Book Review: A Blue Sea of Blood: Deciphering the Mysterious Fate of the USS Edsall


by Donald M. Kehn, Jr

Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2008. Pp. xvii, 286. Illus, maps, notes, biblio., index. $26.00. ISBN:076033353X

This biography of USS Edsall, DD-219, draws on much new scholarship and some exhaustive research, especially from the Japanese side. The book synthesizes the work of a number of researchers, and offers many fascinating possible tangents for readers to pursue on their own.  It opens with Edsall's rescue activities at Smyrna in the early '20s, and works towards a climax on March 1, 1942.  The author then deals, of necessity, with the Japanese policy of murdering prisoners, and specifically with the death factory they set up at Kendari on Celebes.  There, Edsall's few survivors were beheaded by Japanese naval personnel, though the Imperial Navy tried to make it look like barbarity was strictly an Army vice.

This ship has interested this reviewer since I started studying the USAAF in the early Pacific war.  As far as any Americans knew, Edsall was proceeding on her last mission.  The ship had been escorting the aircraft transport Langley , which was carrying pilots scheduled to meet up in Java with P-40s delivered by the freighter SS Seawitch.  When Langley was sunk, Edsall picked up the pilots, and was proceeding to Java when she just disappeared from the face of the earth with no trace or survivors.

Now, from mostly Japanese sources, we finally know what happened.

Having apparently received from Allied naval command an all-ships recall order (i.e., "get out of Java now!"), Edsall had abandoned her forlorn mission to land the 32 USAAF pilots in Java, and supposedly began making her best speed to Australia.  This was made more difficult because while helping sink a Japanese submarine some days before, her own depth charges had damaged her shafts and bearings, and possibly one of her propellers, reducing her speed.  It was at this point that the U.S. Navy lost track of Edsall.

As we now know from Japanese plots of her position, Edsall had diverted from her course to undertake a rescue mission, heading for the last reported position of USS Pecos which had been sunk with 700 evacuees from Java and survivors of Langley aboard.  Unfortunately, the Imperial Navy's "First Air Fleet" was between Edsall and the Pecos survivors. The desperate rescue mission turned into a desperate epic battle, right up there in courage, daring, fighting skill, and expert ship handling with the October 25, 1944 , Battle Off Samar.

It is hard not to get emotional when reading of the last two hours in the life of USS Edsall, as the vibrating, shuddering, damaged old destroyer evades over 1300 major caliber shells from her tormentors, the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, and the brand-new heavy cruisers Chikuma and Tone, all of which were faster than she was.  The spunky destroyer somehow managed to keep them at bay, undertaking at least one torpedo attack on Chikuma, and repeatedly attempting to close to within range of her own old 4-inchers.  The ship's company used smoke screens, expert maneuvering, radical speed changes, and perhaps even magic.  Ultimately, the Japanese grew frustrated (Admiral Nagumo was reportedly furious) and had to call in three squadrons of dive bombers, and then, with Edsall burning and nearly helpless, they smothered her in heavy gunfire, a scene illustrated with stills from a Japanese newsreel.  The Japanese then picked up 8-12 survivors, about half crewmen and half Army Air Force personnel, and delivered them to Kendari for ritual beheading.

This is a truly valuable and remarkable book, though it sometimes assumes a knowledgeable readership: I may know who Dr. Wassel was, and what the 13th and 33rd Fighter Squadrons (Provisional) were, but most readers may not.  Never-theless, this is a minor point given the amazing wealth of information presented, and in any case the book may motivate people to look further on their own.  This, the author's first book, is a prodigious feat of research and detective work, even more impressive in that it was not academically-based.  Kehn has begun his writing career with an absolute tour-de-force.

Reviewer: Tom Wisker, Host "Weaponry", WBAI, New York    

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