Book Review | Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett

Sullivan, James. Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett. Scribner. New York City,  2020.

Reviewed by retired Commander Darlene Iskra, museum volunteer

Book cover for Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett, By James Sullivan. Published by  Scribner in 2020.

As a Navy sailor who has never fired guns in anger, nor been on the receiving end of guns, torpedoes, or bombs, I read with fascination and horror the feats of the men of the Navy in the Atlantic and Mediterranean during World War II. The story of USS Plunkett (DD 431), named for World War I hero Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett, began as an investigation into the story of a great uncle who died in World War II. As a child, the author heard stories of his great uncle John Gallagher and stories of the ship. But they never talked about the man’s death. 

What started as genealogical research and wanting to know more about the man, became a history of the Plunkett’s exploits during the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and ultimately France. Through interviews of surviving crew (still alive in 2016), archival information, personal letters, memoirs, and journals, James Sullivan wrote an interesting, exciting, and ultimately thorough history of the ship from its commissioning through the war, and beyond. He also highlighted the stories of four other men who served with and knew his uncle.

All of us had to take history in school. All I recall of World War II history was having to learn about specific battles (particularly Battle of the Bulge and the D-Day invasions of June 6, 1944), and the Generals who won the war. We learned of the different invasions as the noose was slowly tied around Germany’s neck. But we never learned of the horror, the death, the brutality inherent in war. It was sterilized and thus boring. Even while studying defense strategy at the Naval War College years later, the human side of war was never addressed. Books like this one make history come alive, and one becomes amazed at what soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have to endure just to do their jobs!

USS Plunkett (DD 431), a Gleaves-class destroyer, was built at the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Kearny, New Jersey. Commissioned on 17 July 1940 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, she had a crew of 260 enlisted men and 16 officers. Destroyers are the combat workhorse of the fleet. These ships were highly maneuverable with twin screws (propellers) powered by steam from four boilers, which could be set individually or in tandem (the configuration is usually one or two boilers for each screw, but they could also be cross-connected in case of damage). With a maximum speed (flank) of 37 knots they could outrun all other ships of the fleet. The Plunkett was approximately 348 feet long and 36 feet at the widest part of her beam. She was armed with four 5-inch guns (one had been removed to reduce topside weight in 1942), six 50-cal machine guns, six 20mm anti-aircraft guns, 10 torpedo tubes, and two depth charge racks.

With this armament and speed, the missions of a destroyer are multi-fold. They used their torpedoes against surface ships and depth charges against submarines. They had guns that fired projectiles as small as 20mm and heavy as 52 pounds against aircraft and coastal targets, as well as bombardment ashore in anticipation of army and marine landings. They are used as screens for convoys as the first defense against submarines. They could also provide smokescreens, using the smoke from their stacks to obscure themselves and other ships from aerial combat. They were indispensable to the war effort during World War II.

But a ship and how it fights is only as good as its crew, and Plunkett’s crew was well-trained. Her first deployment in the spring and fall of 1941, before the U.S. was formally in the war, was in the North Atlantic on escort and convoy duty in support of the Lend-Lease program with Britain. After the start of the war, she participated in each of the major invasions in the Mediterranean providing shore bombardment, ship screenings, and targeting enemy aircraft defenders.

The four men highlighted in the book were those whom the author interviewed at length about the war, their part in it, their jobs on the Plunkett, how they knew the author’s great uncle, John Gallagher, what he did in the war, what he was like, and how he died.  Other crew members were also part of the narrative but in a reflective part of these four men’s memories. The four men were the skipper, Commander Edward J. Burke; Lieutenant Kenneth B. Brown, the gunnery officer; James D. Feltz, water tender 3rd class, who was in the repair party and later in the fire room during general quarters, and John P. Simpson, First Lieutenant who led the ship’s damage control teams. Sullivan’s great uncle, John Gallagher, was a water tender third class, but at the 20mm anti-aircraft gun during general quarters.

The book chronicles, chronologically, the ship’s missions through the war, with some backstories on the lives of the men before the war, or during their rare leave times from the ship. For example, we read about the love story between Jim Feltz and Betty Kneemiller, who met in 1941 at a dollar store, where Jim worked as an errand boy, in Overland, Missouri. We learn about Ken Brown, who attended the Naval Academy at the insistence of his father, graduating early, in December 1941 (moved from May after the Pearl Harbor attack), and reported aboard Plunkett while she was in the yards in Boston in January 1942.  Disappointed in the fact that he was assigned as the torpedo officer, a secondary mission on the ship, he nonetheless, in 1944 during the landings at Anzio in Italy as Gunnery Officer of the 5-inch guns, was instrumental in shooting down several German aircraft who were intent on sinking the Plunkett. John Gallagher worked in a chocolate factory in Lower Mills, Massachusetts, before the war, and lived with his mother, sister, and two brothers. John was 24 when he enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. He died two years later at Anzio, in the same action in which Ken Brown helped save the ship.

Casablanca, Sicily, Anzio, Normandy, all bring to mind horrific battles for control of Europe, all in which Plunkett was there supporting the action. It was in Anzio, though, that she was almost lost. Italy had surrendered after the loss in Sicily, but the Germans took control and were determined not to lose Italy to the Allies. The Allies were stalled for months below the Gustav line, German and Italian fortifications from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Apennine Mountains between Naples and Rome, after the successful invasion from Sicily, and the Allies were desperate to get to Rome. Thus the plan to bypass the direct land route, land at Anzio (north of the Gustav line), and encircle the Germans was born. The fighting in this part of Italy was fierce, and the landings at Anzio and nearby Monte Cassino resulted in over 98,000 Allied casualties and 60,000 Axis. It was at this battle that Plunkett was attacked, almost fatally wounded, and in which 53 crewmembers were dead or missing. Reading about the assault in the book was so intense it was easy to imagine the adrenaline, fear, horror, and sense of duty required of every man both during and after the event. One doesn’t think much about the aftermath, but the crew had to contend with cleaning up, recovering bits and pieces of their shipmates, and getting the ship ready for sea and eventual repairs. It is easy to see why men from that era did not talk much about their part in the war, and as seen in the book, some never recovered from the shock.

The Plunkett did survive and was repaired in time to participate in the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.  She was transferred to the Taiwan Navy in 1954 and stricken from all records in 1972. The family ties that intertwine throughout the book make it unique in the historical record. It also made it real. Your heart goes out to each and every family and servicemember and come away from it with such a greater understanding of service and sacrifice required of that time in history.