on February 14, 2004
As one of the "Tin Can Sailors" mentioned in Jim Hornfischer's book, I would like to assure one and all of the authenticity of the content of this book. Personally, I am aware of the amount of research, interviewing and travel that was involved in the creation of this all too true story of one of the most amazing naval battles of World War II.
When I read the book for the first time I was back in time to October, 1944, when I was an eighteen year old kid, ready to take on the world, including the Japanese Navy - not realizing that I would soon have that opportunity. Hornfischer's accounts of the battles from the standpoint of each of the ships are wonderfully done. His stories of what it was like to be on life rafts with dying shipmates, sharks and unbelievable thirst, still bring tears to my eyes.
To gain a real understanding of what it was like to be a part of that Battle Off Samar, and in fact to be a sailor in World War II, read this book.
"This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do all the damage we can." - Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland, from the dust jacket.
One of the saddest truths about the turn of the new Millennium is the realization that the veterans of the so-called "Greatest Generation," those who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, are now rapidly passing into history. As such, it has become even more important that the stories of their heroism and sacrifice be written down for posterity while the heroes themselves are still around to tell them. With his new book, "The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors," literary agent and author James D. Hornfischer has documented one such lesser-remembered World War Two tale with a reverence befitting the brave men who fought and died for America's freedom.
The events of the book take place during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which stands as the largest naval engagement in world history, and was fought between the Japanese and American navies in the vicinity of the Philippines as General Douglas McArthur's forces were invading to take the archipelago back from the Japanese. The Leyte Gulf campaign has been well documented in other books about the Pacific war, so Hornfischer focuses most of his attention on one particular engagement off Samar Island. There, a small task force of American escort carriers and destroyers (the "Tin Cans" of the title), held off a far superior enemy fleet of battleships and cruisers with a combination of near-suicidal bravery and spectacular seamanship coupled with a healthy dose of sheer good fortune.
"Tin Can Sailors" is exhaustively researched, which gives the narrative the kind detailed nuance that elevates it above the level of mere reportage into inspired storytelling. Hornfischer sets the stage by introducing the main players, both the ships and the men who sailed on them. He gives an overall view of events leading up to the battle to assist the casual reader in placing it in context, and also presents enough of the Japanese point of view to give an appreciation of how desperate the forces of the Rising Sun were at this stage of the war. Desperate enough, in fact, to risk virtually their entire remaining surface fleet on a gamble, the success of which hinged on their ability to bluff hard-charging American Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey. If not for the almost superhuman courage of the Tin Can Sailors, they might well have succeeded and seriously imperiled McArthur's invasion forces.
The battle scenes in the book are particularly well depicted; some of the first hand accounts are every bit as graphically disturbing as, say, the first half-hour of the movie "Saving Private Ryan." Such images are absolutely vital to the telling of the story, and the author handles them deftly, never lapsing into sensationalism. Hour-by-hour position maps showing the locations of the ships are helpfully provided to assist the reader along with a generous selection of photographs. The extras make "Tin Can Sailors" one of the best battle books I've read in terms of helping the reader see the action as it is taking place. The epilogue contains a list of those who died fighting the battle, and what's immediately striking is that America lost more fighting men in just over three hours in this one small corner of World War Two than it has during the entire nine-plus months of the Iraq war.
Overall, "The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors" is a first rate work of history that will be enjoyed equally by both military buffs and more casual readers. The book was obviously a labor of love for its author, and he should be saluted for his efforts in writing it.
on September 7, 2004
This is an excellent illustration of leadership, courage and heroism. While the major forces of the American navy went after a diversion to the north, early on the morning of October 25, 1944 a powerful Japanese fleet surprised a much smaller American force protecting nascent American gains on Leyte. While historians will long argue the errors that led to this surprise, none can argue that the response from the American forces was dramatic, powerful, effective and almost suicidal. Yankee ingenuity, respect for their leaders, and old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness made up in quality what the Americans lacked in quantity.
Three small destroyers dashed into harm's way and leveled mortal blows before they succumbed to withering, overpowering -- but often inaccurate -- Japanese fire. While some would flinch at calling these acts 'suicidal' against cruisers and battleships, the sense of purpose and patriotism, combined with the small chance that a good offense is the best defense seemed to drive these men to heights of fury and fight against the thunderstorm of Japanese ships.
Storms actually played a positive role in this fight, hiding both the smaller American ships, sometimes at lucky moments, as well as those pesky American fighter planes darting in and out of the clouds. But what really seems to have mattered was accurate firing, productive -- if incomplete -- intelligence, good leadership, and the absolute audacity of the crews aboard the American ships and planes. And timidity on the part of the Japanese admiral, believing he had stumbled upon a superior force of sull-sized carriers and cruisers, helped turn the onslaught into a full-fledged diaster for the Japanese, who lost perhaps 11,000 men to terrible but lesser casualties of fewer than 1,000 for the inspired Americans.
The research is thorough, with fascinating detail and first-hand reports from the battle and the men who fought it. Maps detailing the progress of this brief but spectacular battle help guide the reader. Read it and respect the men who made this happen.
on February 16, 2004
Anyone who is unsure of whether to get this book should set their reservations aside and grab it now. I have no hidden agenda to hype this book - I just grabbed it off the shelf at the store and struck gold. Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors stands proudly in my library and holds its own with other great non-fiction books.
James Hornfischer didn't just find a great story to tell, he crafted it with a very skillful narration. A writer of non-fiction who can capture a reader and pull him into his story is rare and the author does this very well. He had me cheering as Ernest Evans led the Johnston on the attack against the entire Japanese fleet. He left me horrified by the effects of the pounding that the Tin Cans took and stunned by the heroism and sense of duty of those who manned their posts until the very end.
The book gives a nice overview of the Pacific Theater until the point of this battle. Hornfischer clearly explains what has happened so that you can understand the context of the Battle off of Samar. He does this without going too far in depth and losing the reader. The explanations of the development of the Navy and Naval Aviation were clear and concise. I learned quite a bit about the planes that were used and the men who piloted them. The same can be said for his explanations of the different naval vessels and what made them unique.
If you like books told from numerous first-person accounts that personalize a story and let you get to know those involved, then this book is for you. It is an honorable salute to those who survived and the heroes who did not.
James D. Hornfischer has written a superb book on a little known naval battle that may stand as one of the most heroic efforts by the United States Navy in it's long and illustrious history. The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors focuses on a period of a few days in October 1944, during a time when the invasion of the Philippines was just underway and the Japanese Navy was doing all it could to hurl the American invasion back into the sea.
Early on the morning of October 25, 1944 Taffy 3, made up of six U.S. escort carriers and a screen of eight destroyers stumbled into a vastly superior Japanese naval force made up of four battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers. The Japanese fleet was within range of the American force virtually before either group was aware of the presence of the other. The Japanese began bombarding Taffy 3 almost immediately. To save the carriers, the small force of American destroyers and destroyer escorts throw themselves at the Japanese task force believing that by sacrificing themselves they can buy precious time for the American carriers and allow them to flee southward toward another grouping of friendly ships. Naval aviators from Taffy 3 also do all they can to thwart the on rushing Japanese, but many planes are launched quickly from the carriers armed with the wrong type of ordinance. Still, between the attacking aircraft and destroyers, they manage to slow, at least temporarily, the Japanese fleet. In the end three American destroyers are sunk and nearly 1000 sailors and airmen die.
Though the battle was small two huge firsts took place on October 25, 1944. The first and only American aircraft carrier was sunk by enemy naval surface gun fire. Also, October 25 marked the first successful kamikaze attack of World War II.
Well written and well researched The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors will be an easy read...it is gripping and a page turner. One aspect that Hornfischer is clear on is the cause of the battle. He clearly feels that Halsey must bear most of the blame for this near disaster. Halsey was guarding the northern flank of Taffy 3. Though the attack that nearly distroyed Taffy 3 came from the West, Halsey was not in position to give assistance since he had run off to the north looking for a rumored grouping of Japanese aircraft carriers.
Disaster was averted to be sure, but only because of the heroism of the skippers of three destroyers and their crews.
If you're a history lover then you'll love this book.
on August 19, 2004
When I was a young adolescent, I wasn't like other kids. I actually read about WWII history. When I found out my 7th grade English teacher was a "Fireman" in the boiler rooms of the USS Pennsylvania facing the Southern force in Surigao Strait, I bombarded him with a host of questions, and my classmates had no idea what we were talking about. Suffice it to say, through my previous reading, I thought I was pretty knowledgable about this naval battle.
The author has blown that preconception out of the water. He brings the level of scholarship on this battle to a whole new plane. The meticulous research he has undertaken shines forth in this account, and it is simply an incomparable work. No matter if you have previous exposure to historical accounts of this battle (specifically for Taffy 3 and it's air groups facing Kurita's Central force, Southern and Northern aspects are not as in depth), or not, this book is the definitive work on the topic. Included is the deep and detailed bibliography. A true historical gem.
on November 13, 2005
I first heard this story on audio CD and was so enthralled by it that I later read the book, which had the added benefit of maps of course. This is World War II history, naval combat narrative, and personal reporting at its finest.
