Winning the War with Don Winslow of the Navy

By Elliot Rosenberg

But alphabetic barriers did not hinder my appreciation of Don Winslow's role in our war effort. He returned weekly to New York City's Loew's Delancey at Saturday matinees, battling Axis agents and their helpmate, "the Scorpion." Their confrontations came in 15-minute bursts, separated by seven days of anticipation. I did not know when and where Admiral William F. Halsey would poke next along the Japanese perimeter. But I was certain Lieutenant Commander Winslow and Lieutenant "Red" Pennington, his faithful sidekick, were closing in on the enemy undersea cave base at Tongita. Don Winslow went to war in dress whites, looking Navy all the way. His was a clean war in clear waters. At the sealed-off children's section of the theater, I could almost feel the spray of salt water splashing from the screen.

A newsreel clip starring the battleship Arizona (BB-39), fresh and unscathed, opened each of the 15 episodes. Our Pacific Fleet advanced toward the camera in stately cadence, while "Anchors Aweigh" rang in my ears. I hummed along, even after the imposing naval parade faded into a recap of the preceding week's serial. Many of those gleaming light gray dreadnoughts now rested lifelessly under shallow water. But no five-year-old patriots yet knew the real toll at Pearl Harbor. Neither did their elders.

My earliest inkling war began came infamously from War Gum cards. On day one there may or may not have been "a young seaman who manned a 5-inch antiaircraft gun all by himself after his ten battery mates had been wiped out by a Jap strafing attack." But card #8 shows him bare-chested, in clean white cap and spic-and-span bell-bottoms, loading his weapon. Around him, the debris of battle: ships capsizing, enemy warplanes afire, water sprouts from near misses. "This fearless gunner would seize a shell, place it in the tray, ram it home, and close the breechlock. He would then go around the breech to the other side of the gun, check on his range, fire!"

Thanks to War Gum, I knew what our Navy was accomplishing in distant Philippine waters (card #27: "Heron Fights Off Jap Planes"; card #33: "Sub Sinks 17,000 Ton Jap Liner"), but the Navy discouraged even innocent peeks at new warships being born a few hundred yards from home, across the East River, at Brooklyn's Navy Yard. In early 1942, spies and saboteurs might be lurking about. Sandbagged antiaircraft gun emplacements were dug at Corlears Hook baseball park. Sentries kept everybody away.

If the sight of fresh, unfinished, nearby U.S. naval vessels eluded me momentarily, the shapes of the prewar U.S. armada were accessible through my set of warship color picture postcards. One offered a tableau of the same proud battlewagons opening Don Winslow episodes. They did not look a bit like ghosts. Henceforth, newer-class, bigger, more potent capital ships would arrive on the scene. Among these was the North Carolina (BB-55), one of "the world's greatest battle giants, carrying nine 16-inch guns, twelve 5-inch guns and eight 5-inch antiaircraft guns, plus machine guns and four seaplanes." And because It's Time You Knew , a picture-text paperback filled with exotic facts, told me, I knew it and its sister ship had impenetrable 20-inch thick plates at their waterline and guns that fired 2,100-pound projectiles 22 miles.

Nonetheless, for two years—until 29 January 1944, to be exact—the battleship would slip to third place in my hierarchy of steel idols. My fickle loyalties shifted throughout 1942 and 1943 between tiny, speedy PT boats and gigantic, steady aircraft carriers. War Gum cards publicized PT boats' torpedo-hurling heroics in and around Manila Bay. And General Douglas MacArthur, moreover, chose to bid Corregidor farewell by standing beside the captain of one (card #62). Ever-reliable It's Time You Knew reported PTs "have more striking power per ton than anything afloat!... PTs travel faster, have greater maneuverability, make thin, exceedingly difficult targets to hit."

Aircraft carriers, measured by thousands of tons of striking power, earned my devotion after the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. Notification of their achievements came from War Gum and the Navy Department, respectively. Later, Wing and a Prayer at Loew's Delancey implied admiration was merited well before Coral Sea.

Wing and a Prayer , in particular, demonstrated clearly that when Hollywood's war effort got under full steam midway through hostilities, it could be the most potent force of all in shaping an elementary school scholar's outlook on instruments of the sea war. I shared the frustrations of Don Ameche, Dana Andrews, and their mates on board Carrier X in the days immediately after Pearl. They wanted to fight Japs, but orders were orders. Keep a low profile, avoid enemy contact, conserve strength, await reinforcements. Then, and only then, strike! Never a patient warrior, I understood their discomfort. But the lull gave me time to analyze aircraft carrier anatomy and study torpedo plane design. Wing and a Prayer offered a dazzling view of flattop life. It was majestic—a queen bee surrounded by all sorts of supporting craft and pampered by a whole task force. Yet it was also alone—an isolated air base in an endless sea.

