Damn Lucky Audio Book Review

Damn Lucky: One Man’s Courage During the Bloodiest Military Campaign in Aviation History

Authored by Kevin Maurer, Narrated by Holter Graham, interview with John Luckadoo

Audiobook, 8 hours and 20 minutes

Published by Macmillan Audio, April 2022

Language: English

ASIN: B094DVDLS4

John “Lucky” Luckadoo, like so many Americans, joined the military after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  He trained as a pilot, and after completing flight school was assigned to the 100th Bomb Group as a co-pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress.  The Group deployed to England in June 1943, when the Eighth Air Force’s bombing campaign against Germany was just gaining strength.  A combat rotation was considered to be twenty-five missions, after completing those the crew would be rotated home.  Unfortunately, Allied fighters did not have the range to escort the bombers all the way to many targets and the Luftwaffe was still a formidable force.  Statistically, the odds were against the bomber crews surviving to reach the magic twenty-fifth mission.

Aside from the fighters and the flak, flying itself is a dangerous endeavor.  In formations there is always the risk of collision, and weather is always a factor.  One under-appreciated aspect is the environment at 25,000 feet is inherently hostile.  Without the proper protection hypothermia or hypoxia can be deadly, and the crews had to function in that environment for up to twelve hours at a time.  On one occasion Luckaloo’s B-17 suffered relatively minor damage to the nose section over a target.  Unfortunately, damage to the metal skin of the aircraft directed a stream of freezing air directly under the instrument panel.  He had no choice but to leave his feet on the rudder peddles while the airstream progressively froze his legs throughout the return flight.  He returned frostbitten, but Doctors were able to save his legs.

This book follows Luckaloo’s career in the USAAF, both with the 100th BG and after his rotation back Stateside as an instructor pilot.  As the war ended he was working up with a B-29 group for deployment to the Pacific.  This is a well-written first hand account of the bomber offensive during the decisive period of the air war.  Recommended.

Born to Be Hanged Audio Book Review

Born to Be Hanged: The Epic Story of the Gentlemen Pirates Who Raided the South Seas, Rescued a Princess, and Stole a Fortune

Authored by Keith Thomson, Narrated by Feodor Chin

Audiobook, 9 hours and 41 minutes

Published by Little, Brown and Company, May 2022

Language: English

ASIN: B09S3Z8CVV

During the last half of the 17th century several European countries competed for dominance and riches in the New World, principal among these were the maritime countries of Spain, England, and France.  These countries established colonies and began to extract resources from the Americas, the most well known today being the shipments of Gold and Silver extracted by the Spanish.  The wealth contained in Spanish galleons and within Spanish settlements soon attracted the unwelcome attention of Privateers and Pirates seeking fortune and glory.  Thus began the Golden Age of Piracy.

This is the story of a group of 300 Englishmen who in 1680 embarked on an adventure to liberate Spanish Gold which spanned more than two years and both coasts of South America.  While the traditional stereotype of pirates involves seizing ships on the high seas, many of the objectives of this group involved trekking overland to attack Spanish settlements, often with the aid of native populations in the area.  One of the local Kings issued a Letter of Marque authorizing the group to act on his behalf and rescue his daughter, who was held in a Spanish fortress which conveniently was also used to mine and store Gold and Silver.

This a sprawling adventure.  The pirates captured settlements and ships.  They fought the Spanish, natives, and at times each other.  They survived adversity in the jungle and on the sea.  Their alliances were democratic, if things went against their fortunes they might hold a munity which would be considered more of a vote of no confidence today, the deposed leader either remaining with the company or parting ways along with his supporting faction.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this book is author Keith Thompson was able to draw on five surviving journals or books which were written by members of the group, along with official Spanish and English records.  A very literate group of buccaneers indeed!  Four members of the group were tried in England, where the legal distinction between a Pirate (operating independently) and a Privateer (operating on behalf of a government) could mean the difference between a hero’s welcome and a noose.  This is a very engaging book, enriched with details and observations from the pirates themselves.  Recommended.

