11 May 2009

The Size of the Fight in the Dog - Review of Tin Can Soldiers

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour by James D. Hornfischer

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've written before that I am easily annoyed by Tom Brokaw's assertion of the GI Generation as "The Greatest Generation" especially when applied selectively to only Americans. I in no way mean to demean WWII vets (quite the opposite), but I feel like today's young men and women would make the same sacrafices if called upon.


The story of Taffy Three is the first time in a WWII history that I have found myself this amazed at the courage under fire of American servicemen. The courage of Army Rangers at Cabanatuan isn't to be questioned. Neither are the sacrifices of Polish patisans in Warsaw or British paratroops at Arnhem. But either this is what they trained for, or they really had no choice but to fight.

For the pilots from Taffy 3's escort carriers and the sailors on the destroyers and escort carriers, it was a bit different. Yes, they trained to fight, but no one trained them to go after the the main battle line of the Imperial Japanese Navy. They were supposed to be support, ground support, sub chasing, nothing glamorous. Yes, it was their duty to attack...the first time. But once your bombs or torpedos are gone, most folks would turn around and high-tail it for safety. This was clearly an option for the pilots and probably an option for the DDs and DEs too.

It wasn't an option for the escort carriers (or jeep carriers as Hornfischer refers to them). Nobody would blame those pilots or sailors for getting out of Dodge. WWII Army Air Corps pilots used to say they were flying for Uncle Sam until they dropped their bombs; then they were flying for themselves. Not these men. They went back, again and again, flying dry runs at Japanese battleships in the hopes that the big ships would swerve and give the carriers another few minutes. One pilot figured he made more than 19 torpedo runs in a plane that only carries one torpedo. The destroyers did the same, running in against heavy cruisers with their 5-inch guns blazing away. It never should have made a bit of difference.

But it did. The Japanese commander, already spooked by having one ship shot out from under him the day before, became convinced he was casing fast carriers he could never hope to catch, and facing elite pilots in great numbers, and reciving fire from enemy cruisers instead of tin cans with pop-guns. Kurita retreated.

On one of the carriers, a 19-year-old look-out saw the largest battleship ever afloat turn away and said "They're getting away!"

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