Wednesday, January 06, 2010

"Sea Fights and Shipwrecks"

Browsing a used book stall below 14th street, my eyes found "Sea Fights and Shipwrecks" by Hanson W. Baldwin published in 1954. It's a sturdy but weathered hardcover with that thicker page paper of days past. There is no short bio of the author within the jacket cover as is the norm today, but somehow Baldwin's name resonated and the book came home.

It turns out that Baldwin was a New York Times war correspondant and military editor for 40 years and won the Pulitzer prize in 1942 for his coverage of the war in the Pacific. As befits the topic of this book he was a graduate of the Naval Academy. That helps explain the sense that this book is the result of some adolescent obsession that gets actualized in middle age.

"Sea Fights and Shipwrecks" contains 18 freestanding factual tales of sea disasters and carnage. Like the style of a city reporter of the distant past, the stories are written in such a factual way that the presence of a writer almost doesn't exist. They appear to be thoroughly researched and the drama is maintained by the momentum of the facts rather than any embellishment or theory. On top of that, if one is inclined by nature or profession to be a maritime type guy or gal(I am not) this must be an almost orgasmic read with all of the terminology and references related to boats and the scientific sounding descriptions of the moods of sea and sky.

There are wrecks, disasters, and fights on the ocean here from 1816 to 1945. There's the Titanic and the Lusitania, the first two read here, and the similarities and contrasts are there to see. There are lines like "Then the problem had been the selection of a tasty dessert; now it is survival." and that's speaking of a 22 minute span. Maybe everyone knows this but new to me was the advertisement placed in the New York Times by the Imperial German Embassy on the morning of the Lusitania's sailing that "vessels flying the flag of Great Britian are liable to destruction".

There's the Okinawa "Last Battle" between the U.S. fleet and the Japanese kamikazes, the saga of the U.S.S. Houston, and many more. As occasional one off vignettes the stories are tight and informative but it's hard to imagine this book as a sequential straight through read. We once lived next door to an engineer who specialized in ship building and his daughter is now a Commander in the U.S. Navy so it's highly likely he's one who would go for it. I need to remember his birthday.


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