December 22, 2016


Dawn of Infamy: A Sunken Ship, a Vanished Crew, and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor. By Stephen Harding. Da Capo. $24.95.

     The apparently endless appetite among some readers for stories about the minutiae as well as the grand events of World War II pretty much guarantees that the topic of Stephen Harding’s latest book will not be “the final mystery” of Pearl Harbor or anything else. There is always someone out there – Harding is sometimes that someone – digging deeply into historical records to ferret out some previously little-known or unknown information on one or another minor (or occasionally not-so-minor) event in a war that readers seem to remember, oddly, almost with fondness. Perhaps there is a sense that this was a “pure” war, with good and evil clearly defined, in a world much less complicated that the ensuing one, whose conflicts from the Korean War onward have seemed a great deal less straightforward.

     Dawn of Infamy was originally published in England in 2010 as Voyage to Oblivion – a somewhat more-stirring title, but one without the Pearl Harbor resonance that attracts U.S. readers. It is the tale of an American cargo ship called the Cynthia Olsen that was attacked by a Japanese submarine designated I-26 early on December 7, 1941, as the far-better-known attack on Pearl Harbor unfolded 1,120 miles southwest of the ship and sub. This is not an unknown story, but it is inevitably something of a footnote in reporting about Pearl Harbor: the vessel and its crew of 35 never had the importance of the major warships destroyed in Honolulu. The relative paucity of information on the Cynthia Olsen gives Harding an opportunity to explore the ship and its crew in depth – and also delve into the accounts of the commander and chief gunner of the submarine that sank the cargo vessel.

     The book is as much a biography of the ship as anything: it details the vessel’s origin as a military cargo ship that was built too late for use in World War I, and that ended its days carrying lumber for the U.S. Army. As such, Dawn of Infamy seems designed mostly for Harding’s fellow historians, especially ones with strong nautical as well as military interests. Certainly there are elements here that non-specialist readers may find intriguing, such as the fact that the captain of the Cynthia Olsen, Bert Carlesen, was a World War I veteran who immediately knew what was going on and what was expected of him when I-26 surfaced and fired a shot across his ship’s bow: Carlesen cut his engines, ordered his crew into lifeboats, and got everyone as far from the ship as possible before it was sunk. There is some mystery attached to what happened to the crew – no surprise, with everything else going on during the “day of infamy” 75 years ago – and Harding explores possibilities with his usual logic and thoroughness. But the attempt to make the sinking of the Cynthia Olsen more than a sidelight of the Pearl Harbor attack never really coalesces, at least for the general reader. For example, Harding wonders whether knowledge of this attack, giving the fleet at Pearl Harbor perhaps an hour’s extra notice, would have made an appreciable difference in the events of the day. The answer is pretty obviously “no,” in light of what is already known about the missed signals and poor communication that contributed to the great Japanese success in its Honolulu attack. Harding has certainly done a more-than-respectable job of exploring possible implications of the attack on the Cynthia Olsen, and has uncovered some material that explorers of history will surely find as interesting as Harding himself does. But this is a book of limited scope for a niche audience, not a work that will be of much interest to those with only a casual attraction to stories of World War II, or those not already enamored of the prospect of yet another tale about the inevitable uncertainties and unknowns that have accompanied warfare from time immemorial.

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