Underwater Warriors Book Review

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Underwater Warriors

By Paul Kemp

Hardcover in dustjacket, 256 pages, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index

Published by Naval Institute Press 1996

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1-55750-857-7

Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches

Midget submarines were used by all the major naval powers of WWII except for the United States.  The Italians, British, Germans, and Japanese all fielded small submarines, manned torpedoes of various types, or what would now be called swimmer delivery vehicles (SDVs).  These generally were deployed against enemy shipping at anchor or in harbor, and utilized standard torpedoes or mines to sink their targets.  While not technically suicide weapons (at least in most cases) the operations were extremely hazardous and often resulted in the death or capture of the crews.

The author begins with Bushnell’s Turtle of American Revolutionary war fame.  While unsuccessful as a weapon, it had some basic success as a submersible and proved the concept.  Strangely, the successful CSS Hunley is not mentioned, although this may be due to the discovery of her wreck happening after publication of this book.  The first modern operation covered in detail is the sinking of the Austro-Hungarian battleship Viribus Unitus by the Italians during the closing days of the First World War.

The Italians were certainly the first to capitalize on the midget submarine concept in WWII, using SDVs to sink the British battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth at Alexandria with their Maiale and covertly operating against Allied shipping from the tanker Olterra at Gibraltar.  The British copied the Maiale for their own Chariot SDV, and developed the four-man X-craft which were used successfully against the German battleship Tirpitz and the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao.  Germany was a late comer to the midget submarine game, employing a variety of types in an effort to disrupt the Allied invasion of Europe, without much success.  The Japanese developed their “Target-A” two-man midget to engage the U.S. Navy on the high seas in a climactic battle, but in the end used them mainly against ships at anchor or in harbor, the most well-known attacks being the Pearl Harbor raid and attack on Sydney Harbor.  More successful but less well known are the torpedoing of HMS Ramillies at Madagascar and the attacks on American invasion shipping at Guadalcanal.

The author also evaluates the different vessels and their employment from a technical perspective, tracing the development of each.  The smaller one-man submersibles, although tried on several occasions, were never able to be made practical for a variety of reasons.  The larger types such as the British X-craft and Japanese Target-A were designed by submarine officers and engineers and were quite functional, their main limitations stemmed from their deployment to the combat area which required the services of fleet submarines as transports.

This work fills a void as very little has been written about the operations of midget submarines, the author has done an excellent job researching the stories of the men involved.  These operations were quite secret at the time, and in some cases more information has only come to light recently – the details of the five Japanese mini-subs at Pearl Harbor being one example.  Overall this is a very well written book which I can recommend without hesitation, and one which fills a gap in the naval history of the Second World War.

Lost in Shangri-La Book Review

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Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II

By Mitchell Zuckoff

Hardcover in dustjacket, 384 pages, bibliography, notes, and index

Published by Harper Collins, 2011

Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-0-06-198834-9

Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches

In the central mountains of Dutch New Guinea lies a valley, cut off from the outside world by mountainous terrain and jungle.  In the valley thousands of people lived in isolation, a stone-age society with their own unique culture and traditions.  The area was uncharted and did not show up on any of the maps of the time.  During WWII the USAAF became aware of the valley and its people while searching for areas suitable for constructing new airfields.  The reconnaissance flights were tricky, requiring the aircraft to fly through passes in the mountains before dropping into the valley, often through clouds and shifting winds.

By May 1945 the war had moved on and New Guinea had become a backwater.  Japanese troops who remained on the island were disorganized and avoided contact with the Americans.  Likewise, Allied troops avoided the cannibalistic tribes which inhabited other parts of the island.  To break the boredom, additional personnel began tagging along on the reconnaissance flights to the newly-discovered valley, eager to see its natural beauty and the villages scattered throughout.  Little was known about the people there, so imagination filled in the gaps and soon the inhabitants became seven-foot-tall cannibals, the valley’s natural beauty causing it to be called Shangri-La.  As the stories spread, the local command began organizing sight-seeing flights for personnel.

On 13MAY45 a C-47 transport named the Gremlin Special failed to clear a ridge and crashed in the valley.  Of the twenty-four people on board only three survived – Lt. John McCollom, who lost his twin brother in the crash; Sgt. Ken Decker; and WAC Corporal Margaret Hastings.  Both Decker and Hastings were injured.

This is an excellent story and author Mitchell Zuckoff does an outstanding job telling it.  The rescue effort was considerable and involved air drops of various supplies and a small unit of Filipino-American paratroopers to assist.  Only after the paratroopers were inserted was the question of how to get everyone out addressed.  I was surprised to see the perspective of the local tribesmen included.  Their society and culture has since been studied by anthropologists and Zuckoff flew to New Guinea to conduct interviews with those who witnessed the events as children.  This is a fast read which I can recommend without hesitation, both as an adventure story and to those interested in military history.

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Dornier Do 17 Units of World War 2 Book Review

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Dornier Do 17 Units of World War 2

By Chris Goss, profiles by Chris Davey

Series:  Osprey Combat Aircraft 129

Softcover, 96 pages, appendices, 30 color profiles, and index

Published by Osprey Publishing, September 2019

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1472829638

ISBN-13: 978-1472829634

Dimensions:  7.3 x 0.3 x 9.8 inches

State of the art when introduced in the mid-1930s, the Dornier Do 17 was fast approaching obsolescence at the beginning of the Second World War.  It was intended that the “Flying Pencil” would be able to out-run defending fighters, but such was the pace of aeronautical development that it was not considered fast even for a bomber by the start of the war.  Coupled with its poor range and limited bomb load it was destined to be replaced in short order, but along with the Heinkel He 111 the Dornier Do 17 made up the medium bomber arm of the Luftwaffe for the first year of the war.

The Do 17 served with the Condor Legion in Spain, and in the Battle of France.  In the Battle of Britain losses mounted and several units began transition training to the new Ju 88.  Surviving units fought in Greece and in Russia, but by 1942 front-line units had converted to the Ju 88 or the more powerful Do 217 development of the design.  Still, some Do 17s soldiered on in auxiliary roles through the end of the war.

This work tells the story of the units which flew the Do 17 in Luftwaffe service and in the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War.  Much of the text reads as a loss list, with dates, places, and crew names given for the aircraft involved.  Being a type with marginal performance figures, attrition was constant and the detailed listing of losses soon becomes repetitive.  The profiles offer little relief, as the vast majority are finished in the same standard Luftwaffe bomber camouflage scheme of 70 / 71 over 65, with a little variation provided by the Condor Legion schemes or those aircraft wearing black distemper for night raids.

Overall there are no surprises here for those familiar with Osprey’s Combat Aircraft series.  The format follows the familiar formula with photographs and color profiles.  The repetitive nature of the writing provides some useful information for amateur researchers, but tends to make recreational reading a slog.  Good for picking a specific Do 17 as a modeling subject.

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Dark Waters Book Review

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Dark Waters: An Insider’s Account of the NR-1 The Cold War’s Undercover Nuclear Sub

By Lee Vyborny and Don Davis

Hardcover in dustjacket, 243 pages, appendices, photographs, and index

Published by New American Library January 2003

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-451-20777-7

ISBN-13: 978-0-451-20777-7

Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.0 x 9.2 inches

The NR-1 was a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, unique in many respects.  Its stated purpose was scientific research, survey, and rescue, but it also performed clandestine military operations, many of which remain classified today.  It was the smallest nuclear-powered vessel in the world, displacing only 400 tons with a length of less than 150 feet (45 meters).  It was never commissioned into the U.S. Navy but was administered through the Nuclear Reactors department, one of several manipulations which kept the program firmly under Admiral Rickover’s control.

Author Lee Vyborny was one of the commissioning crew (a “plank owner” in Navy parlance) personally selected by Rickover.  As such he was present during the construction and fitting out of the ship and was part of the crew responsible for developing her operational procedures during her first missions.   He is uniquely qualified to record the story of the construction of the ship and training of her crew.  Vyborny pulls no punches in discussing the technical obstacles and budget over-runs which delayed the NR-1’s construction, and he relates Rickover’s controlling nature and infamous temper.

Only a select few of the NR-1’s operations are described here for security reasons.  Her well-known retrieval of an F-14 Tomcat and the AIM-54 Phoenix missile she carried from 2,000 feet (610 meters) below the North Atlantic is related, along with routine aspects of shipboard life which give the reader a good feel for what it was like to serve aboard her.  I was surprised at how vulnerable the tiny submarine was and how close it came to disaster on several occasions.  Her reactor was only able to produce 160 HP which gave NR-1 a maximum speed of five knots, barely enough power to get her out of trouble.  Getting entangled in nets or cables or stuck in the muddy sea floor could have proven fatal.

This account is interesting and well-written, and provides an insight into the guarded world of the submarine service and covert operations.  I was constantly aware that the author was leaving out as much of the story as he was able to tell, but what is there is fascinating.  Perhaps someday the NR-1’s entire history will be open to the public but I doubt I’ll still be around to read it.  This is a good book with a great story, recommended.

Messerschmitts Over Sicily Book Review

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Messerschmitts Over Sicily: Diary of a Luftwaffe Fighter Commander

By Johannes Steinhoff

Softcover, 271 pages, bibliography, and index

Published by Stackpole Books August 2004

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0811731596

ISBN-13: 978-081173159

Dimensions: 6.0 x 0.8 x 8.8 inches

Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff was one of the legends of the Luftwaffe, having flown throughout the entire war from beginning to end on every major front and surviving.  He flew a total of 993 sorties and was credited with 176 victories.  He was shot down himself on twelve occasions but only bailed out once, preferring to crash land his aircraft due to a mis-trust of parachutes.  He achieved most of his successes flying with JG 52 against the Soviets in the East but in March 1943 he was transferred to North Africa to lead JG 77 as Geschwaderkommodore.  He arrived just in time to move what remained of the Geschwader (Wing) from North Africa to Sicily.

Messerschmitts Over Sicily is Steinhoff’s autobiographical account of JG 77’s fight against the Allies during the summer of 1943.  The Luftwaffe faced over 5,000 American and British aircraft with only 350 of their own.  The German airfields were well within range of Allied fighters and were subjected to almost daily bombings by medium bombers.  This kept the German fliers on the move and resulted in material shortages, the Germans were often forced to utilize improvised landing fields to escape the attentions of prowling Allied aircraft.

A problem which the Luftwaffe never solved in the Italian Theater was how to deal with the American heavy bomber formations.  While Jagdwaffe units defending the Reich enjoyed some notable successes, American Flying Fortresses operated over Italy with relative impunity.  The proximity of Allied bases greatly reduced warning times which frustrated German attempts to mass and direct intercepting fighters, and the bomber boxes were able to be escorted by defending fighters all the way to their targets.  These obstacles, exasperated by the generally poor logistical situation, were not appreciated by the Luftwaffe high command.  Reichsmarschall Göring attributed the lack of success to cowardice on the part of his pilots which only served to reduce morale further.

This is an interesting study of command and leadership under adversity.  It reveals the complexities of managing the daily administrative responsibilities of managing a military unit while dealing with unrealistic expectations from superiors and also leading men in combat.  An interesting book and well worth a read, recommended.

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Winged Samurai Book Review

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Winged Samurai: Saburo Sakai and the Zero Fighter Pilots

By Henry Sakaida

Softcover, 159 pages, heavily illustrated

Published by Champlin Fighter Museum, August 1985

Language: English

ISBN-10: 091217305X

ISBN-13: 978-0912173054

Dimensions: 8.2 x 0.5 x 11.0 inches

First-hand accounts of Japanese airmen from the Pacific War are rare in the West; biographies are almost unique.  In Winged Samurai author Henry Sakaida presents the results of several interviews with Saburo Sakai, who is recognized as Japan’s fourth-highest scoring ace.

There has been a biography of Sakai’s exploits published in English, Samurai! by Martin Caiden, an adaptation of Sakai’s own Ôzora no samurai (Samurai in the Sky).  It appears Caiden took several liberties with the narrative in order to dramatize the account for Western readers.  These are not limited to the construction of details and conversations, Sakai himself indicates many incidents related in Caiden’s book never actually happened.

Henry Sakaida corrects Sakai’s record.  The book is not presented in the usual narrative form, but it reads more as a collection of reference materials, much of which comes from Sakai’s own personal collection.  It is heavily illustrated with photographs, maps, and copies of official reports.  The author has researched each engagement from both sides wherever possible.  Combatants are identified by name and unit, and Sakai’s own evaluations of the Allied aircraft, pilots, and tactics are of particular interest.  Several pages are devoted to the combat over Guadalcanal on 07AUG42, where Sakai encountered U.S. Navy carrier aircraft for the first time and was severely wounded.  Much of this account is based upon an article written by John B. Lundstrom and draws upon interviews and records of the U.S. Navy aircrews involved.

Also included are brief biographies of many of the Zero pilots Sakai flew with as well as photographs and accounts of reunions held after the war, where Sakai was treated as an honored guest by many of the men he fought against.  This is an interesting book and a valuable addition to the history of the Pacific War.  I would love to see it reprinted in hardback on glossy paper with color profiles of the aircraft.  Maybe someday! 

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Ship of Ghosts Book Review

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Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors

By James D. Hornfischer

Hardcover in dustjacket, 530 pages, bibliography, notes, crew list, and index

Published by Bantam Books, 2006

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-553-80390-5

ISBN-13: 978-0-553-80390-7

Dimensions:  6.1 x 2.0 x 9.4 inches

The USS Houston (CA-30) was a Northampton-class heavy cruiser commissioned in 1930.  She had a reputation as a spit and polish ship, and became a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt, who was embarked several times in the pre-war years.  At the beginning of the Pacific War she was the flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, stationed in the Philippines.  She joined the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) naval force at Java under the overall command of Admiral Karel Doorman of the Royal Netherlands Navy.  She was bombed by Japanese aircraft during the Battle of Makassar Strait on 04FEB42, destroying her after 8” gun turret, which could not be repaired locally.  On 26FEB42 ADM Doorman dispatched the ships of the ABDA to intercept a Japanese invasion fleet bearing down on Java.  The ABDA force was badly mauled, loosing two cruisers and three destroyers while inflicting no meaningful damage in return.  Houston and HMAS Perth survived and returned to the port of Tanjong Priok, but were unable to resupply their depleted fuel and ammunition stocks.

The Houston and Perth were ordered to withdraw south through the Sunda Strait under the cover of darkness.  Unknown to them at the time the Japanese were in the process of conducting landing operations in Bantam Bay.  The two cruisers wandered into the midst of the Japanese invasion force.  In a confused close-quarters engagement both Allied ships were sunk.  Approximately one-third of the complements of the cruisers were eventually taken prisoner by the Japanese.

The first third of the book details the history of the Houston and her actions with the ABDA against the Japanese.  The remainder follows the story of the Houston’s survivors while in Japanese captivity.  The Houston’s sailors and Marines were held alongside the crew of the Perth and soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery Regiment, a Texas National Guard unit which had been captured on Java, the three groups sharing the same fate.  The prisoners were moved to Burma, packed onto ships at the ratio of one man per ton of the transport’s displacement.  There they were used as slave labor constructing the infamous “Death Railway” of Bridge Over the River Kwai fame through the Burmese jungle.  The work was all done without the aid of machinery, the jungle offering no hope of escape.  Approximately 20% of the prisoners there died of disease and starvation.

 Hornfischer is a great author and a diligent researcher, most of the material for this book comes from interviews with survivors of the Houston’s crew or their records, and those of the Perth and the 131st Field Artillery as well.  The fates of the Houston and Perth were mysteries to the Allies for most of World War Two and are little know even today so this work fills a gap in the record.  The experiences of the prisoners are grim, readers should not expect anything uplifting there other than the resilience of the men in the face of overwhelming adversity.  Recommended.

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Marine Corps Tank Battles in the Middle East Book Review

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Marine Corps Tank Battles in the Middle East

By Oscar E. Gilbert

Hardcover in dustjacket, 312 pages, photographs, references, and index

Published by Casemate February 2015

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1612002676

ISBN-13: 978-1612002675

Dimensions:  6.1 x 0.9 x 9.1 inches

Like so many of the modern world’s current political problems, the on-going turmoil in the Middle East can be traced back to diplomatic missteps in the aftermath of the First World War.  Those decisions remain with us and are still costing lives on a daily basis over a century later.  In the first twenty pages of this book Oscar E. Gilbert traces the modern history of the Middle East which imparts on the reader an understanding of the basis for the conflicts which have plagued the region.  This chapter is concise and exceptionally well-written, it alone warrants the purchase of the book and is worthy of periodic re-reading.

The bulk of the book focusses on the use of Marine armor in Iraq and Afghanistan, both the M60 and M1 Abrams main battle tanks along with the lighter LAV-25.  The dominance of the better trained and equipped Marines during the conflicts with the Iraqi Army, even when outnumbered, are well described.  The use of armor in the drawn-out counter insurgency operations also offers many insights, such as the use of the vehicle’s impressive array of sensors.  Tactics used during the Battle of Fallujah illustrates the value of armor in clearing an urban environment, an arena where tanks are generally considered to be at a disadvantage.

The book is well researched and interspaced with first-hand accounts taken from interviews with the participants.  This is an engaging read, made somewhat more poignant by the recent decision to eliminate tanks from the Marine Corp’s inventory.  This is the second of Gilbert’s Marine tanks histories which I have read, and I can recommend them without hesitation.

Japanese Naval Aces and Fighter Units in World War II Book Review

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Japanese Naval Aces and Fighter Units in World War II

By Ikuhiko Hata and Yasuho Izawa, Translated by Don Cyril Gorham

Hardcover in dustjacket, 432 pages, appendices, and index.  Illustrated with photographs throughout.

Published by Naval Institute Press November 1989

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-87021-3156

ISBN-13: 978-0-87021-3151

Dimensions: 7.3 x 1.4 x 10.3 inches

Even today, it is comparatively difficult to find detailed information about Japanese military units in the Second World War.  The Pacific Theater was vast, the ocean or jungles swallowed up entire units with their ultimate fates being inferred only after the war by comparison with Allied records.  Most original wartime records and photographs were ordered destroyed by the Japanese government, whether officially held or in private collections.  This periodically results in the re-discovery of some lost detail of interest of historians and modelers, such as the recent revelation of the shape of the stern of the battleship Yamato as revealed by photographs of her wreck.

This work is the result of years of research by the authors, who originally published their findings in Japan in 1975 as Nihon Kaigun Sentoki-tai.  Translator Don Gorham removed another major obstacle for the Western reader by translating their work into English.  What results is a unique insight into the fighter arm of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and is likely to be the definitive reference on the subject for some time to come.

The book is divided into two major sections.  The first is comprised of histories of all the IJN fighter groups whether assigned to aircraft carriers or ashore.  These are supplemented by portraits of the pilots and aircraft where available, and artwork consisting of line drawings illustrating the markings carried by the aircraft.  The second section is biographies of the aces, what is known of their combat records, and their photographs.  These are rarely more than a single page but there are many names here which are virtually unknown in the West.

Historians researching American, German, or British have several volumes detailing the history of aviation units and multiple biographies of notable figures.  Those interested in Japanese aviation have only a few print references to rely upon.  This book fills a major informational void and is a valuable addition to a reference library.  Recommended.

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Recon Scout Book Review

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By Fred H. Salter

Hardcover in dustjacket, 339 pages, photographs, and index

Published by Ballantine Books, 1994

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-7394-2372-X

Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.4 x 8.5 inches

Corporal Fred H. Salter entered the U.S. Army at the age of 17, forging his father’s signature to enlist in the Horse Cavalry.  He was assigned to the 91st Cavalry Recon Squadron, which gave up its horses for Jeeps before the unit landed in North Africa.  There the unit was attached to larger formations, acting in their intended role as a reconnaissance unit or leaving their vehicles behind to fight as infantry.  Salter soon specialized in night patrols, scouting out enemy positions.  He often worked alone, believing the he was safer in no-man’s-land shielded by the darkness.

After North Africa the 91st landed in Sicily and fought its way up the Italian peninsula.  His was one of several units which endured the Italian winter in the mountainous countryside, and he witnessed the destruction of the Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino in a mis-guided attempt to break through the German defenses.

This is very much a soldier’s story with few words spent explaining any military strategy more grandiose than the next objective assigned to Salter or his unit.  He was a musician and a poet, some of his poems are included in this work.  At several times he expresses regret at the decisions he’s made and things he’s done during his time in combat, even if the events were beyond his direct control.

Salter was fortunate to have been one of the lucky ones who survived months of combat and rotated home before he was killed or wounded, most of the original men in his unit were not as lucky. The strain took a toll on him, in addition to malaria it is apparent that he suffered from what we would call PTSD today.  It would be remarkable if he didn’t.

The style of some of the dialog brought back memories of the Sgt. Rock comics of my youth.  A little campy but it does not detract from the story.  There is definitely a tension to the book, sneaking around alone at night through enemy lines is not something just anyone could do.  An interesting story of one man’s experiences during the war.

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