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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review:Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer

Inferno doesn't begin to describe it. Guadalcanal represented the first major invasion by U.S. forces in the 20th century and many hard lessons had to be learned. The oft-repeated charge that the Marines were abandoned there by the Navy is belied by the statistic that for every Marine who was killed on land, five sailors died at sea in the horrific battles there. “The puzzle of victory was learned on the fly and on the cheap.”

Hornfischer brilliantly, succinctly (and often horrifically as he describes the dreadful injuries suffered by the sailors) sets the stage discussing the personal and political challenges and conflicts that affected and drove the allocation of resources: the Army v the Navy (McArthur v Nimitz and King) in the Pacific; Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in the Atlantic, with George Marshall stuck in the middle. The importance of Midway in boosting moral and altering the overall strategy cannot be overstated.

Here’s an interesting little detail. Admiral Kinkaid was a day late getting to the staging area because his charts showed the International Date Line in the wrong place. Personally, the thing always confuses me, but his staff were careful not to let the higher brass learn of the error.

Things got off to a bad start right from the beginning. Admiral Fletcher, (supported by Nimitz) in charge of the carriers, and Admiral Turner(supported by King), commanding the landing, hated each other. At the planning meeting at Saratoga, Fletcher worried about the risk to his carriers and refused to provide air support for more than 3 days. Turner, knowing the supply ships had not been combat loaded (so the most important supplies could be off-loaded first) knew that he could not afford to have the Marines abandoned after three days. This became infamous as the “Navy Bug-Out.” Whether Fletcher was correct in arguing that the risk to the carriers was far more strategically important is a debate that continues to this day. Hornfischer explains the rationale from both perspectives without coming down on either side.

The Japanese were already suffering from “victors’” disease and tended to dismiss the landings as inconsequential and but a diversion aimed at slowing down the Japanese advance on Port Moresby. The Japanese had their own army-navy slugfest of distrust. The Army, in fact, had not told the Navy that the U.S. had broken their operational code. There was no central intelligence gathering unit and army commanders had to rely as much on their instincts as hard intelligence that was virtually non-existent.

But the US Navy had a lot of hard lessons to learn. The Battle of Savo Island (otherwise known as the Battle of Five Sitting Ducks) revealed that the three minutes it took to get everyone in place after calling for general quarters was way too long. Especially as it meant having everyone run around changing places from where they had been. Leaving float planes on the decks of cruisers during action meant having aviation-fueled bombs on the rear deck. And captains ignoring the warnings of some of those being supervised could be deadly, not to mention poor communications and reluctance to trust new radar. Admiral Turner summed it up nicely: "The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise".

There were lots of lessons to be learned and many heads to roll. Communications was a big problem as frequencies differed between services and even between planes and ships. One little tidbit was that southern boys, of which there were many, had to be kept off the radios since their heavy regional accents often made them incomprehensible to those on the other end of the wireless. Another was the importance of communications and knowing the difference vetween friend and foe. Many casualties occurred and ships sunk because the combatants couldn't tell the difference at night.

Guadalcanal became the trial run for many of the islands that were to follow.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

review: Death's Head by Campbell Armstrong

Grunwald has lost his wife and son to the Nazis, taken away to camps before the war. It's now after the war and he is in Berlin when he encounters Dr. Schwarzenbach, now going under the name Luetze whom he remembered from before in the Polish camps. Schwarzenbach had been engaged in despicable "experiments" on camp victims ostensibly to learn how much pain a human could take. Grunwald is tormented by guilt for having assisted Schwarzenbach in his experiments in order to save his own life. Events are driving the two inexorably together after Grunewald recognizes Schwarzenbach.

Ironically, each had been urged to leave: Schwarzenbach by his Nazi colleagues who are escaping to Spain and then elsewhere, and Grunwald by a woman who befriends him and says he return to his hometown, Munich. Schwarzenbach realizes that Grunwald can betray him to the Americans, already suspicious of him and so he decides Grunwald must be killed. The allies are eager to root out any Nazis who now find it expediant to grovel before their new masters.

