Unsinkable Audio Book Review

Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett

Authored by James Sullivan, Narrated by Jacques Roy

Audiobook, 10 hours and 9 minutes

Published by Simon and Shuster Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B08BPJJ6QJ

USS Plunkett (DD-431) was a Gleaves-class destroyer which was commissioned five months before the Pearl Harbor attack brought America into the Second World War.  Assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, she participated in the Torch landings in North Africa, the Invasion of Sicily, and the Anzio landings.  Off Anzio she came under sustained attacks from German aircraft, and was eventually hit by a 550-pound bomb which killed 51 of her crew.  After repairs Stateside, she rejoined the Fleet in time for the Normandy landings, the shelling of Cherbourg, and the invasion of Southern France.  She was on her way to the Pacific when the war ended.

This book tells the story of Plunkett from the perspectives of five members of her crew.  There are basically three threads to each story – the home front before and during the war which gives the men’s civilian backgrounds as well as those of their families; the wartime experiences and shipboard operations; and finally the author’s visits with the men and their families many years later to gather information for the book.  I found all three perspectives interesting for different reasons, but jumping between the five men and three timelines strained the continuity of the story.

The book is at its strongest when describing the wartime exploits of the Plunkett.  Her story is one version of the naval war in the European theater.  I have read that she may have been the only Allied ship to have participated in all the major landings in Europe.  Destroyers were the workhorses of the Navy, and she certainly was in the thick of things.  There is a definite bifurcation in the book, events before the bomb hit off Anzio are covered in great detail, later landings are given only a cursory treatment to close out the story.  I would definitely like to hear the fine points of her participation in the D-Day landings, Cherbourg, and Southern France, but they are missing.

Still this is an interesting tale of ships and the sea, and there is much which will be familiar to Navy veterans.  Recommended for anyone interest in naval history.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates Audio Book Review

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History

Authored by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager, Narrated by Brian Kilmeade

Audiobook, 4 hours and 52 minutes

Published by Penguin Audio, November 2015

Language: English

ISBN:  9780698411890

Muslim slave traders had long raided coastal areas along the Mediterranean, going as far back as 710.  Settlements were looted, and captives could be sold into slavery or ransomed for profit.  The Ottoman slave trade increased as shipbuilding skills improved, with the raiders venturing as far as Ireland.  Between 1580 and 1780 an estimated 1.25 Million Europeans had been taken by slavers, and many parts of the northern Mediterranean coast were abandoned.  By the end of the 18th century the most active raiders were from the states of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco along the Barbary Coast.  Their tactics had evolved to privateering, seizing shipping and ransoming the ships and crews.  Those sailors who were not ransomed were enslaved.  Many European nations found it easier to pay tribute to the pirate states in exchange for safe passage than to oppose them militarily.

Before the American Revolution, American shipping was protected by Great Britain, and during the Revolution by French allies.  After independence from Britain the American were on their own, and paid tribute for safe passage like many European nations.  Still there were seizures, with American sailors enslaved or ransomed.  The Barbary leaders demanded ever-increasing tributes.  Jefferson had had enough, and responded that, “they shall have their payment in iron!”  Congress authorized the construction of warships, which were dispatched in several expeditions to blockade the Barbary ports.

This book details the diplomatic as well as military maneuvers of what were to become known as the Barbary Wars.  There were several interrelated efforts between 1801 and 1804, some better conducted than others, with a much more decisively resolved crisis in 1815.  As a result of standing up against the Barbary pirates, the new American nation gained in prestige with many historical firsts for the USN and USMC.  The audiobook suffers a bit from Kilmeade’s awkward cadence and odd pronunciation of “Gilbralta”.  This story is often overlooked, but was a vital precedent in American history which set the tone for the country going forward.  Recommended.

