Friday, February 20, 2004
MarkBernstein.org
 
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Salute

Salute
I don't know what the greatest line in Meiggs might be -- and I haven't read nearly all of Meiggs. But I believe I've read a decent share of Samuel Eliot Morison, the paragon of naval historians, and his excursus at the end of "The Battle of Surigao Strait" (Leyte: History of US Naval Operations in World War II, volume 12, pp. 140-141) has been much on my mind lately. Historians often chronicle the first time, and we rarely know much about the last; here is one exception.
The Battle of Surigao Strait marks the end of an era in naval warfare. It was the last naval battle in which air power played no part, except in the pursuit. It was the last engagement of a battle line. Here an old sailor may engage in a little sentiment.
....Thus, when Mississippi discharged her twelve 14-inch guns at Yamashiro, at a range of 19,790 yards, at 0408 October 25, 1944, she was not only giving that battleship the coup de grâce, but firing a funeral salute to a finished era of naval warfare. One can imagine the ghosts of all the great admirals from Raleigh to Jellicoe standing at attention as Battle Line went into oblivion, along with the Greek phalanx, the Spanish wall of pikemen, the English longbow and the row-galley tactics of Salamis and Lepanto.

The romance works because Morison almost never indulges himself this way. His prose is crisp, clear, and detailed, preserving the data (19,790 yards) and avoiding embellishment, yet somehow still keeping the reader engaged and, as we should be, appalled.