The Greatest Beer Run Ever Audio Book Review

The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A Memoir of Friendship, Loyalty, and War

By John “Chick” Donohue and J.T. Molloy, Narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner

Audiobook, 5 hours and 41 minutes

Published by Harper Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B07ZS41XMS

Many great stories begin with questionable decisions made while drinking beer.  This is one of them.  It started in a neighborhood bar in Inwood, part of Manhattan.  In late 1967 public opinion was divided concerning the Vietnam War, and the locals in Georgie Lynch’s bar were worried that news of anti-war protests would hurt the morale of the servicemen from the neighborhood who were then serving in Vietnam.  They decided it would be great if they could buy the soldiers a beer so that they would know that there were still people who supported them.  Sitting at the bar was a man with the unique ability to actually have a chance at pulling it off.

John “Chickie” Donohue was a former U.S. Marine and a Merchant Seaman.  He had crewed ships to Vietnam before and thought he could do the job.  The next day word had gotten out, and local families had provided the bar with names and duty stations of their sons in Vietnam.  Chickie checked in at the Union Hall, and sure enough, there was a merchant ship leaving New York for Vietnam later that day.  Packing several cases of local beer, Donohue signed on to crew the ship.

After arriving in Vietnam, Chickie’s plan was simple:  His story was he was looking for his stepbrother with important family news, and could he hitch a ride to where his friend was stationed.  His civilian clothes were an unexpected asset, as many military officials assumed an American in civilian clothes in Vietnam must be CIA.  He had little trouble catching rides and drove or flew out to bring his friends (and their friends) beer from home.

The logistics eventually caught up with Chickie and his ship pulled out, leaving him “beached”.  There is a procedure for stranded Merchant Seamen to join other ships, but Donohue found himself stuck in Saigon while the wheels of the bureaucracy turned.  By then it was January 1968.  The Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive while Donohue was in a hotel in Saigon.

To say this was an adventure is an understatement.  While Donohue had lots of help and many lucky breaks, he was in the middle of several situations which could have ended very badly very easily.  This is a heartwarming story set against the background of the Vietnam War.  I can recommend this book, and it will soon be made into a movie for Netflix.

Give Me Tomorrow Audio Book Review

Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story – The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company

Authored by Patrick O’Donnell, Narrated by Lloyd James

Audiobook, 6 hours and 10 minutes

Published by Blackstone Audio, Inc.

Language: English

ASIN: B004ADRXH6

George Company of the First Marine Regiment was one of the formations which was hastily put together and rushed to Korea in response to the North Korean invasion.  Many were Reservists, and several had never even been through boot camp. They were landed at Inchon in September 1950 and helped liberate Seoul.  With the North Korean forces in retreat, they then landed at Wonson to the enemy’s rear and advanced North to the Chosin Reservoir.

There two problems faced the Marines.  A record-cold North Korean winter was setting in, and the Chinese had been infiltrating divisions of “volunteers” South to support the routed North Korean Army.  MacArthur and the United Nations Command had persistently discounted reports of contact with Chinese troops, but by the end of November even MacArthur was forced to concede that more than a dozen Chinese divisions were encircling the U.N. Task Force at Chosin.  Legendary Colonel Chesty Puller, commanding the First Marines, reportedly said, “They’ve got us surrounded, the poor bastards.”

The U.N. troops conducted a fighting retreat to the South.  The Chinese attempted to cut the roads and trap the American and their allies using roadblocks and ambushes but were unable to stop them.  During the withdrawal seven Chinese divisions were destroyed, both sides reportedly losing more casualties to frostbite than to enemy action. The author uses personal interviews to tell the story of the Marines of George Company, their battles are related from the perspectives of the individual Marines involved.  This is a great piece of history from a forgotten war, and brutal chapter in the history of the Marine Corps.  Highly recommended.

Dog Company Audio Book Review

Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc – the Rangers Who Landed at D-Day and Fought Across Europe

Authored by Patrick K. O’Donnell, Narrated by John Pruden

Audiobook, 8 hours and 11 minutes

Published by Blackstone Audio, Inc.

Language: English

ASIN: B00A2ATV1W

Company D of the U.S. Army’s Second Ranger Battalion was one of the Allied units which landed at Normandy, but unlike most units it was tasked with a very specific and difficult mission; scale the cliffs at Pointe Du Hoc, and destroy the German guns emplaced there.  If the guns were not destroyed, they could target any troops landing on either Omaha or Utah beach and jeopardize the entire invasion of Europe.

The book follows “Dog” Company (Dog being the phonetic pronunciation of the letter D) from recruitment and training Stateside to its deployment to England.  In preparation for the D-Day landings, the Rangers practiced the technics of amphibious landings and scaling cliffs along the English coast.

Despite all the training, the actual landings at Pointe Du Hoc were chaotic.  Several Rangers were put ashore on Omaha beach, those that were landed at their intended locations fought largely on their own for two days.  They moved to their objectives in small groups, and in remarkable displays of personal initiative managed to accomplish their missions and defend their positions until they could link up with the rest of the American forces.

After being rebuilt and re-equipped, the Rangers went on to fight in the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.  The Ranger Battalions were repeatedly thrust into the thick of the fighting, and by the end of the war eleven months after D-Day few of the original men remained.

The author tells the story of the Rangers from the soldiers’ personal perspectives, relying largely on interviews with the survivors.  There are a number of parallels with the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division as told in Band of Brothers and this book compares well to that work.  Recommended.

