Book Reviews

R. G. Smith has qualified for double honors in the Heinemann pantheon—being a certified "aircraftsman," as well as that rare accolade, "a great guy."

As the senior aviation artist in the nation today, Robert Grant Smith looks back on a career spanning six decades. Aside from his phenomenal success as an artist, he has held many other titles—ranging from janitor to gold miner to husband and father. The Man and His Art captures the varied aspects of Smith's personal and professional life in this beautifully produced volume coauthored by retired Navy Captain "Zip" Rausa, the editor of Wings of Gold magazine. Reproductions of 140 R. G. Smith originals comprise the main attraction for lovers of aviation and fine art, including the dramatic cover illustration of Douglas SBDs pulling off target at the crucial Battle of Midway.

The autobiographical section provides not only context, but insight into Smith's work—the living canvas upon which his career was spread. From a 13-year-old boy's fascination with Charles Lindbergh to Depression-era Los Angeles to a degree from California Polytechnic Institute, Smith's early life was pointed toward aeronautical engineering. His work with Northrop, and later with Douglas Aircraft, became the framework for most of his art—leading to an estimated one million lithographs distributed worldwide.

Smith's descriptions of his work on classic naval and military aircraft runs the gamut from Northrop's BT-1 dive bomber to Douglas's A-4 Skyhawk and beyond. He describes the D-588-I that won the world speed record in 1947 as "a joyful experience," leading to his major artistic influence. Working on the Skystreak, Smith met a reserve officer, Arthur Beaumont, acknowledged as "Artist Laureate of the Navy." The two struck up a friendship that focused Smith's burgeoning talent and catapulted him to commercial success. Further opportunity arose during tours as a combat artist in Vietnam, and in 1973 Smith was designated Honorary Naval Aviator Number 10.

A quick look at the illustrations convinces anyone of Smith's favorite subjects: A-4 Skyhawks abound, followed by a variety of SBD Dauntless actions. Two of the most stunning images are a Skyhawk racing away from a broiling red mushroom cloud in a doomsday scenario, and a unique view of Dauntlesses diving out of the sun. McDonnell Douglas airliners also are included, as are a variety of pencil sketches and 28 "other subjects" that illustrate Smith's versatility with non-aviation subjects. Ranging from western landscapes to nudes, the variety is intriguing for its insight into an artist known largely for his "airplane pictures." His ships and seascapes, that would seem to go hand-in-glove with aircraft carriers, also stand by themselves.

In summary, this is an extremely fine book and it is the best buy of the year.

 

A Glimpse of Hell

Charles C. Thompson II. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 430 pp. Notes. Bib. Index. $27.95 ($25.15).

Reviewed by Norman Polmar

The No. 2 gun turret of the USS Iowa (BB-61) suffered a tragic catastrophe on 19 April 1989 as the warship was firing her 16-inch guns during exercises in the Caribbean. The fiery explosion killed 47 men.

The author—a former naval officer, journalist, and television news producer—has provided a detailed account of the events leading up to that momentary "glimpse of hell" and the aftermath. The explosion, Thompson demonstrates, was caused by ignorance, inattention, and incompetence among officers and enlisted men alike. Then, he writes, the investigations were botched—with evidence destroyed, a rush to find a culprit, and cover-ups.

Even if Thompson's findings are only half correct, the Iowa tragedy long will stand as a blot on the U.S. Navy's record. Further, the several flag officers who interfered with the investigations surely must be held culpable.

Thompson has few heroes: Captain Larry Seaquist, the previous commanding officer of the Iowa ; Lieutenant Dan Meyer and Gunner's Mate First Class Dale Mortensen of the Iowa ; and a few others.

But he has many, many villains: Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Frank Kelso; his vice chief, Admiral Leon Edney; Captain Fred Moosally, who succeeded Seaquist in command; Moosally's executive officers, Commanders Mike Fahey and John Morse; Master Chief Steven Skelley, whom Thompson writes broke (or at least skirted) safety regulations; and scores of other men. One of the strangest is Admiral J. M. Boorda, who was Chief of Naval Personnel at the time, and had a minor role in the aftermath of the explosion. But Thompson takes almost two full pages in his epilogue to discredit Boorda in describing his (unrelated) suicide seven years later.

Captain Seaquist commanded the battleship in 1986-1988. "The Iowa had been anything but an accident waiting to happen when [Seaquist] had been her skipper. Things started to change the day Seaquist left the ship," wrote Thompson. Yet, on later pages, the author tells a horror story of problems on board the Iowa that existed while Seaquist was in command.

Captain Moosally was in command for one year before the fatal accident, and could do nothing right. He allowed his executive officer and other "favorites" to do as they pleased, and permitted dangerous gun-manning procedures and powder loadings, creating the conditions that undoubtedly produced the turret explosion.

Then, immediately after the explosion, after the bodies were cleared away—their locations not having been accurately recorded—Captain Moosally ordered damaged turret equipment to be thrown overboard.

The principal investigation was botched, writes the author, with Admiral Edney exerting "command influence" on the case. Further, the Navy accused one of the dead sailors, Gunner's Mate Second Class Clayton Hartwig, of being a homosexual and having placed an explosive device among the powder bags as the center gun of No. 2 turret was being loaded. Thompson describes the campaign to vilify Hartwig, but does not explain the rationale for this "rush to judgment."

Thompson's description of events on the Iowa leading up to the explosion are riveting. So too is his account of the explosion, when in an instant a fireball surged from the open breech of No. 2 turret's center gun. The temperature of the fireball was between 2,500 deg F and 3,000 deg F, producing a pressure of 4,000 pounds per square inch. It was amazing that the battleship was not lost, as the fire reached the powder spaces. The account tells of how the quick thinking of a couple of men far down in the ship saved the warship from destruction.

