The Coral Sea 1942 Book Review

The Coral Sea 1942: The first carrier battle

Osprey Campaign Series Book 214

By Marke Stille, Illustrated by John White

Softcover in dustjacket,  96 pages, profusely illustrated, index

Published by Osprey Publishing, November 2009

Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-1-84603-440-4

Dimensions: 7.4 x 0.2 x 9.5 inches

The Imperial Japanese Navy planned Operation Mo to seize Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea for the purpose of isolating Australia and threating Allied air bases there.  This would help secure the southern frontier of their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and protect their bases at Rabaul.  Supporting the Japanese invasion fleet were the large aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and the light carrier Shoho.  American and British signals intercepts warned Admiral Nimitz of the impending operation, and he decided to contest the invasion by sending all four of his available aircraft carriers, although Enterprise and Hornet did not arrive in time to participate in the battle.

The battle was the first naval engagement fought entirely by aircraft.  Although the opposing fleets were often in close proximity they never sighted each other.  The Americans lost the aircraft carrier Lexington, with Yorktown damaged, while the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho, with Shokaku damaged.  With Zuikaku’s air group depleted the Japanese determined the landings at Port Moresby could not be supported and cancelled the invasion.

Both sides claimed victory.  On the Allied side, the threat to Australia was abated and the Japanese juggernaut was turned back for the first time in the war.  On the other hand, the Japanese thought they had sunk two American carriers.  Their own fleet carriers could be repaired and their air groups replenished, and the IJN would enjoy a two to one superiority in aircraft carriers in the meantime.  In reality, damage to the Yorktown was (quite heroically) repaired in time for her to participate in the Battle of Midway, while neither Zuikaku nor Shokaku were present.

Author Mark Stille has done an excellent job of documenting the events leading up to the Battle of the Coral Sea as well as the play-by-play of the battle itself.  Naval battles are complex affairs, but the graphics-intense format of the Osprey Campaign series shines in making a clear presentation of the ship and aircraft maneuvers.  The length of this work is just enough to present this engagement well.  This is one of the better volumes of this series and well worth picking up.

It’s Your Ship Book Review

It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy

By Captain D. Michael Abrashoff

Hardcover in dustjacket, 212 pages

Published by Warner Business Books, May 2002

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-446-52911-7

Dimensions:  6.5 x 1.01 x 9.5 inches

The USS Benfold (DDG-65) is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.  The Burke-class are the most common ship type in the U.S. Navy, with 68 in commission and more building.  They are high-tech state of the art warships with crews of 310.  In June 1997 Commander Michael Abrashoff became her Captain.  Her previous CO was not respected by the crew and morale was low, affecting the ship’s performance.  This is a vicious cycle which can spiral to the point where the ship is unable to excel, or even complete basic requirements successfully.

Commander Abrashoff decided to turn the Benfold around, starting with the basics.  He listened to his sailors, and acted upon their suggestions to improve the operations of the ship.  This improved both morale and efficiency, which in turn led to gains in performance.  An example near to my heart is a sailor questioned why so much time was being spent on corrosion control, specifically chipping and painting boltheads which were a constant source of rust.  The sailor suggested replacing the rusty bolts with stainless steel.  Abrashoff not only acted on the suggestion by replacing Benfold’s bolts, but passed it up the chain of command so other ships could benefit.  The program was extended to replace or coat other rust-prone fittings.  The crew’s time saved by this and other programs was invested in training, and soon Benfold’s crew had the highest rates of Enlisted Surface Warfare qualification in the fleet.  This increased morale, made the crew more knowledgeable and professional, and improved retention.

This book is a management “how to” manual aimed at the cooperate business world, but is also the story of a Captain running his ship based upon first principles.  “Because we’ve always done it this way” is not a good answer when your goal is to do better.  There are many valuable insights here, made all the more interesting because it is set within the story of a ship and her crew.  An enjoyable read, and valuable for leaders in all professions.

A Sailor’s Odyssey Book Review

A Sailor’s Odyssey: At Peace and at War 1935-1945

By Alvin P. Chester

Hardcover in dustjacket, 288 pages, photographs

Published by Odysseus Books, January 1991

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-9631239-0-4

Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.0 x 9.0 inches

Prior to World War Two the way things moved between the continents was by ship.  Crossing the Atlantic between the United States and Europe were several competing shipping lines offering regular service to various ports of call.  The majority of ships carried both cargo and passengers, who often counted diplomats and celebrities among their ranks.  Dining with the Captain was a mark of social status, and the Captain and his officers were held in some esteem by society.