Agent Zigzag Audio Book Review

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

Authored by Ben MacIntyre, Narrated by John Lee

Audiobook, 10 hours and 53 minutes

Published by RANDOM House Audio, September 2007

Language: English

ASIN: B000WM9UHU

Eddie Chapman was an English criminal and con man.  Before the Second World War he made a career out of extortion and petty theft, and then moved on to bigger things by blowing safes with an explosive called gelignite, which is similar to dynamite.  Universally described as charming and a smooth talker, he was romantically involved with several women at the same time.  At the beginning of the war, he was vacationing with one of his love interests on the Channel Island of Jersey when the police caught up with him and he wound up in prison.  When the Germans seized the island, they found Chapman in jail.

Chapman eventually was released from prison but could not leave the island.  He volunteered to spy for the Germans, but was eventually arrested by the Gestapo (ironically for a crime he didn’t commit) and sent to prison in France.  The prisoners there also served as hostages, several being executed in reprisals for sabotage carried out by the Resistance.  Chapman was pulled out by German military intelligence, the Abwehr, and trained as a spy and saboteur.  He was parachuted into England whereupon he immediately turned himself in and offered to work as a double agent for MI5.

Author Ben MacIntyre has conducted extensive research using declassified MI5 files to reconstruct the complicated story of Eddie Chapman, known as Agent Zig Zag by his British handlers.  Chapman undoubtedly operated in his own self-interest at all times, yet was trusted by both the Abwehr and MI5.  He never betrayed Britain, but was never exposed by his German handlers.  MI5 expunged his criminal record, Germany awarded him the Iron Cross.  MacIntyre does an excellent job of telling Chapman’s story, which reads like a spy novel only much more compelling because it is true.  Highly recommended, particularly if you have an interest in the inner workings of military intelligence organizations.

Book Review Fiat G.55 Centauro

Fiat G.55 Centauro

Series:  Kagero in Combat Number 6

By Eduardo Manuel Gil Martínez

Softcover, 84 pages, bibliography, drawings, and color profiles

Published by Kagero, March 2021

Language: English

ISBN-10: ‎ 83-66673-25-1

ISBN-13: ‎ 978-83-66673-25-0

Dimensions: ‎ 8.2 x 0.3 x 11.6 inches

The Fiat G.55 Centauro (Centaur) was an Italian fighter built around the Daimler-Benz DB 605 engine.  It was arguably the best Italian fighter of the Second World War, and evaluations conducted by the Luftwaffe found it superior to the Bf 109 and Fw 190 then in service.  It was even considered for mass production in Germany, but it was estimated to take three times the man-hours to produce than the comparable Luftwaffe types.  It first flew in 1943, but due to the chaotic war situation in Italy it was only produced in small numbers and those that did enter service fought with the fascist Aeronautica Nazionale Republicana (ANR).  After the war production resumed for the Italian Air Force as well as exports to Argentina and Syria.

There are few modeling references available on the Centauro, so this recent work is appreciated.  The text covers the development and operational history of the type.  The book is well illustrated with black and white photos and/or technical drawings on every page.  There are beautiful color profiles of six different aircraft, two of which include multiple views.  There are also eight pages of line drawings, seven of which are nominally rendered in 1/48 scale.  There is also a print of the cover artwork inserted loose which is suitable for framing.

On the down side, the translation could have used one more edit from a native English speaker familiar with aviation terminology.  The text is still comprehensible but just doesn’t flow well.  Of more relevance to modelers, the scale drawings are not reproduced to scale, the editors have chosen to expand the drawings to fit the page.  This results in the drawings being slightly overscale and prevents them from being used directly by modelers, but being close in scale constitutes a trap for the unwary.  In the photo below I have posed a 1/72 scale Sword fuselage half (which is the correct size) on the page for comparison, the same error is present on the 1/48 scale drawings. There are volumes in the Osprey aviation series and Anatomy of the Ship which share this error so it is always prudent to check the scale on drawings regardless of the source.  An odd omission is the drawings do not cover the torpedo bomber variant which is popular with modelers.

Despite the problems there are few good references available on the G.55, and I feel the positives of this work outweigh the negatives.  Recommended, just correct the size of the drawings before they get to the bench!

