Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice
Adam Makos. New York: Ballantine Books, 2015. 464 pp. Maps. Illus. Notes. Biblio. $28.
Reviewed by David Sears
Adam Makos makes a candid admission in Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, his account of Korean War naval aviators Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner. In the fall of 2007, when he first approached Hudner for an interview, Makos assumed his subject was a World War II veteran. Hudner had, after all, flown World War II–era inverted gull-wing F4U Corsairs. Makos concedes: “To me, the Korean War was a mystery. . . . Only later did I discover a surprising reality: The Greatest Generation actually fought two wars.”
Actually, including Vietnam, more than a handful of soldiers, sailors, and airmen from this illustrious cohort fought three. In this and other matters, Devotion sometimes skimps on broader historical context. That said, Makos has written convincingly about the Korean War. Moreover, his book will appeal to a wide-ranging audience—a means, I hope, of keeping the conflict and its underappreciated veterans from fading deeper into the mists of history.
When he encountered Hudner, Makos was a young magazine writer still working on his first book. He and Larry Alexander have since published A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II (Berkley, 2014), an aviation bestseller that recounts, in deeply human terms, a December 1943 encounter between the American crew of a crippled B-17 bomber and a Luftwaffe fighter pilot poised to finish them off. Its very title hints that A Higher Call is about something more than a zero-sum game. Delving into the dynamics of a brotherhood among aviators of all stripes, the book demonstrated that battleground chivalry was still possible.
Devotion advances the chivalry marker into the second half of the 20th century. Its protagonists are also aviators, but the circumstances are different. A fighter pilot is trapped in the cockpit of his downed aircraft in a remote enemy-held landscape. The book injects an implicit element of race: The downed airman is black, his squadron mates hovering overhead are white. What would or could any of them possibly do to help their compatriot?
While the progress of racial integration in the U.S. military during much of the 20th century was woeful, the Navy’s record was arguably worse than the Army’s. The Navy didn’t commission its first black officers—13 Officer Candidate School graduates—until 1944. The U.S. Naval Academy was even more grudging: Up to the beginning of World War II, only five blacks gained admission to Annapolis, and none graduated. It was not until 1949, as detailed by Robert J. Schneller Jr. in Breaking the Color Barrier (NYU Press, 2005) that Midshipman Wesley Brown achieved the seemingly impossible.
Indeed, had it not been for the Navy’s postwar Aviation Midshipman Program, it’s doubtful naval aviation squadrons would have welcomed black flyers—reservist or regular—until well beyond Korea. As it was, Jesse Brown arrived in Glenview, Illinois, as the sole black cadet among 600 in his Selective Flight Training class. It is a tribute to Brown’s perseverance (abetted by fair-minded flight instructors) that he became the first black American naval aviator in October 1948.
The Jesse Brown/Tom Hudner story is not new. Theodore Taylor’s The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown (Avon Books, 1998) first brought it to my attention. I covered the story (but with much less mastery than either Taylor or Makos) in Such Men as These: The Story of the Navy Pilots Who Flew the Deadly Skies Over Korea (DaCapo, 2010). In telling his version, Taylor relies heavily on Brown’s letters to his wife and imagined inner dialogues. Makos, it’s clear, has researched deeply and interviewed exhaustively, and he has added an important perspective: the plight of the Chosin Reservoir Marines for whom Brown and Hudner provided air-to-ground support. The result is a rounded and satisfying narrative in which action sequences are particularly visceral.
The author quotes dialogue generously, always a hazard for narratives of decades-old events. For my taste, the dialogue works best when the action is hottest and talk is shortest. Elsewhere—for example, an extended exchange between Tom Hudner and his father about the rationale for fighting in Korea—it seems stilted, almost preachy. Makos’ style is to propel the story through short vignettes. This gives it immediacy but also makes the narrative choppy. While I wanted smoother transitions, I doubt many readers will mind.
