Corvettes Canada: Convoy Veterans of WW II Tell Their True Stories
Mac Johnston. Toronto and Montreal: McGraw-Hill Ryerson. 1994. Bib. Ind. Photos. 319 pp. $29.95 ($26.95).
Reviewed by Dr. Michael L. Hadley
The Canadian Navy offers a surprisingly rich historiographical legacy despite the fact that—with the exception of World War II, when it fought in virtually all major theaters—Canada has never been a major maritime power. Established as a minor force of a colonial nation in 1910, the Canadian Navy came of age during the Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945). In creating a major oceanic fleet, it expanded from 13 warships and 3,000 personnel in 1939 to some 365 warships and 100,000 personnel at the end of the war—an extraordinary feat of production, mobilization, and training. Forming the backbone of Canada’s fleet were the doughty corvettes. Originally designed for coastal escort, these tiny ships were thrust quickly into transocean escort duty by the exigencies of war.
The Battle of the Atlantic, therefore, is regarded as a rite of passage not only for Canada’s navy, but also for the generation of young Canadians who went to sea. For Canada and its navy, the Battle of the Atlantic is the same kind of defining moment as the Battle of Vimy Ridge in World War I was for the Canadian Army. Small wonder, then, that scholars revisit those days in exacting detail, and veterans revisit the crucible with both nostalgia and pride. Written largely by Canadians themselves, the literature has probed everything from politics to technology and tactics in an effort to define precisely what it all meant. So intense is this examination that one British historian has claimed that the Canadian Navy is the most thoroughly researched in the world.
Not surprisingly then, the Battle of the Atlantic has spawned a number of veterans’ memoirs. In telling their ‘true tales,’ they sometimes have portrayed more of their own egos than the national experience itself. This is perhaps unavoidable since the very fact of writing autobiographical accounts makes a statement about character. But silent veterans have had their valid experiences as well which, though personal, reflect many intriguing facts about the corvette navy. In 1981, recognizing the significance of the silent majority, the Ottawa Branch of the Naval Officers’ Association of Canada began sponsoring a series of small volumes entitled Salty Dips, edited by Mack Lynch. The Association inveigled its members to come forward with their memories of days When We Were Young and in Our Prime, as the subtitle of one of the volumes put it. These were largely anecdotal yams—but to the surprise of many, historians have found them extremely useful for their human dimensions and color as well as their often unexpected insights into technology, training, and operations. Mac Johnston’s Corvettes Canada follows in this tradition.
The editor and manager of Legion Magazine and a former parliamentary reporter for Thomson News Service, Johnston set himself the daunting task of collating and editing memories of the corvette navy. The key to the project was Jack Muir, whose hobby of maintaining address lists of World War II ships’ companies led to contact with the crews. While the book, as Johnston explains, “is basically the product of the memories of more than 250 men,” he has culled these from more than 1,900 letters from more than 450 people. “In choosing this direction and selecting the individual accounts,” he points out, he “sought to establish a broad base, to include a large number of recollections and to tap the richness that flows from individuality of expression.” In doing so, Johnston has sought to close what he rightly recognized as one of the major gaps in Canadian naval historiography: the lower-deck. Here lies his unique contribution.
Nevertheless, he is aware of the difficulties in mustering such a broad range of memory on such a wide variety of themes. His preface warns us of the inevitable risk of repetition and inaccuracy. And, as Johnston himself anticipated, narrative style varies widely. Where some writers are insightful and articulate, others are awkward and superficial. But that perhaps is all to the good, for in Johnston’s words, “these accounts collectively reconstruct a pretty accurate impression of our corvette navy.”
As editor of the corvette navy’s epistolary legacy he chose to knit the contributions together with his own narrative links, bridging the gaps and lightly filling in whatever historical background he deemed necessary. The achievement is frequently less felicitous than one would have hoped. One is irritated, for example, by bridging which is merely trivial or gratuitous: “Half a century later this part of their life is long past”; “A ship at sea is a 24-hour operation”; “Newfoundland comes to mind when the subject is seasickness.” And one soon tires of the awkwardness in such repeated links between reminiscences as “Bloggins of Salmon Arm says this”—followed by Bloggins’s one or two lines—and “Buggins of Three Rivers says that”—with the inevitable yam. A smooth thematic integration of narratives would have been better.