Focke-Wulf Ta 154 Book Review

Focke-Wulf Ta 154: Luftwaffe Reich Defence Day and Night Interceptor

Series:  Luftwaffe Classics #31

By Dietmar Hermann

Hardcover in dustjacket, 224 pages, bibliography, appendices, and index

Published by Crecy Publishing, October 2021

Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-1-91080-994-5

Dimensions: 9.0 x 0.9 x 12.0 inches

The Focke-Wulf Ta 154 was a twin-engine Luftwaffe fighter design.  With over half of its airframe weight being made of wood it is often compared to the Royal Air Force’s de Havilland Mosquito, to the point it is generally referred to as the “Moskito”, a name which the author points out was never mentioned in Focke-Wulf or Luftwaffe documents.  While the prototypes were impressive performers, the design had little room for development due to the decision to keep size to a minimum, and performance suffered as equipment such as armament and radar were added to the airframe.

The prototype’s first flight was in July 1943, which was unfortunate timing.  As Allied bombing raids against the Reich intensified in strength, frequency, and effectiveness, the German aircraft industry was directed to concentrate on producing single-engined fighters to combat the Allied bomber streams.  An assessment of the Ta 154s’ strengths versus limitations resulted in only slightly more than a few dozen being completed and entering service before the program was terminated.

The book is a fascinating design study of the development of the Ta 154, using original factory drawings and documentation, as well as seemingly every photo of the aircraft ever taken.  These are reproduced in large format on glossy paper so every detail can be seen, a boon for modelers.  In some places the text suffers from translation from the original German, a reflection of the difficulty in technical aeronautical engineering terms.  Aviation enthusiasts should be able to discern the intended meaning, in others instances the errors should have been caught by the editorial team, such as the misspelling in the sub-title.

The Luftwaffe Classics series are well-researched, quality publications and this volume is no exception.  The high production standards, artwork, research, and reliance on primary sources ensure that these volumes represent the definitive works on their subjects.  If you have any interest in the subject aircraft, buy the book while it is still in print.  You will not be disappointed, and these volumes reliably go for stupid money on the collectors’ market after they go out of print.  Recommended.

Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” Units Book Review

Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” Units

Series:  Osprey Combat Aircraft 140

By Mark Chambers, Illustrated by Jim Laurier

Softcover, 96 pages, index, 30 color profiles

Published by Osprey Publishing, September 2021

ISBN-10: ‎1472845048

ISBN-13: ‎978-1472845047

Dimensions: 7.4 x 0.2 x 9.8 inches

The D4Y Suisei (Comet) was a Japanese carrier-based dive bomber, designed to replace the Aichi D3A “Val”.  It was initially powered by a license-built Daimler-Benz DB 601 twelve-cylinder inline engine which gave it an impressive speed and sleek profile.  Later versions were powered by a Mitsubishi Kinsei 42 fourteen-cylinder radial engine due to reliability and maintenance issues with the inlines.  The type suffered from an unusually long developmental period while various bugs were worked out, which delayed its service introduction until the middle of the Pacific War.  By then Japan had suffered numerous setbacks, and the general decline in pilot training and loss of aircraft carriers reduced the potential impact of the design.

The book covers the Judy’s design history and operational service, along with reconnaissance, dive bombing, nightfighter, and Kamikaze variants.  The type was first used operationally when a developmental aircraft was used for reconnaissance, flying from Soryu during the Battle of Midway.  Similarly, the fourth prototype operated from Shokaku during the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942.  Notable successes were the sinking of USS Princeton (CVL-23) by a Judy Kamikaze, and the near-sinking of the USS Franklin (CV-13) by conventional dive-bombing attack.  Kamikaze operations are covered in detail, with a number of pages devoted to the tactics and procedures which they employed.  The final section is devoted to the use of the Judy as a nightfighter.

Like the rest of the Osprey Aircraft of the Aces series the highlight of the book is the full-color profiles.  These are well-rendered and thoroughly researched.  However, like most Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft, the camouflage was limited to the green over gray scheme with only some variation in the standard markings so there is not much variety.  The earliest profiles are of 1943 machines, so if you’re looking for the Midway or Santa Cruz Judys you’ll need to keep looking.  Despite that the book is well-researched and enlightening, and any book on Japanese aircraft (particularly in English) is most welcome.  Recommended.

