Book Reviews

D-Day has always been a popular topic, most recently with the 60th anniversary once again focusing our attention on one of the most momentous days in American military history. Although the historical focus of D-Day has been primarily on the bloody fight for Omaha Beach and the gallantry of Rudder's Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, the story of the other U.S. invasion beach, called Utah, has become almost an afterthought, in part because the landings there were accomplished without the bloodletting that characterized Omaha.

The Utah landings were not part of the original Overlord plan but were added in early 1944 when the Allied land force commander in chief and the operation's chief planner, British General Sir Bernard Montgomery, insisted that the 25-mile invasion front was far too narrow and, unless widened, D-Day would fail. The result was a recasting of the operation's plan and the doubling of the invasion front to include airborne and sea landings on the Cotentin Peninsula that were considered a critical component if Overlord was to succeed.

Joseph Balkoski, the author of an admirable book about Omaha Beach, his written a long overdue account of the Utah landings, which exposes the fallacy behind the common misconception that because Utah was success fully carried out with fewer casualties it was of less importance than Omaha. To the contrary; the author reveals that Utah Beach was not only a vital component of the eventual success of Overlord but was never the walkover it has been portrayed as by those who ought to have known better, including General Omar Bradley who inaccurately called it a "piece of cake."

In this absorbing and highly read able book, Balkoski tells the story of Utah Beach from the perspective of the participants: the men of the 4th Infantry Division who landed there, the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the Army Air Forces crews who flew them, and the sailors of the U.s. Navy, the Royal Navy, and the U. S. Coast Guard who brought the 4th Division and its supporting units ashore.

We learn not only of the valor on the beachhead of commanders such as Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who earned the Medal of Honor for his actions on 6 June, and later died of a heart attack just hours before assuming command of n division, but how the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st, after their chaotic landings, tied down large numbers of German troops that might otherwise have disrupted or even foiled the Utah landings.

One of Balkoski's most important themes is that Overlord was "a highly risky undertaking, a detail that has been noticeably dimmed by the passage of more than six decades since the invasion. History has come to view D-Day as an inevitable Allied triumph, but it was anything but."

"In retrospect," he notes, "the near disaster and shocking casualties on Omaha Beach have tended to dominate historical accounts of the American D-Day experience, but in truth, it was the Utah invasion that provided the Americans with the initial impetus they needed to start carrying out their strategic design in Normandy."

Utah Beach is first-class history, impeccably researched and skillfully written by an author who rightfully has become the foremost historian of the American D-Day experience.

Joseph Balkoski's dramatic tale of Utah Beach is yet another example of what dedicated, courageous soldiers, sailors, and airmen are capable of accomplishing under conditions of extreme danger in the name of freedom. In a speech to Parliament on 6 June 1944, Winston Churchill said: "We are living through momentous hours now." Utah Beach is a vivid depiction of just how momentous those hours really were.

Lieutenant Colonel D'Este is a military historian and biographer. His books include Decision in Normandy, Patton: A Genius for War, and Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life. He is presently writing a military biography of Winston Churchill.

1776

David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2005. 386 pages. $32.00.

Reviewed by Robert S. Bolia

The title of David McCullough's 1776 is a little misleading. Despite the cover, which depicts John Trumbull's painting of George Washington accepting the surrender of the Hessians at Trenton, the year 1776 immediately conjures images of the Declaration of Independence, whether it be Richard Henry Lee's motion for independence, Thomas Jefferson's drafting of the document, or its signatures, including John Hancock writing his name large enough that the king might read it without his spectacles. But the Declaration is all but absent from 1776, for it is not a book about politics. It is no more and no less than a book about the military campaigns of George Washington in 1776.

What qualifies David McCullough to write such a book is his demonstrated ability to research and write about almost any aspect of American history. His previous volumes—two of which garnered him the Pulitzer Prize—have dealt with a wide range of subjects, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, the Johnstown Flood, and, most recently, the lives of Harry Truman and John Adams. If his versatility is unchallenged, so is his writing style. The book is fast paced, the prose carefully crafted to keep the reader on the edge of his seat, which it succeeds in doing. But it is more than good writing. It is easy to imagine that someone as versatile as McCullough might lend a light treatment to each subject in turn, but 1776 is thoroughly researched, a fact attested to by both the meticulous notes section and the impressive catalogue of primary and secondary sources.

The book begins in medias res, with King George III riding to Westminster to address Parliament on the situation in America and his response to it. The scene quickly changes to Boston, occupied by British troops but besieged by the new American "army" at Charlestown, where the volume's principle protagonists—Washington, Nathaniel Greene, and Henry Knox—are introduced. From that point on the book is nearly all action, centered around the occupation of Dorchester Heights and the British evacuation of Boston, the disastrous campaign for New York, and the American retreat through New Jersey. The culmination of the work, however, is the recovery of the Continental Army and its unexpected victories at Trenton and Princeton.

