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Soldiers of a Different Cloth by John Wukovits

Military chaplains—if the person does their job correctly, they are some of the most underappreciated people in the military. John Wukovits brings his superb World War II knowledge to chronicle some of the University of Notre Dame’s clergy who served as chaplains in the U.S. military during World War II in Soldiers of a Different Cloth: Notre Dame Chaplains in World War II.

Wukovits highlights a few of the 35 clergy members from Notre Dame who served during the war. He pays particular attention to Rev. Joseph D. Barry, Rev. John E. Duffy, Rev. Henry Heintskill, and six missionaries caught in the Philippines at the beginning of the war (Sisters Mary Olivette and Mary Caecilius and Brothers Theodore Kapes and Rex Hennel, and Fathers Jerome Lawyer and Robert McKee).

Wukovits’ strength of highlighting the individual is in full display in the book.

Tin Can Titans by John Wukovits

Tin Can Titans by John Wukovits is an excellent narrative of the blue-collar destroyers. Destroyers did not have the firepower of battleships or cruisers or the glamour of the aircraft carriers, but they had the grit and versatility to be vital parts of the U.S. war effort in the Pacific.

Wukovits brings his excellent naval writing pedigree to this book. He has written on many aspects of the Pacific War, including Hell from the Heavens about the USS Laffey and its defense against kamikazes and Pacific Alamo about the U.S. defense of Wake Island at the beginning of the war. This knowledge is abundantly clear throughout the book – many times he calls upon his knowledge of the war in the Pacific.

Wukovits draws extensively from the private letters and diaries of the officers and sailors who served on the destroyers – especially those from the USS O’Bannon, Nicholas, La Vallette, and Howorth. As with any writing that draws on the actual words of the participants rather than after-action reports, the war is more real and easier to understand the conditions in which battles were fought.

According to Wukovits, at the onset of the war, the U.S. Navy was at an extreme disadvantage to the Japanese in capital ships – many of the battleship and cruisers were either sitting at the bottom of Pearl Harbor or severely damaged from that attack and the carriers were few and needed to be protected. As a result, Admiral Halsey called on destroyers to carry the brunt of the load in defending Guadalcanal and taking limited offensive actions against the Japanese. They excelled at this task.

Wukovits keeps the reader engaged with interesting stories and nonstop action.

The Chosen Few by Gregg Zoroya

The men and women of the United States armed forces never cease to amaze me. Their dedication to their country and each other is astounding. Gregg Zoroya writes an account highlighting the fighting abilities and sacrifices of these men and women in his book The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan.

Zoroya, like so many great authors in the past, perfectly describes the fighting spirit of America’s warriors. He chronicles the different firefights and battles in explicit detail.

Zoroya pulls the reader in with brief biographies of the men in the company. This approach acquaints the reader with the men and humanizes them (all too often it is easy to read of casualties without thinking of the human sacrifice). The humanization is hard because you get to slightly know the men and are more unnerved when they are grievously wounded or killed.

The combat descriptions, as told to Zaroya by the men who experienced it, are gripping. I would like to say hard to put down, but that is not true because the descriptions of the action are so intense that you find yourself putting it down briefly to get a break. Zaroya’s writing is magnificent and powerful.

The emotions brought forth by Zaroya’s writing are powerful. More than once, I found myself wiping away a tear after reading about the fate of a paratrooper.

A refreshing change from some of the books on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that Zaroya is not all rah rah U.S.A. He subtly points out the mistakes and deficiencies of American commanders. He also gives respect and admiration to the execution of well-planned attacks by the Taliban and other enemy fighters. He gathers this respect from the paratroopers who fought them. As in Vietnam, the Americans in Afghanistan depend on firepower to equal the troop disparity. However, also as in Vietnam, the Taliban have learned to “hug” the American positions to try to neutralize that superior firepower.

A gripping and enduring tribute to the men of the “Chosen Few.”

Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway

So, after too long of a hiatus due to family medical issues, I am finally getting back into reading and reviewing.

First up, N. Jack Kleiss (with Timothy and Laura Orr) recounts Kleiss’s role in the pivotal battle in the book Never Call Me A Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway. This past June was the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway.

