Movie Review: Greyhound (spoiler-free)

I’ve heard a lot of great things about Greyhound, the new World War II Naval drama starring Tom Hanks and, I guess, Elisabeth Shue (more on that later). I read that it was the most realistic naval war movie in years, if not ever, and the fact that it takes place on a Fletcher-class destroyer makes it even better. Talk about a movie tailor-made for this blog! So, naturally, I had to see it.

Since this is an Apple TV movie, I had to sign up for a free trial for the Apple TV service in order to watch it. Five bucks a month isn’t a terrible price as far as streaming services go (it is a lot less than Netflix) but it all adds up after a while. I will surf it some in the next few days, and if you have any recommendations for what I should watch on there, please leave a comment and tell me!

Anyway, once the trial was set up, I queued up the film and sat back with some chips and a beer ready for a show. Then I looked at the runtime: one hour and 31 minutes! This is definitely a one-beer film. And even that is generous, since the interminably long credits start to roll with 12 minutes left in the film, effectively making this a 75 minute movie.

75 minutes? Tom Green’s movies are longer than that. The Love Guru, possibly the worst film ever made, clocks in at 84 minutes. Even Uwe Boll can crank out 100 minutes of whatever the heck it is that Uwe Boll makes when he points a camera at something. Why is Greyhound so short?

The answer to that question, I think, is key to figuring out this movie.

Let’s go back to the resounding praise most folks seem to have for the film’s accuracy. Greyhound speaks the language of a Tin Can deck. Officers and crew are constantly barking out and then repeating orders, sonar readings, sub sightings, etc. The word “bearing” is probably shouted at least 200 times. Director Aaron Schneider revels in this staccato dialogue, which realistically conveys the urgency Commander Ernst Krause and his crew felt during those long hours while escorting a large convoy across “the Black Pit” without the aid of air cover during the Battle of the Atlantic. Both the dialogue and the editing come at breakneck speed – I found it helpful to watch with closed captioning – which underlines just how quickly a battle with a U-boat can turn in real time.

Without moving into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Schneider fits a lot of stuff into 75 minutes. And the film’s pacing is deliberate enough that I come away from it thinking that if it were to run any slower, with those long deliberative character pauses that we see in films like Hunt for Red October, then it would just be another hackneyed Naval combat movie. I applaud Schneider for not embracing that schtick, since if he were to do that, with Tom Hanks as the lead no less, he still would have made a fine – if not great – movie.

But I don’t think that this movie is great, either, precisely because the entire film seems to channel 1917 and Dunkirk in making a real time-conscious war movie. When successful, the real time effect, pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock and popularized by the Fox series 24, accentuates the heart-pounding drama of the story minute by minute. Greyhound cannot truly hew to this format, however, since the action takes place over two days (each sequence is preceded by a title card indicating the name of the corresponding watch period). As a result, the film is a stream of crises, one after another, boom boom boom. By way of comparison, it is not unlike an edited YouTube video, in which the narrator’s pauses are cut, thus resulting in a continuous if visibly disjointed presentation. While that is not necessarily bad in and of itself, Schneider’s commitment to accuracy and the resulting jargon-laced dialogue makes the pacing frenetic and, at several points, tiresome. It’s a bit like listening to air traffic controllers for a hour on end, but instead of listening in on the radio transmissions, you’re standing in the middle of the tower at 9am on a Friday at JFK. The chatter soon turns into a cacophony.

The film is not totally robotic – Hanks is fantastic (as always) and there are some genuinely emotional and even solemn moments in the movie. However, it needs to be diluted a bit. Elisabeth Shue’s character is in the movie for about three minutes, and then she is gone (presumably to go babysit some mischievous kids in a Chicago suburb). Why is she even in the previews? Her disappearance five minutes in hints at a larger indictment: that there is almost zero character development. We learn three (mostly spoiler-free) facts about Commander Krause: he is devoutly religious, he drinks a lot of coffee, and his shoes may be a size too small. Schneider and Hanks lionize, rather than humanize, his character, and in this sense Krause is basically Captain John Miller in a different service uniform. With the recent trend in war movies to make protagonists into regular, flawed humans (see The Pacific, Band of Brothers, The Hurt Locker, etc), and not Greatest Generation caricatures, this seems like a misstep. It would not have taken a lot of money or time to shoot a few extra scenes in the San Francisco hotel where the movie opens and add some backstory, some flashbacks, some flash-forwards, or just something to break up the flow.

