Two Books I Liked Very Much

I read a lot. You probably figured that out by now. Here are two I really liked although they have no connection.

Daring Young Men: the Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949 by Richard Reeves. 4 Stars

I liked this book very much: Reeves is a good writer and this is good, page turning narrative non-fiction. I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know. For instance, I had no idea that the Berlin Airlift went on as long as it did: 467 days. Or that it was so massive: 2.3 million tons of food alone delivered on 277,500 flights. Or that so many American and British pilots were killed: 73. Many of these young men, both British and American, had settled down into their peace-time lives only to be re-called to the colors almost overnight. It was an extraordinary effort requiring the work of hundreds of thousands of people. And last, and I found this especially fascinating: the modern system of air traffic control began from lessons learned and implemented during the Berlin Airlift.

The most dangerous cargo to bring in was gasoline. The Royal Air Force flew in all the gasoline during the Airlift and some of the planes blew up. The dirtiest cargo was coal. Because the Soviets controlled the main power plant, they cut electricity to West Berlin which then required hundreds of thousands of tons of coal for heating and the operation of industry. Hauling coal was a dirty job and on a frequent basis pilots had to have coal dust gently washed out of their eyes by US Airforce physicians. Sometimes the coal dust had gotten so far into the eye that the physicians had to put the patient out and carefully remove the eyeball from its socket to clean the eye and the socket.

There is an irony that the main terminal building at the Tempelhof Airport [above left] was constructed during the Third Reich because that was the airport used by the US Air Force and US Navy aircraft to bring supplies into Berlin. Though air operations at Tempelhof ceased in 2008, the impressive stone building is being preserved. It was once one of the largest buildings in the world and very much exhibits Hitler’s desire to create public buildings that would overwhelm the individual. Celebrated British architect, Norman Foster, called it “the mother of all airports.” Tempelhof itself was designed by one of Goring’s pet Nazi architects, Ernst Sagebiel, who had earlier designed the Reich Air Ministry [above right]. Both structures survived the war.

Berlin’s main airport today is Tegel International Airport, built by the Allies during the Airlift to provide more landing strips.

We Were Pirates: A Torpedoman’s Pacific War by Robert Schultz and James Shell. 5 Stars

I was on a panel with the authors of the above at the Virginia Festival of the Book, which is how I heard about this book and to which I certainly give five stars. One of the authors, Robert Schultz, a novelist, poet, writer and Professor of Literature, lived in Decora, Iowa and taught at the local college. An older man, Bob Hunt, long retired from the local Parks and Recreation Department, often wandered over to shoot the breeze with Schultz, to whom Bob would tell improbable tall tales from his days as a US Navy submariner in World War Two.

I haven’t asked Robert this but I can only imagine he must have taken some of these stories as the highly embellished memories of a World War Two veteran but interesting nonetheless. Bob Hunt did not know Robert was a writer and after Robert’s first novel was published Hunt wandered over and said one never knew who one’s neighbors were. Bob wanted Robert’s help in writing a book, in this case Bob’s memoirs from his days as a submariner. Robert gave him what advice he could and the result was a 207 page single spaced manuscript.

He handed this over to Robert along with all sorts of records and photographs and letters proving that all of his tall tales were actually true. And so from that comes this outstanding book, one of the few stories of an enlisted man in the US Navy Submarine Service in World War Two. As as an enlisted man who worked his way up to Chief Torpedo Petty Officer, Hunt had a completely different view of the war than officers who subsequently wrote their memoirs. For that alone it is worth reading. Yet what makes this a truly wonderful book, which I promise you will read and re-read over time, is that as a young sailor Bob Hunt was a hellion ten times over and never, ever said ‘no’ to a dare.

Women? Yes, lots of them. Some married, some single, some professionals; so many Bob couldn’t remember most of them. Alcohol? He and his crew mates drank an amazing amount of beer and liquor and I say this as a guy who was a frat boy at Tulane University in New Orleans in the mid-70s. We could drink. Several years ago an article in the New York Times on binge drinking among college students reported drinking was out of control and college deans all over America were ringing their hands in frustration. Scientists or other persons who pronounce on weighty matters defined ‘binge drinking” as five beers or three cocktails in an evening. Five beers? This is nothing to brag about but five beers or three cocktails, or both, was just a warm up for us.

