Notable Naval Books of 1998

By Lieutenant Colonel Richard Seamon, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

Easy it may be, but hindsight can offer valuable insight into such continuing problems as the troubled relationship between the media and the military. Presidents, the press, and the armed forces all have much to learn from the persistent antagonism. Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War by William Hammond offers worthwhile lessons in the origins of a destructive distrust that marred the way journalists and public affairs officers dealt with each other in country and at home. In an evenhanded critique, historian Hammond blames Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon for contradictory and devious tactics that almost ensured press opposition. And he is equally critical of professional carpers in the press corps. Men such as Peter Arnett, who carelessly reported questionable rumors about U.S. use of poison gas, and Morley Safer, who made a slanted claim that Marines unnecessarily torched Vietnamese villages, practically guaranteed the military's distrust. Recriminations on both sides were inevitable. "Whether time and circumstance will heal the ensuing rift," says the author, "remains to be seen."

The list of books about Vietnam runs on, but there are other historians concerned with other wars, other icons from the past, and thoughtful reflection can offer a new look at old heroes. In Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate , Harry Kelsey rescues the 16th-century corsair from the romance of schoolbook poems and stories, as well as from modem historians who liken him to a professional Georgian sea officer. Kelsey places the enigmatic Drake properly in his own time. In this book, said our reviewer historian A. N. Ryan, "Drake the vainglorious, belligerent entrepreneur lives on to bewilder and torment us as he did his contemporaries, both English and Spanish."

American warriors of the past—at sea and ashore—also have been the subjects of new studies. The abject surrender of our nation's capital in the country's "Second War of Independence" is vividly recalled in Anthony S. Pitch's The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 . The embarrassment of that event was erased by Andrew Jackson's final victory at New Orleans, and most history books quite properly record the conflict as an American triumph. This book, however, is a painful reminder of an often overlooked and shameful chapter of the war: there were riots and murderous days of mob rule in Baltimore when a young newspaper editor had the temerity to publish a criticism of a war he thought both unwise and unnecessary.

Almost half a century later the country was at war again, and this time it was American against American. Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy by Dennis J. Ringle is a thoroughly documented report on the contribution of enlisted sailors to the hastily expanded Union Navy of the Civil War. The growing need for manpower at sea forced important changes in the fleet. Flogging and the grog ration were abolished, pay increased, and uniforms improved. Most important of all, free blacks and even runaway slaves were recruited. They fought well and were accepted as equals by their white shipmates. Then, at war's end, the old practice of discrimination returned. The proud example set by Mr. Lincoln's Navy was ignored for far too long before it was revived.

America's maritime history, of course, involves far more than exploits of the U.S. Navy. It is a complex tale that includes commerce, shipbuilding, fisheries, merchant mariners, and the vessels they manned. It is a story that rarely has been reported more thoroughly than in America and the Sea: A Maritime History , a collection of essays by Benjamin Labaree, William Fowler, Jr., John B. Hattendorf, Jeffrey J. Safford, Edward W. Sloan, and Andrew W. German. The sea's influence on our politics, our economics, our technology, and our literature is explained with grace and clarity. The authors have put together an admirable encyclopedia that evokes "the perpetual mystery of a frontier we cannot inhabit, leaving us always to wonder what lies beyond its horizon and beneath its surface."

Like the late, unlamented conflict in Vietnam, World War II continues to spawn volume after volume of new studies, almost all spiced with some element of revisionism. Newly declassified documents or a reconsideration of older, widely accepted reports can give contemporary historians a fresh slant on what were once accepted certainties. In Hitler's U-boat War: The Hunted, 1942-1945 , for example, the late historian Clay Blair argues that U-boats never came close to cutting the North Atlantic lifeline to Britain. Other submarine experts may question some of Blair's conclusions, but with a mass of facts and figures he demolishes the long-held myth that Nazi wolfpack tactics almost forced the Admiralty to abandon the convoy system that kept Britain supplied.

On the other side of the world, lightly armored U.S. PT boats fought their way into naval history, primarily by rescuing General Douglas MacArthur and his entourage from the Philippines. Later, post-war tales of President John F. Kennedy's adventures as a young PT boat commander added to the luster of the little plywood boats. In Hunters in the Shallows: A History of the PT Boat , Curtis L. Nelson has written an iconoclastic account of the PT's background and its often over-publicized exploits in the South Pacific. His explanation of MacArthur's choice of PT boat rather than submarine for his bug out from Corregidor is blunt and believable. (It was the General's claustrophobia that made him decide to turn down the subs that had been running the Japanese blockade with regularity.) The ramming of Kennedy's PT-109 by a Japanese destroyer, Nelson says, may well have been caused by the skipper's carelessness; more likely it was "a result of incompetence on several levels within the PT boat command structure."

The Black Sheep Squadron: The Definitive Account of Marine Fighter Squadron 214 in World War II by Bruce Gamble is another effort at unmaking myths. Was Marine Major Gregory ("Pappy") Boyington really the hard drinking swashbuckler portrayed in the popular TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep? Most of the time, answers the author. But Pappy also was a true fighter ace. Drunk or sober he could fly rings around almost all of his contemporaries. Even if some of his claimed kills were questionable, he still deserved his Medal of Honor. In this remarkably detailed history, the author includes the name of every pilot who ever served in the squadron, a report of every mission the squadron flew, and all the once-familiar Pacific islands with their rusted metal airstrips that the Black Sheep knew so well.