Apart from those criticisms, however, Greyhound is a fast-faced, entertaining, and perhaps even instructive war movie. It is definitely worth watching.

But is it worth subscribing to Apple TV? Well . . . I just discovered that every episode of Fraggle Rock is on there, so I suppose the question is now moot, at least for me.

OK, Apple TV, I’ll bite . . .

The Chew Deck Logs (1941)

One of my favorite aspects of military history is the availability of documentation.

Militaries are big things, indeed. They have lots of soldiers, lots of vehicles, and lots weapons that vary in size and lethality. They also have support staff, logistical supply chains, doctors, nurses, engineers, ditch diggers, builders, movers, doers, and even dreamers. They are everything a human being needs to be trained and housed and fed and dressed and armed and cared for while in the States, as well as everything needed to ship that person across an ocean and then train, house, feed, dress, arm, and care for that person while on deployment. And that’s just the Army.

In order to make such a large, complicated entity that culturally thrives on exactitude run like clockwork, militaries in general and Navies in particular require a great deal of data collection and record keeping. Today that burden is eased thanks to computers and smart devices, but back during World War II those processes requires lots of paper, pencils, typewriters, and people to jot down all those things that needed to be jotted down.

Deck logs were indispensable record-keeping devices for ships. They recorded all sorts of things, from the windspeed at different times of day to the ship’s location and speed. They also contained a narrative of the day’s events. Most of these were mundane – who boarded and left the ship, details about food and fuel deliveries, inspection reports, etc.

This is a page from the Chew deck log on January 1st, 1941. (National Archives – College Park)

The food deliveries are especially interesting, since they give us a sense what (and how much) all those sailors ate (they sure loved their potatoes):

The logs provide additional threads to pull, which reveal about not only the ship and its crew, but the wider community that surrounded and interacted with them. For instance, the Chun Hoon Company supplied many of the ship’s vegetables and fruits. The company’s namesake founder immigrated to Oahu in 1887 at the age of 14, and after starting out as a vegetable peddler Chun Hoon became increasingly successful as a vendor and then later as a grocer. Although he passed away in 1935 his sons took over the business, and in 1939 they opened a brand new supermarket at the corner of Nuuanu and School Streets in Honolulu. By 1940 the Chun Hoon Company was a major player in local business and a substantial benefactor for several local schools and charities.

More broadly, Chinese-Americans found and took advantage of the opportunities they found in Hawaii, which offered a space of relative refuge from persecution when compared to the post-Chinese Exclusion Act United States mainland. Of course, Hawaii itself was not annexed by the United States until 1898, by which time nearly 50,000 Chinese immigrants had relocated to Oahu. But by that time, Chinese-Hawaiians were already well-integrated into the island’s economy, and immigrants like Chun Hoon continued to thrive despite the changing of the flag. His company was an institution by 1940, and while the Chew and the United States Navy were important customers for the business, they were by no means the only ones.

I had no idea about the Chun Hoon Company before looking at this specific page in the Deck Log. I have several hundred more pages to go. What other secrets do they hold? What other connections do they suggest? What was the weather like at 7:30am on December 7th, 1941? Where was the ship located the next morning at 9am? Deck Logs can help us answer these questions and more . . .

To find Deck Logs for other ships, you will need to do one of two things: you can go directly to the Archives II NARA reading room in College Park, Maryland and request them, or you can hire an independent researcher in the area to scan the ones you want. You will have to wait until NARA facilities reopen after the COVID quarantines lift, and once that happens there will likely be a considerable backlog of folks like me who are clamoring to begin or continue ongoing research projects. But the staff there is very helpful, and the materials themselves are easy to access.

July 1943: The Obstacle Course

Elmer quickly found himself busy once classes started on July 6th. “Same routine,” he wrote two weeks later. “Exercise, chow, classes, chow, exercise, classes, study, chow, study, and then sleep. What a day!”

His mornings started at 6am, when he would get up and begin his physical drilling. He was not used to the frequent and intense training, and although he often complained about it in his uncensored letters home, he did not question its necessity. “I’m tired,” he reported on July 12th after finishing his workout for the day, “but this is good for me.” Several days later he elaborated: “my physical drills tightened my muscles up and made me stiff – especially in the stomach. But it proves that it is doing good.” On the 21st he told his parents he was “wore out” after completing the obstacle course. “It’s a killer,” he wrote.

