Top critical review
Men and an Angry Sea, Part II
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on November 29, 2007
In 2007 two different publishers released two different books on the 1944-1945 typhoons that sank three ships in the U.S. Third Fleet. Under the command of Admiral William Halsey, the U.S. Navy lost more men due to these natural disasters than it did at the battle of Midway. Bob Drury and Tom Clavin's "Halsey's Typhoon" was the first one to make it to book stores and garnered more attention and sales than Buckner F. Melton Jr.'s "Sea Cobra." Given the timing and focus of these two books, this review will compare and contrast the two. In short, there is no question that Melton wrote the better book.
The illustrations of carriers, battleships, oilers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts compared to 30, 60, and 90 foot waves is the best feature of Drury and Clavin's account. It gives landlubbers a good idea of how rough seas are problems for some ships and not for others. The shortcomings of this book, however, are much more significant. First, the book ignores altogether the second typhoon Halsey sailed into. Melton discusses this one, but not at length. This brevity is understandable, the second typhoon did less damage and sank no ships. It does show, though, that the commander and staff of the Third Fleet learned little from their experiences with the first typhoon despite efforts to do so. The problem that Drury and Clavin have is that this second storm undermines their argument that Halsey was largely blameless for sailing into the typhoons.
The mechanics of publishing also favor Melton. Drury and Clavin have only one map. Melton has nine. He also provides an extensive bibliography and footnotes, whereas Drury and Clavin have a brief bibliography and make no effort to provide any sort of documentation on their sources. Drury and Clavin also make a number of basic mistakes when it comes to nautical matters and use maritime terms incorrectly. Examples include "helming" a ship; calling a battle jack a "battle guideon" (an Army term); referring to a ship's mess deck as its "mess hall." They also put generals in the Japanese Navy Ministry and refer to the Army Ministry as the "War Department" (an American term). Stylistically, Melton is the better wordsmith. Drury and Clavin use too many editorializing adverbs ("legendary" or "untold") to exaggerate the significance of their story.
Much more significant is the thesis of each book. Drury and Clavin make Lt. Cmdr. James Marks, captain of the USS HULL, out to be the main villain in this incident. The HULL was one of his ships lost in the first typhoon. This charge seems reasonable at first, but Marks' seamanship does not explain why the USS MONAGHAN and SPENCE sank, nor does it explain a number of close calls on other ships. It seems that the two authors allowed crewmen from the HULL that they interviewed for the book to use the opportunity to settle old scores with Marks. In fact, Drury and Clavin do not spend much time talking about ships other than the HULL while Melton does. Melton also gives much more attention to the post storm investigation. Since Marks was the subject of an official investigation, Drury and Clavin argue this was proof enough of his guilt. The fact that there was no court-martial or that the other captains died in the storm makes this observation rather weak. Melton gives a much more nuanced description of the investigation. Halsey rather than Marks was the main target of the investigation and the board placed primary blame for sailing into the storm on the Admiral. There were a number of mitigating circumstances, though, and Melton is good at describing them. This incident is no black and white morality play.
In short, Melton offers a much better book than Drury and Clavin.