Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: A Book Review

James D. Hornfischer's account of The Battle of Samar stands as one of the best technical and personal of accounts of a large scale military action that I've yet read.

My personal taste in military recaps lies more on the individual side rather than on the technical, who moved what where and when side.  Not that I don't care for the reasons, thinking and theories behind the moving chess pieces.  I just find that many of these recaps read like a dictionary or shopping list of individuals and locations--accurate yet sterile.

If I'm going to spend hours upon hours digesting a work (and  not doing it for pure scholarly purposes--as in, I'm not taking a class on the subject) I want to actually have an emotional response of some kind to what I'm reading.  I'm not into taking Advanced Algebra all over again...

So in that sense this book was a near perfect balance.  Its first half set the scene, going through the sequence of events, decisions and "lesser" battles that led up to this epic clash.  Here was the laundry list of individuals involved, routes traversed, equipment catalogued, etc.

The second have however, though it skips from ship to ship and individual to individual, is told in large part, from first hand perspectives and direct interviews with the survivors.  This gives the second half of the book some of the most visceral and gut wrenching sequences of battle put to the page.  The descriptions of armor piercing shells punching holes without exploding from one side of a ship to the other, the charnel house likeness of the top decks and the sheer luck and randomness by which some survived has never, in my readings, ever been better chronicled than it is here.

One comes away from The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors in awe of the actions on October 25th, 1944 of the men on board a grand total of seven destroyers/destroyer escorts sailed willing into the maw of the pride of the Japanese Navy consisting of four battleships (including the Yamato--the largest battleship to ever sail), six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers.  Epic does not begin to describe the ensuing action--yet it was not a "miracle" that saw the Americans carry the day.  A combination of courage, ferocity, intelligence, tactics and the ever present fog of war carried the day in a Naval encounter that will be recounted long after even the hulks of those ships sunk in this battle have decayed away.

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