Carrier Warfare in the Pacific: An Oral History Collection
Capt. E. T. Wooldridge, USN (Ret.) (ed.). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. 286 pp. Append. Gloss. Ind. Map. Photos. $24.95 ($23.70).
Reviewed by Captain Rosario M. Rausa, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Certainly, history written in the third person singular can be compelling, dramatic, and enlightening. Nevertheless, there is something more absorbing about an account of an event when it is told by somebody who participated in it. Readers may not gain an appreciation of the broad ramifications of the event from first-person accounts, but they will come away with an idea of what it felt like to be in the thick of things.
To tell the tale of World War II naval aviation in the Pacific, Captain Wooldridge, an author of many books on aviation who now holds the Ramsey Chair at the National Air and Space Museum, draws upon the U.S. Naval Institute’s Oral History Collection. Arranged chronologically, starting with 1942, each chapter begins with a brief introduction covering the events of the year and sketching the outlines of the included accounts. Then, Captain Wooldridge lets some of the greatest men in the Navy’s pantheon, including Admiral Arleigh Burke—and the lesser- known, but no less important ones—tell their own stories of the Navy’s war in the Pacific.
These accounts are pleasingly intimate, even though they might describe an air- to-air fight with a Zero or a heart-stopping journey through a typhoon in a warship. Reading them is like having a quiet series of fireside chats with these men—although their stories often are laced with the drama, exhilaration, and heartbreak of war.
There’s no lack of humor, either. Captain Wooldridge uses a fascinating tale by Rear Admiral Henry L. Miller, who in 1942 was a lieutenant pulled from instructor duty to teach Jimmy Doolittle’s raiders how to take off from aircraft carriers. Then, he sailed with Doolittle’s bomber force in the USS Hornet (CV-8) for their raid on Japan. At one point, Admiral Miller recalls, “I was up on the flight deck with Jimmy Doolittle. We had parked the airplanes and we had about 495 feet of takeoff run. ... So he got in the cockpit, and I was in the copilot’s seat. Jimmy Doolittle said, ‘Gee, this looks like a short distance.’ and I said, ‘You see where that tool kit is way up on the deck on that island structure? That’s where I used to take off in fighters on the Saratoga (CV-3) and the Lexington (CV-2). He said, ‘Henry, what name do they use in the Navy for bullshit?”’
An act of defiance by Gus Widhelm is recounted by Rear Admiral Francis D. Foley. Widhelm, who had been shot down, was “riding in his rubber boat with his rear-seat man from his SBD, actually thumbing his nose at the Japanese destroyer that was going by at 35 knots, and the Japanese were about to shoot him with an automatic rifle, but put the rifle away and laughed at him. . . .”
There’s even a chuckle in the middle of Vice Admiral Bill Martin’s tale of his harrowing experience after being shot down near Saipan hours before the preinvasion bombardment. After parachuting into a lagoon barely 100 yards from the beach, he managed to swim to the bordering reef. Spotting him, the Japanese defenders open fire with an automatic cannon. Recalled Admiral Martin, “One shot was off to the left and short; it splashed water on me. They had me bracketed. ... I was throwing up and also had diarrhea suddenly, and cramps. The intelligence people who questioned me later said, that’s splendid, splendid; it acts as an effective shark repellent!” Those who yearn for the “golden age of carrier aviation” would do well to read Admiral James S. Russell’s description of conditions aboard the older flattops: “The ready rooms on the Ranger (CV-4) were atrocious. . . . There was a wooden bench ... on which we sat facing portholes so the light was in our eyes. . . . [T]here was a head forward, and therefore upwind of us, and in the early morning when it was being used there was a ‘perfume’ that came back into the ready room. All these things combined to make me a fanatic in trying to figure out the optimum arrangement of an aircraft carrier.”
However, the frequent injections of humor in no way detract from the characterization of the somber business of war at sea which lies at the heart of this book.
