Review by Don Sloan
It is 2 a.m. on July 30, 1942, and Heinrich von Brockdorff lies dead in a French Quarter whore’s bed.
It’s a quiet start to a saga that spreads from Mahogany Hall in New Orleans to the war-torn islands of the South Pacific and beyond. For von Brockdorff is no ordinary “john.” He is — or was — a strategically placed German spy on American soil.
This is a sweeping story of heroism and heartache, bravery and betrayal, set against the backdrop of the cataclysmic event forever remembered as World War Two.
On July 31, 1942, one day after von Brockdorff dies, his grandson stands sweltering in a sandy foxhole on the tropical island of Fiji. U.S. Marine PFC Russell Brock never knew his grandfather — and he certainly doesn’t know he’s dead. He has other things on his mind — such as how to survive the upcoming amphibious assault on heavily fortified Japanese positions.
He will be jumping off the steel-reinforced front ramp of a specially made Higgins boat — also known as an LCVP — Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel. Coincidentally, the shallow-draft landing craft was made in New Orleans, the scene of his grandfather’s untimely demise.
In a series of cunningly wrought vignettes, author Steven Burgauer pulls together far-flung people, places and events to tell — through fascinating historical side notes and fiction-based-on-fact — the story surrounding the humble LCVP’s genesis and its crucial role in winning the war.
Interwoven with this central thread are the lives and deeds of many colorful characters: crime boss Nico Carolla; luckless prostitute Kentucky Rose; Andrew Jackson Higgins, namesake of the landing craft; PFC Stanley Whitehorse, one of several Navajo Indians vital to developing a war-winning, unbreakable code; Sebastian Grimm, a young captain in the Waffen-SS, and many others.
Of particular note is the author’s gift for dialect in dialogue, often using it to paint compelling word pictures of people and places in the Deep South:
“He had crooked toes. Dey peeped out of shufflin’ shoes. His trousers was all torn an’ tattered. He wore an old frockcoat. It be all threadbare and smellin’ like burnt cinders.”
Central to the loosely connected stories is the ingenious development of the LCVP, from a small plywood craft capable of carrying only a few dozen men to one that was built entirely of steel, and which could carry many more men or entire pieces of mechanized equipment, including tanks.
The author painstakingly details how Higgins and his dedicated team designed and mass-produced the boats, guarded by both U.S. Marines and a deadly cadre of New Orleans mafiosi.
It’s a unique arrangement with the mobsters that eventually reaches as far as Sicily and Tunis, where Nico Carolla’s family members, aided by local community residents and fishermen, help the Allies harry and defeat fascist forces on their native land.
Readers are treated to history lessons at every turn in this outstanding read that blends fictional characters with real-life war heroes. Even famed spy novelist Ian Fleming takes a turn in the story, dispensing unique diversionary tactics to be used against the enemy in novel ways.
But what of von Brockdorff and PFC Brock? And, more importantly, what becomes of the tattered Nazi codebook found sewn into von Brockdorff’s shirt lining? What secret does it carry that is central to the future of the war — and perhaps the entire world?
These characters come to life for the reader as they pass through the pages and into the imagination. Nico gets a life-changing surprise and barely survives a rival mob hit. U.S. Marines firefight their way across several islands, exchanging precious blood for mere feet of Japanese-held soil. And the Navajo code-talkers call down a rain of artillery shells on the so-called “Sons of Nippon,” each Native American zealously guarded by heavily armed Marine sergeants.
There is so much more in this book that cannot be detailed here. Suffice to say that fans of both meticulously researched history and little-known wartime events will enjoy it tremendously.
Five stars to Steven Burgauer and his tale of historical World War Two fiction. May we never again need to live through such a terrible conflict.