Da Capo Press, 2017, 320 pages
When Admiral William Halsey selected Destroyer Squadron 21 to lead his victorious ships into Tokyo Bay to accept the Japanese surrender, it was the most battle-hardened US naval squadron of the war.
But it was not the squadron of ships that had accumulated such an inspiring résumé; it was the people serving aboard them. Sailors, not metallic superstructures and hulls, had won the battles and become the stuff of legend. Men like Commander Donald MacDonald, skipper of the USS O'Bannon, who became the most decorated naval officer of the Pacific war; Lieutenant Hugh Barr Miller, who survived his ship's sinking and waged a one-man battle against the enemy while stranded on a Japanese-occupied island; and Doctor Dow "Doc" Ransom, the beloved physician of the USS La Vallette, who combined a mixture of humor and medical expertise to treat his patients at sea epitomize the sacrifices made by all the men and women of World War II.
Through diaries, personal interviews with survivors, and letters written to and by the crews during the war, preeminent historian of the Pacific theater John Wukovits brings to life the human story of the squadron and its men, who bested the Japanese in the Pacific and helped take the war to Tokyo.
I have been working my way through quite a few World War II memoirs. One of my favorites was Tameichi Hara's Japanese Destroyer Captain. The title is pretty self-explanatory — Hara was the captain of a Japanese destroyer who saw some of the fiercest battles of the war. Hara's memoir is referenced frequently in this book about the crew of an American destroyer squadron. Tin Can Titans is not the first-person perspective of a destroyer captain, but the collected letters, news articles, and first-hand interviews of destroyer captains and crew many years after the fact. That makes this book a bit distant at times, as we are seeing things through the lens of history and an author who naturally covers his subjects with glory. Unlike Tameichi Hara's humility, stemming from natural and cultural inclinations, and befitting his role as someone who fought on the losing side, John Wukowitz paints his destroyermen adoringly and never less than flatteringly. Which is not to say that they didn't truly deserve such honors.
The book is split between historical details to put events in their context, and first-hand accounts of officers and crew aboard the destroyers. Most of Destroyer Squadron 21 was fortunate enough to survive the entire Pacific War with few or no casualties. But some of them went down, and a lot of men died, and some of them had to endure severe hardships, from floating for hours in the ocean waiting to be rescued, to one survivor who washed ashore on a jungle island and had both Japanese and American patrols shooting at him.
The first-person tales of heroism, though, didn't interest me as much as simply putting personal touches on the major acts of the war. The replacing of the weak Admiral Ghormley with Admiral "Bull" Halsey, and its enormous impact on the morale of the men of SouthPac. The increasing loathing Americans felt for Japanese soldiers as each side became more inhuman to the other. Nights out at sea listening to Tokyo Rose and her demoralizing patter. Battles against swarms of Japanese air units, and finally, the advent of kamikaze tactics. It is much more "real" and immediate as recounted by men who lived it, even with the patina of decades.
This isn't the best World War II memoir I've read — I prefer the first-person narratives. But it tells a different perspective than than the more frequently told carrier battles. Destroyers are small ships, just thin-skinned "tin cans," not much more than fast-moving delivery systems for torpedoes and depth charges. Against air attacks, they have only minimal AA defenses. Against submarines, they are playing cat and mouse, except the mouse is as big and deadly as they are. Against cruisers and battleships, they are Davids hurling stones at Goliath. But like David, sometimes those stones are lethal, and American destroyers sent more than their weight to the bottom of the sea.
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