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BOOK REVIEW – Eyes of the Fleet: The US Navy’s Seaplane Tenders and Patrol Aircraft in WWII

By Cdr. David D. Bruhn, USN (Ret.), Heritage Books, Inc. Berwyn Heights, MD (2016)

Reviewed by Robert P. Largess

Cdr. Bruhn is the historian of many of the Navy’s forgotten warships: ocean and coastal minesweepers, coastal transports (APc’s), tugs and salvage vessels, YP’s and converted yachts, as well as seaplane tenders – in WWII, Vietnam, and various periods in between. His books commemorate the services and sacrifices of their crews and provide valuable information on these lesser-known ships and their significant naval roles. Cdr. Bruhn’s own varied naval service includes minesweeping – service which is proverbial for being dangerous but dull, typically ignored and neglected until it’s desperately needed – so he’s well qualified to speak for these ships and their men.

Such stories from the background of naval history are easily obscured by the central drama – battles, commanders, strategy and tactics – and go forgotten until they attract the attention of an amateur historian, who researches and often self-publishes his work as a labor of love. One result is the availability of many books in the field of naval history which could never be commercial successes, but which look into fascinating but obscure topics or offer valuable original research. It’s worth reflecting on the tremendous growth of this field – remember the Naval Institute Press’ book catalog of about a dozen titles in the early ‘50’s? For decades after that, locating naval books, even the most important ones, involved scouring second-hand bookstores and catalogs, and trips to distant university libraries. But now the Internet (and its giant online bookstore) has changed everything; you can search any topic and find any book from your computer. Now self-publishing is no longer a Black Hole; the knowledge that your book’s intended readership can find it and buy it is a powerful motivation to write – and to spend your money publishing it.

But, of course, there are potential problems; some amateur historians are too enthusiastic or insufficiently critical, and their works contain major errors in fact or understanding. Some of these books appear simply unready for publication, in need of more background study, research, or just one more thorough rewrite. Eyes of the Fleet contains some of the same errors and flaws that that Cdr. Larry Grant points to in his recent NHF review of Cdr. Bruhn’s Battle Stars for the Cactus Navy, his history of the YP’s and converted yachts in World War II. Cdr. Grant takes the author fairly to task for his failure to use sources, his use of unreliable ones, and the lack of completeness and poor organization of his narrative, notes, and bibliography. But perhaps the most valid criticism is that the Cactus Navy represents a line of research that didn’t “pan out.” There just isn’t enough background information on the YP’s and first-person narrative from their crews to make a good book. But this last certainly doesn’t apply to Eyes of the Fleet. It’s full of vivid, detailed first-person accounts of the Navy’s flying boats in combat, gives an excellent picture of the many roles these planes performed with tremendous bravery and effectiveness, and a clear vision of their operational deployment and organization – in the Pacific, at least. And their tenders, too, were often in action and sometimes lost – a famous example is the Langley. But the difference is that the subject is simply more interesting and significant than the “Cactus Navy,” essential as that was.

For the US Navy’s flying boat force in World War II was something unique, the largest flying boat force in history. Its mainstay, the PBY, grew in numbers from about 450 in service or on order for the USN at the end of 1939, to a total production of 3,281 – greatest of any flying boat in history. (In contrast, the quantities of its opposite number in the Japanese navy, the four-engine “Mavis,” were only 66 at the beginning of the war, and a total production of 217.) The US put lots of effort between the wars to develop a rugged, capable flying boat, and to have a large force of them in place, as an essential support to the carrier strike force it had also worked so hard to develop. Both had their origin in the North Sea in World War I, where the goal of the British was to catch and destroy the German fleet. But with the Grand Fleet’s range of vision and striking power limited to the horizon – and that in daylight and good weather – it proved tough to bring the Germans to action. It was hard to know when they were at sea, and if so where they were. And when contact was made, it was easily lost. One solution was air reconnaissance, which the Germans had with their Zeppelins. The British made heroic efforts to get aircraft to sea in many forms, including rigid and non-rigid airships, flying boats, ship-borne seaplanes, and the first primitive flight-decked aircraft carriers. The US experimented with all of these and developed the aircraft carrier not only for reconnaissance but as a powerful striking force. At Midway, the carrier’s ability to search and strike over hundreds of miles with an overwhelming concentration of strength gave the US the decisive victory that eluded the British in World War I. The Japanese carriers were hit first because they were discovered by a Midway-based PBY (Lt. Howard Ady – my mother’s cousin!). Throughout the war, from beginning to end, the flying boats provided essential reconnaissance in support of the carriers and other surface forces. The Navy’s force of seaplane tenders enabled the flying boat wings to be moved quickly to advanced island positions and operated there without other support. The Navy operated more than 60, the largest force of such ships, included old Bird-class minesweepers, converted four-stack destroyers, and some large purpose-built ships like the Curtiss, unusual in their ability to lift big flying boats onboard for repair (The Japanese operated a number of “seaplane carriers” to carry, launch, and tend groups of single-engined floatplanes, a somewhat different concept).  PBY’s performed many services during the Solomon Islands and New Guinea campaigns, as “Dumbo’s” doing air-sea rescue, and “Black Cats” doing night reconnaissance and interdiction of Japanese shipping, as well as attacking Japanese warships with torpedoes and bombs.

Cdr. Bruhn does not go into the development of the flying boat or the analysis of their tactical significance. What he does do is provide us with meticulous details of the deployment of the air wings and their tenders throughout the Pacific theater, and many vivid stories of action aboard these planes and ships told in the words of the pilots’ action reports, or the citations accompanying decorations. For example, on Dec.31, 1941, the little ex-minesweeper Heron, transiting the Molucca Sea, was sighted and bombed by a “Mavis” flying boat. Then, during the afternoon, fourteen more aircraft dropped dozens of bombs and three torpedoes. Her captain, Lt. William Kabler, maneuvered her as evasively as her 14-knot top speed allowed, and all missed except one bomb which struck her masthead and riddled her with shrapnel. Bomb splinters and strafing cost her 26 killed and wounded, nearly half her crew, but the old ship amazingly survived.

There is a detailed description of the night torpedo attack on the Midway invasion force by four PBY’s commanded by Lt. William L. Richards, which scored a hit on the tanker Akebono Maru. Or the rescue of US Army aviators shot down attacking Kavieng in New Ireland by Lt.(jg) Nathan Gordon on Feb.15, 1944. Gordon flew his PBY directly into Kavieng harbor and set down four times under heavy gunfire, 600 yards from shore, to pick up a total of 14 airmen. Or, there are the detailed first-person reports of bombing attacks on ships at altitudes as low as 100 ft. by “Black Cat” PBY’s, in their campaign to interdict Japanese shipping throughout the island chains of the Pacific – the Philippines, Dutch East Indies, and above all to the powerful but beleaguered Japanese base in the Solomons, Rabaul.

So what’s wrong with this book? First, structure. It does not follow a clear timeline; it jumps from one time and place to another without clear transitions or explanation. For example, its description of the Battle of Midway precedes its first mention of the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier. If the author has topical reasons for breaking from chronological order, he needs to make this clear to his readers. Second, if its greatest virtue is giving us the experience of the men who were there, in their words and those of their superiors, this creates a particular problem – what if their facts are WRONG? One phenomenon throughout the war on both sides was the tendency of gunners but above all airmen to claim far, far more hits and kills than they actually achieved. These over-optimistic claims sometimes misled those on the losing side into believing they were winning, or nearly winning, affecting command decisions at the highest levels. Cdr. Bruhn quotes such reports without telling us they are erroneous. For example: he includes in Japanese losses at Midway “two, and probably three battleships…damaged”, “two heavy cruisers sunk,” and “three destroyers sunk.” The source for these errors is obvious; these come from the assessments of the battle believed by the Navy and issued to the public immediately after the battle, when both the Mogami and the Mikuma were believed sunk, and the Army B-17’s claims of numerous  (all nonexistent) hits were accepted at face value. Naturally, they were accepted by servicemen, and repeated in popular books throughout the war years.

Another example is the section headed “Catalina Seaplane Sinks Japanese Cruiser” – quite a coup for a single flying boat! It describes a highly skillful night glide-bombing attack by Lt.(jg) William Sumpter on a ship identified as a Katori class cruiser off Celebes on Oct. 3-4, 1944, claiming eight bomb hits and a sinking, earning him the Navy Cross. But a little research shows the three Katori’s had other fates; indeed it appears that, though Sumpter might well have sunk a ship, no Japanese cruiser was sunk or damaged there.

How serious are these flaws? I must come down strongly on the side of judging a book for what it is, rather than what it isn’t. If it offers me something valuable – new knowledge or new ideas – it’s well worth reading.  The truth is never finished, and our understanding of anything is always false in the respect that it’s limited. That’s why we read, study, and reflect. So again, my view is that research, writing, and everything that furthers understanding are good and to be encouraged – certainly in naval history, a field that remains unknown to too many people. Likewise, falsehoods and errors must be pointed out; those of us who make them must simply face up to it, and keep going. And I must say that I wish the author could have heard my criticisms BEFORE publication, and the same goes for those of Cdr. Grant regarding the “Cactus Navy.”  Seeking out a published author or serious student of the topic to read the manuscript and incorporating their advice in a revised draft might have solved the problems in Eyes of the Fleet.

It’s also true that there are unfair or mistaken critics out there; even the greatest writers have to steel themselves against disappointments, or worse. In an article in the February 2017 USNI, Captain William Bray reminds us that not only do we continue to need to read Herman Melville, we need to remember that Moby Dick, his great masterpiece, destroyed his writing career. Neither the critics nor the public understood it – but Melville went on to write another masterpiece, Billy Budd, which sat in a drawer unread until after his death.

In short, if you have something to say, it’s better to write than not write; better to see it in print than never published; and better to see it reviewed, however harshly, than not reviewed at all. (Besides, readers are more ready to forgive flaws in a book if they know about them in advance.) So, amateur historians, keep writing! I personally found Eyes of the Fleet very interesting and informative. Its subject dovetailed with some of my perennial interests – carrier war, reconnaissance, the “Golden Age” of aviation history. Indeed for those deeply interested in the history of the flying boat – and the PBY –  I’d say it’s a must-read.

Robert P. Largess is the author of USS Albacore: Forerunner of the Future and articles on the USS Triton, SS United States, and the origin of the towed sonar array.

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