Inside the US Navy of 1812–1815
William S. Dudley. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021. 348 pp. Notes. Index. Maps. Illus. $54.95.
Reviewed by William J. Prom
In his newest book, William S. Dudley provides a comprehensive look at the inner workings and development of the War of 1812 U.S. Navy. Rather than a recitation of the frigate duels and naval exploits of the war, Dudley’s expressed purpose for the book is to “demonstrate the importance of logistics of the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812.” He follows the transformation of the Navy from a service lacking in administrative and logistical infrastructure to one developing the bureaucratic professionalization that a naval service requires.
The opening chapter of Inside the US Navy of 1812–1815 describes the logistical requirements of an Age of Sail navy and discusses the interconnectedness of various theaters of war. Here, Dudley introduces key abilities to sustain military operations that are addressed throughout the book: collecting resources, maintaining supply lines, providing flexible logistical support, and understanding that resources spent in one theater deny them in another.
After a concise history of the American naval service from the Continental Navy to 1812, Dudley paints a bleak picture of the Navy’s preparedness and department leadership when the United States declared war on Great Britain. Many of the Navy’s famous successes occurred in the opening months of the war, but Dudley does not provide much tactical detail on these engagements. Instead, he focuses on the administrative side, to demonstrate what led to the actions and the second- and third-order effects of the engagements at an operational and strategic level.
The book is well organized to cover the war chronologically, while still having chapters focused on specific theaters or aspects of the war. Some of these chapters, such as “Sailors, Privateers, and Munitions,” “Naval Innovation and Inventions,” and “Sailors’ Life and Work,” can stand alone, each having its own thesis. However, their combination and sequencing within the book’s progression through the war better illuminate the transformation of the Navy.
If the book has a protagonist, it is William Jones, Secretary of the Navy from January 1813 to November 1814. From his first introduction, Jones is implementing changes to formalize processes and professionalize the service. Throughout the book, Dudley depicts how Jones’ administrative and logistical management of resources and manpower facilitated and reacted to the various battles and engagements of the war. Ultimately, it was Jones’ recommendations on reorganizing the department at the end of his service that had the most significant effects on the Navy.
The inventor Robert Fulton also receives considerable praise as much more than simply the inventor of the first commercially successful steamboat. Jones was eager for opportunities to innovate, which made him a welcoming audience for Fulton’s other inventions, such as the first steam-powered warship, the Demologos. Although ahead of its time, the Demologos did not revolutionize naval warfare during the war, nor did his attempts at underwater mines, torpedoes, and submarines.
Dudley makes it quite clear that the United States did not win the War of 1812 and that the devastating losses coupled with the stunning victories produced a public interested in improving the Navy—a vital element in the service’s development. For readers and scholars wishing for a deeper comprehension of the War of 1812 or a better understanding of the administration, operation, and requirements of an Age of Sail navy, Inside the US Navy of 1812–1815 is an excellent resource. In addition, this book is essential reading for understanding this chapter in the U.S. Navy’s evolution from the Continental Navy of the 18th century to the global power of the 21st century.
Mr. Prom graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in history with honors and a commission in the Marine Corps. His work has appeared in Naval History, CIMSEC, and elsewhere.
Overnight Code: The Life of Raye Montague, The Woman Who Revolutionized Naval Engineering
Paige Bowers and David R. Montague. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2021. Notes. 228 pp. $26.99.
Reviewed by Ensign Jada Rivera, U.S. Navy Reserve
Raye Montague was a female African-American naval engineer who grew up in the segregated South and faced many impediments to her eventual success. Her story is told by writer Paige Bowers, and Montague’s son, David, whom she raised as a single mother in Washington, D.C., while working as a general schedule employee for the Navy.
David, Raye’s only child, is a PhD recipient and faculty member at the University of Arkansas. He teaches at the same university that once denied his mother access to study engineering because of her race. His connection to Raye offers authentic insights into many phases of her life. A concise and clear description of civil rights struggles throughout the book help the reader understand the deep-rooted bigotry that Raye and other African-Americans experienced during this dark time in U.S. history.
Overnight Code is not solely about naval engineering; it is also about how an African-American female engineer succeeded despite the racial and gender discrimination she experienced. Despite attending a segregated Southern school, Raye went on to college, living out her mother’s advice to “stay out of the kitchen and get an education.” After graduating from college, Raye got her first job in D.C. working with a computer. She was not met with open arms, yet she still managed to teach herself how to code and fix bugs. If there was a hurdle in her path, Raye would not just jump over it, she would reach record heights. Her life is an example of persisting beyond the most difficult challenges.
The title refers to Raye’s greatest contribution: transforming shipbuilding in the Navy by coding a system that could design a ship in 18 hours and 26 minutes. That ship, the Oliver Hazard Perry–class guided-missile frigate, was the inexpensive solution the Navy needed to fix its aging fleet. Raye’s system revolutionized how ships were designed, yet even that was not enough for either her coworkers or her superiors to treat her as an equal. Despite the continued toxic work environments she experienced, Raye was able to mentor women and travel the country speaking to individuals about working in the federal government. When speaking, she did not pretend that obstacles were mythical, but rather that no one should let anything get in their way, no matter how hard they need to fight.
