Carl LaVO. Pushing the Limits: The Remarkable Life and Times of Adm. Allan Rockwell McCann, USN. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 272 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59114-485-4.
Reviewed by John Kuehn (Major General William A. Stofft Chair of Historical Research, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS)
Published on H-War (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The Times, but Not the Life, of Admiral McCann
Admiral Alan Rockwell McCann benefited from that old Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times.” His career spanned the first half of the twentieth century, including going right into the navy as the United States went to war with Germany in 1917, the years of the interwar navy and the “treaty fleet,” World War II, and participation at a very high level in postwar naval policy and Cold War debates. As a submariner McCann is deserving of note for his interwar work in developing the famous rescue diving device named after him, the McCann Diving Bell, used most famously to rescue sailors in the submarine Squalus in 1939. McCann’s experience in World War II was particularly broad and interesting. He commanded everything from a submarine squadron in the Pacific at the outbreak of the war, to a battleship, and then finished as the de facto commander of the U.S. Tenth Fleet, the command and control fleet fighting the Battle of the Atlantic in the final phases of the war against the Nazi u-boat threat. He finished his career as the navy inspector general assigned the onerous task of investigating his brother officers for unauthorized “leaks” to the press during the so-called Revolt of the Admirals. Given this scope and span of experience, McCann’s certainly seems an ideal career to examine and a naval personality worth exploring in a book-length treatment.
Unfortunately, Carl LaVO’s new book does not tell us much about McCann’s life—his words and thoughts--and what it does give us of his times is dealt with more correctly and comprehensively elsewhere in other works, including his own Back from the Deep (1994) which tells the story of the rescue of thirty-three sailors from the submarine Squalus. Admittedly, part of the problem is the subject, and LaVo addresses this challenge in the opening lines of his preface: “His family says he was a storyteller. Yet Vice Adm. Allan Rockwell left no yarns or recollections, stories that might reveal a deeper sense of his personality and service to the nation” (p. xi). In short, McCann’s personal papers proved a very thin resource for biographer LaVO. It seems that LaVO simply may have taken his material from Back from the Deep and then built a narrative of McCann’s life from that and other secondary sources and newspaper stories.
LaVO opens the book with some promise, starting out with a breathtaking, attention-grabbing narrative of Nazi “robot submarines” bound for the United States in 1945 with weapons of mass destruction. The reader learns that McCann is chief of staff of the Tenth U.S. Fleet, de facto commander in charge of meeting this threat with Operation Teardrop. Then, with the Nazi subs still out there, LaVO stops the story, makes the point that “surmounting challenges” is the stuff of McCann’s life and gets in the time machine to return to the beginning and McCann’s boyhood in North Adams, Massachusetts. This reviewer skipped ahead to a later chapter to find out what happened to those Nazi subs. In doing so it dawned on him that he was reading about Operation Teardrop, and not much at all about McCann. The structure of the book is designed for a popular audience, using dramatic events on single days from history to set up vignettes that include McCann as a historical cast member. For example, the chapter on McCann’s actions as WW II opens after Pearl Harbor begins with a subheading entitled “ComSubPac Headquarters, Pearl Harbor Hawaii, 7 December 1941” (p. 118). This device immediately lets the reader know the context, but in almost every case McCann the man is a background presence in this book. He is like a phantom who leaves his signature and not much else in the story.
Another weakness is LaVO’s limited command of the newer scholarship surrounding the period of McCann’s life, much of it important and revisionist to previous myths and narratives. One area where LaVO’s limited familiarity with the new scholarship about the navy of McCann’s era emerges in his discussion surrounding the creation of the chief of naval operations (CNO) position and entry into World War I. On the one hand, he characterizes the new CNO organization this way: “For the first time, the Navy had an all-powerful individual to coordinate its planning, shipbuilding, operations, and personnel policies” (pp. 22-23). The only part of this statement that is remotely correct based on the current scholarship is that one individual and his subordinate staff did have control over operational planning. The rest is simply incorrect. Then, in the next sentence, he actually identifies the organization that did have most of these characteristics—the General Board of the United States Navy, headed by its one and only president, Admiral George Dewey, whom he fails to mention at all and who headed the General Board until his death until 1917. In fact, LaVO cannot claim ignorance of the General Board since he continues to attribute to it, and not the brand new, untested CNO office, all the major policy advice and decision making in the run up to World War I (p. 23). This is all even more puzzling given that Admiral McCann was actually a member of the General Board after World War II, from September 3, 1948, through June 20, 1949, just prior to the very critical period of the so-called Revolt of the Admirals covered in chapter 16. LaVO describes this assignment as brief, but, as any naval officer knows, a ten-month assignment with any organization in Washington is not “brief” (p. 200).
LaVO misses a real opportunity to actually get some of McCann’s own words on a number of issues via the transcripts of the General Board hearings. The reviewer easily found dozens of pages of McCann’s testimony and comment during these hearings on topics ranging from the size and composition of the reserve fleet in 1949 to the career path for naval officers in high command. LaVO uses secondary sources and newspaper reports to construct McCann’s actions during this critical period of interservice rivalry between the navy and the air force, which McCann was at the center of. The “Revolt of the Admirals” story is interesting, like all the chosen vignettes, but it misses an opportunity for the reader to “hear” McCann’s voice, something that LaVO seemed to long for in his prefatory comments. In other words, he tells a story that has already been told, and in the process does not tell us much about McCann. McCann is mentioned just twice, in passing, from pp. 201 to 210 in this chapter. With respect to April 1949, when the secretary of defense cancelled construction on the USS United States, the super carrier being built to carry nuclear bombers, LaVO writes nothing about what McCann was doing or saying on these matters as the acting senior member of the General Board.
Factual errors further decrease the value of the book, probably because LaVO’s familiarity with the topic seems anecdotal and haphazard. For example, in writing about McCann’s service during WW I, he identifies the USS Kansas (BB-21) as a “dreadnought, launched in 1905” (p. 25). The first U.S. dreadnought battleship, Michigan, was not launched until 1909. More egregiously, the famous British Dreadnought was not even launched until 1906—so the class did not even exist in 1905. Kansas was a pre-dreadnought battleship--this sort of mistake, popular history or not, is fundamental and undermines the credibility of the author.
A comprehensive scholarly biography that takes full advantage of the archival sources has yet to be written about McCann. That said, the reviewer realizes that Mr. LaVO did not write this biography for scholars and academics. Nor did he intend for it to be the last word on McCann, I hope. As an interesting and well-written book about the times surrounding an officer with a fascinating career, this book partly succeeds; however, it comes up short in providing much that is new.
. Jeffrey C. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1994). LaVO’s chapter 16 is essentially a recap of Barlow’s account here.
. "Membership of the General Board," Proceedings and Hearings of the General Board of the U.S. Navy, 1900 – 1950, microfilm, roll 1, Record Group 80, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereafter PHGB).
. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals; and PHGB, roll 27.
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John Kuehn. Review of LaVO, Carl, Pushing the Limits: The Remarkable Life and Times of Adm. Allan Rockwell McCann, USN.
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