Still, this account of the Iowa disaster is troubling. In his diatribe against the Navy's leadership, Thompson misses many of the organizational and procedural nuances that in fact led to certain decisions and actions in the aftermath of the explosion. The author also is wanting in his knowledge of the Navy. There never was a plan to shoot a "live" Tomahawk cruise missile against a manned warship; a gunner's mate does not toss powder bags over the side without an officer's approval; and it is unlikely that the Iowa had valves "frozen open" since the early 1940s (she was completed in 1943).

Despite these and other shortcomings, A Glimpse of Hell is a fascinating narrative of the tragedy. It is a very different book from Richard L. Schwoebel's Explosion Aboard the Iowa (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999; see page 85 in Books of Interest). Thompson is a journalist; Schwoebel is a scientist. Whereas Thompson has given us a mystery story, Schwoebel—who led the team at the Sandia National Laboratory that determined that the explosion was undoubtedly an accident and not sabotage—provides an objective, scientific detective story.

Thompson's book should be read by all persons interested in the U.S. Navy. It takes a look at one of the most tragic peacetime disasters of the Navy; it also provides a look at the soul of the Navy of the late 1980s.

 

Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?

Ralph Peters. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 1999. 210 pp. $19.95 ($17.95).

Reviewed by Major General W.C. Gregson, U.S. Marine Corps

This is a disturbing book for those who believe in the unqualified, unchallengeable military-technological dominance of the present U.S. military. Vietnam veterans, and perhaps those from World War II and Korea, will recognize the hard truths in this book. Our uniformed mavericks and unconventional thinkers, and those with campaign ribbons from service at the cutting edge of our armed diplomacy around the world, will make this a counter-culture classic.

No country is in a better position for future defeat than the United States. In a reverse reflection of the muscular, take-no-prisoners military reform experience after Vietnam, we now engage in a continuing—and virtually unquestioning—celebration of our technological warfighting prowess. High technology, precision stand-off weapons, integrated computer networks, jointness, and information dominance are our holy icons.

Machines are taking the place of men and women, ushering in an era of "warfare, American style." War now is devoid of passion, undertaken in ignorance of culture and its effects on conflict.

Into this national military technology celebration comes Ralph Peters and his Fighting for the Future , an updated collection of his essays that will be familiar to his fans who have ferreted them out from specialized military journals and conferences. His message is particularly upsetting to his former employer, the U.S. Army. That is too bad—because Ralph loves the Army. The virulent reaction he is getting to his well-intentioned intellectual criticism—including heat from some now out-flanked think tanks—emphasizes one of his points: the military rejects any criticism out of hand, without considering its merits.

Peters enlisted in the Army after Vietnam, a period that was the nadir of our military. He gained a commission by an unexplained "back door," and became, among other things, one of our corps of unrecognized, under-rewarded, and in-the-dirt military cultural experts—a Foreign Area Officer. Peters came to understand the cultural, religious, historical, territorial, and mythological drives that make men (and women) kill without regret or mercy.

This gut-level understanding of what motivates men and women to fight to the death, and what it takes for us to prevail, is at the heart of the book. If Clausewitz taught us that war is an extension of politics, how long will it take for us to learn that culture drives politics, and therefore war? In 210 enjoyable pages, Peters looks at the cultural and ethnic background of modern conflict, and what all of it might mean to us. Peters' style of writing is readable and memorable.

We can ignore the message in this book—as we have in the past. Some of the sad results of our earlier military technology hubris and cultural ignorance can be read in Honor Bound (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press,1999), Stuart Rochester and Frederick Kiley's study of POWs in Vietnam. A study of a more recent conflict is Mark Bowen's Blackhawk Down (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999), about our debacle in Somalia in 1993.

If you are convinced that the United States has its force planning right, do not bother with this book. On the other hand, if you are not afraid of a contrarian view or new ideas, this is more than worthwhile. It is a must.

 

Circle William

Captain Bill Harlow, USN (Ret.). New York: Scribner, 1999. 315 pp. $23.00 ($20.70).

Reviewed by Lieutenant George Capen, U.S. Navy

Circle William is a splendid novel of Navy life and adventure, and it is one of the best thrillers to hit the streets in recent memory. Captain Harlow's first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Navy and Washington gives the reader a complete picture of how national strategy is implemented. The author creates two main characters who grab readers and pull them along from the very beginning.

Two brothers—one a destroyer captain, the other the White House press secretary—are thrown together by chance into an international game of chemical weapons hide and seek. The sensitivity of the stakes involved limit each of them to a close circle of confidants that has one rooting for their success at each turn.

The reader will feel like a crew member in the USS Winston Churchill , as Harlow describes the activities on board with great style. The captain, an innovative risk-taker with a wonderful sense of honor, must make decisions—at the risk of his own career—that ultimately will save the President of the United States, or compromise national security and cost thousands of lives. The XO-the typical uptight officer who cannot see outside the box, much less get out of it—does his best to ruin the captain's plans for the sake of protecting his own career. The stark contrast between these two officers and the exchanges between their complementing cast mark the captain as a true Navy hero.

The captain's brother finds himself in a close-knit coterie working the Washington side against the odds. From the White House to the Pentagon to the news room, a constant battle for information and influence to save the day is fought out in real-life fashion. The White House wants to keep lips tight, the Pentagon wants to control the renegade captain, and The Washington Post wants to tell the world about it. In the end, the good guys win with one of the most powerful, heart thumping, feel-good, proud-to-be-an-American finishes I have had the thrill of reading.

This is Bill Harlow's first book, but this easily could develop into a series of bestsellers centered on either or both of the main characters. I recommend highly placing this first edition in your personal collection.

 

 
 

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