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Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's Odyssey in World War II

Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's Odyssey in World War II

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by Alvin B. Kernan, Frederick Kagan (Foreword by), Donald Kagan (Foreword by)

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In this memoir of life aboard aircraft carriers during World War II, Alvin Kernan combines vivid recollections of his experience as a young enlisted sailor with a rich historical account of the Pacific war. Kernan served in many battles and was aboard the Hornet when it was sunk by torpedoes in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
“One of the most


In this memoir of life aboard aircraft carriers during World War II, Alvin Kernan combines vivid recollections of his experience as a young enlisted sailor with a rich historical account of the Pacific war. Kernan served in many battles and was aboard the Hornet when it was sunk by torpedoes in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
“One of the most arresting naval autobiographies yet published.”—Sir John Keegan
“An honest story of collective courage, evocative, well-written, and fixed before the colors fade.”—Kirkus Reviews
“[Kernan] recounts a wonderful and exciting American story about a poor farm boy from Wyoming who enlisted in the Navy. . . .[He] has written eight other books. I will go back and read them all.”—John Lehman, Air & Space
“Details . . . make the moment vivid; that is what it was like, on the Hornet in its last hours.”—Samuel Hynes, New York Times Book Review

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

An American sailor in World War II, Kernan saw more than his share of action in the Pacific Theater, including as a crewman aboard the U.S.S. Hornetwhen it was torpedoed and sunk. He relates all his experiences in this 1994 title.

—Michael Rogers

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Yale Library of Military History
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.38(d)

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Yale University Press

Copyright © 2007 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12315-9

Chapter One


In the winter of 1940-41, I stood in the deep snows of the mountains of southern Wyoming and realized that it wasn't going to work. Our ranch was five miles from the nearest neighbor, and during the winter months we had to snowshoe or ski that five miles, leaving the car where the county snowplow had stopped, carrying in packs or pulling on sleds whatever was necessary until the next month, when we would go to town again-Saratoga, about twenty miles away. We would cut enough wood in summer to keep the stoves burning and store enough staples in a frost-proof cave dug into the mountainside to see us through the winter. There was no electricity or running water. The horses were driven down the valley and boarded for the winter with people who lived out of the shadow of the mountain, where the snows were the heaviest. The cats were brown and singed on their sides from spending their days trying to keep warm curled around the stovepipes that came out of the roof.

The ranch had been one of the last homesteads taken out and "proved up," 640 acres in a canyon near the head of South Spring Creek, 8,500 feet high, a few miles east of the crestof the Continental Divide. The stream flowed down into the valley of the North Platte and into the young river that comes out of the Colorado mountains. It was a very real place-water, sagebrush, rocks, pine trees-but the ranch was also a dream, my stepfather's dream, after he lost his work in the Depression, that a Wyoming dude ranch would provide a wonderful life for all of us and eventually make us rich. As in many other American families during the Depression, conversations frequently began with, "When we get rich ..." The ranch had made us neither rich nor happy, and there was never the slightest chance that it would, with no building capital, few fish and little big game, and no dudes with enough money or interest to find their way to a small rundown ranch forty miles from a railroad or a main highway. My stepfather couldn't see it, of course; he had no place else to go. But my sense that things were going wrong had been growing since the evening of September 1, 1939, when we listened to the news, on a radio powered by an old car battery, that Hitler had invaded Poland, and that Britain and France had declared war. We knew, sadly, far away though it was, that it would affect us, and that life would never again be the same. But nothing much changed until I graduated from high school in 1940. I had boarded in town while I went to school, but now, unable to get a job, I was staying on the ranch alone, taking care of things, and had to face the question of how I was going to live my life. My stepfather was away in the East looking for work, my mother with him.

In early November, I got a heads-up about how life really works. The snows had held off longer than usual, and I had delayed taking the horses down below. One day an old car, a Star coupe, a model by then no longer sold or familiar, pulled up and stopped in front of the fence, waiting. No one got out for a while. In that time and place it was not thought polite to be too forward, and I waited before going down to lean on the fence, establishing ownership, and say hello. By then two men and a pregnant woman had gotten out of the car. They wanted to know the condition of the road above our ranch, a road that ran for about ten miles through the Medicine Bow National Forest up to South Spring Creek Lake. The lake was in the core of an old volcano with one side blown out, Mount Saint Helens fashion, out of which ran South Spring Creek down the canyon in which our ranch was located. The road, built years ago and poorly maintained, was at the best of times unimproved, running over big rocks, through swamps, dugways nearly washed away in the side of mountains, across rotting log bridges, and, in places, up 40-degree slopes. I told the strangers that the bridges, though shaky, had all still been there a week ago when I had gone deer hunting up that way, but that they would need something powerful and high centered to get up the road, all things their antique car was not. They went off together and talked for a while, and then came back and asked if I would take them by wagon to an old mine up on the shoulder of Mount Vulcan, rising high on one side of the lake. They were out-of-work miners, hoping to find a mine and work it for enough ore to sell to a smelter in Colorado to keep going, always with the hope of a real strike. We were all dreamers then.

