After Pearl Harbor America found herself suddenly at war with Japan and Germany; Samuel Eliot Morison, a fifty-five year-old history professor at Harvard, immediately wrote President Roosevelt suggesting that the war must be documented, and volunteering to take care of the naval part himself. The President agreed to this extraordinary proposal, and Morison was commissioned as a Lieutenant Commander and sent to sea. During the war he served on eleven different ships, earned seven battle stars and rose to the rank of Captain. His resultant fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II was published between 1947 and 1962. In 1963 there followed his concise summation, Two-Ocean War.
Morison knew the sights, sounds and smells of naval warfare. He knew naval bombardments, nightfire slugfests, air raids and kamikaze crashes. This helps explain the immutable perfection of his book – history flavored with first-hand experience. Ever since my father first read to me the section on Midway, this book has exercised a unique fasciation on my mind. There are numerous more detailed descriptions of that battle – entire books have been written on the subject. But there is nothing comparable in any history I have read on any subject to the brilliance, the excitement, the concision, the ringing clarity and poised beauty of Morison’s sixteen pages on Midway.
He does great honor to the men of the United States Navy, which is no more than they deserve but rarely as much as they get. He does not bat around the word “hero” until it plops to the ground like a stale tennis ball. Here he quotes an after-action report by the captain of Destroyer Escort Samuel B Roberts: “To witness the conduct of the average enlisted man…with an average of less than one year’s service, would make any man proud to be an average American.”
The action in question is the Battle off Samar, fought on 25 October 1944 as part of the campaign for the Philippines. Early in the morning, a lonely group of seven American destroyers and destroyer escorts and six escort carriers – “baby flattops” about half the size of fleet carriers – was surprised by a Japanese force of four battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers. The Japanese group included Yamato, the most heavily-armed battleship in the world.
There was nothing for the American destroyers to do but attack – to give the little carriers (designed for supporting amphibious operations, not naval battles) a chance to escape. Commander Ernest E Evans of Destroyer Johnston signaled “Prepare to attack a major portion of Japanese Fleet,” and lead the charge, firing torpedoes and five-inch guns. Johnston was hit by multiple sixteen-inch shells, her engine room, rear gun turrets and fire control knocked out, but she kept shooting, using manually-controlled gunfire against battleship Kondo. It took three cruisers and more destroyers to sink the Johnston. Destroyer Hoel, hit over 40 times, was also sunk – but Heermann, at one point simultaneously engaging four Japanese battleships – escaped miraculously. The Japanese force was so harried by the American destroyers and by air attacks (after our pilots ran out of bombs and ammunition, they made dry runs through the maelstrom of Japanese anti-aircraft fire) that they turned around and retired.
An American signalman on Fanshaw Bay, seeing the Japanese break off their attack, yelled, “Goddammit, boys, they’re getting away!”
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 10/10
The Two-Ocean War, by Samuel Eliot Morison. Little, Brown & Co, 1963, 611 pages.