Book Review: A Glorious Way to Die By Russell Spurr

Published in 1981, Russell Spurr’s “A Glorious Way to Die” chronicles the final sortie of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s pride, the battleship Yamato. Inter-weaved in this narrative are the concurrent events happening in the U.S. fleet that was assaulting Okinawa at the time, as well as the preparations and sorties of the kamikaze suicide pilots at Kanoya Air Base on Kyushu.

Right off the bat, I’ll say that this book isn’t necessarily bad, but understand that I’m looking at it from the standpoint of doing research, so I’m going to be fairly critical of it. I first read this book about two years ago and thought I’d give it another close read since I was writing my post on Operation Ten-Go. My opinion on it hasn’t really changed since then, and honestly, given how often this book is cited in other works (not to mention how often people have recommended it to me), I thought it would’ve been better.

My biggest problem with the book is that I find the writing style, the use of sources, and the integration of details into the narrative, to be fairly odd. While the late Spurr spent decades as a correspondent in the Far East, the way he constructed the narrative and the details he used made me question how he attributed a lot of the information.

In all fairness, in the book’s introduction, Spurr mentions that he interviewed several surviving Japanese sailors and officers. Yet, he also admits that the surviving documentation and personal recollections of the Yamato‘s final sortie (Operation Ten-Go) are wildly divergent and inaccurate in their details. It doesn’t help that most of the survivors he interviewed were old enough to be grandfathers, as well. Subsequently, Spurr had to grapple with the problem that has plagued historians since time immemorial; that of which sources to use. While Spurr further notes that he reconstructed conversations only when he could be accurate, I’m still quite incredulous as to how he derived some of the dialogue and information in the book. Spurr frequently describes, in an astounding amount of detail, what a person was saying, thinking, and doing at a particular time.

In many ways, the narrative reads like a piece of historical fiction, although it’s definitely a work of non-fiction. A great deal of ink is spilled on descriptions of individual men’s lives, thoughts, and actions. In fact, it dominates most of the narrative. The following isn’t a direct quote, but a passage will read something like:

The ship swung at anchor and the crew was waiting anxiously for orders to sail ever since word had come down from command that the Americans had invaded Okinawa. Lieutenant ____ was standing on the deck of the ship after breakfast and feeling the crisp early morning breeze on his face. As he gazed across the shimmering water at the tree-covered mountains, he admired the beautiful cherry blossoms falling from the trees. The beauty of Japan never ceased to amaze him. He thought about his family back home and remembered back to his hell-raising days at the naval academy…

See what I mean? It’s pretty wordy. Looking at this with a historical eye, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Really? Spurr managed to glean that much detailed information about this person from his research and interviews to the point where he literally knew what they were doing and thinking at that exact moment? Wow, it seems too good to be true!” Now, certain memories surrounding pivotal life events are burned into our minds, but I kind of doubt most people can even recall what they ate for breakfast decades ago on a Saturday. These sorts of intimate vignettes extend to both the Japanese and the Americans. Spurr can literally describe what was going through the head of Admiral Mitscher as Task Force 58 steamed off the coast of Okinawa. My best guess is that it’s meant to provide the reader with a more immersive narrative (to put them in the moment, so to speak), but much of the writing seems very hackneyed and the dialogue comes off as rather stilted. It may be the fault of whoever translated the Japanese dialogue (from the interviews), but the Japanese have grammar and syntax that too closely resembles western speech patterns and expressions. (Having done some translation of Japanese materials into English, I can tell you that speakers of the respective languages don’t express themselves in the exact same manner.) Furthermore, the Americans speak like pulpy adventure characters.

Maybe it’s just Spurr’s style, but many of the details seemed oddly specific and (dare I say) fabricated in an attempt to add fluff to the narrative. After a while, I started to skim over the “superfluous details” about such things like the color of the ocean waves, or a person intently reading a note, or picking up a telephone receiver because they didn’t add any useful information for me. As a result, the line between fact and fiction became blurred and it cast doubt on the credibility of the work in my eyes. In reality, this book would be significantly shorter if the fat were trimmed.

