| Book Reviews Index |
The Battle of Midway Roundtable
BOOK REVIEWS, page 6
CONTENTS ON THIS PAGE
1. Crossing the Line
2. The Unknown Battle of Midway
3. Love and Glory
4. Halsey’s Bluff
6. War and Remembrance (Midway excerpt)
(All reviews written by the Roundtable editor except as otherwise noted.)
* * * * *
1. Crossing the Line
by Alvin B. Kernan
Subtitle: A Bluejacket’s World War II Odyssey
Published 1994, Naval Institute Press
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2005-29)
When you think of a university professor who specializes in the humanities--Shakespearean literature, in this case--you probably won't be visualizing someone who started adulthood by engaging in vicious aerial gunnery duels with Japanese fighters and otherwise living the stressful, profane, hazardous life of an enlisted sailor on three World War II aircraft carriers, one of which was sunk while he was aboard. Such is the case, though, with Professor Alvin B. Kernan, author of Crossing the Line, one of the most interesting and often gripping sagas of navy life that I've read.
The book came as a surprise to me, on two counts. One, I knew that Roundtable member Kernan had been an aviation ordnanceman on the Enterprise during the BOM, and later an aerial gunner. But I had very little notion of the depth of his wartime experiences, not only as an aircrewman but also in escaping the Hornet at Santa Cruz and in a harrowing deployment aboard the escort carrier USS Suwanee (CVE-27). Suffice to say in this short review that Kernan earned a Navy Cross, a DFC, and five air medals from inside the turret of a TBF Avenger!
And two, I had previously read Kernan's fictitious account of the Battle of Midway, Love and Glory, which I thought was interesting but flawed in a number of regards (see below). For that reason, I was a little dubious about reading Crossing the Line when the author graciously sent me a copy. Would this be another "interesting but flawed" piece of work that would cause me to keep my red pen handy while I read it? No. Crossing the Line is simply outstanding. Anyone with enough interest in our core subject to read our newsletters each week will also want to read this book. I highly recommend it. Yes, there are a couple of very minor nits that you might want to pick, but they are so insignificant as to be unworthy of mentioning here. Crossing the Line will not disappoint you. In fact, you'll probably find it hard to put down.
* * * *
2. The Unknown Battle of Midway
by Alvin B. Kernan
Subtitle: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons
Published 2005, Yale University Press
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2005-45)
Roundtable member Alvin Kernan was kind enough to forward an advance copy of his latest book to me, which focuses on what he considers the biggest "unknown" of the battle: the full story of the torpedo squadrons; their strategy, training, planning, sorties, and sacrifice. Here's a descriptive quote from the book's jacket: "A story of avoidable mistakes and flawed planning, The Unknown Battle of Midway reveals the enormous failures that led to the destruction of four torpedo squadrons [Alvin enumerates the B-26 & TBF flights as a de facto squadron] but were omitted from official naval reports: the planes that ran out of gas, the torpedoes that didn't work, the pilots who had never dropped torpedoes, and the breakdown of the attack plan. Kernan, who was present at the battle, has written a troubling but persuasive analysis of these and other little-publicized aspects of this great battle."
The "little-publicized aspects" include personal observations upon which Alvin, a veteran of VT-6 on the Enterprise, is uniquely qualified to comment. That naturally includes a lot of first-person insight to the squadron, the ship, and what it was like to live and work aboard both. For example, he speaks of VT-6 skipper Gene Lindsey to a level of detail that could only come from one who'd known and worked for him personally. His vivid descriptions of life aboard the Enterprise, particularly the contrasts between peacetime and wartime routine, are especially interesting.
The book suffers from a deficiency also seen in Alvin's recent fictional BOM tale, Love and Glory: he really needs to employ the service of an independent editor before submitting a manuscript for publication. The Unknown BOM, an otherwise interesting and useful book, is blemished by several typesetting or content errors. Example: one chart shows VT-6 breaking away from the Hornet air group—a simple typo, but a glaring graphic flub that jumps out at the reader.
If you can get past such glitches, The Unknown BOM is a positive addition to a well-rounded BOM library.
* * *
3. Love and Glory
by Alvin B. Kernan
Subtitle: The Death of a Torpedo Squadron
Published 2004, BookSurge
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2005-03)
Roundtable member Alvin Kernan was an aviation ordnanceman (AOM3/c) aboard the Enterprise during the BOM. After the war he commenced a long career as a college professor at both Yale and Princeton, and thus is uniquely qualified to write about the battle. Love and Glory is his latest work. It tells the whole story of the first day of the BOM, 4 June 1942, focusing mainly on the Hornet air group and the saga of Torpedo Squadron 8.
