Book Review: Goodbye, Darkness by William Manchester

Goodbye, Darkness
by William Manchester
Copyright 1979
Little, Brown and Company
394 pages

Rating: 7.5/10 (This one is very difficult to rate, for reasons that I explain below).

Summary: In 1978, thirty-three years had passed since William Manchester’s service as a World War II Marine. But he was still haunted by the experience. So, he returned to the old battlefields to come to peace with the past. His story is terrific – but he does not tell his readers one key piece of information until the very end.

Review: In Goodbye, Darkness, William Manchester – a U.S. Marine during World War II – recounts an incredible scene from the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943. The U.S. Marines were attempting an amphibious landing on the tiny atoll and were under murderous fire from Japanese troops. Manchester was a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in charge of several Marines. As Marines died around them, Manchester and his comrades found shelter behind a seawall, where they could wait while another group of Marines attempted to “turn the flank” of the Japanese on the beach.

Enter Tubby Morris, an inexperienced second lieutenant. Previously, Morris and Manchester had been in officer candidate school together. Manchester washed out and was sent to the South Pacific while Morris graduated and became an officer.

Morris insists that Manchester and his comrades launch a suicidal frontal assault on the beach. As the group’s leader and a combat veteran, Manchester stands up to Morris and tries to talk him out of the assault. He tells Morris that the Marines will not follow Morris on the assault. Morris then attempts to destroy Manchester in front of the other Marines by saying that Manchester didn’t become an officer because the instructors at officer candidate school knew that he “lacked balls” and that he masturbated in his bunk every night. After that, Morris insists that he will lead the Marines over the seawall and onto the beach.

The scene in fantastic – the above description doesn’t do it justice. The reader feels for Manchester as he gets the humiliating “dressing down” and tension builds as Morris prepares to climb over the seawall.

Even better is the fact that Goodbye, Darkness has many other great scenes as well.

There is just one problem. …

The Author’s Note

… None of it actually happened.

After the reader goes through 394 pages of Manchester’s Marine exploits, there is an “Author’s Note” after the end of the story. In the middle of the Author’s Note, almost in passing, Manchester writes that his combat experience in the Marines was limited to Okinawa. But the text describes Manchester’s participation in almost all of the Marines’ major engagements starting with Guadalcanal.

The reader feels swindled. Had Manchester admitted up front that Goodbye, Darkness was “faction” – partly truth and partly fiction – the reader would feel more forgiving. Instead, the disclaimer is tucked into a section that most people probably don’t even bother to read.

What’s Left

Taken on its own merits, Goodbye, Darkness is a pretty good book. It’s consistently entertaining and gives you respect for what the Marines suffered in World War II.

Manchester successfully holds several threads together: the first is what happened in the battles during World War II. The second is what he finds when he revisits the old battlefields. (Predictably, everything is different). The third is his attempt to understand his experience – and the ways that his views have evolved since the end of the war.

The prose is terrific – Manchester can tell a story. He “brings alive” people and places with vivid detail; the reader feels that he or she is experiencing things alongside Manchester. Readers who are primarily interested in the military minutiae of the Pacific campaign may not like Manchester’s style, but those who want an entertaining account of World War II – and what it meant to one Marine – will be entertained.

Summary

As noted, Manchester served at Okinawa – one of the fiercest battles in World War II. By any measure, he did his part for the Allies. His decision to invent a more-heroic past – and disclose it to readers only in his footnotes – is maddening and detracts from Goodbye, Darkness.

Taken on its own merits, Goodbye, Darkness is an entertaining, semi-true account of World War II’s Pacific theater.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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