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Unsinkable

Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett

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In the bestselling tradition of Indianapolis and In Harm’s Way comes a “captivating…gripping” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) account of the USS Plunkett—a US Navy destroyer that sustained the most harrowing attack on any Navy ship by the Germans during World War II, later made famous by John Ford and Herman Wouk.

“A reflection on the nature of storytelling itself” (The Wall Street Journal), Unsinkable traces the individual journeys of five men on one ship from Casablanca in North Africa, to Sicily and Salerno in Italy and then on to Plunkett’s defining moment at Anzio, where a dozen-odd German bombers bore down on the ship in an assault so savage, so prolonged, and so deadly that one Navy commander was hard-pressed to think of another destroyer that had endured what Plunkett had. After a three-month overhaul and with a reputation rising as the “fightin’est ship” in the Navy, Plunkett (DD-431) plunged back into the war at Omaha Beach on D-Day, and again into battle during the invasion of Southern France—perhaps the only Navy ship to participate in every Allied invasion in the European theatre.

Featuring five incredibly brave men—the indomitable skipper, who will receive the Navy Cross; the gunnery officer, who bucks the captain every step of the way to Anzio; a first lieutenant, who’s desperate to get off the ship and into the Pacific; a seventeen-year-old water tender, who’s trying to hold onto his hometown girl against all odds, and another water tender, who mans a 20mm gun when under aerial assault—the dramatic story of each plays out on the decks of the Plunkett as the ship’s story escalates on the stage of the Mediterranean. Based on Navy logs, war diaries, action reports, letters, journals, memoirs, and dozens of interviews with the men who were on the ship and their families, Unsinkable is a timeless evocation of young men stepping up to the defining experience of their lives. “If you were moved by Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, by William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land…by the values we hold dear, decency, sacrifice, steadfastness, then Unsinkable will take you to a place long dead in your soul, and flood it with light” (Doug Stanton, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Horse Soldiers).

Chapter 1: The Goddamned Harbor 1: THE GODDAMNED HARBOR
JANUARY 1944

Every year on the Fourth of July through the early 1970s, my extended family gathered in the backyard of our house in Quincy, Massachusetts. They came with dented metal coolers, crockpots, and foil-covered casserole dishes, in Bermuda shorts and headscarfs, with webbed lawn chairs and Polaroid cameras, from jobs as union pipe coverers, tool-and-die mechanics, and subway car drivers (the men) and housework and child-rearing (the women). They’d bang the earwigs out of the aluminum tubes of their lawn chairs, set them in a great circle, and call for the younger kids to fetch cans of Schlitz and Narragansett. My great-uncle Frank Gallagher used to call for his whiskey with two thick fingers waved overhead, as if giving the signal to move out, and some obliging niece or nephew would pour him a neat one from the gang of bottles on our porch. Most of the great-uncles, like Frank, had gone away to World War II, which was a circumstance of personal history so ordinary in that backyard on those languorous afternoons that the details hardly qualified as something to talk about. Little was said, for example, about the shell that blew my grandmother’s youngest brother, Eddie Martin, out of a foxhole after he’d waded ashore at Omaha Beach and fought his way into Normandy. (They recovered Eddie upside down in a tree, good to go for another thirty years, albeit with one leg missing.) As a boy, I’d have liked to have heard that story, or what it was like for my great-uncle Billy Lydon to burst into Bastogne on a tank during the Battle of the Bulge. Billy saw more combat than any of us, my great-uncle Leo Meehan told me after Billy died, shaking his head over what he knew. Instead in those days, rather than remember the horror and the anguish of what they’d seen and experienced, they talked about what was funny or improbable. One great-uncle’s most frequently told story involved an ice cream machine he’d dropped in the Pacific when he was trying to transfer it by haul line from his supply ship to another Navy vessel. Another great-uncle liked to tell about how he’d tapped an electrical circuit in a colonel’s bunker so his crew in the neighboring bunker, on a godforsaken beachhead, could also have light. And then there was the time Frank Gallagher slipped from camp and made his way into Naples, Italy, one day in January of 1944…