That wasn’t binge drinking when we were in college. At Tulane there was no such thing. It took me five years to graduate so when I say Bob Hunt could drink I know what I’m talking about. He could really drink. In fact, he even drank lots of “pink lady”, which was the alcohol used to fuel torpedoes to which a denaturant had been added which had to be filtered out before you could drink it. It tasted horrible but he got it down the hatch. That is an accomplishment. Add to this bar brawls ashore, three years of sinking Japanese ships, and being depth charged countless times and and you have one hell of a tale.

Yet it is a story of great poignancy since this behavior by Bob Hunt and his crew mates and others in the Submarine Service was driven by their belief that they would not survive the war. Even though submariners were all volunteers as they are today and could have simply asked to be transferred to a ship or shore station, they continued to sail. After four patrols, they were normally relieved and assigned to relief crews who cleaned and maintained the submarines when they were in harbor between patrols. Upon returning to port from war patrol, Bob and his crewmates would learn of the boats which were overdue and presumed lost. To the submarine sailors, these were constant reminders of the death which statistically awaited many of them. The casualty rate in the US subs in WW II was approximately 22%: the highest of any unit of the US military during the war.

I have many favorite passages in this book but my most favorite occurs in early 1945 when Bob Hunt had finally been transferred back to the US and assigned as a senior instructor in the navy’s torpedo school, he being one of the most experienced torpedomen in the fleet. Many times Bob was approached by newly appointed captains who were putting together their initial crew for a new submarine. They would ask Bob to join their crew and serve aboard their boat. He always politely declined. One day a skipper who really wanted Hunt to come aboard because of Hunt’s extensive experience, pushed him a little hard. Bob said he had been on enough war patrols. Said the captain, “I know plenty of sailors who have been on more than four war patrols.” This verged on the insulting. Four war patrols were enough for any man, which was why the Navy relieved you after four, although you could make a few more if you really, really wanted to.

Since this very obnoxious and insulting captain had Bob’s service record on his desk, Bob asked him to look through it. The captain starting flipping through the file, counting the number of patrols. He counted one through four then, incredulously, kept counting. “Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.” The captain ungraciously looked up at Bob and said, “get the hell out of here.”

I realize this is a long book review but it is inspired by my absolute fascination with this story, timeless in its emotions. The authors write in the introduction, “Like Homer’s Odyssey, it speaks of war and return – and the haunted life of survival.” And so it does. I respectfully recommend that you consider reading this book. You won’t be disappointed.

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

5 thoughts on “Two Books I Liked Very Much”

  1. Joel, I thought I knew the names of all the great USN submarine skippers in WW II but I drew a complete blank on Maurice Rindskopf. Who was he?

    BTW, my late mother told me on several occasions that my late father, who was a gunnery officer on active duty in the Pacific in WW II, told her that sometimes during battle very unpopular officers would be pushed overboard. My father’s second ship, USS Brownson DD518–I think), was part of the destroyer screen escorting one of the troop convoys in Operation Torch. According to a report I read, the first lieutenant fell overboard and no one saw it or noticed he was missing for some hours. I can’t imagine he got pushed overboard but one never knows……. Andrew, I’m not suggesting that you or Chief Hunt did this on your respective ships/submarines!!! Nor am I suggesting that LT Holwitt would be pushed overboard because he is clearly a dedicated officer who respects his men. Besides, he’s on a submarine and it would be hard to push him overboard!!)

    I have read numerous accounts of veteran German soldiers on the Eastern Front who got a new, inexperienced and arrogant young officer as a commander. After the officer put them in positions on several occasions which greatly endangered them for no reason, they shot him in the middle of a battle.

  2. I am definitely looking forward to reading WE WERE PIRATES (which I’m slowly working my way towards in my massive reading list). I agree with Andrew that the story of the enlisted sailor has not been told enough, and I’m hoping that the rush to preserve the memories of the few WWII veterans remaining will capture more of these great stories.