An overview of the book from the publisher:

On the morning of June 4, 1942, high above the tiny Pacific atoll of Midway, Lt. (j.g.) “Dusty” Kleiss burst out of the clouds and piloted his SBD Dauntless into a near-vertical dive aimed at the heart of Japan’s Imperial Navy, which six months earlier had ruthlessly struck Pearl Harbor. The greatest naval battle in history raged around him, its outcome hanging in the balance as the U.S. desperately searched for its first major victory of the Second World War. Then, in a matter of seconds, Dusty Kleiss’s daring 20,000-foot dive helped forever alter the war’s trajectory.

I love the title of this book. Kleiss never considered himself a hero for doing a job that thousands of other men did throughout the war – flew as pilots for the United States Army, Air Forces or Navy. The word hero has been thrown around so many times that it is now somewhat cheapened when it is used – which is too bad because there are/were some true heroes.

Kleiss’s account of the battle from his perspective is riveting. His detailed analysis of how everything transpired is a testament to the professionalism and expertise of the Navy pilots. Kleiss rightly criticizes naval commanders for their plan to form a large gaggle of planes from the three carriers – the pilots knew it would take too long – and then attack the Japanese fleet.

Kleiss’s personal account of the battle is touching. He brings the personal costs into focus. For example, he recounts the last time he saw his flight school buddy the morning of the attack. They both knew that his friend was going on a suicide mission (his friend was a torpedo plane pilot) because all naval pilots in the Pacific knew the defective nature of American torpedoes. You can sense his raw emotions of the moment even decades after it occurred.

The blow-by-blow account of the battle from a pilot’s perspective is great. Kleiss details what it was like to dive bomb a ship and see the results of a successful bombing run. Although morbid, he describes seeing parts of the ship and men flying in the air because of the explosions. Yet another description of war as hell.

Never Call Me a Hero is a fantastic first person account of the Battle of Midway.

Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America by Michael C. Harris

Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 by Michael C. Harris is the 2015 winner of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond Book Award. It is a winner for good reason. It is an excellent analysis of the battle.

Here is a summary of the book from the publisher:

General Sir William Howe launched his campaign in late July 1777, when he loaded his army of 16,500 British and Hessian soldiers aboard a 265-ship armada in New York and set sail. Six difficult weeks later Howe’s expedition landed near Elkton, Maryland, and moved north into Pennsylvania. Washington’s rebel army harassed Howe’s men at several locations including a minor but violent skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge in Delaware on September 3. Another week of hit-and-run tactics followed until Howe was within three miles of Chads’s Ford on Brandywine Creek, behind which Washington had posted his army in strategic blocking positions along a six-mile front. The young colonial capital of Philadelphia was just 25 miles farther east.

Obscured by darkness and a heavy morning fog, General Howe initiated his plan of attack at 5:00 a.m. on September 11, pushing against the American center at Chads’s Ford with part of his army while the bulk of his command swung around Washington’s exposed right flank to deliver his coup de main, destroy the colonials, and march on Philadelphia. Warned of Howe’s flanking attack just in time, American generals turned their divisions to face the threat. The bitter fighting on Birmingham Hill drove the Americans from the field, but their heroic defensive stand saved Washington’s army from destruction and proved that the nascent Continental foot soldiers could stand toe-to-toe with their foe. Although fighting would follow, Philadelphia fell to Howe’s legions on September 26.

Although the writing is a bit dry at times, the scholarship is excellent. Harris uses many different original and secondary sources.

One of the many items that stuck out to me is Harris’ debunking of several myths surrounding the battle. For example, he exposes the myth of Thomas Cheyney, a local citizen, who in previous has been credited with “saving” the American army. Based on Harris’ research and strong conclusions, there is no evidence that Cheyney warned Washington of the flank attack.

The book also thrives in the details. Harris in many instances lists the names of those who are killed or wounded in a particular part of the battle. That example and his efforts to pin down the timing of each movement give the reader an intimate understanding of the figures and events surrounding this important battle in the American Revolution.

Harris also equally criticizes Washington and Howe. He blames the failure of the campaign (Howe succeeded in capturing Philadelphia, but he failed to join with General Burgoyne in New York) on Howe’s indecisiveness and slow travel from New York City to Maryland.  Harris also points out that the slow travel cost the lives of horses needed for the campaign – as a result, he had few cavalry to call on for scouting and chasing Washington’s defeated army.

Harris also rightfully puts some of the American loss on Washington. He did not properly reconnoiter the battlefield.  Thus, Howe knew more about the layout of the land than Washington and was able to flank the American army. In addition, Harris highlights that even though Howe was known for his flanking movements, Washington was still surprised by Howe’s flanking at Brandywine.

Here is an interview with the author from the publisher.

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