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.


1000 survivors from the sinking of the Johnston, the Roberts, the Hoel, and various others are in the water after being told to abandon ship. Most of them are in the water because their life rafts were full of holes. Admiral Halsey, obtuse as ever, cannot seem to locate the ships’ proper coordinates and keeps sending rescue ships out — to the wrong location. Also, he does not send planes to accompany the ships, which would have made finding the men easier. Next thing you know, on p. 376 . . .

  • Drifting toward a fatal sleep, the men decided to fasten themselves together with their inflatable life belts, assigned each other numbers, and counted off at intervals to indicate their physical and mental presence. Clint Carter had just finished securing himself to Chuck Campbell when someone said, “Shark!” and the men started climbing atop one another toward the stars. In the zero-sum equation of salt-water buoyancy, one man’s success was another man’s sudden dunking. Something bumped Carter heavily in the back, and he felt a wrenching force. He screamed, put both hands on Campbell’s shoulders, and lifted himself out of the water as a shark’s bear-trap jaws tore away a chunk of his life vest, along with a small bloody piece of his side. As Carter rose up, his weight plunged Campbell under. The shark let go of Carter, Carter let go of Campbell, and Campbell surfaced spluttering and gasping. Then the shark tasted Carter again, and once more he dunked Campbell in his bid for the raft. The shark let go of Carter, Campbell surfaced and, regaining his breath, he helped lay Carter, bleeding badly, into the raft.

Self sincerely hopes Admiral Halsey received a demotion — he, and not the Japanese, seems to be the real villain of this book. He left his carriers undefended to go chasing after a decoy Japanese battalion. When he got the telegram from the US President, telling him in no uncertain terms to go to the assistance of Taffy 3, Admiral Halsey became upset, threw his hat on the deck, and only calmed down when an aide told him: “Pull yourself together! What is wrong with you!” And then, his rescue operation — waow, probably a second grader could have done it and it would have had the same result.

This (excruciating) chapter (Forty-nine) should likely contain a trigger warning. It traces the fate of particular men, which was absolutely the right decision; it is very gripping. Again, hats off to author James D. Hornfischer for making the right authorial decisions, every step of the way throughout this book.

Chapter Fifty focuses on the survivors of the Samuel B. Roberts. In the middle of the night, they heard a shout:

  • The voice sounded American . . . He called hoarsely in reply and, echoing one another, ranging by sound, the source of the shouting finally found them. It was a man, swimming alone.

This was Howard Cayo, a former circus acrobat. He had been clinging to a wooden scaffolding with about sixty other men when it was attacked by sharks. After hearing his story, the survivors of the Roberts decided to make a determined effort to swim toward land, a distance they estimated to be around thirty miles.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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.

In Honor of James D. Hornfischer

These are not pictures of the Philippine Sea, but they are of the same great ocean: the Pacific.

Self took these pictures in the small northern California coastal town of Albion.

TLSOTTCS pp. 316 – 317: The Japanese heavy cruisers are starting to overwhelm Taffy 3, pushing the smaller ships closer and closer towards the rocky coastline of Samar.

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 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.

Still Chapter Thirty: The Awful Steering of the USS HEERMANN

One good thing about taking forever to finish TLSOTTCS is that self is acquiring all this shipping lore, which is proving very useful in her seagoing stories (Oh, did self fail to mention she’s now into writing seafaring stories? They’re full of adventure and the exhilaration of discovery. Exciting! It is apparently a genre that has quite a few devoted followers) Anyhoo, she’s still on Chapter Thirty, which is still about the USS Heermann. For the third time since this book began, the Heermann finds itself on a collision course with another American destroyer. This time, it’s the hapless USS Johnston, which had only one working propeller after being hit by a barrage of Japanese missiles. “All engines back full!” the Johnston‘s skipper shouts, and the hull shudders, and a couple of crew on the Johnston‘s deck nearly get pitched into the water. A collision is avoided (but just barely) and the Heermann continues on its majestic way until . . . it nearly collides with another “tin can steaming alongside close to port.” They think it’s another American destroyer until they get really close and realize all that shouting from the other ship is in . . . Japanese! Oh my bacon! Luckily for the Heermann, the Japanese destroyer has its eyes on another target, and slips right by the Heermann.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Chapter Thirty

Don’t worry, dear blog readers, even though it’s taking self FOREVER to get through this book — she has seven books on hold at her local library, but the soonest she can expect any of the seven is 63 days from now, she might as well settle in with TLSOTTCS, at least it’s well-written AND set in the Philippines — this chapter is hilarious.

We’re following the fate of the USS Heermann under the command of Captain Hathaway, and it’s been tacking here and there across the Pacific like a crazy water bug. An excitable crewmember on the second torpedo mount (Each cruiser had ten torpedoes: five for first attack, another five for second attack) mistakenly released two torpedoes with the first wave, so seven went careering across the waves to its intended target. The first seven had been fired with the aid of mechanical rangefinding, but all seven apparently missed their target, the Haruna. Nevertheless, in a great stroke of luck, the torpedoes that passed the Haruna were now headed straight for the Japanese flagship, the Yamato, which happened to be the command ship of Admiral Kurita. The Yamato had her guns trained on the Heermann and was about to blow it to smithereens when someone noticed three torpedo tracks approaching to starboard. So the Yamato‘s commander ordered a hard turn to port. All of a sudden, two more torpedo tracks were spotted to port, so the Yamato turned again. By this time, there were two parallel tracks of torpedos, and the Yamato was forced to steer between them, a track which led them AWAY from the Heermann. So, uh, yay?

By the time the torpedoes “ceased their pursuit, disappearing into the four-thousand fathom depths of the Philippine Trench,” the Yamato was thirty-thousand yards from the Heermann. Double yay!

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