A Visual Tour of Battleship USS New Jersey Book Review

A Visual Tour of Battleship USS New Jersey, The Design of Iowa-Class Battleships Vol. 1

By John M. Miano

Hardcover, 302 pages, appendices, bibliography

Self-Published, copyright 2021 by John M. Miano

Language: English

ISBN-10: ‎098998043X

ISBN-13: ‎978-0989980432

Dimensions: ‎11.0 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches

Author John Miano has rare, perhaps even unique, access to the USS New Jersey (BB-62) as a museum ship as well as the drawings and blueprints of her which are archived there.  He has used this access to enter and photograph a vast number of her interior spaces, many of which are not open to the public.  In fact, several of the spaces he has photographed were not routinely entered by the crew when the ship was active so there are some really unusual and out-of-the-way areas shown in this book.

The book is organized by deck and each chapter begins with a labeled line drawing identifying each space by name.  Then the author proceeds through the deck, photographing representative spaces.  Captions are extensive, detailing what is shown in the photographs along with any interesting history and technical descriptions of the equipment shown so the reader knows exactly what they are looking at.  These are supplemented with pictures taken when the ship was active which helps explain how the equipment was used operationally or shows a previous configuration.  The Main Battery turrets, Engine Room #2 and Fire Room #2 are handled as separate chapters.  The topside views will be of most interest to modelers, and many are viewed from unusual perspectives.

Being self-published, the paper quality could be improved, and there are some captions which would benefit from the attentions of an editor.  However, these are minor points given the extensive coverage and amount of technical detail in the captions.

As a young Ensign I cross-decked to the New Jersey for a month in October 1985, and served aboard USS Missouri (BB-63) until 1989.  There are many photographs of areas I knew well, even accounting for the inevitable differences between sister ships.  Many other photographs are of spaces I never entered, being outside of my responsibilities.  Several are spaces which were only entered for inspection purposes while the ships were in service, but show some interesting detail of the ship’s construction or armor layout.  A must-have book for the battleship enthusiast, recommended.

The Daughters of Kobani Audio Book Review

The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice

Authored and Narrated by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Audiobook, 6 hours and 49 minutes

Published by Penguin House Audio, February 2021

Language: English

ASIN: B08BCTY84Y

The Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ) are all-female militia battalions known as Women’s Protection Units in English.  Ethnically they are comprised mainly of Kurds, although other Syrian groups and foreign volunteers are also in their ranks.  They share equal status with their male counterparts, the YPG.  During the on-going war in Syria, the YPJ/YPG were instrumental in the defeat of ISIS, and were supported by U.S. airpower in their campaigns to liberate their homeland.

Philosophically, the YPJ follows the teachings of Abdullah Öcalan, a Marxist who advocates equality for women, a radical belief within the Islamic sphere.  His desire for an independent Kurdish state spawned the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose attacks against Turkey resulted in the PKK being designated a terrorist organization and the imprisonment of Öcalan.

In this book, author Gayle Lemmon attempts to explain the complex history of the Kurdish people in the twentieth century, the role of Abdullah Öcalan, and the war in Syria.  A tall order on its own, and then she weaves in the individual stories of a few YPJ protagonists against this background.  Often the focuses on the very real oppression of women in Islamic societies.

I was hoping for a military history of the YPJ, along with an explanation of their tactics and organizational structure.  I was also curious about their relationship with their male counterparts in the YPG and how they were viewed by ISIS.  I am still wondering.  The combat performance of the YPJ is not discussed until halfway through the book.  Then it is from the perspective of a few protagonists, seen through the author’s lens of a feminist struggle against the patriarchy.  Islam is not mentioned, even though an extreme fundamentalist interpretation was the motivation behind the atrocities committed against both men and women who had the misfortune to fall under the rule of the Islamic State.  In the end there is far too much politics and not enough analysis of the YPJ as a fighting force, skip this one if you are interested in military history.

