Sunday, October 25, 2015

Japan For Kennedy – 'PT 109'

Review by Bill Doughty

Naval officer Lt. John Fitzergald Kennedy became president of the United States in large part because of his heroism in the Solomon Islands – despite the "fouled up" battle plan in the Battle of Blackett Strait.

Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy in 1942
That's the contention of author William Doyle in the new and updated account of Kennedy's service: "PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy" (HarperCollins 2015).

Doyle also shows how the Kennedy family contributed to the strong friendship America built with Japan after the war and in the seven decades since.

The "creation myth" of JFK's heroism began when a Japanese destroyer, Amagiri, captained by Kohei Hanami, rammed the small torpedo boat, killing two men and sending others overboard as the boat exploded and sank.
"A hundred-foot-high fireball rose from the crash site, fed by thousands of gallons of fuel that spilled into the water from the crippled boat. Despite the night's poor visibility, the inferno was visible for mlles. The crash propelled seven of the thirteen men into the blazing ocean, most of them wearing life jackets and helmets ... They fell into a world of horror – a black, shark-infested ocean punctuated by pockets of flaming gasoline, lethal fumes, and muffled shouts and screams, with their boat nowhere to be seen. As they struggled in the water and gulped salt water and gasoline, they had every reason to believe they could very soon be drowned, consumed by fire, or eaten alive from beneath."
The sinking of PT 109 was a symptom of the failure of the Battle of Blackett Strait, caused by bad Mark VIII torpedoes, poor communications, weak leadership and a lack of command and control. In a conversation with author John Hersey, Kennedy would later compare it to the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba.

Rescuer Eroni Kumana, who died in 2014
In the wake of the sinking of PT 109 Kennedy showed his mettle, swimming three-and-a-half miles leading his men "over open water, behind enemy lines in broad daylight, fully exposed for four hours to any Japanese lookouts or pilots who happened to look his way."
"All the while, he bit on to a strap and towed a badly burned sailor along with him. Simultaneously he was charged with leading nine other men, including several injured and several non-swimmers, toward safety. It was a performance Kennedy would rarely talk about publicly, but it was an astonishing feat that his crewmen never forgot. On this day, his leadership and example delivered them the hope, however slim, that salvation may be on the the horizon."
Kennedy's subsequent leadership ensured the sailors' survival and rescue, with help from local islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana. The story was compared to Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" mythology.

After the war, the Kennedy family's ties to Japan strengthened, despite some challenges.

Doyle recounts JFK's visit in 1950, marked by his near-death illness, and brother Robert Kennedy's visit in 1962 as Attorney General, tarnished by demonstrations against America's policies in Cuba and Vietnam.

In 1957 JFK was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for "Profiles in Courage." That same year daughter Caroline was born. Today Caroline Kennedy is U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Doyle shows how on March 5, 2015 Ambassador Kennedy met the widow of Kohei Hanami, the man who captained Amagiri and sank PT 09.

JFK had planned to meet Kohei Hanami on a trip to Japan in 1964, a trip that didn't happen due to Kennedy's assassination.

Packed with great photos and new information, "PT 109" is an enjoyable and informative read, profiling John F. Kennedy's "stubborn, indomitable courage" and showing how the Navy contributed to his character and core values.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Happy Birthday Navy: "Sea of Glory"

Review by Bill Doughty

Charles Wilkes captained Exploration Expedition 
Some historians say the United States Navy was "born again" during the War of 1812, which ended two hundred years ago this year, a war which brought great heroes such as David Porter, Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, Isaac Hull, Oliver Hazard Perry and Charles Stewart.

A young man who came of age at the end of the War of 1812, Charles Wilkes, was inspired by British naval hero James Cook and by the U.S. Navy heroes of 1812-1815 (especially Porter and Decatur) to join the Navy. Aboard his flagship, sloop-of-war Vincennes, Wilkes would lead the "Ex.Ex.," the nation's historic Exploring Expedition to Antarctica and around the globe.