I found the most profound chapter to be Chapter 14, “On the Shoulders of Giants.” It is a short read and should be turned into a widely distributed memo for Navy personnel. In it, Raye summarizes her lifelong civil rights battle with a few simple lessons: Success in the workplace is about showing that you are a person of substance and integrity, mentors are earned by dedicating yourself to hard work, actions speak louder than words, color, or gender, and as you reach higher levels, reach back and bring others with you.
If there is one thing Raye embodied, it’s the fighting spirit of the Navy. From seaman recruits to admirals to GS-15s, everyone can learn something from her life. While the challenges she faced still exist today, Raye is proof that once one woman does the impossible, it forges the path for others to do the same.
ENS Rivera serves in the Navy Reserve. For her civilian job, she is an analyst for a large aerospace engineering company. She earned her master’s degree in security policy studies from George Washington University.
Days of Steel Rain: The Epic Story of a WWII Vengeance Ship in the Year of the Kamikaze
Brent E. Jones. New York: Hachette Books, 2021. 400 pp. Notes. Index. Hardcover. $40.
Reviewed by Braden Hall
Days of Steel Rain is a deeply personal story about the officers and men of the cruiser USS Astoria (CL-90) during the final year of World War II. Although the construction and service record of the ship is important, it is not the focus of the book. Instead, Jones concentrates on the experiences of the men—their motivations, aspirations, and struggles—as they fought in the Pacific theater. As a result, the narrative is somewhat limited. Instead of showing a wide perspective of the war, Jones’s focus is narrower. He describes individuals in an intimate fashion that will fascinate anyone interested in naval history.
According to the publisher, the book is the result of more than a decade of research. Jones holds an MBA from Southern Methodist University, but his writing style is well suited for military history. His personal connection to the Astoria—his great uncle was a member of the crew—motivated him to find out more about the men who served. The narrative is primarily taken from private war journals, first-person interviews, action reports, and deck logs.
The original Astoria (CA-34) was sunk at the Battle of Savo Island. Construction of the new Astoria was delayed several times. In the beginning of the book, Jones introduces the ship’s captain, George C. Dyer, who was eager to return to combat after being wounded at Salerno, Italy. Unfortunately, many of the crew did not share his enthusiasm. Made up of replacements, family men, and a few members of the former Astoria crew, they wanted to stay as far from war as possible. Throughout the book, Dyer molds his men into a crew capable of overcoming every challenge they encounter. Weather and kamikazes are some of the major tests confronting the entire crew. Moreover, each member is threatened by their own personal challenges.
The narrative frequently switches perspective between Dyer and several important officers and men aboard ship. Among these are Gerard Armitage, who was captain of the Marine Corps detachment, and Herman Schnipper, the ship’s photographer. Schnipper has one of the most remarkable stories in the book. He faced a great deal of anti-Semitism from other members of the crew, even while being popular for his photography. The injustices he experienced after the war was over are disappointing.
Even while they are disheartening, Schnipper’s experiences illustrate Jones’ skill as a storyteller. The discrimination Schnipper experienced feels personal, especially by the end of the book. The stories of the other men feel just as close. This book is intended for readers who prefer learning about the desperate circumstances of sailors in World War II, not the strategy and tactics that won the war. Readers looking for such a book will be pleased to find Days of Steel Rain.
Mr. Hall is the director of student communications at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is pursuing a master’s degree in military history at the Citadel.
Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds
Rowland White. London: Silvertail Books, 2020. 481 pp. Photos. Maps. Glossary. Biblio. Index. $19.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Chris Pagenkopf, U.S. Navy
A naval task force led by two aircraft carriers steams more than 7,000 miles from home waters in response to the invasion of disputed islands by a numerically superior foe. While this may sound like a notional U.S. Navy combat scenario in the western Pacific for the 2020s, it is actually the setting for Harrier 809, which centers on the Royal Navy’s efforts to expel Argentinian military forces from the Falkland Islands in 1982. This book gives readers a comprehensive look at the Herculean efforts by the United Kingdom to achieve a victory that was far from assured.
Much of Harrier 809 focuses on preparations for combat operations, and while the spotlight is decidedly on British efforts, author Rowland White does a fantastic job of integrating Argentinian perspectives, having collected firsthand accounts from personnel on both sides of the conflict. Particularly interesting are lesser-known stories regarding inventive efforts to support or disrupt kill chains through diplomatic channels and nontraditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance methods.
Nonetheless, the Harrier figures prominently throughout the book. Specifically, the narrative focuses on the reestablishment of the Royal Navy’s 809 Naval Air Squadron. This was a crucial effort to supplement the Fleet Air Arm’s limited operational fighter force, which consisted of just two Sea Harrier FRS.1 squadrons at the time of the Argentinian invasion.
