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The sea battle that helped bring about the end of WWII

Admiral William Halsey erred at Leyte Gulf. Admiral William Halsey erred at Leyte Gulf. (US NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER)

Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945, By Evan Thomas, Simon & Schuster, illustrated, 415 pp., $27

With thousands of World War II veterans -- the Greatest Generation, perhaps, but not the greatest practitioners of the oral tradition of storytelling -- dying every year, the task of assuring that the great conflict of 1939-45 is not forgotten is increasingly being left to a younger generation. This is especially so about a battle that has been all but forgotten.

The subject of "Sea of Thunder," Evan Thomas's panoramic story about war at sea, is the Battle of Leyte Gulf , in October 1944 . It has almost vanished from consciousness, disappearing behind mists of battle smoke and time. But this was a monstrous conflict, perhaps the very last of its kind, a struggle that was, in Thomas's apt phrase, "confused, tragic, deadly, and heroic." This four-day battle claimed 13,000 men, seven aircraft carriers, three battleships, 10 cruisers, 11 destroyers, and the reputation of one of the leading personalities of World War II, Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey .

This is a story that reminds us, at the distance of nearly two-thirds of a century, of both the brutality and the intimacy of naval war, of the stakes big men engage in when they command big ships, of the nightmare of combat at sea, and of the strange stew of bravery and terror that takes over men who go down to the sea in ships.

At the heart of Thomas's story are four naval commanders, none well known today, except perhaps for Admiral Halsey, dimly recollected as a figure from naval history and from a Paul and Linda McCartney song . It was Halsey's error -- heading north during the battle and inexplicably leaving the San Bernardino Strait , a vital sea passageway, unguarded -- that imperiled American sailors and fortunes.

There was also Commander Ernest Evans , a Cherokee who made that unlikely leap from the National Guard to the Naval Academy. He was a fiercely combative warrior against Japanese battleships, and his ship, Johnston, was destroyed at sea and its survivors endured an ocean ordeal of sharks and privation before 141 of them were pulled from the bloody waters. There was Admiral Takeo Kurita , who earlier had ordered Japanese sailors to cease firing a 25mm machine gun at Americans floating in the sea, who turned his ships away from a hopeless battle: "certain death and destruction in Leyte Gulf," as Thomas puts it. And there was Admiral Matome Ugaki , a war skeptic who was the commander of the kamikazes, whose work has lived on in myth if not in memory.

But the heroes of this volume are the men they led, and in an odd way, the ships they commanded. Together they endured a sea drama unlike any of our time, perhaps of any time. In the hands of Thomas, a leading Newsweek writer, this drama is deftly retrieved from the past:

"Inattention, flawed assumptions, long and twisted or broken chains of command are the norm, not the exception, throughout the history of warfare," he writes. "So are fatigue, distraction, emotional and physical overload. So, too, fear, vainglory, error. But the gods of war needed to be particularly fickle, not to mention heartless, to arrange the collision that was about to occur on the morning of October 25, 1944, the last and most destructive day in the long history of fleets fighting at sea."

And yet this is not a Patrick O'Brien sea odyssey dressed up in modern, or at least 20th-century, sailors' garb. Thomas puts the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and the wider war in the Pacific, in context -- he calls this "a cultural misunderstanding on an epic scale." "The Japanese did not think that the Americans had the stamina required for long stretches of submarine duty, so they neglected antisubmarine warfare -- with the result that American submarines were able to cut the vital supply lines between Japan and her oil-rich southern colonies," Thomas writes. "Similarly, the Japanese were lax about changing their communication codes, in part because they thought that the Americans were not smart enough to break them."

This was the end of an era, as superlatives (here's one: the biggest naval battle ever fought) sometimes are. It was, more to the point, the end of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and ultimately, as Churchill, referring to the other theater of the war, would say, the beginning of the end of the imperial Japanese war effort.

Halsey had a crude command painted on a large billboard at Tulagi, in the Solomon Islands, urging his men to kill as many of the enemy as possible. Leyte Gulf killed Japanese -- almost 11,000 of them. It ended their lives and it helped to end the war. It is a battle -- and a struggle among seamen and their commanders -- that should not be forgotten. Evan Thomas, too young for World War II, has done his duty.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe's Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the surname of novelist Patrick O'Brian was misspelled in a review of Evan Thomas's "Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945" in the May 2 Living/Arts section.)