Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II
Jerry E. Strahan. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. 382 pp. Bib. Ind. Notes. Photos. $29.95 ($26.95)
Reviewed by Dr. Robert L. Schema
Andrew Jackson Higgins was a quintessential U.S. capitalist. As a youngster, he developed lawn cutting and newspaper delivery into multi-employee businesses. During his 20s, he held jobs in the timber industry long enough to learn their associated skills and then moved on and up. And he was a business gambler; many times winning, sometimes losing.
When the timber industry in the South began to decline, the Nebraska- born Higgins turned his attentions to an earlier love—boat building. His first boat was one he salvaged from a lake at 12 years old. Even at this tender age he was concerned with improving a craft’s performance; during his teens, he built an ice boat that reached 60 miles per hour.
During the 1930s, Andrew Higgins established his yard in New Orleans and made his name specializing in work boats suited to the shallow, log-cluttered bayous of the Mississippi delta. His Wonderboat design evolved into the Eureka, which was capable of traveling at 20 miles per hour while drawing only ten inches of water.
The development of a shallow-draft work boat that could be beached and retrieved without sustaining damage should have interested the U.S. Navy—which at the same time was attempting to design personnel landing craft. But the Navy believed that its own designs were very close to success and, so, dismissed Higgins’s boats. It was not all the Navy’s fault, however. The hard- drinking, hard-charging Andrew Higgins had no patience with Washington bureaucrats. Therefore, although Higgins’s boats invariably won head-to-head competitions with other commercial and Navy designs, the Navy refused to order them until the necessity of approaching war forced it to do so.
Incredibly, the process was repeated— faster because war was looming—over the design of the landing craft, mechanized. Andrew Higgins refused to deal with the Navy; he insisted that the contract be supervised by the Marine Corps. It was built in 62 hours by modifying an unfinished commercial work boat and refining the design as work progressed.
Mr. Higgins’s talents and energy guaranteed that he would be involved in more than just the construction of landing craft. He carried on his typical feud with the Navy over the construction of PT boats. He believed that the Maritime Administration backed out of a commitment to build Liberty ships in his yard when it became apparent that he would outproduce the older, established shipyards. Acquiring an aircraft plant, he built Curtis Commando transports for the Army Air Forces. He also built the often-forgotten FS (freight-supply) and FP (freight-personnel) ships for the U.S. Army that were used throughout the Pacific theater. Higgins Industries was unorthodox in other ways. The company conducted the training of sailors on its craft, was among the first to train women for war production, and provided expanded opportunities for blacks.
Right or wrong in his feuds with Washington, Andrew Jackson Higgins was an industrial giant. He and other men like him gave Franklin D. Roosevelt the confidence to decide that the United States would fight World War II as much as possible with material and not blood.
This book should interest a myriad of readers. But it may be most valuable to those who want to know the intricacies of the acquisition process during World War II. After reading this book, one might ask how the United States was able to reach the production levels it did—especially given the bureaucratic hurdles described by the author. In part, the answer may be that those bureaucrats whom Andrew Jack- son Higgins despised may not have been as obstructionistic as he believed.
The Golden Ocean
Patrick O’Brian. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1994. 285 pp. $22.50 ($20.25).
Reviewed by Dr. Robert C. Jones
In September 1740, Commodore George Anson embarked from England with 2,000 men and a squadron of five men-of-war and three smaller ships on an expedition to the South Sea against the trade and colonies of Spain. Anson’s squadron preyed on enemy shipping; captured and sacked the Spanish stronghold of Paita, Peru; took the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Senora de Cobadonga off the Philippines; and returned home in June 1744 with £500,000 of treasure. However, only Anson’s flagship— HMS Centurion—and 227 men survived.
Originally published in 1956, The Golden Ocean, Patrick O’Brian’s first novel about the sea, is the story of Anson’s voyage, as experienced by Irish midshipman Peter Palafox and his lifelong friend Sean O’Mara—from the pair’s first encounters with the rigid discipline of a British man- of-war through violent storms around Cape Horn, and into the golden ocean where Spanish treasure, glory, and death await.