By 8am he was in class. For the next nine hours it was coursework, study time, and more physical education. He was enrolled in seven classes: Physics, American History, Naval History, American Literature, Physical Education, Engineering Drawing, and Psychology. Of all those subjects, “Physics seems to be the toughest subject for all the fellows.” He apparently held his own, though – on the 28th he learned that he had passed his first exam, “but not with a high grade.”

Naval Students at Brown tacking an obstacle course. Physical training was a central component of the V-12 Program.

The V-12 Program worked Elmer to the bone, but there was a silver lining to his new posting: “they really can serve chow here.” The food on campus was “the closest to home cooking I have ever had,” he reported, and the chicken dinner he had on the Fourth of July was “perfect.” In addition, the dorms were a nice change of pace after spending two and a half years on a cramped ship. “The lounge has really nice over-stuffed divans, chairs, a radio, and such lovely carpets, drapes, etc. It really is swell here, folks.”

But the best part was the people. He became close friends with Hal Spiner, a fellow Cleveland High School graduate and a fellow resident in his dorm. On July 16th he interrupted a letter home by announcing that Hal had walked in and asked him to go out; when he picked it up the next day he described a double-date with Hal and two local girls, Ruthie and Hettie Jean, who worked as waitresses on campus. They drove up to Cape Rock, which apparently was just as frequented by couples in the 1940s as it was in the early aughts. But he quickly added, probably to short-circuit any worrying, that Cape Rock was also “the spot where some frenchmen landed back in 1733.” He was taking American history, after all.

Evenings were just as busy as the days. Elmer and his classmates visited the Rainbow Room, a local bar, and attended a dance held by the school. But the nights were hot in other ways as well. “Even at night you perspire a great deal,” Elmer wrote of the summer heat in Cape. “Boy is it hot here . . . [it] makes it hard to write as my arm keeps floating away in a pool of sweat.”

The Rainbow Room was located inside the Hotel Idan-Ha, which burned down in 1968.

Elmer enjoyed spending some of his weekends in Cape, but he did make an effort to go home occasionally. Usually his visits were brief: he would take a bus up to Saint Louis early Saturday evening and head back Sunday afternoon. The visits were not long, but they were pleasant. “Good to be home,” he wrote after a visit. “The good old home-cooked food hit the spot.” Although he could not make it up for his mother’s birthday – they spoke on the phone instead – he tried to coordinate one visit with his brother Bud and his family visiting from Chicago. And Elmer took advantage of that most hallowed and time-honored tradition among college students: bringing the laundry home over the weekend. After one visit his mother had shipped him his uniform, which she had generously cleaned and pressed for him. It’s “in perfect shape” he announced – “‘just like taking it out of a drawer.’ Thanks, you’re a dear.”

Elmer had one other reason to visit home as well. At the end of the month, he announced his intention to visit. But he would not spend a great deal of time at home that Saturday evening – he had a date. With Rose.

Next Entry:
August – September 1943: Everything’s Shipshape

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Research Trip

Hi folks,
Sorry for being tardy and not posting for a few days. I usually schedule all my posts well in advance, and I left this week free so that I could blog from the road. But if past experience is any guide, research trips are very busy affairs. I haven’t had much time to post since leaving town Monday, and even though I’ve thought of a lot of things to say this is the first chance I’ve had to write anything down.

I have been collecting research material for the Grandpa’s Letters project. Compared to my last major project (Never Caught Twice, which will be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press), the research paradigm for this one is relatively easy. Rather than having to reconstruct the history of a notoriously under-reported and over-exaggerated crime across half a state and half a century, my current book’s source base is already well-established: my grandpa’s letters, along with my oral interview, other family documents, and several albums full of photographs. I also have my dad and Uncle Richard to fill in the gaps, which is a resource I did not have when investigating nineteenth-century horse stealing. This is a solid, if not excellent, foundation for a compelling historical narrative.

But this source set by itself isn’t enough. For one, I should have my grandfather’s official military personnel file from World War II. It contains a great deal of specific, well-documented information about every aspect of his service record. While getting that, I might as well get the service records of some of his friends on the Chew as well, so that I can give a broader perspective on St. Louis-area reservists before, during, and after the War. Speaking of the Chew, I should have more information on that as well, especially since Grandpa was barred from discussing his ship’s position and activities after the Pearl Harbor attack. I should also do the same thing with the Mink as well, Elmer’s ship from January 1944 until his discharge from the Navy in October 1945.