1776 is about these events, but more than that it is about leadership. Washington and two of his subordinates, Greene and Knox, are the centers of attention, and the narrative begins to evolve around the commanding general from Virginia learning to trust the two New Englanders. It is clear that McCullough has an affection for these men, but they are not deified, and he is as quick to point out their faults as he is their fortes. The focus is not so much on their tactics and strategies—although these are well covered—as it is on their humanity, the fact that each of them, like every other person, is fallible and the very human ways in which they dealt with the many adversities that fell upon them.

Although the major threads of the book are spun around this trio, they are not the only characters, nor theirs the only perspectives. McCullough acknowledges this by weaving into the story enough information on other general officers from both sides to give them depth of character, as well as by including excerpts from letters and diaries of junior officers and private soldiers. He also goes out of his way to provide an evenhanded treatment of the British, including Lord North and George III, who are often portrayed in American histories as one-dimensional villains.

1776 is a very good book, but not a perfect book. Despite this caveat, its flaws are relatively few. The biggest is that it contains no useful maps (the only maps in the book are glossy reprints in the color insert section of very cluttered ones drawn between 1775 and 1777). Military operations occur over time and space, and for many readers—especially general readers not necessarily familiar with the terrain—it is difficult to visualize them without maps. At the very least they should have been provided for the siege of Boston and the battles at Long Island, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Trenton, and Princeton. Others depicting operations around New York and the retreat through New Jersey would have been useful. Although it is common for military histories to treat visual representations of the topography as secondary to the text, leaving them out altogether is almost unheard of.

Aside from the inattention to cartography, for the general reader, 1776 is an eminently readable introduction to a period in the Continental Army aptly described by Thomas Paine as "the times that try men's souls." For the historian, it provides not only a pleasurable read, but also hopefully a fresh perspective on a subject that will never cease to be of interest.

Mr. Bolia is a scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate. where he studies team decision-making and tactical command and control. He has an MA in Military Studies from American Military University and has published several articles on the Arab-Israeli Wars and the Falklands War.

Chopper: History of American Military Helicopter Operations—From World War II to the War on Terror

Robert F. Dorr. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2005 . .320 pp. Illus. Notes. Bib. Index. $24.95.

Reviewed by Samuel Loring Morison

Cristum Confusum Sum (Christ, I'm Confused). During my service in Vietnam, one of my many duties aboard the USS Savage (DER-386) was that of Combat Information Center (CIC) officer. This quote was part of a patch we had made in Taiwan for the Savage's CIC crew. In many ways the aforementioned quote applies to the latest book by Robert Dorr because it lacks continuity, is repetitious, and covers matters outside its purported scope. This results in a non-user-friendly book and, to this reviewer, that is a sin. This book is not a history of helicopter operations, as the sub-title promises, but a collection of helicopter anecdotes.

The book's principal fault is the author's decision to write the book in an interview format. This results in considerable repetition and an irregular narrative flow. Instead of starting at a beginning and working steadily toward an end, the chapters jump back and forth with the thread of the story becoming confused. For example, the first five pages of Chapter Three, "A Night Mission That Couldn't Happen ," a story from the Korean War, begins by discussing Captain Richard C. Kirkland, an H-5G pilot, and the events that led up to the mission. The chapter then spends two pages on the beginning of the pilot's military career followed by three pages about his earlier service. Three pages (20% of the chapter) are then spent on covering the night mission followed by two pages on very useful data concerning the H-5G Dragonfly (S-51). If this is a book about helicopter operations why is a third of a chapter devoted to the subject's earlier career and only 20% to the mission itself? Based on the book's title, Captain Kirkland's earlier career is irrelevant.

Another example of lack of continuity is the story of Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger. At the beginning of the chapter, the author briefly summarizes the 11 April 1966 miss ion that cost AIC Pitsenbarger his life and how, after he was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, the survivors of the miss ion fought to get his award advanced to the Medal of Honor. Only then does Mr. Dorr get to the 11 April action, seven pages into the chapter. While the author's description of the airman's actions above and beyond the call of duty is well written, the book would have been better served by recounting his story earlier in the chapter with the follow-up in chronological sequence.

