A Young Sailor at War
The World War II Letters of William R. Catton Jr.
Edited by Theodore Catton
Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2020, 250 pages
Book Review published on: January 8, 2021
Bill Catton enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve on his seventeenth birthday in 1943. Much to his disappointment several months later, the Navy transferred him from naval aircrew training to aircraft maintenance. His tour of duty was far from dull, however, because he served aboard the USS Ticonderoga, CV-14, which participated in combat operations in the western Pacific and South China Sea. During his tour, he wrote home frequently, sometimes two or three times a week. His mother saved and stored these letters, and Theodore Catton, Catton’s son, compiled them for A Young Sailor at War.
Catton spent over a year training and overhauling aircraft before reporting for duty on the Ticonderoga. His correspondence remained rather mundane after shipping out to the Pacific, concealing events that took place during his first tour in combat. On 24 January 1945 he wrote about being “busy” and having an uneventful birthday, when in fact two kamikaze aircraft struck the USS Ticonderoga three days earlier, killing over a hundred sailors, and seriously injuring another two hundred. Due to the Navy’s censorship of sailors’ personal correspondence, Catton could neither reveal details about operations on the “Big T” such as the Kamikaze attack nor disclose the ship’s whereabouts. Even when the Ticonderoga returned for repairs at the naval yard in Bremerton, Washington, he could not divulge this information to his parents. If it were not for the author highlighting actual events in the book, Catton’s letters would not reveal very much about his service in the Pacific War. However, after the Japanese surrender, the Navy relaxed its censorship, allowing him to provide more detail about postwar operations in his letters to home.
This collection of correspondence, from his entrance in the Navy to postwar operations, is very interesting. His thoughts serve as insight into what young men and women were thinking about in 1944-1945 as the end of the conflict appeared unclear. He implied several times in his letters that he expected the war to continue into 1946 and possibly 1947. For a young man of less than twenty years of age, Catton was very philosophical at times in his correspondence, pondering the purpose of service and the nation’s conduct of war. The end of the conflict is almost surreal in his letter dated 6 September 1945, when he describes the tranquil setting of the Ticonderoga and other numerous Allied warships anchored in Tokyo Bay at sunrise. Catton continued to serve on the ship afterward, which worked as a transport to return service members and equipment to the states. His service in the Navy ended after an accident on one of the carrier’s elevators left him with an injury that led to a medical discharge.
Overall, A Young Sailor at War is a very worthwhile reading. Catton’s descriptions of training, operations, and passing time with shipmates, provides the reader a personal experience about serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Theodore Catton does an excellent job correlating his father’s letters with the ship’s actions in the Pacific, and he presents a remarkable epilogue about his father’s career after the Navy as a prominent sociologist.
Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas