On Valentine’s Day, Simon & Schuster will release my next book: Enterprise: America’s Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II. So you lovers out there (and you know who you are!) can add a rip-roaring sea tale to the usual bouquets and heart-shaped candy boxes.
“The Big E” was “the fightingest ship” because she was engaged in more battles and campaigns than any other U.S. Navy vessel. Her twenty battle stars represented a map of the Pacific War: from Pearl Harbor through Midway, the Guadalcanal campaign, the Central and Western Pacific offensives, to the shores of Japan. Only one cruiser even came close. Of the six Pacific Fleet carriers that fought during 1942, only Enterprise and the much-battered Saratoga survived the war.
As a high school freshman I read the first Enterprise “biography,” Edward P. Stafford’s classic The Big E. In elegant prose it described the ship’s wartime career from 1941 through decommissioning. Ed’s marvelous book—and his email support in retirement—inspired me to tell the full story from design to demolition.
Depending upon how you count such things (excluding forewords and excerpts in anthologies), Enterprise is my 45th book, 35th nonfiction. It may be the most satisfying I’ve yet written because it’s the most personal, and because it could not be written again. Here’s why:
Over the past several years I’ve tracked the rising attrition among World War II veterans via the contributors to my books. When Clash of the Carriers was published in 2005, 25% of the contributors were already deceased. Five years later, the figure for contributors to Whirlwind had risen to 40%. As of last year, at least 53% of the Big E men I interviewed have departed the pattern. In other words, mortality doubled in six years. Even more notably, when I began the book in 2009 only four of the original 2,100-some crew and air group remained from 1938. Just one of those “plankowners” was willing and able to talk.
Therefore, the story of USS Enterprise (CV-6) is very much a last-minute grab at history.
Fortunately, I started interviewing Enterprise veterans while there were still thousands living, in the 1970s. Today, the ship’s association knows of fewer than 450 among an estimated 15,000 or more who served aboard her between 1938 and 1946. She languished for 12 years before being sold for scrap, a terrible loss to the nation’s naval heritage.
In researching previous books I came to know, respect, and appreciate many Enterprise fliers. Fighter aces such as Swede Vejtasa and Don “Flash” Gordon; dive bomber greats including Dick Best and Jig Dog Ramage; torpedo pilots such as Mr. Night Flying, Bill Martin, and the irrepressible “Hotshot Charlie” Henderson. But I wanted my book to include the huge majority of Big E men who never flew. They include Barney Barnhill, the teenaged bugler who sent Enterprise to general quarters on December 7; Bill Norberg, yeoman for almost every wartime captain; and violin artist Arnold Olson who became a radar technician. Plus so many more.
The long-service “whitehats” and chief petty officers provided the basis for Enterprise’s exceptional performance. Probably no other warship retained so many highly-experienced sailors for so long. In fact, about 120 served for the entire war, and when the ship lowered her commissioning pennant in 1946 there were still four plankowners aboard from 1938.
Throughout her career the Big E had 15 captains, including nine wartime, though three of the latter were temporary. That none of the remaining six left a lasting impression should be seen in context. They averaged about six months aboard, whereas the executive officers, air officers, and damage-control specialists remained longer. Even today Enterprise vets speak reverently of Commanders John Crommelin, Tom Hamilton, and John Munro—committed leaders who knew their jobs and their men intimately. “Uncle John” Crommelin was one of those rare people who did everything extremely well, and always had time for subordinates, even after he left the ship. Tom Hamilton, Navy’s winning prewar football coach, had helped prepare naval aviation for the coming war. And John Munro proved expert at his trade, keeping the Big E going though hit by Japanese bombs and kamikazes four times in two months.
Among my favorite characters was one whom I regret that I never met. Chief B. H. Beams was a big, brawny man who served as the ship’s master at arms—basically the police chief. “Bulkhead” Beams wielded his considerable authority with easy competence, seldom if ever resorting to force. Upon finding an illicit crap game he faced a dilemma: he could ignore the miscreants, who knew they’d been busted, or run them in. But Bulkhead had a third option. He knelt on the deck, anted up, and in an astonishingly short time he won the more astonishing total of $17,000—1944 dollars, equal to more than $200,000 today. He made sure that he lost it all before resuming his duties.
Then there was the irreverent Ensign Jerry Flynn, erstwhile Notre Dame cheerleader in charge of the ship’s lookouts. He was also the Big E’s sparkplug, the morale booster who feared no man—nor admiral. His ongoing feud with task group commander “Black Jack” Reeves (named for his disposition rather than any gambling acumen) became Enterprise legend.
Other Enterprise alumni made their marks after the war. One of the late-war officers was Lieutenant Charles B. Wilkinson, better known as Bud, the stellar Oklahoma football coach of the 1950s and 60s. And fighter pilot Jack Taylor named his business after his beloved carrier, founding a fabulously successful rental car business in 1957.
Today the current Enterprise (CVN 65)—the first nuclear-powered carrier--is scheduled for her final deployment of a 51-year career. Regrettably, there will probably never be a third flattop to bear the name because the Navy prefers to recognize mere politicians over essential warships. But whatever future vessels may be named, one thing is certain: there can never ben another ship so vitally important as the original Big E.
Available for preorder on Amazon.com until February 13 and for regular orders thereafter.