The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour

Among his innovations was the Liberty ship, a cargo vessel that could be mass-produced virtually like an oceangoing Model T. Using a breakthrough welding technique, submerged arc welding, that could stitch steel plate with molten rivets up to twenty times faster than existing methods, Kaiser’s shipbuilders produced a Liberty ship in an average of only forty-two days.

An escort carrier was built on a cargo ship’s hull. Shipbuilding magnate Henry J. Kaiser was the Lee Iacocca of his day, a visionary industrialist whose name was a household word.

Anxieties,” wrote Alfred Thayer Mahan, “are the test and penalty of greatness.

Archer kept his course toward the battleship. He opened his bomb bay doors for show, hoping to persuade the dreadnought to veer from its course. Then, as he began to pull up over the ship, Archer rolled his Avenger over on its back and took his .38-caliber service revolver from its holster. Running on anger born of pain and not a little adrenaline, he squeezed the trigger repeatedly, sending six rounds into the dark superstructure of the battleship.

By any measure the mathematics of the engagement were preposterously against them. The Yamato displaced nearly seventy thousand tons. She alone matched almost exactly in weight all thirteen ships of Taffy 3. Each of her three main gun turrets weighed more than an entire Fletcher-class destroyer.

Captain Copeland picked up the intercom mike and addressed the Roberts’s crew. That he was speaking for himself struck Ens. Jack Moore as unusual and urgent. Normally seaman Jack Roberts was the public address voice of his namesake warship. His southern drawl was all but unintelligible to anyone not acquainted with Dixie’s rhythms and diphthongs. But the skipper’s diction was as crisp as a litigator’s. He was talking fast and sounding more than a little nervous. “A large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. “This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.


ESCORT CARRIERS HAD MANY nicknames, only a few tinged with anything resembling affection: jeep carriers, Woolworth flattops, Kaiser coffins, one-torpedo ships. Wags in the fleet deadpanned that the acronym CVE stood for the escort carrier’s three most salient characteristics: combustible, vulnerable, expendable. That most everyone seemed to get the joke—laughing in that grim, nervous way—was probably the surest sign that it was rooted in truth.

It was downright harrowing to be airborne while battleships offshore were bombarding targets ashore. Pilots flying gunnery spotting missions became sandwiched in an invisible corridor between salvos from the big ships offshore. While they spotted shell bursts and called in corrections, fourteen-hundred-pound battleship shells flew overhead in trios, plainly visible to the eye. Below, the smaller warheads of the cruisers whizzed past.

it was probably more dangerous to remain aboard the fuel- and explosive-laden jeep carrier than to take off and glide-bomb a Japanese capital ship. As Leonard Moser, a plane captain on the Fanshaw Bay, was changing a carburetor on a VC-68 aircraft, half a dozen pilots hovered nearby, coveting a chance to climb into that cockpit and get their tails off the ship. The aviation machinist’s mate finished the job, then climbed up into the cockpit. “What are you doing?” one of the pilots asked. “I’m going to check this damn engine out,” Moser said, “and then go find a hole to hide in.” The pilot said that he would do his own engine check this time, thank you very much. Moser stepped aside. “He got in, started it up, and took off with a cold motor. My helper didn’t even have all of the cowling on. That pilot was glad to leave.

Kurita knew that heavenly influences could be counted upon to trump human planning. In war, events seldom cooperate with expectation. Given

Oldendorf’s fleet would hold its position astride the northern end of the strait and devour Nishimura’s column like a log thrust into the business end of a U.S. Navy wood chipper.

The portly Italian chief never talked much. Though he had played the royal baby at the crossing-the-line ceremony, he was the oldest man on the ship at forty-three and had little in common with boys twenty and more years his junior. Serafini was an immigrant from the Old Country whose Navy service dated to World War I. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he had left a well-paying job in the Philadelphia Navy Yard and reenlisted despite both exceeding the age limit and his status as father of two. Serafini felt that he owed a debt of gratitude to the United States.

The previous day, December 6, Sprague had upbraided his crew for their sloppy performance during an intensive series of drills. He broke with his nature and let them have it. Gathering his officers in the Tangier's wardroom, Sprague said, “We're not prepared. We can't trust the Japanese. How do you know the Japanese won't attack tomorrow?” The next morning the Combined Fleet struck.

Though distrust of the Japanese was widespread in the Navy, Sprague was among the first to appreciate exactly what the Japanese might do. In June 1928 the Lexington participated in a mock surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

When great men blunder, they count their losses in pride and reputation and glory. The underlings count their losses in blood. —Theodore C. Mason, Battleship Sailor (1982)

Wildcats could carry a light bomb load too. Their pilots, however, found to their dismay that the bombs could be difficult to drop: a pilot had not only to pull the bomb release but also to jerk the plane’s rudder back and forth, shaking the plane in midflight to dislodge the bombs from their notoriously sticky mountings.