Love and Glory, as you might deduce from the title, is not another history book about the Battle of Midway. Instead, it's a novel with the battle as its setting. It's a work of fiction, but it's authentic historical fiction. The protagonist is one Ensign Clay Hunt, a brand new naval aviator assigned to VT-8 aboard the Hornet. We follow the experiences of ENS Hunt as he qualifies in the TBD and assimilates into the squadron, under the leadership of its colorful commander. We then ride with him as the air group launches on its errant course on the morning of 4 June. We hear the argument over the radio between VT-8's skipper and the CHAG, then continue with Hunt as the squadron veers away on its own course toward a bitter destiny.
Kernan pulls no punches in his dialogue--he is unmerciful toward the Hornet's air group commander before, during, and especially after the battle. He also gives no slack to the ship's captain, having him deliberately conspire to falsify Hornet's after-action report in order to save his own hide as well as that of his buddy, the CHAG. This is the sort of thing we've all been talking about for years, and it's highly interesting to see it played out rather accurately in a novel.
The book is not without flaws, but they're not too significant. Professor Kernan didn't use an independent editor in preparing his manuscript, so you'll find a few glitches that should have been fixed before publication. There's a couple instances where proper naval terminology is not used, although it won't stand out if you've never been summoned to chow by a bos'n's whistle. And I think many readers will be taken aback by Kernan’s choices for the names of some of his characters. I thought "Lancing Colt" for the TF-16 chief of staff (Miles Browning) was a little clever, but some of the other fictitious names struck me as odd. If I were writing this same novel, I'd use the actual historical names, as was done in the 1976 "Midway" movie (which had a lot more fiction in it than this book).
But don't get lost in such minor quibbles--the value of this book is its realistic dialogue, written by one who was there at the time and is therefore intimately familiar with such dialogue. It's a rather entertaining read despite the flaws.
* * * *
4. Halsey’s Bluff
by Larry Schweikart
Published 2009, Lightning Source
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2009-20)
First, be forewarned that this book is a novel about the Battle of Midway and related events, and that it’s alternative history fiction—an entire book of history that didn’t happen. If that sort of thing isn’t up your alley, you may want to just skip this review. But if you might enjoy a well-crafted tale of what could have happened at Coral Sea, Midway, and subsequent battles if just a few simple facts were plausibly altered, Halsey’s Bluff may be worth a look.
Roundtable member Larry Schweikart, who has authored several works of historical fact and fiction, wrote Halsey’s Bluff with a great deal of help from several of our members. The result is a “what if” story that nicely adheres to the realities of the opposing navies in the first year of the war while spinning the renowned carrier battles of 1942 in stunning new directions.
Larry’s altered facts include Halsey getting relief from his dermatitis and thus retaining command of Task Force 16, a gutsy Yamamoto who defies the Imperial General Staff (which he occasionally did anyway) and diverts the entire Aleutians fleet to Midway, a BOM carrier battle fought more or less to a draw but with Halsey’s battered ships forced to retreat, Midway overrun by the Japanese invasion force after a vicious amphibious assault that barely succeeds, and Spruance instead of Fletcher commanding TF 17 aboard the Yorktown, which misses the BOM due to severe battle damage in the Coral Sea. However, CV-5 plays a decisive role in the book’s grand finale, and in a welcome twist, it’s still nicely afloat at the end.
You may or may not find such alternative history within the realm of likelihood, but Larry’s scenarios are consistent with the sort of thing we’ve heard for years about what might have ensued if the Japanese had prevailed at Midway—Hawaii threatened with an attack much worse that the Pearl Harbor raid, thunderous sea battles in the eastern Pacific, the U.S. west coast at risk, and Army squadrons slated for Europe diverted to California to repel raids by the enemy fleet. One really cannot say that such things would never have happened more or less as Larry lays them out in Halsey’s Bluff, which makes it very intriguing food for thought.
* * *
by Donald S. Sanford
Published 1976, Bantam Books
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2007-10)
Midway is the novel version of the well-known 1976 movie of the same name. It directly tracks the screenplay, also written by Sanford. The film has been reviewed at great length on the Roundtable, and our members' opinions of it can be found on the "Midway Library" page on our web site as well in No Right to Win (Appendix D).
