What I’m Reading: Brothers Down

One thing I’d like to start doing in this space is to spend some time writing about the books I am using in my research. While admittedly my research interest in my Grandpa’s Letters project is a bit less academically trenchant than my work on horse thieves, it does give me the opportunity to read some great books about World War II, the Navy, and the wider world he inhabited.

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona by [Borneman, Walter R.]

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona is historian Walter R. Borneman’s most recent book, having come out earlier this year. It is the tale of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, as told from the perspective of the thirty-eight pairs (and in some cases trios) of brothers who served together on that ill-fated ship. Of those thirty-eight sets, only one pair of brothers both survived, and only twelve other men among the others avoided death that day.

But while only a few members of the Arizona’s complement survived – most of whom happened to have spent the night elsewhere, thus avoiding the ship’s fate altogether that morning – their stories live on. Borneman interviewed the survivors and their families, as well as the families of the deceased, many of whom shared their letters and other mementos and stories of their departed fathers, brothers, and uncles. The author did a remarkable job not only collecting all of these different stories, but of also weaving them together throughout the book. It’s a master class on historiographical resourcefulness: it is much easier to go to an archive than it is to hunt down families whose loved ones died the better part of a century ago under sudden, violent, and tragic circumstances.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts: the history of the Arizona and its crew before the attack, the attack itself, and the days and years following December 7th. Borneman revels in details throughout this narrative: explaining who these men were, where they grew up, the kinds of trouble they got into as kids, the reasons why they joined the Navy during peacetime, etc. Some of their stories were not unlike Grandpa’s – they sent money home each month and wrote as often as they could. But grandpa’s story diverged when he was assigned to a ship that, for the most part, survived the day relatively unscathed. Anyway, these stories give names and life to the list of names on the wall at the Arizona Memorial.

The book was a quick read, at least for me. It would have been quicker if not for some filler towards the middle – Borneman takes pains to describe the college football games being played on December 6th and the hot songs of the day, apropos of nothing. However, for the most part the story is well-written, accessible, and at certain points action-driven. The last two chapters of the book were especially poignant, and one many wish to have a box of tissues or a handkerchief available.

This was a valuable first book to read on the subject of Pearl Harbor. Borneman is a more than capable historian, and this entry will serve as a touchstone for me going forward. But more importantly, it is a fantastic model for how to research and write the stories of World War II servicemen. It is sensitive, contemplative, thorough in its chasing down of narrative strands and family leads, and exquisitely well-written. His use of the brother pairings was an excellent choice, both in terms of creating a broad yet narrow set of subjects for the book (the Arizona’s compliment was over 1,500, which is a lot of individual stories) while also facilitating its research (pairs of brothers mean multiple families to consult, which creates larger pools of historical information as family members tell stories about their uncles as well as their fathers or grandfathers). His approach works very well.

Overall, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona, or well-crafted history book in general.

Do you have any books you’d like to recommend? Have you read this one? Share your thoughts in a comment!

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