The novel begins immediately after the initial waves of air attacks against Pearl Harbor. Two brilliant Japanese Young Turks in the Imperial Navy, Commander Minoru Genda and Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, remind Admiral Nagumo that the mission of strike force Kido Butai was threefold. The six carriers and two battleships of the force were to decimate the American battlewagons at Pearl, take out the two American aircraft carriers under the command of Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, and destroy Pearl's fuel storage tanks and maintenance facilities, thereby rendering the base useless. Because, as was the case in our world, the American carriers sailed in the Pacific during the attack, only the first of the three missions was accomplished. Allowing himself to be swayed by the arguments of his brilliant subordinates, Admiral Nagumo decides to launch an additional attack against the as-yet untouched fuel tanks. This mission succeeds, wiping out the fuel supplies for surviving U.S. warships and rendering the Hawaiian Islands very vulnerable.
After the oil tanks explode in flames, Admiral Yamamoto flies to Tokyo from his base in Hiroshima, pays a visit to Prime Minister Tojo, and argues for changing strategies and launching an invasion of the Hawaiian Islands. Tojo agrees, and Japanese troops wade ashore on Oahu. Given that the American ground forces are ill prepared, the Japanese overwhelm the U.S. military. Roosevelt, who has committed to a Germany-first policy, has no choice but to allow Hawaii to be taken. The plotting and character work here are very nice.
The occupation is, as one might expect given the way that Japanese soldiers actually did behave in places like Bataan, nasty and brutish. Fortunately for the Americans and Hawaiians, as the case turns out, it is also fairly short. Preparing to both pacify and annex Hawaii, the Japanese send a Gestapo-like secret police to the islands. The usual atrocities occur: the use of females as comfort women, beheadings, and rapes. As occurred in places like the Philippines, small groups of American soldiers evade capture at the formal cessation of hostilities and form guerilla groups harassing Japanese troops. Eventually, Yamamoto falls prey to over-confidence (and misleading intelligence), and he brings the entire fleet into Pearl, where the Americans surprise the Japanese.
One of the most interesting and entertaining features of the novel (as is so in most alternate history) involves characters who play roles slightly different than those they did in our own world. For example, in Conroy's novel, the pioneering aviator Jimmy Doolittle, who in the real world led a B-25 bombing raid on Tokyo from an aircraft carrier, now flies lead float plane in an attack against Japanese-occupied Pearl Harbor.
Equipment fiends will find a technological problem to their liking. In a very nice move, Conroy imports wholesale into 1942 from the real world the seemingly benign but incredibly important controversy of the Mark 14 torpedo. These torpedoes, designed during the inter-war years of shoestring R&D budgets, amazingly, had never been live fired because the warheads were too expensive to use. Instead, during test firings a piece of concrete sat in the tip of the torpedo—the "fish"—to simulate the weight of the explosives. Unfortunately, the concrete was lighter than the actual explosive charge used in combat situations. Thus, when skippers on patrol fired the Mark 14, the fish ran ten feet deeper than they thought it would, with the result that the torpedoes often glided under the target rather than into it and didn't explode. U.S. submarine commanders would a fire a fish and begin their count until the explosion. Not hearing any big bang, they would rise to periscope depth only to view what they had thought would be a destroyed warship closing on them and preparing to launch a depth-charge attack. Details like that of the Mark 14 torpedo problem make readers really trust Conroy's command of military history.
Unfortunately, although the novel is a great deal of fun, Conroy sutures up the fascinating historical rupture he creates almost as completely as Phillip Roth does a Lindbergh presidency in his The Plot Against America. While Conroy's characters don't wake up in their beds on the morning of December 8, 1941, rubbing their eyes and saying, "What a strange dream this all was," the author does manipulate events and actions on both sides so that this change in history ultimately has little effect on the overall direction of the war. Part of this refusal to let the historical rupture continue to blossom into a full scale fissure may have to do with Conroy's background as an expert in economic history. Indeed, many of the historical characters, including Yamamoto, mouth what by now is the common wisdom about the war in the Pacific: that the Japanese were doomed from the beginning because of U.S. industrial might.
But there's another mechanism, I think, that prevents Conroy's novel from creating a truly divergent historical timeline. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has become an Ur story in American popular history: a rags to riches tale. The poor innocent United States, caught napping in the Pacific, wakes up one fine Sunday morning before church to see white planes with meatballs on the wings laying waste to Battleship Row and Hickham Field. Appalled by the treachery of an enemy that doesn't look very much like itself, the United States rolls up its sleeves, produces aircraft carriers rather than just ice boxes and razor blades, and kicks Japan in the rump. The morality play ends four years later with Tokyo a smoldering ash heap and a new sun blossoming over Hiroshima. Justice has been served. Hard work and industry have triumphed. American battleships sit in Tokyo Bay and American fingers rest on the trigger of the most powerful weapon the world has ever seen. The U.S. bows to the audience and assumes its rightful place as the ruler of the world.
That's the standard popular line about U.S. involvement in the war in the Pacific, and this novel, although quite fun and meticulous in terms of its research, buys completely into this story. We're almost seventy years out now from that day that will live in infamy. Living memory of the attack mostly dwells in nursing homes. I think it's time to start taking a a more realistic look at the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war in the Pacific, especially in light of facts like the U.S. oil embargo leading up to the Japanese attack and European control of Asian natural resources such as oil and rubber in British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.
Perhaps it's also time for alternate history to start looking at the several very different mid century military conflicts around the world (collectively placed under the rubric of World War II) in terms of wider issues like European and U.S. colonialism in Asia, and the quest for markets for U.S. goods. How different, really, were the ideas of the Asia for the Asiatics and the Japanese Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere from parallel U.S. notions like Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine? From the Mexican War on, the U.S. worked hard to secure continental dominance. Once the frontier closed in the eighteen nineties, U.S. power put Manifest Destiny into its briefcase and took a steamer into the Pacific, looking for new lands to conquer, or in the case of Hawaii, to annex. From a distance of seventy years, Japanese claims to dominion over Asia and a desire to boot the U.S. and European powers out of the Pacific don't seem that much different from, say, American reaction to Soviet missiles in Cuba in the 1960s.
While Conroy's historical work and plotting in the novel are brilliant and very entertaining, 1942 thus stands as a missed chance to deliver a truly alternate history of the war in the Pacific. Conroy certainly does, though, present a very fun slug-fest morality play.
A science-fiction writer and critic, Douglas W. Texter currently teaches English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of St. Thomas. His work has appeared in venues such as Writers of the Future, Alien Skin, Foundation, and The New York Review of Science Fiction.