In one way, Devotion regresses from the even-handedness displayed in A Higher Call. The Chinese communists and the North Koreans make for too-easy, too one-dimensional villains. Makos, in turn, too easily refers to U.N. allies as “the forces of democracy.” That is largely true, but also deserves context. The “forces of democracy,” for example, included representation from apartheid South Africa. And, for his part, South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, a rival strongman to North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, was more dictator then democrat.
In all, however, I congratulate Makos on his terrific work. I also congratulate its many readers, who will digest a war story with true redemptive value, one that points to a time—distant to be sure—when we might all be able to judge human conflict from the standpoint of common humanity.
Omaha Beach on D-Day
Robert Capa, Jean-David Morvan, Dominique Bertail. New York: First Second Books, 2015. 100 pps. Illus. Photos. $24.99.
Reviewed by Drew Ford
“I didn’t know who that unarmed guy was. But to be honest, I wondered what the hell was a photographer doing there?” said Private First Class Huston Riley of Fox Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, when asked if he remembered seeing Hungarian war photographer and photojournalist Robert Capa at Omaha. Riley, as discovered some 63 years later in 2007 by a professor at the University of Illinois, unwittingly took center stage in the most famous photo to survive what took place on Omaha Beach during D-Day. The photo came to be known as The Face in the Surf, and is one of only nine shots that remain, taken on the beach that bloody day in 1944. Over the years, the images have come to represent D-Day to many of us, so it is no wonder they would be featured in Omaha Beach on D-Day, a one-of-a-kind new book featuring (as the copy on its back cover states) “comics, photos, and essays telling the fascinating story behind Robert Capa’s photographs and the day he captured the most enduring image of his career.”
Graphic novels and photography books about World War II are nothing new. Graphic novels such as Pulitzer Prize–winning Maus (Pantheon, 1986 and 1991) by Art Spiegelman, in which the cartoonist interviews his father about how he survived the Holocaust, and the more recently released and highly popular The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II (Naval Institute Press, 2012), remain popular to both history buffs and the general public. With Omaha Beach on D-Day, however, we have something completely different: By combining the elements of a graphic novel with some of the most important photos taken during World War II, First Second Books has delivered a groundbreaking publication.
This graphic storytelling is the combined effort of author Jean-David Morvan and illustrator Dominique Bertail, and delivers a striking firsthand account of Capa’s journey before, during, and after he bravely stepped foot on Omaha Beach to document what would become one of the most significant moments in the history of war. The fact that the book visually takes readers through the steps leading to the creation of those photos as well as Capa’s resulting celebrity and career is incredible, and so much more informative than another contemporary essay about something that took place decades ago. The graphic-novel section of Omaha Beach on D-Day takes us to the heat of that moment, throwing us into the action, bringing history alive in a way that the photos alone simply cannot.
The following essays and photos are wonderfully crafted and curated, gathered from interviews, testimonials, contact sheets, and more than 40 pages of photographic archives from the Magnum Photos agency, and fill in the story behind the heroic actions on the horrific day that took place on this otherwise pedestrian-looking beach. Capa surely said it best: “At some point, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer [a town in France along what became known as Omaha Beach] must have been a cheap resort for vacationing French schoolteachers. But now, on June 6, 1944, it was the ugliest beach in the whole world.”
Omaha Beach on D-Day is both engaging and informative. The combination of the graphic novel and the photography is inspired, and I was excited to see an announcement issued by First Second that this is just the first in a new series of similar publications that will be dedicated to exploring iconic moments from throughout World War II history. Robert Capa’s photographs, blurred and shaky as they might be, are truly awe-inspiring. And, energized and stirred, I am sure, by such imagery, Moran and Bertail put together a collection of words and pictures that breathe new life into both Capa’s personal journey and the incredible story of D-Day. Highly recommended.
