Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: Admiral Nimitz


I will admit that I am not as familiar with naval history and the Pacific Theater during WWII as I would like to be.  I’m working on improving that condition.  I’m researching an army unit that deployed to the Pacific Theater (the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment) for the next book.  Also, I recently wrote an article on the history of the aircraft carrier and another on the history of the submarine for Military Vet Shop.  So when I was asked to review Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater by Brayton Harris, I readily accepted the task.

I enjoyed this biography of one of our "under sung" heroes of World War II. We tend to study history as a series of events, but often it is beneficial to look at a period of time through the biography of someone who had a great influence upon it. This is a well written history of Fleet Admiral Chester William Nimitz, who was commander of the Pacific Fleet during WWII and the Chief of Naval Operations during the early days of the Cold War. It is also a history of our Navy during the first half of the twentieth century.

Nimitz graduated from Annapolis in January 1905, just a little over a year after the Wright brothers made their flight at Kitty Hawk and more than five years before an airplane would take off and land from an aircraft carrier.  Submarines were also new technology.  In 1909 Nimitz took command of the United States Navy’s second commissioned submarine, the USS Plunger (SS-2).   Nimitz would continue to have a variety of command and staff assignments throughout his career until the dawn of WWII found him in charge of the Naval Bureau (precursor of today’s Bureau of Naval Personnel).  In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Nimitz replaced Admiral Kimmel as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) as the personal choice of President Roosevelt.

Nimitz was responsible for a Pacific Fleet that was not only rebuilding and rapidly expanding, but also embracing a completely new way of conducting warfare.   Pearl Harbor signified the end of the “battleship navy.”   The war would be won by the submarine and the aircraft carrier. Additionally, after the fall of the Philippines, there was more than one supreme commander in the Pacific.   General Douglas MacArthur was named allied commander of the Southwest Pacific Area which included Australia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.   Nimitz was designated Commander-in Chief of the Pacific Ocean Areas (CINCPOA) that covered everything else.   As such, Nimitz presided over famous battles like Guadalcanal, Midway, and Iwo Jima.   After reading Brayton Harris' book you might come to believe that the bigger obstacle to our success was not the Japanese, but rather the ego of General Douglas MacArthur and the bureaucracy in the Navy Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Admiral Nimitz was a natural choice to take over as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).   He defended the Navy in a time when, due to the belief that the Air Force’s ability to drop an atomic bomb convinced a lot of people that we no longer needed a navy for anything other than transportation.   This turned out to be a most interesting part of the book.   The Air Force wanted to do away with the Navy, the Army wanted to do away with the Marine Corps.   It is amazing how close we came to having a single uniformed service that was built around the long-range bomber.   Luckily men like Chester Nimitz could see the future and realize that each service has its place in defending the country.

In this book you will learn, in an entertaining, brief, and casual read, how Nimitz was instrumental in not only winning the Pacific war, but also helped to guide the structure of our modern navy that would be instrumental in winning the Cold War.   By an act of congress, the five-star rank was created in 1944.   Nimitz joined Generals of the Army MacArthur, Marshal, Eisenhower, and Arnold, along with Fleet Admirals Leahy and King in this new rank.   For some time after WWII, Nimitz was a national hero.   Today Nimitz has a tendency to be overshadowed by MacArthur and Eisenhower as a household name, although Chester Nimitz’ contributions to winning WWII and the Cold War security of the United States deserve to be recognized and remembered equally.   Brayton Harris’ book, Admiral Nimitz, helped me realize that.  

Monday, February 20, 2012

John Glenn, 50 Years Later

I really enjoy the “on this date in history items.”  I get an email newsletter every day.  It allows me to take a daily devotional of history on a variety of subjects.  However, this anniversary was pointed out to me by an article in the New York Times: Fifty years ago today, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
John Glenn photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Fifty years ago, the Soviets were ahead of us in space technology, having launched the first rocket into orbit, Sputnik, in October of 1957.  We don’t give much pause for our space program now.  But back in John Glenn’s time as an astronaut, we were in the midst of the Cold War and the American public didn’t take these things in stride.  By the time we got John Glenn into orbit, the Russians had already carried a dog and two men around the earth.  This was, of course, on three different flights with Yuri Gagarin being the first human to enter orbit (I don’t know the name of the dog). 