Spearhead Audio Book Review

Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II

Authored by Adam Makos, Narrated by Johnathan McClain

Audiobook, 13 hours and 33 minutes

Published by Random House Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B07M5HL8N2

The Spearhead was the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Division.  Specifically, the author follows the story of the Division’s 32rd Armored Regiment and 36th Armored Infantry Regiment as they fought their way across Europe and into Germany.  They are the units which were immortalized in the famous newsreel film of the tank duel in Cologne, and the report of that fight from a young war correspondent named Andy Rooney.

The author relies heavily on interviews from the actual participants, and allows the story to unfold in their own words.  There are several perspectives from the American side, and even a few from the German.  The reader gets a ground-level narrative of armored warfare and combined arms assaults, along with the terrible attrition as units remained in the front lines day after day.

There is no sugar coating the assault on Germany.  The American tankers were fighting with inferior equipment, and they knew it.  There is open distain for the Sherman tank whose gun could not defeat the frontal armor of many German tanks, and whose armor could not protect the crews from the German’s guns.  The Panther was a feared opponent, and could only be defeated if the Shermans were able to survive long enough to maneuver for a side shot.  In the last few months one of the American crews was issued a new Pershing which evened the odds, but most of the Regiment finished the war on the Sherman.

The German story is represented as well, from the perspective of Gustav Schaefer, a Panther crewman.  The Germans faced a deteriorating war situation against overwhelming odds.  Shaefer’s tanks was one of the few which survived to defend Cologne against the American onslaught, the reader is shown the battle for the city from his perspective.

This book is treasure for anyone wanting to study armored warfare on the Western Front.  The American way of war is the combined arms assault, the Germans employed a fluid defense in depth.  Each battle is the clash of these doctrines in detail from the viewpoint of those involved.  This story is well told and engaging, highly recommended.

Sea Stories Audio Book Review

Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations

Authored and Narrated by William H. McRaven

Audiobook, 10 hours and 14 minutes

Published by Hatchette Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B07PZY3KF7

William McRaven was a military brat, his father was an Air Force Colonel who had flown Spitfires during the Second World War.  He went through ROTC at the University of Texas, and upon commissioning completed BUDS and became a SEAL.  His career in Special Operations spanned 37 years, he retired as an Admiral in 2014.

Sea Stories is a re-cap of ADM Raven’s career, in his own words.  He tells of his formative years before entering the Navy, plus his training and experiences as he worked his way up through the ranks.  This is not a “shoot ‘em up” story of SEAL missions, there are many, many books like those for any who are interested.  What makes ADM McRaven’s story different are the details of his contributions within the Special Warfare community after making Flag rank.  These are high profile, headline-grabbing missions, requiring consultation with and authorization by the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of State, and Presidents.  He provides unique insights into the capture of Saddam Hussein, the rescue of Captain Phillips, and the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound.  If you want to know why these operations were conducted the way they were and the various alternatives which were considered, this is your book.

This story is interesting throughout.  ADM McRaven’s style is direct, and it is a major plus that he reads for the audiobook himself.  The book really shines when he explains the coordination involved at the national command level, there is so much more to a successful operation than showing a strike team a map and turning them loose.  An engaging story from start to finish, I can highly recommend this book.

Hero of the Empire Audio Book Review

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

Authored by Candice Millard, Narrated by Simon Vance

Audiobook, 10 hours and 14 minutes

Published by Random House Audio

Language: English

ASIN: B01J6GNLB8

Born into English aristocracy, Winston Churchill was always convinced he was destined for greatness.  He determined that the surest path to political success was being publicly recognized for audacity on the battlefield, and at the end of the 1800s England did not lack for battlefields in the far reaches of her sprawling Empire.  Churchill served as a junior officer in India and the Sudan, but the medals he so desperately sought eluded him.  Resigning his commission, he relied on his writing skills as a military correspondent in Cuba, and his oratory skills in a failed run for Parliament.  Still craving adventure and the recognition which would propel him to greatness, he sailed to South Africa to cover the Boer War as a journalist in 1899.  He was 24 at the time.

The Boers soon proved to be worthy opponents for the mighty British Army.  A pioneering people, they turned their frontier skills and knowledge into formidable weapons, fighting a successful guerilla war and handing the British several defeats.  Churchill was with a formation which was bottled up in Estcourt, harassed by invisible Boer fighters.  The garrison sent out an armored train on a daily patrol.  Churchill rode along on the day the train was ambushed.  He saw this as an opportunity, and directed the men in responding to the ambush, attempting to get the train underway again.  The British were eventually overwhelmed, the survivors being captured and taken to Pretoria, the Boer capitol.

Churchill chaffed at his captivity.  He joined a small party who were planning an escape, but wound up being the only member to go over the wall unnoticed.  There he found himself alone deep in enemy territory, lacking adequate provisions, a map, or even a plan.  With no other acceptable options, he set out.

This book is part biographical history and part adventure story, an excellent combination.  While I was familiar with Churchill’s background in broad terms, the details of his escape are fascinating.  This is not a dry history and the author’s style is engaging, resulting in a real “page turner”.  I was surprised at Churchill’s unreserved ambition, and conviction from an early age that he was destined for greatness.  One wonders how the world might have turned out differently today if things had worked out differently for him, and there certainly were multiple opportunities for things to have gone wrong.  Highly recommended.

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.