It was before sunset, and a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Plunkett, lay at anchor in 32 fathoms (180 feet) of water. From the bridge, the officer of the deck had recorded the ship’s position in the deck logs with respect to several local landmarks. Fort Dell’Ovo, a modular fifteenth-century edifice known in English as Egg Castle, rose sheer from the water’s edge about a half mile distant. Clockwise through twenty-five degrees of arc that included the storied seaside neighborhood of Santa Lucia was Nuovo Castle, a more archetypal citadel with rounded, crenellated towers. And farther still to the right was the mile-long reach of the harbor’s principal pier, or mole as they called them along the Mediterranean seaboard. Seven other U.S. Navy destroyers were moored nearby, embedded in a larger contingent of the Allied fleet, preparing for the greatest invasion of the war thus far.

After the Allies had come ashore at Salerno four months earlier, the march on Rome had ground to a halt at the Germans’ Gustav Line near Monte Cassino, halfway between Salerno and Rome. The Germans commanded the high ground here above two valleys the Allies had not been able to punch through, and needed to, if they were to take Rome. Ever the man for military micromanagement, Winston Churchill concocted a scheme to do an end run around Cassino with an amphibious landing. In Naples, which the Allies had taken three weeks after the Salerno landings in September and whose port was funneling the American Fifth Army into the war on the Italian mainland, everyone knew an invasion was imminent—just how imminent no one could say. Every day more vessels crowded the harbor. They were on the verge of something.

Late that Sunday afternoon, Private Frank Gallagher stole away from his camp, without a pass, and made his way into Naples, half-filling a jerry can with Italian red wine along the way. They’d been telling everyone to stay out of Naples, the typhus was running rampant, but Frank figured “that was the shit.” At the harbor’s edge, he walked along the mole, scanning a panorama of ships for hull number 431.

A medic in the 36th Infantry Division of the Fifth Army, Frank had come into Italy from North Africa at Salerno, on a beach so hot German Panzer tanks had rumbled right down onto the sand in the midst of the American assault. The beachhead was tenuous for a week after the initial landing, prompting the Fifth Army’s commander, General Mark Clark, to think about evacuating back out to sea. If this next invasion was to be anything like Salerno, Frank wanted to see his brother John one more time.

On shore, no one Frank asked could tell him whether Plunkett was among the anchored vessels. At the Navy task force’s flagship—the “admiral’s ship,” Frank called it—he addressed one of the topside sailors, asking whether Plunkett was out there. It was in the area, he was told. There wasn’t any way out among the ships from the mole, so Frank walked the edge of the harbor until he came into the neighborhood of Santa Lucia, which inspired a song that Neapolitan immigrants carried to America in the late nineteenth century. The lyrics of the song invite a boatman to shove off in his boat to enjoy the cool of the evening. “Come into my nimble little boat,” the song goes. “Oh, how beautiful to be on the ship!” The boatman Frank encountered was offering no such palliative.

Instead, after coming down a stairway from the Santa Lucia promenade onto an ample stone terrace jutting into the water, Frank hopped into a little boat, a bumboat, tied to one of the terrace’s cleats, and told the boatman to row him out. The man protested, arguing back in Italian that was Greek to Frank.

“No,” Frank said, cutting him short. “Row out in the goddamned harbor.”

At a glance, Frank didn’t appear physically intimidating. He was of average height and build, his face square and no-nonsense. He was naturally abrupt, and skeptical, but ever alert for the possibility of a little fun. He’d been hauling off that can now and then, and he was already a little glorious with the wine this afternoon.

The Italian worked his oars, and the boat jerked from behind a crescent of breakwater stones and headed out among the moored Navy vessels. Frank directed the boatman to steer for the telltale profiles of two-stacked destroyers, casting about for the hull number that would identify the ship as the one he wanted. “And don’t you think I saw the Plunkett,” he said.

The destroyer was as long as a football field plus most of its end zones, big but by no means titanic. It had four boilers, two propellers, thirteen ship’s officers, plus seven additional squadron officers, and 265 sailors, including a twenty-seven-year-old water tender from Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood whose day job on the ship was in the aft fire room, but whose battle station at general quarters was on a 20mm machine gun, one of six on Plunkett.

