The Castaway’s War: One Man’s Battle against Imperial Japan by Stephen Harding

Most people interested in World War II know that the U.S. Navy spent a majority of its time and assets fighting in the Pacific Theater. It was mainly the Navy’s show and it paid a dear price in its fight against the Japanese armed forces. An example of this price is highlighted in Stephen Harding’s The Castaway’s War, where he describes one American’s fight against the Japanese after his ship is sunk.

Here is an overview from the book’s publisher:

In the early hours of July 5, 1943, the destroyer USS Strong was hit by a Japanese torpedo. The powerful weapon broke the destroyer’s back, killed dozens of sailors, and sparked raging fires. While accompanying ships were able to take off most of Strong‘s surviving crew members, scores went into the ocean as the once-proud warship sank beneath the waves—and a young officer’s harrowing story of survival began.

Lieutenant Hugh Barr Miller, a prewar football star at the University of Alabama, went into the water as the vessel sank. Severely injured, Miller and several others survived three days at sea and eventually landed on a Japanese-occupied island. The survivors found fresh water and a few coconuts, but Miller, suffering from internal injuries and believing he was on the verge of death, ordered the others to go on without him. They reluctantly did so, believing, as Miller did, that he would be dead within hours.

But Miller didn’t die, and his health improved enough for him to begin searching for food. He also found the enemy—Japanese forces patrolling the island. Miller was determined to survive, and so launched a one-man war against the island’s occupiers.

As with many descriptions of  heroic feats, Harding first describes Miller’s years before the Navy, including his time at Alabama and his married life. Harding then tells how Miller was involved in the fitting out and launching of the USS Strong and the ship’s actions around the Solomon Islands.

The best parts of the book begin with the sinking of the USS Strong and Miller’s fight for survival in the water and the island he lands on. Although he was only one man, he contributed a small part in helping to defeat the Japanese in the area by killing and wounding several soldiers and gathering valuable intelligence. Once reunited with U.S. forces, his information gave the Allies valuable intelligence about the Japanese forces in the area.

When I am reading these types of accounts, I often think how I would react in the situations that I am reading about. With very little wilderness training, I do not think I would fare well at all. Miller’s extensive backwoods training as a child served him well. Not only was he able to eat and find shelter, he was able to attack the enemy and evade their attempts at trying to find him – a truly monumental endeavor.

Another memorable part of the book details the survivors’ struggles in the water.  Many had horrendous injuries and silently passed away in the night. Despite the terrible odds, some lived to tell their tales of survival. Harding relates these tales in great detail.

Harding brings the story to life with his excellent prose. It is a quick read at 233 pages with 14 pages of black and white photographs.

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