The Japanese soldier of World War II is another subject for a revisionist study. In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army by Edward J. Drea, the long tradition of Samurai warriors fighting to the death is balanced by a report of harebrained tactics that rarely benefited from past mistakes. Individual Japanese often were tenacious, says the author, but "their bones, scattered on battlefields from the Aleutians to India, only leave mute evidence to [an] unimaginative determination to die before giving up." Samurailike sword-swinging was no match for a combination of "doctrine, arms, support, will and leadership at the critical time and place." Most important of all, "The American high command out thought its Japanese opponents."

Victory in World War II silenced the guns—at least for awhile. But the Cold War also had its front lines where former allies faced off in dangerous covert actions. Sooner or later, though, most deceptions were discovered. Russian missiles in Cuba were only a short-term secret; the loss of one U-2 over the Soviet Union gave away the whole operation. U.S. submarine reconnaissance off the Soviet coast, while no longer much of a secret, remains a highly classified program. Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew claims to give the inside story, the previously unpublicized details of underwater intelligence collecting. The book's accuracy, reviewer Norman Friedman points out, is difficult to judge; much of the program it covers remains secret. Despite many obvious errors and the Navy's understandable disapproval of publication, "On balance, this book is probably good for the Navy and its submarine service, because it tells taxpayers—who ultimately must support the Navy—that it did something important and worthwhile during the Cold War."

There was no secrecy at all about another program that continues to generate both approval and opposition: the integration of women into the Navy. Problems persist on board ships and at shore stations. In First Class: Women Join the Ranks at the Naval Academy , Sharon Hanley Disher, a member of that first class, gives a frank and honest appraisal of the difficulties faced by female midshipmen, and by extension, women throughout the Navy. Those who stick it out, who learn how to handle everything from physical abuse to demeaning pranks, are likely to say "It didn't do me any real harm, so it was probably O.K." Disher is one who stuck it out. Even so, she admits that women at the Naval Academy "still have a long way to go."

Another woman who stuck it out, Deborah Dempsey, learned how to handle chauvinism at the Maine Maritime Academy In The Captain's A Woman: Tales of a Merchant Mariner , she recalls her tough climb to the top of the ladder. Hazing deterred her not a bit, and a shy, inarticulate schoolgirl soon turned into a tough, outspoken deck officer, proud of her position in what had long been an all male profession. Even after leaving the merchant marine she has remained a bluewater sailor. As a Columbia River bar pilot she handles ships both large and small. "It's not a job," she insists, "it's an attitude."

Still others who dealt successfully with gender discrimination were the women who joined the OSS in World War II. Debutantes, professors, housewives, entertainers—they filled jobs ranging from secretary to saboteur. And they left a record that should help silence today's critics who question women's ability to stand up to adversity and deal with danger . Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS by Elizabeth P. McIntosh is replete with stories of women who were fluent in half a dozen languages, socialites who had studied in universities in the United States and abroad, all of whom were willing and anxious to serve wherever their talents might be useful—with the resistance in Nazi-occupied France, for example, or setting up escape routes for downed fliers in eastern Europe.

Impressive as contemporary aviation technology has proved to be, a dwindling generation of pre-jet age pilots remember with pride a time when the appearance of a new plane or a new performance record seemed to be a daily occurrence. For them, The Golden Age Remembered: U.S. Naval Aviation, 1914-1941 , edited by E.T. Wooldridge, can be an exercise in nostalgia almost the equal of a trip to Pensacola's Naval Aviation Museum. Such planes as the Grumman F3F-3, the best biplane fighter ever, and the Curtiss SBC Helldiver, last combat biplane built in the United States, are recalled here along with the men who flew them. Lieutenant Apollo Soucek, Admiral Jimmy Thach, and Marine Major Al Williams head a long list of pilots who "took aviation to sea in the face of problems, frustrations, and challenges without precedent." They were, says Captain Wooldridge, "the heart and soul, the bedrock of naval aviation."

Pride in the Corps is an important element of the picaresque novel, Archie Smallwood and the Marine Raiders: A Rifleman's Brief .30-caliber History of the 20th Century by Verle E. Ludwig. As the title suggests, Marines not only are characters in this tale of one individual's escapades among the famous men and women of his time. Son of a Manchu princess and a sometime Marine officer, Archie learned about Herbert Hoover at the Boxer Rebellion from his Quaker grandmother. From his father he heard of tales of the Marines at Belleau Wood. During an enlisted hitch in China he was Smedley Butler's chauffeur for awhile, and he met Mao Zedong while traveling with Evans Carlson and Agnes Smedley. He knew a future Commandant named Lemuel Shephard and he spoke with Franklin Roosevelt. He truly was a man of the century, and he learned that while battlefields and military stations fade into memory, the "ceremonial religion" of the Corps remains. "It's not a rational thing, I can tell you, but it gets in your blood."

Colonel Seamon writes the Books of Interest column for Proceedings . He was the assistant managing editor for Time magazine.

 

 
 

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