The shanghaied Italian mariner brought his boat up to Plunkett’s accessibly low fantail, the deck just four-and-a-half feet above the waterline, and Frank hauled himself and his can up and aboard. “I should have been shot dead,” he said. “I had a can. It could have been a mine or anything.”

One of Plunkett’s sailors was onto him straightaway. “Where’d you come from?”

“That little guinea just rowed me out here,” Frank said, referencing the Italian as the Irish disparaged them back in Boston.

The sailor summoned Plunkett’s skipper, Eddie Burke, a thirty-six-year-old graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, who’d grown up in a small town outside Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and who’d won acclaim as an All-American football player, and as a light heavyweight boxer. Six feet tall, and built like a linebacker still, with a broad, fleshy face and a gap between his front teeth, Burke looked like the kind of guy James Cagney would send for to do the heavy work.

As Burke laid into Frank on the fantail, a boatswain’s mate in the ship’s bridge piped a shrill whistle into the intercom, as he did every afternoon before sunset and before dawn, when German bombing attacks were most likely. In the wake of the whistle came the boatswain’s call: “General quarters, general quarters, all hands man your battle stations.” Then he activated a klaxon, and a harsh, electric whang throbbed from the ship’s speakers like the pulse of a magnificent metal beast.

No one on Plunkett dallied. No one played sluggish. They vaulted the eighteen-inch-high thresholds of the bulkheads between compartments below deck and scrambled up and down ladders with a facility honed over six months in combat. Men heading to forward positions streamed up the wider, starboard side of the ship; men heading aft moved portside. As the crew hustled to station that afternoon, Mount Vesuvius loomed over the bay, coughing up clouds of ash. A week earlier, lava had begun channeling down one of the volcano’s outflows for the first time in decades.

“They were all there, about two hundred and fifty sailors on the destroyer,” Frank said. “They were all up on the bridge and down. And I’m standing, little khakis, and my five-gallon can of wine, and [the skipper’s] blasting the shit out of me.”

This was always the moment in Frank’s story, the one that reverberates across the decades in shimmery sepia light, flickering through the imagination like a scene from one of those Movietone newsreels that played in cinemas before the coming of television, backed by trumpets and trombones and narration by journalist and broadcaster Lowell Thomas. The camera pans the armada of Navy ships, and the sailors at their battle stations, to pause on one soldier in khaki getting chewed out by the skipper. And then finally settles on another sailor, leaning over the skirt of his gun tub on the starboard side of the ship by the no. 2 stack, together with two of the men who worked on his gun, looking toward this scene playing out on the fantail. John J. Gallagher stared at this spectacle, as amused as any of his shipmates, and then all of a sudden he’s way more interested than any of them. “That looks like my brother. Jesus!”

He hopped out of the gun tub and approached Burke to confirm that, in fact, this wayward infantryman was his brother. Burke looked at the vaguely familiar water tender, whom he recognized as one of his machine gunners, and he did something he never did if we’re to read from how Burke handled men at captain’s mast when he revoked liberties and brought down court-martials. He went easy on Frank.

“Go down and bunk with your brother [until] we find out what we’re going to do with you.”

I might have been seven or eight when I first heard this story, and after that first time, I heard it repeatedly. In time, each of us, the children and grandchildren of all the Gallagher brothers and sisters, was capable of painting the broad brushstrokes of Frank’s story as eloquently as someone sat down before one of Ken Burns’s cameras. It was always lying to on the near horizon of any Gallagher family get-together, from the Fourth of July to Christmas when we all gathered in the stately Victorian the Gallaghers had moved into in 1919 and where an oil portrait of John in his dress blues hung from the parlor wall. In this anecdote, there was serendipity and pathos, and for each of us personally an inextricable link to the most cataclysmic event of the twentieth century. Each of us knew in a general way how the story ended, though none of us knew what had transpired through two years of the war or exactly what had happened at the end.

