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.

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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:

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