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Centreville author pens ‘definitive’ book on forgotten battles

by Gregg MacDonald

Staff Writer

Although much has been written about World War II, historian and author Alan Rems of Centreville says there has not yet been a definitive book on the fighting in the South Pacific…until now.

Rems, 77, a retired accountant and WWII history buff, has just penned his first book: South Pacific Cauldron; World War II’s Great Forgotten Battlegrounds. It was published this month by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Md.

“Many people are familiar with Guadalcanal, but not many know of important historical battles that took place in places like New Britain, New Guinea, New Georgia and the Solomon Islands,” he said.

“My book is the first complete history embracing all land, sea and air operations in this critically important sector of the oceanic conflict.”

At 242 pages, South Pacific Cauldron is authoritative but not dry or overly long, and written in a readable narrative style. Rems’ accounts breathe life into the major figures of WWII’s South Pacific campaigns, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, and Australian General Thomas Blamey.

“The latter seemed very bibulous and indelicate,” Rems said. “If there is a villain in my book, it is him. He had a reputation for heavy drinking and womanizing. MacArthur called Blamey ‘a sensual, slothful and doubtful character’ but who would nonetheless ‘shine like a powerlight in an emergency.’”

Rems writes that towards the end of the South Pacific conflict, Blamey--the Australian commander of allied land forces--abandoned the American policy of simply containing defeated Japanese forces and instead set out to pursue and destroy as many Japanese as possible. “The displaced Japanese at that point knew they were beaten and were just trying to stay alive until the end of the war,” Rems said. “But Blamey went after them unrelentingly. And although he disagreed with Blamey’s aggressive policy, MacArthur--fully absorbed in the Philippines and with little interest in areas no longer of military importance--declined to intervene.”

Ed Conner, 91, of McLean, knows a little about MacArthur and fighting in the South Pacific during WWII.

He was there.

Conner enlisted in the U.S. Air Corps.--the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force--in 1940 at age 18.

“I couldn’t be a pilot because I was colorblind,” he said. “But I became a radio gunner.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II a year later, Conner was shipped out to the Pacific on a 26-day boat ride that eventually landed in Brisbane, Australia. “Pearl Harbor had just happened, and I spent that Christmas at sea,” he remembers.

Conner was eventually dispatched to New Guinea, where he was awarded the Silver Star as part of the 13th Bomb Squadron of the U.S. Air Corps. Overall, he flew a total of 67 combat missions against the Japanese from New Guinea, including a bombing mission during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in 1942, for which he received an Air Medal.

“One of the weaknesses MacArthur had was that he did not allow any foreign officers on his staff,” Conner said. “That was true even though his boss [Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General George Marshall] wanted him to. He also controlled the media, and if a reporter wrote the wrong thing, MacArthur would have him ejected from whatever country they were in. ”

On May 10, 1942, Conner was aboard a B-25 bomber high above the New Guinea jungle approaching a Japanese target when the aircraft’s engines both went out.

He says the pilots were eventually able to restart them, but the mission had been compromised and the plane had dropped so much in altitude that the crew was unsure if it could cross back over a large mountain range to safety without giving away its position. “After discussing the problem, the crew decided not to bail out,” he said. “The New Guinea jungle was so dense that you might get hung up in trees and never make it to the ground. Even if you did, that jungle was full of cannibal tribes and you could end up in someone’s soup that night.”

Conner said the crew jettisoned everything it could, including ammunition, to lighten the plane as it then attempted to cross over the Owen Stanley mountains.

“We made it across but we had been followed, and we were attacked by two Japanese Zeros as we tried to land. I was able to shoot one down and drive off the other. For this I was awarded the Silver Star.”

Rems says that it is men like Conner and their stories that inspired him to write his book.

“I have always had an interest in WWII but there were many gaps in my knowledge of the South Pacific,” he said. “I think that many who feel they have a good historical knowledge of WWII will recognize their own knowledge gap after reading my book.”

Rems will be holding a book signing and discussion at the Fairfax Barnes & Noble, 12193 Fairlakes Promenade Drive, on Saturday, May 24, starting at 1 p.m.