My interest in this book started for two reasons. First, my paternal grandfather served aboard a Pacific based destroyer in World War II (DD-727, USS DeHaven II). Second, from reading "Battleship at War" by Ivan Musicant about the USS Washington I was particularly struck with awe and admiration of the accounts of the night time battles in the Solomons campaign, where US destroyers sacrificed themselves to engage Japanese battleships at literally point blank range. In many of these engagements the valiant little destroyers proved their worth, raking the superstructure of enemy ships more than ten times their size and allowing the larger US ships to either forge victory, or to escape alive to lick their wounds and fight another day. All this while lit up by Japanese searchlights, and drawing heavy fire.
This inspired me to search out stories about the bravery of US destroyers in WWII. Admittedly this seemed like a niche interest, but "Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors" is a book that goes far, far beyond a battle history of some brave little ships that charged headlong into certain destruction as a course of duty.
The books starts by laying the framework for the final showdown of the naval battle for the Philippines, the battle of Samar, in which a large force of Japanese battleships -including the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built with the largest caliber naval guns ever fielded- came upon a small task force of US escort carriers and destroyers, Taffy 3. The Yamato itself was larger than all the destroyers of Taffy 3, and yet, in one of history's most improbable twists, the destroyers made torpedo and gun runs that effectively thwarted the Japanese onslaught! After describing the men who served on board the destroyers, the US invasion and Japanese defense strategies, and the battles leading up to Samar, the author gives us an incredibly vivid, personal, and detailed account of the battle itself. He doesn't hold back on the carnage of the encounter, which only strengthens the appreciation I feel for the men who served in the US Navy during WWII. The battle takes up the majority of the book, followed by an account of what the survivors whose ships had sunk from underneath them had to endure, adrift on the tropical, shark infested sea for over two days.
Every page of this story is not only amazing, but true. The bravery, sacrifice, and heroism replete in this book can only serve as excellent role models. Ever since reading this book, if I ever find myself in a situation I think is tough I simply have to think of what the men in the destroyers off Samar accomplished in far more dire circumstances to put my "troubles" in perspective.
As an additional bonus the book is beautifully written, with lyrical and lucid descriptions of the sea, and the battles that are waged upon it. It covers the historical, strategic, tactical, technical, and, to the largest and most satisfying degree, personal sides of the battle; It is written mainly from the American side, but from the Japanese side as much as possible as well.
All in all, HIGHLY recommended!
on March 30, 2004
By Bill Marsano. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, in October of 1944, is still the greatest naval battle in history: Two gigantic armadas, Japanese and American, clashed as the Americans tried to take back the Philippines. Beyond the enormous forces involved, this battle, or series of battles, has other fascinations. For one, it was the last clash of the big-gun navies--battleship to battleship (featuring American battleships resurrected from Pearl Harbor). We shall not see its like again. Two, an American fleet was decoyed, leaving the invasion beaches with little protection. Three, that little protective force thereupon responded with what many consider the finest display of heroism, sacrifice and fighting seamanship in the history of the U.S. Navy.
James D. Hornfischer covers all three areas--plus some postwar history, including the reason the Navy has been wary of celebrating what he calls "the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour. If his prose rarely rises above the workmanlike, that's OK, because it seldom sinks to cheap melodrama and also (so far as I can tell) avoids the kind of amateurish mistakes and ignorant howlers that marred the likes of Craig Nelson's "The First Heroes." Indeed, Hornfischer does an excellent job of conveying the WWII naval milieu, probably because (despite his evident youth and lack of naval background) he seems to have done real research, incl.uding his own interviews. We come to know that there are human beings involved; this is not just a tale about sheet metal and shellfire. That means we are powerfully affected when he talks about the cost. He does not shrink from the terrible sufferings and horrible deaths involved, whether from scalding steam or explosions or fires in battle--or from delerium, exposure and sharks during an aftermath of long-delayed rescue.
The center of this story comes after the battleship duel (a disaster for the Japanese): When the decoy succeeds, Japan's powerful Center Force is left free to swoop into Leyte Gulf and destroy Gen. Douglas MacArthur's invasion force on the beach. Standing in the way (and utterly unaware) is Taffy 3, whose job is simply air support for the troops.