As in his widely popular Aubrey/Ma- turin novels, in The Golden Ocean Mr. O’Brian carefully authenticates his narrative, notably from the actual accounts of the expedition recorded in Anson’s Voyage. Also as in the later novels, his gentle and affectionate sense of comedy supports the story and lifts it into the realm of memorable writing.
As readers of Patrick O’Brian’s other novels might expect, he tells this tale with equal parts of laughter, sadness, and excitement. Irish bulls abound—Peter, asked whether boats in Ireland are made of wood, replies: “Sir, we do have wooden ones, but they are made of skins entirely”—as do barnacle-encrusted naval jokes—“By your leave, sir,” one of Peter’s innocent messmates confides to the commodore, “the men at the sharp end of the boat consider that the mainbrace needs splicing.” But despair and agony are also recreated—as in this vivid picture of Peter’s reaction when Centurion abandons its vigil for the Acapulco treasure galleon:
He was armed against disappointment, but not strongly armed enough. Like nearly all his shipmates ... he felt that she must sail because they had all worked so hard—they had cleaned the ships’ bottoms, they had brought the squadron to the highest pitch of readiness with devoted toil, they had sacrificed some of their prizes to concentrate their force, they had worked like galley-slaves, and they had deserved the galleon. So she must come—she must. He felt this very strongly, even after the squadron, terribly short of water, had stood off and on, rigidly in station, for still another twenty days .... He felt it even to the last moment, when the stormy season was coming fast ... in his mind, his intellect, it was plain that the galleon had been warned and would not sail; and yet when he heard the final order, “We will make sail, if you please, Mr Brett: the course north-east,” he turned away from the quarter-deck with a feeling in his heart like death.
And, like the relief of a thunderstorm after a brooding drought, there is the sharp realization of a ship-to-ship engagement:
The Centurion was firing her whole starboard double tier in an unending thunder .... He could see the frightful damage in the galleon. The wind tore the smoke, and there were officers running between the guns. Four ports forward had gone. Amidships two guns lay asprawl. Only four men held the quarter-deck, and as he looked one sank to his hands and knees. The Centurion was firing grape, and the murderous hail swept the galleon’s deck: the unceasing deadly fire from the tops rained down. Now it was the Centurion alone, firing without cease, the jetting flame and smoke and iron .... Over the galleon’s deserted main-deck .... a single figure raced for the windward rigging. He reached the maintop. At the main-topgallant mast-head the royal colours of Spain jerked, poised again for an instant, streaming in the wind, and then ran down, faster and faster, down in a dizzying flight down, struck down to the empty deck.
One is hard-pressed to explain just why Patrick O’Brian’s novels have attracted so wide and so enthusiastic a following. Part of their charm is in Mr. O’Brian’s ability to capture for us his characters as in real life—in a gesture, an image, a word or phrase—but the greater part is the almost magical creation of voice—that authentic voice of the time, whether comic, dramatic, historical, or sentimental.
The Golden Ocean will be welcomed by anyone who appreciates finely written, stirring literature—but especially by those waiting anxiously for Patrick O’Brian’s next Aubrey/Maturin adventure.
War in the Boats: My WWII Submarine Battles
Capt. William J. Ruhe, USN (Ret). McLean, VA: Brassey’s, 1994. 303 pp. Gloss. Illus. $22.95 ($20.65).
Reviewed by Commander Richard Compton-Hall, Royal Navy (Retired)
Who would have thought that Captain William J. Ruhe was once an alleged mutineer? On reflection, though, that is not so much of a surprise. Bill Ruhe is admired for his fighting spirit—which remains vigorous today—as well as for his forthright and objective comments on submarine history. If he reckoned that one of his wartime captains was not heading the right way to hurt the enemy it is understandable that he sought to remedy the situation without, or even contrary to, orders. Shades of the USS Caine? Not quite; however, Captain Ruhe’s real-life plot calls for similar judgment.
