USS Seawolf: Sumarine Reader of the Pacific – Gerold Frank, James D. Horan, J. M. Eckberg

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I recently finished reading Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles and whilst writing the review I read that there were a collection of books produced under the heading Uncommon Valor. Upon finding this out, I jumped on to the internet for a quick Google search of the complete list of books and found that USS Seawolf was on it. Having heard nothing of the Seawolf, her crew and its mission in the first half of America’s war I decided to take a gamble and purchase it. Let me tell you, I am very glad that I did because USS Seawolf was very much worth the 99p I paid for it on the Kindle store.

The story of the Wolf is told by Chief Radioman Joseph Melvin Eckberg who served at the sound station throughout the Seawolf’s first tour of duty. As an irreplaceable member of the crew, in one of its most important roles, he is an instrumental figure in the success or failure the Wolf experienced. His story, on the map, takes us all over the Pacific but it also takes us from fore to aft within the boat. This book is not a definitive overview of the Submarine as a weapon in the Pacific, in fact, it contains very little technical information about the boat. This book, like all of those within the Uncommon Valor series, keeps its focus very much on the men on board and the day to day happenings of life under the waves.

As omens go, the beginning of USS Seawolf is as effective as they get. Eckberg sets the tone immediately bringing our attention to the recovery of USS Squalus, lost with all hands, on a test dive the day Eckberg first sees the Seawolf. He comments that the Squalus has become “a floating tomb” and this idea is a source of so much tension throughout the story. There is a constant reminder that if anything goes wrong, if anyone acts incorrectly, then the Wolf and every man on her would be lost. What makes this so much more impactful, although it is not mentioned, is that the Seawolf was actually lost with all hands to a friendly fire incident later on in the war under a new captain and crew. At any moment throughout Eckberg’s telling this could have happened to him. Luck, both good and bad stalks every submarine.

Luck is another key theme and luck was necessary to pull off on of the Seawolf’s most daring mission. The worsening situation for the United States army in the Pacific led to a situation where a large portion of the men stationed in the Philippines were besieged in the fortress the Corregidor. The loss of a large portion of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the constant air attacks on the Island meant that any conventional ship to shore resupply attempt was impossible. Instead, this mission fell to the Submarines which were packed with ammunition and supplies and sent on what was essentially a suicide mission. USS Seawolf was the first submarine to successfully carry out the task and proved that Submarines were capable of delivering quantities of supplies undetected to besieged areas. This mission, whilst my personal favourite account, is not the only incredible action Eckberg took part in. This book is packed with unbelievably brave decisions made in unimaginably dangerous situations.

I have read that USS Seawolf is America’s Das Boot, an almost unbelievable tale of war beneath the waves. The only real detractor from that statement is that Das Boot is a work of fiction and USS Seawolf is not. This book is another one that is worth a bit of time to read. If the rest of the Uncommon Valor series is this good I can’t wait to read them all.

Overall Rating 9 out of 10

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The Wehrmacht: Last Witnesses

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Let me be frank. This book disappointed me. There is nothing wrong about the accounts of the soldiers covered in this book. In fact some of them proved to be very interesting. Almost everything about life in the Gulag was new to me and rare to come across. Yet one good chapter does not a good book make. This book is let down by its structure. There are far too many pages filled with the author’s explanations of the background history. The most successful books built from soldiers accounts that I have read assume that the reader knows enough about the events covered to let the words of those there stand without scaffolding. Last Witnesses feels too neat, imprisoned within the author’s own attempt to construct a narrative of Germany’s defeat. This takes away a lot of the underlying confusion, disbelief and horror from many of the accounts within effectively sterilising and sanitising the text.

Rating 4 out of 10

Serenade to the Big Bird – Bert Stiles

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It is never easy to review a work of non-fiction. When that book is also the result of somebodies personal experiences in a situation that very few of us have experienced it is even more difficult. I admit that I am not best placed to comment of what it was like to sit inside a B-17 as it tried to maintain formation through flak and fighter attack. I am thankful for this because from the impression I get from Stiles it was rarely pleasant.

