(US soldiers after liberation from Japanese POW camp outside Manila)
Sally Mott Freeman’s first book, THE JERSEY BROTHERS: A MISSING NAVAL OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC AND HIS FAMILY’S QUEST TO BRING HIM HOME is an interesting study in family dynamics and how military strategy and policy was implemented during World War II. The somewhat dysfunctional family is made up of its matriarch Helen Cross, her second husband Arthur, and their three sons and one daughter. The story revolves around the experiences of the sons, the first two of which are children of Helen and her first husband. The sons are Benny Mott, an officer on the USS Enterprise, a graduate of Annapolis, who witnessed a great deal of action during four years of combat duty in the Pacific; William (Bill) Mott, also a graduate of Annapolis, plagued by weak eye sight who winds up as the head of the White House Map Room where he observes and distributes war information to the Franklin D. Roosevelt and military leaders; lastly, Barton Cross, the son of Helen and Arthur who does not measure up to the Annapolis type, enlists and becomes a prisoner of war taken by the Japanese in the Philippines.
By carefully examining the Mott/Cross family, Freeman is able to analyze its dynamic, in addition to the strategy pursued in the Pacific War. Her approach is unique and provides an alternative means of studying the plight of American POWs in the Pacific, the politics in Washington and General Douglas MacArthur’s command, how military decisions were reached, and the Anglo-American relationship. However important the war is, it is the family that dominates the story. Helen is an overprotective mother who obsesses over her third son, Barton who she views as evidence of a strong marriage after her first was a failure. Barton is the favorite, and the pressure from his mother at times is overbearing. Her other sons seek her love and attention and make do with how she parses it out. What is fascinating is that the two elder brothers do not seem to resent their younger brother and will do anything to support him. The key element in the narrative is how family members react to the seizure of Barton by the Japanese and how they go about coping with wartime information that is directly related to his situation. The entire family is concerned with what Barton is going through and how they can assist him, and perhaps facilitate his quest for freedom.
Helen’s psyche is on everyone’s mind throughout the book. Helen is the type of “helicopter” parent who will write the commandant of Annapolis as Barton withdraws from that institution, she will also write President Roosevelt, and military commanders. Further, when Bill learns of the treatment of the POWs from a number of escapees, he withholds the information from his mother as long as he can, not to upset her.
The strength of the book is how Freeman alternates chapters taking the reader back and forth from the USS Enterprise through the experiences of Benny as it leaves Pearl Harbor, participates on the “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo, finds itself in the midst of the Battle of Midway, the Battle of Guadalcanal, and the taking of Saipan. Next, we are taken inside the White House as Bill witnesses the decisions being made that effect the conduct of the war, or later when he becomes the Flag Officer aboard the USS Rocky Mount. The plight of American POWs is described in detail including the Bataan Death March, and a number of other forced marches as American soldiers are moved from one prison cite to the next. What is particularly disturbing is how unmarked Japanese ships transporting US POWs were sunk by American planes during the last year of the war. In addition, Freeman focuses on the inhuman treatment of the POWs and how they reacted, and why some survived. Another strength is her discussion of the planning and actual invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two battles that did not go the way military authorities had hoped. Heavy casualties were predicted, but not to the level that eventually resulted. In part the problem was the Japanese use of Kamikaze pilots that invasion planners could find no solution to counteract.
The major wartime personalities are integrated throughout. MacArthur is dealt with in detail. Admiral “Bull” Halsey, a man who was beloved by his men and was a strategic genius. President Roosevelt is presented as at times a warm and sympathetic leader, but also a harsh decision maker dealing with the realities of war. Other important characters include Admiral Richmond Kelley Turner who commanded the Joint Expeditionary Task Force, known as Operation Forager designed to defeat Japan in 1944, a command and strategy larger than and as complex as the Normandy invasion; Steve Mellnick and William Dyees who escaped the Davao Penal Colony and along with Filipino guerillas sought to launch a rescue mission of the 2000 POWs left behind, as well as a host of other major historical figures.
Importantly, Freeman goes into depth in presenting the jurisdictional battles between the army and navy for control of the Pacific Theater which was rooted in the struggle between Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur. MacArthur does not fare well in the narrative as Freeman portrays the Pacific Army Commander as a self-serving egoist who only cared about his own place in history. This characterization is quite accurate especially when discussing the strategy to invade the Japanese home islands, which MacArthur favored, or employ a blockade and massive bombing to save the lives of American GIs. It seemed whenever anything did not go as planned, instead of accepting any responsibility, MacArthur blamed the Navy.
(Later in his career William Mott’s promotion!)
What is clear throughout the book is that Bill did his utmost to try and learn the plight of his brother. He traveled, wrote letters, and pressed friends, all in an attempt to learn the truth. The author, Bill’s daughter makes excellent use of the memories of family members, in addition to diaries and other documents. She has mined a tremendous amount of material and it is reflected in her strong narrative. Her investigation into what happened to her uncle provides insights into how families were forced to deal with their missing sons, and for far too many the grief that followed. Overall the book paints a fascinating portrait of a family’s plight during World War II. It may get bogged down in family details at the outset, but once Freeman takes up the wartime experiences of Helen’s three sons the reader will become immersed in the detail and the heroic nature of what they experience and the actions they take. The Cross/Mott brothers, were truly “a band of brothers,” and Freeman’s efforts reflect a strong effort for a first book!
(American GIs after liberation from a Japanese POW camp near Manila)