But there was something wrong with Wilkes.

Nathaniel Philbrick, a favorite author of Navy Reads, examines Wilkes's psyche while presenting an epic telling of the adventure by six ships carrying sailors, scientists and surveyors. Philbrick's "Sea of Glory" (Viking Penguin Books, 2003) is another work of art about the sea.

As the Navy prepares to celebrate its birthday this week, "Sea of Glory" is a good way to reflect on the mind-boggling significance of Ex. Ex. to history and science. Wilkes and his team of explorers discovered Antarctica; explored of volcanoes in Hawaii; and surveyed Fiji, Pearl Harbor, the Columbia River, and swaths of the Pacific. They brought back unprecedented numbers of plant, animal and mineral species.
"By any measure, the achievements of the Expedition would be extraordinary. After four years at sea, after losing two ships and twenty-eight officers and men, the Expedition logged 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 Pacific islands, and created 180 charts – some of which were still used as late as World War II. The Expedition also mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the icebound Antarctic coast. Just as important would be its contribution to the rise of science in America. The thousands of specimens and artifacts amassed by the Expedition's scientists would become the foundation of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, without the Ex. Ex.,  there might never have been a national museum in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Botanic Garden, the U.S. Hydrographic Office, and the Naval Observatory all owe their existence, in varying degrees to the Expedition."
Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica
"Sea of Glory" is captivating for its description of hazardous life at sea, interactions with native populations, and the sunset of the age of discovery. It also shows how far America has evolved from the days of wooden ships, whaling and the trade of otter and seal skins, sandalwood and sea slugs. Yes, sea slugs.

The Wilkes expedition would influence Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and other writers and thinkers and spawn Civil War leaders, including the great William Reynolds (Wilkes's opposite and ultimate antagonist), who would claim the Midway Atoll/Islands for the United States, instrumental to the new steam-powered Navy. Surveys of the Pacific by Ex. Ex. would be used by the U.S. Navy in planning the invasion of Tarawa in WWII.

But what was wrong with Wilkes?

"Sea of Glory" is filled strange happenstances of history, strange characters and warped personalities, none more warped than Wilkes himself, described as "arrogant," "insecure," "egotistical," "vain," "impulsive," "cruel," "duplicitous" and "manipulative" – stretched beyond his capabilities."

"The less control he felt, the more he became fixated on the issue of rank," Philbrick writes. Wilkes, in fact, was literally a self-promoter who thought he deserved the rank of Captain rather than Lieutenant, so he put on the epaulets and uniform of the senior rank during the expedition, an "audacious, even outrageous act, without precedent in the U.S. Navy."

Philbrick and RADM Richard Gurnon, USMS (ret.), former president of Mass. Maritime Academy.
It's no wonder Wilkes fell out of favor with a host of senior officers and Secretaries of the Navy, including SECNAV Gideon Welles.

As a leader, Wilkes believed in blind obedience, harsh discipline and public humiliation of subordinates. When envious or angry he turned to excessive and extreme violence. After the expedition, the Navy court-martialed Wilkes for excessive flogging of Sailors and Marines, among other charges, but he ultimately redeemed himself in the Civil War. He later devoted his life to his legacy while others dedicated themselves to the significant scientific discoveries of his expedition.

Philbrick notes that "science in America was forever changed by the Ex. Ex." However, because of a shift in focus from the Pacific to the American West, among other reasons, the Exploration Expedition has been obscured despite its influence.
"[Wilkes] had once dared to assume that if he should successfully complete his mission, a grateful nation would shower him with praise and recognition. He had fashioned out of disaster one of the largest, most sophisticated scientific and surveying enterprises the world had ever seen. He had found a new continent, charted hundreds of Pacific islands, collected tons of artifacts and specimens, and explored the Pacific Northwest and the Sulu Sea. And he had now returned to find that nobody in New York, Washington, or, it seemed, the entire nation apparently cared."
While attention in coming weeks will understandably be focused on Philbrick's terrific "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," readers interested in naval history are wise to include "Sea of Glory" or "The Last Stand" for Philbrick's good studies about leadership, life-and-death challenges and the depths of human nature.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

World War III – & Questions Raised

Review by Bill Doughty

Is war with China possible? If it were to occur, how would it likely be fought and where?