Before I talk about the content of Serenade to the Big Bird a few words about its author are necessary. Bert Stiles experienced the air war in Europe first hand serving  with the 91st Bomb Group for a full 35 mission tour. Once this was completed, Stiles was offered the chance to return to the United States to serve as a flight instructor. He turned this offer down in order to be allowed to do a second tour as a fighter pilot despite knowing the risks involved. 16 missions into his second tour Stiles was killed in action somewhere near Hanover whilst escorting a group of B-17s. Stiles was just 23. His mother, in an act of remembrance, managed to get Serenade to the Big Bird published and thanks to this his thoughts and feelings are preserved for future generations to experience the tragedy of war.

If you are interested in the technical details involved in flying a B-17 or even a detailed account of how the missions Stiles went on played out please don’t buy a copy of this book. Serenade is a much more philosophical approach to the necessity of war in the first place and an examination of the kind of person it takes to survive in the skies above Europe. At several points throughout the book, Stiles speaks with utter clarity about the chances of long time survival of even the good crews in a war where death is seemingly a matter of bad luck. His writing is clearly troubled and becomes ever more so as the book progresses. One of the most poignant moments comes when Stiles’ feels as though he should write to the mother of his friend who is killed in action. After considering this for some time, Stiles relents because as he writes:

What can you tell a guy’s mother? She was there first. She knows pretty well what was inside him.” – Page 44

Long streams of consciousness are a hallmark of Stiles’ structure. For Stiles, with little other to do on 10 hour missions than to try to maintain the safety of the formation, there was plenty of time to think. He often spends time considering the landscape passing far below musing upon the idea that eventually humankind may get along. Being so distanced from the war on the ground gives us a completely refreshing perspective compared to the limitless amounts of infantry and armour memoirs. The impersonality of Stiles war let’s him consider his enemy as something less physical, a product of the political and physical landscape.

“Maybe boundary lines have their uses, and tariffs and visas and all the other barriers built up by men on the ground, but the air flows smoothly over all of them and from 20,000 it is pretty hard to see them or any very good reasons for them.” – Page 30

Where many accounts of the Second World War frame it as being a war where good is fighting against evil, Stiles doesn’t seem to see a point to his war. In his mind, the war is there only to put another group of people in charge of Germany that the allies can get along with. He seems to feel that war as an instrument of change is a pretty wasteful idea. A large portion of his thoughts seem to be given over to considering the power of democracy to ensure that those  that represent evil never make it into power. He also recognises that an uneducated vote is a worse threat than not voting at all and makes comments on investing in schools rather than banks because “there is a whole lot more wealth in them.” When you take into account that this book was first published in 1947, 70 years ago, it is amazing to hear such modern ideas from somebody so distanced from the present.

Most importantly, do I think this a book worth reading? Definitely. To say that I have enjoyed every page would be to tell a lie. This is not a book that you can express great pleasure about reading. It is a book that contains the sorrows of a young man in a war that he doesn’t see the point in and as such I struggle to feel anything beyond sympathy. Stiles, like so many, had their youth taken from them by a world where hate seemed dominant. Rather than finishing this conclusion myself, I think it would be much better to leave you with Stiles own words on finding value in difficult places:

There it is, they might say, a beat-up, lousy, starving world, filled with hate and manure and revenge, but for all that, look at the moonlight on the willow trees, and listen to the surf on the yellow sand, and the whisper of the wind through the aspen leaves. There is still a little hope there, and a little love and compassion. – Page 56

Rating 10 out of 10

Challenger’s Hope – David Feintuch

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Just a heads up, the following may contain spoilers from the first book. See that review first HERE!

Nicholas Seafort is a man that never seems to catch a break. After the events of the first book, Seafort is given command of the UNS Challenger and assigned to a task force heading back to Hope Nation. Unfortunately for him, his new command is stolen from under him by Admiral Tremaine the leader of the task force. Seafort and his pregnant wife Amanda are reassigned to the far smaller UNS Portia for the duration of the trip.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the task force is then set upon by the newly discovered Fish and a deadly virus is let loose upon UNS Portia. Personal tragedy ensues for Seafort and he struggles to maintain a grip on himself and discover the whereabouts of the rest of the squadron. When Seafort finally catches up to the Admiral he is ordered to take command of the now crippled UNS Challenger whilst the Admiral escapes with UNS Portia, most of the supplies and a large proportion of Challenger’s weapons. In this situation, Seafort is forced to take actions that clash with his sense of morality in order to extend their chance of rescue as far as possible.

