Monday, October 10, 2011

‘The U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour’

Review by Bill Doughty
The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour is James D. Hornfischer’s powerful tribute to surface warriors and naval aviators and one of the very best books in the Navy’s Professional Reading Program.
Through exceptional prose the book explores the WWII Battle off Samara -- part of the Invasion of Leyte, Philippine Islands, Oct. 17-25, 1944.  It’s a good read for the Navy’s Birthday this week (Oct. 13).  
In The Last Stand Hornfischer explores:
  • The bravery and sacrifice of American Sailors
  • The hubris of Adm. Halsey
  • The strategic mistakes of Imperial Japan
  • The power of creative, instinctive free-thinking, even in the heat of battle
The author shows a McCullough-like historian’s skill in revealing characters, introducing us to heroes like leaders Lt. Cmdr. Robert W. Copeland, CO of USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413); Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, the Cherokee American CO of USS Johnston (DD-557); pioneer of aviation Rear Adm. Clifton A.F. “Ziggy” Sprague, commander of Escort Carrier Group Task Unit 77.4.3 “Taffy 3”; and dozens of others.
Hornfischer introduces us to real sailors like Chief Radioman Tullio Serafini and Gunner’s Mate Paul Carr and describes the horrors of the sea battles.  And, in a compelling tribute, he publicizes the names of the Sailors of Task Unit 77.4.3 killed in the battles, with hundreds of names listed from USS Heermann (DD-532),  USS Hoel (DD-533), USS Johnston, USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS St. Lo (CVE-63), USS Gambier Bay (CVE-63), other ships and various composite squadrons.
In The Last Stand the surface Navy Sailors seem to breathe again.  The ships -- from the Tin Can “Kaiser coffins” to the giant Japanese battleships bristling with “armor and steel” -- sail again.  The reckless, fearless American pilots who changed the balance of the battle through innovation and bold action fly again.
Some excerpts:
(A description of the Imperial Japanese high command’s plan) “The Sho-1 plan was massive in scale, Byzantine in complexity, and exacting in its requirement that four fleets separated by thousands of miles of ocean time their movements with near-impossible precision.  From the far-flung imperial anchorages in Japan’s Inland Sea, from Borneo in Malaysia, and from Singapore’s Lingga Roads, the fleets would sortie to the attack.”
(At the moment of discovery of the enemy fleet by naval aviator Ens. William C. Brooks and turret gunner Joe Downs) “Looking down as the armada filed by below him, Brooks made out the tall pagoda towers of Japanese battleships and cruisers.  The doubt evaporated into a stunning realization: they are Japanese.”
(On the realities of warfare at sea) “The shells’ screeching impacts scrapped the innards of the Kalinin Bay right before the crew’s horrified eyes.  Armor-piercing shells penetrated the thin hull and flight deck without exploding, turning the ship into an oversized colander.  Shells hitting below the waterline let torrents of ocean water rush in.”
(After the battle) “At one point Copeland counted as many as fifty shark fins cutting the surface near him.  Thanks to the oil that bathed the survivors in his group, these predators were all swim and no bite.  But because no one could be too confident of that, the men feared the worst whenever a fin moved closer and then disappeared under water.”
(The context) “The three-day series of melees around the Philippines in October 1944 was by multiple measures the most sprawling, spectacular, and horrible naval battle in history.  If it was not as decisive, in the word’s purest sense, as the victory at Midway, it was the greatest naval battle ever fought for the distances it spanned, for the tonnage of ships sunk, for the duration of the duels between surface ships,and for the terrible losses of human life...”
Adm. William "Bull" Halsey
Hornfischer focuses on the desperate requests for back-up support from U.S. Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Thomas C. Kinkaid and how Adm. Halsey’s and Gen. MacArthur’s personalities influenced the placement of forces.  
Halsey, ever on offense, was chasing a Japanese fleet decoy with his Task Force 34, leaving San Bernardino Strait unguarded.
MacArthur had insisted all Third Fleet and Seventh Fleet messages be routed through his headquarters, which ultimately delayed the Seventh Fleet requests to Halsey for help.
Adm. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, saw the delay and intervened with a message that included a possible historical literary reference from Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  The explanation, context and Halsey’s strong negative reaction to receiving Nimitz’s message is just another reason to pick up this great book.

Two more reads to add to the (growing) to-read list: Hornfischer’s Ship of Ghosts and Neptunes Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal.
The Clifton A. F. Sprague memorial, near USS Midway Museum, San Diego.

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