That is what this trip was all about. On Tuesday I visited the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis and scanned my Grandpa’s service record. I also scanned several others, including a couple of people I’ve discussed before on this blog. This took more time than I thought since these were large files, and since I only allocated a day for this I barely beat the clock to finish the job before closing. But I found a lot of fascinating information . . . stay tuned.

As soon as I was finished at the NPRC I had to Uber back to the airport to catch a flight to Baltimore, where I rented a car and drove to College Park, Maryland. Then on Wednesday I started collecting ship records at the National Archives facility at College Park. Like in St. Louis I’ve been scanning everything I can get my hands on, which is slightly more cumbersome here given that all scans have to have a declassification tag. That said, I’ve collected not only everything I could find on the Chew and the Mink, but after reading the other personnel files in St. Louis I decided to expand my strategy a bit and collect information on those ships on which Elmer’s friends on the Chew from St. Louis later served.

Although this is more work, I am really excited about where this is taking me . . . one of his friends participated in the invasion of Okinawa, while another one helped rescue sailors after the Frederick C. Davis, a destroyer, was sunk in the North Atlantic by a German U-Boat. Yet another served on a ship which played an important role in Operation Magic Carpet, the United States military’s massive post-war plan to bring hundreds of thousands of servicemen home in a matter of months. Of course this project will continue to revolve principally around my grandpa and his experience (which is exceptionally and uniquely well-documented given his letters), but my intention was always to bring other people into the story as well. I believe this is a great way to do just that.

I still have a few things to look for tomorrow, and I should have a few hours to spare. I hope to spend any extra time I have poking around some other collections and otherwise ensuring that this is the only trip out here I have to make for this book (as I promised my family . . . I visited the National Archives in DC several times for the first book). But so far this has been a successful trip.

Given both the blog and a history methods class I am teaching at Sacramento State this spring I may have more to say about both archival visits, what I found at each, and my strategy for tackling the archives. Since I will soon have to lecture my students about this very process it makes sense to start crystallizing my thoughts now while I’m in the trenches, so to speak.

Anyway, I need to get some other things done before I go to bed, but I will write again soon. In the meantime, here is an out-of-context page from grandpa’s service file at the NPRC in St. Louis. This is an important document, all things considered:

Book Review: Pearl Harbor

I apologize for not posting any book reviews for a while. The end of the fall semester is usually tough sledding, especially when one’s family spends their Thanksgiving in the Sierras during a winter storm. But I certainly did not improve matters when I chose my next book: a thick, authoritative, and in every conceivable way complete history of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Author Craig Nelson’s appropriately-named Pearl Harbor: from Infamy to Greatness charts the history of the attack from the beginning . . . in fact, the book covers the 1869 Meiji Restoration in Japan and the original settlement of Hawai’i by Polynesian seafarers. The tome continues in thorough, if sometimes tedious detail. While this is not necessarily bad, the publisher’s curious selection of a small typeface for the book makes each already-long chapter look deceptively short. I have a fair amount of practice reading history books, and frankly this one took me a while.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts. Part I, “The Roads to War,” explores the various historical, political, geopolitical, and cultural factors that put Japan and the United States on a collision course. While this narrative is thickly told and makes no attempt to spare any details, Nelson does a fantastic job of highlighting some of the fulcrum points leading to the Japanese attack. He convincingly argues that it could have prevented at several different points, including in early December when FDR made a last-minute appeal to Emperor Hirohito himself. Nelson does not pull any punches when describing either Japanese complicity in attacking Hawai’i or the complete and utter unwillingness among Americans to anticipate or prevent such an attack, but he does provide essential contest and nuance when discussing both. Not surprisingly, the lead-up to war was complicated: Japanese Army hardliners won out over the objections of the Navy and civilian authorities, while FDR’s full embargo of oil to Japan backed the expansionist nation into a corner. Few people on either side seemed to want a war. But war is what they got, especially when Japan famously underestimated the American response to the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Part II (“Strike!”) covers the raid itself, providing a minute-by-minute account of the hostilities. Nelson does an admirable job of covering the devastation wrought outside the especially infamous explosion on the Arizona, including a chapter on the raids against Wheeler, Hickham, and other Oahu airfields. Two chapters on the two successive waves to hit the harbor tell in detail what happened to the Pennsylvania (in dry dock), the Utah (anchored on the opposite shore of Ford Island), the Nevada (which beached itself after failing to escape the harbor through its narrow entrance channel) and various other battleships, cruisers, and destroyers that suffered damage or were destroyed. This is the meat of the book for Pearl Harbor history aficionados, and they will not be disappointed by the detail or the energetic prose.