The weather was not good: the snow was likely to begin any time, which I explained to them, adding truthfully that once it began at this time of year, you could get snowed in all winter. They still wanted to go, and I sensed that there might be real money in this job, so I gulped and said I would go for ten dollars. I had never had ten dollars at once, and they too were impressed with the big bucks we were talking. Since they were nearly broke, they bargained hard, starting at five dollars, moving to seven, and agreeing to ten only when I, knowing nothing about bargaining, remained adamant, on condition that I feed them, let them sleep there that night, and allow the pregnant woman to stay in the cabin while we were gone.

Feeling like a real trader, I had the old team hitched to the wagon the next morning before light, with some oats for them in a sack, and off we went, with the smell of snow in the air. We jolted along, and I worried about whether my stepfather would ever find out, and if he did, whether he would want half of the money for wear and tear on the horses and the wagon, or whether he would just be plain mad about my doing something with his property without permission. He and I didn't agree about a lot of things.

With enough snow on the ground to make the rocks slick, the going was slower than usual, and at that time of year dark came in the deepening canyon by four in the afternoon. Shortly after a lunchless noon, we got stuck in a narrow place trying to turn between some rocks. The wagon box was sixteen feet long and firmly wedged; a shorter one would have been much better for this work. After some geeing and hawing it was clear that the only way to get out of there was to unhitch the horses, take off the wagon box, disassemble the wagon, and put it together facing the opposite way, downhill and back toward the ranch. The miners weren't happy with this. "Isn't there some way to get to the mine and get the drills without using the wagon?" There was a back trail leading directly to the mine, up the ridge and across the shoulder of the mountain; but the only way to bring the heavy drills out would be to hook them to the harness traces on the horses and drag them along, bouncing up and down on the rocks, careering down the slopes. "That's okay; rock drills are tough anyway." So up through the fading light, soft snow drifting down, high up on the shoulder of the green mountain, we made our way through the pines to the old mine. A spooky place, abandoned years ago, leaving behind a diesel engine, compressor, drills, and a lot of other equipment. We hooked a drill to each horse and started back down the mountain. Dark set in and the snow increased, big heavy wet white flakes, not quite a blizzard, but not reassuring either.

By the time we got back to the wagon it was pitch dark, and time for the strenuous work of getting the wagon, locked into the rocks in the big pine grove, apart and back together facing the other way. We should have done it before going up the mountain, but the miners had been in a hurry. Now it had to be done in the dark. The miners wanted to build a fire and get warm, but I argued that things were getting tight, and it was time to work hard and get the hell out of there. They went ahead building a fire, saying that they had hired me and the wagon, and it was my problem to get them back. Angry enough to be able to do it, I got the box out of the bolsters onto a rock, took the reach out, reversed the wheels, and put the box back in.

The miners got in sullenly and hunched down in their coats. I couldn't see a thing, and let the horses find the way, which was fine until we came to a bridge they didn't like. They spooked, backed and snorted, the harness rattling and jangling, and wouldn't go on. I got down and took hold of the mare's bridle and led them across the bridge. It seemed easier on foot, so I continued walking, leading the horses and talking to them. About eleven at night we got back to the ranch. The miners went up to the cabin, and I took the horses to the barn. By the time I had unharnessed and fed the horses, the miners and the woman were piling things in the car, saying they wanted to get out of there before the snow-by then about six inches deep-made it impossible to get up a steep hill on the only road out of the canyon. That was fine with me, I had seen enough of them, but nothing was said about the ten dollars as they piled into the car. I was prepared to fight for it after the day I'd just had. In fact, I was going to make it impossible for them to get out of there, and they must have felt the growing tension, for at the last minute they handed over an old, dirty ten dollar bill, got in the car, and roared out.

The futility of it all was underlined the following summer, after I was gone, when they came back with an old Fordson tractor with a compressor on the back that they were taking up to the mine, planning to work it. They stopped to talk to my stepfather for a while, and he heard for the first time what had happened the winter before, but when they got ready to go, the hand-cranked tractor wouldn't start. They cranked it for a day and a half, no exaggeration, taking turns, before it fired. Then they clanked out, but about a hundred yards up the road the steering gear broke in a deep rut. There was a power reel on the front of the tractor with a hundred feet of cable, and from there on-the whole ten miles or so up that canyon, over those rocks, to the mine-they reeled out the cable, fastened the end to a tree, then winched the tractor up by its own bootstraps, as it were, to the tree, where the same job began all over again.

