"ENTERPRISE: America's Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II,” by Barrett Tillman, Simon & Schuster, $27, 320 pages (nf)
In 1941, the world entered a new age of naval warfare. Beginning with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the aircraft carrier became the critical weapon of the Pacific War. With air superiority absolutely vital to modern operations, every major engagement in the Pacific during World War II included at least one carrier to guarantee that superiority. The Battle of the Coral Sea in early 1942 became the first battle in world history in which the combatants on surface ships never saw each other — the battle was fought entirely by American and Japanese planes striking the enemy.
Historian Barrett Tillman's new book, “Enterprise: America's Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II,” is an amazing look at one carrier's service in the Pacific cauldron. An expert in the history of carrier operations and naval aviation in World War II, Tillman expertly traces the life of this grand lady in what amounts to nothing short of a ship's biography.
Tillman compares the Pacific Ocean to a chess board and notes that the aircraft carrier was the queen — a vessel so mobile and with such striking power that it completely changed the nature of naval warfare. The Enterprise, or "the Big E" as her crew called her, served in just about every major battle of the Pacific and used its striking power to great effect against the Japanese enemy.
From the transfer of planes to Pearl Harbor during the devastating Japanese attack, to the Battle of Midway six months later when American forces forever destroyed the Japanese strategic initiative, to the heavy 1944 battles in the Marianas Turkey Shoot and the colossal Battle of Leyte Gulf, Enterprise successfully defended American freedom in the face of Japanese aggression.
As Tillman notes in the final chapter, given the dearth of carriers early in the war, had Enterprise been destroyed in early 1942, the Pacific War could have well lasted into 1947 or 1948. Enterprise was absolutely essential in the late-1942 Guadalcanal campaign, which prevented the Japanese from seriously threatening Australia. Additionally, future bomber bases closer to Japan's home islands would not easily have fallen to the U.S. had Enterprise not punched a hole in the sky for American troops.
Where the work does suffer is in Tillman's efforts to catalog the various transfers of men and units to and from Enterprise. It is a bit hard to keep up with the endless stream of names, and with a few exceptions few of the aviators and crewmen mentioned reappear later. This is a minor point, however. Tillman's grand strategic and operational narrative keep this a generally engaging book from start to finish.
Importantly, Tillman illustrates the human cost of the war, as pilots are shot down and savage Japanese attacks cause catastrophic damage throughout the ship. One gains a better appreciation for the brave men who served in damage control units, as they risked, and too often gave their lives, to save the Big E and their shipmates.
For those interested in carrier operations in World War II, or the Pacific theater in general, Tillman's book will impress with its narrative and humble with its tale of courageous fighting men and a remarkable naval weapon.
Cody K. Carlson holds an master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]