Forty-one years after Pearl Harbor; A new skirmish over Pacific war saga

A new ''historian'' has entered upon the scene of the war in the Pacific. His first book, ''At Dawn We Slept,'' published on the 40th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, was a huge best seller. His second, ''Miracle at Midway,'' has now appeared, and more are promised, perhaps many more.

The circumstances surrounding these books are so extraordinary that, as a historian of World War II, I am compelled to raise a warning flag. Something strange is afoot, and the reading public should know about it.

To begin with, the putative author of these works, Gordon W. Prange (pronounced Prang), is dead. He left us in May 1980. So these books are not Prange's work, but, rather, the product of a literary industry that has emerged. The output of this industry, based in widely varying degree upon Prange's research, raises questions not only about publishing ethics but about the ethics of the history profession.

Let me tell what I know about this astonishing story. Along the way I will try to evaluate the worth of the end product.

When I met Prange in 1949, he was one of five senior editors under Maj. Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, the intelligence chief in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Tokyo headquarters. Working on MacArthur's own ''war history,'' ''Reports of General MacArthur,'' they had ready access to every Japanese officer who had served.

This access coupled nicely with Prange's personal interest in the Japanese story of the Pearl Harbor attack. In MacArthur's history, that attack is dismissed in a mere 20 pages (since he was far away in the Philippines at the time), but Prange saw a unique opportunity to do a definitive history. So he set about to gather every possible scrap of Japanese information about the attack.

Prange's enthusiasm for publishing this work can be understood when one realizes that by 1947 his total published works, according to The National Union Catalog, consisted of an editing of Hitler's speeches and the writing of a 32 -page pamphlet.

During official encounters with the Japanese he made note of those best informed about the Pearl attack. He was meticulous, however, about conducting his personal interviews only on his own time. So he invited them home, curried their favor with gifts of whiskey and chocolates (per Prof. Carl Bode, a Prange colleague), and gathered information.

In this extracurricular research he worked with the thoroughness of his Germanic ancestors, spending every spare moment in his pursuit. The oft-repeated interviews with the same people suggest that the research lacked method, but there was no lack of secrecy about it. Willoughby, his martinet of a boss, would never have countenanced such moonlighting, so the project had to be kept strictly on the QT.

Of his incredibly numerous interviews during four years in Japan (the first cited interview in ''At Dawn We Slept'' is in March 1947), Prange acknowledged 40 sessions each with Admiral Tomioka (13 cited) and Captain Watanabe (15 cited) , 50 sessions with Mitsuo Fuchida (22 cited), and 72 (!) with Minoru Genda (52 cited).

Prange wanted the book to be published on the attack's 10th anniversary. By early 1950, with less than two years to go, however, he realized that he couldn't possibly get it written in time. So he prevailed upon a friend and fellow editor, who now wishes to remain anonymous, to write the story using Prange's voluminous collection of data. This friend, after nearly four years on the MacArthur history, had announced his decision to return to Washington, D.C. Prange had observed his considerable talents and knew they were just what he needed.

Prange's pitch was persuasive: The material was fresh, new, unique; the story was untold; 10th-anniversary timing was propitious; a best seller was inevitable; and the friend would share royalties. The ''carrot'' was irresistible, and the friend returned to Washington to undertake, as Prange requested, to write up the major elements of the Japanese story: planning, war games, training, outward passage, the attack, second-attack consideration, return passage.

He pored through the mountainous data Prange had shipped to his stateside repository, the University of Maryland, and began to arrange it in manageable form. There were myriad inconsistencies in the interview materials, and many could be resolved only by transpacific correspondence with Prange, in Tokyo, where he still had the Japanese available for needed resolution.

It was a prodigious task, but when Prange returned home in mid-1951, his friend handed him the completed assignment in several hundred typewritten pages. Well knowing Prange's dilatory proclivities, the friend urged prompt action toward timely publication of their new, revealing, still untold story.

The Introduction to the new book confesses that ''readers looking for sensational revelations will not find them.'' Nor will they find anything of substance that is new. They will, however, find misinterpretation and errors far beyond what a buyer has a right to expect for $19.95.