There are other problems with the book, such as including information that does not pertain to the book's scope. In Chapter 19, titled "Assault Landing in Afghanistan," the author notes that "…the narrative will return momentarily" and then waxes poetic about what it would have been like to have had the tilt-rotor MV-22B Osprey there because of the unreliability of the engines used in the CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters. The Osprey has yet to become operational. While an interesting bit of speculation, it has nothing w do with the book's scope. Another example is the photograph of a young pilot flying a B-29. Again, so what? The book is on helicopter-not B-29-operations.

On the back of any book's dust jacket, one usually finds one-line reviews that praise the book. In the case of Chopper, five officers (four Army and one Marine), all obviously with helicopter experience, are quoted. Strangely all five say the book tells the story of a certain battle they were in or comment about a helicopter type. Not o ne says anything positive (or negative) about the book as such jacket notes typically do.

While the author is an excellent writer, with a good eye for detail, this is not one of his better books. It leaves much to be desired. If one wishes a good book on the history of helicopter operations, this reviewer would strongly recommend Simon Dunstan's Vietnam Choppers: Heli copters in Bartle 1950-1975 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Co., 2003). That book is much mo re detailed and covers most of the ground that Mr. Dorr's book does, except for the period to the War on Terror. It has excellent continuity and is not repetitious.

Mr. Morison is a well-known naval historian and writer on U.S. naval affairs. With service in and around the Navy for 50 years, he is currently working on his eighth book, editing the World War II diaries of his late grandfather, Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, USNR.

A Dishonorable Few

Robert N. Macomber. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press. Inc., 2005. 336 pp. $21.95.

Reviewed by Vice Admiral James Stavridis

This engaging work of historical fiction is part of a series of seagoing stories following the career of an American naval officer, Peter Wake, from 1863 to 1907. A Dishonorable Few is the fourth in the series of novels, and author Robert Macomber continuous to create entertaining and informative story lines that illuminate a tumultuous period in United States naval history.

The novel opens in 1869 with a brutal pirate attack in the eastern Caribbean and the attendant murder of the recently appointed Venezuelan ambassador to Mexico and his wife. The crime, committed by a former U.S. naval officer and renegade from the Civil War, leads to the dispatch of a U.S. warship to the region to attempt to find and destroy the pirates.

Lieutenant Peter Wake is, at this point in his career, a veteran of six years in the Navy. He is on shore duty for the first time, toiling in the backwater setting of the Pensacola Navy Yard, working to maintain the ships of a declining navy. Indeed, the American Navy has plummeted in size from second in the world by the end of the Civil War to its current status as only the 26th largest. With fewer ships come fewer opportunities for assignments at sea, and Wake is both lucky and delighted to learn of his appointment as the executive officer of the USS Cancan, a brand-new small warship of 180 feet, rudimentary and often unreliable steam propulsion, and fairly heavy gun armament of 110- and 64-pound guns.

But the new assignment comes with challenges, as Lieutenant Wake soon learns. His skipper is by turns reclusive and abusive and clearly far from competent as either a ship handler or leader. Even worse, he may be addicted to laudanum. And their mission—to sail the Caribbean in search of the marauding pirate vessel—seems at first glance a fool's errand given the enormity of the area to be searched and the paucity of intelligence and assets. Wake, however, undertakes his new duties with energy and enthusiasm, and quickly gains the confidence of the crew, despite continuing conflict with his captain. As the story unfolds in the Caribbean, Colombia, Panama, and back in the United States, it is clear that there is both danger and opportunity ahead for the young officer.

One particularly interesting aspect of the novel to contemporary readers is the portrait Macomber paints of the operations of a cooperative coalition of ships from several nations trying to track down the pirates. As is often the case today, military-to-military activity at the scene of action functions far better than the diplomatic process in national capitals. Macomber nicely captures that dichotomy in a contrasting series of conferences among the various nations' naval professionals and diplomats.

This is a very readable and enjoyable novel, and the trajectory of the series—covering as it does the American naval renaissance of the late 19th century—holds great promise. Author Macomber, himself an accomplished sailor, lecturer, and historian, keeps the action lively and the plotting brisk. Several characters from the first novels reappear, notably Wake's lovely wife Linda and his faithful friend and boatswain mate, Sean Rork. Dialogue occasionally sounds a bit too modern, and the dialects are occasionally portrayed somewhat too thickly, but those are minor quibbles. As the novel moves swiftly to a bittersweet conclusion after a wrenching court-martial and a resultant twist of fate for Peter Wake, it is clear this series of novels will continue to build and improve. My advice is to sign on early and set sail with Peter Wake for both solid historical context and exciting sea stories.

Vice Admiral Stavridis has held several commands at sea and is currently the senior military assistant to the secretary of Defense. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and is a 1976 graduate of the Naval Academy.

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

2015 WEST Conference

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership