Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester
Subtitled : A Memoir of the Pacific War
Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Corp, NY, first published 1979. My ed. 1987. Paperback, 450 pages.
Manchester was a celebrated historian, who wrote notable books on the Kennedy’s and MacArthur (American Caesar) amongst others. This work is his reflections on his service in the Marine Corps and in particular, the battle on Okinawa. It is also a selected history of the key battles the US fought in the Pacific theatre and the author’s reactions to these places when he visited them over 30 years later.
This is my second reading of this book, the first was over 20 years ago, so my comments reflect both my initial awe but also that of a now middle aged ‘veteran’ of over a 100 other memoirs of WW2. From either viewpoint, it can readily be said that Manchester can certainly write! I often read the first page to students to illustrate just how the written word can knock your socks off! His descriptions are vivid and powerful. He is not shy of writing explicitly, including occasionally about sex – though not in the way you might expect and in terms of battle, there is some searing stuff. In both cases there are some shocks, so this is absolutely not a children’s book.
The memoir is triggered by Manchester’s recurring war nightmare, to the extent that he returns to the various battlefields to confront his experiences. He gives the history of these battles and intersperses his own combat experiences where he feels they appropriately fit. In some respects it is at times almost a travel-log, with observations of the people and practices he encounters but the war is by far the main theme and these are mentioned more to contrast the modern world with the horror that occurred a few decades before. So it is not like Eugene Sledge’s account where bitter combat features virtually every page. Aside from the last 50 pages or so, Manchester doles out his own fights sparingly.
This leads us to what I guess is the controversy of this book. Despite his visits to a dozen battlefields and the implication he was in action on several, he actually only fought on one – Okinawa. He was a Sgt in the 2/29 Marines of the 6th Marine Division and he spent over 2 months in that maelstrom that shredded units into fragments (he spells out what this means too). However, when he clarifies this it comes as a shock and I was on the lookout in my second reading for exactly what he wrote on this. Certainly there are qualifiers, he says that he came to Guadalcanal after the great battle. Yet he also writes about being unable to find his old foxhole on one key battlefield and earlier that “most of the 1st Marine Division had sailed for Guadalcanal from …(various ports named) but our port of embarkation would be Dago” (San Diego). He also talks about wearing his old ‘raider’ hat. So it can easily be read that he took part himself, rather than trained there much later when the 6th was being formed. Some readers have described this as being deceptive (and I can see the argument for this) or worse. Kenneth Estes, a 24 year post-war Marine who has written many books on Marine topics, calls it a ‘curious mixed fiction and autobiography (intro to ‘Tanks on the Beaches’). I’m not sure exactly what to make of it all but I distinctly remember being surprised and disappointed at the admission first time round. Manchester defends himself and his associated use of the collective ‘we’ and though I can see it this time as an arguably legitimate structural technique, it is rather sly and does undo some of what came before.
My overall impression of this book is very favourable though. The author’s early life, in awe of his First World War veteran father and of society of the time is fascinating. He makes the occasional mistake (writing that Japanese knee mortars were actually fired from the knee for instance), has some strong views (eg. on the 27th Division) and strongly admires MacArthur the general, if not the man. Yet, when he turns his pen to writing of combat, in all its viscerality, he is supreme. So a powerful, wide-ranging book, with some exceptional passages and I’ll let each reader decide regarding the denouement. 4.5 stars