The Ship That Refused to Die

Remembering DD-431 – #bookreview #USNavy #history

Maine writer James Sullivan grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, hearing World War II stories from his great-uncle, Frank Gallagher, an Army veteran. One memorable tale included the time Gallagher, a medic, managed to sneak away from his camp and climb aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer anchored off Italy to see his brother John Gallagher, a petty officer third class who was a 20mm gunner. This was shortly before the massive battles at Anzio in January 1944. There, John Gallagher’s ship, the USS Plunkett, DD-431, was attacked by more than a dozen Luftwaffe bombers that dropped radio-guided “glide” bombs. The destroyer was hit repeatedly and severely damaged. Yet it did more than simply survive the deliberately concentrated and savage pounding.

Sullivan’s book Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett deftly takes readers through earlier battles along the Italian coastline and then to the savage Anzio combat that left many of the ship’s officers and crew dead or injured and several gun positions destroyed. Despite being badly mangled, the destroyer managed to keep battling its attackers. Damage-control teams kept the ship from exploding and sinking; surviving gunners shot down or damaged several German bombers; and the ship’s captain, Commander Edward J. Burke, somehow maneuvered the wrecked, burning destroyer through the deadly chaos and got it to safety.

ISBN 978-1-9821-4763-1

According to History on the Net, the Luftwaffe’s aerial assault on the Plunkett was “so savage, so prolonged, and so deadly that one Navy commander was hard-pressed to think of another destroyer that had endured what Plunkett had.”

For his actions, Commander Burke received the Navy Cross. The Plunkett, meanwhile, was repaired and put back into action in a matter of weeks. During the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, for example, the USS Plunkett worked so close to shore that its hull sometimes almost scraped the sand. And famed film director John Ford was aboard the ship with a crew of Coast Guard cameramen, filming the historic invasion.

While recounting the horrific Anzio combat in startling detail, the author also focuses mostly on five men–three officers and two enlisted sailors–out of the crew of nearly 250: the ship’s captain, its damage-control officer, its gunnery officer, and two petty officers, including Sullivan’s great-uncle’s brother, John Gallagher.

Bomb damage to the USS Plunkett off Anzio in January, 1944. (Photo credit: U.S. Navy)

Sullivan did extensive research into the ship, its combat history, and its World War II crew. He also interviewed some survivors and their families, as well as family members of some who did not come back. He explains how the book came to be, and his final chapter, “Aftermath,” likewise is intriguing and rewarding reading. It focuses on what happened to some of the survivors after the war. And it shows the close relationships he developed with some of his sources and their families while he was researching Unsinkable.

The stories of fear, heroics, and human tragedy told in Unsinkable are hard to forget. And the USS Plunkett deserves to be both highlighted and remembered as one of best fighting ships in U.S. Navy history.

Si Dunn

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Author

  • Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, photojournalist, and book reviewer. His published books include: DARK SIGNALS, a Vietnam War memoir; ERWIN'S LAW, a private-detective novel; and JUMP, a novella about a combat veteran suffering from PTSD and alienation while trying to work for newspapers as a journalist. Several of his feature screenplays recently were under option to movie producers. He spent nearly 15 years working as a technical writer and software tester in the telecommunications industry. His current programming interests include Go, JavaScript, Python, R, Angular, and other languages and frameworks. He is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of North Texas.

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