Book Review: Tower of Skulls by Richard Frank


Topic & Content

Published in 2020, this is the first volume (covering the period from July 1937 to May 1942) in what is to be a trilogy of the Asia-Pacific War. The book is organized as follows:

(Since Frank uses quotations as chapter titles, I’ve added descriptions in parentheses.)

  • Prologue: The Marco Polo Bridge (The start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, July 1937)
  • Ch. 1: “China Cannot Be Lost” (Northern China campaigns and the Battle of Shanghai)
  • Ch. 2: “The Bombs and the Bullets and the Bayonets of the Japanese Are Ruthless” (The Rape of Nanjing)
  • Ch. 3: “Water as a Substitute for Soldiers” (Fighting around Taierzhuang, Wuhan, and Chiang breaching the dikes on the Yellow River)
  • Ch. 4: “The Greatest Migration of People in All History” (Chinese refugees fleeing the conflict and America’s non-interventionalist policy)
  • Ch. 5: “A Despicable Urge to Live” (Fighting around Changsha, Battle of Nomonhan, and the Chinese winter offensive of 1939)
  • Ch. 6: “Japan’s Prince of Self-Destruction” (Chongqing air raids, America and Japan’s reaction to Germany’s invasion of Western Europe, the Tripartite Pact, breaking the “Purple” code, and the Chinese Communist Party)
  • Ch. 7: “One Hundred Evils and Not a Single Good” (Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact and the commencement of U.S.-Japanese negotiations)
  • Ch. 8: “Leaping off the Veranda” (Operation Barbarossa, factionalism within the Japanese government, Lend-Lease to China and the U.S. oil embargo of Japan, the Atlantic Charter, and the Tojo cabinet)
  • Ch. 9: “Our Anxiety Is About China” (Deterioration of U.S.-Japan negotiations, November 1941)
  • Ch. 10: This Dispatch Is to Be Considered a War Warning” (Japanese plans for Pearl Harbor, U.S. defenses in Hawaii, and intelligence picture prior to the attack)
  • Ch. 11: “Air Raid, Pearl Harbor, This Is No Drill” (The attack on Pearl Harbor and the fallout, December 1941)
  • Ch. 12: “Issue in Doubt” (Japanese capture of Guam, Wake, and Hong Kong, the “Acadia” meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt, and strategic realities in China)
  • Ch. 13: “It Was Like Being Lost in Fog” (British defenses and the Japanese plans for the invasion of Malaya)
  • Ch. 14: “We Are Depending for Our Lives on Kindly but Slow-Witted Infants in Arms” (Japanese invasion of Malaya and the fall of Singapore, December 1941 – February 1942)
  • Ch. 15: “Men Would Follow Them, Suffer, and Be Glad About It” (Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies, Battle of the Java Sea, December 1941 – April 1942)
  • Ch. 16: “Only War Proves What Is Correct and What Is Wrong” (Philippine defenses, General MacArthur, and the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, December 1941 – February 1942)
  • Ch. 17: “Abandoned My 100,000 Soldiers in Foreign Jungles” (Japanese invasion of Burma, General Stilwell, December 1941 – May 1942)
  • Ch. 18: “We Are Not Barbarians” (Japanese-American Internment, Admirals King and Nimitz, the strategy of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Japanese seize Rabaul, initial U.S. carrier raids in the Pacific, Japan’s Indian Ocean raid, Indian independence movement, the Doolittle Raid, the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, January – May 1942)

The first half of the book covers the Second Sino-Japanese War up to the start of the Pacific War and occurs more or less chronologically. That said, the second half of the book (chapters 10 – 18) covers events that are more or less concurrent with each other since Japan launched multiple invasions simultaneously across the Pacific and SE Asia.


Frank’s overall argument for this trilogy is that we should re-evaluate the role of Asia in World War II. He affirms that the events of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific Theater triggered an immense geopolitical change that affected all of the peoples of Asia and the Pacific, and that its effects are still apparent into the 21st century.

Author’s Background

Richard Frank is a prominent historian of the Asia-Pacific War. He graduated from the University of Missouri in 1969, after which he served for four years in the U.S. Army as a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne, including a tour in Vietnam. Frank then attended Georgetown University Law Center and graduated in 1976. His previous works, Guadalcanal and Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire have been highly acclaimed.

Critical Observations


Richard Frank is probably my favorite Pacific War (err…Asia-Pacific War) historian. The best thing about any of Frank’s books is the research. Frank clearly does his homework as is indicated in the sheer amount of endnotes and bibliographic entries at the back of the book. While Frank’s books are secondary sources, any interested reader can easily use the endnotes and bibliography in his works to conduct further research. In fact, I far prefer Frank’s research and writing to any TV documentary or internet article out there. That’s how detailed and good his research and writing are. (Oh, you read the Wikipedia article? That’s cute! Now, try reading a real history book. Try Richard Frank.)

The second best thing about Frank’s work is the logic that is inherent in his narrative. Frank’s academic background as a lawyer certainly shows when it comes to his historical writing because he lays out his arguments based on his research and makes very logical conclusions. Whenever he makes an argument, it’s well-supported. While Frank’s analysis is not quite as in-depth as the likes of H.P. Willmott, they are far better structured and easier to follow.

Aside from those things, the book is filled with many interesting tidbits of information on many aspects of the various people and campaigns in the time period under discussion. Frank’s writing is detailed, yet very accessible to the layperson.


Unlike Frank’s other books, the focus on this one is far broader in scope; covering five years of warfare in a single volume (from 1937 – 1942). Yet, only about 230 pages cover the Second Sino-Japanese War, with the remainder of the book focusing on the first six months of the Pacific Theater. Since Frank is arguing that China’s (and more broadly Asia’s) role should be more heavily integrated into the narrative of WWII and that we should refer to the war in this half of the world as the “Asia-Pacific War” rather than just the Pacific War, you would think that more space would be dedicated to an examination of the war in China. However, in subsequent volumes of this trilogy, Frank may elaborate more on China’s/Asia’s role in the war.

I’m only somewhat familiar with the events of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the fighting in China. Frank, to his credit, does a pretty good job of providing a digestible narrative of that war and blending it into the larger Pacific War come 1941. However, it’s fairly clear that Frank is more knowledgeable about the latter conflict. Once the narrative moves into the Pacific Theater and the U.S. entry into the war, then Frank seems much more in his wheelhouse.

There have certainly been other more in-depth books written on the individual campaigns and theaters that comprised the Asia-Pacific War. For example, Edward Drea’s writing on the Imperial Japanese Army and its operations in China and elsewhere in the Pacific is second to none. Ian Toll has written an entire trilogy on the Pacific Theater. Samuel Eliot Morison is famous for his monumental multi-volume work on U.S. naval operations in the entirety of World War II. In this respect, Frank’s coverage of the topics can seem a bit cursory. However, if the reader wants a more detailed view of these individual battles and campaigns, then they’re encouraged to use the bibliography in Frank’s book to seek out the worthwhile sources he used.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

All in all this book is well worth the read. However, unlike Frank’s previous works which have a more focused topic, this book suffers from attempting to cover such a large number of topics in a single volume. Still, the research, writing, and arguments are true to Frank’s form and don’t disappoint. That said, I feel that this book is a bit weaker than Frank’s Guadalcanal or Downfall. Don’t let these criticisms dissuade you from reading this book, and I’m optimistic about the next volumes in the trilogy. No doubt Frank will continue with his high-quality writing.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (Great/highly recommended).

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s