On the verge of a family holiday to Italy in 2016, I googled Plunkett and found a citation for Edward J. Burke, who’d received the Navy Cross for action on January 24, 1944. Another page on the web archived a handful of old photos of the Plunkett and listed a man’s name at the bottom for crew contact and reunion information. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone from the Plunkett might still be living. In my family we’d printed the legend and failed to consider the existence of facts—facts that would prove to be the substance of a story more wrenching and imbued with more drama and sorrow than any of us could have imagined. That was all to be found out. In the meantime, I phoned Ted Mueller off that website. He was ninety-two years old and had organized the last several reunions of Plunkett sailors. They’d “disbanded” three or four years earlier, he told me, for the “World War Two guys are getting old.”

Ted sent me a roster from the last Plunkett reunion, in 2011, and I began to phone, somewhat frantically, cognizant of the clock. First, I checked the name of the man against the possibility of an obituary, more often than not finding one. Occasionally I’d get a voice on the other end of the line. I’d ask to speak to the name of the man on the roster, and my question would be as quickly countered by the flattened voice of a woman who wanted to know who was calling, having been down this road many times before with telemarketers. I’d tell her my name, and that I was a journalist, and that I was calling about the USS Plunkett. Everything changed with the invocation of that word, Plunkett, as I touched a chord that vibrated back decades and resonated with the signal experience of a life. There would be joy in her voice as she passed off the phone.

One Plunkett sailor didn’t let me get past the part about my being a journalist before he blurted, “And I’m on welfare!” There would be no money coming my way from him if that was why I was calling.

I rushed the rest of my introduction. “I’m calling about the USS Plunkett.”

Waves of silence rippled over my deployment of that word. “Oh,” he said, suddenly muffled. And then the words, almost sotto voce. “Yes, I was on the Plunkett.”

This was a thing that was holy within him, within them, and should never be associated with people who just wanted a few minutes of his time. We talked for twenty minutes, and he told me that when Plunkett was under attack they’d go at the enemy with the five-inch guns first, and then as the planes came closer, with the 40mm gun, and then if they got closer with 20mm guns, and then if they got closer with potatoes. “Potatoes?” I asked, and the old sailor just laughed.

I began to scrub histories of the war in Europe, looking for the destroyer, and found the ship all over the place, intersecting with the greatest events and personages of the war, like Forrest Gump. One of Plunkett’s crew put it to me this way: “We was everyplace, all the time.” I found the ship at Casablanca, at Gela in Sicily, at Salerno and Anzio in Italy, and then on Omaha Beach, so close to shore at the landings that she about scraped her hull in the sand. The ship had been in on every invasion in Europe. What happened to the ship at Anzio, where the Germans met the Allied invasion with twenty-five thousand men and hundreds of aircraft, was so “savage,” so harrowing, and so relentless the Navy wasn’t sure any other destroyer in Europe had been through what Plunkett had.

Somewhere else online, I found reference to the ship’s gunnery officer, Ken Brown, who’d been living in La Jolla as recently as 2009. I clicked into an obituary for a Ken Brown and read that this Ken Brown was the son of the Ken Brown I was looking for. His survivors included a sister named Karen Fratantaro of Costa Mesa, California, and there was only going to be one of her in Costa Mesa. A few clicks later, I had a phone number, and a few moments later, I was leaving a voice mail. The next morning, my phone rang, and I picked up on a woman who said, “Hello, Jim, I’m Karen Brown, and it so happens I’m with my father right now.”

It had taken my great-uncle Frank all of three-and-a-half minutes to tell the Naples reunion story in 1998 when I sat down with him and a tape recorder after my grandfather died and it had occurred to me that once a voice was silenced, it was liable to stay that way for good. Frank didn’t put any pressure on the set piece of his Naples story for any larger meaning about family or war, or why we remember things. And he never talked in any great detail about what happened afterward. His story rose to that one incredulous moment when he found himself on a Navy destroyer in the midst of the war, when “ornery” Captain Burke was “blasting the shit” out of him, and John recognized him. “That looks like my brother,” Frank would always say, quoting John. It was the darnedest thing.

Hours after boarding, while he and John and other men in the engineering department played cards on a bunk in their quarters below the fantail, the ship resounded with what Frank remembered as a red alert. The crew hurried into preparations to get underway, and it was now imperative to get this wayward soldier of the Fifth Army back to shore.

They all knew where they were going. They’d been talking about the destination at dinner parties in Naples. The Italian vendors on the shore were hawking postcards of the destination. And there was talk about what Nero had done there back in the day when Rome was burning.

Anzio. They were going to Anzio.

James Sullivan was born and raised in Quincy, Massachusetts, and has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has written for The New York Times and National Geographic Traveler, the magazine. He lives with his family outside Portland, Maine, 3.4 miles from the birthplace of film director John Ford, who steamed into Omaha Beach on Plunkett.

Unsinkable, a fine narrative in its own right, is also a reflection on the nature of storytelling itself, as well as a valuable and entertaining contribution to the record... Mr. Sullivan takes pains to illuminate and honor a lost world.” —Wall Street Journal
 
“Accounts of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty, especially those rendered with humility, have lately been in short supply, and we need them... In telling this story, in locating members of Plunkett’s crew and coming to know them, Sullivan performs a kind of miracle.” —Boston Globe

“Captivating...Sullivan delivers a gripping account...a vivid portrait of the sailors, wives, girlfriends, and families and their world, in which the Plunkett’s battles often seem like interludes. As is typical in war, tedium was the norm, excitement came at rare intervals, and one horrendous incident ensured the ship’s place in history.” —Kirkus Reviews, STARRED review

“Sullivan recreates the heat and chaos of the crew’s epic struggles to keep the Plunkett afloat, fighting onboard fires and preventing detonation of depth charges and ammunition as the ship burned. Readers, especially those with command of naval terminology, can virtually become part of the crew’s frenzied reeling as they aided their injured, dying, and dead comrades and kept the Plunkett seaworthy.” —Booklist

"Sullivan gives voice to those lost to us now. More than merely reporting the grisly events and the heartbreaking tragedies, Sullivan captures the defining essence of something enduring but elusive. In grappling with the unspoken horros of war, Sullivan brings out a strength that sustains those willing to tap into it." —San Francisco Book Review

"A moving tale." —Portland Press Herald

"Unsinkable reveals a great deal of military history, the ins and outs of strategy and battle details. But it also displays a deep reverence for World War II veterans through the personal stories of the five crew members who were mostly just kids. . . . The book bears witness to their sacrifice, devotion and duty." Patriot Ledger

"James Sullivan captures the Plunkett's exploits and more. . . . Thinking back to former President Harry S. Truman's observation that the only thing new in the world is the history you have not read, the only thing newer comes in writings that peel back histories to remarkable new levels of detail." Proceedings Magazine

“I wept at the end of this book, and I suspect you will, too. If you were moved by Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, by William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land, by Ernie Pyle’s writing of Americans at their best and worst— by the values we hold dear, decency, sacrifice, steadfastness, then Unsinkable will take you to a place long dead in your soul, and flood it with light.” —Doug Stanton, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Horse Soldiers 

“James Sullivan’s Unsinkable is a wonderful achievement. Intimate, harrowing, thrilling, this epic of an incredible ship and five amazing men is unmissable. The finest seafaring tale from WW2 in a long while.” —Alex Kershaw, author of The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter, and The First Wave

 “At a time when stories of individual heroism are especially needed, James Sullivan brings us the riveting Unsinkable. Although the action unfolds aboard a destroyer, the focus is not on a ship, but on five uplifting individuals. Their courage in facing the enemy in Europe, culminating in the defense of their ship, the USS Plunkett (DD-431), from an attack by a dozen German bombers off Anzio, is matched by the personal issues they juggle while serving in a war zone. Sullivan ‘humanizes’ the war in this captivating piece of storytelling.” —John F. Wukovits, author of Hell from the Heavens

“This is an incredible story of courage, determination, and sheer guts in the heart of the second world war. A book that everyone should read!” —Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.), Supreme Allied Commander at NATO (2009-2013), dean, author of Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character