Outlaw Platoon Audio Book Review

Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan

By Sean Parnell and John Bruning, Narrated by Ray Porter

Audiobook, 10 hours and 18 minutes

Published by Harper Audio, February 2012

Language: English

ASIN: B007EJSJX0

Sean Parnell was the commander of Outlaw Platoon of the 10th Mountain Division.  In 2006 they were stationed in Afghanistan, in the mountainous Hindu Kush near the Pakistani border.  Their mission was to support the local Afghan population and interfere with Taliban forces who crossed the area to shelter and resupply within safe zones inside Pakistan.  Among their opposition were experienced Taliban commanders who had learned their trade fighting the Soviets two decades before.

The Platoon operated out of a Forward Operating Base (FOB) and patrolled in armored HMMWVs.  They were accompanied by Afghan interpreters (Terps), some more reliable than others.  Troops which never left the base were called “fobbits” by those who went out day after day, and there was friction between the groups.  There was also animosity with another Platoon which was not as aggressive as it should have been, but great respect for the Company commander, who could be counted on to rush to the aid of any unit in contact and bring the full array of supporting arms to bear while doing so.

This is a good study in small unit action and tactics.  Outlaw Platoon was in contact on several occasions, and many of these contacts were ambushes initiated by a skilled enemy who artfully exploited terrain to nullify American advantages in firepower.  Be warned, there are a few gruesome scenes, and there is no glossing over bad calls made in the field or on the base.  There is also no love lost for the Pakistanis, who gave moral and logistical support for the Taliban, and even participated in combat operations against American forces.

I have read several books written about similar units in Afghanistan.  This is one of the better ones, both in quality of the writing and sincerity of the story.  Parnell cares about his men, and that comes through on every page.  A good book, highly recommended.

The Taking of K-129 Audio Book Review

The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History

By Josh Dean, Narrated by Neil Hellegers

Audiobook, 15 hours and 47 minutes

Published by Penguin Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B0754N97BV

A fact that is not widely known outside of naval circles is that during the Cold War the Soviet Union’s submarine force had a serious accident or loss approximately every other year, on average.  Most of these incidents involved nuclear propulsion, nuclear weapons, or both.  On 08MAR68 the Golf-II class ballistic missile submarine K-129 was lost with all hands approximately 600 nautical miles north of Midway Island in the Pacific.  The K-129 was a diesel electric boat, but carried nuclear torpedoes and three SS-N-5 Serb ballistic missiles in her sail.  Despite searching for two weeks, the Soviet Navy was unable to locate her.

On the other hand, the U.S. Navy operated several undersea hydrophone arrays which were able to triangulate the position of the K-129.  The USS Halibut (SSGN-587) was dispatched to locate and photograph the wreck, which lay at a depth of 16,000 feet.  Based upon Halibut’s pictures, the CIA launched an ambitious project to attempt to recover the wreck for intelligence purposes.

No object of comparable size had ever been brought up from so great a depth.  Many new technologies would need to be developed, including a system to position the recovery ship above the wreck without the slightest deviation in position.  In addition, the entire effort would have to be conducted in the greatest secrecy, if the Soviets learned of it the whole thing would be called off.  A specialized, single-use ship would have to be designed and built.  The ship would lower a recovery cradle and pull the K-129 back up into an interior hold where the crew would investigate the wreck and her weapons.

The effort was dubbed Project Azorian, the ship was the Hughes Glomar Explorer.  The project was a CIA effort from the beginning, Howard Hughes was never actively involved.  What Hughes did provide was a plausible cover story – publicly the Glomar Explorer was a deep ocean mining ship, intended to snatch manganese nodules from the ocean floor.  In the summer of 1974 the forward portion of K-129 was recovered.  The cover story held until February of 1975 when the Los Angeles Times ran a story which effectively precluded any further efforts to exploit the wreck site.

This is a fascinating book, the first half of which explains the engineering and operational challenges of building a ship to pull off the recovery.  The fact that the effort had to be done in secret just adds another layer of complexity.  There are several almost comical anecdotes of the project coming close to being revealed due to petty government bureaucracies demanding specific licenses or taxes before giving their permission to proceed.  There is a necessary digression into the U-2 and SR-71 programs which explains why the CIA and not the Navy were given overall control of the project.  Overall, this is a fascinating account of a slide-rule cloak and dagger story, recommended.