War in the Boats follows Captain Ruhe’s wartime career from mid-1942 to late 1944 during which he served in “the rusty old sewer pipe” S-37 (SS-14Z) and two fleet boats; the prewar USS Seadragon (SS-194) and the wartime-built USS Crevalle (SS- 291). It is an account quite different from those by the men who commanded U.S. submarines. Written from a relatively junior but mature viewpoint, its descriptions of war patrols are uniquely revealing.
Bill Ruhe’s hallmark is candor leavened by humor. He spares neither himself nor his shipmates in perceptive observations of tired men under great, sometimes intolerable, strain. Thus, we witness intimately the conflicts of personalities—inevitable in cramped, hot, comfortless, and dangerous surroundings—and the widely differing styles of submarine captains. Skill, perseverance, leadership, training, or—sometimes—sheer chance led to success; exhaustion, lack of spirit, indecisiveness, or a moment of reluctance spelled failure. These factors, so frankly portrayed, are of more than passing interest to a broad readership today—including submariners’ womenfolk.
The chapter titled “Mutiny?” probably will attract the most attention. The entire story of Crevalle must be scanned to gauge the validity of the question mark. The facts of the matter, in brief, are that her executive officer, Frank Walker, and her torpedo officer, William Ruhe, fired two tor- pedos from the surface at a Japanese submarine while the captain, Lieutenant Commander Henry Munson—supervising an identity challenge—was “off on a cloud somewhere.” As it happened both torpedoes—fired from the stern tubes—detonated short of the target. Bill Ruhe expresses a wish that he had arranged for the disconnection of their magnetic pistols without telling the captain—which alone indicates the relationship between Munson and his wardroom. The captain sent a bland signal to Rear Admiral Ralph Christie, the Commander, Southwest Pacific Submarine Force—headquartered at Perth, Australia—that the Crevalle had attacked a Japanese submarine which had replied correctly to a challenge—although Bill Ruhe’s questioning of the quartermaster who had flashed the identification message strongly suggested otherwise—but that the torpedoes exploded prematurely. Privately, of course, Henry Munson was furious and he continued to maintain that the target might have been a friendly submarine. He did not acknowledge that a Japanese flag was painted on the enemy’s conning tower—a fact that Bill Ruhe had pointed out to him.
Meanwhile, the crews’ morale was variable and there were petty squabbles in the wardroom—both consequences of the captain’s alarmingly erratic behavior. At one moment, Henry Munson was daring to the point of foolhardiness; at another, he deliberately avoided action with the enemy. Later in the patrol, Munson overheard Walker and Ruhe protesting his steering away from ships that the Crevalle had damaged. “All right,” he said sarcastically, “you fellows go ahead and conn my boat wherever you damn well please.” Walker did just that—and conducted a successful approach. The not surprising result of this and the previous incident was the threat of a court martial for the two officers.
Commander Munson’s moods continued to swing wildly—from accusations of mutiny to praise for making the patrol a great success—until the Crevalle returned to Perth. There, Admiral Christie awarded a Navy Cross to Henry Munson—and then relieved him and appointed Walker in his stead. Henry Munson freely admitted that he had not been “putting it all together, and that he had ‘blanked out’ at times.” Presumably, his eight previous combat patrols had been too much; they had robbed him of a captain’s essential quality—unflagging determination.
The readers probably will agree that Frank Walker and Bill Ruhe acted correctly and courageously. Also, it is good to know that Henry Munson recovered his nerve and successfully commanded the USS Rasher (SS-269).
Another unnerving experience lay ahead for the crew of the Crevalle, however. A very rapid surfacing drill conducted near the Makassar Strait went horridly wrong. The boat was brought to the surface by high speed on the motors and rise on the planes and with ballast tank vents open—a risky procedure at the best of times. Then the stem planes jammed on a hard dive. The submarine dove sharply (a 42° down angle); a torrent of water came into the boat; the upper hatch could not be unlatched to shut it; the lower hatch was blocked by deck matting. The depth gauge passed 150 feet before the upper hatch slammed shut of its own accord and 190 feet before emergency backing on the motors brought the boat to the surface again. With the vents open, blowing ballast scarcely helped. The tons of water shipped by the Crevalle had wreaked havoc with much of the equipment—including the gyrocompass and the radio. Two men were lost and many of the crew plunged into “black, fatalistic” moods. But, somehow, they survived.
