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In the Highest Degree Tragic: The Sacrifice of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the East Indies during World War II, by Donald M. Kehn Jr.

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Potomac Books, 2017. Pp. xiv, 512. Illus., track charts, notes, biblio. $39.95. ISBN: 1612348203.

The Gallant Fight of the Asiatic Fleet

Kehn, the author of the excellent A Blue Sea of Blood, on the long obscure fate of the destroyer USS Edsall (DD 219), is the official historian of the USS Houston (CA 30) Survivors Association. In this new work, Kehn examines the heroic service and ultimate destruction of the Asiatic Fleet during the opening months of the Pacific War.

Drawing on both Japanese and American sources, Kehn opens with a short look at the origins of the war, talks a bit about policy and strategy, and looks at top level leadership, notably that of the able Vice-Admiral Thomas Hart and the egocentric Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He discusses last minute efforts to coordinate operations with the British and Dutch, tells us a lot about the ships, their crews and commanders, and then takes them to war.

Kehn tells of a truly tragic series of events. With no hope of reinforcement or resupply, the men of the Asiatic Fleet and their unfamiliar and equally ill-prepared allies, were forced to cope with the overwhelming power of the Imperial Navy, then the most powerful strike force in maritime history. The resulting series of actions – Force Z, Balikpapan, Makassar Strait, Badung Strait, Java Sea, Sunda Strait, and more – were mostly costly defeats against long odds, and the campaign ended in what was essentially a series of maritime massacres, as the Japanese fleet attempted to hunt down and destroy every possible escaping Allied vessel. This included civilian ships laden with refugees who died in the thousands. Kehn’s accounts of these actions are well written, detailed, and at times gripping. He makes effective use of period track charts to help explain how events unfolded.

In the Highest Degree Tragic, would have benefited from some maps of the geo-strategic setting of these events. It is not for the novice, as it requires considerable knowledge about naval technology, and much terminology and many abbreviations are not explained, but it is an important work for anyone seriously interested the opening phase of the Pacific War, naval operations, and the history of the U.S. Navy.


Note: In the Highest Degree Tragic, is also available in several e-editions.



Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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