F4F & FM Wildcat in Detail & Scale Book Review

F4F & FM Wildcat in Detail & Scale

By Bert Kinzey, illustrated by Rock Roszak

Softcover, 108 pages, heavily illustrated with photographs, drawings, and color profiles

Independently published, printed on demand

Language: English

ISBN-10: ‎ 1729119751

ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1729119754

Dimensions: ‎ 8.5 x 0.3 x 11.0 inches

The Detail & Scale series needs no introduction to modelers.  This is volume 7 of the new series which is intended to be purchased electronically as an e-book, but can also be printed on demand for those who prefer a physical copy.  Luddite that I am, I prefer a hard copy for a number of reasons but know there are those who would rather see history through a glowing rectangle.

The new series paradigm is to re-work a title from the original D&S series and expand upon it with additional photographs and information.  D&S previously published two print volumes on the Wildcat, Volumes 30 and 65 in the original series.  This volume expands on the content of the previous works, with 108 pages as compared to 80 pages in volume 65.  The two sections which have benefitted most from the expansion are the Modeler’s Section which as gone from 2 to 11 pages, and a new 9-page section on Paint Schemes & Colors which gives a succinct overview of the changes made to U.S. Navy camouflage and markings as they evolved throughout the war.

The ”walk around” and historical sections have also been expanded.  Much of the material is new, with only a small percentage being re-used from the previous volumes.  The evolution of the Wildcat is more complex and convoluted than a casual observer may realize, and the major strength of this book as a modeling reference is the explanation of the detail differences between the various sub-types and foreign orders.

One weak point is the quality of the print on demand copy.  The paper is inferior to the original series.  There is not as much contrast in the black & white photo reproduction, and the color pictures appear too bright and “loud”.

For quality of content on the Wildcat family this book sets the standard as a modeling reference.  This is not a simple reprint of the original work, the older volumes still retain their value as much of the content in this book is new, not simply augmented.  The new Arma Wildcats are not reviewed in the Modeler’s Section as this book pre-dates their release, but just about every other kit is included.  Highly recommended as a modeling reference.

Up Front Book Review

Up Front

By Bill Mauldin

Hardcover in dustjacket, 228 pages, numerous illustrations

Published by The World Publishing Company, August 1945

Language: English

Dimensions:  6.0 x 9.0 x 0.7 inches

Bill Mauldin started drawing his famous cartoon panels for the 45th Division’s newspaper before the war.  His illustrations depicted Army life from the perspective of the common soldier.  The featured characters Willie and Joe are seen before the Division landed at Sicily, but became more defined as the war in Italy progressed.  They came to represent the common Dogface, dirty and tired, and Mauldin used them to satirize life in the Army from the infantryman’s perspective.  In many ways his cartoons have withstood the test of time and are still relevant today.

Mauldin was a cartoonist by trade, not a trained journalist.  His Up Front is not a masterpiece of historical literature, but is written in the style of a soldier relating his experiences over a pitcher of beer.  The text is a series of anecdotes and his own experiences, illustrated with several of his Willie and Joe cartoons.  The narrative often detours off to explain what was happening in the Italian campaign or in Southern France, and why Mauldin chose to draw what he did.  He also reveals the reactions to his work and the political fallout when he hit a nerve.  There are no chapter breaks, the text jumps from one story to another.

Mauldin was 23 when he wrote Up Front, and he had been in the Army since he was 18.  His cartoons are very relatable.  The text is interesting, but there is no central plotline or developing story, it reads almost like a series of letters home and I would not be surprised if that were not the inspiration behind several parts of this book.  Still, I found it very engaging and a good compliment to the many cartoons.  I finished the book in one sitting (bookmarks are for quitters!)  My copy was from one of the printings made just as the war ended, it has been reprinted several times and is still easily found today.  Recommended!

This is said to be Mauldin’s favorite cartoon.
This one is my favorite. It would make an outstanding diorama subject if you could make Willie & Joe easily visible.

Bill Mauldin Book Review

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front

By Todd DePastino

Hardcover in dustjacket, 325 pages, notes, and index.  Illustrated.