Since those opinions are mostly critical, one might expect to dismiss this book as irrelevant today, 31 years after it was written. Yes, factual and technical errors abound, and that silly soap opera plot involving fictional CINCPAC staffer Matt Garth, his son Tom (a VF-3 pilot) and Tom's Nisei girlfriend is all there for readers to quickly skip past. But Sanford's narrative aboard the warships and combat aircraft of both sides is another matter--it takes the reader into the actual battle in a way that you don't experience by simply reading a history book. The novelist has license to assume dialogue by historical characters that they may or may not have actually spoken, but the setting and the action are essentially factual, and they're rendered in the present tense with the battle's bombs and torpedoes thundering in the background. Reading the real-time dialogue of the likes of Nimitz, Rochefort, Fletcher, Simard, Waldron, Thach, McClusky, Yamamoto, Nagumo, Yamaguchi, Genda, and Tomanaga can be a remarkable experience for anyone strongly focused on the BOM, even when the dialogue is largely the author's guesswork on what they might have said.
To be sure, the nonfactual content of this book will make most Roundtable members cringe. But if you convince yourself up front that Midway is not the same type of book as Incredible Victory or Shattered Sword, but is instead a means for taking the reader on an imaginary journey into the Battle of Midway itself, it can be an entertaining read. And perhaps best of all, you can find copies of the book for practically nothing--mine came from Amazon for one cent plus shipping, about three bucks total. If nothing else, it's a key addition to anyone's BOM media collection because of its founding on the battle's signature movie.
* * * * *
6. War and Remembrance
(Battle of Midway excerpt)
by Herman Wouk
Published 1978; Little, Brown & Co.
(Originally reviewed in The Roundtable Forum, issue #2011-04)
Reviewed by Scott Kair
Wouk’s magnum opus is remembered for the television miniseries based upon it, and particularly for the improved video depiction of the BOM. The novel follows the family and friends of Capt. Victor “Pug” Henry, USN, through the cataclysmic events between Pearl Harbor and VJ Day. Wouk’s reporting of those events, and more critically, his analyses of those events in light of more recent evidence is worth examining. There can be no doubt of his passion for the subject. After serving as a naval officer in WW2, Wouk wrote The Caine Mutiny and other works. He spent 16 years researching War and Remembrance, which required writing a prequel, The Winds of War; the story he “had to tell in order to tell this one.”
Wouk’s narrative of the BOM is constrained by the era in which it was written. Thus his VT attacks pulled down Kido Butai’s CAP, clearing the air for the dive bombers to strike unopposed just as Nagumo’s counter-strike began to launch. His account, though, caught an action that I’ve not seen previously emphasized. He points out quite explicitly that while McClusky was still trying to find the Japanese, Gene Lindsey, like Waldron, took his VT squadron almost directly to Kido Butai.
He is unsparing in pointing out that we bumbled into victory (a theme that recurs in his battle accounts). His analysis of the morning dive bomber strike is pungent: “It was a perfect coordinated attack. It was timed almost to the second. It was a freak accident.”
Wouk literally enshrines the members of the fleet VT squadrons, listing the pilots and gunners by squadron, those lost presented in black-bordered boxes. Following his analysis of the bomber strike is a heartfelt tribute to the VT crews: “What was not luck, but the soul of the United States of America in action, was the willingness of the torpedo plane squadrons to go in against hopeless odds.”
The value of the book for our purposes lies in Wouk’s analyses of the BOM. Lest we think that ranking Midway with Salamis and Lepanto is a recent realization, Wouk hit those notes and many more over a generation ago. The triumph at Midway was quickly understood as a turning point in the Pacific war. Wouk’s gift is the clarity to see it as initiating a global chain of events that led directly to Allied victory in all theaters. His prior casting of Capt. Henry as President Roosevelt’s naval aide allowed for the character to be present at, or receive reliable reports of the conferences among the Allied heads of state which determined geostrategic goals and the means to
pursue them. His presentation of analysis by different characters allows for including differing and challenging perspectives.
Wouk’s analyses of the impact of Midway astounded me; both Secretary Schlesinger’s speech in 2002 and Robert Morgenthau’s “Newsweek” article in 2007 clearly derived from Wouk’s 1978 fiction.
Among the many gems is a reminder to all who study mankind’s self-inflicted cataclysm: “Yet the overwhelming reality during the war...is that nobody knew how it would go.”
Return to Top