The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour
By: James D. Hornfischer, Doug Murray, and Steven Sanders (graphic nonfiction)
Published: 2021 (Dead Reckoning)

CDR. Amos Hathaway of the Heerman has become the only destroyer captain in history
to directly engage four cruisers—and live to tell the tale.
James D. Hornfischer

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors is a graphic adaptation of James D. Hornfischer’s work by the same title. Doug Murray, graphic adapter, and Steven Sanders, illustrator, follow the tradition of Sam Glanzmann’s earlier graphic novel, A Sailor’s Story. The Last Stand‘s author and illustrators render the tragedy, heroism, and selfless sacrifice during the hard-fought battle off the Philippine Island of Samar. This U.S. victory over the Japanese fleet in October 1944 meant control of the Pacific and brought the end of World War II closer.

Sanders, along with other illustrators Matt Soffe and Rob Steen, deserves notice for this edition’s artwork and design. The illustrations use clean lines, allowing characters to pop on the page; sharp visual elements correlate the scenes, and the story is high octane, with lots of action. The illustrations and minimal dialogue capture the frantic movement and taught drama aboard both U.S. and Japanese ships. The panel organization accelerates the tension by alternating horizontal panels that extend the action across space with smaller box panels that zoom into the scene. The artwork and text tighten the script, one never dominating the other.

Hornfischer collected first-hand accounts through archives, interviews, and journals from both U.S. and Japanese seamen involved in the two-hour battle off the shores of Samara. His tireless research and artful storytelling bring to life one of the most horrific naval engagements of World War II. After suffering significant losses at Midway in June 1942, the Japanese nonetheless remained a formidable sea power and planned to use that power against the American fleet. Supporting land forces in their effort to retake the Philippines, the Japanese deployed a three-pronged strategy to trap Admiral Halsey and the Third Fleet, shielding the army’s island assault. The Japanese Southern Force moved north through the Surigao Strait, while a decoy Northern Force, intended to mask the center and southern attacks, maneuvered above the Philippine Island of Luzon. A Center Force navigated through the San Bernadino Strait, reaching the Leyte Gulf, and encountered the US Taffy destroyers 1, 2, and 3, which had been ordered to cover land operations and protect the escort carriers. Halsey, meanwhile, sailed north with the bulk of his Third Fleet to find Admiral Ozawa’s Northern Force. The Last Stand takes up the story of Taffy-3 and its bloody battle to block Japanese Admiral Kurita’s ambitions. Taffy-3 had a complement of three torpedo destroyers, the Hoel, the Heermann, and the Johnston, as protection for the aircraft carriers providing air cover over the islands. Unwilling to turn away from a considerably larger force, the Americans chose to attack, hopeful they could turn back Kurita’s ships. Taffy-3’s stunning victory, while courageous, came with a significant loss of sailors and of the ships they defended.

The sailors drew courage from each other and their leadership. Hornfischer’s inquiry captures many personal stories of determination and bravery, but Ensign Jack Moore’s stands out. Aboard the Samuel Roberts, Moore would often offer betting odds for surviving difficult conditions like riding out a typhoon in the Leyte Gulf, where he put their chances of survival at fifty to one. Often the posted odds favored the crew, which offered them comfort and confidence. However, confronting an overwhelming flotilla of Japanese battleships, heavy cruisers, and destroyers, he gave only fifty-fifty odds, comparatively slim relative to surviving a typhoon. The Last Stand reveals both the absurdities and realities of war through such personal anecdotes.

Doug Murray puts the reader at the helm of Japanese ships and in the heads of their naval officers, but these scenes are brief and provide little balance in the perspectives of the two navies. Vice Admiral Shiraishe, in five illustrated panels, maneuvers and prepares his cruisers for the initial attack on U.S. forces. Later, after relentless pounding from air and sea during the battle, Admiral Kurita recognizes in fourteen panels that he no longer holds the winning hand in his fight. His Center Force turns for home, abandoning any hope of defeating Halsy or running MacArthur off the beaches of Leyte. Illustrations of U.S. air and sea actions dominate those of the Japanese, and stories of American persistence, daring, and survival are controlling themes.

This graphic work captures the gallant efforts of American sailors who closed the northern flank, preventing the Japanese fleet from attacking the Philippine beachheads. However, it represents only a simple summary of the battle’s more significant implications for naval history. Halsey resented guarding MacArthur’s northern flank and the army’s beachhead on Leyte Island. He believed he could shatter the Japanese if allowed to go hunting with his Third Fleet. Such resentment put him at odds with Central Command, but in complete disregard for orders he divided his fleet, leaving the Taffy task force vulnerable in support of MacArthur. Halsey also failed to recognize Ozawa’s Northern force was a decoy—but the graphic adaptation by Doug Murray captures Halsey’s ill-advised impulse in only a few panels. Given that his actions cost hundreds of lives—the ships Samuel Roberts, the Johnston, the Hoel, and the carrier Gambier Bay were lost—the admiral’s hubris deserves more attention. A significant victory, the battle gave America command of the Pacific, allowed MacArthur to fulfill his promise to return to the Philippines, but may have absolved Halsey and distorted his true place in naval history.

Paul Watkins

St. Louis, Missouri, is home for Paul and his wife. Two adult children have careers and families now. He holds a doctorate from St. Louis University and is a retired Professor Emeritus from Southeast Missouri State University. Paul taught as an adjunct professor for Missouri University and its doctoral leadership program. Today outside the halls of academia, he now writes short stories and works as an executive editor for The Clearing House Journal of Education.

In a very different life, Dr. Watkins served in Viet Nam with the 3rd Marine Division as a Corpsman from 1967 to 1968.

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