Iwo Jima Audio Book Review

Iwo Jima: World War II Veterans Remember the Greatest Battle of the Pacific

By Larry Smith, Narrated by Dick Hill

Audiobook, 13 hours

Published by Tantor Audio, July 2008

Language: English

ASIN: B001DIH1YG

The island of Iwo Jima lays between the Mariana Islands and Japan.  The Japanese stationed there had an airfield which was used to conduct raids on U.S. bases in the Marianas, including the American airfields used by B-29 Superfortresses.  In addition, the island provided the Japanese with early warning of incoming B-29 raids.  In American hands, the situation would be reversed.  Iwo Jima could provide an emergency field for damaged B-29s, as well as a base for long-range fighters to escort the bombers to their targets.

On 19FEB45 Iwo Jima was invaded by three Marine Divisions, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th, totaling about 70,000 Marines.  Opposing them were 21,000 Japanese, well dug in with extensive underground cave systems and fortifications.

Author Larry Smith is considered an oral historian, this book consists primarily of interviews with surviving American participants in the battle.  These are all first-hand accounts, with each man telling of his own experiences and observations.  The majority of them are Marines, two of those interviewed are recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor and one was a Navaho code talker.  Several of the others offer perspectives which are not as commonly seen in histories of the island-hopping campaign.  One was a P-51 Mustang pilot based on the island, another was a B-29 crewman who was diverted to Iwo Jima on three different occasions.  Another Marine was assigned to logistical support, and was responsible for interring the remains of the Marines who died taking the island.

Smith also clears up the controversy surrounding the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi by including an interview with the Marine Warrant Officer in charge of the photographic unit.  There is also a very interesting section describing what has happened on the island after the war, which was returned to the Japanese but with certain allowances for American military exercises and limited visitation.  Something which is not widely known is that many of the extensive Japanese tunnel systems are still intact.  American forces simply sealed the entrances, trapping the defenders inside where they remain to this day.

This book offers everything you would expect from a series of interviews with a group of Iwo Jima veterans.  Along with the expected Marines and Navy Corpsmen there are several voices which are not normally heard from, such as the USAAF aircrew.  The back story of the famous Rosenthal photograph is fascinating, as are the details about how the island is administered today.  One of the better books on Iwo Jima, highly recommended.

Hunt-class Destroyers in Polish Navy Service Book Review

Hunt-class Destroyers in Polish Navy Service

By Mariusz Borowiak, 3D renders by Waldemar Góralski

Hardcover, 240 pages, bibliography, 3D color renders, drawings

Published by Kagero, February 2019

Language: English, Polish

ISBN-10: ‎8366148106

ISBN-13: ‎978-8366148109

Dimensions: ‎8.3 x 0.8 x 11.7 inches

After the fall of France, England stood alone against Nazi Germany.  Refugees from all across Europe fled to England, several of which formed governments in exile.  Remnants of military units were evacuated as well, and others soon fled occupied Europe and joined them.  This resulted in significant numbers of available trained military personnel, willing and eager to get back into the fight, who only lacked equipment and reorganization.

As a solution, the British absorbed and equipped several of these veterans into their own units.  Many were organized as independent commands, fighting under their own Colors and led by their own Officers.  Arguably the most enthusiastic contingents were Polish, whose military continued to serve from British bases throughout the war.  The Polish Navy had managed to evacuate several ships to England, and these were augmented by additional ships leased from the British as they became available.

Three of these were destroyers of the Hunt class.  The design was intended for escort work, featuring a heavy gun armament for their displacement but no torpedo tubes.  Three of these were leased to the Poles, ORP Krakowiak (L115), ORP Ślązak (L26), and ORP Kujawiak (L72).

