The Gun Club: U.S.S. Duncan at Cape Esperance
The Gun Club tells the story of USS Duncan, a short-lived Gleaves-class destroyer that participated and sank in the first planned naval action of World War II. The author’s father, the late Lieutenant (junior grade) Robert Fowler III, was a reserve officer called into action following Pearl Harbor to serve aboard Duncan. By uncovering the real events that led to Duncan’s sinking, the book seems to be an effort to do justice to the memory of Lt. Fowler and the nearly sixty other sailors who lost their lives. Fowler describes the battle as a rude awakening for the United States Navy, which had not planned and executed a large naval battle in the forty-four years leading to Cape Esperance. In his opinion, despite officers’ planning and war-gaming, the ships, commanders, and tactics of the United States Navy in early World War II were inadequate and unprepared.
The titular “Gun Club” refers to a group of Naval Academy graduates who, by 1942, were captains and admirals eager for their first taste of action and glory. The combination of their overzealous attitude and inexperience resulted in the sinking of Duncan. Following the sinking, the Navy’s culture of protecting fellow officers resulted in carefully crafted reports that avoided laying blame for any errors in judgment and obscured the facts of the engagement.
Fowler uses the Duncan’s logs, personal communications, and interviews with surviving crew members to reconstruct the real timeline. The book describes everything from pre-commissioning details in New Jersey to the fateful battle near Guadalcanal only ten months later and the survivors’ return home. The result is a very detailed picture of life aboard the ship. From raunchy snippets of sailors at liberty, to grisly descriptions of battle, Fowler has clearly done his research. Fowler reconstructs scenes and dialogue in ways that are far more engaging and interesting than simple description of events. The maps and diagrams of fleet maneuvers are invaluable for understanding the complicated course of events that led to Duncan coming under a barrage of friendly fire. According to Fowler and other historians, the sinking of Duncan is primarily attributed to that friendly fire, though official reports obscure and avoid mentioning the topic. Fowler evaluates the motives and decisions that influenced the wording and content of those reports. He paints a picture of the politics and partisanship in naval command that has obscured the truth of the sinking of Duncan for so long. Fowler’s analysis of command failures and coverups is unsympathetic to the pressure the authors of those reports would have faced following the loss of a brand-new destroyer.
The Gun Club is a critical and well-researched investigation into the first planned naval action of World War II. It is a valuable source for those interested in the culture of naval command early in the war and the truth behind the loss of USS Duncan.
- Winthrop & Fish, 2017
- 6” x 9”, softcover, 263 pages
- Illustrations, maps, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $15.99
- ISBN: 9780999075302
Reviewed by Kendra Lawrence, East Carolina University