Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tin cans

"Our schoolchildren should know about [this] incident, and our enemies should ponder it."
 – Herman Wouk (in his novel War and Remembrance)

I decided to pull out some old Amazon reviews of a few of my "all-time most favorite books ever" that I haven't posted here before, and I'll start with James D. Hornfischer's The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour.

In late October 1944 the US Navy guarded the seas off the Philippines protecting the return of General MacArthur. With Admiral Kinkaid's 7th Fleet guarding from the south and Admiral Halsey's 3rd Fleet guarding the north, the ships in the middle didn't expect to see much action. But Japan knew their days were numbered and invented a daring plan to protect their position and resources in the Philippines by attacking from both sides. Kinkaid's troops soundly defeated Nishimura and Shima in the Surigao Strait, but Halsey had very foolishly abandoned the San Bernardino Strait in the north. He wasn't happy with his mostly passive role in the battle, and after a minor skirmish with the Japanese he chased after Ozawa and was baited away into a chase to the north instead of guarding his assigned position. This let Kurita through and left the small destroyers and carrier escorts of Taffy 3 to bear the full brunt of the largest ships to ever sail the seas.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the men put up a brave front against the monstrous Japanese ships, trying to protect the small carriers which were essential to the landing invasion. Between daring torpedo runs by the destroyer escorts (known to the sailors as "tin cans") and relentless attacks by the few planes which were able to get airborne (almost all without proper armaments and some without any at all) the Americans put up such a fierce fight that Kurita was unsure of the true strength he faced. He even thought he must be facing the absent Halsey. In the end the Japanese suffered such serious losses that they retreated, but not before sinking 3 destroyers and the only American carrier sunk by enemy surface fire. (The battle also saw the first sinking of an American ship by a feared new Japanese weapon – the kamikaze suicide pilot – when the St. Lo of Taffy 2 was sunk.)

This is an excellent and highly inspirational account of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, or more specifically the Battle off Samar, fought by the men of Taffy 3 Task Unit. The sad part is that Admiral Halsey managed to very skillfully and unjustly take credit for the victory even though his ego had prompted him on a wild goose chase, while the bravery of the men who actually fought went mostly unsung. They endured relentless pounding by far bigger ships with bigger bombs and many spent 48 hours floating in the wide ocean waiting for a rescue that came shamefully late. But this is a story of the kind of bravery that won the war in the Pacific – even retreating Japanese soldiers saluted the men in the water as they steamed by. It's the kind of story that makes you appreciate the incredible valor and sacrifices men made during the war.

Just a note about reading James Hornfischer: I've read two of his books and have had another on the shelf for years now (another problem with getting so many books from Vine – I don't always get around to reading those on my list) but he's a bit challenging to read, especially when you're unfamiliar with ships and planes. Once I stopped worrying about trying to understand and remember all the technical details it became a lot more enjoyable. But please do not let that stop you from reading his outstanding histories – especially this one!

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