As someone who reads widely across history, and has an interest in military history, I approached this book not knowing much about the subject.
By the end of the book, I felt incredibly sad, I felt angry, and I felt relieved knowing that it would very unlikely anyone I knew would have to go through what the sailors described in this book went through.
A non-fiction work by Bruce Henderson, Down to the Sea describes the men who made up the crews of three US Navy ships in World War 2, and their fate.
This is a tough book, because upon reading the premise of it, you realise that the end of it will not be a happy one. It is not.
If war is hell, then hell came as a watery, brutal end for many of the men whose faces peer out of the sepia photographs in the book. These are not characters, not amalgams of mens’ lives, merged into a fictional rendition – these are real (young) men, many of whom died in terrible circumstances.
The book is a tribute to them; actually to most of them, because, as the reader learns, not all the sailors (specifically some of the officers) were of the highest calibre. Not only were these sailors let down by the system that was the behemoth of the US wartime navy, they were let down by some inept leaders – both on their respective ships and on other ships.
It’s not unfair to call this book harrowing – and I write that as someone who’s read some pretty full-on military history (Kokoda by Peter FitzSimons comes immediately to mind).
It’s sad, it’s reflective, and it’s honest – mistakes cost many lives.
There is little to not recommend this book, as long as you want a wakeup call about the horrid, wastefulness that is war, or can handle knowing the outcome of the narrative of these mens’ lives come, inevitably, to an end.
If the body of the book itself is not sad enough, the postscript at the end is a final, shuddering reminder of the loss of lives that occurs after the medals are handed out and the ships sail home.
Bruce Henderson writes brilliantly – I’d read more of his work. The subject, and the knowledge of what occurs, however, is not one I’d happily or heartily recommend – and even then best not read immediately before you go to sleep.
It is, however, a tribute to men who sailed – and died – and, save for their families, may otherwise be forgotten. You will not forget these men if you read this book. Recommended.