Book Review – The Pearl Harbor Trilogy by Gordon Prange

Some of us enjoy painting, others enjoy cooking, for Gordon Prange, it was researching and writing about Pearl Harbor. Therefore, in honor of the 78th anniversary of the day which will live in infamy, I thought I’d give a few short thoughts on Prange’s famous Pearl Harbor trilogy.

A professor of history at the University of Maryland from 1937-1980 (with the exception of a leave of absence for service in World War II and during the Occupation of Japan), Gordon Prange’s lectures were heavily sought after by students. He was noted for his animated style of teaching.

Gordon Prange spent 37 years of his life researching about the event that brought the United States into WWII. During the course of his research, he interviewed as many surviving American and Japanese officers as he could in addition to many civilians. The results were an extensive collection of notes which his co-authors edited down from an originally 3,500 page, multi-volume manuscript into three books which were published posthumously in Prange’s name.

The first and most well-known of the trilogy, At Dawn We Slept chronicles the whole why of Pearl Harbor. Why was the U.S. caught so unawares on the morning of December 7th? Why were the warning signs not heeded? Why did the Japanese choose Pearl Harbor as a target? The list goes on and on. The answers are not so simple as, “Well, the Japanese were really crafty and the Americans were really dumb.” That’s too facile of an analysis. This book is all about the finer details.

One thing to note about this book is that it’s really a narrative of the failure of diplomacy and military intelligence. There’s not a lot of action in it. Out of the 600+ page narrative, only 50 pages cover the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. The rest of the story is a lot of letters and notes passed around, phone calls being made, and people talking…a lot! There’s a tremendous number of diplomats, politicians, Army and Naval officers, etc. involved in the narrative. It can be very difficult to keep track of who is who and what their position is within the grand scheme of things.

That being said, this book is essential to understanding the minutiae of why the United States was caught so unprepared for the attack.

Like many controversial events in history, there’s no shortage of alternative/counterfactual/conspiracy theories regarding the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Verdict of History examines not only the alternative theories on Pearl Harbor, but also the aftermath and eventual inquiry of the attack. Let the finger-pointing commence! Prange goes through several of the major alternative and conspiracy theories and debunks them in this book. He also examines how the responsibility was laid out in the aftermath and if Admiral Kimmel really was to blame.

Despite its lengthy narrative, one of the main criticisms many people have of At Dawn We Slept is the fact that only 50 pages cover the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. In sharp contrast, Dec. 7 1941 is solely a narrative focused on the attack itself.

Using a mix of American and Japanese personal accounts, the third book of the trilogy takes us through the attack on Pearl Harbor in a minute-by-minute fashion. As a result, it has a very oral history feel to it. This also means that the book reads much faster than the previous two and the narrative is more action-packed and engaging.

For those looking for the action of Pearl Harbor, then this is the book you want. Tons of bombs, torpedoes, and bullets fly as the Japanese wreak havoc on the Pacific Fleet and the surrounding airfields.

Overall Thoughts

We also have Gordon Prange to thank for the incredible accuracy of the film Tora! Tora! Tora! where he served as a consultant on the production team. Subsequently, it’s become one of the best and most accurate military history films. I cringe whenever my students bring up the travesty that is Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Ugh!! Avoid that film at all costs! The attack on Pearl Harbor has been committed to film in far better ways than slapping Ben Affleck, Josh Harnett, and Kate Beckinsale on the screen. Tora! Tora! Tora! was made 30 years prior to that film, had an actual historian on staff, and did a far superior job.

Watch this film!
Laugh at this film!

The late Roger Ebert put it best when he critiqued:

Pearl Harbor is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle. Its centerpiece is 40 minutes of redundant special effects, surrounded by a love story of stunning banality. The film has been directed without grace, vision, or originality, and although you may walk out quoting lines of dialogue, it will not be because you admire them.

Ebert, 2001

Getting back to the books, these are definitely not your popular history books. They’re not particularly fast, light, or easy reads. The amount of research (as indicated by the end notes and bibliographies) done for these books is staggering. The results are some serious military history books for the serious historian.

Gordon Prange’s research amounted to thousands upon thousands of pages in unfinished manuscripts. It’s also worth noting that following his death, Prange’s colleagues/co-authors Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon were left to put them together into the books we have today. The results are impressive to say the least.

There are many books out there on Pearl Harbor and many firsthand accounts from survivors. However, you would be hard-pressed to find a trilogy of books that goes into such heavy detail about the event as Prange’s work.

Prange’s other works include:

  • God’s Samurai: Lead Pilot at Pearl Harbor
  • Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Spy Ring
  • Miracle at Midway

References

Ebert, R. (2001 May 25). Pearl Harbor. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/pearl-harbor-2001.

3 comments

  1. 2001 Pearl Harbor movie may not be historically accurate but I still feel like it is still worth watching so that students can learn not only about the attack itself but also to understand the errors Hollywood made in making this film. Professors should show this movie and then have a discussion afterwards so that students can figure out the parts of the movie that aren’t accurate and then ask them how they would have shot it differently. It is also a good discussion tool on how Hollywood or even professors and historians can help people understand historic events without them feeling overwhelmed with academia lingo. Additionally, the Pacific Historic Park at the Pearl Harbor Memorial Park sells the 2001 Pearl Harbor movie in their gift shop.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a good point. If anything, it serves as an example of how NOT to make a historical film and could warrant some interesting discussion on Hollywood’s “perspective” on historical vs. perceived need for drama and fictionalization. Heck, I could probably make an entire class focused on “based on a true story/historical films”. I’d probably have my students study the actual events, watch the film, and then write essays critiquing what they saw, what was accurate & inaccurate, and what could be forgiven as acceptable breaks from reality and history.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Those are good ideas. Pearl Harbor is one of my favorite movies and I have watched it multiple times. But I always watch it knowing that it is not very accurate.

        Like

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