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Book Review: Enterprise

Enterprise

by Barrett Tillman

Simon & Schuster, 2012

The legend goes that Commander Edward Stafford was encouraged my no less a wordsmith than Ernest Hemingway to take up his pen and write the history of the most decorated ship in United States history, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Certainly the book Stafford produced in 1962, The Big E (Enterprise’s nickname), was a masterpiece, one of the best and instantly most beloved works of military history ever written by an American, comparable in its scope and humane wisdom to the works of Samuel Eliot Morison or Bruce Catton. Prolific WWII historian Barrett Tillman, in his new account of Enterprise: America’s Figthingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II, rightly says, “Stafford’s engaging, literate style set the standard for every ship’s history to follow.”

Which raises an obvious question: why another book? Enterprise was decommissioned in 1947, and sold for scrap in 1958. By 1960 she was torn to pieces and gone, except for a few scattered mementos. Her name continues – the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1961, was called Enterprise – but her own story was over by the time Stafford wrote his great book.

Fortunately, the answer is equally obvious: great stories need retelling. The war Enterprise helped to win was a living thing to virtually all of Stafford’s readers; it’s an item in the history books to virtually all of Tillman’s (and indeed to Tillman himself) – and Stafford’s book has spent a lot more time out of print than in, since its first appearance. Perceptions of the war have changed subtly over time, and later memoirs have been written, or uncovered. Tillman is too respectful a writer to imagine his book replacing Stafford’s, but he’s written an indispensable update, in many ways a more urgent and sharply-focused version of Enterprise‘s story than has ever been done.

It is, of course, an incredible story. Commissioned in 1938, she was luckily on assignment when Japanese forces struck Pearl Harbor in 1941 (as a later quote went, “fate protects fools, small children, and ships named Enterprise”), although she raced back to get her planes in the fight. After that, Enterprise took part in virtually every major battle of the war in the Pacific, including the battles of Midway, Santa Cruz, Solomon Islands, Leyte Gulf, and Guadalcanal. She was bombed, torpedoed, strafed, battered, and pounded, but she kept fighting when her less fortunate sister-ships could not – at one point becoming the only U.S. carrier still at large in the Pacific. She garnered more honors and decorations than any ship in United States history, in part because of the canniness of her design, as Tillman describes:

Enterprise was agile: she could reverse her course in 800 yards – less than half the figure for the faster but larger, bulkier Lexingtons. The Yorktown design’s turning ability was to prove its worth time and again in combat, making her a light heavyweight contender, able to bob and weave, jab and punch against bigger opponents.

Matched to that good hardware were the best crews in the service, and it’s in telling their hundreds of stories that Tillman’s book comes into its own (Stafford’s account, though better-written, is more Olympian in outlook). This is very much a sailor’s history of the Big E’s operations, and Tillman keeps his narrative firmly focused on the men who ran the ship and flew the sorties. As a result, his pages are full of heroism – and almost equally full of heroism’s great costs. We read, for instance, of Ensign Frank O’Flaherty and his gunner Bruno Gaido, who ditched at sea on the fringe of the Battle of Midway and were picked up by the Japanese destroyer Makigumo:

The fliers were interrogated by means that can only be imagined. But they provided no useful information; their description of Midway was speculative since they had never been there. Nevertheless, twenty-four-year-old Frank Woodrow O’Flaherty from Tonopah, Nevada, and twenty-two-year-old Bruno Gaido of Beloit, Wisconsin, likely knew what to expect. Postwar investigation revealed that on the 15th they were tied with weights and thrown overboard.

And we read, over and over, of the horrible toll in human suffering that so often fails to register in books on the war. Here Tillman’s assiduous research pays off, providing dozens of vignettes that are grotesque yet necessary to read, like a small detail in the wake of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands:

Other casualties experienced even worse. Assistant LSO Jim Daniels saw a horribly wounded, legless man use his remaining arm to pull himself to the deck edge. A corpsman advised against helping him. Aghast, Daniels watched the sailor achieve his goal by rolling overboard.

Tillman’s prose can at times be over-earnest – we get phrases like “a double-edged factor that cut both ways,” and we’re frequently told that nocturnal encounters happened at night, things like that – and there’s at times a booster-ish tone that questions his objectivity. The quick account we get of Ensign Gerald J. Flynn is a typical example – long on rally-style celebration and utterly devoid of the possibility that some “Hibernian” servicemen were racists, illegal profiteers, or girlfriend-punchers:

An elfin reservist, Jerry Flynn was 130 pounds of Irish spirit. In the Lookout Division he was responsible for lookouts, but that was merely for starters. In almost no time he became “the most visible person on the ship.” He was a natural morale officer: he’d been head cheerleader at Notre Dame. Talk about the Fighting Irish: Flynn’s father had fled the auld sod after a colorful affiliation with the IRA. Despite Jerry’s five-foot-seven stature, he coached the ship’s basketball team and found time to run the radio station, with an evening “gossip column” laced with his own brand of irreverent Hibernian humor.

When a historian can come so close to calling a U.S. serviceman a leprechaun, readers have a right to be a bit suspicious.

But such lapses are infrequent, and they’re excusable for the very same enthusiasm that brings them into being: there isn’t a hint of institutional lethargy in Tillman’s account – it’s vivid, gripping comic book version of its epic story (regular readers of this space will know that ‘comic book’ here is certainly no term of disparagement)(and all others are urged to become regular readers of this space, before they throw a conniption fit), the type of version no reader will put down. Enterprise‘s many battles come alive in Tillman’s descriptions, and of course his lively prose soars with events, including that happiest of events, the end of the war:

Horns honked; sirens wailed; people laughed, cried, and prayed. Confetti showered from office buildings. Twenty-five miles across Puget Sound, reporters described downtown Seattle as “a rooting, tooting, honking mass” of celebrants. Streets overflowed with people, many from the navy yard. Sailors climbed lamp posts and secretaries blew kisses from second-story windows. Men in uniform could not buy a drink among patriotic citizens. People who had never met before , and likely would never meet again, exchanged heartfelt hugs, kisses, solicitations, and body fluids. That Northwest summer day it was just incredibly wonderful to be young and alive and to have a future.

Enterprise herself had no future. The war had hardly ended before she was decommissioned and junked, and every desperate effort to raise the funds necessary to buy her and convert her to a floating museum or monument came to nothing. This was as undeniably short-sighted: the holy tasks of teaching and honoring history would be much, much easier with the actual USS Enterprise moored somewhere charging two bob a head for the privilege of walking her decks. She lives now in books (and, in spirit, in “Star Trek,” the entire franchise of which shamefully gets only one mention by Tillman), and this particular book will be enjoyed by newcomer and enthusiast alike.

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