Reading the American Revolution

Self has been reading (at a snail’s pace, because good) Patrick K. O’Donnell’s Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution. Despite the florid subtitle, the book is good. It is exactly as described: about that one elite Maryland regiment who were given the task of providing rearguard action/covering fire during the evacuation of American forces from Manhattan in November 1776. Maybe it wasn’t quite on the scale of Dunkirk, but it makes for pretty exciting reading all the same.

Self normally doesn’t read author bios until she finishes a book (she prefers to create/imagine her own image of the author), but today her curiosity gets the better of her.

Who is this Patrick K. O’Donnell? “An expert on elite units” — okay, fairly standard boilerplate. Any number of people can claim to be an “expert.” On any number of subjects.

Then: “He served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah . . . “

Oh wow. Self did not even know there were such things as “combat historians.” And to discover only today that there were actual historians (as opposed to just journalists) embedded with the troops? And — Battle of Fallujah? That was one of the most harrowing battles of Gulf War 2. An enemy sniper had positioned himself in the minaret of the mosque at Falllujah. A Marine platoon was ordered to take the position. The stairs leading up to it were so narrow that only one Marine at a time could ascend. Thus, the sniper was able to dispatch, quite easily, a number of Marines: the bodies just kept tumbling down, one after the other.

Hours later, the marine commander ordered three 500-lb. bombs dropped on the mosque, reducing the minaret to rubble.

Patrick K. O’Donnell was there?

Onward.

Battle of Bunker Hill, Summer 1775

Chapter 15 of Liberty Is Sweet is a very exciting chapter (Coming clean: Self skipped pages and pages having to do with laws/taxation etc etc She’s going for the exciting parts: the battles.)

On the side of the American colonists: Colonel William Prescott, 1500 – 1700 troops and Dr. Joseph Warren, newly commissioned as general by the Massachusetts provincial congress

On the side of the British: Gen. Henry Clinton, General Gage and General Howe, approximately 1500 enlisted soldiers and light infantry, and a few Royal Navy vessels on the southern shore of Boston harbor

Amusing anecdotes about both sides:

General Howe “has been accused of blithely marching his men up Breed’s Hill with no earthly idea that the mass of undisciplined provincials occupying its summit could possibly slow his progress. A recent account has one of his servants accompanying him with a silver tray with a decanter of wine.”

Newly named general Dr. Joseph Warren “occasionally suffered from crippling headaches, and on the morning of June 17, as he conferred with his Committee of Safety colleagues in Cambridge, an attack came on, forcing him to retire to a darkened room to drink chamomile tea, which was said to reduce the black bile that caused melancholia.”

The Battle Itself:

General Howe implored his men “to rely upon their bayonets rather than their firelocks, and he vowed to remain with them throughout . . . as in fact he did.” When “Howe’s force came within thirty yards of the rebels, their entire line opened up. Working in pairs, one reloading while the other let fly, the colonists provided nearly continuous fire. Never before had a British army suffered such heavy casualties. The stunned survivors turned and ran.”

The British forces attempted to take the hill while keeping to the shoulder-to-shoulder formation, which must have been a tremendous gift to the colonists waiting for them at the top!

To Move from James D. Hornfischer to Beryl Bainbridge

It’s a somewhat surreal experience. Here are two excellent writers, both at the top of their game, both writing about the sea. She swears there are times when she’s reading Beryl Bainbridge’s first person narrative and she can almost imagine the character as a member of the crew on the ill-fated Hoel.

Both writers love detail. (Self loves detail, too. It’s all about verisimilitude)

Here is Bainbridge’s Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans on p. 19:

  • The Owner’s paid 100 pounds out of expedition funds to have the Terra Nova registered as a yacht. This enables us to fly the White Ensign; more to the point, it means we can dodge the attentions of Board of Trade officials who would most certainly declare her an ill-founded ship within the meaning of the Act, seeing she’s wallowing so low in the water it was a waste of time to smudge out the Plimsoll line. Fresh painted lamp-black, with a funnel yellow as a buttercup and a neat white line all around her bows, she’s now as pretty as a picture. There’s one thing worries Lashly: she’s going to be the very devil when it comes to consuming coal.

Both writers, alas, are no longer with us. Hornfischer passed just this year, Bainbridge in 2010 (but dear blog readers will meet Hornfischer again, and soon. She’s added Ship of Ghosts to her reading list.)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

2nd Day in the Water

The first ship that came anywhere close to the survivors in the water came at night. It was too dark for the survivors to make out the shape of the ship, but they threw caution to the wind and began shouting, until the boat came closer and they suddenly realized it was a Japanese ship, searching for their own survivors. The ship passed quietly by the Americans, who were praying softly in the water.

That first night, Robert Billie of the Johnston, who’d been wounded, was tied to an unwounded shipmate who held his face above the water. That kept him alive.

On the second morning in the ocean, the skipper of the Johnston, Bob Copeland, instructed the forty or so men who were clinging to one life raft to come up one by one and receive their morning’s rations: three malted milk tablets. Self wants to cry.

