Navy history: seamanship, gallantry, and live-oak planking

The United States Navy, 200 Years, by Edward L. Beach, captain, USN (ret.). New York: Henry Holt & Co. 200 pp. $24.95. Ned Beach proved himself as a fine writer long ago with three novels -- ``Run Silent, Run Deep,'' ``Dust on the Sea,'' and ``Cold is the Sea.'' With this latest book he takes his place among the great names of American historical writing.

This is the life story of an institution, not an account of sea battles. Pearl Harbor, for example, is mentioned incidentally in a discussion of the evolution of weapons. The attack which loomed so large in popular thinking about World War II is treated by Captain Beach as an example of clinging too long to the mythology of the battleship. Pearl Harbor's primary importance was in shaking the Navy into appreciating the arrival of the aircraft carrier, he contends.

The one crucial sea battle in World War II was Midway. It was the climactic battle both of the war in the Pacific and in the growth of the United States Navy from its feeble and generally disastrous performance in the Revolution to its triumph in World War II.

In this account, ship's planking made from the live oak trees of the American South takes a place of first importance along with seamanship and gallantry in the navy's earlier history. Planking from English oak is less resilient than planking from southern live oak. The superbly successful frigates of the US Navy in the War of 1812 usually outfought their English rivals because they were larger, more heavily gunned and faster, and because they could absorb more punishment without structural damage.

Of equal importance in the evolution of the US Navy was the remarkable conjunction of three minds at the turn of the last century. Alfred Thayer Mahan was the articulator of sea power in history. His thinking reached and heavily influenced Theodore Roosevelt, both when Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy and later when he was president.

William S. Sims was a career naval officer who had the perception to recognize gross inadequecies in the design and performance of American naval vessels during and after the Spanish-American War (1898). He also had the brashness to violate rules of procedure and send his findings and recommendations directly to the same president, Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt's love of the Navy, Mahan's articulation of sea power, and Sims's understanding of ship and gun design combined to lay the foundations for a US Navy that became a power in World War I (though little used), and a major and even decisive instrument of history at Midway in World War II.

The battle of Midway was an epic event that I never really understood or appreciated until reading this account. The US Navy at Midway was outgunned and outnumbered in every category. Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto brought to that battle 190 Japanese warships against 38 American. He had four first-line carriers against three American; 11 Japanese battleships against no American; 22 cruisers against eight American; 65 destroyers and 21 submarines against 15 US destroyers and 12 submarines. Admiral Yamamoto had every reason to win, except one. His American adversary, Adm. Chester Nimitz, knew Yamamoto's battle plan and his strength. Yamamoto did not know that Admiral Nimitz had three first-line carriers.

Even with the intelligence advantage from code breaking, the battle could easily have gone against the Americans except that planes from the American carriers happened to find the Japanese carriers at the precise moment when the carriers were refueling and rearming. Their decks were covered with high-test aviation gasoline. They were vulnerable and defenseless. No Japanese plane could rise to intercept. One hit was enough to turn a flight deck into an inferno. That battle was as decisive in history as Trafalgar or Lepanto or Salamis. The offensive sea power of Japan was destroyed. From Midway on, Japan fought a defensive and losing battle.

Many another episode in American naval history comes clear from this fine book. Now I understand about James (``Don't give up the ship!'') Lawrence not giving up the Chesapeake during the War of 1812. He was killed before it surrendered. And I understand Thomas MacDonough's decisive victory over the British on Lake Champlain in 1814, the last big naval battle of the War of 1812. And, above all, the tremendous duel between the Constitution (``Old Ironsides'') and the British frigate Guerriere in mid-August of 1812, just a month and a half after war had been declared, in which, as in many other cases, those resilient planks cut from southern live oaks made part of the difference in the outcome of the battle.

Ned Beach is a master of his subject and comfortable with the narrative style. He has written history before, but nothing of this dimension or importance. His interest in the Navy and knowledge of its story is firmly grounded. He was regimental commander in the Annapolis class of 1939, went at once to sea, and rose to command a submarine in combat toward the end of World War II. After the war, he was naval assistant to Gen. Omar Bradley when Bradley was chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Later, he was naval aide to President Eisenhower. During his final sea command he became the first submarine skipper to take his ship around the world submerged.

This is a fine, solid book, well written, easy to read, fully annotated, and with good bibliography and illustrations. It will be particularly interesting to lovers of the US Navy. It is also for the general reader of American history.

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