Finally, Part III tells two different stories in three chapters: the Doolittle Raid and the public memory of Pearl Harbor after the war. Chapter Eleven, “Vengeance,” provides an excellent history of the Doolittle Raid, and the next chapter cleverly intertwines a summary of how the Pacific War was won with the stories of the Doolittle Raider POWs in Japanese custody for the duration of the conflict (or, in three cases, until they were executed).

Nelson’s Pearl Harbor is a sweeping, even-handed history of a complicated, yet critically important event in American history. It largely avoids the triumphalist rhetoric of less-reflective World War II books (like The Greatest Generation), but Nelson does argue that Pearl Harbor not only awakened Americans to the dangers of fascism, but that it helped steer the course for its postwar contributions to world peace. Of course that last point is debatable, but given the last few centuries of western history 75 years without a World War III is certainly an achievement. And that achievement would not have been possible without America’s military might, economic dominance, and diplomatic acumen.

I think I am going to write a separate post on how this book (and, if I’m being honest, This American Life) has made me rethink the contours of this project somewhat. That will come probably early next week. Meanwhile, if you were to purchase only one book on Pearl Harbor and had enough free time to soak up an exhaustive, single-volume account of the attack, its origins, and its consequences, then I cannot recommend this book enough.

October 1941: Our Boys in Blue

By October, as the Chew underwent the final stages of its rehabilitation, the World War I-era destroyer began to look more distinctive, more modern. Elmer related what he could to his parents back home. She “looks like a new ship,” he reported on October 19th. Much of the machinery was updated or replaced, while the old paint on the hull was painstakingly removed with pneumatic chisels so that the ship could be repainted. The entire crew was involved in the former effort. “It is one of those dirty jobs that just has to be done,” he lamented. By the time the crew moved back into the ship at the end of the month, it had new “tables, chairs, fans,” and other comforts. Even the mattresses were deep cleaned and repacked. Overall, the overhaul was “an experience in itself,” and throughout the process Elmer learned what he could.

As exciting as these upgrades were to the young men living on an old ship, Elmer did not relish a return to patrol duty. “I would like to go somewhere else for a change,” he wrote on the 11th. “You know a place becomes stale after you see all the sights and places. I have seen most of the places of interest.” Elmer was not alone in his boredom. After several months in paradise, many sailors began to yearn for the comforts of the mainland. Honolulu in 1941 was still a small city, with 180,000 people to Saint Louis’s 820,000. In terms of size it was like Worcester, Massachusetts, but with beaches and nicer weather. It was also expensive, with many of the restaurants and shopping destinations well outside of the Fireman 2nd Class’s budget. Even haircuts were four times as much in town than they were at Pearl, he complained at one point. It should come as no surprise why Elmer spent so much of his time at the Y.

Elmer also attributed his ennui to itchy feet. “The old urge to move and see more of the sights on this Earth has got me,” he reported to his parents. After all, the desire to see the world was one of the reasons why he joined the Naval Reserve in the first place. But Honolulu was smaller than the hometown he had left. Pearl was smaller still: an island within an island. It was time to venture forth and see more of what the world had to offer.

Yet for the time being, Hawai’i was also one of the safest places in the world. Much of the planet was engulfed in war as China and the Soviet Union fought for their right to exist, while Nazi boots kicked up dust as far west as the Bay of Biscay and as far east as the Black Sea. The Third Reich took an increasingly aggressive approach to American merchant and Naval traffic on the North Atlantic as well, (correctly) ascertaining that Roosevelt’s actions belied his supposed neutrality. On the morning of October 17th, 1941, Americans woke up to the news that a German U-Boat fired a torpedo at the U.S.S. Kearny, a Clemson-class destroyer, in the North Atlantic. The explosion killed eleven sailors, rattling the nation and heightening fears that war was imminent.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Kearny (DD-432) following the repair of her torpedo damage in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (USA), on 31 March 1942. USN – Official U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships photo 19-N-28745 available at Destroyerhistory.org

The scare was not lost on Grandpa. In his October 29th letter to his parents, Elmer Luckett put on a brave face for his folks. “We have little to worry about,” he assured them. “Our duty don’t [sic] take us from Pearl Harbor. And you know Pearl Harbor is the strongest naval base in the Pacific – probably in the world. So don’t let the newspaper stories worry you folks.” For his part, Luckett told his parents he was unafraid. “I wouldn’t mind” being in the Atlantic, he told them. “I am a fatalist in that sense, if a thing is going to happen nothing can stop it. People take a chance every time they cross the street. There is no use to worry about such things.”

