Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Operation Storm

Operation Storm by John J. Geoghegan
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it was amazing

John Geoghegan's Operation Storm: Japan's Top Secret Submarines and Its Plan to Change the Course of World War II provides a solid and fascinating account of Imperial Japan's bold though ultimately doomed attempt to bomb either the mainland United States or the Panama Canal--planners began with the former, then shifted to the latter--with aircraft carried to striking distance by huge submarines. Many interested in the Second World War will have heard of this scheme, though often only through a one- or two-line mention in a text focusing on, say, submarines or aircraft. Here, however, Geoghegan draws on previous book-length works, articles, and, perhaps most interestingly, his own interviews with surviving veterans on both sides of the final missions, to tell the whole story.

Some students of World War II will be familiar with the attempted Japanese firebombing of the great forests of the American Northwest. Although one of these jetstream-borne balloons did end up killing a family of picnickers, this naturally was hushed up at the time. What was not hushed up--and what, indeed, was front-page news, though now it often is forgotten--is that the Japanese also shelled the West Coast via submarine deck gun, and even dropped bombs from an airplane ferried aboard a sub. Like the Doolittle Raid, these attacks were designed to show that a seemingly distant enemy could touch not just the outposts of empire but the homeland itself; they also hoped to force the United States to spend naval resources defending itself on the West Coast rather than sending those ships and men across the Pacific into the main fight.

Although Geoghegan notes that the U.S. Navy indeed did end up convoying merchant ships in America's backyard against the threat of Japanese submarine attack, Japan's big plans focused on big subs, behemoths much larger than the submarines of other navies and capable of sailing around the world without refueling...and each carrying in a watertight hangar three catapult-launched floatplanes to drop bombs. The book chronicles not only the designing and building of the subs--whose fate in the Japanese naval bureaucracy at first was by no means certain--but also the production and testing of the specialized aircraft, which grew harder and harder to manufacture as American B-29 raids struck ever more devastatingly when Japan's defense perimeter collapsed.

Geoghegan explores the personalities of the man who captained the last of these boats and his ruthless unit commander, who also was aboard for the final mission, as well as the contrasting styles of the outgoing and incoming captains of the American submarine that finally captured the strange craft. We will hear details from surviving crew members from the big Japanese boats, pilots who saw their planned missions eventually turned into suicide attacks, and members of the American crew that chased and finally boarded the warship of an enemy that officially already had surrendered just days earlier.

Could these underwater aircraft carriers really have "Change[d] the Course of World War II," as Geoghegan's title so splashily suggests? No, of course not. By the time the project got rolling, the overwhelming might of a continent-wide nation already had pushed back far too deeply against a Japanese military that at first had seemed unstoppable; the discussion makes this clear from fairly early on.

Another point that should be in the back of the reader's mind is, even supposing an aerial attack to have knocked the Panama Canal out of commission, whether these missions even could have had slowed the final defeat of the Japanese Empire to any worthwhile extent. Surely, after all, the U.S. already had plenty of military assets in the Pacific, either already closing in on the Home Islands or on the way from the States. And while men and materiel freed up from the surrender of Germany would go faster through the Canal than around South America or through the Indian Ocean, they were going to get there eventually--presuming, that is, the pre-nuclear expectation of "Golden Gate in '48"--so whether Operation Olympic began in this month or that in 1946 really would have made no difference in the end. Geoghegan admits this toward the end of the book, of course, but not until after a lot of previous breath-holding that the educated reader should find a bit misplaced or overblown.

Finally, while the writing here is generally good, and the single-line oh-so dramatic cliffhangers at the end of each chapter can be tolerated even when they get to be too much, one mechanical gaffe is more than a tad annoying: the failure to use a comma when though is used like however. When we say something like "This was important, though," that construction simply does require a comma. Period. I cannot fathom how the editors at Crown allowed the lack--maybe the prices on commas were too high that year?

Despite these couple of shortcomings, though, John's Geoghegan's Operation Storm is an able and fascinating revelation of a piece of World War II history that definitely deserves telling.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 1, 2017 – Finished Reading
July 3, 2017 – Shelved

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