A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks
Stewart Gordon. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2015. 270 pp. Illus. Notes. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Andrew C. A. Jampoler
A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks is Stewart Gordon’s sixth book. Now a senior research scholar at the University of Michigan’s Center for South Asian Studies, Gordon, a specialist in the history of India, has taught for decades, published many articles in journals, and lectured widely. His well-received last book, When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the “Riches of the East” (Da Capo Press, 2008) drew on the diaries and letters of nine contemporaries to colorfully describe life in Asia from 700 to 1500 A.D.
Sixteen Shipwrecks broadens Gordon’s focus to encompass the globe, and spans not eight centuries but eight millennia of human history. He uses the “wrecks” of 16 representative historic ship types, and insights about what the design, materials, construction, and capabilities of each reveal, to illuminate how we got to today’s “single unified, globalized maritime world” from a very modest starting point: a mahogany dugout found some 30 years ago in Nigeria that floated, perhaps, on Lake Chad in 6000 B.C. That’s a lot to do in a little under 300 pages.
As revealed by the book’s cover depicting the RMS Lusitania going down by the bow, three portside life boats in the water, a fourth cocked dangerously in its falls, Gordon interprets “shipwreck” very broadly, to include a pharaonic funeral barge that never floated on the Nile, a Viking boat that served as the dry-land bier for an unknown chieftain, and the unfinished hull of a nameless cog—an enormously important medieval merchant-ship design—that also never went to sea. Fully half of his examples require such an elastic definition of “wreck.”
It’s easy to suggest other, true wrecks that could have carried Gordon’s analysis along. My nominations include the iron-hulled paddle-wheeler HMS Birkenhead, whose sinking in 1852 gave birth to the tradition of “women and children first” that much later the captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, another of Gordon’s exemplars, violated so cravenly. Another would be the German-built container ship MV Rena, which broke up on a reef off New Zealand in 2011 with 3,300 containers on board. The Rena’s slow destruction offers an easy segue into the subject of containerization—modern ships carry as many as 19,000 containers—a 60-year-old technology that has revolutionized global logistics and shipping patterns perhaps as much as the introduction of steam propulsion or the opening of the two great canals did.
That said, Gordon’s choices are reasonable in view of what he aims to do, even if his title is misleading. The first of the 16 wrecks is the “Dufuna Dugout,” a proto-canoe barely two steps up from straddling a log, a boat type ubiquitous on the Upper Congo River today. Among the other 15 are an also-nameless 2,200-year-old sailing vessel that went down off the coast of Turkey carrying copper, glass, and preciosities, possibly to Mycenae; the six-year-old galleon Los Tres Reyes wrecked and salvaged off Cartagena in 1634 that introduces an enjoyable riff on the Spanish Empire and the mineral wealth of its colonies; and the clipper Flying Cloud, Gordon’s vehicle for a discussion of the economics of speed, Maury’s brilliant charts of winds and currents of the world ocean, and whaling.
Alas, Professor Gordon doesn’t quite pull off his really good idea, and structure ekes out a win over substance. Some chapters offer interesting insights and manage the leap from the specific to the general smoothly. A good example is his essay on the riverboat Lucy Walker, which blew up in 1844 on the Ohio River killing perhaps two-thirds of the crew and passengers on board. Steamboats, he points out, solved the tough problem of moving people and things upriver economically and on schedule, granted at some risk, just as steam at sea made return trips against the wind or in restricted waters routine. Steam power ended, for example, the clots of sailing ships schooling together for weeks off the southern entrance of the Dardanelles, waiting for favorable winds to push them up to Istanbul through the narrow strait.
Other chapters, including the ones about the Exxon Valdez and Costa Concordia, aground in 1998 and 2012 respectively, offer workmanlike but not especially revealing short accounts of these disasters, with small contributions to the progress of Gordon’s thesis.
Overall, Sixteen Shipwrecks is an innovative approach to—but not an altogether successful effort at—thinking and writing about maritime history on a very large scale. Gordon’s short conclusion reminds us of his thesis that “we can conceive of the long arc of human history as the gradual, halting process of the integration of local maritime activities into larger and larger regions.” We can, “but the greater and greater maritime trans-regional integration” that he discerns in the succession of wrecks could have been more persuasively described and elegantly phrased.