This is “a popular history aimed at a general audience,” Johnston informs us. He intended it to please veterans and “impart to younger Canadians an appreciation of those who went before, who helped this country get to where it is today.” These are laudable endeavors indeed. But in failing to provide a decent index his book delivers much less than it might. Veterans and their families can look up each other’s names and ships—for that’s all that the index contains. Had it included themes— gunnery drill, training, discipline, sinkings, victualling, attitude to war, and survival at sea (just some of the rich fare provided)— it would help us get to the Navy’s experience without obliging us to slog through so much uneven prose. His publisher did Johnston a disservice by not insisting he correct this critical shortcoming in an otherwise useful and pleasant book.
By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia
Edward J. Marolda. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1994-416 pp. Append. Bib. Gloss. Illus. Ind. Maps. Photos. $43.00 ($40.85).
Reviewed by Commander R. L. Schreadley, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Twenty years have sped by since the fall of Saigon and the close of the U.S. crusade in Southeast Asia. For many who served there, the pictures in the mind have faded (as much as they are ever likely to do) and recollections of events that once were sharp and clear are now blurred— mercifully so, in some instances, sadly so in others.
For the millions of young Americans who served in Vietnam, the war was a defining experience, the adventure of a lifetime. For them, the war probably will never be completely out of mind. Like a recurrent theme in some great musical composition, a moment of high drama, the face of a stricken comrade, or the wondrous beauty of a river often returns to enliven and color a remembrance or a dream.
All wars have this effect on the survivors. What makes Vietnam special is the inescapable fact that, uncharacteristically, the nation abandoned in medias res the crusade they served in, and, to a degree, abandoned its veterans as well. Some 58,000 American lives were sacrificed in Vietnam for no easily identifiable purpose or achievement. It was tough to swallow then, and it is tough to swallow now.
In publishing Dr. Marolda’s handsomely designed and structured book, the Naval Historical Center has performed a valuable service. The strength of By Sea, Air, and Land unquestionably lies in its carefully selected photographs, drawings, and paintings: There a PBR cruises the Long Tau; from the vantage point of years (and as it must have appeared to Viet Cong gunners then) it looks like a target in a penny arcade shooting gallery; here a young and hirsute Admiral Elmo Zumwalt meets with Seventh Fleet sailors, trying his earnest, futile best to make the Z-Gram Navy better and more “people-oriented.” Turn the page and you see a destroyer churning the stormy waters of the Tonkin Gulf, a battleship blasting the North Vietnamese coast, a Corsair ready for launch from the deck of a carrier. Next, you are with Navy SEALs in the Mekong Delta; a “Zippo” boat spouts flame; the body of a dead VC is displayed, trophy-like, on the banks of a muddy river; a Navy chaplain baptizes sailors in the waters of perhaps that same river. The memories! The memories!
Appendices include pictures and citations honoring the Navy’s 14 Vietnam War recipients of the Medal of Honor; a list of Secretaries of the Navy and key commanders from 1950 to 1975, carrier deployments; aircraft tailcodes; and enemy aircraft shot down by naval aviators. It is, in fact, a researcher’s delight.
For all that it includes—and it includes a lot—the book nevertheless makes no real attempt to explain the penultimate failure of the U.S. Navy’s mission in Vietnam. The “accelerated turnover” (ACTOV) of U.S. Navy ships, craft, and material to the Vietnamese was an unmitigated disaster, and the inability of the Vietnamese Navy to perform credibly after departure of U.S. Navy operating forces undoubtedly hastened the collapse of South Vietnam.
Why this was so is interesting and a little sad. My own view, expressed fully elsewhere, is that “Vietnamization”—of which ACTOV was the outstanding example— was nothing but a fig leaf fashioned to cover a policy of cut-and-run from a contest that U.S. political leaders had lost the stomach to pursue. That many thousands of Americans were killed during the prolonged withdrawal such a policy entailed is tragic and shameful. Further muddying these waters is not, however, the purpose and intent of the Naval Historical Center—or necessarily in its interest.
Edward Marolda, long time head of the Center’s Contemporary History Branch, has done his work well. The Navy’s role in the war, what it did, what it attempted to do, is fully compiled and recorded. His book should be a valuable addition to any collection of Vietnam era literature. I am proud to have it in mine.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler U.S. Navy (Retired)
American Military History: A Guide to Reference and Information Sources
Daniel K. Blewett. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1994. 300 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. $52.00 ($49.40).