Could such things happen again? Not in the same way perhaps. Nonetheless, history is only another word for experience— which always is unwise to ignore. Bill Ruhe’s insights, especially those concerning human frailties and reactions in stressful situations, are well worth remembering—and help make War in the Boats an enthralling read.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Fatal Cruise of the Argus
Ira Dye. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994. 480 pp. Bib. Ind. Notes. Photos. $35.00 ($28.00).
This true adventure story captures the dramatic character of war at sea during the Napoleonic era. By tracing the careers of two officers—one American, the other British—the author brilliantly describes this period, which saw the birth and rise of the U.S. Navy and some of the most glorious and colorful exploits of the Royal Navy. This vibrant book—rich in detail about life and war at sea—is certain to delight anyone with an interest in the age of fighting sail.
The Spanish Treasure Fleets
Timothy R. Walton. Sarasota, FL; Pineapple Press, 1994. 256 pp. Gloss Illus. Id. Maps. Notes. Photos. $24.95 ($22.45)
Huge convoys of ships carried treasure from Spain’s New World empire for nearly 200 years and, in so doing, altered the world’s economy forever. This book details that story in five chronological chapters—describing the phases of Spanish conquest, consolidation, ascendancy, decline, and recovery of these fascinating two centuries. A final chapter chronicles the rediscovery of many of these treasures and the reconstruction of history through underwater archaeology.
A History of Working Watercraft of the Western World: 2nd Edition
Thomas C. Gillmer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. 288 pp. Figs. Illus. Ind. Photos. $29.95 ($26.95).
This updated version of a book originally published in 1972 incorporates the great expansion of knowledge obtained in the past 20 years by underwater archaeologists with the aid of new technological innovations. Covered in close detail is the development of working boats—from ancient Athenian triremes and Viking long boats to modem Gulf Coast shrimpers and Chesapeake Bay skipjacks. Detailed drawings and excellent photographs enhance the narrative provided by one of the foremost naval architects and maritime historians in the United States.
The Inchon Landing, Korea, 1950: An Annotated Bibliography
Paul M. Edwards. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. 146 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Maps. $49.95.
The landing at Inchon is one of the most important amphibious landings in history. Undertaken against great odds at a time when many experts—including senior U.S. officers—had declared amphibious operations obsolete, the landing turned the tide of the Korean War as decisively as any other battle in any other war. This bibliography lists and describes the many sources of information about this important campaign, including books, dissertations, journal articles, fiction, and films.
Timelines of War: A Chronology of Warfare from 100,000 BC to the Present
David Brownstone and Irene Franck. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994. 576 pp. Ind. $29.95 ($26.95).
From the slingshot to nuclear weapons, from the siege of Troy to the Bosnian civil war, this comprehensive work presents humanity’s wars, revolutions, coups, and rebellions throughout all known history. The earliest spear was discovered in Germany and dates from about 120,000 BC; probable fragments of spears that have been found in England date from roughly 300,000 BC. From those dim glimpses of the past to the glittering modern age of the information revolution, one common thread persists: conflict. The story of human conflict is presented in a linear/geographic format that is easy to use and invites either focused or comparative surveys.
A Historical Dictionary of the Merchant Marine and Shipping Industry
Rene De La Pedraia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. 768 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. $99.95 ($94.95).
More than 500 entries provide a comprehensive reference work about the history of the U.S. shipping industry since the advent of steam propulsion. Subjects covered include engineering and technological developments, key personalities, specialized terms, maritime laws, and notable ships that have had significant impact on this important industry. Several appendices round out the book by providing a chronology, diagrams of government organizations, and lists of business and labor groups associated with the industry.