I’m not usually interested in military history; US Navy history held no particular draw for me. But when I read the press release for this book, I felt compelled to request a copy for review.
Sailor Man is the story of an American teenager who lied about his age to join the US Navy during World War Two. He saw active service in the Pacific, and returned home physically whole but mentally broken – and alcoholic, and not yet twenty. He lived the rest of his life an alcoholic, unable to keep hold of a job, a marriage or his children.
What makes this story remarkable is that it is told largely in JP Nunnally’s own words, in letters he sent to his estranged adult son. And considering he’s a lifelong alcoholic who left school before he was 17, he’s a pretty good writer. It starts when Nunnally signs up to join the US Navy and takes us through his experiences on board the USS Fuller. This includes air raids, seeing his friends injured and killed in front of him, and an awful lot of drinking. Looking at his story from a 21st century perspective, it’s clear that he was suffering terribly with PTSD – but PTSD didn’t exist in the 1940s; men were just sent back to their lives and expected to get on with it.
Not being at all into military history, there were parts at the beginning of the book that I found a bit dry. There was a whole section on the USS Fuller, its captains and so on. It was all putting the rest of the book into context, but I found it hard going and was relieved when it became a much more human, personal story about Nunnally.
After the first section, the book is written perfectly, with large chunks of text taken from Nunnally’s letters to his son and notes from Staecker to add context to the stories. It’s a depressing story, shocking in many places. What makes it most depressing is that it’s true – and that Nunnally was just one of thousands who went through this, and was then just dropped back into civilian life and expected to carry on where he’d left off.
The book is only 141 pages long; I appreciate the fact Staecker hasn’t tried to fill it out into a longer book by adding his own take or extra details about the war or other things. It could easily be finished over a weekend. I would hesitate to call it an “easy read” – although the text flows easily, it’s not easy to digest because of the subject matter and there was more than one occasion where I realised I was actually screwing up my face while reading it.