Read Time:4 Minute, 12 Second
I picked up an e-book Carrier! Life Aboard a World War II Aircraft Carrier for 99 cents the other day, despite the generally poor reviews – and ended up very happy that I did.
It turned out the book is actually a republication of the 1944 book Daybreak For Our Carrier by reserve officer Lt. Max Miller, a peacetime writer called into service during the war. Miller was writing about what life on an aircraft carrier was like for people back home during the war, so the book is almost completely lacking in specifics – no ship or aircraft or island names at all – just his take on what it's like on this new type of warship.
The book began almost exactly the same as the narration for the movie The Fighting Lady, also released in 1944 about life on the same carrier. It's only slightly sappy in places, but not overly so given the age – in fact it's one of the more restrained pieces of its era that I've read. But his take is simply terrific. He's not presenting life as an exercise in patriotism and duty but as simply what goes on on the ship. Three images in the book stood out to me.
First, he described the predawn General Quarters during which all the ship's planes would be warmed up and readied for possible launch on the flight deck. But here's the picture he paints of what he sees when he looks down from the island through the complete darkness toward the tightly packed planes spotted aft:
"The blue-reddish flames from the multitude of exhausts, all bursting and roaring at the same time in the blackness, is what gives the flight deck its Dante’s Inferno complexion during such times. They do not throw out much light but they do throw out terrible shadows under the wings and against the fuselages; fiery shadows which appear to be leaping and shrieking in a mad effort to get the hell away from there. It is as if, too, the devil’s own little henchmen were having a lot to do with the affair, as if they deliberately were stirring it up, as if they were wanting a real fight to occur between flame and flame, the winner being the one which can out roar the other."
What an incredible mental image – one that had never occurred to me since I've never seen engine exhaust at night, and never thought about the shadows it'd throw under the packed aircraft.
You can catch a glimpse of it in these two paintings by his fellow reserve office William Draper who was aboard the same ship a few months later, and painted views from the island at night.
Miller also paints metaphorical pictures of the ship during an operation, noting that due to its sending its planes out, it becomes hard to know how the day went.
For a carrier’s pattern of operations, as previously mentioned, continues to be a sort of fourth-dimensional one even during an engagement…. Each of these tangents is a thread then, and if under the pressure of the weaving, these threads get lost or snap, the day’s design automatically may change…. that is the trouble with engagements in general. They do not follow the rules of good theater any more than a day’s pattern will always stick to its original design.
Another great example of writing that conveys what carrier life must have been like. Unlike the ships around it, the carrier's life is tied up in what happens to its aircraft.
He also refers several times to the dark catwalk under the flight deck that led from the squadron ready rooms to the flight deck. This would have been suspended above the hangar deck, and would have been the place all the pilots traversed on their way to their planes – a sort of tunnel suspended in space. Pointing it out just really brought home to me the journey that these men were about to make.
Finally, he narrates his trip as an observer in a plane on a bombing mission, and provides yet another unique description of the carrier. Every account I've ever read refers to the carrier in maternal terms – as a mother hen to her fliers. His experience after leaving her deck was different – he writes that "[i]n shoving us out of the nest she merely had turned from a mother ship into a rather stern old dad." And a dad that expected results, he continues. That's a completely unique observation about a carrier.
In summary, a great little book. I hunted a good copy down online after I read the e-book. I want my own copy of this one.