Book Review: On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle. New York: Doubleday, 2018.

☆☆☆☆☆ Highly Recommended

Hampton Sides’ new book On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, The Korean War’s Greatest Battle, illustrates misery suffered by the First Marine Division from October through December 1950. From the comfort of his headquarters in Tokyo, General Douglas MacArthur tragically ordered the First Marine Division far beyond the 38th Parallel to the Yalu River, the waterway itself a border with China. The First Marine Division found itself surrounded and outnumbered by over 200,000 Chinese troops at the Chosin Reservoir. MacArthur’s strategic folly was worsened by the harsh winter in the North Korean mountains; temperatures falling to -20 to -70 degrees making the predicament more challenging for the U.S. Marines.

Sides’ work is not a complete history of the First Marine Division in Korea or at the Chosin Reservoir in 1950, but an overarching historical narrative which highlights individual heroism and struggle experienced by the First Marine Division from the initial landing, fighting trek northward, battle at the Reservoir, to the final desperate pullback to Hamhung and Hungnam and awaiting ships. Despite the narrative’s different format, Side’s new contribution to the history of the Korean War is a must-read. The writing is creative, fresh and brings this history of the legendary First Marine Division to life. On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, The Korean War’s Greatest Battle is highly recommended—I could not put the book down.

The author skillfully interweaves the First Marine Division’s plight within historical context of behind-the-scenes maneuverings in Washington D.C. and China. Notable historical figures include: Major General Oliver Smith, USMC; Navy Cross and Silver Star winner Lt. Chew-Een Lee, USMC; Congressional Medal of Honor winner Private Hector Cafferata Jr., USMC; and Silver Star recipient Private Kenneth Benson USMC.

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Posted by on December 9, 2018 in Book Reviews, The Korean War


Book Review: Hitlerland: American Eyewitness to the Nazi Rise to Power

Book Review: Hitlerland: American Eyewitness to the Nazi Rise to Power

Simon & Schuster’s Hitlerland: American Eyewitness to the Nazi Rise to Power

☆☆☆☆☆ Highly recommended

Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland: American Eyewitness to the Nazi Rise to Power fills a void for American journalistic perspective on Hitler’s Germany in the 1920s and ‘30s. Readers will recognize names such as William Shirer, Howard K. Smith, Richard Helms, and others whose roles as journalists, correspondents, and diplomats placed them in the heart of Berlin, Germany in the years following the First World War. Nagorski writes: “They served as America’s eyes and ears in Germany, and they helped produce the proverbial first draft of history. Like all first drafts, it isn’t always on the mark, but it offers highly unusual, very personal perspectives on Hitler’s rise and Germany’s march to the abyss.” He concludes: “… the Americans in Germany gradually eroded isolationist sentiments and prepared their countrymen psychologically for the years of bloodshed and struggle ahead. This was the real contribution of the Americans in Hitler’s Germany”[1]

Nagorski effectively weaves these American voices into historical context which we know escalated into the Holocaust and Hitler’s failed military leadership. Vivid narrative from this American contingent of writers shows us up close the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 through the 1933 elections to the 1936 Olympics to early victories on the Eastern Front. And myriad events in between.

The author’s collection and synthesis of eyewitness accounts as events unfolded in Berlin without the ‘rearview mirror’ of historical perspective and narrative makes Hitlerland an important work. This book will appeal to those fascinated with pre-war Berlin as well as scholars of Adolf Hitler and his early-war conquests before 1942. Nagorski’s Hitlerland is one book you’ll keep in your personal library for subsequent reference and re-reading.

[1] Andrew Nagorski, Hitlerland: American Eyewitness to the Nazi Rise to Power. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013) p. 327.

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Posted by on December 26, 2016 in Book Reviews, WWII Germany


The Long Goodbye to the Greatest Generation

Photo from the National Archives

From the National Archives: ” GI’s at the Rainbow Corner Red Cross Club in Paris, France, whoop it up after buying the special edition of the Paris Post, which carried the banner headline, `JAPS QUIT.'” T3c. G. Lempeotis, August 10, 1945. 111-SC-210208. National Archives Identifier: 531309

As Christmas nears, I am moved to make mention of the declining number of World War II veterans who are alive and with us today. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans cites the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “They are dying quickly—according to US Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, only 620,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2016.” [1] Illustrated another way, 620,000 represents just 3.875% of the 16 million Americans who served during that war. This low percentage is sobering and is projected to be 0.5% (80,000) in ten years. The percentages could be similar for those other nations that fought for the Allied and Axis Powers, depending on mortality rates and standards of living in those countries.

In the liner notes of his 1985 CD Scarecrow, John Mellencamp wrote: “There is nothing more sad or glorious than generations changing hands.” It is needless to paraphrase Mellencamp’s quote or explain its appropriateness here. The long goodbye accelerates as we “change hands” with the men and women of the Greatest Generation. If you still have a loved one among this group, hold them close this Christmas season.

[1] The National WWII Museum, Accessed 23 December 2016.

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Posted by on December 23, 2016 in World War II - General


Book Review: Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission

From Simon & Schuster: Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission

From Simon & Schuster: Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission

2016 by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Simon & Schuster

☆☆☆☆☆ Highly recommended

When I consider new work detailing personal wartime history, my initial concerns are: “where does this fit in context of the vast literature of the Second World War,” and “why is this story important and noteworthy?” Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission (non-fiction) by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, authors of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Heart of Everything That Is, tells the true story of U.S. Army Air Forces pilot Lieutenant Colonel Jay Zeamer, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Zeamer, along with his B-17 crew, helped clear the way for Admiral Bull Halsey and General MacArthur’s commencement of Operation Cartwheel in June 1943 in the southwestern Pacific.

On 16 June 1943, “Lucky 666,” the moniker for Zeamer’s patchwork B-17 Flying Fortress, was tasked with critical photo reconnaissance of both the Japanese airdrome on Buka Island and Bougainville’s west coast. Both locations held large numbers of Japanese aircraft—Zeros from the 251st Imperial Air Squadron (these Japanese Zeros were the newer and faster Mitsubishi A6M3). Without the security of fighter aircraft accompanying their mission, Zeamer and his crew were to complete this photo reconnaissance and return safely from their mission—a 1200 mile solo flight—itself a miracle. The authors note that their return was not without peril however: “The final flight of old 666 with Capt. Jay Zeamer at the helm commanding his crew of Eager Beavers was—and remains—the longest continuous dogfight in the annals of the United States Air Force.” (p. 287) Yes, it was one against many. I won’t spoil the story for those who have yet to read this thrilling contribution to the literature, but the ‘devil is in the details’ as the saying goes. And Old 666 was a special aircraft as you’ll discover.

The authors suggest that the heroism of Zeamer and his B-17 crew helped save countless lives among the 37,000 U.S. Marines and Army G.I.s whom would storm the beaches at Bougainville. (p. 261) Citing historians Dr. John Prados and Bruce Gamble, Drury and Clavin offer that it was the Solomon Islands Campaign which served as a turning point for the Allies in the Pacific and not the Battle of Midway. (p. 292-293) No matter which side you take in that ongoing historical debate, the true story of Zeamer and his brave crew is well worth your time.

Lucky 666: The Impossible Missions ample Bibliography is replete with primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include Zeamer Family Papers and mementos belonging to the estates of the crew. This new work will appeal to those readers fond of the stout B-17 Flying Fortress and aviation history as well as aficionados of the War in the Pacific during the Second World War.

Scott Lyons
18 Nov 2016


Posted by on November 18, 2016 in WWII in the Pacific

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