When he entered Tokyo Bay to accept the surrender of Japan at the final end of World War II, Admiral William Halsey could have chosen any ships in the US Navy to accompany him. He chose three surviving vessels from the squadron known as Desron (Destroyer Squadron) 21,
which had held fast at Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Iwo Jima. The three proud ships were the
O’Bannon, the Fletcher, and the Taylor.
The story of Desron 21 is told by John Wukovits, a historian of the Pacific battles of WWII who has written previously on that subject (Hell from Heaven,
Pacific Alamo). He states that Halsey, considered an aggressive leader, was appointed--to the great approval of the American people--just on the brink of attack at Guadalcanal, a strategic location deemed necessary for any Allied victory. The Japanese agreed with the assessment of Guadalcanal’s significance and were more than ready for the US onslaught. The US destroyers with their impressive gun turrets proved the better fighters there in a grueling test of power ranging over days and nights of forays on sea and air, and later at other Japanese strongholds.
War is hell, and as was pointed out before the battle of Guadalcanal, the men
(some as young as 17, with some father-son combinations among the crews) had seen a lot, but they “hadn’t seen hell.” One of the aspects of Wukovits's examination of the war in the Pacific that makes the book so gripping, and at times poignant, are the diaries and letters of the sailors who fought there. Men who worked belowdecks, keeping the pumps running or operating radio equipment, well knew that a single shell or kamikaze hit could leave them trapped, helpless, in a metal coffin. Those seeing the action from above witnessed their comrades blown apart or plunging into the open sea. Remarkably, thousands of men were rescued, though many ships were lost. One man wrote home to his wife that she must remarry if he were to be killed, though “these are the hardest words I could ever write or say to you.” Seamen noted that a bad skipper could cause work to slow down and vital confidence to erode. And that “you learned your days of privacy were over the day you joined the Navy.” But they stayed at their posts and did their jobs, often acting heroically under the most dire circumstances. One man dove into the sea with two useless legs; another demanded that his finger, hanging by a piece of skin, be removed and when the medic refused, he took a knife and cut it off himself.
The book includes maps, photographs, and a chronology detailing where each ship began and ended its fighting “career.” Several lesser known commanders and valiant Navy men are cited in Wukovits's saga, who notes that most recruits were determined to defeat the nation that had attacked Pearl Harbor: “They came to fight.”
Tin Can Titans is history with humanity, and should be of interest to any current student of Americana, and to any of the fading generations who still have close ties to our last great war.