    I was intrigued by the story of the pushy CO who tried to guilt Hunt into joining his crew. Twelve is a pretty high number of patrols and certainly deserving of great respect, but it’s important that people like TMC (SS) Hunt made more than just four patrols, despite the great risk it entailed, and that was why that the CO was so pushy (albeit too pushy and condescending).

    The submarine force was (and remains) a strictly volunteer service. Even if one was drafted into the Navy, one could not be drafted into the submarine force. So the sub force was a small volunteer group, in which only 16,000 men went to sea, out of a total of 50,000 — only 1.6% of the U.S. Navy. Although there was no shortage of volunteers for the sub force, the success of the submarine force depended on men returning for more patrols. A person like TMC Hunt would be a prized commodity. We are seeing something similar today, where because of problems with retention we are having to promote relatively inexperienced personnel to higher positions of responsibility than we would have 10 years ago. Having an experienced (and solid) chief petty officer around can literally be a lifesaver (and I really do mean LITERALLY).

    I am amazed by how much endurance our personnel showed in continuing to make these patrols. As an officer, I think it’s absolutely remarkable that sub COs like Edward L. Beach, Dick O’Kane, and Maurice Rindskopf made 11 war patrols. And on average, a sub CO could only count on maybe 4 hours of sleep a day, in conditions of high stress and with the lives of 80 other men hanging on his decisions — you can imagine the toll that could take on someone. And they still went back for more.

    I am not begrudging TMC Hunt for turning down a return to sea duty. Instead, I am deeply grateful that he went out for 12 patrols.

  3. Charles, thank you very much for your generous review of WE WERE PIRATES. I know that Bob Hunt, still feisty at 91,will enjoy seeing it, too. I appreciate the two photos of the TAMBOR you included. I’d seen the one taken off Diamond Head, but the other was new to me and is the best pre-war photo of the boat I’ve seen. It was obviously taken in New England before our discovery that black made the boats too visible and that the conning tower should be cut down to reduce its silhouette. Also, during the war the three-inch deck gun was eventually replaced by the five-inch gun, though my research suggests the American sub fleet never figured out how to use those guns to very good effect. According to Bob Hunt, training on it was minimal and inadequate. And it was not unheard of for a sub at battle surface in high seas to put a shell into its own pitching deck. Another interesting detail in the 1943 photo: I can’t be sure, but it looks to me that the crew is flying its homemade battle flag from the periscope shears.

  4. thank you for your comments and perspective, Andrew. There are far too many sanitized accounts of WW II by officers. These accounts are often patronizing to the enlisted men and few mention, probably becasue they never knew, the condition of the men, their food, living compartments etc. I have read a number of accounts of WW II where the Captain and the First Lt simply ignored their responsibility to their men. I think their is an old expression “sergeants run the army” and I imagine in the navy its “petty officers run the navy.” Especially Chief Petty Officers in a specialty who know far more about it than the officer over them.

  5. You nailed it with your review of “We Were Pirates”. The experiences of the enlisted sailor in WWII has been largely ignored by readers and writers of history. I suppose the life of a sailor was even more tedious and dull than that of a typical army or marine grunt (which is going some). The few stories I’ve read on a sailor’s experiences tend to be incredibly dull with no redeeming narrative value to keep interest up, or unneccesarily spiced up and suspiciously heroic. “We Were Pirates” is one of the very few books that avoids these traps. It is a fascinating, much needed view of the Navy from the bottom up.

    I spent 6 years as a sailor in the blue water Navy in the late 70s-early 80s. I am intimately aquainted with what its like to be an enlisted sailor. There’s very little glamour and a lot of drinking, hell-raising and the endless search for sex. I was surprised to see from “Pirates” how similar WWII sailors were, in every respect, from sailors of my era. The amount of alcohol my buddies and I consumed in liberty ports or at home between deployments, was absolutely amazing in retrospect, yet in spite of the hand-wringing and preaching of the modern Temperance movement, we turned out OK, just as Hunt did. Hunt did an amazing job of putting down exactly what it was like to be a typical sailor, warts and all. There is an exuberant honesty to his tale, which Schultz smoothed out to make it even more readable. I also highly recommend this book.

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