The sting of Carrier X and such real-life peers as Hornet (CV-8), Wasp (CV-7), Enterprise (CV-6), and Yorktown (CV-5) came from 50 or more buzzing metallic insects nesting in their hangars, especially the newer Hellcat fighters and Avenger torpedo bombers. Give credit to Wing and a Prayer for introducing Grumman's TBF-1, whose modus operandi came alive on a particularly instructive Card-O offering. "Pointing its nose at an enemy battleship, the ‘Avenger' speeds low over the water at 270 m.p.h. The bottom of its fuselage opens and a full-size Navy torpedo strikes the water as the plane zooms upward to escape the fire of enemy guns and the terrific force of the torpedo's explosion." As for Hellcat's mystique, postwar statisticians validated my contemporary awe. It got credit for more than 6,000 "kills" in the Pacific air war.

Submarines invited a love-hate relationship. They possessed an eerie split personality: angelic in the Pacific; satanic in the Atlantic. I met the devil's side first, those "rattlesnakes of the Atlantic" of which President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke. Maybe I never spotted U-boat periscopes in Upper New York Bay or off Coney Island, but they were there all right, submerged. I witnessed their celluloid vandalism in Corvette K-225 and Action in the North Atlantic. Every kid knew U-boats surfaced only to land saboteurs, refuel from mother ships, use their deck guns on defenseless tramp steamers, and machine-gun lifeboats. They operated maliciously at night, when S.O.S. signals could not bring destroyers rushing to the scene. And worse, they formed those "wolfpacks"—a term F.D.R. did not coin because the Nazis did it themselves.

In the Pacific, no sinister U-boats lurked. There, the gallant "Silent Service" of the United States held forth. The cruel Japs brutally hurled depth charges all around Captain Cary Grant's frail sub Copperfin in the middle of Tokyo Bay. Sweating out those ashcan attacks took courage. An explosion within 100 feet meant a watery grave. U.S. Submarines in Action, published in 1942, offered a thrilling 24-page tale of heroism. Its cover: a conning tower decorated with small rising suns representing "kills." Other paintings showed torpedoes smashing into warships, making those decorations possible. Mike Spencer, a proud torpedoman second class, tells his shipmates: "‘We beat 'em...beat them in their own backyard.'" And his proud captain says: "‘...to all of you men—the finest submarine men, in the finest submarine, in the world's finest Navy—better get your uniforms shipshape. I've a hunch there'll be some medals to pin on them when we get back to base.'"

Torpedoes, depending on direction, could be cheered or jeered. The U.S. Navy's Whitehead , 18 feet long, traveled 8,000 yards at 40 miles per hour and exploded 500 pounds of TNT at a cost of $10,000 ( It's Time You Knew ). They were "always made so they will sink at the end of their run if they miss their target.... This is done to prevent recovery and salvage of the torpedoes by the enemy." Similar vital data on U-boat torpedoes lay beyond reach. Their Navy would not say and maybe our Navy figured it was not time I knew yet. Anyway, all "tin fish," friendly and unfriendly, looked the same darting through the water.

I gathered other bits and pieces of refined warfare and naval lore from plastic cards packed with other sticks of bubble gum. Some for-instances: Battleships are named after states; cruisers, after cities; destroyers, for heroes; aircraft carriers, for great battles. You don't call a battleship "she" because it's a "man o' war." The difference between a light and heavy cruiser has nothing to do with size or tonnage—it is armament that counts. "Dazzle-stripe painting" on large ships is not applied as ordinary camouflage; its purpose is to mislead U-boats about direction and speed.

Regrettably, I never picked up the difference between "deep draught" and "shallow draught" vessels. This would have spared me many fruitless hours waiting beside the East River for huge warships to come along. One very special giant did dominate the waterway, though. At 1305, Saturday, 29 January 1944, BB-63 slid down the ways and splashed into the river directly opposite the railing where I stood. "World's Greatest Warship Is Launched in Brooklyn," read the next day's headline. But I did not have to get the news secondhand. I had witnessed the birth of the battleship Missouri (BB-63) with my own eyes.

It—not she—stretched 887 feet, and, once its superstructure was complete, would displace 45,000 tons. Antiaircraft guns and secondary batteries already were installed as it drifted in midriver, surrounded by 16 tugboats. The Missouri had been growing in Brooklyn, steel plate by steel plate, since January 1941, before I was old enough to care. By mid-June 1944, four months after launching, the new dreadnought was ready to take leave of the East River. I reluctantly bade it goodbye, for it was mine.

