The Castaway’s War

The Castaway’s War

One Man’s Battle against Imperial Japan

Stephen Harding

Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016, 320 pages

Book Review published on: August 11, 2017

The Castaway’s War is the biography of a junior Navy officer who prevailed under the most trying circumstances after his ship sunk, and he was stranded on a Japanese-held island during World War II. This is not a book that examines or analyzes naval tactics, it is more personal than that. At times riveting, and other times slow, the book feels as if it’s a short story that has been expanded to fill the space of a novel. The meat of the story is a heroic tale of resilience and determination of a survivor. Hugh Miller, a U.S. Navy lieutenant, found himself outnumbered, wounded, and facing a well-trained adversary behind enemy lines. The strength of the narrative is the leadership example that Miller displays during his crucible experience as a young naval officer leading a band of survivors.

A tailored version of this story was the subject of a propaganda effort used to bolster morale during a string of defeats suffered by the United States in the early days of the war against Japan. At that time, Japan appeared unstoppable. After his rescue, Miller’s exploits were widely publicized to provide hope to the American people and to highlight the sacrifice made by the sailors serving abroad. The story begins with a background information on Miller and his upbringing. It continues with a description of his activities prior to the sinking of his destroyer, USS Strong, in the Solomon Islands and a history of the ship, as well as his activities as a member of its crew. The story transitions to the fight for survival after the torpedoing of the Strong, and concludes with his post-rescue rise to fame as a war hero.

The accounting of the sinking of the Strong was vivid and visceral. The gritty details of the suffering of the crew, and the heartbreaking choices that were made are difficult to read. Covered in oil and exposed to the elements for days, the survivors begin to succumb to their injuries and exposure. As a leader, Miller must watch as men from his stricken ship die in enemy waters with little hope for rescue or aid from an implacable enemy.

Once he and his four crewman achieve landfall, the struggle for life continues. The survivors, injured and weak from dehydration, attempt to gain much-needed sustenance from the jungle and make their way off the island. Miller becomes so ill that he orders his sailors to leave so he won’t slow them down, only to never see them alive again. After their departure, Miller begins the slow process of recovering from his injuries. Initially unarmed, he begins to wage a one man war against the enemy. Ambushes are set and avoided, as the intrepid officer plays a game of cat and mouse with the Japanese marines garrisoning the island. Striking when he can and hiding when he must, Miller seeks a means of signaling the Allies that he is alive. Not just satisfied with surviving, he takes the fight to the enemy. He attacks a machine gun nest with captured grenades under the cover of an Allied nighttime air raid. This act when discovered by the enemy compels the Japanese to divert troops to the island and conduct a systematic manhunt for the attacker.

His opposition continues until he can figure out a way to be seen by the American planes without being mistaken for a Japanese marine. Miller’s biggest challenge to rescue is trying to coordinate a rescue attempt without being able to communicate to his rescuers. The author relates the story of the airmen who eventually rescue him from under the noses of the Japanese. Personnel recovery is the name of the concept that provides downed pilots the hope that they might be recovered if they are shot down behind enemy lines. This concept is tested and executed via a float plane rescue of Miller by some daring aviators.

The last section of the book details his post-rescue service and subsequent assignments within the Navy. Too valuable to risk with continued service during the war, Miller is paraded around as a war hero by the Navy, and his story is used to inspire others to greater sacrifice both at home and overseas. His time in the limelight initiated a serious discussion of making a Hollywood movie of his exploits. After the conclusion of World War II, Miller decides to stay with the Navy but switches to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps rather than continuing as a surface warfare officer. He continued his service to his country until he reached the rank of captain and retired in 1971 due to health concerns that plagued him from the sinking of the Strong.

This offering has a great story of personal sacrifice, courage, and leadership. However, the inclusion of the history of the USS Strong and some of the ancillary background material may cause the reader to lose interest unless they are die-hard Navy buffs. This tale of resiliency and fortitude, in the most trying of circumstances, is well worth your time.

Book Review written by: Eric J. McGraw, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas