Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

The Fighting Liberty Ships

A Memoir

Hoehling, Adolph A.

1996, United States Naval Inst.
ISBN 1557503699

Type. Personal narrative
Pros. Entertaining and informative
Cons. Nothing major

This is an American reserve officer's memoir of his war years on merchant vessels, mostly Liberty ships, with a considerable amount of historical background included. On the official entry of the United States into the war, the author requested and was granted a transfer from his current assignment (as a journalist in naval public relations) to the naval blimp service. However, wartime needs and military bureaucracy being what they were, after nearly completing training in this area he was reassigned to training as an "Armed Guard Officer" on surface ships, a capacity he held until the end of the war.

As Armed Guard Officer, Hoehling was assigned to lead the gun crew on merchant ships. Beginning in December, 1943 he began a series of voyages that took him to India, Singapore, Mozambique, Italy, and Algeria, as well as various ports of the United Kingdom and the United States. He describes his impressions of each port in captivating detail, from the exotic Calcutta and Algiers to the uneasy neutrality of Laurenco Marques, to the bomb-damaged London, Liverpool and Southampton. Due to circumstances he alludes to but does not specify, he chooses not to reveal the name of his first Liberty ship, referring to it instead by the pseudonym John Lesher. After a period of time on this first ship, he was transferred to a T-2 tanker, in which he made several voyages (including one through a powerful hurricane in which she nearly foundered) before being transferred suddenly to the S.S. James Harrod. This was his last ship; in the spring of 1945 this Liberty, loaded with a cargo of 80-octane gasoline in tins, rammed an anchored Liberty carrying ammunition. In the resulting inferno some of the Harrod's men escaped in the two remaining lifeboats, while a few, the author included, waited on board while gasoline tins exploded like shells for the help which eventually came. Four of the gun crew were killed.

The author's account of his adventures is entertaining, not least due to his humorous insights into the relationships between gun crews and merchant crews (the former were usually viewed as encumbrances by the latter), and between himself as officer and the typical cross-section of American soldier under his command. The chapters dealing with the destruction of the Harrod and its sequelae are moving and at times disquieting. The personal narrative is well-framed by frequent brief segments summarizing events in the land and sea conflicts, and supported by an impressive bibliography. A final chapter provides a short overview of the Liberty ship program and some of their most dramatic actions, including the duel to the death of Stephen Hopkins and the German raider Stier in 1942.

This is a highly-recommended memoir of the important but often-overlooked role played by the US Navy Armed Guard in World War II.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 30 Mar 2001.

This title is highly recommended.

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