These questions are posed in a work of fiction by P.W. Singer and August Cole, working in the big shadow left by Tom Clancy but with some cyber-subversiveness inspired by William Gibson ("Neuromancer").

"Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War" (an Eamon Dolan Book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) says the war would be fought largely by the U.S. Navy, centered in Hawaii. 

Understandably, the book opens with a disclaimer: "The following was inspired by real-world trends and technologies. But ultimately, it is a work of fiction, not prediction."

But as unbelievable the action and scenarios seem, the technology is real, according to the authors: rail guns, lasers, cyber, drones, and a "metal storm" swarm of weapons.

Singer and Cole paint in bright colors on a wide canvas.
QM3 N. Wylie launches PUMA II UAV aboard USS Gonzalez
(DDG 66) Sept. 3, 2015. (Photo by MC2 D. C. Ortega)
"Captain Jamie Simmons stood in the lee of the helicopter bay and scanned the blue sky. Even with the chill that grew as they moved farther north, the rhythmic rise and fall of the following Pacific swell made the moment wholly pleasant. It was the kind of beauty that unexpectedly wormed its way into the experience of war."
Their book opens "243 miles above the earth's surface" then plunges 2 miles below sea level in Mariana Trench before ultimately centering on Hawaii.

There are some weird moments: Alice Cooper pirates, psychosexual spies, "Battle of Kamehameha Highway," air war over Kaneohe, boarding party in space, and Walmart warfighters. But most of the book is straight ahead techno-thriller – with riveting descriptions of surface naval warfare aboard USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), the physics of air battles, the cool effectiveness of Navy SEALs and what the future might be for unmanned vehicles in combat.

Richly developed characters act out strong themes of honor, courage and commitment, with a complicated father-son relationship and an accurate description of the sacrifices of military families. Throughout – the influence of Mahan and especially Sun Tzu.

This Sun Tzu quote opens Part 1: "You can fight a war for a long time or you can make your nation strong. You cannot do both."

Lieutenants Ken Taylor and George Welch, U.S. Army Air Corps, 1941. 
History is remembered, especially in the primary setting for this novel, Hawaii. The authors describe the heroics of two young U.S. Army Air Corps pilots at Wheeler airfield during the attack on Oahu of December 7, 1941:
"Ignoring the usual pre-takeoff checklists, each pilot climbed into a P-40 Warhawk fighter plane and took off down the airstrip. Only once they were in the air did they figure out they were about to take on over three hundred enemy aircraft. Undeterred, Welch and Taylor plowed straight into the second wave of of the Japanese attack. They didn't stop the attack, but they did manage to shoot down six planes before they ran out of ammunition. More important, the two pilots put up enough of a fight that Japanese planners assumed there were far more defenders in the air. They decided against sending in a final, third attack wave designed to pummel Pearl Harbor's fuel storage, maintenance, and dry-dock repair yards, an attack that would have set back the American war effort at least another year."
Static display of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), Sept. 9, 2015. (Photo by MCC James E. Foehl)
No question that Adm. (Ret.) James Stavridis enjoyed this book. The endorsement by the former supreme allied commander of NATO, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, reads, in part: "...Singer and Cole lay out a plausible, frightening, and pitch-perfect vision of what such a war could look like. This page-turning marvel is the best source of high-tech geopolitical visioneering since Tom Clancy's 'Red Storm Rising' and Sir John Hackett's 'The Third World War.' A startling blueprint for the wars of the future that needs to be read now."

The ultimate questions generated by "Ghost Fleet" are these: Can our idealism, morality and ethics catch up with advances in technology? Can we evolve beyond our natural tendencies to act out of greed, violence and mistrust? Can we remain vigilant and ready?