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The Great Halifax Explosion by John U Bacon

I am a big military history buff, but I have to admit that I do not recall knowing much about the explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia during World War I. John Bacon’s The Great Halifax Explosion fills in all of the details you may ever want to know about the incident.

Bacon writes about the history of Halifax and its relationship (and greater Canada as well) with the United States. He provides an excellent point of view from a Canadian. Prior to the explosion, Haligonians (and most Canadians) were not too keen on Americans since we always wanted to invade and absorb them into the U.S. This relationship, especially between Halifax and Boston, forever changed after the explosion and Boston’s efforts to assist Haligonians.

Bacon presents a fairly straight forward narrative of the events leading up to, during, and after the explosion. I am particularly struck by his description of the actions of the crew of the French freighter Mont-Blanc. He not only discusses the crew’s abandonment of the ship after the collision, but goes beyond the simple narrative. He asks you to not judge their actions – which partially led to the death of thousands – based on your current position, but to put tyourself in the shoes of the captain and the harbor pilot. Bacon asks if you would do something different in a split second, knowing that your decision could cost you your life.

He juxtaposes the crew’s actions with the actions of train dispatcher Vincent Coleman who sacrificed himself to save hundreds who were on an inbound train right before the explosion. Coleman also had to make a split second decision, but he chose to die to save others. It is a wonderful look at human behavior during a critical time.

Bacon’s writing style is easy to read and follow along with the story. Throughout the book , he points out various decisions and personalities and how those personalities and decisions influenced Halifax and its residents.

A great book on a very unfamiliar subject.

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.

City on a Grid: How New York Became New York by Gerard Koeppel

I became interested in urban planning after taking a course on it in college. So, I was intrigued when I received a copy of Gerard Koeppel’s City on a Grid.

The book is a fascinating look at urban planning (or lack thereof in some respects) from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries in America’s largest city – New York City. Koeppel goes into great detail on the origins of New York City’s grid network, including looking at the three men that had such an impact on the plan that was used to form the grid.

I especially like Koeppel’s comments on the reasons for the plan, which was to put the city’s streets into an order that did not exist. However, through that order, Koeppel convincingly argues that it sterilized the city because all geography was obliterated in favor of uniformity.

Koeppel includes stories on several crucial periods in New York’s development. For instance, after Central Park had been created, there were several attempts to either eliminate or reduce the size of the park. Thankfully for New Yorkers, those attempts came to naught.

In addition to the stories, another strength of the book is the discussion of the personalities who were pivotal to the creation of the grid and the development of it. For example, not only was Aaron Burr influential (for good and bad reasons) in the early United States, but he also had an influence with the grid due to his association with Joseph Mangin, an early city surveyor who helped in the initial plans for a grid. Koeppel includes many other stories of the persons who were the decision makers that shaped the grid.

City on a Grid is a masterful piece that explains the creation and evolution of New York City’s grid.

Honor Before Glory by Scott McGaugh

Our country has a history of defending the defenseless, but it also has a history of treating minority races poorly. Not only has the country authorized the enslavement of one race, but it also has put another in internment camps (many equate them to concentration camps).

Scott McGaugh focuses on the Japanese Americans who fought heroically for their country in World War II even though their families were imprisoned back in the U.S.. In Honor Before Glory: The Epic World War II Story of the Japanese American GIs Who Rescued the Lost Battalion McGaugh specifically focuses on the 442nd Infantry Regiment (the sole Japanese American combat unit in World War II) and their actions to rescue a surrounded battalion in October 1944 in eastern France.

Here is a synopsis of the book from the publisher:

On October 24, 1944, more than two hundred American soldiers realized they were surrounded by German infantry deep in the mountain forest of eastern France. As their dwindling food, ammunition, and medical supplies ran out, the American commanding officer turned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team to achieve what other units had failed to do.

Honor Before Glory is the story of the 442nd, a segregated unit of Japanese American citizens, commanded by white officers, that finally rescued the “lost battalion.” Their unmatched courage and sacrifice under fire became legend—all the more remarkable because many of the soldiers had volunteered from prison-like “internment” camps where sentries watched their mothers and fathers from the barbed-wire perimeter.

In seven campaigns, these young Japanese American men earned more than 9,000 Purple Hearts, 6,000 Bronze and Silver Stars, and nearly two dozen Medals of Honor. The 442nd became the most decorated unit of its size in World War II: its soldiers earned 18,100 awards and decorations, more than one for every man.

McGaugh’s book is a fine tribute to the hard-fighting men who were a part of the 442nd.  These men were like other Americans who fought during the war – they complained about the physical hardships, poor food, and being away from families, but they continued slogging along. However, they were unlike most of the other fighting Americans – they were given some of the toughest tasks and succeeded at great loss of life. The unit was given an impressive seven Presidential Unit Citations for their valor in combat.

McGaugh follows the actions of the three infantry battalions of the 442nd from their capture of the towns Belmont and Bruyeres to the taking of Hill 595 (the original objective of the 1/141st Infantry – the “lost” battalion). He provides great descriptions of the conditions the men had to fight in – incessant rain that created vast holes of mud; hills so steep that a person needed to climb them by grabbing tree roots; and the fear of tree bursts – artillery shells burst in the trees that create deadly shrapnel from tree splinters.

Not only do the men have to fight the elements and artillery, but the dreaded German machine gun (MG-42) that held up units for hours if not days. The 442nd sacrificed themselves against countless German trenches and roadblocks to free the 1/141st. They did this all the while other units of the 141st Infantry were relatively idle. McGaugh never explains why the other units from the 141st were not called upon other than failing to break through to the 1/141st and slight hints at the racist nature of the 36th Division (to which the 442nd and 141st were a part of) commander.

Racism is discussed throughout the book – not just from the Division commander, but also from the Army itself. When the 1/141st was relieved and Army photographers were taking pictures for public release, the photographers did not include pictures of the 442nd, but of white men from other units that did not help relieve the 141st – Army command felt that the American public would not think too kindly of Japanese Americans rescuing white Americans.

Other than some slight editorial mistakes, the book is an easy read. The maps in the front help you to follow along with the course of the attack. The book includes sixteen pages of black and white photographs depicting many of the men discussed in the battle and scenes from the battle.

The book is an excellent tribute to the Japanese American soldiers who fought and died for their fellow Americans on a forgotten ridge in eastern France.

The Commodification of God

Commodification has led most people to view God as a device to be used rather than an all-powerful Creator to be revered. This also explains our abundant and careless words about him. Is it any surprise that a divine butler would fail to provoke reverent silence? What need is there to rein in one’s tongue if God is merely a cosmic therapist? The god of Consumer Christianity does not inspire awe and wonder because he is nothing more than a commodity to be used for our personal satisfaction and self-achievement.

— The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity” by Skye Jethani

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