The challenge of quickly locating aircraft, qualified aircrew, and a means of transport to the South Atlantic is a fascinating case study in wartime resourcefulness. The concluding chapters of the book are filled with white-knuckle accounts of high-speed, low-altitude air warfare. The courage of personnel on both sides of the conflict is duly acknowledged. Readers are reminded of the sometimes forgotten human cost inherent in air warfare and tactical jet operations.
The book does a fair job of examining British shortcomings in the conflict, including the Royal Navy’s lack of airborne early-warning capability and the Sea Harrier’s inability to autonomously sanitize airspace. These were capabilities the Royal Navy had knowingly forgone with the retirement of its last catapult and arrested landing aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, and her air wing of Phantoms and Gannets just four years prior to the Falklands War. The Royal Navy suffered costly losses as a result of its inability to effectively execute over-the-horizon defensive counterair operations. The book addresses these issues but leaves some room to fully explore them. Readers will enjoy drawing their own conclusions regarding the Falklands War and its applications to modern debates over fleet structure, aircraft carrier design, air wing composition, and fighter and missile performance.
The Royal Navy’s sailors and aircrew ultimately were able to surmount their capability gaps to achieve victory over the Argentinian military in the South Atlantic. Readers of Harrier 809 should consider what actions must be taken now to ensure the U.S. Navy could achieve similar success if challenged by a more capable and proficient adversary in the western Pacific in this decade.
LT Pagenkopf is an F/A-18E Super Hornet pilot. He currently serves as a strike fighter tactics instructor assigned to Strike Fighter Weapons School Atlantic.
40 Thieves on Saipan: The Elite Marine Scout-Snipers in One of WWII’s Bloodiest Battles
Joseph Tachovksy with Cynthia Kraack. Washington, DC: Regenery History, 2020. Maps. Index. $29.99.
Reviewed by Major Timothy Heck, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
Tasked with conducting behind-the-lines reconnaissance and helping to crack some of the toughest Japanese defenses, the 6th Marines’ scout-sniper platoon under the command of First Lieutenant Frank Tachovsky achieved fame during World War II for its exploits on Saipan. Tachovsky’s son has woven the tale of the Marines’ backgrounds, formation, training, employment, and postwar lives into the eminently readable 40 Thieves on Saipan: The Elite Marine Scout-Snipers in One of WWII’s Bloodiest Battles. Part paean to Tachovsky’s father and part explanation of the larger role the unit played on Saipan, the writing is crisp, and the narrative presents the trials and tribulations of young Marines amid a savage jungle war.
Frank “Ski” Tachovsky was a career Marine, having served in Iceland in 1941 and fought at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian before eventually retiring as a colonel. Central to the formation of the 40 Thieves was his relationship with his platoon sergeant, Bill Knuppel, with whom Ski had served as an enlisted Marine on Iceland. Their partnership was built on mutual trust and respect, balancing each other’s strengths and weaknesses to mold their Marines into the “new kind of jungle fighter” as tasked by the regimental commander. They sought Marines who not only could shoot, but who also had an independent streak, often exemplified through records of nonjudicial punishments or brig time, usually for fighting. Once the platoon was formed, Ski and Knuppel set about training the Marines in a variety of scouting, patrolling, and silent-killing tactics they would need in the coming battles.
The first half of the book covers the formation, training, and interpersonal relationships of the platoon. As with all World War II units, the Marines in the scout-sniper platoon were a cross section of segregated America, coming from across the nation. While some, like Ski, were in their late 20s, most were fresh out of high school. The noncommissioned officers, by and large, had combat experience on Guadalcanal and Tarawa and taught their Marines essential skills to survive and win. The book’s second half, starting with the regiment’s sailing on 30 May 1944, places the 40 Thieves on Saipan.
Combat operations on Saipan are told in clear, non-euphemistic and non-hyperbolic writing. The death and wounding of Marines, mental stress, and pressures on the command in the midst of combat are portrayed in realistic tones. While heroism is evident in the Thieves’ actions, Tachovsky and Kraack avoid the pitfalls of contrived dialogue, bravado, and exaggeration as they advance through the Battle of Saipan. The narrative is supplemented with six maps, all scans of either contemporary maps or official Marine Corps publications. These scans, however, are somewhat hard to read, and readers would have been better served by modern maps created by the press. The care with which the battle is portrayed reflects the personal nature of combat, the memories of surviving Thieves, and the research that went into the book’s crafting. This is furthered by the nuanced descriptions of problems that some Thieves had reintegrating into postwar America.
Readers looking for a story that tracks a small, elite unit from formation through combat and beyond will find 40 Thieves on Saipan an ideal candidate. While the Thieves lacked the longevity of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of Band of Brothers fame, their stories are similar. Both were molded and formed by their officers and noncommissioned officers into elite, non-special operations units that helped defeat the Axis during World War II. Tachovsky and Kraack have written a book applicable to all ranks with an interest in how units form, prepare, and fight.
Maj Heck, a field artillery officer by training, is a joint historian with the Marine Corps History Detachment. He is coeditor of On Contested Shores: The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare (Marine Corps University Press, 2020.)