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, May 2009

Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-0-393-06183-3

Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.3 inches

Bill Mauldin grew up during the Great Depression in New Mexico.  His parents had an unstable marriage, he and his brother Sid could be described as “wild children” who often were left to fend for themselves.  He joined the Arizona National Guard’s 45th Division in 1940 as America began to mobilize for the Second World War.  His artistic talents soon led him to work part-time as a cartoonist for the Division’s newspaper in addition to his other military duties.

The 45th was part of the U.S. invasion force which landed in Sicily in 1943.  By this time Mauldin was a Sergeant and on the Division paper’s staff full-time.  It was here that Mauldin created his best-known characters, Willie & Joe, two infantrymen.  Mauldin depicted his characters tired, wet, and unshaven, and used them to point out the ironies and petty inequities of Army life, always on the side of the common soldier.  He was given great editorial latitude and his own Jeep, which allowed him to venture to the front for inspiration and to scrounge for supplies to draw his cartoons and engrave them for printing.

Mauldin’s work was picked up by the Stars and Stripes and was syndicated to papers back in the States.  He moved from the Italian Front to France as the war progressed.  While he enjoyed the support of much of the high brass who saw his work as a way for the average “dogface” to let off steam, some saw the unmilitary appearance and attitudes of Willie and Joe as an affront to military discipline, most notably General Patton.  Mauldin famously had a meeting with Patton who had threatened to throw him in the stockade, but Eisenhower sided with Mauldin.

After the war Mauldin won the Pulitzer for Willie and Joe, and published a book named “Up Front” with his cartoons which was a best seller.  He continued as an editorial cartoonist for a variety of papers, authored several articles, acted, and ran for Congress but lost.  He won a second Pulitzer for a cartoon depicting Soviet author Boris Pasternik in a Gulag.  Perhaps his best-known drawing is of a weeping statue at the Lincoln Memorial after the Kennedy assassination.  Mauldin died in 2003.

This book pulls no punches with Mauldin’s life, and shows all the highs and lows, the struggles and successes.  Mauldin was married three times, and often got in his own way both personally and professionally.  Nobody is perfect, and author DePastino portrays his human side well.  The book is illustrated with photographs and several cartoons.  Recommended.

Geniuses at War Audio Book Review

Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age

By David A. Price, Narrated by John Lee

Audiobook, 5 hours and 44 minutes

Published by Random House Audio

Language: English

ASIN:  B08L9MJX98

During the Second World War Germany used two major types of encryption for their messages.  Enigma was used by the German military, each service had their own particular variations of the Enigma coding machine and operating procedures.  It used a series of ten wheels to encode a message, each letter of the original could be represented by a different letter each time it occurred, resulting in millions of potential variations.  Lorenz was an encryption used at the highest level of Nazi diplomatic and military communications.  As complex as Enigma was, Lorenz was dozens of orders of magnitude more sophisticated.

British codebreaking efforts centered around an estate called Bletchley Park.  Poland had broken the early version of the Enigma machine and shared the secrets with the British who continued the work as the machines were changed throughout the war.  To deal with the ever-increasing complexity and volume of message traffic Bletchley Park eventually grew to employ 8,700 people, many of them WRENs and ATS women.  The codebreakers worked in separate buildings, each building was assigned a specific problem and work proceeded in shifts twenty-four hours per day.

Alan Turing is today considered to be one of the fathers of modern computing, his “Turing Test” is still one method used to assess the sophistication of Artificial Intelligence.  Turing invented an analog device dubbed “the Bombe” which was able to replicate the functions of the Enigma machine and reverse-engineer new cyphers, given time and the occasional lucky break.  To crack Lorenz, Bletchely’s director hired a telephone engineer named Tommy Flowers.  Given a team and a deadline to be done before June, 1944, Flowers designed a binary computing device built around hundreds of vacuum tubes named Colossus – the world’s first digital computer.  He then went about producing improved models to speed up the work and allow more messages to be read.

After decades of state-imposed secrecy the stories of the codebreakers are finally being told.  Such was the desire for secrecy that the Colossus machines were disassembled after the war, their records burned, and operators sworn to silence.  One has to wonder what would have been the result if Colossus had been preserved, further improved, and mass produced – thereby beginning the Computer Age in 1946.  This is an intriguing story, recommended.