These sentiments were easier to express when the action was taking place nearly ten thousand miles way. However, the immediacy of the dangers surrounding the United States Navy might have contributed to his decision to send his parents a poem, “Our Boys in Blue.” Although the work shares the same name as a World War I-era tune, the lines bear little resemblance to one another. Whatever its origins, the poem might have been distributed to the sailors aboard the Chew during the Navy Day ceremonies on October 27th.

Of course, Elmer’s parents certainly did not need to be reminded that “these boys in blue, they’re very much worth while.” They wrote him regularly, and that month they also sent him a box of cigars, while his sister Irene mailed him cookies and candy. As he wrote his letter on the 26th, he reported that he was smoking one of the Chicago MC cigars they had mailed him, and “as they say in the Navy, ‘it’s right on,’ meaning its swell. Thanks again folks.”

But the poem also warned that “when dangers [sic] threatens, may I say (and it’s more apparent every day), they stand first, in blue or white, to adjust and make it right.” Perhaps this was the main message Elmer wanted to impart to his parents: that while the world’s troubles were beginning to close in, he and his shipmates were prepared to meet those challenges and dangers head on. His parents might worry about his safety, but they need not concern themselves with his preparedness.

Sure enough, on October 31st, just as millions of American kids were dressing up as ghosts and witches for Halloween, and as the Chew finished its own costume changes in advance of its service in a second World War, one hundred boys in blue died when a U-Boat torpedo attacked another ship, the USS Reuben James. This time the vessel sank into the cold depths of the Atlantic. Only 44 survived.

Like the Chew, the Reuben James was also a Wilkes-class destroyer from World War I. But no new paint job could save it from its fate.

“Our Boys in Blue,” a poem Elmer mailed to his parents on October 29th, 1941.

Next Entry:
November 1941: The Year with Two Thanksgivings

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Movie Review: Midway

It was about 9:40pm when I approached my wife. I had just woken up from a 90 minute nap (which happens when your 2-year-old daughter demands that you lie down near her in the adult-sized daybed as she is trying to sleep), so I was already groggy when I told her that I was going to attend a 10:25 showing of Midway that night. “OK.,” she chuckled.

“I’m doing it for the blog!” I maintained, perhaps a bit too insistently.

She laughed again. “Sure.”

I had already asked her a few days earlier if she would want to see it with me, and based on the conversation that followed it seemed that neither one of us expected a whole lot. After all, Roland Emmerich isn’t exactly known for his artistic nuance. Watching aliens blow up major cities in Independence Day is one thing, but trusting him with a war epic and perhaps the single most important naval battle in American history? That’s a tall order for anyone. Nevertheless, I wanted to see how the guy who blew up a scale model of the White House with a spaceship would treat four ill-fated Japanese carriers.

Image result for midway theater poster

For starters – and perhaps this comes as a disappointment to some of you – I cannot comment too readily on the film’s historical accuracy. There are two main reasons for this. First, my “expertise” does not encompass the Battle of Midway, and most of what I know comes from general descriptions of the battle. Secondly, I decided to suspend disbelief early on, once I realized that the Japanese torpedo bombers attacking Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor (the December 7th attack is depicted within the first five minutes of the movie) were moving in from the southwest, and not from the northwest and due north. I also noticed that there were no ships anchored where the Chew and the Allen were supposed to be located – an omission that rankled me a bit (and which, understandably, would have upset my grandfather). Once the film moved past the events of December 7th and into 1942, I figured that the movie would be more easily digestible if I watched it as it was probably intended to be seen: as a “based on a true story” Emmerich disaster flick, and not as a documentary.