This information made me wonder what Glenn had done before becoming an astronaut.  I knew he had been a marine fighter pilot, but I had forgotten the details.  Turns out John Glenn from Cambridge, Ohio was in college studying science and had just gotten his private pilot’s license when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  He immediately dropped out of college and signed up with the Army Air Corps.  But the Army didn't call him to active duty fast enough, so Glenn enlisted with the Navy as an aviation cadet and was later transferred to the Marine Corps.  He flew F4U Corsairs in the South Pacific and logged 59 missions, mostly in close air support.  After WWII, Captain Glenn returned to the States and served as a flight instructor.  Glenn logged 90 combat missions over two tours flying jets during the Korean War.  On his last tour he downed three MIG-15s in aerial combat.

After Korea, Glenn became a military test pilot.  On July 16, 1957, John Glenn became the first pilot to complete a continuous transcontinental flight (in a F8U Crusader) while averaging supersonic speed.  The flight from NAS Los Alamitos in southern California to Floyd Bennett Field in New York was accomplished in 3 hours, 23 minutes, 8.3 seconds, and included three aerial refuelings.  Glenn was awarded his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross for the feat.

In April 1959 John Glenn joined the original group of seven astronauts in NASA’s Project Mercury.  All of these men had training and experience as military pilots.  Glenn was, of course, a marine.  Alan Shepard, Wally Shirra, and Scott Carpenter were naval aviators.  Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton were Air Force pilots.  Their story is told in detail in Tom Wolfe’s1979 book, The Right Stuff.

On February 20, 1962, as stated earlier, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in his spacecraft, Friendship 7.  However, he was the fifth person to be in “space” and the third to orbit the planet.  Regardless, John Glenn was hailed by Tom Wolfe as “the country’s last true hero.”  America certainly treated him as such.  President Kennedy went to meet him at Cape Canaveral and Glenn received a ticker tape parade in New York.  John Glenn went on to serve four terms as senator from Ohio, and was a candidate in the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries.

In 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn made a flight on the Space Shuttle Discovery, volunteering to study the effects of space flight on the elderly.  He has continued to fly, finally as a private pilot, until just last year.  John Glenn is now 90 years old and has been married to his wife, Annie, for 69 years.  When asked about his status as a “hero,” according to the Times article Senator Glenn responded, “I don’t think of myself that way.  I get up each day and have the same problems others have at my age.”  In my book, that statement just adds to the evidence that John Glenn is in fact one of our last living American icons. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

A New Jeff Shaara Book Is Coming Soon!

Lot's of news about books lately.  I read a lot in the winter.  Mostly nonfiction, but not always.  I do love a good historical fiction, especially one that doesn't depart from historical facts.  I’m talking about authors like Kenneth Roberts, James Michener, or Alexander Thom.  However, the best example of this quality of historical fiction writer I've found is Jeff Shaara.  I was first turned on to his father Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (a novel of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg) way back in the 80s.  The Killer Angels inspired me to travel to Gettysburg and visit the battlefield the first time.  After reading the book, I said to myself, “Man, I want to write like that some day.”  Naturally, when Jeff picked up the torch and wrote his first book, Gods and Generals (a prequel to Killer Angels), I was immediately hooked on his work as well.  He has since written about the Revolutionary War, the War with Mexico, World War I, and both theaters of World War II.  The thing about Shaara books is that they are historically accurate, and the characters are real people.  For the most part I can safely assert that only the dialog is fiction.  The most common reaction from someone who first reads a Shaara novel is “Why don’t we teach history this way?”  You might say that I am a fan.

I found out that the next Jeff Shaara book will be out on Amazon on May 29.  Titled A Blaze of Glory, it is a novel of the Civil War battle of Shiloh.  A Blaze of Glory is the first in a new trilogy about the western theater of the Civil War.  I will admit that the excitement of finding out this information was somewhat lessened by the fact that my book pusher, Jeff Bezos over at Amazon, notified my wife Sheila before telling me.  I was hurt until I remembered that Sheila bought me the last Shaara book I read, The Final Storm set in the Pacific Theater during WWII.

