Tin Can Titans: The Heroic Men and Ships of World War II’s Most Decorated Navy Destroyer Squadron
". . . Wukovits certainly joins Morrison and James D. Hornfischer as one of the pre-eminent writers on the history of U.S. Navy operations in the Pacific theater."
When it comes to World War II press, it’s usually been the battleships and, ultimately, the aircraft carriers that have garnered the most attention and glory. In recent years, that attention has been focusing more and more on the real workhorses of the war, the destroyers. To their evident benefit, author John Wukovits has been in the forefront of their exposure.
Although perhaps not as prominent a military historian as John Keegan, Robert Citino, Samuel Eliot Morrison, or Antony Beevor, Wukovits certainly joins Morrison and James D. Hornfischer as one of the pre-eminent writers on the history of U.S. Navy operations in the Pacific theater.
Following his previous effort in recounting the kamikaze ordeal of the destroyer USS Laffey in Hell from the Heavens, the author now presents the story of Destroyer Squadron 21 (DesRon 21) from the dark days of mid-1942 to their ultimate triumph, and honor, in literally leading the United States Fleet into Tokyo Bay to receive the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
As with his previous work referenced above, Wukovits not only focuses on the actions, events, and encounters on campaign of the squadron’s vessels, but also, along the way, tells the origin and history of those ships and, even more significantly, the personal stories of many of the crew members. This is what really makes the book.
With the rapid passing of the “Greatest Generation,” it becomes even more important to obtain their stories, oral and otherwise, so that their information and experiences can be saved in order to educate and enlighten those of us who have come after them and better understand the sacrifices they made.
The format of the book is three parts, containing three to four chapters each. The emphasis of the first two parts is on the origins of the vessels, their squadron organization, and their initial campaign: Guadalcanal. Considering its lengthy, grim, and bloody nature, this is as it should be.
With the paucity of naval resources in the early days of the Pacific war, destroyers found themselves performing multiple duties—engaging enemy surface vessels, convoying supply ships and escorting American warships, hunting enemy submarines, anti-aircraft duty, and so forth—until the American economy could be brought to bear in the effort to provide the many resources necessary for ultimate victory.
Part III is an account of the island hopping strategy, which forced the Japanese back, from New Guinea to the Philippine Islands and Okinawa. The chapters detail each of these campaigns along with the losses, human and ship, suffered by the squadron, in particular from mines and kamikazes.
The final chapter is essentially the honor shown to three surviving destroyers that were present as they led the ships of the United States fleet into Tokyo Bay, courtesy of one-time destroyer man Admiral “Bull” Halsey, once the Japanese had signaled their surrender. An epilogue summarizes the accomplishments of the squadron and some of the many officer and crew survivors’ postwar lives.
Following the text, a chronology lists the dates of the operations and campaigns in which the squadron participated. The first appendix specifies the battle stars awarded to individual vessels and the campaigns for which they were awarded. The second appendix details the location of each vessel at the end of the war: Sunk, Tokyo Bay, elsewhere or in an American shipyard for repairs.
Two maps included show the operations in the Solomon Islands and those in the rest of the Pacific. Not surprisingly, the photographic section is largely divided between shots of many of the prominent men referenced in the story and the ships themselves.
The author employed traditional citations and notes and primarily used sources such as squadron and individual ship war diaries, action reports, interviews, and oral histories from veteran survivors. Secondary sources such as collections, books, and contemporary magazine and newspaper articles round out the bibliography.
It has been said before, and bears repeating, there are a million stories extant that have yet to see the light of day. Thanks should go not only to those veterans who want their story told before they’re gone but as well to those like John Wukovits who do the telling in a well presented and poignantly human written manner.