When seen on its own merits, Midway holds up fairly well as a war movie. For one, Emmerich’s ensemble cast of characters (including Admiral Chester Nimitz, Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Lt. Commander Richard Best, and Rear Admiral Edwin Layton) are all compelling in their own right and could easily inspire their own biopics. As for the plot, Emmerich is smart to begin the movie with the attack on Pearl Harbor and to end it with Midway. While I don’t think the script properly conveys just how poorly the war effort had been going for the United States throughout the first half of 1942, in general it does a good job of narrating the sequence of events that span the United States military’s failure to predict the attack on Pearl Harbor with its inspired and fortuitous counterstroke at Midway.

More importantly, I think Emmerich recognized a problem that many war movies about air raids have, which is that they often occurred so quickly that it would be impossible to make a movie about them without including lots of filler. This issue has plagued film reenactments of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which in real time lasted less than two hours from start to finish. Tora! Tora! Tora! tried to solve this problem by devoting most of its screen time to the events leading up to the attack, while Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) focused primarily on a love triangle. Neither film successfully balances the intensity of the attack with the relative quiet of the days, weeks, and months preceding it. In Midway, however, the attack on Pearl Harbor provides exposition, not climax, while the namesake battle begins at the start of the screenplay’s third act. This was a clever way to frame the film around its comparatively short action sequences.

That being said, the dialogue could use a lot of work. Most of the characters speak like, well, the people in Independence Day. There are lots of New Jersey accents, platitudes about duty and winning and what not, and an endless stream of tropes (like references by Japanese commanders to being ordered to stand “like samurai.”) The characters just don’t seem to talk like normal people. In fact, I’m positive that Admiral Halsey spent a lot more time complaining about his shingles than he let on in the film.

Also, as other reviewers have stated, the film’s use of CGI is a bit overwhelming. It is one thing to depict a ship blowing up; it is another thing entirely to have Best fly his bomber through the explosion caused by one of his own bombs. These whiz-bang moments don’t really add much to the drama, but instead muddle the narrative with endless special effects distractions. Perhaps this is where Emmerich’s resume becomes a liability. History, when told truthfully and with an ear for good storytelling, does not need disaster filmmaking to engage the audience’s interest.

Aside from these concerns, however, the movie overall was pretty good. While it does not compare to more inspired war films in recent years (like the masterful Dunkirk), it is a classic action war movie. I enjoyed it, and if you plan on seeing it, I would definitely recommend checking it out at the theater. Even if you can only make it to the 10:25pm showing, and you have to grab a cup of coffee first to get through it.

This Weekend: Going to St. Louis

On Thursday morning we are going to fly to Saint Louis for a few days, partly to make up for me not bringing our daughter there over the summer due to my health issues, and partly because autumn is probably the best (read: least miserable) time to visit Missouri. I say this with all the love in the world, but, between the freezing cold temperatures in the winter, the summer humidity, and the insane pollen counts in the spring, Saint Louis doesn’t leave many options for nice, comfortable, allergy-free weather.

At any rate, I am looking forward to visiting with family, eating toasted ravioli, and getting some work done on this project. Specifically, on Friday I will visit the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in northern St. Louis County. This is where you would want to go to get the personnel records for anyone who served in the Armed Forces during World War II. In fact, it is as far as I know the ONLY place to go – this is the federal repository for these records. I’m bringing with me a short list of people to look up, including grandpa (of course), my grandmother (who worked for the government during the war), and several of my grandpa’s shipmates.

The NPRC campus in St. Louis, Missouri

This will be my first visit to the NPRC, but a great deal of my horse theft research comes from the National Archives headquarters in Washington D.C. Although the security protocols for getting in and out can be intimidating at first (and the guards are seldom enthusiastic when explaining it for the hundredth time each day), the National Archives is on the whole a fantastic place to conduct historical research. They employ a small army of technicians whose job it is to help you find precisely what you are looking for, and unlike in many archival reading rooms researchers are allowed to use cameras to photograph and scan their documents (I did this liberally – rather than relocate to D.C. for a few months and read everything on site I photoscanned several thousand pages of reports and correspondence for my book and reviewed the material at home on an iPad).

I plan on posting a quick update this Friday on what I find in my grandpa’s service record, and if there are any interesting images or photographs inside I may include them here as well (note: most National Archives materials are publicly owned and thus public domain for copyright purposes). In the meantime, if you or someone you know is interested in looking up a World War II veteran’s record, please check out their website: https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center.

