Monday, May 26, 2014

Reading of our fighting men

Military history is a staple of my reading diet but as it happens, in the past month I have read five books all having to do with American military history and therefore seem appropriate to mention on this Memorial Day.

Blue Skies and Blood: The Battle of the Coral Sea is Edwin P. Hoyt's account of the sea battle which blocked Japan's path towards Australia in World War II. Now out of print, it is a straightforward account of the events of this critical battle that preceded the turning point at Midway just a month later. History always seems inevitable after the outcome is known and this account rekindles the tension and tribulation of the time when the Japanese had the clear edge in numbers and quality and when Admirals had to balance force preservation as a strategic necessity with the equally pressing need to engage and defeat.

Baptism: A Vietnam Memoir by Larry Gwin is Gwin's account of his year in combat in Vietnam in 1965. His time there and battles included the Ia Drang Valley engagement chronicled in We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by Col. Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway, an excellent account later made in to a movie.

One of the things Gwin tale brings home is the simple grinding down of soldiers via constant gruelling field engagements and the difficulty of maintaining unit cohesion when your comrades were constantly rotating in and out owing to wounds or completion of tours of duty. A good read.

The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin recounts the almost inconceivably challenging role of Fox Company in the Chosin Reservoir campaign during the Korean War. I have read at least a couple of other accounts which focused primarily on the bulk of the military engagement on the eastern side of the reservoir. The Marines and Fox Company were on the west when some 200,000 Chinese entered the war and came to bear on the 246 men of Fox Company, holding a hill across the road that provided the escape route for the eight thousand Marines of First Division cut off just to the north of Fox Company. Over four days, in late November in temperatures that rarely rose above -20 degrees fahrenheit, Fox Company, despite appalling casualties held their hill. A great and inspiring story of a too often neglected war. What people are these American soldiers. Hard not to tear up thinking of them.

Tail-End Charlies: The Last Battles of the Bomber War, 1944-45 by John Nichol and Tony Rennell is the dual story of RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force in World War II based in the UK and tasked with the bombing campaign intended to bring Germany to her knees, ideally precluding the need for an invasion of the continent. Obviously that dream was not fulfilled.

Nichol and Rennell focus on those crews who came on during the last year of the war. Again, it is hard in retrospect to recapture the spirit of the time but Nichol and Rennell do a good job. These were young service men 17-22 or so each flying thirty-five missions over a well defended Germany where loss rates on bombing missions were routinely 5-10% and sometimes reached above 20%. At the beginning, crews could sustain a certain false hope, thin as it might be, because the campaign was new and unknown. By the summer of 1944, you knew the numbers intimately. These were men taking up a perilous task with their eyes wide open, a steely courage that is hard to comprehend. RAF Bomber Command lost 55,000 pilots and crew during the war and the US Eighth Air Force lost 25,000. Almost incomprehensible numbers. For the Americans alone, the equivalent of losing two full land divisions. 4,145 planes lost.

The final book, which I am still in the process of reading, is Crosshairs on the Kill Zone by Craig Roberts and Charles W. Sasser, a history of the sniper in the US military, told primarily through personal accounts by some of the top rated snipers from Vietnam through Iraq and Afghanistan. A gripping read.

All good and accessible accounts of the hard duties, sufferings and resilience of our military personnel.

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