A very interesting novel dealing with guilt, responsibility, and the randomness of life that doesn't always bring the guiltless to the top. The ending is frightenly ambiguous.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: The Best of Our Spies by Alex Gerlis

Best spy novel I have ever read. Ever.  

All spy stories should be this devious. Lt. Quinn, having been returned to England following his ship being bombed into oblivion off Crete, falls in love with one of his nurses. Unbeknownst to him she is a German spy in deep cover, but the spymasters in Bletchley Park know it and are manipulating their relationship so they can turn her into a double agent without her, or his, knowledge. “He has no idea whatsoever who she is. He is unaware of what is going on. Thinks this beautiful Frenchwoman who is two years older than him has fallen in love with him. He is like the cat that has found the cream, gallons of the stuff, in fact.” The idea is to feed her all sorts of false information leading to an assumption that the real invasion of the continent will take place at Pas de Calais and not Normandy which they want the Germans to believe is just a diversion. Then she is sent to France. 

Not only is it a terrific spy novel, but a good love story, as well and nicely set in an historical context. You will begin to question good and evil and whether the end can ever justify the means.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Review: Highliners by William McCloskey

The tsunami of 1964 caused by the earthquake wiped out a major portion of Kodiak, Alaska, but it vitalized the fishing community which now thrives with canneries for salmon, crabs, halibut, and other seafood caught in the rich waters of the Alaskan shelf. Fishing these waters is extremely dangerous and the towns that support it resemble nothing less than the older frontier.

The book is an interesting combination of fiction and non-fiction alternating chapters as McCloskey follows the career of Hank, college graduate and Vietnam veteran , who falls in love with fishing (for some unfathomable reason) in Alaskan waters for a variety of species. We're treated to a section on each kind of boat and species as Hank learns the skills needed for each finally (after being injured by the smashing force of a Halibut tail --I had no idea...-- they can weigh up to 400 lbs.) as submanager of a cannery, a job that displays all the intricate details of the operation and the vast quantity of material that is processed (millions of cans of salmon during an eight-week season) with the concomitant problems of managing people who don't want to be managed. He ends up as skipper on a boat so we get to see the business from that end as well. (The scenes of the boats icing up are tense and scary.)

Being a bit bizarre myself, I found the mix of technology and culture to be fascinating.


Sunday, October 01, 2017

Review: Citizens of the Green Room: Profiles in Courage and Self-Delusion by Mark Leibovich

One of my major gripes during the last election (an election Trump insists was fraudulent - I agree, let's do it over) was the myopia of the Washington media who spent the entire election cycle talking to each other and refusing to examine the obvious currents of dissatisfaction with Washington and the "elites" who reside there and run the country. (They all read and absorb "Playbook" produced by Mike Allen - read the essays to understand what that is and why it's important.)
Leibovich, who writes for the Times, specializes in writing profiles of those in Washington. He's more self-aware than some others about where he fits in the Washington swamp, but his insights into the relationship between the media and Washington insiders and how residing there affects them and their lives are valuable. This book is an older collection of those essays. They remain relevant and interesting. The profile of Glenn Beck is particularly interesting and revealing on how and why Beck is the way he is. His show on Fox was known in the ad world as "empty calories: he draws great ratings but is toxic to ad sales."
The mnemonic techniques of Andrew Card, patterned after that of a 16th century monk, are startling to say the least. I have read of other people who create "castles" of the mind where memories are stored for easy retrieval; Card uses a kitchen with some things in the freezer, others on one of the burners, etc.
Even though some of the essays are more than a decade old, the comments and profiles are as fresh as if there were written yesterday. His comments on campaigning and the relationship between reporters (badgered by the 24/7 news cycle and bored to tears by the candidates' canned speeches) and the candidates are just as pertinent today as they were 10 years ago. "Politics is not about objective reality, but about virtual reality . . . an infinitely revisable [and risible] docudrama."
Some fun quotes: "Chris Matthews is trapped in a tired caricature" "The demise of the cable blow-hard" "Rick Santorum is like Forrest Gump with an attitude." His essay on fakery in Washington and pretending to have read the "Economist" is priceless.