The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors

Author: James D. Hornfischer
Publisher: Bantam
Year: 2004
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

Hollywood heroism and real-life heroism are worlds apart. In Hollywood, heroism is defined as "charging into machine gun fire, killing 50 Germans, and getting bruised in the ankle." In real life, heroism is "charging a squadron of Japanese battleships at flank speed in a tiny destroyer escort with two 5-inch guns and three torpedoes." Literally, this is the sort of story thatís too good for Hollywood. I put off reading this book for the longest time, simply because the title turned me off. The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors? It sounded corny beyond belief. Having a voracious appetite for naval literature, I gave in and read it, and Iím glad I did.

James D. Hornfischerís The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors tells the extraordinary story of the United States Navyís most heroic, and frankly statistically improbable, victory of World War II. Last Stand focuses on the Battle of Samar, one of four naval battles in a campaign that were later named the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf is famous in that it was the largest, and last, major surface action of World War II, and that the remains of the Imperial Japanese Navy were essentially destroyed during it. Whatís often forgotten is how close the Japanese came to wiping out a sizeable portion of the American 7th Fleet.

The liberation of the Philippines began on October 20, 1944, when the U.S. Sixth Army invaded the island of Leyte. Supporting them was the largest concentration of seapower ever assembled. At the same time, the Japanese launched the Sho plan, an extremely complicated naval scheme to seriously impede, if not outright stop, the American invasion. They assembled three main forces (A Centre Force, Southern Force, and a Northern "Decoy" Force.) The Southern Force attempted to break through the Surigao Strait south of Leyte, and was almost completely destroyed. The Northern Force was spotted several hundred miles to the North, and the 3rd Fleet and itís battleships took chase.

To guard the landing beaches, Admiral Halsey left behind three small "Task Groups," each consisting of five or six small escort carriers and a few destroyers or destroyer escorts. This force was named Task Group 77.4, and each group was known as a "Taffy." Early on the morning of the 25th, the Japanese Centre Force slipped through the San Bernadino Strait undetected, and turned south at flank speed. It was Taffy 3, commanded by Admiral Thomas Sprague, that had the singular misfortune of being in the path of this powerful force.

With four destroyers and three destroyer escorts all that stood against four battleships, six heavy cruisers, and a dozen destroyers, the men of Taffy 3 did the only thing they could do - they fought to the death. The seven tiny escorts charged the Centre Force at full speed, riddling the enemy shipsí superstructures with five inch shells, launching torpedoes at ranges as close as 4,000 yards. The carriers of Taffy 3 launched their aircraft armed with whatever weapons were available, harassing the Japanese all morning to buy time for the carriers' escape. By 9:20 am, with reinforcements on the horizon, the Centre Force beat a hasty retreat back to San Bernadino Strait.

This miraculous victory was not won without painful losses. Five of the 13 ships in Taffy 3 went to the bottom, including two escort carriers, two destroyers, and a destroyer escort. One of these, the St. Lo, was the first warship to fall victim to a kamikaze. More than 800 men died, a number of whom died in the sea after an error in communications delayed their rescue. For their sacrifice, the Centre Force never threatened the island of Leyte.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors  is one of the most gripping stories of naval warfare Iíve ever read. I devoured the whole thing in three days - I would have read it in two, but I needed my sleep! The first third is a bit slow and exposition heavy, but once the Battle of Samar Gulf began I couldnít put it down.

What startled me most reading Last Stand was that even after 150 years of technological evolution, naval warfare never changed all that much between the Napoleonic Wars and World War II. The ships and weapons may have been new, but flying splinters gave way to red-hot shrapnel, powder magazine explosions became boiler explosions, and the iron balls of old became armor-piercing, explosive-tipped shells that sometimes weighed more than a ton. Needless to say, the effect of one of these shells exploding inside the machinery space of a destroyer was absolutely catastrophic, and Hornfischer leaves almost nothing to the imagination. Anyone squeamish about blood and gore should stay far away from Land Stand.

Normally, Iíd praise a book like this for actually developing itís characters instead of leaving them ciphers. But thatís where the main problem with Last Stand lies - thereís simply way too many characters in this book, and once the bombs, torpedoes, and shells start flying, itís impossible to tell them apart. Last Stand is Hornfischerís first "real" book (his two previous books were collections of quotes by famous politicians), and his overambition shows through in spots. Thereís so much going on that the human interest stories simply crumble under the weight of all that gunfire.

Also, thereís a number of annoying technical and historical errors, most of them relating to the Casablanca-class escort carriers. Hornfischer describes them as being powered by steam turbines and built over a Liberty Ship hull, both of which are patently false. He also describes the Gambier Bay as the only aircraft carrier ever sunk by gunfire, something that would surprise the crew of the HMS Glorious.

Occasionally clumsy editing and a few annoying mistakes aside, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors is a fine entry into the canon of naval literature. I have no doubt that itíll someday be considered a classic, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in naval history. I know some people are flaunting it as the newest book that "every American must read!" Well, itís not that good, but Iím sure most readers will be blown away at least a couple times reading it.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors was published as a hardcover book by Bantam Books in February 2004, and as a paperback in March 2005. The book is divided into four main sections and 56 chapters, is 512 pages long, and has 32 pages of black and white photographs along with a number of maps.

James D. Hornfischer is a writer, literary agent, and former book editor. His two previous books were Right Thinking: Conservative Common Sense Through the Ages and "Hate Is Not a Family Value:" A Quote Book for Liberals in a Right-Wing World. His next book, Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, is to be released in October this year.




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