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.

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Audiobook Review: Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace

After I heard Chris Wallace on special Dispatch Live event with Jonah Goldberg, I put Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World by Chris Wallace, with Mitch Weiss on my TBR pile.

Not that I am particularly interested in WWI (military history is Jeff’s bailiwick) or the dropping of the atomic bomb, but because I was interested in seeing how Wallace made the subject interesting given we all know what happened and the issues involved have been debated too death.  I was curious to see what an old school, straight shooter journalist made of the history.

It turned out the easiest way to get a copy from the library was to listen to the audiobook narrated by Wallace himself. So when it became available, I grabbed it and started listening.

Not surprisingly, Wallace is a great narrator and the style and focus of the book work well in audio format.  Unlike some more dense and technical history, I found this enjoyable to listen to and easy to pay attention

As to content, I found it to be a compelling and informative look at the events leading up the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in August of 1945. It gives you the perspective not only of President Truman and other larger than life figures but also of a host of minor characters from scientists and military leaders to those who worked at Oak Ridge and Japanese citizens who experienced the destruction of Hiroshima.

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Generals in the Making by Benjamin Runkle

I have always been fascinated by the development of leaders. Benjamin Runkle chronicles the development of pivotal World War II American Army generals in Generals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their Peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II.

Runkle produces a phenomenal work in describing the ascent of many of the generals who led the United States Army to victory in the European and Pacific Theaters.  Runkle primarily focuses on Generals George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur, but also touches on others such as Generals Mark Clark, Joe Stilwell, and Omar Bradley. For the four main generals, Runkle outlines their careers, with particular attention to the interwar years.

As Runkle points out, many of the generals advanced through luck or guidance from influential mentors. Regarding the influence of mentors, Runkle details how General Fox Conner heavily impacted Eisenhower’s career through his guidance.  Conner’s greatest influence occurred when Eisenhower was assigned as Conner’s subordinate in Panama for three years. Conner taught Eisenhower how to think more strategically. Much of this relationship has been well chronicled by other historians, but Runkle connects these three years as extremely influential in Eisenhower’s ability to see grand strategy, which helped in World War II.

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A Crime in the Family by Sacha Batthyany

A Crime in the Family: A World War II Secret Buried in Silence–and My Search for the Truth by Sacha Batthyany is a soul-searching book about Batthyany’s search for the truth about his family in World War II.

At first, I thought the book was going to be about his Aunt Margit and the party she hosted while her guests executed 180 Jews in Rechnitz, Hungary. But, it turns out that Batthyany’s family has more than that connection with Jews during the war.

He begins with the story of his Aunt Margit and then turns to a secret that is closer to him – his great grandfather’s and grandmother’s roles in the execution of a Jewish playmate’s parents.

Batthyany tells the story of this execution as he discovers his family’s secrets and why he is the person he is today. It is a fascinating story of self-discovery because he shares his exploits and his struggles as he unravels the story of the execution.

In the end, it is a redeeming feature of the human spirit that, although we are who we are partially because of our past, it does not mean that we have to continue living with the sins of the past – whether our own or sins of our families.


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.

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.