World War II at Sea: A Naval View of the Global Conflict: 1939 to 1945
Jeremy Harwood. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2015. 208 pp. Illus. Maps. Biblio. Index. $30.
Reviewed by Thomas B. Allen
This gem of a book portrays exactly what its title promises: the history of World War II at sea. In addition to epic and decisive battles, author Jeremy Harwood covers a range of topics, including the Germans’ plan for invading England and the tense disarming of a German magnetic mine in a Thames mudflat.
Harwood is thorough without being pedantic. To describe the condition of the world’s leading navies in 1939, he consults the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. In a concise analysis, he shows that the political decisions made during that time produced British and French fleets too old and too small to win in battles against German warships and U-boats. The United States of the 1930s, however, looked ahead: President Franklin Roosevelt anticipated war and convinced Congress to authorize the building of a modern U.S. Navy.
A comprehensive time line begins with a U-boat sinking the British aircraft carrier Courageous off Ireland on 17 September 1939 and ends with U.S. planes sinking Japan’s last super-battleship Yamato on 7 April 1945. Numerous photos with detailed captions supplement the text. The book looks at the European war when it begins in September 1939, with British and French declarations against Germany. Britain rules the first part of the book, in which vivid, authoritative accounts tell of the sinking of the Royal Oak, the pursuit of the Graf Spee, the hunt for the Bismark, and the German invasion of Norway. The United States does not join the action until page 79, when a Japanese striking force heads for its target: Pearl Harbor. From then on, the American sea war dominates the book.
For readers accustomed to following the war in biographies of U.S. admirals or in American-focused books such as Ian W. Toll’s Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942 (Norton, 2012) or John Prados’ Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of: American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II (Random House, 1995), Harwood’s view of the war will be a surprise and perhaps a disappointment. The book delivers the war in capsules rather than a grand sustained narrative. Harwood divides the book into four parts—”Beginnings,” “Global Warfare,” “The Turning of the Tide,” and “Endgame.” In each section he explores subtopics that include specific battles and campaigns, along with descriptions of ship types and weapons. Despite a somewhat encyclopedic structure, the writing itself is crisp and studded with moments that suddenly bring human beings into focus, such as when Japan’s Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai approaches Emperor Hirohito to report the sinking of the superbattleship Yamato and the loss of perhaps as many as 4,250 men.
“The emperor seemed not to understand,” Harwood writes. “He peered at Yonai though his spectacles. ‘What about the navy?’ he asked, ‘What is the status of the fleet?’ There was no fleet, Yonai told him.”
Harwood frequently goes beyond the standard description of well-known events, presenting a multilayered view that looks at what happened, why, and how it fulfills the promise of the book’s subhead: A Naval View of the Global Conflict: 1939 to 1945. In his section on Arctic convoys, for instance, he describes the special, lamb’s wool–lined duffle coats worn on frigid voyages preyed on by U-boats and ending 750 miles from the North Pole.
His account of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk in 1940 is riveting. After providing background, he delivers a trenchant quote from the diary of General Sir Edmund Ironside, chief of the Imperial General Staff: “God help the BEF, brought to this state by the incompetence of the French Command.” Ironside, in rage and sorrow, expected that no more than 30,000 men on the beach would be saved. A sidebar shows the evacuation routes, illustrated by one of the clear schematic maps that dot the book. In another section, a lieutenant describes the beach, with men lined up three abreast, “scattering each time planes passed overhead, then rushing back to form up” as they slosh toward hundreds of small civilian boats, the rear ranks passing “from ankle deep to knee deep, from knee deep to waist deep, until they, too, came to shoulder deep and their turn” to board. Saved were 288,572 men of the BEF, 26,995 of the French rearguard—and “a little dog” that “only understood French.”
I highly recommend this book.