This book details the service history of each of these vessels, which were quite active.  Kujawiak was sunk by a mine off Malta, one of the chapters is devoted to efforts to locate and survey her wreck.  Almost one third of the book is devoted to 3D full-color renders of the three ships for which Kagero is known.  Included with these are renders of HMS Badsworth (L03), a British Hunt-class which was mined at the same time as Kujawiak.  As a bonus, separate line drawings of each ship in 1:350 and 1:200 scale are inserted loose.  On the negative side, the English translations are a little rough in spots, with several typos and spelling errors, and some of the photographs could be sharper.  Overall these problems did not interfere with my enjoyment of the book, and this is a valuable reference for anyone interested in the Polish Navy in WWII or the Hunt class destroyers in general.  Recommended.

The Great Halifax Explosion Audio Book Review

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism

By John U. Bacon, Narrated by Johnny Heller

Audiobook, 10 hours and 38 minutes

Published by Harper Audio, November 2017

Language: English

ASIN: B0742MBJ82

Prior to the detonation of the first atomic bomb, the largest man-made explosion ever recorded happened in Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 6th, 1917.  It occurred when two ships, the French freighter SS Mont-Blanc, and the Norwegian relief ship SS Imo, collided in the harbor.  The collision occurred in daylight and good visibility (as is surprisingly often the case in ship collisions) and at low speed.  It caused little damage to either vessel, but started a small fire on Mont-Blanc.  The problem was her cargo – picric acid, TNT, and barrels of benzol on her deck, were all highly explosive.

When the fire reached the hold of the Mont-Blanc her cargo detonated with the force of almost three kilotons of TNT.  The ship disintegrated, part of her anchor was thrown three miles away, her deck gun four.  Every building within 1.6 miles of the ship was destroyed by the pressure wave or the ensuing wall of water, the bottom of the harbor was briefly exposed.  An estimated 1,600 people were killed instantly with more subsequently dying of their injuries.  Many of the survivors were watching the ship burn from their homes and were injured as the blast shattered the windows in front of them.

This is a very well-researched book.  The author not only describes the events leading up to the explosion and the rescue efforts in great detail, he gives a great deal of information on the history of Halifax and the relationship between Canada and the United States.  He describes the daily lives of several protagonists before and after the explosion, and follows one Haligonian, Joseph Barss, who fought in the trenches of France and was recovering from wounds in Halifax at the time of the explosion.

Despite the magnitude of the blast, it is not well known today.  It is a tragedy of the recent past, and an inspiring story of surrounding communities from Canada and the United States rallying to the aid of their neighbors.  Highly recommended.

Brotherhood of Heroes Audio Book Review

Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944

By Bill Sloan, Narrated by Patrick Lawlor

Audiobook, 11 hours and 48 minutes

Published by Tantor Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B000ANSOI2

Peleliu is a small island in the Palau Archipelago in the Pacific.  In WWII it was home to a Japanese garrison and a small airfield.  On 15SEP44 it was invaded by the first Marine Division in order to prevent the Japanese from using it as a base which might interfere with the planned invasion of the Philippines the next month.

The Battle of Peleliu remains controversial to this day because of the high casualty rate among the Marines and the negligible strategic value of the island.  The Japanese had shifted their strategy of contesting the beachhead and now were to concentrate on defense in depth from fortified positions.  Also gone were the massed Banzai charges which had proven to be ineffective and wasteful of manpower.  The American commander, Major General William H. Rupertus, anticipated a three-day operation.  The island would not finally be secured for more than two months.  Rupertus would be criticized for insisting that Peleliu be a “Marine operation” and resisting calling in the Army’s 81st Infantry Division, which was held in reserve.

This book draws on official histories for the overall operational picture, and published accounts for the anecdotes of Marines to give personal perspectives.  In particular, “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa” by Eugene Sledge and “Battleground Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Combat Odyssey in K/3/5” by Sterling Mace are quoted heavily.  Both were members of the same company. Sledge’s book is also one of three primary sources for the HBO miniseries “The Pacific”, so many readers will be familiar with much of this material.  With the reliance on these few sources, one gets the impression that K/3/5 was the only company which fought on Peleliu.

This is not a bad account of the fight for Peleliu.  However, it is heavily reliant on the works of Sledge and Mace, which are well-known and have themselves been previously incorporated into several other retellings already.  I didn’t see anything new here.  If you want to read just one book on Peleliu, pick up Sledge’s “With the Old Breed” and read his perspectives directly in his own words.