A Sea Story with a California Twist

Humble Heroes: How the USS Nashville CL-43 Fought World War II
Steven George Bustin
BookSurge Publishing
2007

Off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, on ...
Off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, on 1 April 1942. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of all of the capital ships that fought World War II, the cruisers have been all but forgotten. We remember the roles of the aircraft carriers, the battleships, the destroyers and the frigates that escorted convoys, and the Liberty ships that got the supplies through. But what about the cruisers?

Novato businessman and scholar Steven George Bustin takes an important step toward filling in this blank spot in popular history with his “Humble Heroes.” An entertaining and informative if sometimes trying read (his inconsistent handling of names and ranks will grate on specialists and confuse the layman), in focusing on his father’s ship, the USS Nashville (CL-43), the author demonstrates how these multi-mission workhorses actually did some of the most interesting and essential work of the war.

Nashville did a little of everything: convoy escort in the North Atlantic; transporting a secret load of British gold from London to New York; escorting the carriers that launched the Doolittle raid; serving as a flagship for Douglas MacArthur; taking the Japanese surrender in Shanghai; and finally bringing thousands of troops home from the war. If there was a naval mission to be assigned in World War II, Nashville probably accomplished it.

Built on a mix of oral history and naval documents for the core of his account, Bustin stretches his material as far as possible, and perhaps a bit further. What comes out of this account for the serious historian is that there is a larger story to be told here about the role cruisers played in World War II.  Nashville was useful because she combined powerful, multi-purpose armament with endurance and survivability. Expensive to build (she cost as much as a much larger heavy cruiser when built), in the end, she and her fellow Brooklyn-class light cruisers wound up being a great bargain for the country.

Today the U.S. Navy and other maritime forces around the world grapple with tradeoffs as they design and build ships. Do we make this ship great at one thing (anti-submarine, anti-air, anti-surface, amphibious, etc), the admirals ask themselves, or try to make it adequate at a lot of things? While Nashville makes an argument for the latter, it is also a reminder that such capabilities do not come cheaply.

For the California historian, there are tidbits to enjoy throughout the book. Despite the Nashville’s East Coast origins, she was a Pacific ship from before the beginning of the war. The crew saw as much of San Diego, Mare Island, Oakland, and San Francisco more often than Pearl Harbor, and Bustin, who has taught at universities in the Bay Area, spices his account with local California color often enough to make the reader feel that the Nashville was a California ship.

In all, the book is a fun read, and appealing especially to those of us for whom World War II is – or is becoming – relevant.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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