Book Review: The Color of War: How One Battle Broke Japan and the Other Changed America by James Campbell

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

The Color of War is one of those strange history books that seems both bipolar and unified at the same time.   It is the story of the invasion of Saipan and the Port Chicago naval disaster told mostly convergently.   At first the somewhat bi-polar nature of the way the story was told was off-putting but the more I read the book the more the method made sense.   The two different but temporally convergent narratives reinforce the separation of black and white service members during World War II.   This is not immediately apparent, but true nonetheless.   The book is 362 pages with almost 100 pages of notes and a 18 page bibliography.

The story of the invasion of Saipan is told from the view of several marines the author interviewed personally and whose memoirs were made available to him.   It easily transmits the variables and uncertainty of the war in the pacific to the reader.   Where the author makes an impact is his description of race relations and the conditions under which black sailors worked at Port Chicago.   Those of us who grew up after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have only a vague idea at best of what life was like for black Americans prior to then and even that view is skewed.   The author does an excellent job of describing that life.   He does an even better job of describing how select individuals reacted to that situation.   The wonder is not that blacks put up with such treatment but with what dignity they endured it.   The author does an outstanding job of describing the situation faced by both white and black marines in Saipan but also that faced by black sailors forced to endure the intolerable at Port Chicago.

My only complaint about the book is that by trying to tell two stories at once it seems they both are somewhat neglected.   I cannot point to anything concrete, but I was left with the impression that there was more to both stories than the author had room to say.   Both narratives are worthy of book-length treatment individually and I would love to see that.   that being said, The way the stories are told is enlightening and it’s somewhat original organization will probably lead to the story of Port Chicago reaching a wider audience than if it had been published as a stand alone work.   One thing that is clear from this book is that the stories of Black soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in WWII is both interesting and compelling and needs to be told now before the people that experienced pass away and we lose their stories forever.

This is an excellent book that deserves to be on many historians bookshelves.   It tells an important story of WWII in a sensitive and compelling manner.   I highly recommend this book.