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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.

The Jersey Brothers by Sally Mott Freeman

Sally Mott Freeman’s The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home is a gripping tale of the bond between three brothers and how two of them do everything they possibly can to rescue the other one.

It surprised me to learn that The Jersey Brothers was Freeman’s first book. It is surprising because it is so well written and researched. Although she has a background in writing (speech writing and public relations), it is still an excellent first work.

Freeman writes in a hybrid style of history. It is well-cited, but reads like a popular history.

Despite the complex stories of the three brothers, she expertly intertwines them into an engaging, seamless story. Each of the brother’s have different experiences and yet Freeman connects them all in the search for Barton.

Fortunate for her and the reader, Freeman is the daughter of Bill. As a result, she has a wealth of primary sources (her grandmother’s letters, letters between Bill, and Benny, and other documents) to draw from for the story. The letters from her grandmother (Bill, Benny, and Barton’s mother) capture the anguish and anger of a mother trying to find out the fate of her beloved son.

The book is not only an excellent story, but also a fine tribute to the bond of brothers at war.


Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack by Steve Twomey

In Countdown to Pearl Harbor Steve Twomey revisits the reasons why the Americans were so caught off-guard by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Still to this day it astounds me at the incompetence and arrogance of America’s leaders as Japan prepared for war against the United States. Twomey does a masterful job of bringing this incompetence and arrogance into blindingly bright light. He uses countless examples of the lackadaisical attitude of officers at Pearl Harbor that led to the destruction of a good portion of the Pacific Fleet.

Although some officers at the time argued that this attack could not have been predicted, Twomey mentions the Pearl Harbor attack was not unprecedented for the Japanese.  The Japanese navy surprised the Russian navy to start the Russo-Japanese War – completely destroying the Russian fleet.

Hindsight is always twenty/twenty and it is easy to criticize past decisions with most of the facts in hand, but it is hard not to judge American leadership – both navy and army – in not taking simple steps to avoid the destruction of American forces in Hawaii. Just one example that Twomey mentions is the simple precaution of putting up torpedo nets – this would have saved many lives. Although the nets were a pain to put up and take down, they would have been worth the effort due to the nature of Pearl Harbor (ships were bottled up and easy targets for bombs and torpedoes).

In contrast to the efforts at Pearl Harbor, Twomey highlights the efforts of some to increase the warnings to not just the Philippines, Wake Island, and Guam, but also Pearl Harbor – these men did not know that Pearl Harbor was a target, but they thought it was prudent that all U.S. forces be put on alert. Unfortunately, those warnings were either not sent or went unheard.

Lastly, Twomey does give credit to the Japanese for executing the perfect surprise attack. For instance, not only did they solve the shallow water problem for torpedoes, but they also successfully crossed thousands of miles of ocean without being detected.

An excellent analysis of everything that the Americans did not do to be prepared for an attack and all that the Japanese did right in order to pull off the surprise.

The Shining Sea by George C. Daughan

Although I do not know as much about the War of 1812 as America’s other wars, I have gained some knowledge based on books that intrigue me. This is the case with George Daughan’s The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the U.S.S. Essex during the War of 1812.

Shinning SeaThe first few months of the War of 1812 were a smashing success for the U.S. Navy against Britain’s Royal Navy. Trying to build on that success, Captain David Porter of the USS Essex, after failing to meet with two other U.S. Navy ships, set out to harass Britain’s whaling fleet in the Pacific Ocean. Although Porter’s cruise against the British whaling fleet was wildly successful, he frittered away his advantage by diverting the Essex and his prizes to the conquest of Nuku Hiva (part of the Marquesas Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean).

Daughan balances describing Porter’s excellent leadership of the Essex and Porter’s borderline stupid decision to claim Nuku Hiva for the United States. Among his many successes, Porter navigated the ship around South America’s Cape Horn, steered clear of the shifting Chilean political scene, prevented the ship’s crew from mutinying over food shortages, and skillfully deceived and captured many British whaling ships until it was too late to escape.

After commending Porter for the above actions, Daughan rightfully criticizes Porter’s boneheaded decision to capture Nuku Hiva. Daughan blames Porter’s missteps on his misplaced ego (he was trying to gain great riches and fame by topping the exploits of his fellow American naval captains).  Rather than escorting the captured whaling ships back to the United States, Porter decided to visit Nuku Hiva. Porter’s dithering also allowed the British to catch up with him and prevent him from leaving the harbor of Valparaiso, Chile without a fight.

The book is a great description of the Essex‘s voyage, but the placement of the maps is poor. All of the maps are placed at the front of the book rather than in the text. Maps should be placed in the text so that the reader can refer to them quickly while reading.

The book is an excellent description and analysis of David Porter’s cruise in southern Pacific Ocean.

Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron by Ronald Utt

utt-ships-oak-guns-ironThe War of 1812 has always fascinated me. Based on the treaty that was signed by the United States and Great Britain, the war did not resolve much of the differences between the Americans and British. Ronald Utt in his book Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy looks at the war mainly from the perspective of the United States Navy.

Utt brings a fresh light to a war that has not received as much attention as the other American wars of the 19th Century, primarily the Civil and the Mexican-American Wars. Utt argues that the War of 1812 laid a more solid foundation of the United States Navy (compared to the infantile beginnings in the Revolutionary War) and was a pivotal moment in shaping American foreign policy.

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