November 26, 2014


First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit. By Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo. $25.99.

American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal. By John Oller. Da Capo. $25.99.

     Written well, every life has the makings of a novel. All of us live with heartache, emotional upheaval, the seeking of love and success and wealth and perhaps the occasional finding of at least some of what we are after. So there are plenty of places for authors to go to delve into the past and produce “untold stories” featuring bravery, heartache, great themes, small successes, and the like. For a military historian such as Patrick K. O’Donnell, wartime is an unending source of stories of the good and the bad, innovation and creativity, the mundane and the exceptional, of bravery and heart and success and failure and a kind of rough beauty that emerges even under the most awful circumstances. O’Donnell’s latest foray into this world is a fascinating narrative even though it is mistitled: his book is not really about First SEALs but about the first swimmer-commando group within the American military, an outfit called the Maritime Unit. It is O’Donnell’s contention, one he backs up quite well, that the strategies, tactics and techniques of this group became the prototype for what would eventually, in 1962, become the Navy’s Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) Teams. Hence the title. But O’Donnell is less interested in trying to draw a straight line between the Maritime Unit and the SEALs than in exploring the Maritime Unit itself. And it is quite a story: people involved with the group, which was under the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence agency that eventually spawned the CIA, invented shark repellent and an early form of underwater breathing apparatus called LARU that would later be developed as scuba gear. The people themselves are just the sort of motley crew beloved of war-movie producers – this story would make a good old-fashioned film. As O’Donnell sets forth at the start, the players here were “a dentist, a Hollywood star, a British World War I veteran, an archaeologist, California surfers, a medical student, and even former enemies of America.” How Hollywood dentist Jack Taylor, Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden, and members of the Italian commando group called the San Marco Battalion – who had previously fought for the Axis – got together in the first place, and how they worked jointly on developing underwater commando strategies that were used in operations in the Aegean Sea, southern Pacific Ocean and elsewhere, makes an amazing tale of the sort of cooperation and innovative thinking that happens so often in wartime. There are plenty of individual stories here. For example, there is that of Christian Lambertsen, who – while a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania – invented the LARU (Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit) and was later nicknamed “Dr. Scuba.” And there is the story of Commander H.G.A. Woolley, the British Navy veteran of World War I who was largely responsible for creating the Maritime Unit and who advised the OSS throughout World War II – and who, in another of several Hollywood connections, was a screenwriter for movies. There are gadgets and training sessions and raids and even first-person insight into the horrors of the Mauthausen concentration camp, where Taylor was imprisoned in 1945 – becoming one of very few Americans to survive being held there. Why has it taken so long to tell these stories? Because, in typical military fashion, most of the material was classified until recently – the Maritime Unit worked for the nation’s spy agency, after all. O’Donnell has done a service to the survivors of World War II and of the Maritime Unit, and to their families, by bringing this recounting to life. It is only one among many untold tales of the war, and will understandably be of interest primarily to those with direct or family memories of the war or a special interest in it: the times, people and events will seem hopelessly remote to those not already involved in the subject matter in some way. The story is nevertheless a worthy one that deserves to be more than a historical footnote.

     An earlier footnote tied to a different conflict, the Civil War, lies at the heart of John Oller’s American Queen. The book’s title is taken from the Cincinnati Enquirer obituary of Kate Chase Sprague, a native of that city who died weeks before her 59th birthday, in 1899: "No Queen has ever reigned under the Stars and Stripes, but this remarkable woman came closer to being Queen than any American woman has." Yet few non-historians today know anything about her – a situation that Oller sets out to rectify. This is primarily a book for political and Civil War fanciers, because the fortunes of Kate (referred to by first name throughout the book) were intimately tied to 19th-century American politics and politicians. Kate was the daughter of Salmon P. Chase, who was President Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary and later appointed by Lincoln to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice of the United States. What Chase really wanted, though, and what his daughter wanted perhaps even more strongly, was the presidency, and American Queen details the maneuvers, the backroom deals and the political backstabbing that brought Chase close to a nomination but never quite got him there. Kate was hostess for her widowed father during the Civil War – an important social and political role at the time – and further cemented her position when, in 1863, she married textile magnate William Sprague, then the governor of Rhode Island and later that year elected to the U.S. Senate. Sprague was a rather unsavory character, as Oller points out: “a troubled person who caused much pain to himself and many around him.” The marriage was a rocky one that produced four children – their only son committed suicide at age 25 – and led to divorce, a major scandal at the time, in 1882. Prior to the divorce, there was a salacious affair between Kate and powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who was also married, with Sprague at one point coming after Conkling with a shotgun and threatening to throw Kate out a second-story window. The affair and divorce pulled Kate down from her high societal position. Her political ambitions for her father had ended earlier, when he failed to gain the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination for which he supposedly had the inside track – a state of affairs that Kate blamed on, among others, Samuel Tilden, who became the 1876 nominee and won the popular vote, only to have the election thrown to Rutherford B. Hayes through the machinations of Conkling. The intricacies of this political and personal infighting are today the stuff of reality television and everyday scandal, but they loomed even larger in Kate’s time; and once she fell from social grace, there was no way back – she eventually died in poverty, although Oller suggests that her spirit and determination were stronger at the end than they had been for years before. American Queen is the slice-of-life story of an important participant – largely behind the scenes, as was inevitable for a woman at the time – in Civil War Washington and post-Civil-War politics. It is a story about the possibilities and limitations affecting women in 19th-century America, and about the ultimately failed attempts of one highly ambitious woman to be kingmaker at a time when there were plenty of male kingmakers around. Well-told and frequently intriguing, it is nevertheless a story with little direct relevance today, except insofar as it reminds modern readers – if they need to be reminded – that politics was every bit as nasty, messy, confrontational and complex in the United States in the 19th century as it is in the 21st.

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