Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

Heroes in Dungarees

The Story of the American Merchant Marine in World War II.

Bunker, John

1995, United States Naval Inst.
ISBN 1557500932
Hardcover, 369 pages, 23 b&w photos, 2 paintings, 2 maps

Type. General History
Pros. Covers all theaters of the war
Cons. Some over-reliance on first-person accounts with no analysis; no maps

Written by a former merchant crewman who sailed to nearly every corner of the globe from 1942 to 1945, this book describes the daily life of U.S. Merchant Mariners and the perils they faced while pursuing their normal business during World War II. Encounters with surface raiders, aircraft, and killer storms, as well as U-boats and Japanese submarines, are recounted in compelling detail by survivors and eyewitnesses.

The book begins with events that occurred before the United States officially entered the war, including the capture of the freighter City of Flint as a prize during the first days of the war, and the sinking of the Robin Moor on 21 May, 1941 by U-69 (Metzler). Then follows an overview of the Merchant Marine system and the wartime changes it underwent. Ensuing chapters comprehensively cover the spectrum of theaters and specific operations in which the Merchant Marine participated throughout the world, including Operation Drumbeat and other sinkings off the US east coast and in the Caribbean; various battles in the vast reaches of the Atlantic; the Russian convoys; convoys PQ-17 and PQ-18; the unique hazards of crewing tankers; numerous episodes describing individual sinkings and instances of special acts of bravery by Merchant Mariners; encounters in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and the Pacific; the invasion of Normandy; missing ships; and ships sailing alone out of convoy.

The first-person accounts make for very interesting and exciting reading. However, there is one fault to be found with such heavy reliance on these accounts, to the exclusion of other sources (especially German sources - in the bibliography, only one German publication was cited). That is, that some inaccuracies and misconceptions that have been cleared up in the intervening 50 years are not corrected here. For instance, the author states that Unicoi was so close to U-576 that they could read the numbers on her conning tower (numbers were not displayed on conning towers during wartime); and that U-66 treacherously lured Venore to its vicinity by signaling that she was a lightship in need of assistance (Gannon states that U-66 sank Emperor Gem in plain view of Venore only three minutes before while both were proceeding to a light buoy).

Even so, these small inaccuracies are insignificant compared to the wealth of information offered here. This includes a glossary of Merchant marine terms; three appendices (Major Casualties: American Personnel on Troopships Sunk in World War II; United States Flag Merchant Ships Sunk from War Causes: 1 November 1940 - 5 May 1945; Blockships Used to form Breakwater on Normandy Beachhead, 1944); and a bibliography and index (one other small negative is that the book includes no maps). Overall, this is good reading about these often overlooked participants in the naval war.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 23 Jul 2000.

This title is highly recommended.

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