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MIRACLE at MIDWAY

By Gordon W. Prange

THE ADMIRALS

By Walter R. Borneman

REVIEWER: William A. Glass

Date: 01/11/2021


I recently read Miracle at Midway by Gordon W. Prange and got so caught up in the history of World War II in the Pacific that I next picked up The Admirals by Walter R. Borneman. These two books contain many revelations. I learned that famous American generals and admirals were often incompetent, that Japanese military leaders who prided themselves on their warrior spirit got cold feet at critical moments, and how vital FDR’s top military advisors were to the ultimate U.S. victory.


Incompetence among America’s top brass was evident from the first. In the days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, both Admiral Husband Kimmel, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, and General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded our forces in the Philippines, were warned of a Japanese attack. Still, U.S. forces were not put on alert and the Japanese attacks on Hawaii and the Philippines had the advantage of surprise. Kimmel’s battleships were arrayed in a neat row and MacArthur had his airplanes parked wingtip to wingtip. Japanese bombers obliterated these easy targets.


Kimmel lost his command, but somehow McArthur kept his. He promptly led his army into a trap of his own making. MacArthur escaped capture by the enemy, but his troops were not so lucky. As they were led away on a death march, he was in Australia pledging to return to the Philippines. MacArthur looked and spoke like a great military leader and became a hero to the public despite his shortcomings.


Admiral “Bull” Halsey was another brass hat who looked and talked like he knew what he was doing. Early in the war, he commanded the carrier task force that ferried Lt. Colonel James Doolittle and his daring raiders close enough to Tokyo for them to drop bombs. This made Halsey a hero to the public, but afterward his story was one of bad luck, poor judgement, and sorry seamanship.


Fortunately for Halsey and MacArthur, the Japanese military leaders had worse faults that surfaced immediately. One more attack at Pearl Harbor to target U.S. dry docks, repair facilities, and oil storage tanks would have made Japan master of the Pacific indefinitely. But Admiral Yamamoto was anxious to head back to safer waters. So, the U.S. was able to rebound.


Next, Yamamoto messed up the plan for the Japanese attack on Midway Island by making the occupation of this American base the objective, rather than designating the U.S. Pacific Fleet as the target. So, while the Japanese were arming their carrier-based planes with bombs for another attack on the island, U.S. aircraft carriers launched dive bombers against the Japanese ships. Four Japanese aircraft carriers, thousands of sailors, close to three hundred planes, and an equal number of Japanese pilots paid the price.


Two years later, the Imperial Japanese high command decided to bet everything on one roll of the dice. The U.S. Navy was landing MacArthur’s army in the Philippines, and the Americans had to be stopped, or all was lost. Tokyo’s plan was to send a decoy fleet to draw Halsey away from his responsibility to protect MacArthur’s landing. Meanwhile, a powerful Japanese strike force would sneak through a passage between two Philippine Islands and destroy MacArthur’s troops and their transports. Naturally, Halsey fell for the Japanese ruse and took off after the decoy with all his ships. Incomprehensibly, he didn’t leave any to guard the strategic passage the Japanese strike force came through. The only thing that saved the Americans was the pusillanimity of the Japanese Admiral commanding the strike force. He skirmished with the few escort vessels guarding MacArthur’s landing, then retreated. Thus, Halsey was hailed in U.S. newspapers as the victor of The Battle of Leyte Gulf!


Back in Washington, Admiral William Leahy, General George Marshal, and Admiral Ernest King ran the war for President Franklin Roosevelt. Marshall was in overall command of the army, King was boss of the navy, but Leahy outranked them both. He was FDR’s chief of staff, plus his National Security Advisor. Leahy, King, and Marshall made all the strategic decisions during the war. They allowed guys like MacArthur and Halsey to get the headlines and be the heroes.


Historians are only now realizing how critical Leahy, King, and Marshall were to the U.S. victory. But congress knew. In 1944 they created the five-star rank. Leahy received it first, then Marshal and King. Guess who else got five stars? MacArthur and Halsey, of course! Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.


I highly recommend reading Miracle at Midway and The Admirals one after the other. This brief review contains only a few of the many revelations I gleaned from these magnificent works of history.

DIVE BOMBERS



REVIEW OF: THE BOY WHO LIVED WITH GHOSTS

AUTHOR: John Mitchell

REVIEWER: William A. Glass

Date: 12/26/2020


It’s said that no one does poverty like the Irish, but in this memoir, the Scots stake their claim. As in chronicles of Irish squalor, the father in this memoir is a binge drinker, the mother is loving but ineffectual, and the children are dirty snot-noses. They live in crumbling houses that are crawling with vermin. What lends shock value to these Dickensian scenes is that they play out during modern times in so-called advanced countries.


John Mitchell is five years old when we meet him. He lives with his parents, grandparents, and two sisters. His older sister, Margueretta, is getting messages from the devil with instructions on evil tortures to perpetrate on John. She’s mentally ill. That’s what inspires her vicious attacks. They only stop when John is old enough to fend her off. About that time, Margueretta redirects her attacks against herself, and the story increasingly focuses on her.


What I like about this book is its ambition. Rather than giving us a dry memoir from the safe precincts of hindsight, John Mitchell renders his story in the terrifying present tense. It’s stream-of-consciousness technique makes us privy to a young boy’s thoughts and emotions as he goes through the horror movie of his childhood.