The US Carrier St. Lo: “A Red Streak”

Tom Van Brunt from the carrier St. Lo was “circling the carrier at a distance, watching other planes land, when a red streak flew past his greenhouse canopy. The startling appearance of a Japanese insignia painted on a wide white wing was Van Brunt’s first indication that enemy aircraft were near. He almost collided with the Japanese plane as it descended toward the St. Lo.

Shortly before eleven a.m. Taffy 3 came under wholesale kamikaze attack. The Japanese Army Air Corps had debuted this horrific new mode of warfare earlier that morning, when six imperial planes took off from bases on Davao and attacked Thomas Sprague’s Taffy 1 task unit. (There are two Spragues in this theater of war: very confusing! Ziggy Sprague is the commander of Taffy 3; Thomas Sprague is the commander of Taffy 1, which was providing cover for MacArthur’s landing. And these two are NOT RELATED) One struck the escort carrier Santee, starting a huge blaze that raged in the hangar deck for about ten minutes. Only the expert marksmanship of gunners aboard the Suwannee, the Sangamon, and the Petrof Bay let them avoid similar hits.

At 10:50 five more aircraft flying from airdromes on Luzon arrived over Taffy 3 and plummeted like osprey . . .

A Zero, a bomb under each wing, rose up, nosed over, and plunged into the flight deck. One or both bombs went off” just as eight planes were being reloaded. Piled around them was “enough weaponry to blow a small town out of existence: eight torpedoes, six depth charges, fifteen 500-lb. bombs, forty 100-pounders, and some 1,400 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, p. 351

It took only one Japanese plane, but the aim of that pilot was true: straight into the bridge. And the St. Lo went down.

That reminds self of another set of planes . . .

Once again, stellar stellar writing from James D. Hornfischer. There is no reason he needed to summon imagery for the red streaks. Nevertheless, “plummeted like osprey” is a hell of a metaphor, just sayin’

And the list of ammunition, instead of just saying: the whole hangar went up in flames.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

9:07 a.m., the Gambier Bay

9:07 a.m. — The Gambier Bay, the first American carrier ever to fall to the guns of a hostile force (in nearly three years of fighting, which is really saying something), sank. The call to abandon ship had been issued twenty minutes before.

We now see the sinking from the point of view of Captain Vieweg, “among the last to leave the ship.” Again, the total mastery (and stellar writing)! Hats off to you, James D. Hornfischer!

  • Vieweg felt his way aft, looking for the ladder down to the starboard catwalk. In the smoke and steam he missed the ladder altogether and plummeted into a void. The smoke was so black and the heat so intense that the captain, thoroughly disoriented, feared he had fallen right into the main exhaust stack. On a CVE its yawning black chasm was nearly flush with the flight deck. Panicked, Vieweg grabbed the rim of the steel enclosure he lay in and hauled himself out of it. Then he was falling again. He broke into clear air, fell about forty feet into the water, and was nearly choked by the strap on his battle helmet when he plunged in. He surfaced to find the carrier’s ten-thousand-ton bulk rolling to starboard, threatening to come down on top of him. He swam madly toward the stern and cleared the ship by the time it finally turned turtle, exhaled the last of the stale air from its compartments, and entered the formidable depths of the Philippine Sea.

And that, dear blog readers, is how you write about a man abandoning ship.

That is all.

Stellar Writing

If James D. Hornfischer were still alive, I’d sign up for a master class. His command of his subject is total. He’s traced the fates of each individual ship AND crew of Taffy 3 during the morning of Oct. 25, 1944 and it is incredible. I don’t think I’ve every read anything like it. As the ships go down one by one, he shows you their fate, right down to the moment when the men slip into the water.

Chapter Thirty-Six: The Roberts Goes Down

In two hours of battle, Captain Copeland had steered his ship so adroitly that it avoided getting a single hit. When a blow finally landed, however (how long can a light destroyer keep a battleship at bay? Two hours is pretty good. You’d think help would be forthcoming from the other ships in Leyte Gulf, but no), other blows followed, in a quickening crescendo.

At the waterline, about two-thirds of the way to the stern on the port side, gaped a cavernous hole seven to ten feet high and some fifty feet long. The massive opening would have neatly garaged a semi trailer parked sideways. The number-two engine room was completely demolished. When the after fuel-oil tanks ruptured, they threw flaming oil everywhere.

As if to remind the skipper that life could get worse, a torpedo wake came bubbling in to starboard. There was no way to avoid it. As the faint white wake came straight on amidships, Copeland gripped the edge of the bridge wing and screamed, his voice cracking, “Stand by for tor — !” But one last miracle remained, it seemed. The torpedo passed just under the destroyer’s escort’s keel, missing, by the captain’s estimation, by no more than a foot.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, p. 298

The USS Hoel

At 8:40 a.m., Commander Toshio Nakagawa wrote in his ship’s log, “Cruiser blows up and sinks.” This was in all probability the USS Hoel.