The legendary John S. “Jimmy” Thach explains about a dogfight, “I probably should have decided to duck under this Zero, but I lost my temper a little bit and I decided I’m going to keep my fire going into him and he’s going to pull out, which he did, and he just missed me by a few feet; I saw flames coming out of the bottom of his airplane.” In the same calm way, he related the tragic outcome of one carrier landing. “. . . Sheedy was wounded and bleeding pretty badly. His cockpit was riddled with bullets, and he came aboard the first carrier he could see, which was the Hornet. . . They gave him a cut, and when he came in, his guns went off and killed five people ... his master switch, which he had turned off, was just welded across the wires by bullet holes so that you couldn’t turn it off."
The sea could be an enemy just as relentless as the Japanese. Admiral Roy L. Johnson recalled riding out a typhoon aboard the USS Hornet (CV-12) in early June 1945. “Just about . . . daybreak . . . we hit this mountain of water. Gad, it must have been 10 times as high as a house, and the impact of all of that, when it came down on the flight deck, carried away everything. The edges of the flight deck were bent down; all the antennae were gone, all the catwalks and some airplanes were over the side.”
Another man on board the Hornet (CV-12), Chief Ship’s Clerk Cecil S. King, vividly recalled the tense aftermath of the Marianas Turkey Shoot—and one of the most courageous acts of the war. He remembers “ . . . planes landing all over the place. It didn’t matter what carrier they were from. The minute anybody flashed ready deck, somebody landed on it. Almost every landing was some kind of a deck crash. They were running on fumes .... That’s when [Admiral Marc A.] Mitscher lit up the fleet, searchlights, the whole damn thing. It was a spectacular, memorable occasion.”
Carrier Warfare in the Pacific is a well-edited, easy read. It presents a candid look at behind-the-scenes planning and operations for the six classic carrier battles of the Pacific: Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz Islands, Philippine Sea, and Leyte Gulf. As the late John B. Connally, who served as Secretary of the Navy, Governor of Texas, and a fighter- direction officer during war, writes in his engaging foreword, “Every reader will find herein ... stories of valor, sacrifice, pathos, glory, tales of incredible luck and mistakes of enormous proportion.” This effort makes one hope for similar sequels on the carrier wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Leading the Way: How Vietnam Veterans Rebuilt the U.S. Military—An Oral History
Al Santoli. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993. 428 pp. Gloss. Ind. Maps. Photos. $23.00 ($20.70).
Reviewed by Lieutenant General John H. Cushman, U.S. Army (Retired)
Using interviews with 53 veterans of the Vietnam War—officers and noncommissioned officers—who (with the sole exception of former Secretary of the Navy James Webb) also served in the Persian Gulf War, Al Santoli captures a sample of the flavor of the U.S. military’s two decades of recovery after the Vietnam War and its triumph in the Persian Gulf.
His book is not the whole story of “how Vietnam veterans rebuilt the U.S. military.” It leaves out far too many people who made major contributions to the recovery from Vietnam and the development of the military machine that astonished the world in the Persian Gulf War. Mr. Santoli also omits the painstaking processes of design and execution by all the services that built and deployed that awesome fighting machine to the Gulf. However, this book reminds us that the Persian Gulf War was fought not by machines, but by people—who organized, trained, equipped, and brilliantly led—some of whom here tell their stories.
A Special Forces leader tells the tale of his team’s reconnaissance mission that came unraveled. It began with a successful insertion by helicopter at night far behind enemy lines; however, the next day, Iraqi children penetrated its camouflage. Soon, the eight-man team was attacked by hundreds of Iraqi troops. Throughout the day, the team—backed by Air Force Reserve F-16s flying close air support—fought off many attacks. That night, the team, intact and safe, was picked up by helicopter. In another tale, a brigade commander of the 1st Cavalry Division describes in detail his unit’s powerful diversionary raid deep into Iraqi territory four days before the ground war began.
Nineteen of the people interviewed by Mr. Santoli are generals or admirals, each of whom tells a tale from the Vietnam War, the postwar years of recovery, or the Persian Gulf War. From General Colin L. Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “In Korea [in 1973] we had terrible problems with discipline and morale. When I arrived the battalion I was to command had huge drug problems, race riots, kids who couldn’t read or write. I said, ‘This is unacceptable and we’re going to fix it.’” And they fixed it.
General Alfred M. Gray, Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1987-1991, observes: “By 1970, we had a lot of people who did not deserve the right to wear the title ‘Marine’. . . . All of a sudden you have to play housemaid with a bunch of people who are like an undisciplined mob . . . I’m talking about gang fights . . . and riot control.” General Gray and other Marines say something of what they did about those and other problems, and proudly speak of what their years of work produced in the Persian Gulf.