Scholars, buffs, and other researchers will find this a useful tool. Concentrating on reference works and on sources of information, rather than upon individual historical works, this is a kind of door to other doors. Each of America’s wars is covered in a separate section while other chapters deal with subjects like “Arms Control and Disarmament,” “Terrorism,” “Intelligence,” and “Historiography.” There are several other particularly useful chapters including “Electronic Information Sources” (which covers online and CD-ROM sources), “Museums,” and “Organizations and Associations.” Chapters are subdivided into types of source: atlases, chronologies, bibliographies, biographical dictionaries, indexes, glossaries, etc., and some of the larger chapters have subheadings for the individual armed services.
Into the Jet Age: Conflict and Change in Naval Aviation, 1945-1975
Capt. E. T. Wooldridge, USN (Ret.), Ed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995. 345 pp. Append. Bib. Gloss. Ind. Maps. Photos. $32.50 ($26.00).
The reminiscences of the men who were there lend a unique perspective to the revolution and evolution of naval aviation during the three decades following World War II. Korea, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Washington politics, and technological developments are some of the subjects covered. Such illustrious officers as Arleigh Burke, Gerald E. Miller, John S. Thach, G. G. O'Rourke, Gerald F. Bogan, and William P. Lawrence are among the contributors to this unique work. No stranger to naval aviation himself, Senator John S. McCain writes in the foreword: “I thoroughly enjoyed this fine book, as I know you will. Tim Wooldridge, a top-notch naval aviator in his own right, has done an outstanding job putting together this collection of oral histories in a manner that provides a true depiction of the events of this period, as well as showing a glimpse of the personal travails and triumphs of these distinguished naval officers.”
Okinawa: The Last Battle of World War II
Robert Leckie. New York: Viking, 1995. 230 pp. Ind. Photos. $24.95 ($22.45).
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the last major battle of World War II, a veteran of the Pacific War and author of more than 30 books tells the story of the terrible battle for the last stepping stone to Japan with the color and accuracy that have become his hallmarks. Kamikazes, banzai charges, horrific carnage, inspiring heroism, and dogged determination are all part of this sprawling battle that occurred so late in the war, yet meant so much. Kirkus Reviews writes, “The author relates main incidents of the four- month battle in brief sketches enlivened by anecdotes about GIs, Marines, and sailors, and glimpses of Japanese generals planning impregnable networks of caves and tactics designed to repel the American invaders.”
Rolling Thunder: The American Strategic Bombing Campaign Against North Vietnam 1964-68
John T. Smith. St. Paul, MN: Phalanx Publishing, 1995. 360 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $29.95 ($28.45). Paper.
The result of 12 years of painstaking research, this detailed analysis of the U.S. strategic air campaign against North Vietnam evaluates that failed strategy while revealing many of its facets in minute detail. Ten appendices cover order of battle, electronic counter measures, types of aircraft employed, and air-to-air refueling techniques among others. More than 108 photos and six maps enhance the presentation.
Shadow of Suribachi: Raising the Flags on Iwo Jima
Parker Bishop Albee, Jr., and Keller Cushing Freeman. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1991. 232 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $27.95 ($26.55).
On 23 February 1945, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took a picture that became a national icon. Those six Marines raising Old Glory at the hard- won summit of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima is an image that nearly every American recognizes. But in the 50 years since that powerful photograph was taken, many myths have grown up around that famous flag-raising. The authors provide a comprehensive account of what happened that day as well as what led up to that inspiring moment. The Marines and the photographer who immortalized them tell the story through letters and interviews. Joe Rosenthal writes that this book “is a research work of art by highly competent scholars. It is important as it separates myths from facts about an important event in the life of gallant U.S. Marines.”
Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times
Lionel Casson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994- 160 pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Notes. Photos. $24.95 ($22.45). Paper.
Copublished with The British Museum Press, this beautifully illustrated book reveals how the discoveries of marine archaeologists and recent experiments with full-size replicas have increased our understanding of the ways in which ships and boats were built and used in ancient times. The vessels of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Vikings are studied, revealing more about these peoples than just their seafaring practices. Drawing upon surviving written accounts and utilizing contemporary artistic depictions, Professor Casson brings to life ancient naval battles and trading expeditions.