So let me recommend to all of you readers of strictly nonfiction, or those of you on the opposite end of the spectrum who have never found a “history book” that has excited you.  You can’t go wrong with a Jeff Shaara novel.  I’ve read them all, and I’ll put in my pre-order for A Blaze of Glory.  When it arrives, the Shaara book goes straight to the top of the reading pile.  Can you get a better book recommendation? 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Get their stories while you can.

I was contacted by the son of a WWII veteran of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion yesterday to let me know that his father had passed away.  Harold Seay was one of the veterans of this unit that answered my questionnaire and assisted in my research for “The Boldest Plan is the Best.”  Our thoughts and prayers go out to Mrs. Seay, her son Roy, and their family.  I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be in communication with Harold and the rest of these amazing veterans, and I only wish I had started the project years ago.

On the same day, I saw a segment on the NBC Nightly News that reminded us that we are losing (their reported estimate) over 700 World War II veterans each day.  The story was about the members of the WWII generation who live in a retirement community in Hanover, New Hampshire called Kendal at Hanover who are compiling their memories into a book.  There are 56 vignettes in the book, titled “WWII Remembered.”  If you would like to see a video of the news segment with Brian Williams, here is a link.  I found it moving, and I would like to echo the appeal made in the piece to gather the stories from our greatest generation while you are still able.
I think the rest of America was moved by the story as well.  Out of curiosity, I looked up the book on Amazon.  Due to be released tomorrow, it is already number one in the category of WWII History.  I’m looking forward to getting my copy.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Which Groundhog are you going to believe?

Image of Punxsutawney Phil from an LA Times Article
It’s Groundhog Day!  In case you had not heard: This morning Punxsutawney Phil, the world’s most famous groundhog, saw his shadow and thus predicted six more weeks of winter.  For some of the blow back on Phil’s prediction this year, check out his Facebook Page.

The roots of Groundhog Day are found in the German tradition of Candlemas Day (during the Christmas season) when their clergy would distribute candles to the poor to use in the winter.  How many candles would be needed?  Well, let’s ask an animal.  The early Germanic people chose the hedgehog.  When German immigrants came to America (a bunch to Pennsylvania) they replaced the hedgehog with the groundhog, or as some call it the woodchuck, which were abundant here.  Punxsutawney Phil has become the most famous groundhog not just because of the movie.  Back in 1887, a newspaper editor that belonged to the “Punxsutawney Groundhog Club” – whose members liked the sport of hunting groundhogs – said that their groundhog, Phil was the only true weather forecasting rodent.  A long line of Phils have been honored at an annual party on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania ever since.

I’ve really enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek hoopla surrounding Groundhog Day ever since I saw the 1993 movie of the same name starring Bill Murray.  Even more so since moving to Pennsylvania, a state that is teeming with the cute little rodents.  We even have one that lives in the field behind our house and occasionally comes up to the yard to forage.

Although Phil will not admit that he is ever wrong about the coming of an early spring, almost every human would agree that he is, in fact, wrong about half the time.  Perhaps we should consult some other groundhog?  We’re in luck!  In order to get in on the fun and the tourist dollars, many cities across the country have their own weather prognosticating woodchucks.  There’s Birmingham Bill and Staten Island Chuck.  There’s Woodstock Willie and Dunkirk Dave.  There’s even Shubenacadie Sam up in Canada, eh?

Central Pennsylvania has an overwhelming number of these weather hogs that sometimes have trouble agreeing on how much more winter we’re going to have this year.  In York County, Dover Doug and Poor Richard are both opting for an early spring.  So is Patty Pagoda over in Reading, as did Octoraro Orphie from Quarryville, Lancaster County.  On the other hand, Mount Joy Minnie, also from Lancaster County, and Uni from Lebanon County both predict six more weeks of winter.  Grover and Sweet Arrow, recent newlyweds from Schuylkill County also join Phil in predicting six more weeks of cold. (But I really don’t know what they base that on, since it was reported that they didn’t even get out of bed this morning to see if their shadow was there or not!)

So, calendar wise we surely have six more weeks of winter.  Spring will arrive on March 20th.  But as to whether or not we have to deal with more cold and snow, I guess we could ask an animal.  But in the end, which groundhog are you going to believe?