It's hard to express the imbalance between the two forces, which is so great it makes David vs. Goliath resemble a sporting proposition. The Japanese have 11 destroyers, 2 light cruisers, 6 heavy cruisers and 4 battleships (the largest of which, the Yamato, outweighs all of Taffy 3's ships combined). Taffy 3's excellent Fletcher-class destroyers are, as Hornfischer aptly notes, its only ships "not conceived as lesser versions of a more capable vessel." Taffy 3's 6 aircraft carriers, for example, are mere escort or "jeep" carriers (never intended for fleet actions). Its remaining ships are 4 of the frankly desperate "destroyer escorts," mainly intended for antisubmarine work.
The clash of these forces makes for exciting reading; as a Hollywood script it would be laughed out of town as outrageous fiction, but it is in fact true and inspiring. It would be unfair to the book to go into details here, but I should add that Hornfischer is particularly good on the ship-by-ship tactical end. Too many other accounts have focused excessively on Japanese confusion: While that did weigh in the balance, it's also clear that in some cases David simply outfought Goliath--and out-thought him, too.--Bill Marsano is a long-time amateur of naval history.
on February 27, 2004
This book is superbly researched and written. It documents the personal lives of those Naval personnel, true patriots and heroes, which made General MacArthur's return to the Philippine's successful even after Bull Halsey naively fell for being pulled off of a screening position by a decoy of Japanese Aircraft Carriers. Called the Battle of Samar, I first became aware of this battle while taking my father-in-law to his WWII ship's reunion and no book will ever do a better job of documenting the battle. He served on a Destroyer Escort (DE411)which was the sister ship to DE413 (Samuel B. Roberts). The Sammy B., is one of four U.S. ships lost in the battle, whose activity is vividly documented by Hornfischer. There are maps with sufficient details to support the narrative and show locations of task forces and individual ships as the battle raged. Based upon hundreds of personal accounts weaved together in the sequence as events occurred, they make the battle come alive with the heroic accomplishments, pain, and heartache of sacrifice necessary for our freedom and liberty today. Exceptional quotes are too numerous to list in this space but the one I often recount for folks is from the skipper of the Sammy B. as the Johnston came by in the middle of the battle, "It gave me a hurt feeling to look at it...I saw her captain... I had met him at conferences...He was on the fantail conning his ship by calling down to the engine room...stripped to the waist, covered with blood...left hand wrapped in a handkerchief...That's the last I saw of him." Hornfischer sums it up very well when he writes, "...it was the greatest naval battle ever fought for distances it spanned, for the tonnage of ships sunk, for the duration of the duels between surface ships, and for the terrible losses of human life." The images of this book will remain with me for a long time!
on March 22, 2004
"The Last Stand Of The Tin Can Sailors" by James D. Hornfischer. Subtitled "The Extraordinary World War II Story Of The U.S. Navy's Finest Hour". Bantam Books, 2004.
From the biographical information on the WEB, it does not appear that the author, James Hornfischer, served in the Untied States Navy; this makes his book even more of an amazing accomplishment. He has absolutely captured the essence of an enlisted man in the US Navy, so much so that I can smell the gray paint (oil-based) that we slopped around the compartment in the Naval Air Training Center, Norman, Oklahoma. I can still remember the Chief warning us not to let the paint go on too thick as the paint would burn during action. ...As if we would ever see a battle in NATTC, Norman, which was about as far from either ocean as you could get. I was there as an Airedale in 1958, and, being Irish, I was proud of the Kelly green diagonal stripes on my dress blue jumper. In my opinion, Hornfischer has captured the quintessence of the feeling or disdain that the black shoe navy had for aviation, the brown shoe navy. The author has taken all these minimal details and woven a real and personal story of the men who served in the little "Taffy" fleet that was attacked by Imperial Japanese Navy that day in October, 1944.
First, he has addressed what the noted historian, John Keegan, was not willing to consider in his book, "The Face of Battle" (Viking Press, 1995):
personal courage in naval actions. In at least three places in "Tin Can Sailors", Hornfischer tells how it feels to be going into action where the chances of survival are nil. Yet they went: courage to stay at your station and to continue to load and fire despite the odds. Second, his detailed account of the action makes a good case for the fact that the Imperial Japanese Navy withdrew, NOT because they had misidentified the USN ships they were facing but rather because Japanese ships had been damaged so much. This book gives a detailed account of the damage inflicted by the destroyers (both DD and DE) and by the naval aircraft that were constantly strafing and bombing the Japanese ships. Even American (or British) admirals would hesitate if so many of their vessels had been so damaged.
Last, and it seems fitting in this book, the author only briefly mentions Admiral "Bull" Halsey. Halsey's misinterpretation of the strategic situation led to the potential disaster in Leyte Gulf; the heroism of the ordinary seamen prevented the disaster while writing a chapter of bravery. for the United Sates Navy.