April 20, 2017


Tin Can Titans: The Heroic Men and Ships of World War II’s Most Decorated Navy Destroyer Squadron. By John Wukovits. Da Capo. $28.

     Followers of World War II stories can, it seems, never get enough of them, and authors such as John Wukovits are there to continue supplying them before the war’s survivors are gone forever. It is hard to feel anything less than admiration for the fighters whose stories are chronicled in books such as Tin Can Titans and Wukovits’ previous foray into writing about destroyers of the era, Hell from the Heavens. And yet these books will likely produce a sense of weariness in all readers but those most committed to the subject matter, because while the individual stories of ships, crews and battles differ, the basic underlying narrative – of turmoil, trouble, and eventual triumph – remains essentially the same in book after book.

     This time the focus is on Destroyer Squadron 21 (DesRon 21), which Wukovits follows from mid-1942 to its remaining ships’ eventual honor of leading the United States Fleet into Tokyo Bay to accept Japan’s surrender in August 1945. In many ways, the earlier sections of the book, which is in three parts, will be the most interesting for war buffs, since Wukovits here details the origins of the destroyers in the squadron, the way the squadron itself was organized, and how matters fared when DesRon 21 faced its initial long and bloody campaign at Guadalcanal. One thing readers will learn here – and it may be genuinely new to anyone not already steeped in knowledge of World War II – is that destroyers were the jacks-of-all-trades of the U.S. Navy in the war’s early days, simply because the U.S. economy had not fully recovered from the Great Depression and was not yet capable of the level of warship construction that would eventually turn the tide (so to speak) in the Pacific. Indeed, there is an ongoing dispute as to whether World War II was an economic necessity, albeit a terribly grim one, for reviving a moribund economy, or whether the policies instituted by President Roosevelt and Congress through the 1930s were finally beginning to have a salutary effect by the early 1940s. Such issues are absent from Tin Can Titans, however, and are of no apparent interest to Wukovits or the readers he seeks. But they are worth keeping in mind as the author explains the necessity of destroyers doing such a long list of duties: fighting enemy surface vessels, hunting submarines, escorting larger warships and supply ships, doing anti-aircraft duty, and more. In a very real sense, destroyers were the workhorses of the war, especially in the early days of U.S. involvement in it. Their crucial role explains why they and not a larger and more elegant ship were chosen to enter Tokyo Bay at the war’s end.

     In the book’s third part, Wukovits follows DesRon 21 through the latter part of the Pacific war, discussing the well-known island-hopping concept that forced the Japanese back from island after island and eventually to Okinawa. Wukovits details the elements of the strategy and the campaigns within it, emphasizing the loss of ships as well as crew members – often from mines and kamikaze attacks. And then, at the book’s end, Wukovits brings the three surviving destroyers to Tokyo Bay – and, in an epilogue, summarizes the squadron’s accomplishments and tells briefly of the postwar lives of a few of the many officers and crew members of the ships. The approach is wholly conventional throughout the book, mixing strategic information with personal stories and eventually (in two appendices) detailing the squadron’s awards and showing where each vessel was at the war’s conclusion. There are the usual photos, some of ships and some of crew members, and the book as a whole draws on the usual mixture of first-person stories and contemporary coverage of DesRon 21’s activities. The result is a well-researched, well-paced book that will certainly have considerable meaning for the families of the crews that served in DesRon 21, and that will please readers who simply cannot get enough of World War II minutiae. However, Wukovits makes no attempt whatsoever to turn this book into anything more than yet another untold (or previously imperfectly told) tale of war heroism. The book is strictly for people who are already enamored – that is not too strong a word – of the exploits of fighters in a war three-quarters of a century ago that remains, for many, a shining example of pure and just combat whose every nook and cranny deserves full exploration and consummate praise.

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