Thursday, October 27, 2016

PT Boats from My Childhood, Part 2

John Clagett knew his PT Boats. He commanded one of the small craft during the War and, when he became a novelist, based much of his fiction on his experiences.

Torpedo Run on Iron Bottomed Bay (1969), is the second of two young adult novels about PT boats I read as a kid. And, like The Hostile Beaches, it is a gripping and exciting story.

The main character is a seventeen-year-old sailor named Larry Cushing, whose experience working on small boats while growing up makes him a good fit for a PT. Larry is in some ways a generic character--pleasant, easy to get along with, and eager to learn. He demonstrates good marksmanship also, which gets him assigned to one of the twin .50 caliber machines guns.

What keeps Larry from being a cipher is Clagett's skill in making him likable and realistically describing emotions like fear and terror. Combat is scary and Larry definitely gets scared.

But he still does his job, demonstrating an intense loyalty to his friends and fellow crew. Larry is meant to be someone the book's target audiences can identify with and in this Clagett succeeds completely. I undoubtedly identified with him when I read the book as an 11-year-old and I still identified him reading the book as an adult.

Clagett does a great job with the action scenes as well. Especially notable is PT 107's first attempt to make a torpedo run against Japanese warships. The PT's engines suddenly conk out and the boat is floating helpless in the water while searchlights sweep around looking for them.

There's also a magnificent section describing the naval battle of Guadalcanal, as seen by the PT crews from an island hilltop---several successive nights of watching capital warships blasting each other apart.

There another plot-line running through the book. One of Larry's crew-mates is a Japanese-American named John Watanabe, with whom Larry develops a close friendship. When John is seen talking with several sick and ragged Japanese soldiers who are still lurking in the jungle surrounding the PT boat base, he's arrested as a traitor. Larry, though, is convinced that whatever John was up to, it was legitimate. Saving his friend from a court-martial means contacting the Japanese stragglers himself--something that could get Larry and another friend killed.

If I had to pick a favorite between Torpedo Run at Iron Bottomed Bay and The Hostile Beaches, I think I would lean towards the latter as being a little more intense and edge-of-your-seat. But it's a close call. Both are excellent war stories stuffed to the gills with authenticity.

But we're not done yet with the World War II fiction of my youth. Finding these two books launched a personal jihad of Googling until I was able to identify the two remaining books from my youth that I had always wanted to re-read. One is another story of naval combat in the Pacific. The other is an anthology of tales dealing mostly with infantry combat. Over the next month or two, we'll visit with each of these.

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