These later disasters merely drove home what the miners had already taught me on that long November day about the futility of life lived with old, broken-down equipment, about foolish ideas that have no chance of succeeding. In a world where disaster is always ready to happen, it is best to look for something that has a chance of working. And after the miners left the winter came on in earnest. A wind that would knock you off your feet, snow eight feet deep, and weeks of below zero weather put a still finer edge on my thinking. Seventeen years old, no job, no prospects, I knew how to do only one thing, the same thing all inland mountain boys do, go to sea. I think my parents were glad to see me go; one less pair of hands but also one less mouth to feed-one less worry, it seemed at the time, about what was going to happen. They were a little ashamed of not having been able to send me to college or provide a paying job for me, but nobody had helped them out, and they were, I thought, glad I had relieved them of their vague feelings of guilt and responsibility.

And so one day in March, with heavy snow clouds hanging gray over the ranch, I borrowed five dollars-having long ago spent my profits from the trip to the mine-and got a ride down to Cheyenne. A ground blizzard was blowing on U.S. 30 from Rawlins to Cheyenne. Blazing bright sunlight and blue sky above, snow blowing a few inches above the ground so thickly that it was as impossible to see the road as it was to see my future.

I found the recruiting center in the Cheyenne post office and signed up for a minority enlistment (until I was twenty-one years old) in the United States Navy. The train went down to Denver that evening. There, in a room in Union Station, about a hundred young men were assembled from all over the Rocky Mountains to take the oath. We were young-seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-and for the most part, kids who couldn't get jobs. Here and there were men in their twenties, jobless workers at the end of their rope, or incorrigible "fuck-ups" who had gotten into some kind of trouble at home once too often and had been given the ancient choice by the judge of going to jail or joining one of the services. Most of us were from small towns, often from broken families, notable for bad teeth and worse complexions, the marginal American products of more than ten years of the hardest of times.

After the oath we went out to the cold platform and into the warm cars. Not expecting anything other than coaches, we murmured our pleasure at the sleeping berths the navy provided its newest members. The yellow Union Pacific train, with its streamlined engine and coaches, snaked through long curves out of the Colorado and New Mexico plateaus, across the mountains, to stop in the bright sunshine of California on the second morning. The warmth itself was luxurious after the cold of the mountains, and the orange groves and Spanish architecture seemed to promise the freedom and pleasure that I had longed for in the deep snows of Wyoming. A glimpse of Los Angeles, Union Station, and then the train rounded a bend and there was the Pacific Ocean, blue and infinite, the sea of adventure and excitement, stretching out to the horizon and beyond: Hawaii, the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and Japan. I would see them all, I was sure, and in time I did, but not quite as I imagined them in that moment of wild surmise.

Chapter Two


The U.S. Naval Training Station, San Diego, was in 1941 the boot camp for all those who enlisted in the mountain region and the West Coast. Stuck out next to the marine boot camp on a beach extending in a westerly curve to Point Loma, forming the northwestern shore of San Diego Bay, the camp faced the Naval Air Station on North Island across the water. The huge harbor and its shores were the training center for the Pacific Fleet, which was now home ported at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Inside the main gate of the training station two-story stucco barracks with arcades stretched out in long rows to the blacktop "grinder," the drill field where we would spend most of the next few months learning the naval axiom that military duties take precedence over trade skills by marching as a company, under arms, back and forth, up and down, on the oblique, to the rear, rear, rear, march!

Soft warm air, light breezes, and the lift that intense sunlight gives: the climate had a holiday feel even in those strenuous first days of boot camp, which began with a physical exam, where the city boys laughed at those of us from the country still wearing long underwear. Since my long johns came only to the waist, with a T-shirt above, I thought myself quite sophisticated, but this was still far from the West Coast jockey-short style, and I was glad to package the underwear with my other clothes-the Hart, Schafner, and Marx suit bought as a high school graduation present, my stepfather's cut-down topcoat, the gray hat-to be sent home. Civilian identity vanished with the clothes, and, naked, we were initiated into our new identities, which were minimal, by probing, poking, testing, shooting. The barbers sheared off almost all our hair, leaving only an inch on top, bare on the sides. For some the loss of long, carefully groomed hair was as painful as it was to Samson, but to most of us it was only a necessary part of becoming a sailor.

Once out of the barbershop we counted off, and when the number reached one hundred, two chief petty officers advanced purposefully and claimed us as a company. Chief Dahlgren was a gunner's mate, tall, tolerant, composed, Nordic. Chief Bilbo was a short, stocky, fiery, Sicilian and truly dangerous to disappoint. Company 41-39 was the thirty-ninth company formed at San Diego in 1941, and after being assigned a barracks it was marched off to stores, where the navy issued the clothes and equipment needed to live in and work with from then on.


Excerpted from CROSSING THE LINE by ALVIN KERNAN Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alvin Kernan is Avalon University Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, Princeton University. He served in the U.S. Navy, 1941–45. His previous books about World War II include The Unknown Battle of Midway, published by Yale University Press, and the novels Love and Glory and the forthcoming Proceed Without "Hornet".

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Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's Odyssey in World War II 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Recommended in WSJ. I agree, good easy read and enjoyable