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Crash Boat Cover

Crash Boat

Rescue and Peril in the Pacific during World War II

Earl McCandlish and George Jepson

Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2021, 248 pages

Book Review published on: March 25, 2022

Post-World War II popular culture cemented the fame of the U.S. Navy’s PT boats, as seen in the historical accounts of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 or in John Wayne’s onscreen exploits in the movie They Were Expendable. The book Crash Boat: Rescue and Peril in the Pacific during World War II delivers a twist to that legendary image. Coauthor George Jepson presents 1st Lt. Earl McCandlish’s memoir of his time in command of Sea Horse, a U.S. Army rescue boat in the South Pacific. This is a rewarding read that highlights a less-examined corner of World War II history.

McCandlish and Jepson present a straightforward chronicle of Sea Horse from the crew’s formation and initial training in New Orleans to their postwar homecoming in San Francisco. Along the way, the authors skillfully mix three complimentary but distinct themes: thoughtful character sketches of the crew and boat, vibrant geographic and cultural illustrations, and a compelling operational narrative. Crash Boat has a self-effacing style. Without excessive sentimentality, McCandlish describes his amazement at the scope of the Pacific war effort confronting his small boat and crew, and a reverence for the sacrifices of those they rescued.

Jepson is no ghost writer. His father, Master Sgt. George L. Jepson, served as second in command aboard Sea Horse. While paging through his father’s photographs and scrapbooks, Jepson was drawn to McCandlish and wanted to complete the picture of that period. The younger Jepson’s experience writing for WoodenBoat magazine shines through in his ease with nautical terminology, in the postscript biographical sketch of Dair Long, naval architect of the air sea rescue boats, and in the detailed extracts of specifications and diagrams for the sixty-three-foot AAF Rescue Boat. Jepson’s extensive research, helpful maps, and informative photo captions further enhance McCandlish’s story.

The memoir begins with the events that bring McCandlish to his wartime assignment as a seamanship instructor at the Army’s small craft training center in New Orleans. This chapter also provides the first of many beneficial sidebars, in this case detailing the extensive ad hoc enterprises of boat builder and landing craft pioneer Andrew Higgins. Although the crew forms in New Orleans, they accept Sea Horse at the builder’s yard in Southern California where boat and crew are tested before departing for the South Pacific aboard a liberty ship bound for Fiji.

The reader experiences the autonomy and initiative inherent in small units operating in a dispersed theater of war. Sea Horse’s track will eventually cover over four thousand nautical miles of open ocean from Fiji to the Philippines. The confidence imparted to these commanders would be instructive to leadership education today. McCandlish offhandedly describes situations that imply a level of operational and financial discretion rarely seen today.

However, Sea Horse’s crew was not immune from the frustration and tedium associated with rear-area operations. One instance brilliantly captures this dilemma when Sea Horse is mistaken for a general officer’s fishing expedition with the subsequent search for the guilty and attempted punishment of the innocent. The scene is reminiscent of Catch-22 or McHale’s Navy. Fortunately for McCandlish, this incident launches Sea Horse into search-and-rescue operations proper, under the operational control of the Thirteenth Air Force.

The rest of the story parallels Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s advance through the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and return to the Philippines. Sea Horse sees action not only in search and rescue but also reconnaissance and as an open-ocean courier to a sixty-ship amphibious task group prior to landings at Mindanao. While justifiably proud of the boat and crew performance, McCandlish prefers to emphasize that they were simply doing their small part for the overall war effort. He also generously praises specific Navy and Marine Corps units that supported them.

McCandlish closes with the crew transferring Sea Horse to the Philippine government and training the new crew. His abrupt conclusion, with the crew parting ways in San Francisco, is thankfully further developed in Jepson’s afterword where he briefly sketches the postwar lives of the crew. Crash Boat is a gripping story delivering equal parts travelogue, nautical adventure, and war diary, told in a fast-paced and fluid voice. It will inform and entertain a wide audience and serve as a valuable reference for those interested in small unit maritime operations in the South Pacific.

Book Review written by: Brian Allen, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas