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The Gun Club: USS Duncan at Cape Esperance, by Robert Fowler

Los Angeles: Winthrop & Fish, 2017. . Pp. 366. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0999075306.

A Destroyer and Her Crew at War

With only slight changes, Robert Fowler could have opened this book with a quote from Nicholas Monserrat’s The Cruel Sea, “This is the story – the long and true story – of one ocean, two ships, and about one hundred and fifty men.” For Fowler tells a comprehensive, very readable tale of the destroyer Duncan (DD 485) and the approximately 275 men who served in her, from her commissioning on April. 16, 1942, until her loss a few days short of six months later on October 12, 1942, in the aftermath of the nocturnal Battle of Cape Esperance, the first successful American surface action with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Among the 80 crewmen who died was his father, the ship’s torpedo officer, Lt. Robert Ludlow Fowler III.

This is more than just an operational history. It provides a look at the life and war of the ship and, more importantly, of her crew. As Fowler, who was a toddler at the time of his father’s death, recounts the history of the ship, he also gives us a look at his father’s life and portraits of many of the men who served with him in her. So we get details on ship’s routine, engineering, weaponry, meals, liberty, and more, all drawn from his father’s letters and the writings and reminiscences of Duncan veterans. One of the more interesting revelations, is that not only were there well-known tensions between Academy officers and “90 day wonders”, but that both career officers and enlisted personnel often treated wartime volunteer personnel poorly.

Fowler’s account of Cape Esperance, the U.S. Navy’s first victory over the Imperial Navy in a surface action, is clear and understandable. During it, the Duncan put in a sterling performance, accounting for the Japanese heavy cruiser Furutaka, done in by one of Lt. Fowler’s torpedoes. Fowler offers some useful commentary on many of the men involved, notably Rear-Adm. Norman Scott, who, despite his outstanding performance at Cape Esperance, would, a month later, perish while commanding in a squadron under a much less experienced but more senior officer. There’s also some valuable criticism of various aspects of the fight, most notably the poor use of radar, a combination of Navy’s over confidence in the still-new technology, and of hastily trained personnel.

The Gun Club is a good read for anyone interested in the Pacific War, naval tactics, and men who go down to the sea in ships.

Note: The Gun Club is also available as an e-Book and Audiobook.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


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