First-person accounts and historical fiction are well suited genres to all things military. Merriam Press, a specialty publisher from Bennington, Vt. recently offered up two such titles that add to both history and curiosity. Each publication has a connection to one of the two former navy ships which bore the name Bennington.
The first book is "Back to the Bennington" (Merriam Press, 2010, 156 pages), by Richard A. Clark. The author, an Ohio native and now living in California, served in the U.S. Navy in the early 1950s during a hiatus from his degree work in Spanish at Bowling Green University.
His autobiographical rendering mostly draws from this period, particularly his service on board the aircraft carrier CV-20 USS Bennington. "Mostly" can’t be overemphasized because the book takes many turns. These elements include some background and early encounters, as well as its centerpiece, a Mediterranean cruise even today’s sailors justifiably seek out as a defining cultural experience.
To this end, Clark demonstrates that while sailors remain the same, times have changed. For example, postwar social mores remained formal, as the author stopped in Athens, to visit his former ROTC instructor from Bowling Green University, then stationed in Greece. The encounter seemed cordial but rigid; today, one would find more intimacy between officer and enlisted.
Clark also goes on to include sections of first person testimonies from his fellow crew members, and appendices on everything from a devastating 1953 flight deck crash to information on the USS Bennington Association, and its reunions. He also uses personal photographs and clippings from the carrier’s newspaper, "Jet Blast," to augment the sectional narrative.
In all, this book is an agreeable title to get an inside look at postwar naval operations from the lower enlisted point of view, and the day-to-day life of a sailor at sea and in port.
The second book, "Officer’s Row, 1904" (Merriam Press, 2010, 83 pages) is written by Mary Ellen Cortellini, the wife of a Navy pilot. When her husband was stationed at Point Loma, Calif., the couple lived at historic Fort Rosecrans. There she began her interest in, and subsequent research on, Army Capt. Robert Henry Rolfe, the man in charge of the fort’s buildup, and the relief and recovery effort from the 1905 explosion in San Diego aboard the Navy gunboat PG-4 USS Bennington.
This story is not military historical fiction in the vein of James Michener ("The Bridges at Toko-ri"), Stephen Pressfield ("Gates of Fire") or Michael Shaara ("The Killer Angels") - who all used painstaking accuracy to recount actual events.
Cortellini’s account tends to lean more toward Jack Finney’s whimsical 1970 bestseller, "Time and Again." Her chronicle, however, takes a more see-saw approach, jumping back and forth between times, events, and characters, ostensibly to remind readers there’s real history in the background. Unfortunately, the book neglects to mention that there is a memorial Bennington Monument in San Diego that was reportedly paid for by Henry W. Putnam, founder of Bennington’s community hospital. He was living in retirement there at that time.
The treasure of Cortellini’s tale is the sepia-toned collection of photographs she garnered from archives and public records to help give a visual appreciation of the location, as well as real people and events. One such occasion was the mass burial of victims from the USS Bennington at Fort Rosecrans. Cortellini juxtaposes those shots with many present-day vistas in brilliant color, again, to help flesh out actual past happenings.
Overall, it’s a book that would appeal to those with a desire for appreciation of the social lives of the military officer caste at the turn of the 20th century.
The irony of both tales is that each version of the USS Bennington suffered a shocking accident that cost the lives of many. Through this common thread, local publisher Merriam Press demonstrates in these two books that life aboard a seaborne combat vessel - even in peacetime, and separated by a half century - was anything but a cruise.