Whatever writing skill Prange and his original collaborator imparted to ''At Dawn We Slept'' is totally lacking here. There are citations of just nine Japanese Prange interviewed and of various other notes and documents from his files, perhaps justifying his name on the title page, but the pedestrian writing and apparent lack of understanding of the subject are painfully those of the coauthors. Their ''stretching'' of matters to include Prange is most apparent in the citing of his 1964 and 1967 Fuchida interviews for information covered completely in Fuchida's book, published in 1955.

They try to emulate Prange's picturesque personal profiles, mostly of people he knew, in the first book. Here the results range from silly to outrageous:

Yamamoto's face ''might have been the face of one of the great Elizabeth's sea captains - sailor and poet, buccaneer and politician, patriot and man of affairs.''

Ugaki: ''His slightly bald head teemed with temperament and ideas.''

Yamaguchi: ''Inside his sausage-shaped body with its face of an amiable bloodhound burned a volcano of impatience and ambition.''

''Kuroshima . . . continued to look like an El Greco monk during Lent.''

The book is padded with a three-page list of Key Personnel and a nine-page Chronology. An otherwise useful Abbreviations list curiously includes ''pcg,'' defined ''proceeding.'' This mysterious listing proves to be a garble from a ship's log quoted on Page 111, ''on course 154 true and pgc,'' where the letters stand for ''per gyro compass.''

Elsewhere the coauthors reveal a basic lack of familiarity with their subject. Some examples will give the idea:Safford, named as Rochefort's Oahu predecessor, never served there.

At Lexington's sinking ''. . . crewmen dusted their equipment and filed papers adrift on their desks . . .'' appears to be meant as a paraphrase of Morison's ''. . . radiomen dusted off their instruments and yeomen tidied up their files before securing.''

With all the Japanese expertise available to Prange, the new book botches many names; of warships alone Asashio, Myoko, Hyuga, Nowaki, and even Admiral Togo's famous flagship Mikasa are misspelled.

An attempt to compare battleships in size is rendered meaningless by gross mistakes in their tonnage.The coauthors preciously insert ''(sic)'' to signal the slightest error in quotations from American sources, yet they pass without comment gaffes in Japanese quotations such as:

''Easy is an active operation in which the motive power may be secured. It strikes home deeply that a passive operation should not be made.''

''. . . bombs hit . . . with the result that the ship became to be stopped. . . .

On No. 2 raft boarded the paymaster.'' (The Fuchida and Lord books are cited, but this appears in neither.)

Japanese diary quotations are often used as if they were mid-battle or immediate post-battle writings, but many are ex post facto by days and even weeks. They are also patently self-serving.

Even using good sources Prange's coauthors have produced a poor result, because they don't know the terrain. When Morison learned from later information that his first conclusion was wrong, he corrected it in further printings. ''Miracle at Midway'' contains a number of such errors for other feckless writers to perpetuate.In the Preface the coauthors say ''. . . it is possible that he (Prange) would not have considered his Midway manuscript ready for publication.'' Here, at least, Goldstein and Dillon are undoubtedly right.

What do these books bode for other ''Prange books''?''At Dawn We Slept'' was ''Copyright (c) 1981 by Anne R. Prange''; ''

Miracle at Midway,'' ''Copyright (c) 1982 Prange Enterprises, Inc.'' Books with Prange's name are becoming big business. The coauthors say the next will be about Victor Sorge, then a biography of Mitsuo Fuchida. There is even a possibility for a four-volume Pearl Harbor work, encompassing all Prange's gleanings omitted from the first book. Such fecundity would have surprised no one more than Prange himself, who in 37 years was never able to send a completed book to the publisher.

As a potential reader of future books I hope the coauthors willhave something original to offer so that they need not cover the same ground as ''other fine works'' in those areas, as they did with ''Miracle at Midway.'' I also hope that they and their editors look on future manuscripts with more a critical and discerning eye; or barring that, have the manuscripts vetted by someone who knows the subject matter firsthand.

Postlude: It is interesting to note in ''Miracle at Midway'' how the words ''miracle'' and ''miraculous'' are liberally sprinkled through the text, as if to substantiate the ''exactly factual'' title. To buyers who desire a recent ''miracle'' book I recommend instead Walter Lord's ''The Miracle of Dunkirk,'' a superb story, superbly researched, by a superb storywriter.

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