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Seapower in Culture Interregnum


The Seapower in Culture series continues, although at a much slower pace than I had hoped for. At the Diplomat, James Holmes has thoughts on Battleship and In Harm’s Way. Of the latter:

Apart from Pearl Harbor, the battles shown on screen are amalgams of legendary engagements like Midway, Guadalcanal, and Leyte Gulf. Curiously, the makers also saw fit to fictionalize well-known figures like Admiral Husband Kimmel (“CINCPAC I”), the aforementioned Pacific Fleet commander who had the misfortune to be in charge on December 7, and his successor, Admiral Chester Nimitz (“CINCPAC II”), who oversaw the Central Pacific counteroffensive against Japan.

My favorite part of In Harm’s Way is that it captures a navy at a time of wrenching change. As someone once said, you go to war with the army you have. In 1941 the U.S. Navy went to war with the fleet it had—except that the Pacific Fleet the United States had on December 8 looked radically different than the one moored near Ford Island at dawn on December 7. The maimed navy had to wage war with the implements that remained to it until 1943, when the entirely new fleet Congress had authorized in the 1940 Two-Ocean Navy Act had been fitted out and began arriving in the theater. Battleship engagements were out; unrestricted submarine warfare and aircraft-carrier raids on Japanese outposts were in. Methods changed while the battle line remained ablaze in Pearl Harbor.

See also Jim Emerson’s unsympathetic but fair discussion of the late Tony Scott’s filmmaking.

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  • Nigel Holmes

    Any chance you’ll be looking at Battle of the River Plate?

  • I want an LGM series on landlocked admirals such as Horthy and Kolchak.

  • Ken B.

    I enjoyed the film “Battleship”. It challenged my suspension of disbelief at times but if there is another movie which better illustrates the use of an anchor to reduce the turning radius of a ship I haven’t seen it.

  • Edward Furey

    The fleet was badly hurt at Pearl Harbor, but there were still plenty of heavy ships available. Nimitz considered bringing out eight battlewagons in San Diego, similar to those crippled at Pearl Harbor, for the battle of Midway, but decided they were too slow and poorly armed with AA guns to keep up with the carriers or defend themselves.

    Also, the North Carolina and South Dakota class battleships had joined the fleet prior to the 1940 program ships. South Dakota and Washington fought in battleship to battleship actions off Guadalcanal, and their huge antiaircraft batteries played a role in defending the fleet in other Guadalcanal-related actions. South Dakota shot down 26 planes escorting Enterprise in the battle of Santa Cruz.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    I think the special effects in In Harm’s Way are sorta chintzy, but it’s the only WW2 film that gets the silhouettes of the Japanese ships right. (Yes, this actually matters to some of us.) Sure, the actual sea battles are laughable, but, as Battleship proves, that isn’t hard to do with modern effects either.

    As for the rest, I never understood why they didn’t simply go ahead and make a film about the later Solomons campaigns. Sure, they were sideshows, but they were pretty exciting sideshows and involved some hard fighting at the end of some pretty slender supply lines. The fictionalized version is, imho, not anywhere near as convincing.

  • Some Guy

    I wouldn’t mind a look at 2005’s Yamato, which may or may not have an interesting look on battleship culture on the losing end.

  • steverino

    I have had a nagging complaint with the novel In Harm’s Way: before a battle the CO tours the ship informally, and shares some ice cream with crewmen. As a former enlisted, I find his interaction with the crew, his having to ask them what they call the sticky-sweet concoction, and the impression that he has to force the “geedunk” down his throat to maintain appearances, incredibly condescending.

    Of course, that’s on a WWII skimmer; in modern subs as I was on the officer-enlisted separation may be a bit looser. I know that on the tenders we associated with even the PO1s were considered a class apart.

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