Monday, June 8, 2020

Book Review: To Wake The Giant

Book R&R: "To Wake The Giant: A Novel of Pearl Harbor" by Jeff Shaara

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Jeff Shaara fan. I have read every book he has written, as soon as they become available. When I heard that he was going to revisit World War II and specifically Pearl Harbor, it went straight to the top of the reading pile. Besides, with the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII upon us, the subject is very appropriate.

"To Wake the Giant" begins approximately one year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In the usual Jeff Shaara formula, he tells the story of the event by following major historical characters who played a role in decision making and examples of "regular people" who were greatly affected by the event. In the case of "Wake the Giant," Shaara provides the perspective of the United States' chief negotiator with Japan, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and a new enlistee to the U.S. Navy named Tommy Biggs, who gets assigned to the USS Arizona.

Of course, we hear the voices of other characters who are part of the multitude that made or were affected by this pivotal event in World history. Secretary of State Hull, of course, meets with President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Stimson among others that include Japanese Ambassador Nomura. These meetings let the reader know what the American government knew leading up to the war. Dialog between Yamamoto, his staff and other admirals, show us the planning for the attack. And in Hawaii, we see the preparations for war through the viewpoint of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and his staff. Finally, Tommy Biggs and his shipmates show us what life was like for a battleship sailor in the weeks before the war and the horrific battle on December 7, 1941.

"To Wake the Giant" is a page-turner. I was never bored or distracted. Like all Shaara novels, the book is well researched and very readable. To me, this author writes the epitome of factual historical fiction, which as I've said many times is a great way to learn details of an event. And if you're not careful, you might even become a fan of history. So put this book on your summer reading list.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Midway: A battle, a book, and two movies

I miss the old movies from the 60s and early 70s. My dad loved them, we'd watch them together and I actually learned a lot of military history from watching those Saturday reruns (some of that history I admit had to be corrected). One of those was the 1976 movie Midway with Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda. This was on our list of classic war movies, so I bought a copy on DVD for my dad a few years ago. When the new version of Midway came out in 2019 with Woody Harrelson as Admiral Nimitz, I had to see how it compared, so I added a copy of that version to my collection.

Which version is better you ask? Tough question. Right off the top, I’ll tell you I liked the older version better. But for the life of my I couldn’t figure out why. Is it because the Charlton Heston version used real aircraft and historical footage? (the onboard carrier scenes were filmed on the USS Lexington.) Maybe the computer-generated battle scenes in the 2019 version were a turnoff. That and a bit of overacting? Maybe? Just a little? Amazon customers couldn’t help. Both movies are well received with thousands of reviews. Well, maybe we should ask which one was more historically accurate. And that’s where the book comes in.

I admit that I am not nearly as familiar with WWII naval history as I am with the land-based battles. I did not know a great deal about the Battle of Midway. When I don’t know about something, I can’t just take Wikipedia’s word for it. I have to go find a book. No disrespect to Wikipedia, it’s a great resource for background information. I just have to have a book. I chose “The Battle of Midway” by Craig L. Symonds. The book was really good. I’m not the only one who thinks so, it has 4.7 stars on 590 reviews. The book begins with Admiral Chester Nimitz taking over as CincPac in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We’re given all of the background we need that leads us up to the battle, including the Battle of the Coral Sea, the breaking of Japanese codes, and the Doolittle Raid. The book then provides a blow by blow telling of the Battle of Midway that occurred just six months after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed reading it.

Which movie was more historically accurate? First, ignore the storyline in the first movie involving Heston’s fictional character and his son. Then I would say with the broad-brush strokes they are both historically accurate. But I have to admit that when it comes to details and character portrayals, the 2019 Woody Harrelson version beats out the 1976 version. For example, Joe Rochefort, the officer in charge of breaking one of the Japanese codes that were so instrumental in the American victory was portrayed in the 1976 movie as eccentric and unconventional. That is not a true description of this brilliant officer, and he was more accurately depicted in the 2019 movie. As it turns out, the 2019 movie did a much better job of showing the real men who played integral parts in the battle. McClusky really did damage his lungs with a faulty air tank, and Admiral Yamaguchi did, in fact, choose to go down with the Hiryū. As it turns out, it seemed like the 2019 movie of Midway was based on Symonds’ book.

I know I haven’t helped you choose just one of these. But hey, while you are socially distancing yourself you’ve got time to enjoy all three. My recommendation, as always, is to read the book first. 😉

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Write it down: Your Covid-19 Journal

Image from the Library of Congress
First: An Update on Our Coronavirus Staycation.
There are occasions when you find you have some time on your hands. Then you realize how long it has been since you did certain things. Like, write in your blog. Everyone has the pandemic on their mind so I might as well tell you my story so far.

This January I started a new teaching job with an alternative education high school that partners with a nonprofit organization that provides flight instruction to the students. More about that later, but in summary, I teach high school level history, math, and aviation science (which is basically private pilot ground school). Since February we’ve been telling our students about the approaching pandemic and personal precautions to take. We stopped our ritual of shaking hands with each student every morning and opted instead for fist and elbow bumps. At the end of my unit on the First World War, I taught a class on the 1918 Flu Pandemic that included showing the American Experience documentary. New info for most; I can honestly say I had their attention on that one.

On Friday, March 13th we were off for the end of the quarter when my principal contacted me and said there would be no students the following week and that we would come in and figure out how we were going to teach online for the next couple of weeks. Before the weekend was over, I was told that teachers would be required to stay home as well. Now we are planning lessons to be provided online and provide work to be assigned through Google Classroom. We haven’t implemented yet, because now we must figure out how to get a computer and Internet access to every student. Except for trips to the grocery store and taking Elvis the corgi for a walk, we’ve been staying home since the 13th. More to follow.

Write Down Your Story.
I don’t know if being well versed in history is good or bad. Because now we’re wondering just how bad this pandemic is really going to be or the economic situation that will follow. And we have some events in our history that we can use as a cautionary tale. Sheila and I both agreed that we thought we’d never live to see a cataclysmic event like the 1918 Influenza Pandemic or the Great Depression. Now I’m wondering if I might see something similar to both. Then I realized that we have seen some major things in our lifetime. Two I can think of are the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. We got past those and others. They are now in our memory, in some cases like it happened yesterday, and as if it were ancient history to younger generations.

I can tell you one thing. As a reader, researcher, and writer of history, I thank the people who recorded their experiences during challenging times. Like the University of Virginia history professor Herbert Braun says, “We do not write alone.” For me, it means that writers of history need your help. Future generations will want to know the personal, emotional toll that this event had on you and your friends and family. Even more basic is what was it like in your local area? What did you do to stay safe and sane?

Please, write your stories down. Keep a journal. Record a video. Get the kids involved too. If they are young, they can draw pictures. No detail is too mundane. Don’t lose your thoughts to social media. Keep copies of what you post in your own files. Some day they are going to be gold to your descendants. And to someone like me.

P.S. If you need a good book recommendation, a few years ago I read “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Greatest Pandemic in History” by John M. Barry. It stuck with me and a good read considering our current times.

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