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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

Tour of Duty - Book Review

When I read history books, I like to peruse the bibliography to see what sources authors utilize. So when I recently read James Scott’s excellent history about the Battle for Manila, Rampage, I was surprised when I saw among his sources for this graphic account of a WWII battle an American novelist who I greatly admire, John Dos Passos. Dos Passos was in his day famous as a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His three novels that make up the trilogy U.S.A. are among the more ambitious American novels of the twentieth century. They broadly address themes of capitalism, socialism, finance, money, and class disparities in the United States during the 1920s and 30s. Dos Passos became friends with Hemingway as Ambulance Drivers in Italy during the First World War. Their friendship continued until the Spanish Civil War, when the two men took opposing views of the conflict. Upon reviewing the sources for Scott’s book Rampage, I saw that Dos Passos had written a book in 1946 based on his experiences as a war correspondent in the Philippines and then later in occupied Berlin and Vienna.


The product of his stint overseas is the fine journalistic work, Tour of Duty. Dos Passos is known for his fiction, which at times can be hard to read due to the audacity and boldness of his unorthodox style. Although I had never read any of his non-fiction work, I had a hard time putting down Tour of Duty. Dos Passos documents his travels across the Pacific from Hawai’i to the newly conquered island territories, which had become quiet rear-areas. There he has conversations with supply and logistic officers, who often interrupted their professions mid-career to aid the gargantuan effort to supply and succor U.S. Army and Navy forces fighting to achieve victory against Japan. You can envision the short, stocky, balding Dos Passos, then fifty years old, sitting and chatting amiably with the men who were as instrumental in the ultimate victory in the Pacific as MacArthur, Nimitz, and the generals and admirals who served under them. I greatly appreciated this relatively unexplored aspect of the war. As General Omar Bradley is alleged to have once said, “Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics.” The war in the Pacific involved moving prodigious amounts of material as many as ten thousand miles to supply American forces (who were also at the time fighting a war against Nazi Germany in Europe). The quantities of matériel involved boggles the mind. Dos Passos points out that one thousand young men will go through three tons of food a day. Food, fuel, and weapons are only part of the supply problems. Logistics involve “medical stores, clothes, repairs, servicing of radar and radio equipment, ammunition, sundris like toothpaste and toiletpaper, moving-pictures film…” In Ulithi Atoll, the main anchorage for the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific, more than 600 ships were moored on any given day.


The best-written and most interesting section of the book is Dos Passos’ tale of the destruction of Manila. As Scott detailed in his book Rampage, the wanton crimes of the Japanese forces in the old walled city almost belie description. One cannot but be impressed by the forbearance and courage of the Filipinos who patiently awaited their liberation from the hated Japanese. Filipino guerilla activities are another understated aspect of the war that Dos Passos addresses. After Japan’s surrender Dos Passos leaves the Pacific to travel to the capital cities of defeated Germany and Austria. There he interviews a number of American officials—often in their twenties and thirties—responsible for governing the occupied enemy territories. Discussions about the Soviet question stand out foremost. Dos Passos elegantly describes the attitudes of young Army soldiers, homesick and war-weary, overwhelmed by the devilish problems of administration and politics, which they barely understand.


Dos Passos’ descriptions of the vast Pacific anchorages, the shattered landscapes, the destroyed cities, and the war-fatigued people were a revelation for me. I am so glad that Scott’s brilliant work Rampage, drew my attention to this overlooked work of John Dos Passos.

Ulithi Atoll 1945



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