The Missouri restored the battleship to star status alongside my favored PTs and aircraft carriers. I followed its career—at times retroactively, alas, since cautious censors withheld information about which ships took part in which actions while those actions were still in progress. In February 1945, the Missouri bombarded a tiny dot on my Esso War Map, one dominated by a broad volcanic cone. Come June, this vivid red, orange, and purple overture to invasion reached Loew's Delancey in the Technicolor documentary, To the Shores of Iwo Jima . By then, the Missouri had encored its performance several hundred miles west at Okinawa, was wounded by a kamikaze, recovered, and went on to shell the Japanese coastline.

The 23-minute surrender ceremony aboard the Missouri in Tokyo Bay was trumpeted around the world. I felt part of history that 2 September. Generals MacArthur and Jonathan M. Wainwright, Admirals Nimitz and Halsey, and all those other Allied war leaders standing on its deck had only recently met this superb battlewagon. But I knew it way back when. The Missouri became the most photographed, most famous warship in the world. That fame, unfortunately, ruined my big chance to board it after V-J Day.

When America's fighting fleet gathered in the Hudson River for a review on Navy Day, open house was declared. Civilians clambered aboard docked ships and took launches to those in midriver. So many chose my Missouri , however, that the waiting line stretched block after block. Everybody in New York City, it seemed, wanted his moment beside its 16-inch gun turrets and upon the starboard gallery deck where General MacArthur had so recently stood. I bowed to the inevitable and accepted, as a worthy consolation prize, a journey to aircraft carrier Enterprise , Admiral Halsey's flagship.

The fabled "Big E," 809 feet long, had seen action in nearly every Pacific engagement since Pearl Harbor. She became the first bona fide warship under my feet, ever. Thirty Seconds over Tokyo , Hollywood's saga of the Doolittle raid, came alive again. Yes, this immense rectangle could host 16 B-25s, same as the Hornet did. Buzzing motors and whirling propellers replayed in my ears. I did not expect Army bombers on the flight deck. Doolittle's raid had been a one-shot special. But TBF Avengers, the kind I met in Wing and a Prayer , were nowhere in evidence, either. Perhaps, as World War II ended, there remained few enemy surface ships as targets for their 21-inch torpedoes. Grumman Hellcats nestled comfortably, though, wings snapped back above their cockpits. Hellcat stings kept kamikazes away. If any slipped by, a lineup of antiaircraft guns rimming the flight deck provided last-ditch deterrents. I recalled newsreel shots of impenetrable rings of fire pouring from such deadly fringes. They had to be impenetrable. The deck beneath my feet certainly was not.

A huge elevator, bigger than those at Macy's and Gimbel's combined, lifted planes from the hangar deck for action. Descending, I snaked through hatches and explored the ship's cavernous bowels, more complex, I heard, than whole towns. Most ladders ran straight up and down, not slanted. I tackled them fearlessly, the way real sailors did when P.A. systems ordered all hands to battle stations. My one regret: there were no honestly attainable souvenirs. (Less scrupulous visitors were grabbing plenty of dishonestly attainable ones.)

In late afternoon, time came to take leave of the seagoing life. I walked smartly down the staircase steps along the hull, and, aided by a sailor, jumped into a Navy launch. I acknowledged parting salutes from white-garbed enlisted men with a stiff arm raised to the visor of my imaginary U.S. Navy officer's cap. I was Lieutenant Commander Don Winslow again.

In the third decade after V-J day, three huge gray hulks rolled gently on the far side of the river as I stood once more at the railing on the Manhattan side. In old age, carriers Essex (CVS-9), Yorktown (CVS-10), and Randolph (CVS-15) retained a dignity earned by a lifetime of achievement. Once they had been queens of the sea, but time had passed them by. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, their temporary shelter, also had been shunted aside. No more mighty battlewagons, no more Missouris would slide down the ways.

I peered at their lifeless decks on which not a soul moved. Behind me, youngsters played on the baseball diamonds of Corlears Hook Park, oblivious to those majestic presences of my generation. In 1942, the very ground under their feet had been shoveled and recast to secure those foundations for antiaircraft batteries guarding ships in fetal stage. Of this they knew nothing. Now, no one stopped to take note other than weekend sailors in motor boats, cruising the river—and their curiosity probably stemmed from the carriers' dimension and tonnage rather than their place in history.

One day they would be gone, I feared, as the Enterprise already was. A wrecking firm paid $561,333 for her pounds of steel. Admiral Halsey's flagship, so resplendent and honored in 1945 when I boarded her, was now a mix of refrigerators, building girders, and auto frames, with some product lines likely bearing the stamp, "Made in Japan." Whole generations after my own had matured without once humming "Anchors Aweigh," shuffling Card-O ship profiles, and experiencing a seven-year-old's vicarious thrill in fighting—and winning—a two-ocean war.

Mr. Rosenberg is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in American Heritage , Seaport Magazine , the New York Daily News , and Newsday .

 

Mr. Rosenberg is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in American Heritage, Seaport Magazine, the New York Daily News, and Newsday.

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