Challenger’s Hope is a far darker novel than the first. In the space between the two novels mankind has found out that they are not alone. The galaxy has become a far more threatening place and the enemy is so inhuman that any attempt to understand their thinking is impossible. However, the main threat in this book comes from within the Navy itself. Having only ever experienced peace the Navy has become dominated by officers that are unfit to lead. This ineffectiveness is encapsulated by Admiral Tremaine, a man obsessed with his own advancement and unwilling to risk his own safety.

In this novel we also get to see how the society of Earth in the future is highly divided. Seafort is forced to take on board his ship a group of transpop youths as part of a governmental trial to solve the transpop problem. Earth in the future is dominated by a few wealthy uppies whilst below untold billions have fallen away into a state of tribal anarchy. These people are so brutally savage that they might as well be extras in a Mad Max film. Seafort is forced to notice these people on a ship as small as Portia and this lets the reader get a real sense of the rigid social stratification at large on Earth. However, as the novel progresses this relationship becomes a lot more complicated as Seafort begins to realise that those “civilised” people in command may be far more savage than the transpops themselves. This is a really interesting theme that pervades the novel like a slow fuse burning away unnoticed in the background and I think that it is really well woven into the narrative.

Whilst Seafort really struggled to come to terms with choices he had to make to get Hibernia through the first novel he confronts a whole load more self loathing in this one. His short stint in the command chair has really changed Seafort from the upbeat, energised youth of his days as a midshipman. Choices now weigh heavily on his mind to the point that he begins to question his sanity and the point of living. Loneliness, depression and conflicted interests all dominate Seafort’s thoughts throughout the narrative as he is driven away from everything he loves and forced to do the opposite of everything he believes in. He has become a tragic hero, celebrated for the evil that men do and he struggles to atone for his mistakes.

Overall Rating: 7 out of 10

Midshipman’s Hope – David Feintuch

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When things go wrong for Nicholas Seafort, they really go wrong. As one of the midshipman aboard UNS Hibernia, Seafort could never have expected to be thrust into the command chair by a series of tragedies. Once in the seat, the young officer will have to put up with a mutinous crew hired from the dregs of society, a passenger compliment that is often hostile to his intentions and dangers never before witnessed by mankind among the stars.

Midshipman’s Hope reads like a Napoleonic naval novel but with more lasers. UNS Hibernia makes up the setting for the majority of the novel as they complete the lonely journey from Earth to Hope Nation across the void. The ship, thanks in part to its civilian passengers, feels alive with a large amount of the novel given over to exploring the difference between the troubles of the common sailor and those of the wealthy passengers. Tensions often run high as Seafort fights to maintain control of his ship and uncover the cause of the terrible accident that cost the lives of the majority of the officers.

The twists come thick and fast in this novel and Seafort clearly struggles with his own demon’s throughout. In the hyper religious society that makes up humanity in the future, Seafort struggles to see himself as anything other than a sinner. He is a character that punishes himself for the smallest mistake even when the characters around him expunge him of any blame. As a character, Seafort is flawed. He is bound by his oath to the Navy and often acts in ways that he knows is morally wrong. Seafort isn’t afraid of making difficult choices and often reflects on the morality of his decisions. It is this reflection that makes Seafort a difficult character to hate. Whilst he appears stern, if not authoritarian, Seafort is a deeply troubled and emotionally strained man. We often feel sorry for the sacrifices he has to make in the name of duty to ensure that UNS Hibernia and her crew make it through the difficult journey.

Without giving too much away, this novel is definitely worth a read. It may just be another Hornblower in space but it offers some really refreshing narrative ideas and characters that seem to be aware of the implications of their own actions.