Six Japanese ships had cornered the Hoel and submitted her to barrage after barrage. “Boxed in by the enemy on three sides, the Hoel had no propulsive power to escape through the box’s open bottom.”

Chapter Thirty-Three is what happened to the men who were still alive on the Hoel when the ship sank.

At 8:35 a.m., Captain Kintberger ordered his men to abandon ship. The PA system was dead, so the order was given by word of mouth. Gunner’s mate first class Willard Henn passed gunnery officer Lt. Bill Sanders tangled up in some rigging. Both his legs had been blown off at the knees but he was still alive. Henn made to help him but Sanders said no, the order was to abandon ship.

Eighteen-year-old Paul Miranda jumped into the water and belatedly realized that he didn’t know how to swim. Everett Lindorff was “working the plotting table when the abandon ship order came,” and was the last man to get out of the Hoel‘s CIC. Bob Wilson, machinist, had been wounded by shrapnel and could no longer walk. He crawled over the ship’s side.

Lt. Jack Creamer, assistant gunnery officer, walked down the starboard side, helping survivors into life jackets. “All around the ship clusters of heads bobbed, survivors riding the slow, rolling swells. Creamer watched numbly as a Japanese salvo struck the sea a few hundred yards to starboard, right in the middle of a big gathering of wounded survivors.”

Several of the men reported their last sight of Captain Kintberger standing on the bridge, watching as his men hit the water.

This chapter is very, very hard to read. But Hornfischer is relentless. This is only a little past the halfway point of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.

The Last Run of the USS Heermann

First of all, dear blog readers, self would like to introduce this post by saying that she grew up in the Philippines and attended the best schools that Filipino money could buy. And none of those schools taught World War II.

She never even heard of the Battle of Leyte Gulf until she began reading The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. It took her going to the States, getting graduate degrees from Stanford, and becoming a US citizen before she had access to books about World War II.

That is why reading this book by James D. Hornfischer is such an incredible experience.

Her last post was about the fatally wounded Gambier Bay. The commander of Taffy 2, Admiral Stump, has just decided not to send any of his ships into the battle, as he sees it is lost. It is left to the commander of Taffy 3, Ziggy Sprague, to beg any carriers and cruisers nearby to come to the aid of Gambier Bay.

But none of the besieged carriers have any torpedoes left. There is one who responds, though: the Heermann. The Heermann‘s captain decides to bluff (he has no torpedoes either, but what the hey). Remember the Heermann almost crashed into an American destroyer, not once but three times? It happens again here, the Heermann nearly collides with the Fanshaw Bay. Nevertheless, collision is avoided, the Heermann builds up steam and continues towards the Gambier Bay, its gun boss, Lieutenant Meadors, keeping up “a steady cadence of fire all the way in.” An eight-inch shot from a Japanese cruiser “ripped through the ship’s bow, blowing a five-foot hole in the hull and flooding the forward magazines.” Everyone in the pilothouse is killed. With chief quartermaster John P. Milley (Thank you, James D. Hornfischer, for giving us actual names instead of just saying “the chief quartermaster lay dead …”) lying dead on the deck, “the wheel was abandoned.”

A sailor named Harold Whitney grabs the wheel and tries to imitate what he’s seen his skipper do so many times. Suddenly, he feels a tug on his pant leg and looks down. The chief quartermaster John P. Milley was alive! “I’ll take it,” Milley told Whitney. “But you’re wounded,” Whitney said. “I’ll take it,” was all Milley said again. Whitney surrendered the wheel.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

9 a.m., 25 October 1944

Battle was joined at 7:30 a.m. Approximately one hour later, the USS Hoel was sunk, and the USS Johnston showed every sign of following.

End of Chapter Thirty-one:

  • As wicked as the crossfire was, a sight now commanded everyone’s attention on the Johnston’s bridge: an escort carrier, listing to port, dead in the water and taking heavy fire. It was the Gambier Bay. She had lost her boiler and could do only eleven knots.

Beginning of Chapter Thirty-two:

  • There was no telling how many ships had drawn a bead on her now. Under fire for nearly ninety minutes . . . the Gambier Bay took her first hit at 8:20 a.m., when a shell penetrated her forward engine room.

Ironically, this is when the first rescue ships sent by Admiral Stump arrive. The Gambier Bay’s signal officer opens the shutters of his lamp and blinkers, We are under attack, please help.

The rescue ships turned and withdrew to the south. Admiral Stump “had decided against risking his most capable escorts in a dicey offensive action. If the Japanese destroyed Taffy 3 and continued south, he would need them for his own defense.”

Edward Huxtable was commander of the Gambier Bay’s air group, VC-10. Seeing “the carrier taking concentrated fire from Japanese cruisers . . . Huxtable turned, descended, and leveled off in a mock torpedo attack.” Actually, he had taken off from the Gambier Bay in such a hurry that he had no time to load his bombs. “He made four” dummy runs, “each time . . . flying level with bomb bay doors open.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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