If you don’t live in or plan on visiting St. Louis any time soon, you can ask the NPRC to look it up for you and send you the file directly (for a fee, of course). But some federal privacy law caveats apply: only veterans who died or were discharged prior to 1957 can be looked up without having to obtain special permission from the service-member or their next of kin, and medical records are explicitly excluded from these personnel files. Also, having the service number handy would be enormously helpful when locating the veteran’s file. However, since it was a unique identifier the military used it in a lot of different records, which makes finding it fairly easy. I found all the relevant service numbers using Ancestry.com. If you enter your relative’s full name, birth date, and hometown, you should have no problem finding a muster log or some other document that contains their service number.

Besides that, I intend to take a little tour of my grandpa’s old neighborhood (Carondolet) and hope that inspiration strikes hard enough for me to hole up somewhere for a couple of hours and write. After all, this is where grandpa’s story begins, and it is also where the first chapter of my book will take place.

Eiler Street in St. Louis. This is where Elmer lived prior to enlisting in the Navy Reserve.

What I’m Reading: Tin Cans and Greyhounds

Frankly, I’m glad that Clint Johnson hopped off the Word Processor and immediately emailed his editor the second his narrative reached V-J Day, because otherwise I would not have had the benefit of this book for my own research. Published last February, this comprehensive and technical history of the destroyer during World War I and II, Tin Cans and Greyhounds: The Destroyers that Won Two World Wars, covers in exhaustive – and sometimes exhausting – detail the story of this type of ship.

Destroyers were the true jacks of all trades during the World Wars. Originally designed during the 19th century by the British Navy, they evolved over the next several decades in response to changing technology, growing battleship displacements, and the exigencies of war. Airplanes and submarines both spurred additional destroyer development. Even though the United States Navy spent hardly any money during the 20s or early 30s building or developing new destroyers, they were adept and resourceful when repurposing much of the retired WWI destroyer fleet.

Johnson’s narrative from the destroyer’s origins through the late 1930s is a sweeping, fascinating story of the destroyer’s shifting popularity and ever-evolving utility. He does a fantastic job of not only discussing American destroyers, but explaining how their development mirrored that of similar-sized ships in rival navies. We learn, for instance, that while British sailors appreciated the dozens of ships transferred from America’s aging destroyer fleet to the Royal Navy in 1940, they would have preferred sleeping in their customary hammocks as opposed to the Americans’ bunk beds.

Overall, Johnson’s thesis is that destroyers were integral, and perhaps even indispensable, to Allied Naval victories during both World Wars. In particular, the old “battleships versus aircraft carriers” debate that roiled the Navy intelligentsia throughout the 1940s may have missed a key point: that without a healthy number of destroyers to protect and assist the battleships, carriers, and the supply chain, the superiority of one over the other would be entirely moot. This claim is both grandiose and tautological – it is absurd to claim that these destroyers won both World Wars, but it is equally implausible to deny or rather ignore their obvious importance, particularly when so many people across the world could have claimed to have moved the sequence of events a certain way at precisely the right moment. Yet perhaps that kind of rhetorical (if not exactly historical) claim is necessary to highlight the destroyer class’s many important contributions to both war efforts, which this book does in spades. After all, books claiming that “X won World War II” are a cottage industry these days. How else can you get someone to buy one?

While I agree with Johnson’s argument, the second half of his book oscillates between the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters, which creates a disjointed narrative. Moreover, his chapter division along these lines – Pacific Theater, 1942; Atlantic Theater, 1942; Pacific Theater, 1943; and so on – seems unnatural and arbitrary. I sympathize with the plight of the narratively-focused historian who has to break down what would otherwise be a very long chapter into shorter yet intelligible units . . . I dealt with this problem myself when organizing my horse stealing book, and it took me a while to figure out an outline that broke apart while also bringing together the story I wanted to tell. But it does not seem like the author (or his editors) put much thought into this. Which is a shame, because I want the story of the destroyer to be an actual story, not a CV of its successes and failures. And that last point hints at my other concern with this book, which is that the World War II chapters fail to bring the author’s many stories and pieces of information together into a cohesive whole. These chapters lack a narrative strand, and instead seem to move from one story to another without so much as a segue.

Organizational concerns aside, this is a very well-researched book, and it is a necessary volume for students of World War II, Naval history, and anyone who has ever enjoyed one of Tom Clancy’s technical novels about various kinds of military weapons (anyone remember Armored Cav?). It also plugs a gaping hole in the hull of naval scholarship by providing a much-needed historical reference and overview of the chronically understudied and widely misunderstood destroyer. I personally found it useful as well, and will likely cite it often.