losses that might occur.
Why do you think the story of these airmen is not well known?
They have been overshadowed by the atom bombs. Once those were employed, anything that followed was relegated to the backwaters, except for the actual peace process and signing the surrender documents. The war in the Pacific almost seems to skip time, hopping from the second atom bomb straight to the peace table. People don’t realize that after the use of the atom bombs, the war continued for those air group aviators flying over Japan until August 15, leaving a week for men to die.