Book Review: ‘The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: A Graphic Novel Adaptation’


USS Heerman (DD-532) is the central figure on the cover of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: A Graphic Novel Adaptation. Image Credit and (C) 2021: Dead Reckoning (an imprint of the Naval Institute Press). Cover art by Steven Saunders and Matt Soffe

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

Based on: 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

Adapted by: Doug Murray (Writer), Steven Sanders (Illustrator), Matt Soffe (Colorist), and Rob Steen (Letterist)

Publisher: Dead Reckoning

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“I can see pagoda masts. I see the biggest meatball flag on the biggest battleship I ever saw!” – Ensign William C. Brooks, TBM Avenger pilot, at the Battle of Samar, October 25. 1944

In addition to the hardcover, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors is available in e-book editions.

On November 17, 2021, Dead Reckoning Books – an imprint of the prestigious Naval Institute Press – published The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: A Graphic Novel Adaptation. Adapted by Doug Murray (The ‘Nam) from the late James D. Hornfischer’s 2004 non-fiction bestseller The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour, this beautifully illustrated graphic “novel” captures the heroic struggle of Admiral Clifton Sprague’s Northern Group of escort carriers (CVEs), destroyers (DDs), and destroyer escorts (DEs) against Japanese Admiral Takeo Kurita’s powerful Central Force at the Battle of Samar.

Long eclipsed by the U.S. Navy’s earlier victories at Midway, the Solomons campaign, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea – aka “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” – the Battle of Samar, which itself was one of the four engagements of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23-26, 1944), is nevertheless one of the most dramatic events in the annals of American naval history. On that fateful Wednesday, the 13 ships of Admiral Sprague’s “Taffy Three” – thinly-armored, under-armed, and not intended to participate in a major fleet battle – faced off against Kurita’s 23-ship strong force of four battleships led by the super-battleship IJNS Yamato, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and 11 destroyers.

On paper, the Japanese should have won at Samar. Kurita’s force clearly outgunned Sprague’s; the Central Force flagship Yamato was, after all, the largest battleship ever built and was armed with a main battery of nine 18,1-inch guns, the biggest naval guns installed on a warship. Yet, in the naval equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade and the biblical account of David and Goliath, what could have been the U.S. Navy’s biggest defeat was instead its finest moment.

From the Publisher

Illustration by Steven Sanders. Coloring by Matt Soffe. Lettering by Rob Steen. (C) 2021 Dead Reckoning

Adapted from the naval history classic and New York Times bestseller, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors pieces together the action of the Battle off Samar, bringing to life a riveting story of heroism against daunting odds, duty, and sacrifice in a way never seen before.

In October 1944, Allied forces began landing on the Philippine island of Leyte. Quickly assessing the threat of the Allied invasion, the Japanese navy sought to counterattack. But with the island protected by the full strength of Admiral William F. Halsey’s Third Fleet, a direct attack was nearly impossible. Undeterred, the Japanese Admiralty deployed their forces, engaging the Third Fleet and retreating in a manner that drew the fleet into a hot pursuit. However, Admiral Halsey had been deceived, and the Japanese plan had taken his fleet out of position to defend the American beachhead. With the northern route to Leyte open and unguarded, the Japanese Center Force—a fleet led by the battleship Yamato, the largest and most powerful battleship ever constructed—seemingly had a clear path to the landing beaches on Leyte. Only one thing stood between the Japanese forces and the vulnerable objective.

Taffy 3, a small task unit from the Seventh Fleet was made up of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort aircraft carriers; thirteen ships with little firepower and even less armor. On the morning of October 25, 1944, Taffy 3 suddenly became the only obstacle between the Allied landings and the Japanese Center Force. Hopelessly outmanned and outgunned, Taffy 3 plunged into battle. The ensuing action, known as the Battle off Samar, became one of the greatest last stands in naval history.

My Take

This is the book being adapted in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. I recommend that book, too! (C) 2005 Random House Publishing Group

I became a fan of James D. Hornfischer when I read Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal a decade ago. I was captivated by his skills as a writer, researcher, and storyteller, and especially by Hornfischer’s ability to capture the human element of naval warfare and tell the reader how naval battles occur from the perspectives of all involved, from the senior flag officers to the newest messroom attendant aboard a ship. Since 2011, I’ve read The Fleet at High Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 (2016), and the 2005 paperback edition of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.

Naturally, when I saw that Amazon had Dead Reckoning’s “graphic novel” adaptation in its pre-order queue back in June. I went ahead and clicked the Purchase option.

I didn’t know it at the time, but a week earlier, Hornfischer had died of cancer at his home in Austin, Texas, at the age of 55. The literary world and the community of naval historians lost one of its brightest stars with his passing, but his works will be his legacy.

Comic book author (and Vietnam War veteran) Doug Murray does a crackerjack job of adapting Hornfischer’s vivid “you are there” prose in the terse, laconic style that is necessary in adapting a text-heavy book to a visual medium. Assisted by illustrator Steven Sanders, colorist Matt Soffe, and letterer Rob Steen, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors is a beautifully crafted rendering of what is rightly called – as in the subtitle of Hornfischer’s 2004 best-seller – the “extraordinary story of the U.S. Navy’s finest hour.”

The Battle of Samar was, as I said earlier, one of the four separate engagements that together form the Battle of Leyte Gulf. (The others are the Battle of the Subiyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, and the Battle of Cape Engaño.) It was the centermost of these naval battles, and it was the one element of Japan’s Sho-1 plan that came closest to success.

Dead Reckoning’s 208-page hardcover edition (there’s also an e-book edition for readers who prefer digital versions) of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors is an artfully done graphic depiction of Hornfischer’s now-classic account of the Battle of Samar. It is reminiscent of the classic war comics by DC Comics of the 1950s and 1960s, except that instead of depicting fictional characters along the lines of Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, Messrs. Murray, Sanders, Soffe, and Steen depict historical characters, including:

  • CDR Ernest E. Evans (aka «The Chief”), captain of the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Johnston
  • RADM Clifton A.F. “Ziggy” Sprague, officer in command, “Taffy 3”
  • LCDR Robert Copeland, captain of the John C. Butler-class destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts
  • CDR Leon S. Kintberger, captain of the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Hoel
  • CDR  Amos T. Hathaway, captain of the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Heermann – the ship (DD-532) depicted on the cover of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors
  • ENS William C. Brooks, Avenger pilot, Composite Squadron 65, assigned to USS St. Lo
  • VADM William F. Halsey, Commander, U.S. Third Fleet
  • ADM. Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in  Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet
  • LT (JG) Thomas J. Lupo, Avenger pilot, VC-68, assigned to USS Fanshaw Bay
  • VADM Takeo Kurita, commander of the Japanese Central Force

Although older readers should read Hornfischer’s 2004 prose book first to get a deeper, richer narrative of the Battle of Samar, I don’t have any qualms about recommending this graphic non-fiction novel to younger readers who would otherwise not read a history book. I think Doug Murray did an excellent job of distilling Hornfischer’s original book into a taut, gripping script for the comics format that condenses the 499-page paperback’s narrative to the pace and visual style of modern comics.

I’m not a great photographer with a smartphone, but this is a page from The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.

The entire team at Dead Reckoning should be commended for its fine work in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. Not only does it honor the officers and seamen – on both sides – who fought and died at the Battle of Samar on that fateful Wednesday in the fall of 1944, but it is a fine complement to a true classic work of naval history. I wholeheartedly recommend The Last Stand of the Tin Sailors: A Graphic Novel Adaptation to anyone who is interested in World War II, naval history, or the comic book genre.

All hands, well done!  

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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