YWR: Harm’s Way

December 31, 2016  
Categories: Learnin'

“It was a curious jurisdiction for a saltwater sailor; twenty thousand soldiers and Marines, minus the twelve hundred or so who had been killed during the inconclusive three-month Mesquite campaign; an airforce consisting mainly of overworked Marine Wildcats and Army Warhawks, less than fifty of which were airworthy at any one time, to tackle the superior Japanese Zeros; and a small in-and-out squadron of old destroyers and older cruisers that, with is PTs, were supposed to prevent the nightly “Tokyo Trolley” from reinforcing and supplying the thirty thousand Nip troops encamped along the island’s northeastern coast.“

I decided this year to adjust fire a bit from what I typically read to more of the classics—or what I consider to be the classics, anyway. This means revisiting Cornelius Ryan, John Del Vecchio, Alistair MacLean, and others. Since just recently I was horrified to hear someone admit they didn’t know Harm’s Way (John Wayne and Otto Phttp://amzn.to/2xtsMB1reminger) was based on a novel, I feel it only right, to begin with, author James Bassett.

Bassett wrote the bestselling novel Harm’s Way, a fictionalized account of a South Pacific campaign in WWII. The book takes its name from the John Paul Jones oft-quoted statement, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”

Though a novelization, In Harms Way, reads very much like a history book. It’s not always a terribly flattering portrayal, and far from romantic, but that (in my estimation) is part of the appeal. This realism no doubt comes from Bassett’s own background. Bassett was a seasoned LA Times reporter who rose to the rank of Captain during WWII, eventually serving as Admiral Halsey’s PR officer. He was the recipient of the Bronze Star with Combat V.

The book is centered around Capt. Rockwell “Rock” Torrey, commanding a heavy cruiser they call Old Swayback (probably based on CA-25, the USS Salt Lake City). In simplest terms, the book begins with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, continues through the Battle of Midway, and on through an operation crucial to the upcoming Solomon Islands campaign. That operation is called Skyhook, wherein Torrey (who has just been promoted to Admiral) must capture the strategically important (fictitious) island of Levu-Vana.

“Framed by the open weather door of his cabin, where he stood peering through the obscure dawn toward Oahu’s invisible shoreline, Captain Rockwell Torrey, USN, was not unlike the ship he commanded: tall, spare, angular, and plainly fabricated out of some hard gray substance that armored both man and cruiser against the weapons of a hostile world.

Although the image he evoked was unmistakable, he would have derided the suggestion that he also resembled an absolute monarch at this precise instant, surveying his domain from a castle parapet, and contemplating what lay ahead for his thirteen hundred subjects, his steel realm, and himself, during the long day that had just begun.”

It’s a great book, though not a quick read, nor is it all action. There’s far more strategy, logistics, and bureaucracy than there is the thunder of guns—if you don’t mind that, and you enjoy WWII military history, it will absolutely be worth your time.

“Photographs from the Wildcat recon flights over Pelaki Shima proved conclusively that the Japs had completed repairs on one of their least injured battlewagons and a pair of cruisers, and that two of the destroyers “presumed sunk” were still very much afloat. Tendrils of smoke eddying from the funnels of these miraculously restored warships indicated they wouldn’t remain dormant much longer. Pelaki’s three airfields also evidenced a build-up of Nip skypower, and when the latest photographs taken over Levu-Vana were processed, the secret landing strip was shown almost ready to receive planes. The heavy cloud cover which impeded aerial reconnoitering had played neatly into the enemy’s hands. The runway was twice as long as ADTAC Intelligence had suspected, and quite capable of handling medium bombers.

Other debits crowded Torry’s red-inked ledger.

Because of recurrent foul weather, SouWesPAC’s Fortresses managed to hit Pelaki Shima only once, with what they euphemistically termed “minimum results” from twenty thousand feet. They never located Levu-Vana at all.”

I have my dad’s copy, and I won’t loan it out, but you can buy your own. Although the book is out of print, you can still find copies in used bookstores. Or you can (and should) get a copy right here.

That’s it for today. Go forth and conquer.

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David Reeder

David Reeder

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