You may be asking yourself, “OK, so Spurr has a fanciful way of writing a story. He was a journalist, so that makes sense. Why is it such a big deal?”

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, and in my post on “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” journalism isn’t the same thing as history. Yes, there are related skill sets in terms of locating information, but writing a relatable story that appeals to a broad audience, isn’t the same thing as writing a detailed and well-cited history. As I’ve read more history over the years, I’ve become highly critical of how authors use their sources and how specific their citations are. While Spurr’s book does contain a halfway decent bibliography, there are no footnotes or end notes which indicate specifically where Spurr derived his information from. To be fair, I’ve read many great history books that only contain a bibliography and no notes, but the difference is that those were written more as histories, whereas Spurr’s narrative includes such specificity in its details that it makes me want specific citations. A critical review on Amazon.com by the late Dewey F. Ray Jr. (2005), pointed out that, with the exception of the squadron commander and one other LT jg., the names of the pilots of VT-84 on the USS Bunker Hill are either inaccurate or fictitious (para. 1). I can only conclude that, based on his writing style, Spurr was writing more as a correspondent with the aim of creating a readable and relatable story, as oppose to writing as a historian. On the upshot, at least Spurr included a bibliography, unlike Akira Yoshimura’s Battleship Musashi. Furthermore, in doing my own research on the Yamato and her final sortie, the broad timeline of events matches up with those in the book. So, it would appear that Spurr did his homework, and the reader can at least source the works in the bibliography to check the information. Therefore, the book doesn’t lose all of its points for credibility.

Structurally, another issue I have with the book is that the chapters jump back and forth between events in the U.S. fleet, Kanoya Air Base, Imperial headquarters, and the Yamato herself. Of course, all of these events were contemporaneous, and there’s the thematic connection between the kamikaze air raids and Yamato‘s suicidal sortie, but the problem is that the connection is poorly demonstrated. The writing makes it seem like they’re happening independently of each other. In reality, all of these events revolved around the U.S. invasion of Okinawa.

While I’ve harped on the book quite a bit, it isn’t all bad. The narrative is the strongest once you get to the last fourth of the book. These chapters describe the sinking of the Yamato on 7 April 1945. The descriptions of the battle, as the Yamato came under three successive waves of air attack from U.S. carrier planes, is where the writing is the best. Spurr provides a more straightforward narrative in these chapters, and this is where the personal accounts of the battle stand out by providing the reader with both American and Japanese perspectives. For the Japanese side, Spurr heavily relies on the memoirs from Tameichi Hara and Yoshida Mitsuru, in addition to the interviews he conducted with former Yamato crewmember, Masanobu Kobayashi. Unfortunately, the text is still colored by some occasional wordiness, hammy dialogue, and fanciful interpretation.

Overall, Russell Spurr’s A Glorious Way to Die was a pretty mediocre read and let down by Spurr’s writing style and lack of either footnotes or end notes. Given that this book is listed in so many other bibliographies out there relating to the Yamato, I thought it would have given me more insight into the final days of this particular battleship. While some interesting details were elucidated on, they were few and far between. Mostly, I found the writing and quality of research to be too popular in tone for this to have any serious scholarly use. While Spurr weaves a fast-moving story, it seems more journalistic in tone than a true history. This book will be entertaining if you’re looking for an easy historical read, but for this amateur historian, it falls short. More serious students of history should probably look elsewhere. For personal accounts, I’ll point you in the direction of memoirs, such as Tameichi Hara’s Japanese Destroyer Captain and Yoshida Mitsuru’s Requiem for Battleship Yamato. For the best technical literature on the Yamato, reference William Garzke and Robert Dulin’s Battleships: Axis and Neutral Battleships in World War II and Janusz Skulski and Stefan Draminski’s Battleships Yamato and Musashi (Anatomy of the Ship series). In short, I feel that better works have been written on the Yamato that make better use of citations and sources. For die hard fans of this battleship, this book probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

References

Ray, D.F. (2005, August 31). Made-up names. Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R33DRX9796B3BN/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1557049130.

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