With horror movies, you can put your hands over your ears and close your eyes.

However, for John, there is no escape. Even his sleep is tormented by screaming monsters coming up from the basement or down from the attic. His waking hours are infused with dread of Margueretta, knowing that’s it not a matter of if but when she will come for him. Reading this reminded me of what I saw once in the pediatric ward of a hospital burn unit. Nurses would come every afternoon to take children for skin debridement treatment. The dread on the patient’s faces as they were wheeled out of their rooms to face the agony was heart-rending. In The Boy Who Lived With Ghosts, John exhibits the same grim resignation in the face of daily torment from his sister.


The possibility of paranormal malfeasance hangs over John’s story and keeps the reader engaged. It’s not an easy read and I found myself wishing for a respite, if not for John then for me. The author’s frequent use of short declarative sentences enhances the shock value. “That’s gruesome!” Margueretta says at one point, which pretty much sums up John’s childhood.


Often memoirs become self-aggrandizing and fail on that account. Witness John Bolton’s recent effort. But in this one, none of the characters come off particularly well. Teachers are bullies, scoutmasters are perverts, relatives are alcoholics, and neighbors succumb either to madness or Valium. The author owns up to his failings, but it’s his intelligence and loving nature that allows him to climb out of the hell he grows up in. I give this book five out of five stars because of the story’s authenticity and the author’s creative approach to telling it.



REVIEW OF SHOT DOWN

AUTHOR: Steve Snyder

REVIEWER: William A. Glass

Date: 12/09/2020


Shot Down by Steve Snyder is a non-fiction book about the air war over Western Europe during World War II. The story focuses on the crew of an American bomber, the Susan Ruth, piloted by the author’s father, Lieutenant Howard Snyder. In 1944 the Susan Ruth was hit by a German fighter and the crew bailed out over NAZI occupied Belgium. The flyers were trained in escape and evasion. The story tells how they put their knowledge to the test.


This is a meticulously researched, clearly written, historical work. Remarkable, in that Steve Snyder is not a trained historian. Since this book sets forth the heroic actions of his deceased father, one can surmise that Steve’s passion for telling the story motivated him to do the on-the-job training needed to master the historian’s craft.


After an informative preface, Shot Down kicks off with a jolting, attention-getting scene that got me interested enough to wade through the next hundred pages of background information. I’m glad because this section puts what happens later into context and explains how the aircrew of the Susan Roth came to be in Germany dropping bombs.


Steve’s research provides a wealth of fascinating details. I’ve read about the vast fleets of allied bombers that attacked Germany, but nowhere before did I learn how they managed to get into formation in the low-to-no visibility conditions that often prevailed over England. Now, thanks to this book, I understand the role radio beacons played in the process.


An aspiring historian would do well to note how Steve enhances Shot Down with excerpts from letters and diaries, statistics gleaned from military records, eyewitness reports, and photographs. It’s one thing to read about the frigid cold B-17 crews endured at 20,000 feet, and quite another to see pictures of airmen in action wearing bulky, arctic-proof clothing. Steve does a great job humanizing the frightful odds that made it statistically impossible for the airmen to survive. After a horrendous day of losses known to the airmen as “Black Friday,” he talks about the demoralization that ensued when crews returned to sleep in rooms containing the empty cots of comrades who didn’t make it.


This book focuses on the story of one B-17 crew that fails to return, but in doing so, the author chronicles the fate of many others. The story of the Susan Ruth is stirring, but it’s only one of many planes whose end the author describes. In dramatic fashion, Steve relates grim tales of other bombers limping home, often bedeviled by German fighters, some with an engine on fire, bomb bay doors jammed open, and horribly wounded crew members struggling to survive. A gunner has his leg shot off, and to stop the bleeding, he pokes it through a hole in the fuselage to freeze it. Incredible courage is routine in this narrative, with many instances of pilots staying at the controls and dooming themselves in order to steer their damaged plane away from populated areas and give their crew time to bail out.


The climax of the story comes when it’s the crew of the Susan Ruth whose bunks are left empty one night. Steve recounts the dramatic shoot down using excerpts from his father’s diary. As he describes what comes next for the survivors, we learn myriad historical facts about conditions in POW camps for those captured and about life on the run for ones who evade the Germans. Shot Down gives us an understanding of the resistance groups operating in NAZI occupied Belgium, the underground escape networks created to aid allied airmen, and the dangers they faced from home-grown Fascists plus the Gestapo. For the evaders lucky enough to avoid capture and summary execution, Steve describes their efforts to rejoin the war. Some flee NAZI occupied Europe by crossing into neutral Spain, hoping to rejoin their units in England. Others continues their fight against the Germans by joining resistance fighters.


I learned much from Shot Down thanks to Steve’s in-depth research and clear writing. My only quibble with the book is that early on, he occasionally gets too detailed. Do we need to know the serial number on the special orders that sent Snyder’s crew overseas, or that his mother gave his father a hickey so powerfully that it was visible weeks later? Still, I give Shot Down five out of five stars for the story’s strength and the author’s excellent rendition. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in World War II. It fills in many important details about the battle in the skies over Western Europe, even for knowledgeable readers.


William A. Glass