Book Review: Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War by Eric Lacroix & Linton Wells

Topic & Content

Published in 1997, this massive 800+ page door stopper examines the various light and heavy cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The text focuses on their design and technical specifications, as well as their operations in the Pacific War. The book is roughly organized as follows:

  • 1. The Tenryu & Yubari-class light cruisers and genesis of the scout cruisers
  • 2. The Pretreaty Furutaka & Aoba “A class” cruisers
  • 3. The Myoko “A class” cruisers
  • 4. The Takao “A class” cruisers and Improved Takao designs
  • 5. Activities and modifications of the light cruisers 1919 – 41
  • 6. Prewar modernizations of the “A class” cruisers
  • 7. The “A class” cruisers during the Pacific War
  • 8. Activities of the prewar-built light cruisers during the Pacific War
  • 9. The Mogami “B class” cruisers modified to “A class” standards
  • 10. The Tone “B class” cruisers modified to “A class” standards and the uncompleted Ibuki-class
  • 11. The Agano-class cruisers used as destroyer squadron flagships and cruiser projects of the Fifth and Sixth Replenishment Programs
  • 12. The Oyodo-class cruisers used as submarine squadron flagships
  • 13. The Katori-class training cruisers and the former Chinese light cruisers Ning Hai and Ping Hai
  • Appendixes
  • Summary Data Tables
  • Glossary: Japanese-English
  • Bibliography

Thesis

Oddly enough, there isn’t a definite thesis to this book. However, this book seems to function mostly as a reference work since it covers the development and technical aspects of Imperial Japanese Navy cruiser classes and their operations from the pre-WWI to the end of WWII.

Author’s Background

According to the biographical entries on the dustjacket, Dr. Eric Lacroix was born in Belgium in 1930 and had an interest in the Imperial Japanese Navy since WWII. After the war, he became a medical doctor and was a professor of human physiology at the State University at Ghent. In addition, he served as a reserve officer (specifically a major) in the Belgian army and saw active service in the medical corps.

Dr. Linton Wells II is a retired U.S. Navy captain and a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. Born in Angola, he served for 26 years in the Navy aboard cruisers and destroyers. He commanded the USS Joseph Strauss (DDG-16) and Destroyer Squadron 21.

Critical Observations

Positives

Much like how Evans and Peattie’s Kaigun serves as the comprehensive text on Japanese naval tactics and doctrine, every book on Japanese cruiser designs and their operations I’ve read that was published after 1997 references this book. It’s the product of over 50 years of research, and its sheer size is indicative of that. Being over 800 pages long necessitates that it’s a hardcover, and it could’ve easily been split into two volumes. While the definitive nature of history is debatable, this is possibly the exception to that rule. Quite frankly, this may be the definitive text on Japanese cruisers…at least until someone is brave enough to publish a complete re-examination of all of the technical and operational details contained in this work.

The text is dense and full of technical specifications on the ships it covers. Virtually every facet of these vessels from their armor layouts, weapons, sensors, hull design, and machinery plants are discussed in extreme detail. Granted that I’m no naval engineer or architect, so much of those particulars don’t mean much to me. However, for anyone with an interest in those fields or with a background in engineering, this book would clearly appeal to them. There’s also a great deal in here that goes into the historical development of these ships and their systems, as well. In many ways, this book is comparable to Norman Friedman’s ship design histories, except it’s twice as big and far more technically detailed. However, unlike Friedman’s books which are purely focused on the development of the vessels he covers, this book also covers the operational histories of these ships in detail. (And how! Many of these cruisers were extremely active during the Pacific War and many saw far more action than some carriers or battleships.) In that regard, it also satisfies those who are more interested in that aspect of naval history. To top it all off, the book contains hundreds of very detailed line drawings and photos of the ships.

The appendixes are also extremely useful in that they cover a lot of useful supplementary material. For example, some of them discuss the organization of the IJN and give biographical information on two of Japan’s most famous ship designers (Hiraga Yuzuru and Fujimoto Kikuo). Other appendixes provide details on the Tomozuru and Fourth Fleet Incidents, and a map of the Pacific showing important locations and ports. There’s even information on the metallurgical composition of Japanese ship armor, conversion tables, and a Japanese-to-English glossary, among others.

Negatives

One downside of this book (and in no way a reflection of the writing) is that it has become somewhat expensive, and decent copies are hard to find. I was lucky enough to find a used library copy on eBay in very good condition for around $300. Naturally, I snatched it up quickly.

Personally, I found the book’s chapter organization to be a little jarring. I was expecting the chapters to move categorically from class to class, but instead, they more or less move chronologically from pre-WWII through WWII and jump around between the light cruiser (B-class) and heavy cruiser (A-class) classes. Different chapters are then devoted to the modernizations of these ships, their modifications, and finally, the last chapters discuss several unique cruiser designs. My problem is that I’d read about one class of cruiser early on and then the next chapter would be on an entirely different class, only for a previous class to be discussed several chapters later as the book moves ahead in time. For example, the first chapter covers the 5,500-ton scout cruisers, such as the Tenryu, Kuma, and Nagara classes, and it then moves on to other classes, only to come back to the scout cruisers 100 pages later in chapter 5. It then revisits them around page 363 in chapter 8. As a result, I’d have to go back and reacquaint myself with characteristics of that class, and it was difficult to keep the details in my head because there are so many details in this book. I would much rather have read about all the technical details of a particular class of ships, their operational histories, and then move on to another class. If the chapters were instead organized categorically by ship class, it would avoid the reader having to jump back and forth between the classes and their details.

Another issue I have with this book is that while it goes a great deal into the technical characteristics of the cruisers and describes their operational histories, there’s little discussion on how the changes and modifications to their designs impacted their operations. Yes, changes such as adding topside weight in weapons, or removing a boiler to make room for something else, would decrease the speed of the vessel, but there’s no indication of how the crews perceived these changes, or if they had any appreciable effect on the vessel’s performance in combat. As a result, the text can come off as fairly dry and solely focused on the technicalities.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

Overall, this book was definitely a massive undertaking on the part of the authors who somehow managed to pull it off. It serves as both an excellent technical reference and a very good naval history on the ships that it covers. While I found the chapter organization to be wanting and some of the technical details to be a bit dry at the expense of more explanation, those criticisms don’t detract from me highly recommending this book to anyone with an interest in WWII Japanese cruisers or Pacific War history. This book is the book to have on the topic!

Rating: 5 out of 5

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