The Vietnam War had its useful effect. From Lieutenant General Walter Boomer, the overall Marine commander in the Perisan Gulf: “Almost all Marine infantry commanders in the Gulf had been advisors to the [South] Vietnamese [M]arines. As the years have gone by, this group has stayed in touch. And our friendships endure. This was an important factor in the teamwork among Marine leadership in the Gulf.”
Rebuilding the service’s noncommissioned officer corps was a crucial part of the overall recovery of the U.S. military. Ten senior noncommissioned officers of the Army and Marine Corps—either sergeant major and first sergeant—describe what it was like when they were young, and then what it was like in the desert. From Command Sergeant Major William McCune, who was a battalion sergeant major with the 2nd Armored Division’s “Tiger Brigade,” which fought in the battle for Kuwait under the 2d Marine Division: “I maintained strict standards. I didn’t have one soldier in my battalion writing slogans on his helmet. I wouldn’t let my soldiers go without haircuts, or let their moustaches go wild, or not polish their boots.” The commander of the Tiger Brigade, Colonel John Sylvester, notes: “We had twenty-five to thirty people in the brigade who had served in combat— all were senior NCOs. But no officer, except myself, was a veteran.”
Two Air Force generals—Charles Homer and Buster Glosson—tell how they reflected on their Vietnam experiences as they planned and directed the Coalition’s air operations. Six Air Force, Marine, and Navy aviators from two-star rank to lieutenant colonel also relate what air war was like from their perspectives. The commander of the Army aviation battalion who planned in secret the air war’s opening strike—a combined assault by Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and Air Force MH-53J Pave Low helicopters against critical Iraqi air-defense radars— and then led the flight of four Apaches that executed it describes the thrilling story of that mission.
Al Santoli’s book is a good mix. It imparts both flavor and interesting detail. But don’t try to read it all in one sitting.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Navies in the Nuclear Age: Warships Since 1945
Norman Friedman, Consulting Editor. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993. 224 pp. Bib. Gloss. Illus. Ind. Photos. $42.95 ($34-46).
The advent of nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion, teamed with new developments in electronics and the replacement of dreadnoughts with submarines and aircraft carriers, dictated a reevaluation of naval tactics and strategy in the post-World War II era. The latest in the 12-volume series Conway’s History of the Ship, this book’s excellent illustrations complement an authoritative and informative text.
The Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy
Spencer C. Tucker. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. 280 pp. Append. Bib. Figs. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. Tables. $39.95 ($37.95).
For all his greatness in other fields, President Thomas Jefferson’s naval policy was a disaster. Despite its ultimate failure during the War of 1812, the Gunboat Navy was not entirely ill-conceived. In an important historical work, Professor Tucker objectively examines this controversial policy and includes a careful study of the craft themselves.
Cruisers, Corsairs, and Slavers: An Account of the Suppression of the Picaroon, Pirate & Slaver by the Royal Navy during the 19th Century
Basil Lubbock. Glasgow, Scotland: Brown, Son & Ferguson, Ltd., 1993. 459 pp. Append. Bib. Illus. $52.50 ($49.88).
This book refutes the notion that the Royal Navy of the mid-19th century was inactive and stagnant. There was action aplenty in West Indian and African waters and many advances were made in British naval architecture. The book includes rousing accounts of hard-fought actions by small ships, detailed profiles of famous officers of the day, and thorough discussions of the technical development of British warships.
United States Naval History: A Bibliography
Seventh Edition revised by Barbara A. Lynch and John E. Vaida. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1993. 173 pp. Bib. Ind. $6.50 ($6.50). Paper
Since 1972, the Naval Historical Center has produced this very useful bibliography. This seventh edition contains more than 450 titles but is selective rather than exhaustive. The Foreword suggests that “its primary aim is to identify books and articles for the general reading needs of naval professionals, students, and the public,” and adds that “advanced researchers may find this compilation a useful starting point.” Entries are grouped both by chronological period and subject matter, so that the user may concentrate on a particular historical period (such as World War I) or specific topic (such as naval medicine).