Al Chester entered this world as a cadet in the New York State Merchant Marine Academy in 1933.  Upon graduation in 1935, he began serving on a variety of merchant vessels as a nineteen-year-old Officer Cadet.  He was able to advance by taking on more responsible positions with different ships, often serving alongside former classmates from the NYSMMA. By 1938 it was becoming apparent that war was coming and that the United States would eventually become involved.  When the war came to Europe, Chester’s Naval Reserve commission was made active and he was assigned to the oiler USS Kanawha (AO-1) as her gunnery officer, and as officer in charge of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard aboard the merchant transport S.S. Matsonia as the war came to the U.S. and the Pacific.

With German U-boats ravaging shipping in the Atlantic the U.S. built hundreds of small, expedient escorts, Chester was given command of the USS SC-981, and later advanced to command the USS Cofer (DE-208), a Destroyer Escort.  After some convoy work in the Atlantic, Coffer was converted to an Assault Transport, which gave her the capability to carry landing craft for amphibious assaults at the expense of her torpedo tubes, among other modifications.  As APD-62 she participated in the invasion of the Philippines and faced Japanese Kamikaze attack at Ormoc Bay.

A Sailor’s Odyssey is a very personal story, Chester details the day-to-day life and incidents from a decade at sea.  I found the descriptions of life in the Merchant Marine to be particularly fascinating as there is not much written about that.  His wartime progression and commands were not unique but his previous experience in the commercial shipping trade certainly left him better prepared than most of his contemporaries and even many of his superiors.  He does not gloss over anything he experienced or observed, calling out the good and the bad in equal measure.  This includes his own physical decline when the unceasing demands of command and constant strain impacted his health.  I can highly recommend this book, both for its descriptions of Navy life and insights into the Merchant Marine at the end of an era.

The Ship That Would Not Die Book Review

The Ship That Would Not Die

By F. Julian Becton, RADM USN (Ret) with Joseph Morschauser III

Softcover, 279 pages, appendices, photographs, and index

Published by Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, April 1987

Language: English

ISBN-10‏: ‎ 0-93312-687-5

ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0-93312-687-9

Dimensions: ‎ 6.0 x 1.0 x 9.3 inches

The USS Laffey (DD-724) was an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer built for the U.S. Navy during the Second World War.  At 2,200 tons, they were the largest and most heavily armed U.S. Navy destroyers to see combat during WWII, the Gearing-class was a derivative with a 14-foot hull extension amidships to increase range.  Laffey was commissioned on 08FEB44.

The author was Laffey’s Captain from her commissioning through the end of the war.  He was already an experienced officer, having seen combat aboard the USS Arron Ward (DD-483) in the Solomons, where he was with the original USS Laffey (DD-459) when she was sunk during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.  He was assigned to the new Laffey as Prospective Commanding Officer during her construction and the training of her crew.

The Laffey had a busy war.  She first saw combat off Normandy during the invasion, and shelled German defenses at Cherbourg.  From there she sailed to the Pacific, joining Task Force 38 for the invasion of the Philippines.  She first encountered the Japanese Kamikaze there, and was with the USS Ward (DM-16) when she was sunk at Ormoc Bay.  She then escorted the carrier groups during strikes against the Japanese home islands and off Iwo Jima.

The Laffey is best remembered for her ordeal on the radar picket line screening the landings on Okinawa.  On 16APR45 she was attacked by a large formation of Kamikaze aircraft, an estimated twenty-two singling out Laffey.  Ultimately, she was hit by six Kamikaze and four bombs which caused extensive damage and fires, and also jammed her rudder.  With the assistance of salvage tugs she was able control her flooding and was towed from the area.  She returned to the States under her own power and was eventually repaired, but her war was over.  Laffey served until 1975, and is currently preserved as a museum ship in North Charleston, South Carolina.

The book is written in autobiographical style.  Becton describes the day-to-day operations of the ship and makes a special effort to mention as many of his crew by name as possible.  I was surprised to see a number of factual errors which somehow crept into the narrative – some ships’ armaments are improperly described, aircraft mis-identified in a caption, apparent confusion between a Landing Ship, Dock (LSD) and a floating drydock (AFDB), and a US Navy officer said to have survived the sinking of HMS Hood.  Minor issues in their own rights, but they call into question other details.  In spite of that, this is an interesting story and well worth reading.