Overall Rating: 8 out of 10

Devil’s Birthday: The Bridges to Arnhem 1944 – Geoffrey Powell

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I read this book on Kindle and the number of small formatting errors in the text makes me believe that it is a scanned in document. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this practice it’s essential that somebody proof reads the version before it goes on sale. That way the integrity and clarity of the product remains unchanged. It won’t take away from what I’m about to say about the book but it would be nice to see publisher’s taking more care about their products on the digital market.

When I was about twelve my family went to Holland on holiday, specifically in the Gelderland region. Amongst the usual family days out spent riding bicycles, falling out of trees and exploring small towns; my dad insisted that we visit Oosterbeek. At twelve years old I didn’t really realise that Oosterbeek had any more significance than any other town we visited in Holland. That is until we got there. My dad pulled into the Arnhem-Oosterbeek cemetery and proceeded to drag us around grave by grave for several hours. Coach tours dropped in and out, each bringing a sudden ten minute outburst of furious and noisy remembrance. After a while one of the people that tended the graves came over and said how happy he was to see that some people spent more than a few moments wandering around. We were so lucky that this man knew so much and was happy to take time out to show us around and tell us so many stories about the people silent before us. I don’t tell many people but it’s probably my favourite moment from any holiday ever.

What’s this got to do with the book? Oosterbeek is a key location in the story of the failure of Operation Market Garden to bypass the Siegfried Line and get across the Rhine. Oosterbeek was the location that the British 1st Airborne division made their stand whilst waiting for relief before being withdrawn. It is a location that a large portion of this book centres around. As Powell lived through the failure at Arnhem he is best placed to give the reader a real sense of what it was like to live through it.

His book is a really solid overview of Operation Market Garden starting from its inception as a massively modified Operation Comet to the eventual withdrawal of the remnants of the British 1st Airborne division. He is unflinching in his analysis of some of the failings of Market Garden, especially the lack of trust between the British and the Dutch resistance groups. Powell sets out the information clearly and the events are easy to follow. I was especially happy to see that he had not neglected to comment on the situation of the American forces at the other objectives of Market Garden. Whilst he tells the reader about everything going on in the Arnhem area he didn’t forget to comment on the events that slowed down the advance on “Hell’s Highway.”

If I had one criticism of this book it would be that the author seems to give Monty the benefit of the doubt. Most of the criticism for the failure of the operation is deflected away from Monty and onto his subordinates or the supply situation in Europe. However, the author is a solider that fought during the operation and he is likely to have felt, as many did at the time, that Monty had done all he could to achieve success.

Overall Rating: 9 out of 10

Eagle in the Snow – Wallace Breem

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If I was reviewing the last quarter of this book it would be flawless. The pace is right, the threat real and the ending in question. However, this is a novel about waiting for the inevitable. Waiting for the river to freeze, waiting for the barbarians to cross the frontier and waiting for help that might never come.

Characters are poorly fleshed out and I genuinely didn’t care when they died. Perhaps this is because the protagonist Maximus, leader of the 20th Legion, doesn’t seem to care very much about them. The novel is written from his perspective, after all, and so we see the characters through the eyes of a man that had to command rather than love his men.

The novel is written in first person and this struck me as unusual for a novel that tries to give the reader a sense of the scale of the threat to Rome’s frontiers. It leaves events within the novel feeling disjointed as we are shackled to Maximus. We are told that plenty of events unfold but we rarely get to witness these first hand. If the protagonist occupied the place of a legionnaire we would probably experience a more action packed, darker narrative of men dying for an emperor they’ve never seen. Instead Maximus’ leadership position let’s the reader witness the endemic corruption of the late Roman empire. He regularly battles with a crumbling civic administration to get the support he needs. The figures of power which Maximus confronts throughout the novel seem to have forgotten their allegiance to Rome whilst simultaneously demanding aid from her.

Whilst this book has it’s moments of excitement it is in all a rather slow read. Perhaps I wasn’t expecting this when I picked it up but this novel struggled to deliver a narrative that made me want to turn the page.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 10